SWORD CHIVEIS TRILOGY
By Bryan M. Litfin
The lone man deep in the woods of the Beyond knew a good sword could make the difference between life and death. Now, as the massive brown bear approached, he gripped his sword’s hilt in his strong, sweaty hand and resolved to live. He had just dealt the death blow to a wild boar. Downed by heavy arrows, but still kicking and thrashing, the animal found relief in the finality of the sword’s thrust. With a last squeal, the boar quit struggling and went limp. The hunter pulled his blade free of the carcass and was leaning on it to catch his breath when a rustling in the bushes signaled danger.
Turning toward the new threat, the man felt his heart jump as the enormous bear crept from the underbrush, its ears laid back, its eyes staring, its face contorted in a snarl. The hunter tightened his grip on his sword, discerning from the bear’s aggressive behavior he might soon require the aid of steel. The weapon was decent, and the man was well versed in its use. All his skill at arms would be needed if the menacing bear charged.
The bear swatted the ground, huffing and barking, not backing off but steadily advancing. It was a young male, probably twice the man’s weight, and its curved claws provided it with weapons it wasn’t afraid to use. One swat from its paw could break a man’s back or snap a limb. This animal was a predator—born to kill, to eat, to survive. Yet for all the bear’s magnificence, the man could see it wasn’t in good shape. Its fur was tangled and dirty, its flanks thin despite its heavy frame—or at least thinner than they should have been in midsummer with the abundance of food. One look at the bear’s face told the story: a beard of porcupine quills bristled from its cheek and eye socket. Bloody scratches framed the quills where the bear had rubbed them. The right side of its face was a festering sore oozing with pus. One eye was swollen into a bulbous lump. This bear clearly could not hunt. Yet, like the man in the forest, it, too, had resolved to live.
The man knew the bear didn’t want him as prey. It wanted him to retreat, leaving behind the easy meat on the ground. Let the bear have it! Though pork ribs had sounded good to the man when he had taken down the boar, he had no intention of quibbling over cuisine with a wounded brown bear. Dried venison would do just fine in the campfire pot for one more night. The hunter relinquished his quarry and began to ease away, making no sudden movements or sounds.
But bears are unpredictable, especially a young male who has hardly eaten in weeks. The agonizing barbed needles had driven the creature to madness. Cold fear seized the man when he realized the tormented bear intended to vent its frustration on him. It rumbled a low growl, popped its jaws, and bunched its muscles to charge.
The man readied himself for a battle to the death. There was no chance to outrun the bear, no tree with branches low enough to climb. It was fight now or die. In some subconscious way, he realized that a sword is a poor defense against the thunderous muscles, dagger like claws, and crushing jaws of an enraged bear. Against such power, human beings will always fail. Yet the man refused to let fear overwhelm him. Audaciously, perhaps somewhat irrationally, he prepared to confront the bear’s full weight with nothing but a standard-issue soldier’s sword.
With unbelievable speed, the mountain of brown fur surged toward its enemy. Ragged yellow teeth gnashed in anticipation of the bones they would crush. The man sucked in his breath, feeling the sudden rush of ice water in his veins. His stomach dropped its floor. Time slowed. It was as if he could see each drop of slobber flying from the oncoming maw, each grizzled hair standing erect on the angry face, each divot of turf kicked up by the galloping paws. Death was on its way.
As the man braced his stance for a quick dodge and thrust, chance and his body both failed him. He stepped on a loose rock, which rolled underfoot. His knee buckled in an unnatural way, and he collapsed in agony. Now, at the moment when mobility was most important, he was flat on his back with the bear nearly upon him. From the ground, the man brought up his sword in defense. Yet he understood that his already slim odds of coming out of this encounter alive had dropped sharply.
What happened next was the most surprising thing to occur so far that day. Just as the great beast was about to make its final pounce, an arrow struck its infected face like some giant usurper, the new king of all the other quills. The bear arrested its charge and threw back its head, howling from deep within its chest at this unprecedented height of pain. It reared and turned broadside. With its paw, it swiped at the arrow, snapping off the shaft but only driving the arrowhead deeper into its skull.
