A dozen conscripts stalked between massive giantwood trees as a storm exhausted itself over the forest. They hoped for the return of birdsong and insect chirrups, but heard nothing but the squelch of their boots on muddy leaves.
The young men edged forward with arrows nocked to their hunting bows. Swords swayed at their hips, and their gazes turned to every flicker of movement as they sought their prey.
A thirteenth man, a king’s ranger, led the way.
He stopped and listened.
Forest sounds returned to their rear, but not ahead.
The ranger fanned out the fingers of his left hand and gestured for the less experienced men to spread out. He resumed the advance.
Jaks Rauhalik was at the back of the group. Tall with a head of brown hair, he bore the square jaw and aquiline nose of a nobleman’s son. On any other day, his eyes would have drifted as he daydreamed of great battles and heroes, but today his gaze focused on the hunt.
Determined to impress Ranger Cromer, on this week of survival exercises at the end of their two-year mandatory conscription, he couldn’t make any more errors. All his hopes of joining the army as a career soldier depended on it. For protecting his kingdom, as his older sister did, was the noblest of professions.
But yesterday, unfortunately, he’d taken a fall, just before a squad mate loosed an arrow at a deer. The sound of him skidding down a muddy slope had scared the animal off and earned Jaks an admonishment from the ranger and the inglorious position at the back of the squad.
They had been tracking a frostbear all morning; that is, the ranger had been tracking the bear, and the inexperienced conscripts were following like lion cubs learning to hunt.
Without the deadly archer, a frostbear would have been completely out of the conscripts’ capabilities.
Twelve-foot tall and two tons in weight, it was a formidable beast that required at least a squad of experienced soldiers to bring down—or a master ranger who could shoot unerringly for the heart. Yet, its size was not its greatest strength. Silence was. Frostbears were arcane predators with an innate ability to magically absorb sound. They were massive, silent killers of the forest whose victims never even heard them coming.
The beast had come from the much wilder northern mountains to this tree-felling region and had already slaughtered seven woodsmen over the past several months. It was the conscripts’ training exercise to assist the ranger to kill it. Nothing like a giant bear to challenge one’s survival skills.
They had not yet seen the frostbear, relying on Ranger Cromer’s tracking skills to follow its lumbering path over the mountains. But it had been three hours now, and the rain had hindered their progress significantly.
Another half hour passed, and the forest grew thicker. The full sounds of the forest had returned, and the conscripts’ formation loosened, their postures less anxious and eyes less vigilant. Surely, the master ranger would call a rest break soon.
Jaks was tired and bored. He un-nocked his arrow and returned it to his hip quiver. Far easier to walk without the arrow knocking against underbrush and branches.
His only friend in the squad—and friend since childhood—Minto Piccaton, had also lost interest in the hunt. A foot shorter than Jaks, but of stockier build, he had a square face dotted with freckles and a head topped with a scruff of brown hair. A carefree spirit, he was the jollity that countered Jaks’s earnestness. As they tramped behind the rest of the squad, Minto hissed at him and veered closer.
“I’ve been thinking. Would your father could help us get into the King’s Rangers?” asked the freckled youth.
The question froze Jaks in his tracks. “My father would rather spit on me than help,” he replied through gritted teeth. “You would not want anything to do with him. I can assure you of that.” He felt bad being so blunt with his friend, but thinking about his father sent chills through his body.
“He looked pleasant enough at the Royal Parade last year. Why are you so foul of him?” he said over his shoulder as he clambered over a rotted tree trunk.
“Would a pleasant man do this?” Jaks stopped again and raised his left hand, baring the stub of his little finger for Minto to see. “Forget about him. Our only path forward is if we can get a commendation from the master ranger.” Jaks chilled at the thought of their trainer’s disapproving glares. “And the way things are going, I would be glad to even get into the Pike Regiment. If we can’t do that, things will get bad.”
“It’s not all that bad—”
“No money, no home. I’d end up a beggar.” Jaks sank into a mood. “You’ll be all right, though. Master Cromer doesn’t hate you,” he said.
With a sigh, Jaks’s attention drew to the empty woods in front of them, devoid of any sign of their fellow conscripts. “Oh, hells—we’ve lost them again; we need to find the trail. He’ll be furious if he finds out.”
“I thought they went that way?” Minto pointed toward a patch of dense forest rising ahead of them. He looked up at the sun through the thick canopy of branches and leaves.
“But aren’t those their footprints?” Jaks pointed in the opposite direction, toward a muddy clearing. He cursed and pulled on the buckles of the pack that were always slipping because of his bony shoulders.
They milled around the clearing for a couple of minutes, looking for a clear trail.
It was then that Jaks noticed there were no birds or insects to hear.
The forest had gone quiet.
“Don’t move,” Jaks whispered to Minto.
His friend froze in his steps. “What—”
“Shhh . . .” Jaks slowly reached for the arrow he’d returned to the quiver, cursing himself for letting down his guard.
