Envoy (Part I)
The lone figure emerged into the open.
He paused for a few moments to catch his breath and familiarize himself with his immediate surroundings.
Long clustered grass, clumps of bushes and tangled shrubbery stretched out before him, gradually merging into a woodland so dense, it seemed impenetrable.
A rich tropical sun bathed the environment with the pervading warmth of its rays and the air about him was heavy with the smell of thick foliage. Apart from chirping birds and buzzing insects, there didn’t seem to be any signs of life.
He took a few breaths and steadied himself. Contrasted to the dark interior of the cavern, the open sunshine was such a welcome relief. He felt reinvigorated.
Reflectively, he gazed back. How much time had he spent in there? And what had become of the rest of his fellow speculatories, he wondered. Did they even think he’d survived? So much was at stake. Would they abandon the mission now in order to mobilize a search party for him or would he be numbered among the deceased?
He shrugged, knowing the futility of attempting to retrace his way again through the passageways. But he also knew that his had not been the first team of outsiders to cross over into this precarious region. There had to be a detour, a concealed trail that could lead him back.
Unfortunately, he lacked supplies and knew daylight was not going to wait for him. He had to be on his way as soon as possible.
His mind thus made up, the man briefly considered his bearings before setting out on a new quest.
He had scarcely progressed thirty feet from the mouth of the cavern when his ears were visited by the sound of a swift movement. There was a slight disturbance and as he turned, something suddenly grabbed him from behind.
His faint cry of surprise was roughly cut off as a huge palm closed over his mouth and he felt the cold of steel against his throat.
Presently, a hoarse voice broke over his ear.
“Any false move you make stranger, will be your last.”
“I do not believe you.”
Alvan sat upright with his hands bound behind him and his back against a tree trunk. The point of a steel blade that had lifted his chin was now pointed to his chest as though the bearer of the weapon itched for the slightest excuse to plunge it in.
Again, he surveyed the captors who had overpowered him just a short while ago.
At first, he had supposed them to be Bythenian, but on closer look, had to conclude they were not. In fact, he could not remember ever seeing the likes of the foursome before. They were rough-looking hunters whose sun-burned features denoted long years of expedition and exposure to the ravages of the wild. From all appearances, they seemed mean, even vengeful.
They had plain native hunting gear, carried war clubs, spears and machetes, and had doubtlessly employed the latter in cutting their way through the undergrowth.
Alvan strained at the leather thongs that bound him. He soon ceased however, upon realizing his efforts only exacerbated the situation.
The flat of the blade flicked against his chin.
“I already told you, I do not know what you are talking about.”
“How many of you are there?” His interrogator growled.
“I am telling you the truth. I came alone.”
The man above him turned to his henchmen.
“Then kill him, Kayorg. He is of no use to us here.”
“Enough time wasted. Stand aside. I'll do it myself.”
The speaker came forward, brandishing his own weapon.
But Kayorg’s dagger was already drawn.
Firmly pushing his comrade aside, he steadied himself, then bore down upon their defenceless victim.
“Just what do you think you are doing?”
“Hear me out. We can't do this here.”
Under the cool shade of the tree, a semi-conference was taking place. Four hunters debated over the fate of their victim who still sat where he had been, rubbing stiff wrists freed from the tight thongs by Kayorg's dagger.
At first, Alvan could not make out all that was being spoken. It didn't take long however, for tension to mount in the debate and Kayorg's hoarse voice to rise above the others.
“Listen. If he is lying, the rest of them cannot be far off and they will soon learn of it. We'd much rather bring him along with us, now that we've found one of them. He may be deceiving us, but at the village, we can quickly fix that, by torturing a confession out of him and learning where the forces are mobilizing themselves…. Who knows...?”
Some incoherent responses from the other three.
Kayorg came back again.
“Look, this man is no warrior. Judging by his manner and dress, he may even be of noble rank. Besides, the reward...” The captive looked away as the man's voice trailed off.
Kayorg cast a surly glare at him, turned and continued with his hostage takers in hushed monotones.
