Simen ducked under a branch and cursed as some thorns scraped across his shoulders. He was beginning to believe that every other tree in this damned, black forest was personally out to get him. He had no choice though. He had to keep going. The guards were still after him Ė they had to be Ė and stopping wouldnít be any different from surrendering. After he cleared the wood and left the kingís lands behind, then he could rest. He would finally be safe, or so he hoped.
His latest run of bad luck had begun shortly after he fled. First he lost his horse when the animal stepped in a hole and shattered its left front leg. Thrown from his saddle, Simen landed in a heap with the breath knocked out of him. And the impact did something serious to his side, possibly cracking several ribs. Eventually though he forced himself to his feet and cut the horseís throat, putting it out of its misery. It was the least he could do for the poor animal.
He had then made his way through the forest on foot, leaving the trail behind. The guards would certainly send at least a few men along that route, and without a steed they would quickly catch him. Even so, Simen almost regretted his choice. The woods were thick and difficult to traverse with plenty of underbrush getting in the way.
At one point he came across a small brook. Pausing to drink, he glimpsed a deer only a few yards away, across the water. Slowly he had drawn his dagger and hurled it at the animal as hard as he could. It flew over the animalís head, and the deer bounded away. Simen searched, but he had not been able to find his blade afterwards.
All of this had happened in the past four hours. Now he was hungry, tired, and in a fair amount of pain. Pulling a piece of stale bread from his pouch, he began to gnaw on it. It wasnít much, but it was the only food he had.
His stomach was still grumbling as the sun began to set. The temperature was dropping in kind, and Simen wished he still had his heavy woolen cloak. But that was the first thing he had discarded when fleeing the kingís army. It marked him as a soldier, and he wanted, no he needed, to appear to be anything but that.
An owl hooted, and Simen quickly drew his sword, almost falling over in his haste. He had been raised in the city and had no idea what creature made that sound. Was it dangerous? He felt naked without his armor, but there had been no way to escape with it. Plus it marked him a soldier even more than the embroidered cloak would have. The sword was the only thing he had been able to take Ė plenty of men carried weapons. Looking about he saw nothing, so he forced himself onward despite the increasing darkness.
* * *
Three days without food, but somehow Simen had managed to keep going. Water, at least, was plentiful. It had rained a few times during his journey, and he passed several more of the tiny forest streams. His side however was swollen and bruised. He had definitely injured himself in the accident. And it seemed to be affecting his mind. Simen was lightheaded, and he had already caught himself mumbling without meaning once. For the first time, he was beginning to believe he would die out here, but that was better than going back.
Back, as if that were even possible. He had deserted the kingís army just prior to a battle. He would be executed for certain, and it was quite probable he would be tortured first in order to make an example. Cowardice was not tolerated.
He had timed his escape well though. The punishment might be at its worst because of it, but the odds were in his favor. Everyone was distracted with more important things than chasing after him. And the two forces had seemed evenly matched. His nation might have lost in which case no one would be following. But then again, they could have been victorious. If that happened, guards would be sent to find him. The king had a firm policy of locating all deserters regardless of the time or cost involved.
Tripping on an exposed root, Simen was dimly aware of falling forward, but he couldnít seem to react. His head struck the packed earth.
* * *
Simen woke with a start. Confused, he looked around trying to figure out what was going on. He was lying in bed, a soft and clean bed at that, which was a new experience. Running his fingers down his body, Simen was also surprised to find bandages. Gingerly he touched the injury. It still throbbed, but not nearly as bad as before. Someone had done a fine job treating him.
Sitting upright, Simen had to pause and grab the edge of the bed to keep from falling over. His head was spinning. Obviously he was still not in the best of shape. Taking his time, he carefully examined his surroundings. The room was small, but it seemed cozy enough. There was a table nearby with a single wood chair. To the side of that was a narrow bench holding a new set of clothing, neatly folded, his boots, and his sword. He was a guest of some sort then and not a prisoner. That was reassuring.
The door creaked open.
"Awake I see," smiled the old man warmly. He entered the room. "I have some food for you if youíre hungry."
Setting the tray on the table, he stepped back. There was a loaf of bread, fresh vegetables heaped on a pewter plate, and a bowl of thick meat stew. Steam was rising from it, and the delicious smell made Simenís mouth water.
"Where am I?" he asked as he carefully made his way to the chair. It was only a few feet, but Simen found the effort difficult.
"You are in my home," said the man. "I am the mage Alaron."
Simenís eyes narrowed. Mages were dangerous. They could do unnatural things. Still this man seemed nice enough, and he was obviously very old and feeble. He couldnít be that much of a danger.
"Where is your house exactly?" he continued. "I was lost in the forest last I remember."
"Oh, you are less than a dayís walk from the edge of the Mist Mountains, a bit north of the river."
Simen repressed a smile. The mountains marked the edge of the kingís domain. He was close to safety after all.
"Now eat that food and get some rest. You were quite banged up, but I treated your injuries with herbs and spells. I know you are weak, but trust me, you will be fully healed by nightfall."
