“I have to rest for a bit, or you’re going to have to go on without me”, said Dokaius. He sat down on a rock and let go of the pack he’d had on his back.
“We’ll never catch up to the wolf, don’t you understand that?” he continued.
Junia stopped and turned to him. Her sleeping mat and cloak was pulled together in a pack that she carried with a leather band, and she had her bow over her shoulder. Apart from the food they had remaining, this was all she had carried with her from the broken wagon.
“I know”, she snarled. “That’s not the reason …”
She interrupted herself and sat down on the ground with a loud sigh.
“I don’t like this either, but if we walk so we get blisters on our feet it will take even longer to reach Harir”, said Dokaius.
Junia sighed again.
“I know. It’s just … oh, nothing.”
“Everything feels all wrong. I wanted to get away from Dohr’s manor and the committed for a while, wanted something to happen. And when the wolf came and chased away the wolf I was first surprised and then angry, but now I just feel tired. I just want it to end.”
Dokaius looked at his sister. They had always had a hard time talking about these kinds of things, they who could talk about som much else. He didn’t know what to say, so just stayed silent.
After a long while Junia stood up.
“Even if it’s time to stop for today we still can’t just set up camp on the side of the road like this.”
She started to walk again. Dokaius followed.
Junia hadn’t thought she would feel like this. The adventure she had looked forward to for so long had arrived, and what did she do? Hurried as much as possible for it all to be over. She was ashamed of herself, which of course made her feel even worse.
A lot of it was because of the strange thoughts that had turned up unasked since before they even left the mannor, and had become even worse since they ran into the wolf (it wasn’t a wolf).
None of them hade seen or heard the wolf since it disappeared chasing after their poor horse. They hadn’t found any traces of the horse either, which were a lot stranger. They had found what remained of the wagon, but the rope for the horse hade been chewed off. What kind of wolf behaved like that?
It’s not a wolf!
At that point Junia had just been angry, but she prepared her bow and carried it over her shoulder since. They had to prioritize hard when the wagon broke, since they wanted to travel light and not make the trip even longer. Dokaius had brought food, his sleeping mat and a cooking pot, but for Junia the bow and quiver were the most important. She claimed it was so she could hunt when they ran out of food, but both she and Dokaius knew what the bow was really for.
Being angry was a lot better than whatever she was now. She wasn’t homesick, she was still very tired of everything relating to the committed. But she was even more tired at walking, and she was even more tired of being afraid.
Dokaius had fallen asleep a long time ago. He was obviously not worried at all. Junia sat up and moved closer to the fire. She put on another stick, one of the last that she and Dokaius had gathered before lying down. Soon she would have to let the fire die.
She wondered how long it’d been since the sun set. It felt like an eternity, but it was probably not more than an hour. She should sleep if she wanted to have energy for the next day, but couldn’t. Instead she just sat there and stared into the fire until it ran out of fuel and went out, and then finally drifted into an uneasy sleep. She wasn’t even close to being rested when Dokaius woke her the following morning.
Dokaius and Junia had decided to continue their journey almost without discussion. They still had enough time to reach their goal and then go back again before money ran out for Antonius. If they turned around now then their trip would have just put them in a worse position than they were in originally.
One thing that they had both noticed after they lost the wagon was that there were a lot of people on the road. Today one more thing became apparent: everyone were heading away from the capital. They didn’t discuss it, but Junia could tell that it worried Dokaius.
Junia fell further and further behind. Dokaius stopped and waited for her, but soon she was behind again. They ate lunch and she felt like nothing more than falling asleep, but forced herself to continue. It was even slower going than in the morning, but at least they were moving.
They were now in another forest, in a more hilly landscape than the area around Vent. Birch and alder was standing along the road, with their full summer costume still intact. In a few weeks the leaves would start to turn yellow, but everything was still green and healthy now. The road had almost no turns, was paved and had milestones that showed the remaining distance to Harir. The hills tired her, both going up and not speeding up to much going down.
Dokaius was waiting on her again. Junia stopped when she caught up with him.