The debate carried on. All Alvan could hear were the mutterings of his captors as they reasoned among themselves. What fate they were about to assign him, he could only speculate. Clearly, they imagined him to belong to some rival ethnic group and mistook him for a foe.
Before he could piece together a way of explaining himself to his ruthless captors however, the latter seemed to have reached some conclusion.
Sheathing his weapon, Kayorg retraced his steps back to the base of the tree where he half dragged Alvan to his feet and shoved him roughly forward.
“You are coming with us.”
“Who are you?... Where are you taking me?”
He almost walked into the point of a spear. “Your life has only been temporarily spared. I need not remind you that if you fail to cooperate with us or even attempt an escape, we will not hesitate to cut you into pieces and feed you to the carnivores. Now move!”
With that, the five of them began the march into the forest.
Alvan estimated they had walked for about five and a half miles before the path they were on came to the end of the forest trail. They found themselves standing at the edge of a ravine.
A makeshift suspension bridge joined where they stood to the other side of the steep gorge. The view of the depression clothed on both sides with rich vegetation would have been breathtaking under better circumstances, but there was no time for musing here. Two of the hunters were already making their way over the bridge.
The hostage felt the sharp prod of a spear at his back and a stern voice behind him barked, “Remember what I told you. Move!”
He complied and walking up to the bridge seized the two upper ropes in his hands and pushed himself forwards after the other two.
Suddenly ahead of him, Kayorg halted and turned.
The first hunter had already made it to the other end and was just getting off when it began. Crashing noises in the undergrowth signified the approach of what seemed to be closing in on the five from both sides.
What happened next transpired faster than the mind could process.
The hunter in the lead gave a loud yell as powerful hands seized him and yanked him away. In almost the same instant, a long projectile struck Kayorg such force, he was lifted off his feet and went stumbling backward on the bridge, his weapons loosening from his grasp and falling through the bridge.
As Alvan shifted to avoid being bowled over by the weight of Kayorg’s body, there were muffled cries and he felt those behind him collapse. The sudden movements destabilized the bridge and it swung precariously. As the ropes tightened and expanded, Alvan lurched forwards and a flying missile shot past him simultaenously, missing his head and neck by inches. As he toppled over, he lost his grip and found himself halfway over the edge. He attempted to regain his balance and seize the ropes again, but it was too late. They were no longer where they had been. His hands clutched at empty air. Gravity now took over and wasted no time sucking his body into the depths beneath.
A contingent of tall figures had assembled on both sides of the suspension bridge.
Two of them, seemingly in the lead, stepped forward.
Presently one spoke.
“You should have cut them off before they got here.”
“My lord, we did not know they were heading this way.”
“Tell the others to carry off these four and to proceed.”
“But what of the fifth, sir?”
The other paused for a moment, surveying the depths of the ravine. “Any threat he posed has been eliminated.”
The woman screamed frightfully.
She had just dropped wearily on her knees by the river with her small bundle by her side when without warning, the tranquillity around her was broken by a loud noise. It came from the trees above her and as she looked up was startled to see something dark and heavy hurtle through the branches and plunge into the river, bringing down a mass of branches, twigs and leaves with it.
Immediately following the tremendous splash, she sprung to her feet, collected her bundle and made a frantic rush for the nearest trees, screaming again as she ran.
Alvan, momentarily dazed by the depth of his fall felt his senses suddenly jolted by the shock of the cold water and realized he was submerging beneath the surface of a flowing water body. Instinctively, he pushed his legs outwards and sideways in an attempt to break the impact of the fall. Still holding his breath, he spread out his limbs once more for leverage and begun pushing upwards.
The physical exertions were taxing his lungs severely and took their toll on his already injured limbs, but sure enough, with swifter strokes, he eventually drew himself coughing and spluttering to the surface. He could not tell how long this went on, but with his head at last above the water, the fire in his lungs begun to abate. As his chest heaved and his mind cleared, he splashed slowly about, trying to contain himself against the pain that was now spreading through his torso.
