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Uprising – Chapter 2

The giant shape stepped into the light, the metallic glint of a sword in its hand.

Stefan’s bowstring twanged.

“Da! No!” Ancel said, his hand reaching out toward his father.

The arrow flew true. It pierced armor chest high like a blade through silk. The most beautiful armor Ancel had ever seen.

The giant was a man, the thick facial hair hiding his features more akin to Charra’s fur than a man’s mustache and beard. His eyes appeared to widen at the arrow jutting from his chest. A massive hand rose to snap the arrow off then he pitched forward. He landed face down with a resounding thud and a shower of snow.

Stefan nocked another arrow, spurring his horse into a trot.

“Da. Stop.” Ancel ran toward the giant.

“Ancel. Come back here. You don’t know who or what he is.”

“Yes I do.” Ancel continued his run. “It’s him. He’s the one. I can feel him.” He stopped over the man.

“What?”

“The link.” Ancel couldn’t hide his excitement despite the sinking feeling he got when he saw the blood that spattered the bush and ground or the smell. The man stunk like death or worse, but the strength of his bond to the man said he was alive, barely. “He’s the one I’m linked to. My teacher.” Those words made his body tingle at the prospect of what he might learn about his Etchings.

Stefan’s eyes grew wide then. “Oh Ilumni.” He swung down from his saddle.

Artwork in dizzying colors and vivid detail covered the back of the man’s leather armor. Depictions of landscapes, battles, unknown beasts, weapons, celestial bodies, and words in scripts Ancel could not begin to fathom despite his extensive studies. It flowed from the short-sleeves of his chestpiece onto the skin of his massive arms in one seamless design. Ancel knew them for what they were. He sucked in a breath.

Etchings.

“We need to get him off that arrow shaft,” his father said from next to him. Stefan  hawked and spat. “In Ilumni’s name, he stinks.”

Ancel and Stefan worked in concert, trying to flip the huge man onto his back. But he was simply too heavy, his armor like chunks of ice. They could not even manage to budge the massive sword from his hand. With a whine, Charra came over, and head down, pushed at the body by the waist. Ancel placed himself near the thighs and Stefan at the chest. Together, they heaved, and with Charra’s help, they rolled the giant over.

They both gasped and covered their mouths and noses at the same time.

The armor and skin was much the same, but that wasn’t the cause of their expressions, nor were the long scars that marred the left side of his face. Instead, the shock came from seeing the discoloration on the exposed portions of his skin. The parts of the man’s hands not covered in tattoos were a bluish black. So were his fingers where they gripped his sword’s hilt. From his neck up bore a similar tint in most places, if a tad paler. The areas not affected by frostbite were tanned a deeper brown than Stefan’s. His chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm.

Ancel breathed a sigh of relief at that.

“We need to get him to Eldanhill,” Stefan said. “As soon as possible.”

Ancel nodded, then considering the giant’s size and weight, he asked, “How?”

“We’ll build a large litter.”

“But the wolves, Da.” Eyes narrowed, Ancel peered into the woods. “They could be back at any moment.”

“No they won’t. They will regroup first, most likely find another pack to bring this way. We still have time if we hurry. Charra can stand guard. Let’s go.” Unsheathing his sword Stefan headed into the trees.

Ancel followed, staying close, his eyes scanning every shadow. The sun had risen a bit more, but the overcast conditions fought against its light. The hardier cedars were still green, but oak leaves a burnt red dotted some of the canopy above. The oaks already had shed quite a bit, their branches jutting into the air like skeletal fingers, their droppings covering the ground, sometimes in piles. Ancel kept a wary eye on those.

The sound of hacking drew his attention to where his father began to chop down a sapling. After one more uneasy glance, Ancel followed suit.

Time felt as if it passed at an interminably slow pace as they worked, bird song and the chatter of winter animals playing accompaniment. Despite the cold, sweat creased Ancel’s brow and trickled down his cheek. He stopped several times to take a sip from his waterskin. When hunger gnawed at his belly, he chewed on pieces of dry rabbit and crusty bread. His scarf now rested around his neck, and although tempted, he resisted the urge to remove his cloak. Often, his father flicked a hand to his own forehead to wipe away perspiration. Between the two of them, they had a growing pile of arm’s width branches from which to choose.

While they worked, Ancel glanced at the giant from time to time. He still breathed evenly and slowly as if in a deep slumber. How was it that someone could be in his state of frostbite and still live? Where was the man from? Oh, there were certainly men almost as large among the Kelvore Mountains’ clans and if the stories were true, the Sven and Harnan were as big, if not bigger, but the latter were in Ostania. Although, that might explain the giant’s complexion.

