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“I Am Brahkis” Episode 3

The Adventures of an Intellectual Barbarian

Kurjat’s pace is too quick for me to keep up. Every hundred paces or so, I remind him to slow down. It’s difficult to concentrate on three things at once – keeping Kurjat in sight, watching the trees for potential threats, and preventing Hagen’s body from slipping off my shoulder. The sweat dripping from my hands only makes it rougher.

As if that isn’t enough to contend with, the grackle is back, cawing beside my ear before flying to another perch further ahead to sound off again.

“I wish that pest would cease his outbursts,” Kurjat yells.

I feel the same, but Kurjat voicing his opinion makes me reconsider. I notice as he reaches the spot where the grackle is waiting, it lets out a cry and flies to the west. It lands on another branch, gives another call, and looks back at him.

A thought springs into my head, and I decide to go with my gut. “Follow the bird,” I huff as I shift Hagen’s weight yet again.

“What?” Kurjat turns and glares at me. “I’m trying to escape that annoying creature. Besides, I thought you said we should head north?”

“I know what I said, Kurjat, and now I’m telling you to follow the damn bird!” I am not going to enter an argument with our Chieftain’s son draped over my back. “I think the grackle is trying to lead us to safety.” I regret saying it out loud as soon as the words leave my mouth.

“What? You think the bird is trying to keep us out of danger?”

“Follow the bird, Kurjat.”

“Why are you the one giving orders, Brahkis? You’re not the expedition leader, Hagen is.”

“Well, I’m the one carrying Hagen, and he wants us to follow the bird.” I continue walking and finally catch up to Kurjat. Looking him directly in the eye, I keep my voice calm, but firm. “Do what you want. I’m cutting west.” Not waiting for him to voice a decision, I continue on. Whether or not my idea is crazy, we have yet to see more evidence of spiders.

Giving my trust to the bird, I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and not tripping on tree roots. At last, I see splinters of sunshine ahead, filtering through the lower density of tress at the edge of the woods.

I look over my shoulder, ready to gloat a little, but Kurjat isn’t there. Did he not fall in line behind me? I shake my head at his stubbornness and move on. Perhaps I will see him in the meadow beyond, but I’m not back-tracking now.

Once I finally break out from under the trees, I dare to set Hagen on the ground and stretch my over-worked muscles. The grackle gives one more screech, and when I look up he’s staring at me with that one piercing, yellow eye.

“Thank you, little one,” I offer, still working to even my breath. He seems to nod and then flies off, climbing into the cloudless sky, which is already turning a darker shade of indigo. I look up and down the tree line, hoping to spot Kurjat. He isn’t visible, though a rising hill to the north obstructs my view. Is it possible he might continue back to the village without waiting for me?

“Unbelievable.” I kneel and place my ear close to Hagen’s mouth. I can feel his breath, but it’s weak. He’s probably going to need more help than we’ll be able to give him once I get home, but I need to at least provide the healers a chance. If Hagen dies now, regardless of whether he deserves it as payment for his rashness, it will not be good for me.

I don’t even want to consider the reception I’m going to receive upon my return. It’s bad enough we completely failed to track down the poacher. If I show up a lone survivor, I will either be branded a coward for fleeing, or an incapable warrior for being unable to save the others. I know how the minds of my clan work.

There is nothing I can do now, though, save return with Hagen’s body, or abandon my clan completely. My honor won’t allow me to do that. I sigh, resigning myself once more to my load, and heft Hagen onto my back. “Don’t die on me now.”

Summer days in the taiga are long, and my muscles give out before the light does. Kurjat has not returned, but there are hours left to walk and I need rest. I lay Hagen down and gather fuel for a fire, unable to set watch and not knowing whether he’ll be alive when I wake. His breath is already soft as a whisper. I pile the wood high.

I wake with a start from a haunting dream, a twilight sky above me. I check to see if all my body parts remain, and the count of time’s passage is unclear to me, though my fire still burns. I need more sleep but my body doesn’t know it, and I am on the move before it becomes the wiser.

The hills are familiar now, even in the diminished glow of the near-horizon sun. I am in Shadowwolf lands, and the paths I follow are those of the hunt, not far from our summer settlement. Lying to myself, I dare to image the shroud of slumber and darkness will cover my homecoming. Perhaps if I arrive unnoticed, I can leave Hagen’s body for the healers and sneak off again until all questions are forgotten.

When I approach the palisade walls, however, sentries announce our return, loud enough to begin a chain of rousing that trickles like a spring shower throughout the camp. By the time I cross the threshold of the bound-log gate, a gathering of the curious has assembled. They fan out in an arc from our Chieftain, Rulgor, whose face is lit by torch-bearers on either side.

As gently as I can manage, I lower Hagen from my weary shoulders to the earth. Our best healers, Ulkiree and Janosh, descend upon his body, but Rulgor’s eyes train on me.

“What have you done to my son, Brahkis?”

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