A flicker of movement caught his eye. There, forty yards to his left, a huge, brown-furred beast lumbered between the bases of two giantwoods, crushing bushes and undergrowth beneath it, but astonishingly without making a sound.
Crouching, hoping the knee-high undergrowth would camouflage him, Jaks trembled in his attempt to nock the arrow.
The frostbear raised its snout and sniffed the air. Its head was massive, as big as one of the army’s warlions, with jaws that could certainly bite his arm off as a snack.
“Grafuk,” swore Minto in a panicky voice. “We’ve got to hide.”
He was right. The two of them alone couldn’t take it out. The ranger’s plan had been to surround the frostbear and pepper it with arrows—individuals running away if it came for them—enraging it into rearing up on its hind legs, when the ranger would kill it with a heartshot.
Sniffing the ground, the bear ambled closer and behind another giantwood. It paused, its backside and two rear legs still visible.
“Quick, move.” Jaks jogged in a crouch in the opposite direction.
Around enormous trees and through dense underbrush they fled, dodging low branches and leaping fallen trees until they ran out of breath behind a gray boulder.
Silence still embraced them.
“Did it follow us?” asked Minto, puffing and sweating heavily.
Jaks peeked over the boulder.
Thirty yards distant, the frostbear had its nose to the undergrowth, coming their direction. It was tracking them.
A wave of panic flooded over Jaks. Desperately, he looked around—and then upward.
The giantwoods were notoriously difficult to climb. Their wide bases were more like cliff faces than regular trees and their lowest branches thin and weak, if they could even be reached.
A stand of ironwood trees rose nearby. Yes, their narrower trunks and wider spread of branches were reachable and more likely to take their weight. Although nowhere near the height of their majestic cousins, if he could even get halfway up, Jaks was sure he’d be out of reach of the twelve-foot-tall bear.
He tapped Minto on the shoulder and pointed at the gray-barked ironwoods.
Running to the closest tree, Jaks threw away his pack and bow—they would only slow him down—grabbed the lowest branches, and shoved his foot between two of the sturdiest. Then the next ones, and again and again, he climbed.
Fearing to look down, he pulled and pushed his way up through the branches, not stopping until the branches were too thin to climb any higher. Minto was in the tree next to him, but having chosen a taller specimen, he was up higher by two yards.
Jaks’s tree shook violently. Gasping in fright, he stared down.
The bear was pushing against the ironwood, its giant front paws pressed against the waist-thick trunk. Evil-looking claws dug into the bark. Dark eyes stared up at Jaks and the beast opened its mouth, baring rows of triangular teeth.
A deafening roar blasted at Jaks’s feet. Its arcane powers allowed the frostbear to stalk in silence, but also, if it chose, to terrify with loudness.
The tree shook again. A branch broke in Jaks’s grip. A foot slipped from between a fork of branches. He wrapped his arms around the upper trunk, paralyzed in fear, and unable to do anything but scream in terror and void his bladder.
The beast rose higher on its hind legs, front paws clawing up the ironwood.
Minto yelled at the frostbear from the other tree and threw arrows from his quiver—having also abandoned his bow to free his hands—trying to distract the frostbear.
The tree swayed sharply. Branches snapped and cracked. Jaks’s grip slipped. His foot swung wildly.
The bear swung its paw and a claw hooked Jaks’s boot and tore it from him.
A warhorn blared from the forest and shouts surrounded the stand of ironwoods. Almost a dozen men encircled Jaks’s tree from a range of twenty yards and began loosing arrows at the frostbear. The ranger and the conscripts had come to the rescue.
Arrows thudded into the animal’s back and legs. Some, unable to penetrate the thick fur and hide, bounced off and fell to the ground along with Minto’s thrown ones. Others bounced off its thick skull or missed completely and thumped into nearby trees. The few that penetrated angered the giant and distracted it from its tree-bound prey.
Bellowing, the bear dropped to all fours and charged toward a hapless conscript with a spent bow in his hands.
The youth screamed and ran.
Hiss. Another flurry of arrows. Only two stuck but were enough distraction that the bear turned again and charged toward another conscript. The unfortunate youth tripped as he turned to flee and fell with an anguished cry.
Twang. A single arrow zipped through the air and into the bear’s eye.
Half-blinded and fully enraged, the frostbear rose to its full height, searching for the archer to tear apart.
Twang. A second arrow thudded into the beast’s chest. As the bear roared and staggered clumsily, a third shaft followed and embedded in the same spot.
Two heartshots—the frostbear collapsed into the undergrowth, moaning.
Two final breaths and the brown-furred chest never rose again.
Cheers broke out and the conscripts filtered out of the woods to examine their conquest. Several nudged it gingerly with their swords. Declaring it dead, they whooped and hollered.
Jaks descended, shivering at the sight of the deep gouges in the trunk as his hands passed over them. His torn-off boot rested at the foot of the tree, a large hole in the sole, a reminder of the bear’s deadly claws. As he pushed it back on, he trembled, knowing that with another shake of the tree, he would’ve fallen and been torn apart.