“I need to rest a bit”, she said.
“Sure Junia, but we can’t stop for the night yet.”
“I know”, she said and sat down on the ground. “I’m just so tired.”
“I can see that”, said Dokaius. “Is something weighing on you, or were you just up to late last night?”
“I couldn’t fall asleep.”
If Dokaius noticed that she had avoided the question, he didn’t mentioned it. After a while they walked on.
Dokaius had started to appreciate walking along the forest roads. If it hadn’t been that so much depended on him he would have really enjoyed himself. He was worried about Junia, who hadn’t been herself since the wolf took their horse. He was worried about Antonius, being responsible for all the committed by himself. And all the people heading the opposite direction were starting to make him suspect that something had happened in the capital.
He had tried talking to some of them earlier during the day, to trade stories and catch up on rumors. Learn what was going on in the direction they were heading. But no one had been very polite. Most didn’t even respond, and no one stopped to trade a few words. It bothered him more than maybe it should.
Why Junia’s odd behaviour bothered him was more clear. His sister had fallen apart after what happened with the wolf. Dokaius had woken up a couple of times during the night, and each time he had seen Junia staring into the fire with eyes that were far away. No wonder she was tired now if she hadn’t slept at all.
Dokaius would hav preferred to turn around and bring her home. But there was no time, and he didn’t dare to send her home by herself. That he even considered that possibility made it obvious how changed Junia was. Normally Dokaius would have abandoned that idea by it’s own absurdity, that Junia would go back to the manor voluntarily. But now …
Dokaius sighed. Junia who had really looked forward to this, who had fought him tooth and nail to be able to go.
They entered a more open forest, where the trees where further apart and were replaced by meadows here and there. Both sides of the road were lined by low bushes and tall grass. Sometimes he saw sheep grazing. Dokaius was thinking that they only needed to walk another hour now. He shoot a look at Junia, almost falling down next to him on the road. No more than one more hour.
They met another group of humans. They looked like a family: an older man, an older woman and three boys that were almost men. The older couple hardly looked at Dokaius, but the boys kept an eye on him, as if they were afraid that he would attack them. They all had clubs in their hands.
The family disappeared behind a bend in the road and they were alone again. Dokaius started to whistle. Junia looked at him, sighed, and went back to staring into the ground. Dokaius kept whistling until he felt that they had walked enough, found a good spot to make camp, and stopped.
Junia straight away rolled out her sleeping mat and lay down on it. Dokaius managed to keep her awake long enough to make sure she ate something, but then she fell asleep. It made Dokaius a bit calmer, if she just got a night of proper sleep he was sure a lot of her blues would go away. Dokaius gathered firewood an picked some mushrooms, before he rolled out his own sleeping mat. He was tired, so after he had made the fire go again and reflected on their luck with the weather – no rain so far – he lay down as well. He fell asleep quickly.
Junia sat up. The sun had just fought it’s way above the tree-line, but she still felt rested. She rolled up her sleeping bag. Hummed on one of the songs the committed sang on Dohr’s day. Dokaius was still sleeping.
She walked over to the small stream that was running along one edge of the meadow where they had slept. Removed her shoes and put her feet in the clear water. It was quite warm, it had been a good summer. She kept humming while pulling a straw of gras and started to chew on it. After a while she heard Dokaius moving on his sleeping mat. Soon he came and sat down next to her.
“Good morning, Junia.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Slept well?” said Dokaius.
“Yeah, sure. You?”
Dokaius stod up and went over to pack up. Junia stayed for a bit before she stood up as well. She put her shoes back on. When she turned around she saw something moving in amongst the trees. Curious she moved closer, but stopped when whatever it was that moved apparently discovered her as well and stopped. Then it started to move towards here, faster and faster as it came. Junia first thought it was the wolf (it wasn’t a wolf) and stiffened. Then she saw what it was. A bull.
“Dokaius, look out!”