Another arrow flew over the man’s head, slamming into the bear’s ribs under its shoulder. It was a perfectly placed lung shot that buried itself all the way to the fletching. The bear dropped to all fours and started coughing up wisps of foamy blood.
There was no time to wait. The man leaped to his feet, ignoring the searing pain in his left knee. With his own roar he put his full weight behind a sword thrust to the spot where he thought the bear’s heart would be. The steel found its mark and slid in deep.
The bear reacted instinctively. The back of its paw sent the man sprawling in the dust. Too dazed to move, and with the wind knocked from him, he lay motionless on his belly, trying to recover. As his awareness of danger came flooding back, he rolled over and drew his knife from his boot, ready to do final battle with the dying bear. But what he saw brought him up short. The unexpected scene eclipsed his earlier astonishment, becoming the new most-surprising event of his day. He saw a girl—a stunningly beautiful girl—with a broadhead arrow nocked in her longbow, standing over the body of the dead bear.
The woman drew her bowstring and held the arrow in place as she approached the bear on the ground. Though it lay still, danger of this magnitude had to be treated with caution. A little blood bubbled from the bear’s chest wound, staining its fur bright red. No sooner had she looked than the bubbling stopped. The bear’s flanks no longer heaved, and its paws no longer twitched. Satisfied that the creature was dead, the young bow-woman turned her attention to the officer of the Royal Guard lying to the side of the clearing.
“Are you hurt?”
Though the man was on the ground, she could see he was tall and lean, with dark hair that could use a trim. A stubble on his chin indicated he had been in the field for some time. She knew from his uniform he bore a high rank in the scout force of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Yet she had to admit, he looked a little ridiculous lying there on his back.
“I’m unhurt, and also in your debt,” the man answered. He made no attempt to get up, apparently content to rest on the ground after his close brush with death. “You’re skilled in the use of a bow. And you have courage. The average woman would have faltered in such danger.”
She lifted her chin, bothered by his mixed compliment. “I’m not an average woman.”
“Obviously.” The man slowly got to his feet, wincing and standing on one leg, favoring his injured knee. “So, can I ask the name of such an exceptional woman? And what are you doing out here past the edge of civilization?”
The woman considered her reply. The soldier was right: she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Royal law forbade anyone to leave the boundaries of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Though her family’s fields were on the frontier, as far along the Farm River as anyone dared to live, she had journeyed even farther downstream today, where no civilian was allowed to go—into the Beyond.
“If you intend to reprimand me, remember, you’d be dead right now if not for me,” she said evenly.
“Indeed, I’d be in the halls of the gods if not for your archery. But don’t worry, I’m not going to report you to the authorities. I just want to know the name of the pretty girl who saved me.” He raised his eyebrows and dared her to answer. The woman decided to take him at his word. “My name is Anastasia of Edgeton. I’m the only daughter of farm folk who grow wheat along the river for the people of Chiveis.” Though the guardsman had said he wouldn’t report her, still, she felt defensive about violating the law and wanted to establish her family’s patriotic credentials.
“What are you doing in the Beyond?”
“I left home at dawn and came here trailing a roebuck. In fact,” she added defiantly, “I come here often.”
“Well, Anastasia, it’s a good thing you had a heavy bow with you today.” He smiled, gesturing over her shoulder. “But I bet you didn’t intend to take a bear for meat when you left Edgeton this morning.”
The tension between them drained away. She looked at this silly figure, this handsome man on one leg, grinning at her. He was obviously accustomed to the hard ways of the wilderness. His leather jerkin was that of a man who not only ventured into the forest occasionally but lived in it for weeks at a time. Yet apparently he had a humorous side too. Her defensiveness broke, and she smiled back at him.
“It’s true; I didn’t expect to encounter such a fierce adversary today. But when I decide to take my quarry, I always get him. And now,” she said, changing the subject, “may I have your name as well?”
