Chapter Twenty-Seven – Orik
Orik gave up trying to sleep and sat in quiet darkness. Thoughts of the eagle girl sleeping so close drove away any weariness. He stared across the small clearing to where Windancer slept. A dark shape among the nighttime shadows was the best he could make out, but knowing she was only a short distance away was enough.
A loud snort gave him a start, but it was only Caillen turning over in his sleep. Orik turned back to inspect what remained of their campfire. He found a good-sized stick and stirred the coals. The night was not cold, but a damp chill had settled on the valley during the night, and he preferred not to shiver within his cloak.
He paused and listened. It was quiet, strangely so. He heard no night birds calling. That was not unusual, but no insect noises sounded either, which was odd.
“I need a fire,” he said, startled by his own voice disturbing the deep quiet of the night.
He cast about where he sat for more wood to feed the remaining coals. Finding none, he stood and began to search the perimeter of the hillock.
A noise stopped him. This time it came from Windancer’s sleeping area. Orik craned his ear to listen, wondering what the beautiful girl might be dreaming about. He grinned at the thought she might be thinking of him.
He looked over his shoulder to where Caillen slept, silent now, and eased closer to Windancer. Just a little closer, to better hear what she might be saying in her sleep.
Windancer groaned, or so it sounded to him. He squinted and made out movement of a sort, but it was strange. Her dark form seemed to bulge with undulating ripples. And the sounds, not like those she made earlier. These were made by something creeping across the ground or scurrying about.
He moved closer. The sounds continued, high-pitched buzzing and clicking, and coming from several locations. Disquieting sounds he thought he should know. They were strangely familiar.
Blast, I wish I could see.
He turned to look back at the smoldering coals.
Returning to the campfire, he poked the end of the stick in the coals, blowing into the midst until it kindled and sprouted a small flame. Being careful not to extinguish the tiny torch, he moved back across the clearing.
Holding the torch before him, Orik peered ahead until he saw blonde hair sticking out from beneath the blanket.
Two glowing eyes blinked up at him.
He dropped the torch and cried out.
Orik bent to retrieve the torch, which still lived, and raised it so he could get a second look. A little old man, with a white beard and wearing a red cap, peered at him over the writhing form of Windancer. And it was not alone. Orik lifted the torch higher, its meager flame casting wavering light over more than a dozen of the little old men.
Only now that he could see them better, he was sure they were not little men at all. As he watched, several of them raced about on all fours.
“Forest gnomes,” he said with disgust. They crawled over Windancer’s inert form, weaving their sticky webbing as they went.
“Caillen, help.” Orik stepped forward and kicked the nearest creature from Windancer’s back.
It let out a shriek of pain and surprise as it sailed into the dark. As it did, the remainder of the little creatures paused and stared up at this intruder.
The sudden silence that followed allowed him to hear the soft cries of pain Windancer was making. Without thinking, he lunged forward and began to pull the little beasts from the girl. He knew what these things were, and the danger they posed. What gave the appearance of a red cap was, in fact, an elongated mouth, with several rows of tiny sharp teeth. As Orik pulled at the things to remove them from Windancer, several of them managed to bite him on the hands and forearms. Painful little bites burned like fire. He jerked his hands back, wincing at the spreading numbness in his fingers.
At that moment, a large brown wolf charged past and tore into the remaining creatures, scattering them and sending those that could, running into dark holes under the bushes.
The wolf’s snapping jaws killed several, grabbing each one and shaking it as if it were a large rat, before crunching bone and tossing the limp form away.
While the wolf descended on the creatures, Orik managed to extract Windancer from the thick webbing the gnomes wrapped her in and drag her clear of the one-sided battle.
“Unhh,” Windancer moaned.
“I have you. The wolf is killing the little dǽmons.”
“I cannot feel my legs,” she said, her words slurred.
“My hands and arms are getting numb as well.” He flexed his fingers and grimaced. “Their bite contains venom.”
Orik lowered the girl to the ground next to the campfire and looked back where the wolf still fought. He’d left the torch when he picked up Windancer, and now he could see what they all faced: a multitude of gnomes swarmed out of holes in the ground and out from under the bushes.