“You all right?” Minto asked, down from his own perch. “Almost got you, it did.” He gestured at Jaks’s boot.
“Nah. Would’ve kicked it in the nose,” replied Jaks with false bravado.
Nodding, his freckled friend picked up his arrows from around the base of the ironwood. Finding Jaks’s bow undamaged, he handed it back to him.
A voice called out from the conscripts around the dead bear.
“Have a nice climb, ladies?” spoke a thick-necked thug named Baden. “You’re good bear-bait, I have to admit. He was gonna eat you up.” He lunged at them, chomping his teeth, and then laughed. In their conscript squad called the “Thorns”—to demark them from the other dozen or so conscript units active around the kingdom—Baden ranked as the senior conscript.
“Hoo, look at that. Jikkity-Jaks wet himself,” Baden said, laying a nickname on the taller youth and pointing at Jaks’s stained leggings. “I bet he crapped himself, too.”
The other conscripts laughed and hooted.
Jaks’s face burned and he covered his crotch.
Ranger Cromer stood up from behind the bear, where he’d been studying his marksmanship, and strode through the circle, silencing the hecklers. He was a cutting figure in weathered black leather and an arrow-thin beard. Female conscripts swooned after him as though he were a dashing pirate, but his cold demeanor kept all but the most brazen from his attention. But none of that mattered to Jaks as the ranger descended on them with flaring nostrils and blazing eyes.
He stood before Jaks and Minto. “A few minutes later and you idiots would’ve been dead. You’re lucky I realized it’d circled back behind us as soon as I did.” He pointed his bow tip at them and scowled. “Stop getting separated from your squad. It is not that hard.”
“Sorry, sir,” Jaks said with his eyes downcast and head bowed low.
“Sir, the underbrush got really thick and we couldn’t see anyone—” Minto started.
“Don’t give me excuses.” The ranger loomed over them. “You two are the worst conscripts I have ever been cursed with in these forests—that’s twice you’ve gotten lost now. Now, after we get this thing buried, you’re going to get your weedy asses over that ridge and lead us south until sundown. Go off course, and you make your own way back to Dunberrin.”
The master ranger returned to the main squad and began snapping orders. Shovels were produced, and a grave was dug. Jaks and Minto went to help.
Two hours later, the bear, minus a few body parts taken as tokens, lay beneath a pile of dirt, and it was time to return to base.
Minto led the way, Jaks a few paces behind, and Ranger Cromer tracing their steps. There were a few more jibes and jokes from the other conscripts at their expense, but the scowling ranger shushed them and they walked in silence.
A while later, they came to a rocky stream, wide but shallow, running down from the mountains ahead. The cold water soaked through Jaks’s boots—especially quick in his left through the hole at its base. He followed his friend across the stream and then climbed the opposite bank to find him staring into the sky.
Minto pointed upward. “Look at that.”
Jaks followed his gesture and saw a bright yellow speck trailed by a long tail falling through the clouds toward the distant mountains.
“Meteor,” he said. “Make a wish and get moving.”
He pushed Minto’s hand away and walked on, not wanting to be chewed out by the ranger again.
“It looks close . . . really close. Like it might land near us,” Minto said, adjusting his sword belt and striding to keep up with Jaks.
They made their way back into the forest edge, which was on a slope getting higher and colder toward the mountains.
Jaks and Minto continued to catch glimpses of the bright meteor through the speckled canopy overhead. It seemed to be getting closer to them. The speck turned into a large burning glow.
Then it dimmed—the front glow first, then the tail disappeared. He heard a distant hissing sound from its direction and glimpsed an object disappearing into the shadows of a distant mountain.
Minto waggled a finger. “It’s just over there! Probably no more than a day’s trek from here, I reckon.”
Ranger Cromer caught up. “Stop gawping. Nothing to get excited about. It’s just a lump of rock,” he said and pushed past them. The trees had thinned into a clearing with a small crag of rocks. “All right. This’ll do. Stop and set camp.”
The Thorns spread out around the area to set up their shelters and a campfire. Subdued chatter about the meteor went around, but everyone soon lost interest.
* * *
That night, water splashing against the canopy of his makeshift tent woke Jaks. Two feet were planted by his shelter and their owner was urinating against the oilskin near his head. Jaks scrambled out, cursing and swearing at the vandal. Baden grinned at him in the moonlight.
“Didn’t see you there, bear-bait,” the brute said. “Hell, you didn’t,” Jaks forcibly whispered back, not wanting to wake anyone or provoke Baden into something worse. It was better to walk away than fight.
J.T. Moy once had serious jobs before realizing no matter how much he dabbled in other people’s lives, he couldn’t turn them into lightning mages or dragon-fighting warriors. He now brings heroic characters to life in epic stories. Living in Auckland, New Zealand with his wife and children, he enjoys video games, archery, and sea monkeys.
Categories: book excerpt