The environment became less blurred and his eyes now riveted towards the bank of the river, in the direction of the scream he had just heard.
No one was in sight.
The current was not swift, but it had already borne him along a considerable distance and he did not intend to remain at its mercy for long.
However, on each side of him, the banks were overgrown with mangrove roots and undergrowth so thick, there were no visible openings wide enough to allow a boar, let alone a man through.
In due course, his search was rewarded. He found a spot where the root system was not so densely intertwined and the riverside was visible, though reaching there would have had to involve wading through a muddy stretch. He summoned his energy once more and plunging forwards, made an attempt for the bank.
He winced against the throbbing pain triggered by his stroking movements. There was no actual telling how much corporeal damage had been caused by his fall, but he knew in these circumstances, unattended wounds could quickly prove infectious.
Presently, a new sound alerted him that his presence had not gone undetected. There were two splashes coming from the opposite direction and he turned just in time to see scaly posteriors submerging under the surface of the river.
Instantly, caution morphed into desperation. His first instinct was to place as much distance as possible between himself and this new riverine menace. Braving his physical discomforts, he reined in his emotions, focused his energies and struggled to make it to the other side as fast as he could.
As would be expected, the exertions grew increasingly difficult. Throbbing pain was weakening him fast and he already knew what the odds were.
He frantically glanced backwards and saw the first of the waterborne reptiles barely ten feet away. As he swiftly plunged himself forwards, something rough and hard came into contact with his temple.
For a moment the world around him seemed to spin around.
Then everything went black.
There was a creak. The man was stirring.
He opened his eyes. He was staring up at the diagonal features of a timbered ceiling set against a thatched background.
A tinge of pain shot through left arm. His chest felt congested, his brain feverish and there was a dull ache on his left side. He muttered a groan, closed his eyes and let his hand move slowly to his temple. His fingers made no contact with skin, only fabric.
What happened? His mind was probing, trying to forge a link with his memory.
After taking some deep breaths, he reopened his eyes.
The thatches had disappeared from view and something else was there. Something that was returning his gaze.
A female face.
As his eyes got accustomed to the light, he could see the woman had brown, probing eyes and jet black flowing hair that cascaded over her shoulders. She was dressed in a native gown with a sash around her waist. Her manner and appearance was customary, yet somewhat different.
He struggled painfully to sit up.
“Here, drink this.” She said softly, pressing the edge of a bowl against his lips.
At first, he felt somewhat apprehensive, not knowing what to make of this. But the genuine concern he read in those eyes dispelled his doubts.
After several sips of the hot broth, the woman moved the bowl away.
He looked about him. He was reclining on a makeshift bed in a room he judged to be twenty feet long and twelve feet wide. It was entirely made of timber and the roof was thatched with grass. Shafts of sunlight broke into the interior through two large openings which served as windows looking out into the countryside. He could see none was one present except himself and the woman who was now taking her seat on a wooden chair across the other side of his bed.
Presently, she spoke.
“You have been unconscious for hours. It relieves us to see you awake.”
Alvan returned the gaze. “Who are you?” He asked, “Where am I?”
There was a brief pause before she replied,
“My name is Lilia. You are in a secluded shelter here at the edge of the Vale of Armon. My husband and I have been taking care of you.”
It was then that Alvan noticed his wounds had been bathed and dressed. He felt again the clean strip of cloth wrapped around his head and his attention returned to his hostess.
Suddenly, his features changed. Recent images were flashing through his mind.
“The cavern.. the ravine... the river... ” His voice was tense. He glanced back at her incredulously. “How did I get here?”
“My husband was following a trail in the forest when he was suddenly drawn to the river by screams. He arrived on time to see you swimming toward the bank with the crocodiles trailing behind you. Then you hit your head against a protruding mangrove. Still, he managed to rescue you.”
“How?" Alvan enquired. "I mean, given the close proximity and the time frame, there was hardly a remote chance to stage a rescue."
