03 Surviving Filgore Valley

“Graybard! Graybard!” shouted Josah as he watched the seasoned soldier run through the thicket. Graybard ignored the call to stop. He kept running forward, swinging his sword to clear his way through the underbrush.

Josah could hear many Dragoons running through the woods. “Conall! Caleb! Squat down now! Keep your hands in the air, but don’t lay down on the ground!”

The boys dropped down as instructed, hands in the air. One large Dragoon shot past Josah, going by so fast that it appeared as a blur. The remaining six or seven Dragoons of various sizes surrounded the boys.

At first, all they could see was the long black ruff fur around the cats’ necks. Black and white accents on their faces and chins made them appear angry. Menacing yellow eyes glared at the boys, demanded attention.

Several Dragoons paced back and forth, waiting to see if the boys would attack. The smaller, younger cats with thick, gold coats and dark spots, stayed further back. The fur of mature Dragoons was gray with black and light spots. They all had white fur on their chests and legs, as well as their short, bobbed tails. Their ears had thick tufts of black hair on the tips making them appear longer.

The cats were curious because the boys didn’t run nor appear to be a threat. At first, a few of the Dragoons pounded their large padded paws on the ground but stopped when the boys didn’t react. From a distance, they heard Graybard hollering for help.

Josah, with hands raised, stood up in one motion. The cats drew back, expecting an attack but settled down when nothing happened. Taking their cue from Josah, the brothers stood up, as well.

“Start walking slow and steady toward Graybard. Only stop if a Dragoon is in front of you.”

“Do we keep our hands in the air?” asked Conall, wondering if they would survive.

“Yes, until we get to Graybard. Do not pull anything out, or they will think it’s a weapon.”

With deliberate short steps, the boys made their way to Graybard. The Dragoons followed close by, watching every movement. The boys slowed their pace when one of the cats made a menacing sound but continued moving forward.

Graybard never made it past a few meters. A large Dragoon stood on the soldier’s back as he laid flat on the ground with his face in the mud. He turned his head and tried to talk, but all he could do is grunt out the words.

“About time. Do something,” Graybard pleaded.

Josah saw Graybard’s sword in the distance. “He must have thrown his sword before the Dragoon caught him,” he thought to himself. “I’m sure that saved his life.”

“Conall and Caleb, stay where you are, and squat back down. I know it’s hard, but keep your hands in the air. Graybard, I am making my way to you.”

When he got close to the soldier, Josah whispered, “I don’t know how to get this Dragoon off your back. It’s not moving away from me.”

“Well, do something! This cat must weigh eight to ten stones. I can’t breathe!”

Josah squatted and started to bring his hands down. The Dragoon protested by pounded its paws on its prey. “W-what a-are y-you d-doing?” Graybard huffed, his words keeping time to every push made by the giant cat.

Resting his hands on his knees, Josah stared at the Dragoon. He noticed that its right paw was missing fur all the way around. No doubt, it was an old injury. It was common knowledge that Casselberry set traps to capture and kill Dragoons.

“This can’t be the same cat,” Josah said out loud.

“What do you mean?” asked Caleb, resting his tired arms on his head.

“The first time I went through Filgore Valley, I rescued a Dragoon kitten trapped in a wire. I bandaged its leg with strips from my tunic.”

Josah looked in the cat’s yellow eyes. “I saved its life, and it saved mine. The other cats let me leave the Valley as I tried to catch up with my brother.”

The Dragoon sniffed the air, then looked at Josah. It appeared confused and released short bursts of sound as if saying “how.” A few of the other cats returned the yowling.

“What’s going on? ” asked Conall.

But before Josah could answer, the Dragoon walked over Graybard toward Josah. It lost interest in the soldier, continuing to sniff the air. The cat was the largest, with shoulders that reached Josah’s waist if he was standing. With one deliberate motion, the Dragoon gazed into Josah’s face.