Again, Simen touched his ribs. He didnít like the thought of magic being used on him, especially without his knowledge, but this Alaron seemed to know what he was doing. Maybe Simenís luck was finally changing for the better.
* * *
Simen grinned as he dressed himself in the new clothing. The pain was completely gone, but he left the bandages wrapped about his torso just in case. He was fairly certain though that when he removed them later there wouldnít even be a bruise left. Sitting on the edge of the bench he quickly pulled his boots on. He was almost ready to go.
Lifting his sword, Simen briefly considered leaving it behind. Without the weapon he would more easily pass as a simple traveler, until he found a place to settle down anyway. All he wanted was to live a nice, pleasant life all alone without anyone giving him orders or telling him what to do. Then again, it was his only means in which to defend himself. Deciding to hang on to it for the time being, Simen strapped the sword to his waist. He could always throw it away later.
What had ever possessed him to enlist in the army in the first place? That was perhaps the single most foolish thing he had ever done. It was even worse than the time he got drunk and broke into the neighborsí house, only to pass out on their kitchen table. He should have known better than that as well. You simply donít commit crimes while intoxicated. He had spent three months in the townís prison as a result.
"You are ready to depart?" asked the mage.
Simen spun around. He hadnít heard the old man enter the room.
"You look as if you are preparing to move on, or do you normally wear your sword inside?"
Simen greeted Alaronís smile with one of his own. "I am leaving. Thank you for your hospitality and for taking care of me."
"You are welcome young man," said the mage. "It is already dark outside though. Are you certain you do not want to wait until morning? Maybe get some more rest?"
"Iíve been in bed long enough," replied Simen. "Itís time to get going. I still have a long way to travel and donít want to be delayed."
Alaron nodded. "In that case would you like some food to take with you? I have plenty to spare."
"Very much so," said Simen. He had actually planned on slipping whatever he could into his pockets before going, provided the old man didnít see him. He was wary of mages, even one as generous as Alaron.
His host gestured for Simen to go ahead of him toward the kitchen, and the former soldier did so without hesitation. As he passed by, the mage touched something cold to the back of his neck, and Simen felt his world shatter. Agony shot through his body as he tumbled to the floor. It was as if he was being torn into little pieces.
"Are you conscious?"
The pain was threatening to overwhelm his senses, but he somehow managed to open his eyes and look up, only to see himself standing with blade in hand. "What?" His voice was wrong.
"There are many paths to immortality for the dedicated practitioner," laughed Simenís body. "Stealing your youth is the one I prefer." He raised the weapon.
Simen lifted his hands as if that would save him. Some portion of his consciousness noted they were now that of an old man. Then the sword came crashing down.
* * *
Alaron stared up at the blue sky. It was so bright, so spectacular. It had been a long time since he had been able to see this clearly. These new eyes were much better. Of course the entire body was almost 50 years younger than the one he had been wearing. The mage felt quite fortunate to have found such a fine specimen practically on his doorstep.
Chanting he tried to cast a spell, a simple thing that would make sparkling lights appear before him. Nothing happened, and Alaron shrugged without concern. It had been like this the other two times he had stolen a body. In both instances it took him several days before he could cast properly. It was annoying, but a small price to pay for the youth and energy that was his once more.
Yet again, Alaron wondered why he had waited so long before initiating the transference spell. He hated being old, but then he feared being dead even more. The spell was dangerous, and it could easily fail, killing him. No, he had made the right decision in being cautious and not overly greedy. Next time though he would make the change sooner, after his middle years came to an end. It was riskier, but a worthwhile gamble.
Kicking clods of dirt up beneath their hooves, five horsemen galloped into the clearing where his home rested. He didnít recognize any of them, but they wore army cloaks and shining chainmail armor. It was probably more scouts coming to see if he had learned something of interest, as if anything ever happened in the wilderness away from the cities and farmland of the kingdom. The desire to be alone was why he chose to reside here in the first place. There wasnít even anything on the other side of the border except a few dwarven outposts, and the dwarves had a non-aggression pact with the king. They didnít even bother patrolling it.
The men circled him and dismounted. Alaron suddenly realized something was wrong. The scouts who came here before had never acted in this manner. He opened his mouth to tell them that he was Alaronís new apprentice thinking they had expected the old man to greet them and not a stranger, but one of the men backhanded him across the jaw. Alaron stumbled and fell.
"Damn traitor," he snarled.
The mage tried to speak, but his jaw was broken. No words would come out.
"You made us chase you for six days. For that I promise your death will be slow." The man pulled a short spear from behind his saddle.
Alaron tried to get to his feet, but the other soldiers kicked him back down and stood on his arms grinding them into the ground with their boots. Howling in pain, the mage tried to summon his magic, to somehow squirm free, but it was useless. He could only watch as the head of the spear plunged into his stomach.
Joshua Jared Scott lives in Texas where he writes, works, and spends time with his three dogs, the youngest of which loves bumping his arm whenever he is at the computer. An avid rock climber and outdoorsman, he often travels west looking for a new cliff to scale or a new trail to hike.
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