The spindly man fell and blood snaked its way between the rocks as he breathed his last. M¯æg looked away from the corpse and stared into Unfrôd’s narrow eyes. The younger boy trembled and pulled at his lower lip with grubby fingers.
“You’re such a coward. If you weren’t, we wouldn’t be out here!” yelled M¯æg.
The older boy wiped his knife on the dead man’s tunic before sheathing it. He pulled an arrow out of the corpse’s chest, inspected it, then angrily threw it on the ground. M¯æg picked up his bow and threw it over his shoulder. He then stormed over and grabbed a handful of his brother’s ale-colored hair and yanked it. Unfrôd began to sob.
“Useless! That cock-sprite would have taken you away and done Gods-knows-what to you if I wasn’t so quick,” spat M¯æg, storming off.
Unfrôd wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands and began to run after his brother, who was disappearing into the gnarled trees of the Eastwud.
“We’re a half day’s walk away from camp now. If anything happens to you in here, I’m leaving you behind. Do you understand?”
M¯æg stopped and looked down at his young sibling. “Do you know what creatures haunt the Eastwud?” he said in almost a whisper.
The small boy shook his head and his brother crouched down to eye-level.
“They are the Or−wêne. Father told me stories... after his nightly skin-full of wine. He told me that they are cursed creatures, given to utter hopelessness. That makes them one of the most dangerous things in the Elderland.”
Unfrôd’s eyebrows knitted together.
“That means they don’t care about anything: not your life, not your comfort, not your screams of terror.”
“W-Will they eat m-me, M¯æg?”
“No. They will chain you up, most likely; beat you, starve you. Then when they grow bored, they will tear you open... just to see what’s inside,” M¯æg drawled, before something like sadness seized his sturdy features.
Unfrôd stopped dead.
“Hurry up! Evenfall comes. The tracks go this way.”
The pair moved carefully and stealthily through the forest. Unfrôd had listened to his brother speak of hunting often enough to know that making noise meant an empty belly. In the eastern wilderness, stomping about loudly meant filling the belly of something else.
M¯æg pulled an arrow from his quiver, nocked and drew. Unfrôd crouched behind a twisted beech tree and watched his brother stalk something unseen. The mournful cry of a raven made Unfrôd spin around, and that’s when he saw a thing he would never forget.
Even hunched over, the beast was bigger than Unfrôd’s brother and father put together. It had long, matted hair all over its body and curled ram-like horns on either side of its head. Unfrôd froze and the creature glared at him with large, lachrymose eyes.
Unfrôd began to recall all that his brother had said about the Or−wêne and horror pumped life into his rigid legs. An arrow whistled past the young boy’s ear, piercing the beast’s shoulder. The Or−wêne rose to full height and let out a bellow that rattled Unfrôd’s ribs. M¯æg fired another shot but not before the creature grabbed at his younger brother. Unfrôd and the Or−wêne fell: the beast with an arrow protruding from its eye; the boy’s shirt: torn and bloody.
M¯æg was on the creature in a flash. He slashed its throat with one deft movement before scooping up Unfrôd and making for cover. When he sensed they were safe enough, M¯æg checked his brother’s breathing. There was nothing; then a faint exhale followed by much coughing.
“You’re fine, Unfrôd. You’re fine,” M¯æg muttered, wiping his eye with a bloodied sleeve.
“You didn’t let him get me,” Unfrôd affirmed softly.
“It’s too bleak a day already, to lose a brother.”
The pair followed the tracks down into a ravine; M¯æg staying behind Unfrôd so he could guide the lad. The breeze teased Unfrôd’s torn shirt, revealing several nasty scratches that the boy – to M¯æg’s surprise - did not complain about. There was also a collage of bruises, some fresh, some fading; M¯æg turned his head and spat.
The defile opened out into a pit, rife with evidence of the comings and goings of maybe three or four beasts. At the far end of the Or−wêne’s den, was a cave. The boys approached cautiously, looking all about them as they went.
The cavern stunk of stagnant water, blood and the traffic of suffering. A faint whimpering caught M¯æg’s attention and he padded ahead to investigate. A make-shift wooden box, containing a young girl, hung from the hollow’s ceiling. She began to cry out, but M¯æg placed a finger to his lips and shook his head.
He waved Unfrôd over and boosted him up, so he could work on the latch. A sound that could have been a growl, stopped their progress. Unfrôd looked down at his brother who urged him on with a nod of his head. The enclosure finally popped open and Unfrôd shinnied down M¯æg’s back.
“Jump!” urged the older boy.
The girl blinked away fearful tears.
“Come on, Min! Father’s waiting!”
The girl screwed up her face, inhaled deeply and jumped into her brother’s open arms; that’s when the walls came to life.
M¯æg, Unfrôd, and Min ran out of the cave, not chancing a backward glance. A clawed hand clipped Unfrôd’s foot and he stumbled. M¯æg turned and drew on the creature, landing an arrow in its neck. The remaining two beasts came at the older boy from either side, advancing on him cautiously.
Unfrôd turned to see his brother drop his bow and pull his sheathed knife from his belt. He threw the weapon to Unfrôd.
“You’ll need this. Please don’t let Father hit you... or Min.”
A cruel, icy wind blew through the ravine from the mountains and Unfrôd and his younger sister fled; the sounds of bitter struggle fading behind them.