Junia started running towards the closest climbable tree, and saw in the corner of her eyes that Dokaius did the same. As she sprinted over the meadow in full speed and heard the bull closing in behind her she felt none of the horror she’d felt when the wolf came, just a rush of energy that made her fly towards her goal.
She reached the tree and had just climbed high enough to be out of reach of the bulls horn when the huge animal slammed into it. The vibrations almost made her fall of the branch where she had reached, but she held on and kept climbing higher. Dokaius did the same in a big oak tree some distance away.
“So, now we’re stuck here you and me”, he shouted. “What do you think we should do now?”
“Play twenty questions?” said Junia and laughed.
Dokaius just looked at her.
“Please be serious for once.”
“Well, I don’t know. This bull seems to be quite persistent. Unless …”
Junia looked at her bow, that where hanging on a small tree by their sleeping mats.
“What are you planning now?” said Dokaius.
“Do you think someone owns this bull?” said Junia.
Dokaius’ eyes traced where she was looking.
“If someone owns it, do you think that someone would be angry if it died?”
“Probably.” Dokaius understood where she was going. “We can’t shoot a bull full of arrows just because it’s hunted us into a tree.”
“Of course we can”, said Junia.
“Yeah, sure, you have the ability to do so. But that doesn’t make it right.”
“So, what should we do then? I’ve given two suggestions, now it’s time for you to be creative.”
Dokaius didn’t answer and they sat there for a while in silence, while the bull wandered around Junias tree and snorted.
“Don’t you have to keep angry freaking bulls locked up?” Junia burst out once the silence started to get to her.
“I don’t know”, said Dokaius. “I’ve never owned a angry freaking bull.”
“And you have no suggestions for what we should do?”
“We’ll just have to wait until the bull gets tired and wanders off”, said Dokaius.
“That could take forever.”
“True. But do you see any other way that we can both get away from the bull and get hold of our sleeping mats and the rest of our stuff? And your bow?”
“It was your time to come with suggestions now”, said Junia.
“And I made one. That we wait.”
“That’s not a suggestion. That’s what we do if we can’t figure out something else.”
“Which we obviously are not able to do”, said Dokaius.
“Speak for yourself. I’ve given multiple suggestions.”
“Which involves killing the bull, something we can’t …”
“Yes we can, it wouldn’t even be hard.”
“… which we are not allowed to do.”
“Could we at least try to get the bow and the other stuff into the tree?” Junia said a little bit later.
“And how would you accomplish that?”
“Easy. You jump down and draw the bull away, while I run and get the things.”
“And if I don’t manage to escape?” said Dokaius.
“Of course you do, you’re fast. Come on now. If we have everything then it will be much faster to get away from here if we figure out a plan later.”
Dokaius hesitated but then said sure, they could try. He carefully climbed down from his tree, and when the bull didn’t seem to notice him he instead tried to sneak over to the sleeping mats himself. For several minutes it looked like he was going to make it, but then the bull raised it’s ears and turned towards him. Dokaius, who had almost reached their packs, started to run. He managed to grab hold of one of the packs and continued into the forest with the bull behind him.
Junia quickly jumped down from the tree and ran over to get the bow, her sleeping mat and her quiver. She tied her pack to a branch part way up the tree, put the quiver on and the bow over her shoulder. She climbed back up and tried to look for Dokaius and the bull, but when she couldn’t see any of them she returned to the ground and walked in the direction they had disappeared. She had almost reached the other side of the meadow when she saw Dokaius come running, the bull far behind.
Junia turned and ran back to the tree and climbed up. Dokaius followed. They were now both sitting in the oak tree that Dokaius had sat in before. Luckily it was the same tree where Junia had tied the packs. The bull stopped in front of the tree and snorted.
“That went well”, said Junia.
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one that was almost trampled”, said Dokaius.
“Almost trampled? You were far ahead of it.”
Dokaius was still catching his breath.
“On the way back, sure. I had to jump up on a big rock in the forest – look at the scrapes on my elbows.”
Dokaius brushed of his lower arms. They were bleeding from several small wounds.
“Then I tricked the bull to run of into the forrest before I ran back.”
