A black mass fills the sky in the distance, and it appears to be getting closer.
“Run!” It is Antoine, and he is already in motion, hopping in the direction of the stream.
I manage to grab my blade, strap it on quickly, but leave my pack as the first hints of the ungodly racket the flock is making reach my ears.
Baker smacks the horse on its backside, but it does not need encouragement, it whinnies in fear and races off in the opposite direction. I look over my shoulder, and see Baker mere inches behind me.
“Don’t look back, just run!” He yells as his long legs carry him past me.
I can see the stream ahead of me, Antoine already swimming out to the middle.
“Come on!” Baker yells from the river bank, and then dives in himself.
I can feel the rush of air behind me as I wade out into the water. The moment I think the water is deep enough, I fill my lungs with air and dive, scraping my nose on the riverbed. I can feel claws on my back as I struggle to go deeper. By the time I no longer feel the attacks, my lungs are on fire. I am searching through the water for my companions but do not see either of them. My vision begins to blur and I shoot for the surface. I shoot up out of the water, grabbing another deep breath, and I am under again, letting the current take me, frog kicking to put as much distance between myself and the unkindness. I surface twice more in this fashion, my head pounding, the river carrying me further and faster with each stroke.
I begin to bump into large rocks and I surface, but the current is too strong. I bob in the water, bouncing back and forth between the rocks for what feels like five minutes before I find myself swirling in a small eddy. I take advantage of the relative calm, searching the skies but seeing no signs of the birds, and then the river ahead and behind, but no sign of either of my companions can be seen either. I spend the next minute treading water, trying to catch my breath as I whirl about while water rushes past on either side of me.
I pick a bank and plunge back into the current, swimming hard for land. It takes a minute, and I end up quite a bit further down stream, but finally I can feel rocks and sand beneath me. I pull myself ashore and lay there panting. I close my eyes, just for a moment I tell myself, but when I open them again, I am nearly dry and the sun is high in the sky. Slowly, I rise, groaning. I ache all over. I fall back to my knees and roll onto my back, looking myself over, testing my hands, my knees, my wrists. Nothing seems to be broken, but I have a few nasty scrapes, including one on my left cheek and my forehead, and I feel like I have been beaten up. Twice. Miraculously my blade is still in its scabbard at my hip.
With a grunt I rise to my knees. I then manage to make it to my feet, and nearly fall again. I pull the blade at, water dripping from it. I upend the sheath, dumping river water onto the bank and look about me. A few yards up stream I find what I am looking for, and slowly make my way to it. I pull the sword out and hack a few times, finally felling the small tree. I shave off the branches and test my weight against the staff. It supports me just fine, but the exertion has taken a lot out of me. I sit on a nearby rock, resting and aching. Finally I am ready and I rise again, and, leaning heavily upon the staff, I make my way along the shore upstream.
I see no sign of my companions, but that does not stop me from shouting for them. I hear a rustle in a nearby copse of trees but when I go to investigate, all I find is a startled deer who bounds off away from me.
I wander, calling out, for nearly an hour, scanning both shores for any sign of Antoine or Baker, until I realize that I recognize where I am. I look again and am certain that I bathed here but a few hours before. I begin to retrace my steps of earlier, back towards our campsite. What is left of our campsite Is a wreck. What remained of our campfire has been strewn everywhere, as have the contents of my pack. I manage to find the leather bag, but when I pick it up, am dismayed to find a hole has been torn in its bottom. Angered, I toss the pack into the nearby tall grass. I find a few scraps of food, crumbs mainly, and then come across the iron pot I purchased the day before. Or perhaps I better say the pieces of the iron pot. It lay shattered upon a large rock and I can only imagine the height the birds must have flown to in order to do this kind of damage. I pick up the smallest piece, a rather sharp looking triangle, and put it in my pocket, hoping I can salvage something from this.
I go back and find my ruined pack, tearing off a long strip of leather from the straps and manage, with my staff and the piece of iron pot, to fashion a crude looking spear. I continue to lean heavily on the staff as I head back toward the river, intent on going further down stream and looking for my companions. I have not travelled far when I see a dark circle of shapes upon the ground.