“I’m Captain Teofil of the Royal Guard, the Fifth Regiment.” He offered nothing else, and she knew not to inquire further.
Teofil assessed the situation. On the positive side, he was alone in a secluded forest with an attractive girl. He had always managed to make the most of that situation in the past, though he doubted he would be so fortunate this time, and not just because of his injured knee. On the negative side, he was far from his horse, which he had left with his gear in a meadow a league or two away. It wouldn’t be easy to hobble that distance. The negatives in the situation seemed to outweigh the positives.
He and Anastasia stood atop a bluff that loomed over the great bend in the Farm River. The river bend lay outside the formal boundary of the kingdom, though the Royal Guard did patrol the area regularly. From here, the lands of the Chiveisi stretched upstream to the southeast, where the river emerged from a lake at the settlement of Toon.
A plan began to take are engaged in some strenuous task. Now when she shook her head, her blonde hair came spilling down around her shoulders in a graceful cascade. Teo realized the person in front of him was not a girl at all, but a lovely young woman. She slid the hairpin into the bandage to hold it in place.
“Anastasia,” he ventured, “thank you.”
“I’m only doing the king’s business,” she said as she handed him the crutch. “The boat is in some rushes at the inside of the river bend. It’ll take you a while to make your way down the bluff. I’ll meet you there later, after I collect my things.” And then, like a fairy sprite, she disappeared into the forest.
Anastasia arched her back and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, leaving a crimson smudge. She held a slimy red knife in her other hand. Bloodstains covered her dress down to its ripped hem.
The wild boar, a juvenile and not exceptionally large, had been easy to dress out. Anastasia had intended to hunt today, so she’d packed her rucksack with sharp knives and even a small bone saw. After she bled the carcass and removed the entrails, she set aside the liver, which her father especially enjoyed. When the field dressing was complete, she put the boar in a burlap sack. The hams, loins, and ribs would be welcome in her home, though she knew it would be hard work carrying the meat to her boat.
As she worked, an idea occurred to her. Perhaps Captain Teofil could stay for supper. After all, the boar was his. She should invite him to dine with her family. What a silly idea! Ana, don’t let your notions run wild like a flighty milkmaid! She dismissed the thought from her mind.
Now that the boar was ready to be transported, Ana turned to the bear. Although bear meat didn’t appeal to her palate, the young men of her village relished it. They considered it the highest cuisine, endlessly discussing how it ought to be cooked and with which spices and sauces. Ana suspected their enjoyment had less to do with the taste and more with the chance to sit around the grillfire and recount, over and over, the stories of their bear hunts. From their tall tales, one would think they had wrestled the poor beast into submission until it was hog-tied and whimpering. Ha! What will the village boys think when I return with a load of bear steaks and a thick pelt? It was close to three years since anyone had brought bear into Edgeton. She smiled at the thought of the stir she would cause.
Ana wasn’t sure how she was viewed by the young people in her hometown. Certainly she knew from the farm boys’ behavior they found her attractive. It seemed she had a strange effect on them. Though all the young men sought her out, they retreated into a snail shell in her presence, stammering and gulping like adolescents holding hands on a hayride. Because of this awkward social dynamic, Ana had never been in love. That fact didn’t bother her much. The boys of Edgeton were fun, and they served well enough as friends or partners to spin her in the barn dances. But she was attracted to none of them. Somehow they seemed beneath her. She frowned at this notion, for it sounded haughty as it flashed through her mind. That’s not quite right, she thought. It’s just that I couldn’t put myself in their hands and trust where they would take me.
Bending to the bear, Anastasia slit its belly lengthwise, then made incisions up each leg and around the neck. With practiced hands, she stripped the pelt from the carcass. The chestnut fur would make a fine winter cloak. She also took the choice cuts of meat, leaving the rest for the wolves.
Of her two loads of meat, the boar looked harder to transport, so she decided to begin with it. She encountered no small difficulty hoisting it to her back, for it probably equaled half her weight. Ana was considered tall among the Chiveisi, and she liked to think of herself as strong, but her frame was slight. She didn’t have the broad shoulders that would have made this a much easier task for Captain Teofil.