“There was none,” She concurred. “But he had been game hunting and happened to have bagged a young gazelle. The sight and smell of fresh blood naturally causes a distraction and it did as soon as the animal was cast into the river. As both crocodiles tore up the flesh between themselves, he seized the chance to dive in and hoist your body over the bank to safety.”
She paused and allowed it to sink in. “You were sore, muddied and losing consciousness when you reached firm ground, but he managed to hoist you onto his horse and bring you the rest of the way here.”
“He saved my life.” The patient responded in a half whisper.
There was silence in the room.
Lilia's countenance was now betraying aroused curiosity.
“Strange,” She remarked frowning, “You are not one of us, yet you speak Elthoni, our native tongue.”
Alvan could have kicked himself for his mistake. The events and the state he was in had clouded his judgment concerning keeping his identity secret. It was too late now. But he had to think fast.
“I do come from a distant land. I was taught your language by one who had visited this territory before.”
He presently cleared his throat and her curiosity was replaced by concern. “How are you feeling?”
“I'll live.” Came the reply, as the man afforded a weak smile, while still mentally adjusting to his current state of affairs.
She continued. “The clothes and items we found on you did not resemble any we have seen before. What is your name? From which land do you come?”
Alvan was about to respond when a series of involuntary coughs cut him off. As soon as he recovered his composure and turned to Lilia, he saw her finger raised to her lips.
“Not another word. I shouldn't have started you off like that,” She regretted, rising to her feet like a nurse who had just been jolted back to her responsibilities. “What you need now is rest, some fluids and a proper hot meal.”
With that, she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
The next morning, there were two individuals in the room conversing silently with each other so as not to arouse the stranger within their quarters - a stranger they mistakenly assumed was fast asleep after having been well fed and nursed the day before.
So engaged were they in their dialogue, they did not notice him listening in. It still did not register when he opened his eyes and stirred. They were therefore caught by surprise when his deep voice suddenly cut through the early morning setting.
“So you are the brave hunter to whom I owe my life.”
Elmar promptly turned from his wife and they both gave the patient their full attention. Alvan could see the man was well built and had all the features and deportment of one accustomed to the ways of the wild. He had a clam look of authority about him and that combined with his muscular frame bespoke stamina and experience.
“I only did what I could. You were nearly half-drowned by the time I got you out. How are you feeling now?”
“Certainly much better than yesterday, after being so well fed and nursed.”
Lilia's face flushed as she smiled shyly.
“Well, I cannot thank both of you enough for taking in a stranger like myself and sheltering me here, despite the fact that you hardly know me at all.”
"You're welcome," the hostess responded pleasantly. "In these parts, it is good to meet and make fresh acquaintances every so often; plus it is an opportunity to learn something new."
Elmar nodded, then gave a slight shrug. “It is always critical to deal with a potential emergency first and collect facts later. While you were resting, Lilia was filling me in on the conversation you had with her yesterday. Naturally, we have our questions, but priority was to get you back in shape. With time, we could always get to know each other better.”
There was a brief pause.
Then like a shot out of the blue, “There's something I need to ask you. What do you know about the Nunti?”
Alvan was observing their reactions and did not fail to notice how his question abruptly jolted the couple.
Elmar seemed thoughtful for a moment as though selecting his words carefully. “Stories abound concerning that place but it is really shrouded in mystery. At least no one I know has practically been there.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Lilia responded almost in a half-whisper. She laid a hand on him. “Didn't Nora say she'd been there?”
“Who is Nora?” Alvan enquired.
“A young female fugitive we recently found wandering by herself in the forest,” Lilia replied. “She was in a state of shock at the time and could not tell us much though.”
“Apart from her claim that she had journeyed from their valley.”
“Then I need to talk to her immediately.” Alvan attempted to sit up despite his condition.
Lila did not reply but turned to her husband. Each looked at the other for a moment.
Then Elmar sighed and shaking his head, turned to Alvan.
“I'm afraid that is not possible.”
“How do you mean?”
The tremble in Lilia's voice betrayed her apprehension. “Nora disappeared from our house two days ago. We have been trying to locate her whereabouts since. We fear something terrible may have happened to her.”