I scream and begin to limp, hop, and run toward them. The birds, over sized buzzards, scatter after I throw the spear into their midst. I don’t manage to hit any of them, but that had not been my intention. It is a body, but not Antoine’s or Baker’s. A horse. Our horse, lay dead, its bones already nearly picked clean. I retrieve the spear and sit, saying a prayer for the beast. “You didn’t deserve this,” I say as the first of the carrion birds lands again nearby. I am sitting there as it hops closer and grabs a chunk of the dead nag. “Get away!” I shout and wave the spear at it. It gets the hint and flies away, only to land a few yards away, watching me.
I am torn. I can either sit here and guard the fallen horse from nature, or I can find my companions. As much as I hate leaving the creature to end up as buzzard food, I need to find my companions. Finally they win out and I make my way again to the stream.
I am hungry and hurting, but I continue on, following the current and shouting for both of my friends. I come across a place where it looks like something pulled itself ashore, only to realize it is where I had done just that, and I sit down again and rest. Hunger is beginning to win out and I search around unable to find anything edible on the shore.
I look out into the water and decide it is moving too fast for me to try, so I continue down river, keeping an eye out for anything I can eat.
It is another hour, and my stomach is growling rather loudly, when the river finally calms down. I wade out and attempt to spear myself a fish, but after what feels like a hundred stabs, I am only hungrier, and I do not feel any more confident in my ability to catch myself a meal. It is perhaps a hundred stabs later that I finally get lucky, and pull a small trout from the water, still wriggling.
With my sword, I carefully scale and bone the fish, and then start a small fire. While the fish cooks upon a crude spit, I hobble around the area, calling, and listening, without luck.
The fish hits the spot, although it is not enough, but it is a start. I pour handful after handful of water over the fire, hoping the black smoke will signal my companions, but again, no luck.
Discouraged, I continue on, limping and leaning upon the staff. Night begins to fall and I am no closer to finding my friends as I was when I pulled myself ashore. I light another fire and am lucky enough to find a few bushes ripe with berries. Gorged on fruit, I fall asleep to the crackling of the fire, my dreams filled with rushing water, claws, and feathers.
I wake in the morning feeling as tired as if I had gotten no sleep at all. The fires is but embers, I throw on some grass and a few twigs I find, using the spear, and get the fire going again, chasing the morning chill from my bones. I do another inspection of my body, wincing as I uncover bruise after bruise, but glad that none of the cuts have attained the angry pink tinge of infection.
With one thing to be thankful for, I rise, and using river water, douse the flames. Again, the acrid smoke does not attract any attention, good or bad.
The day ends up much the same as yesterday ended. The good things being that it took me less time to catch a fish. I caught two fish, and I did not find my horse left to the buzzards.
The third day I find sign that something came out of the river, but I am unable to find what it was. I am beginning to lose hope when I spot a covered bridge ahead.
I am faced with a horrible choice when I make it to the bridge. I can continue to search the river bank for my companions, or I can follow the original plan and take the road.
I sit at my crossroads, munching on leftover cooked fish. It definitely is not as good as it was fresh, but it does the trick.
Finally, I ask myself what my companions would do, and put myself in each of their place.
Baker would definitely see me take the road and finish my quest. It is Antoine that I have trouble with. His loyalty to me since his whole ordeal started makes me think that I should go in search of him, show him the same. But at the same time, all he ever spoke about was what would happen once I returned. Once I was seated on the throne.
“Uh, young man?”
I shake my head. I do not know how long I have been sitting there, but there is a man on a cart loaded with squash, staring at me from the road. “Yes sir?” I ask.
“Oh good, I’ve been sitting here for nearly five minutes, I was afraid I was going to have to come down there.” He has a long piece of straw, the same color as his hair, hanging from his lips. He has dark circles under his green eyes, his tanned skin showing that he is no stranger to the outdoors.
“Afraid?” I ask him, not sure I get what threat I pose.
“Yeah, you, that spear and the sword at your hip. And those cuts. Not sure what to make of you.”
I fell into the river, I tell him, and after a long silence while he chews on the straw, he offers me a ride.
Antoine once told me that as the king, I never should pass up the hospitality of my subjects, and at this moment, I agree with him.