Winding her way down the hillside, Ana came to a place where the trail skirted a cliff face. It was no massive drop-off, but the cliff was steep and rocky, and the trail was narrow here. She didn’t like the thought of negotiating the ledge with the boar on her shoulders, but there was nothing else to do if she wanted to take home the meat. An image sprang to her mind: her father broiling ribs over a grill that evening, telling Teofil, who was holding an ale in his hand, how proud he was of his only daughter.
Ana sucked up her courage and began to ease ahead. As she slid along the cliff, her foot slipped on the uneven ground. She lurched too close to the edge, gasping as she regained her balance. “I hate heights!” she cried to no one in particular as she left the place behind.
The trail brought her to the bank of the Farm River. Ana was glad to arrive at the spot where her boat was moored so she could relieve her shoulders of the heavy burden. She dropped the burlap sack into the canoe. There was no sign that the guardsman had been here. Perhaps he was hobbling around in the woods somewhere or bathing his knee in cool water upstream.
As Ana turned to ascend the bluff and retrieve the bearskin, a footprint in the mud caught her eye. Apparently the captain had been here after all. She knelt to examine the imprint. It was a boot, yet something about it seemed unfamiliar. Was this the sort of boot Teofil had been wearing? She tried to picture it in her mind. Yes, it must have been like this. Obviously it was his footprint, for no stranger had been observed in Chiveis in anyone’s recent memory. Of course, she wasn’t exactly in Chiveis at this spot.
The men of Edgeton said loners and brigands roamed the wilderness wastes, a thought abhorrent to Ana. She couldn’t imagine living a solitary life in the awful expanse beyond the known world. It was one thing to venture into it occasionally to hunt, but something else entirely to abandon family and hearthfire for the yawning abyss of the Beyond. Ana knew she was different from her peers in being willing to cross the line into the wilds. What gave her a thrill would have proved terrifying to the village girls she knew—and most of the boys as well. Nevertheless, she was like all Chiveisi in her high regard for communal life. When darkness fell, she wanted to be near the safety of her loved ones. Even frontier farmers like her parents, scattering to their fields along the Farm River each day, returned to the stockaded village at night for human companionship.
Without giving Captain Teofil’s boot print another thought, Ana started up the hillside to fetch her hard-earned bearskin.
Rothgar fiddled with the braids in his black whiskers as he studied the actions of the girl on the opposite riverbank. Satisfied with what he had seen, he rejoined his companion, who was trying to coax the last drops of beer from a skin bag. A trickle fell on the man’s chin and moistened his red beard.
“Hey, sot! Enough with your grog! We’re not here to get you drunk!” Rothgar shoved his partner, causing him to inhale his drink and drop the wineskin.
“Curse you!” Red-Beard sputtered after he stopped coughing.
Rothgar ignored his partner’s curse. “Listen up! That girl I saw last time is hunting in the forest again. She’s making this too easy for us! And what a scrumptious piece of meat she is. Our king is gonna enjoy having her as a wife.” “What about the guardsman? He’s probably still around somewhere. He had the look of a warrior.”
“So what? He’s on the other side of the river from us. You can take him out with your bow, and then we’ll snatch the girl. He’ll be no problem.”
“A man like that is always a problem.”
Rothgar’s face contorted into a look of scorn. “Coward!”
The red-bearded man bared his teeth and cursed again. Rothgar lunged out and grabbed his partner’s throat in his fist. He maintained a choking grip for several seconds, until the man’s eyes bulged and his face turned purple. Finally Rothgar let go. Red-Beard leaned against a tree, gasping for breath.
“Don’t you cross me,” Rothgar warned with a steady gaze. “This mission is too important. The king put me in charge of the deal this time. He wants that girl bad. I don’t need you messing things up.”
Red-Beard gingerly rubbed his throat and winced. “I ain’t meanin’ to cross you. I just don’t know what we’re trying to do here.”
“You don’t need to know. Just shoot where I tell you.”