Eliza expected a challenge, but none came until we reached the Nyghe Gap within sight of the pine-cloaked mountain range itself. As we neared the narrow gorge, Eliza and I spotted a lone werewolf standing before the entrance of the gap’s only bridge. Like all the others of his odd race, the male stood upright on his back paws and gripped his battle axe in clawed front paws that looked almost like hands.
“Do we draw our weapons?” I asked Eliza.
She subtly shook her head. “He might appear to be alone, but he is not. Keep your sickle within easy reach, but do not draw it unless absolutely necessary. If you show aggression, the pack will respond in kind. The last thing we want to do is incite a clan war.”
I nodded as she greeted the muscular male. “A golden morning to you, My Sir.”
“And to you, My Young Madam,” he said, returning our bow of greeting. “I am Fenraz of the Bardrick Clan of werewolves. What brings you to this hallowed place?” The werewolf towered over both of us, the bottom of his ribs stationed just level with Ella’s forehead. He was covered from his pointed ears to his clawed back paws with shaggy black fur. He was clearly a formidable gatekeeper, and yet his keen pair of golden-green eyes peered at the pair of us with a strangely gentle curiosity.
“I am called Eliza; this is my sister Ella. We have come to lay a Sol’ece flower in tribute at the mouth of Aribem’s Spring, My Sir.”
“Ah, you are on quest then.”
Eliza nodded. “We are.”
“So young,” Fenraz frowned. “So young a pair to be granted such a perilous task.”
Eliza and I watched him silently.
“By what right and privilege do you seek the Sylvan Savior’s hallowed mountain?” the black werewolf finally asked us.
“By the grace allotted to us through Aribem’s fiery sacrifice.”
The werewolf bobbed his head. “Correct. You may proceed. A word of warning, however: we who guard the mountain have seen odd things occur of late.”
“What have you seen, My Sir?” I asked. Eliza and Fenraz glanced at me with stern eyes and I ducked my head in silent apology. The youngest attendee of any inter-clan meeting was expected to remain silent in deference to her elders. My fear had caused me to break tradition.
Fenraz turned back to Eliza and continued. “My scouts have spotted strange migrations along our borders: humans, centaurs, even an elf or two. Always at night do my packmates spy them and always they hide when they sense the warriors’ scrutiny.”
Eliza crossed her arms and frowned. “A band of rovers, perhaps?”
The hulking werewolf shook his shaggy head. “Doubtful. I’ve never known nomads to take in any kind other than fellow humans. My guess is that they are a band of slavers trying to thread their way back to Tyglesea without being caught.” He let off a low growl. “If I find them in my clan’s territory, I’ll be happy to upset their schemes. However, the two of you should use caution. They may travel north of here and our truce agreement with the Feliconian werecats prevents us from straying into their territory.”
I gave Eliza our map when she gestured for it. She unrolled it for the werewolf’s review. “But we will not need to enter werecat territory to reach the mountain, will we?”
Fenraz nodded and traced the faded map’s trail lines with a clawed finger. “You’ll skirt the southern tip of it once you enter the foothills. The mountain itself may be open to pilgrimage, but it is still encircled by Feliconian lands.”
Eliza let out a weary breath. “Our flower bud has already begun to open. Creator keep us if it fully blooms—or worse, withers—before we reach the spring.”
Fenraz nodded. “I will delay you no longer, but be mindful of my warnings.”
“We will. Thank you, My Sir,” Eliza replied and I firmly nodded my agreement.
We made our way slowly across the rickety bridge spanning the gorge. It took all my self-control to keep me from running across that rotted wood and rope skeleton just to breathe easier on solid ground again. As I carefully placed one sandaled foot after another, I suddenly understood how beings had so easily died during this bridge crossing. If I looked between the boards for even a moment, I could clearly see the world drop below me into a chasm of splintered rock. Our deaths here meant free falling through air to collide with either churning river water or slabs of feldspar. I shuddered and once again suppressed the urge to race back to solid ground. Any quick movement could tip the rope bridge and bounce us over the side. Eliza must have felt my trembling as we clung to the ropes because she told me to keep one hand on the guide ropes and the other firmly fixed on her shoulder. The contact reassured me a little, but not enough.
We were about three-quarters of the way across the bridge when a gust of wind caused the abominable contraption to sway. Eliza lost her balance and tipped sideways against the ropes as the bridge bucked and rolled. Before I knew what was happening, my body was tangled within the bridge’s right-side netting and the hand that had been holding Eliza’s shoulder now gripped the left strap of her pack.
“Don’t let go!” she screamed as she dangled below me, clutching the bag’s other strap with both hands.
Until next time, may we each rewrite our world for the better!
The Seared Cookie Report: one Artist/Writer’s Labored Soliloquy (SCRAWLS) is brought to you from the writing desk of Alycia Christine at Purple Thorn Press and Photography with love, art, speculative fiction books, and virtual baked goods for all. Please let me know your thoughts about this particular post and, as always, if there is any subject you wish me to discuss, contact me. Thanks!