Making a low rumbling sound, the cat paused before rubbing its head into Josah’s chest. Stunned for a moment, Josah lifted his hands and patted the Dragoon. Its outer coat was rough, but he found softer layers the more his fingers worked through the fur.

“Are you crazy!” Graybard whispered as he continued to lay on the ground.

“This is the kitten I saved! It’s grown. I’ve heard that Dragoons are loyal to those that rescue them. But I never thought this one would remember me after eight years.”

Josah stood again, slowly. The Dragoon continued to rub against him. It then turned to the other cats and pounded the ground, hissing, and yowling. It sprang toward the other cats, forcing them to run away. When no other Dragoon remained, it came back to Josah.

“Can I put my hands down now?” asked Caleb.

“Can I get up?” whimpered Graybard.

“Yes, to both of you,” grinned Josah. “But don’t make any sudden movements. This tender moment may not last.”

Graybard stood up, grunting in the process. “Thank you, Master Josah. I wasn’t sure how we were getting out alive.”

“What were you thinking?” asked Caleb. “Run? I can’t believe you!”

“Look, I am only a soldier. I only know two things, fight or flight. I couldn’t see the Dragoons, but I could hear them running, so I ran.”

Josah kept one hand on the shoulders of the Dragoon in front of him. “This is a wild animal. There is no way of knowing what it’s going to do, only what it can do. The other cats are still around, and they are watching us. We need to get out of the Valley.”

“Which direction?” asked Conall.

Josah paused to get his bearings. He located the general direction of the rising sun, obscured by the dense canopy of the forest. They needed to follow the mountains running north and south, until the next gap in the range.

“Mountains surround us, except in the north. We must get to a place called Promise Gorge. We can rest and clean up there before entering the Plains of Vandeer. Once we get there, we’re a day away from Bon Abbi.”

“What are you going to do about that Dragoon?” Graybard pointed with his thumb as he wiped his face on his sleeve.

“Nothing. This Dragoon is the reason why the other cats aren’t attacking. It may follow us to the gorge, but it won’t leave the protection of the Valley.”

Josah adjusted the leather pouch, and the Mandolin hung around his neck and shoulders. “Where’s the sack of food?” he asked Graybard.

“Somewhere behind us. I dropped it while I was running.”

Conall shook his head. “We can’t go back. We’ve got to get out of here.”

Josah nodded in agreement. “Let’s go.”

He stopped petting the cat and started walking, not sure what the animal was going to do. It watched Josah for a moment, as he walked away. Then it trotted to catch up with the boy and slowed its pace once it reached his side.

The group was unusually quiet, walking through the forest, one following the other. The trees were alive again with activity. There were occasional sounds of snapping twigs or rustling bushes along the way. Caleb, who was at the end of the line, kept looking behind him but never saw the other Dragoons.

Every step led them away from the dense forest to where the trees didn’t grow as close. The group now had a clear view of the mountain range on the west. The ground to their east also raised in elevation, making the valley more pronounced.

“Josah, any idea how much further?” asked Conall.

“I don’t remember,” said Josah, “but it can’t be much further. We should hear the waterfall before we get to the gorge. The forest is not as dense as before. I can see the mountains west of us are getting smaller.”

It wasn’t much longer when the group heard rushing water. “That’s a waterfall,” yelled Caleb from the back of the line. “It can’t be too far now.”

Josah wanted to run but was unsure what the Dragoon would do. The cat continued to walk by his side, step by step. He reached out and tapped his hand on its head. As if by habit, the cat tilted its head toward Josah while continuing to move forward.

Finally, the gorge was in sight. The group walked to the edge and looked up. Water cascaded down from its source, about fifteen meters high to their east. The sheer volume of water falling down the cliff was deafening, making it difficult to talk.

“Let’s follow the water down until we get to the stream,” yelled Josah while pointing to the west.