“Sorry about that. But at least we have everything now, right?” said Junia.
“I guess we do. So what do we do now?” said Dokaius.
“Play twenty questions?”
“Can you stop nagging about twenty questions!”
They of course played twenty questions eventually, and many other word games as well, and talked until they ran out of things to talk about, and then they were quiet. One benefit with Junias plan to get the packs, which almost made up for the way his arms stung, was that they did have something to eat. Dokaius was now chewing on an apple that Junia had picked the day before.
Finally the bull fell asleep and they dared to climb down. It was evening again, but they decided to walk for a few hours anyway. Partly because they otherwise would have lost a full day, and partly because they didn’t want to risk running into the same bull a second time waking up the next morning. It was nice to keep walking after sundown, Dokaius thought. They also didn’t have to meet any frightened people going the other direction.
He breathed in the cold night air. He could not feel anything other than gratitude towards the bull, even though they had lost almost a day’s worth of walking to it. He wasn’t sure how much was because of a full nights rest and how much was finally getting her proper adventure, but Junia’s apathy was gone and she walked strong next to him.
Dokaius was happy. When he looked up at the big moon above and the stars all over the sky, almost extatic. He took another deep breath. This was the life! He had never shared Junias problems with taking care of the committed, but he had on the other hand never been fond if it the same way Antonius did. It was limiting, it was tiring and it was time-consuming. A keeper could never take time off. Being three keepers looking after thirteen committed was not enough. He regretted never finding someone to share the burden with, but it wasn’t easy finding someone who accepted taking on the heavy calling.
And he could never get away from it. A keeper was born to the calling and raised for it, lived with it from his or her first day alive. When a child from one of the noble families that were responsible for the manors reached sixteen then he or she was given the choice to leave and try to find their fortune doing something else, but almost no one did. The manor was the only home they had ever known, the keepers trade the only one they had. The pressure from parents and older siblings were usually great as well, since the existing manors were almost always at capacity and one less keeper meant a heavier load for everyone else.
For Dokaius and Antonius it had not been a choice at all. Junia had fought it for all she was worth, until the combined force of their father’s anger and the peer pressure from the two brothers made her give in. A few years later their parents had died, a couple of months apart, and Dokaius had taken over the responsibility.
A few hours after sun set they finally stopped for the night. Dokaius felt like he could have continued for many more hours, and it looked like Junia felt the same, but they both knew that if they did that then they wouldn’t be able to be up early enough the following morning, and it would take a long time to get back to proper hours again.
Quickly they gathered wood and made a fire. None of them were that tired, so they sat and talked a bit before Dokaius lay down and fell asleep.
Junia stayed seated when her brother turned in. Soon Dokaius started to snore. Junia sighed. Now it would be even harder to fall asleep. She poked him, and he stopped making noice for a litte bit, but soon started again.
Junia lay down to at least try to sleep. She was still alert, and felt excited. This was what she had wanted when they left home. Walks in the dark with only the moon to guide them, daring clashes and bold moves. And it had been quite fun there in the tree as well. Her legs that had been aching the day before had recovered fully, even if her but was numb from sitting on the branch all day.
The wind, which had been mostly still for their trip so far, was making the trees sing.
As Junia was finally starting to drift off, she got a feeling of being watched. Together with it came the feeling that all of this had happened before. She was instantly wide awake again and sat up. The moon was hidden in clouds and it was a lot darker now.
The growl came from the forest, sounding just as the growl she’d heard before the wolf turned up two days before. But this time it didn’t make her afraid. It made her angry, as angry as she had been just after the wolf had chased of their horse. She took her bow in one hand, put the quiver over her shoulder, stood with her back against the fire to return her night eyes, and then went to find that meishur-cursed wolf.
Don’t do it! Stay with the fire.
But she refused to listen to the strange thoughts that she didn’t recognize as her own, refused to let them paralize her again.
Before she disappeared into the forest she turned and looked at her brother. Dokaius was sleeping calmly. For a moment she considered waking him, but then she turned away and continued into trees alone.