“Help him,” Windancer said and touched Orik on his thigh. “Please.”
“I will do what I can.” He rushed back into the fray.
* * *
Caillen sank his fangs into another beast and tossed its bleeding corpse far from the clearing. He moved through the small creatures with the efficiency of a seasoned hunter and killed one after another. But the venomous things kept coming, their tiny mouths nipping at his fur-covered hide.
Caillen’s attacks grew slower. There were too many, and it took all his speed and agility to stay clear of their insistent mouths. One managed to bite him on his hind leg. It paid the ultimate price for that strike as he spun and pounced, crushing it into the dirt before moving to more open ground.
They followed, teeming up out of their warren by the score, intent on bringing him down. Caillen backed up, keeping a safe distance between himself and the approaching horde. He stumbled, the bitten leg faltering under his weight, and the gnomes, seeing the opportunity, rushed in.
Rising back up, he faced the oncoming swarm, his muzzle dripping blood, teeth bared. He growled and lunged at the nearest one, then Orik was there, swinging a broadsword and sweeping them away. The Viking moved into their ranks and turned them from the wolf.
The tiny assailants, perceiving a new enemy, swarmed Orik. He fought them off, kicking those closest and cutting others down with his sword.
“Caillen,” Orik swung his blade through three of them, “go and see about Windancer. I think she is hurt.”
Caillen moved back, clear of the battle, and chanced a glance toward Windancer. She was not moving. “Can you hold them while I check on her?”
“I think so.” Orik kicked a pair rushing his left side. They sailed into the air and over the bushes. “But hurry. I don’t know how much longer…” He broke off as several rushed him from the right. Orik swung his blade backhand and cut them down, but his momentum carried him around and left his back exposed.
Caillen turned and hurried to Windancer. He leaned close and sniffed. She was alive, but he smelled the poison in her and could tell she would not be able to walk. “Can you reach around my neck and hold on? I will get you away from here.”
She turned her face away from the fierce struggle to look at him. “I can try, but what about Orik?”
Caillen looked back in time to see Orik, his back and arms covered by the creatures, fall to his knees. The Viking swung his sword one final time and tried to stand, but their weight proved too much and bore him to the ground.
“Save her,” Orik screamed before more covered him.
“Hang on, Orik.” Caillen started away, but Windancer held him.
“No, do not leave me alone. Please.”
“But I can help him. It’s not too late.”
“What if you cannot? What of me if those dǽmons kill you?”
Caillen hated her selfishness but understood her fear and could only watch as Orik, brave Orik, shouted a battle cry, fell, and did not rise.
The little dǽmons, seeming satisfied with their prize, did not pursue Caillen or Windancer, who watched in dismay as the wretched creatures covered Orik’s body in thick webbing before they dragged him down into their warren.
In just a few moments they were gone. They even removed their dead. In the silence that followed the short battle, only the mournful sobs from the eagle girl penetrated the new silence.
Windancer wept. She leaned on her elbow and said through swollen lips, “He saved us.”
“He was the bravest man I ever knew.” Caillen moved away and reverted to his human form once more. He gathered his clothes and dressed, all the while looking to the place where Orik sacrificed himself.
“I will never forget what he did for us.” He knelt before Windancer. “Are you all right?”
“I cannot feel my legs, and half of my face is numb but other than that I think I am okay.”
“We must leave this place. I don’t know if they will return, but we should not be here if they do.”
“I need my things.” Windancer indicated her pack near where Orik fell.
Caillen, limping, retrieved her pack. As an afterthought, he picked up Orik’s broadsword and slid it under his belt. “We might need this,” he said and returned to Windancer’s side where he gathered his own pack. “Ready?”
Windancer pushed herself to a sitting position and let Caillen pick her up. He stood, tested his injured leg, which felt better, and turned toward the river. He took one step in that direction and stopped. Caillen turned to the left, stopped, turned around and faced the opposite direction, and stopped again.
He gave Windancer a questioning look. “Which way do we go?”
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