Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 2"

If you haven't read Chapter 1, I would start there first.

Valinor had very little problem backtracking the path that Mort and his attacker had followed earlier that day. Mort had made no effort to conceal his trail and the signs were even evident to Teserk, who had little knowledge of woodcraft. After about an hour the forest opened onto a large ravine, a miniscule stream no more than two feet wide meandering along the bottom. The south side of the ravine, the direction from which they approached, sloped smoothly down to the bottom. The north side, however, was very steep and rocky. Navigating the north side would be very treacherous. Teserk could see that the trail they followed led down to the bottom of the ravine, right to the body of what looked like a dead horse.

Valinor lead the group down to the horse. The body was fresh. Flies were busy sucking at a gash across the animal's neck. The ranger bent down to examine the corpse.

"Ah, poor Betsie!" lamented Mort. "She was a good horse. Got her when she was a colt. She served me well for nearly 15 years. I'm so sorry, lass."

"What happened?" Teserk asked.

"We were moving very fast through the woods. I kept looking over my shoulder instead of where we were headed. The top of the ravine there is very well hidden and I didn't see it until the last minute. Betsie tried to stop, but we skidded over the edge. I managed to throw myself off just in time. I watched her slide to the bottom. I slid down after her - but there was nothing I could do. Poor lass had broken her front leg. I couldn't bear to watch her suffer, so I put her down. Near broke my heart."

Teserk could see the broken leg. It was twisted at an unnatural angle and the jagged edges of bone poked through the torn flesh of the foreleg.

"You were quite proficient at putting her down," Valinor said, standing. "The cut you made was very precise and the instrument very sharp."

"I'm a mink farmer," Mort replied somewhat defensively, "I slaughter animals for a living."

He pulled a wicked looking tool from a leather case at his belt. There was a distinct curve to the blade. Teserk had never seen anything like it before.

"I designed it myself," Mort continued. "Slides easily between a minks fur and muscle and the curved edge makes the skinning go faster."

"It's remarkably clean," Valinor noticed.

"Washed it in that there stream when I was finished. This little knife represents my livelihood. Couldn't have it getting rusty on me."

Valinor withheld further comment and turned to the north side of the ravine, looking for a way up the embankment. The way was quite steep, devoid of any sturdy vegetation for handholds and littered about with fist-sized rocks that skittered away down the hill at the least provocation.

"You're lucky you didn't take the same fall as your horse," Theadina commented as she watched Valinor struggle to find a way up the slope. "It surely would have been fatal to you."

"Thank the spirits for that," Mort agreed.

"Did th' bandits attack ye on foot, or on horseback?" Colin asked suddenly.

"On foot, mostly. A couple of them had horses."

"Was yer pursuer one o' those?"

"I think so. Why do you ask?"

"I'm wondering where HIS horse be."

Mort blinked. "I don't know. That's a good question. He certainly followed me on foot past this point."

The question was answered as Valinor called down from above.

"There's a black mare tied to a tree up here."

"Well, then, there you go," Mort said. "He must have seen my fall and proceeded more cautiously."

"Of course," Theadina reasoned, "Chances were that you were seriously injured, if not outright killed, in the fall. He figured he had time to find a safe way down."

Their musings were interrupted by a shout from Valinor.

"There's no real safe way up here at this location," he said. "The tracks here show that the assassin headed east to find a better way down. Rather than waste more time, I'm going to lower a rope so you can climb up."

Mort said goodbye to Betsie as Valinor knotted some rope to a sturdy tree and tossed it down to the group. Theadina climbed up first, followed by Mort, Colin and finally Teserk.

When he reached the top, Teserk took a moment to study the terrain. He could see how Mort would have missed the drop off. The trees here were fairly thick and the edge of the ravine was lined with brush. The assassin's horse was tied to a medium-sized elm right next to the place where Betsie had gone over the edge. Several bushes had been ripped out in the struggle, leaving a hole in the brush line. The ravine at that point was especially steep.

Teserk thought of something. "You said you followed your horse down the incline?"

"The man was after me." Mort looked over the edge and swallowed hard. "I wasn't really thinking clearly at the time."

Theadina said what they were all thinking. "You are lucky to be alive."

Mort could only nod.

"The trail continues back this way."

Valinor set off down the trail. Colin untied the black mare and led her after, Theadina and Mort following. Teserk hung back a bit. He looked one last time down the slope. Something was not right here. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he was missing something important, something that tickled his brain, but refused to show itself.

Teserk sighed. He wasn't the thinker of the group - he left that to Theadina or Valinor. He would just have to trust that whatever was lurking in the back of his skull would show itself before too much longer.

With that thought in mind he headed out after his companions.

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