The night air was brisk, cutting through the cloak draped over his frail figure. A fire burned down in the center of the camp, the flames flickering into the air as it consumed the dry logs, but its warmth seemed to do nothing to combat the chill in his bones. His companions slept around him, rolled snug in a ring around the campfire. Their snores echoed softly into the dreadful night, overridden by the hoots and shrieks of the wildlife around them. He jumped at every new sound, a small dirk trembling in his pale fingers.
He shouldn’t be like this. After all, he was the son of a knight and his grandfather was a knight. He was pretty sure the knighthood could be traced back across dozens of generations. Warrior blood ran strong through his family’s veins, but somehow it decided to skip a generation the night Tyriel was born. It resumed three years later when his sister, Rhys, was brought into the world. Everyone knew that she should be the one out here leading this expedition, but his father would hear none of it. He said it was time that Tyriel stepped up and earned his keep as the future heir to the tower.
The men with him all thought he was craven, and Tyriel wished that he could prove them wrong just once. But it was hard to be courageous and bold when every sound in the forest made him panic. He feared an ambush at every turn, saw rabid eyes in every beast, and felt cold steel swinging down every night when he slept. And now, after three weeks, they finally forced him to take a watch during the night. They gave him the first watch, reassuring him that if there were to be an attack it would come during second or third watch instead. Tyriel didn’t believe them.
It was dreadful out here, under the open skies and among the wilderness. Even though the open land stretched far beyond his sight in each direction, he felt more confined here than he had been at home. Things had been much better when he had been hidden, snug within the safe walls of the tower, buried beneath stacks of tomes in the library. Nothing bothered him up there, apart from the thick layers of dust, because no one else held any interest in the ancient books and scrolls. But Tyriel felt that the information contained in them was far more important than knowing how to swing a sword or shoot a bow and hit a target on horseback. Knowledge was a superior weapon, and he would prove it if he could ever get his nerves under control.
A log in the fire popped, making Tyriel jump to his feet. His dirk fell from his hands, the clattering of steel on stone startling him further. An owl hooted in the darkness and Tyriel spun toward the sound. His eyes hunted the depths of the blackness before him, willing the haunts of the night to reveal themselves to him. When nothing emerged from the depths he squatted down, retrieving his dirk. He felt, for the first time in his life, an odd comfort in having a weapon in his hand. He eased back to his perch, peering into the perilous night with a new sense of calm under his command.
The night crept by in silence as Tyriel struggled to remain awake. His watch was nearly over, judging by the flames of the campfire. It had been an easy watch, like they had said it would be, once he had his nerves in check. He was a far cry from becoming a knight, but at least it could be said he was no craven fool anymore. He felt control, a new sensation, and he relished it. He welcomed what the night had in store for him now, thinking there was no sight nor sound that could rattle his resolve.
He could hear the wind’s menacing howl before he felt its icy tendrils caressing his body. The dwindling flames in the campfire struggled to cling to life as the wind relentlessly assaulted their camp. Thick clouds blanketed the moon and stars above as the final embers were snuffed out, leaving Tyriel shrouded in darkness. His newfound confidence drained as the night sounds emerged in a terrifying crescendo. Bushes rustled, twigs snapped, and noises echoes from every direction. He spun toward each sound, holding his dirk with white knuckles, his tongue mute in spite of attempts to sound an alarm. He stumbled toward his companions, hoping to rouse them before the evil closed in upon them. He sensed it drawing closer with each ragged breath, his throat tightening as the seconds passed.
The toe of his boot caught the edge of a rock, bringing him crashing forward. As the ground raced to meet his face, a sense of dread overwhelmed him. He had failed as the first watch, just like everyone expected.
The chirping of birds greeted Tyriel as he regained consciousness. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the morning sun in the horizon. A numb pain flared when he ran his hand across his scalp and he noticed a smear of dried blood on the rock where he fell. But he was alive.
A new joy flowed through him as he felt the joy of success. He had not failed, after all, and led them all into the hands of death. He was still alive, and relatively unharmed. Perhaps he might even volunteer for a watch tonight. He took off toward the creek to wash his wound and ease his thirst, but along the way he got a nagging sense that he overlooked something. He shrugged it off to lingering nerves and drank deep from the flowing water, feeling relief as the cold liquid hit his dry throat.
And he realized what was bothering him. He ran back to the camp, weaving around fallen logs and hurdling rocks. He arrived and doubled over, gasping to regain his breath while his eyes confirmed what his mind had feared: everyone was gone.
But their stuff was still here, and the horses still tethered, as though they collectively woke up and wandered off into the forest without him. But he knew better than that. They were lost to the dark creatures during his watch. How was he ever going to explain this to his father?
This post is my entry into this week’s Master Class session, run by one of the infamous Fab Four members. We were challenged to use the line “Things had been much better when he had been hidden.” from Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Not only that, but it had to be in a “fourth” position, and mine so happens to fall on the 20th sentence of this post. Be sure to head on over to SAM’s blog and check out the other entries this week!
I gave kgwaite this prompt: The rain assaulted her skin with heavy droplets as she crouched in the cover of darkness.