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Chapter 3: The Creek Crossing
The companions face obstacles.
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Arrick arose first, a little after twilight. The moonlit clarity of the previous night was replaced by a gauze of fog so thick even the edges of camp were blurred by mist. He waited before waking the others, enjoying the quiet of the gloaming hour, the clouds moving around them. After a while, he prodded his companions awake. Eola rose easiest, thrilled to start the day, but Ophir and Bajo snoozed in a bit while the other two went for water.
The fire was burned down to ash so they all ate a quick breakfast of oatcakes and honey, mostly in silence. Then they packed up their gear, letting full bellies and morning movement warm their muscles.
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There were dangers to consider. While Bridge City was tantalizingly close and the travelers had come this far without incident, they were also entering treacherous ground. The paths through the forested hills west of Bridge City were soft zones in Cascadian justice. There were reports of bandits holed up in hidden valleys and rogue Old Way bands, the kind comfortable operating deep in governed territory. The folds of the hills were always home to predators, even when the prime mammals ruled.
When camp was broken, the quartet set out from the site and followed the row of alders east up the hill, which soon gave way to an old human road along the edge of a tall grass meadow. A thick layer of moss over the old pavement felt soft and cool on Eola’s paws. The road passed between a line of old homes and a solitary farmhouse grown over in bramble, out of which they plucked ripe blackberries, sweet and seedy and tart.
Then the path peaked and left the old road and began a slow descent through the meadow until trees emerged ahead in the fog, a pear and apple orchard planted among the occasional trunks of ancient, hulking firs.
“Should be mostly downhill from here,” said Bajo, then he climbed up a trunk, which caused a host of sparrows to skitter off to the next tree over. He picked a heavy-hanging pear and tossed it down to Eola before taking one of his own. Eola caught the pear, thanked Bajo and the Spirit’s provision, and devoured the snack. The pear was juicy and complex, and after that Eola felt energized.
Their travel plan that morning was to cross Razbaack Creek, which Bajo claimed wasn’t far, then follow the path’s southern branch downstream and along the Razbaack. This path would lead them under the Great Road and down the hills to Southfront.
As they passed deeper into the firs, the ground pitched downward to where it dropped away from a low cliff to another old road. There were large stairs cut into the side so the mammals picked their way down, crossed the road, and found themselves at the top of a ravine, where a much longer line of stairs seemed to tunnel down through coils of overgrown brush. From somewhere at the bottom, they could hear the low murmur of running water rising up through the mist.
Eola breathed in the meadowfoam and skunkweed, wet soil and willow, and a foreboding thrill ran up her spine. She took some breaths and felt her companions’ presence, which offered some comfort. Then Arrick took point, stepping slowly down the long wooden stairway. As they descended, the sound of the creek increased even as the fog seemed to sink in closer. The companions were dead silent and hyper aware as the greenery and haze enfolded them. Then, finally, the stairway ended beside the creek, and ahead of them stretched a bridge of low planks.
Arrick gestured the other three close in to a huddle, and when he spoke his voice was barely even a whisper.
“Something’s off here. Ophir, you follow me. Then Eola,” he nodded toward the badger. “Stay close so her back’s covered. Bajo will cover yours.”
Eola felt a ripple of clarity and a pulse of adrenaline. She set her paw on the grip of her simple wooden club and followed Ophir close as they stepped out onto the bridge. Bajo went last, staff held ready.
The boardwalk stretched across the marshland into the mist, just a little higher than the water. Soon the bank disappeared in vapor behind them and Eola found herself peering over the side, gazing into the currents as the water flowed underneath their paws.
They were about a third of the way across when an insect buzzed above Eola, and she glanced up, and saw, in the wake of the bug’s path, a swirl of disturbed vapor tracing a faint line overhead. She stared as she walked on, when—whiiiisk—another whipped past her eyes, only this one stopped suddenly with a thunk in an outstretched willow limb just to Eola’s right. That was when she realized they weren’t insects at all. They were darts, slim needles of blackened steel flighted with tiny and shimmering green feathers.
“Are we under attack?” Eola whispered, but her voice was dampened by the heavy air. Then what felt like the searing of a spark landed on her front left paw, which she lifted up, and discovered one of the darts buried in her coarse dark fur. Then the burning relented, and she marveled at how she didn’t feel anything around the wound, and how the feathers on the darts were really quite pretty. And then she realized the lack of pain was somehow spreading. Then there were two more sharp pangs as further darts struck, one in her thigh and the other in the muted brown canvas of her cloak near her spine.
“We’re under attack!” she said, louder.
But Arrick and Bajo already caught the assault unfolding a heartbeat after the faint thunk of metal on willow wood, and ascertained the darts were incoming from the left. Bajo moved into position as a defender, spinning to the left edge of the bridge between the hidden assailants and Ophir. His staff twirled in an uppercut arc to hammer one of the incoming darts from midair. The missile spun off into the air and was swallowed by the fog. He swung the other end of the staff around and then, with a nimble downward swish, sent another pin of poisoned metal clattering into the creek, where it was swept under the plank bridge and sunk into the current.
Bajo reckoned the shots were aimed either at Eola or him, the attackers likely looking to put down the largest creatures first. Bajo registered this as good news, since these were likely bandits and not assassins.
