The world before Jueneva was awe-inspiring but horrific at the same time. Her breath caught in her throat in a gasp. The skies overhead was a mottled gray with dark blue patches between the storm clouds. A charcoal blanket of ice and drifts of black snow covered the entire forest surrounding the immense castle ruins. Thin icy strands formed by wind-driven flurries resembled macabre spider webs. They stretched out from tree branch to tree branch snaring everything. The forest tree lines were more shadowy walls than landscape.
Straightening her shoulders and stiffening her back, she pulled the fur-lined jacket hood over her head. She then marched with purpose through the double doors. On her back the ivory long bow gave her some confidence and determination to find real food for her night’s dinner.
A hollow thrumming filled the air as more wind rushed among the bare tree branches. The sound was an eerie, flat whistle and set the hairs on the back of her neck on end. Instinctively, she crouched and planted her boots firmly into the snow, ready for flight.
Silvery lightning flashed high above as the whistling raced to a crescendo. As it faded a rolling rumble of deafening thunder vibrated everything, even the ground she stood upon.
Every fiber in her begged her to rush back inside, to wait another day for the snows to pass. Nothing in the foreign landscape gave her any comfort, it stared back at her defiant with teeth bared. A dread enveloped her and she wondered if this was a sign or a premonition.
“No! I will not delay my fight one more hour, “ Her voice carrying out, building. “Backing down is not in my nature!” It didn’t matter that no one was present to hear her or witness. Jueneva needed to hear and believe in the statement. Needed to feel the promise in her words.
She pressed on after a moment and found a thin animal path twisting to and fro beneath the forest canopy. With effort she avoided touching the webbed limbs as much as possible. Other than the storm and its bizarre winds, the forest seemed devoid of life. Her frustration grew as she followed the trail. Finally, her trek came to a large mountainside with a series of tunnel mouths. The openings spanned nearly a dozen or so handwidths and spotted the mountain rock somewhat in a beehive fashion.
Jueneva crouched and peered down into the nearest hole, her eyes trying to adjust to the shadows inside. Her eyes didn’t spy any movement, but her ears picked up the soft scraping of stone. Something was approaching and it was coming fast! She sprang to the side, laying flat against the wall.
A beast, long and low, erupted from its hive and rushed out onto the path oblivious to her presence. In her own realm, they referred to these creatures as centipedes. However the one before her had to be hundreds of pounds and its head was bestowed with a series of red antlers that grew along its back. More unusual was the appearance of a black lattice-work streaming from the antlers to the middle of its oily black body.
A harness! Who, by the Fates, would ever dare to ride such a monster?
Another shot out of its opening further left of her position and followed after the first on its multitude of tiny, clawed feet. She heard the second beast hiss and chatter seeming to call after the other. Both of the mammoth insects skidded to a sudden stop in the dirty snow and curled back to face her.
Without a thought she had the bow in her hands with twin arrows notched. Upon seeing the weapon, the first centipede hissed in obvious anger at her. It charged closer and reared up to tower over her. The second moved to its right also rising and boxing her in against the rocks.
A gray-skinned arm, heavily tattooed with red dyes, swept in and around her shoulders pressing a serrated bone blade under her chin and flat against her neck. Hot breath warmed her ear as a husky, gruff voice spoke to her ear, “Doshe mi lees tonva dess.”
She had no inkling of the words meaning as there wasn’t any emotion or inflection in the statement. Her only reaction was to let the bow and arrows drop into the snow and keep her empty hands out before her. “Easy… Easy now,” she cooed to the blade owner standing behind her in the tunnel. “We can talk this over.” She hoped diplomacy would work as she was obviously outmaneuvered and outmanned.
Her hood was yanked back suddenly, and a cold metal loop snapped shut around her neck!
Jueneva screeched, her hands clawing wildly at the manacle. She was thrust forward, but her legs buckled and she crashed to her knees. A long spear handle was fastened to the neck manacle.
Now desperate she lunged and crawled for one of her arrows on the path. As her fingers curled around it, a sandaled foot pinned her arm down. The other sandal kicked her between the shoulder blades, blasting the air from her chest.
The blade owner jerked her up by the manacle to then lean down and smile with malice in her face. Her captor was a thin but muscular woman. She had jet black braids on one side of her shaven head. The blood red tattoos ran down the whole left side of her gray body. “Doshe esca roto pemma diem.” Again no emotion in the words.
Jueneva with tears of fury and a bloody nose could do nothing but meet the woman’s stare with a gaze of fiery defiance. Another woman rode up to them on the back of a matching, giant centipede. The newcomer studied the scene before her but then gasped. She shot her hand out, pointing at the bow laying partially buried in the black snow.
Her captor kneeled and dug out the ivory bow. Her slender fingers traced along the silvery runes and patterns etched in the wood. She kept Jueneva painfully hung suspended by her neck over the trail.
Again the blade owner’s hot breath washed over her face. “Doshe modta bri freyes Coueryere.” The monotone sound of her words hadn’t changed, but the look of outrage in her eyes spoke volumes.