The other issue that bothered him was the wound. Ever since Ancel received his Etchings, his arm and chest in that area felt so much stronger. He’d even taken to testing it. One day, rather than use his sword, he raised his hand to block a blow while sparring with Mirza. He never told, but besides a slight sting, he hadn’t felt much from the strike that should have broken a rib. Later on that night, he took a knife and tried to scour the Etchings. Again that slight sting, but not once did the blade pierce his skin. Then, there was today. The wolf’s teeth should have pierced his fur and armor, crushed his arm, but it hadn’t come close. So how was it that his father’s arrow went through armor and flesh covered in an Etching?

“I think we have enough,” his father said.

Ancel looked around, surprised to see just how many saplings they’d cut down. There was now a nice swatch of clear forest around them, occupied only by larger trees and the dense covering of fallen leaves. He put away his sword, grabbed a branch in each hand, and proceeded to drag them toward the clearing.

Morning grew into afternoon. His father had left the branches to Ancel while he used rope from his saddlebags to begin tying the wood together near an old stump. Stefan dug out a swath of earth into which he placed the litter angled up toward the tree’s remains. Ancel was almost finished with the last branches when the first howl echoed from the north.

“Hurry,” his father said.

Without a backward glance, Ancel dragged the last two pieces of wood to the clearing. He held them in place while his father secured them to the others.

Another howl sounded, this time closer.

Charra grunted.

“Go. Protect us,” Ancel ordered.

The daggerpaw, dried blood a dull brown against its fur and bone hackles, bounded off into the trees. Ancel watched until Charra disappeared from view.

“Da,” Ancel said.

“Yes,” his father answered without glancing up from the litter.

“There’s no way Charra holds them all off. We won’t make it through the trees with this litter before they catch us.”

Stefan nodded.

Ancel waited for more, but his father said nothing.

When Stefan finished, he stood. He walked over to the giant with a few pieces of rope he’d braided together, and bent over the man.

Ancel frowned.

His father worked the rope up the giant’s arms and over his shoulders to form a type of harness. He then brought his horse close, looped the ends over its head and onto its shoulders, then wrapped it around the pommel. The animal’s eyes rolled, and it snorted several times as if trying to clear its nostrils. After guiding the mount in the direction of the stump, Stefan gave it a light tap on the rump. The horse pulled and the rope snapped taut. Muscles straining, the horse took one step forward, then another. The giant’s body shifted and began to slide through the grass toward the litter.

A few more steps and the horse dragged the unconscious man up onto the makeshift contraption. Stefan stopped his horse. After untying the ropes, he used them to secure the giant to the wood. Using the remainder, he looped them around the strongest saplings. He directed his mount to one side to drag the litter away from the stump against which it was braced. When the entire process completed, he gave a nod of satisfaction.

The first yowls, snarls, and grunting barks of daggerpaw against wolf began.

Stefan strode over to where he’d left his bow and picked it up. “I will have Charra come to you to help in clearing a path.”

Ancel shook his head, his voice coming out in a disbelieving whisper, “No, you mustn’t.”

“Yes, I must and I will.”

“Da, there’s no way you can hold them off. Please, don’t do this.”

“Alone I probably would not be able to. But we’ll do our best.” He nodded toward the south, the direction of Eldanhill.

There, jogging out from the tree line in the dark colored britches and tunic she favored, a short cloak whipping around her, was Kachien. Two sheaths, each containing a black-handled dagger, stood out on each hip.

“How?”

“I told her if we weren’t back by noon to come find us.”

“Why not Shin Galiana?”

“She had more pressing issues with the possibility of Pathfinders coming to Eldanhill since we declared ourselves.”

Ancel cringed with the thought of the men and women tasked with capturing those who used their power without the proper control. Or committed crimes against the Tribunal.

In the distance, the fight between Charra and the wolves grew more pronounced. Then a howl resonated to the northeast. A different wolf pack.

“There’s no time to waste,” Stefan said. “Mount up.”

After a slight hesitation and a pained look to both his father and the woman who he still cared for to some extent, Ancel climbed atop Stefan’s horse.

“Don’t stop. Don’t look back until you reach Eldanhill.”

As his father was saying those words, Kachien drew even with them. Ancel opened his mouth to acknowledge her at the same time that she glanced down at the giant. She sniffed, rubbing at thumb across her nose. Then her head jutted forward a little bit, her eyes narrowed, and her hands slid imperceptibly closer to the handles of her daggers.

Before Ancel could contemplate her reaction, his father slapped the rump of his mount and sent him on his way.

 

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