Arrick, meanwhile, knew Bajo would provide cover for Ophir, and estimated their aggressors wouldn’t expect a counterattack. He dashed off the bridge and out into the fog, the marshland soft and squishing under his paws, but he wasn’t in the main creek channel and the ground was still mostly firm. He knew even proficient blowgunners had limited range, and the shots weren’t angled from above. So he curved outward, like a swallow swooping over a field, and crouched into a full four-legged sprint. From the dangling branches overhead, he could tell he was moving toward the trunk of a large willow, and then he could see the trunk, and there at the base he spotted the shrouded figures of three frogs raising their hollowed reed blowguns from behind the cover of gnarled roots. He focused on the most oblivious—a bullfrog who’d just puffed out a dart—and closed in to attack.
One of the frogs—a Northern leopard—caught a flash of bright orange through the mist from the corner of his eye. He turned to find a marten, charging, and croaked a dismayed warning to his brethren before turning to leap away for the cover of the stream. But the other two frogs didn’t pick up on the flanking action and huffed out an additional volley. One, on recognition of the panicked croak, fired and quickly hopped away, tossing away his blowgun in a wild retreat. The third bullfrog was not so lucky.
Arrick reached the unwitting assailant in another heartbeat, diving, colliding, and wrapping both paws tight around the bullfrog’s midsection. But the frog was strong and tough, and soon kicked free as Arrick lost his grip on the amphibian’s slippery skin.
The frog’s escape route differed from his companions as he angled further from the creek, and even though the frog was firing poison darts at Arrick just a few seconds earlier, he felt a touch of tenderness toward his prey for covering for his mates. Out of this scant admiration, Arrick decided he wouldn’t kill the creature, and he closed the meters between them like a cyclone before tackling the frog onto the muddy edge of the creek bank.
Arrick gathered the bullfrog up, holding the slick amphibian fast against his cloak with powerful mustelid muscles and he bound the creature’s ankles and wrists with a coiled bit of twine from his cloak pocket. The frog kicked and cursed as Arrick carried him back toward the boardwalk.
“Anyone hit?” he asked, as he flopped the bullfrog onto the wood planks.
“Eola took three,” Bajo replied. Then he turned to Eola. “How do they feel?”
“Increasingly numb,” said Eola.
“A smaller creature would be knocked out cold already,” said Arrick.
But the badger could still feel—and then not feel—the poison spreading. All sensation was gone from her left arm, through most of her left leg, and her right leg was beginning to feel the pinprick tingle of the paralytic. Eola patted her digging paws together, but felt nothing on the left side. She felt a sudden flush of fear. “Am I going to die?”
“No,” Bajo patted her right arm. “They wanted to knock us out and you were the scariest and simplest to hit. You’ll have to sleep this off, though. For now, can you move?”
“But not as far as Southfront,” Arrick calculated. “Where to now?”
“The Wells will have healers to treat this. We’d best move fast if she’s gonna make it without a wheelbarrow, though,” said Bajo.
“What should we do with this soggy slug?” Arrick said pointing the bullfrog onto the wooden deck. The amphibian croaked, forlorn.
“Why are you crying?” Bajo asked. “It wasn’t us who asked for a poison dart hijacking.”
“Happy fun time is over, mammos,” the bullfrog scowled and croaked out the slur. “Chaos is coming, and your ways will end. The Old Way is back and you better believe it!”
Bajo did feel a little offended, but mostly because “mammos” sounded so dumb.
“Well, at least his hopes remain unfettered,” laughed Arrick.
“You think the Old Way’s gonna work out for bullfrogs?” Bajo asked the frog. “We’d be grilling up your legs right now.”
The bullfrog blinked, then spit back.
“Maybe. Maybe not. But then at least we know where we stand!”
“Not without legs, you wouldn’t,” said Arrick, who then leaned toward Bajo for an aside. “We could bring him with us to The Wells as a prisoner but that doesn’t sound very fun.”
“Yeah, especially if we have to carry Eola,” Bajo added. Each of their eyes narrowed at the thought of letting such a sassy bandit go, but that remained the logical conclusion.
Arrick untied the twine around the frog’s wrists, then his ankles.
“Go ribbit around some other wetland,” the marten snarled. “We won’t be as kind next time.”
“And we’re definitely reporting this to South Hills Brigade,” Bajo added.
“We aren’t afraid of them,” the young bullfrog croaked, but he needed no more convincing to leave, and hopped off the edge of the plank bridge to flee upstream.
Bajo offered Eola his staff and himself as a crutch, supporting her as she limped across the rest of the bridge. Soon, the boardwalk ended, and the marshland gave way to firm ground, and they were faced with another old stairway winding up out of the valley again.
By then Eola could feel almost nothing below her belly, yet she lurched and staggered on, legs wobbly and unsound. Halfway up the stairs, she became tired all over, as tired as she’d ever felt, so that each step felt like dragging a sack of stones. Bajo and Arrick pushed and propped her up as well as they could, but they’d just barely made the top of the stairs when Eola went out cold, collapsing in a pile.
“Now we have to carry her,” Arrick sighed.
Bajo groaned. Ophir looked silently—pleading—to the sky. Eola snored.
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