About three hundred meters out, the ground leveled off, and a calmer stream flowed away from the gorge. Everyone but Josah started their journey down to the river. He looked back at the Dragoon, no longer at his side.

Walking back to the cat, Josah padded its head. The Dragoon responded by closing its eyes and making a slow rumbling sound. “Thank you for your help,” Josah whispered. “I can’t stay here.”

Josah turned around and walked to join the others. He didn’t want to see what the Dragoon was doing, desiring the cat to follow him. But he also knew it would be challenging with such a large, wild animal.

As he got closer to the group, Caleb pointed back and said, “We have company.”

Josah whirled around as the Dragoon reached him, almost knocking the boy off his feet. He grinned, rubbing the cat, saying, “I can’t keep you.”

Graybard laughed out loud. “It seems like you have no choice. It’s decided to keep you!”

The cat stared at Graybard long enough to make him feel uneasy. “I don’t like how it’s is looking at me!”

“Hey, Dragoon!” Josah clapped his hands to draw the cat’s attention. It turned toward Josah, allowing Graybard to take a few steps back.

Conall nodded. “You have to give it a name.”

“Right,” agreed Josah. “It’s come this far, so there’s no turning back. This Dragoon is a female. There’s no doubt she ruled her clan. I’m calling her ‘Ena’ after the first ship I navigated to Rona.”

Rona Island was home to the Evermores. Conall laughed. “That’s the ship you ran into the pier! Father sold that wreck to the McKanzels soon afterward.”

“Hello, Ena,” Josah whispered to the cat who seemed to understand what was happening. “We’ll ignore Conall for now.”

Caleb walked toward the Dragoon but moved away when it started yowling. The cat sniffed the air as if trying to remember the different scent of her human companions.

“Let’s not crowd Ena for now,” suggested Josah. “She may become overwhelmed and decide to return to the Valley.”

“Let’s get to the water and clean up,” directed Graybard.

Josah looked at the soldier covered in mud, both front and back. He must have stared too long for the soldier twisted, trying to see behind himself. “Why are you looking back there?” Graybard asked. “Nothing happened back there. Besides, you didn’t have this big animal squeezing your insides out!”

The Evermore brothers chuckled. Josah added, “Make sure you give your trousers an extra soaking.”

Moving closer to the stream, each shed their clothes, dropping them to the ground. Stripped down to their undergarments, the boys walked into the stream. Their feet sank into the mud along the edge of the stream before they found the sand and stone surface.

The steady current of water was cold but refreshing. Caleb was the first to sit down, letting the water run over his shoulders. The stream was clear enough for him to see his feet in the water.

Ena looked at Josah, who motioned the cat to enter the stream. When it refused, he started splashing water toward the cat. Pounding the ground, the Dragoon feigned an attack before returning to the safety of a tree.

Stripping down to his waist, Graybard waded into the stream. His back had random red marks where Ena’s claws pierced his tunic. Conall shouted to Graybard, “You really do need to get chainmail that covers your back.”

“Ah,” exhaled Graybard as he sank into the water. “Nothing like cold water to revive your sore body and spirit.”

Taking his cue from the soldier, Conall laid back in the water. He allowed the current to take him downstream about a meter. When it felt like he drifted too far, Conall stood up and wadded to the shore. “Before Caleb says it, we need to find some food.”

He walked back to where his garments lay. Grabbing his linen shirt, tunic, and trousers in one motion, he walked to the river. Soaking his garments in the stream, one at a time, he rung out the excess water. Then he laid his clothes on top of a bush, exposing it to the full sun.

The others took Conall’s lead and did the same. With everything washed, it was time to think about food. Graybard grabbed his sword and found a shady place along the shore. He stepped into the water and lifted his sword with both hands.

In one swift move, Graybard stabbed a large fish. He flung the fish to the shore, toward the boys. But before he could tell someone to grab it, Ena pounced on the fish and trotted back to the tree.

“Look, I’m all for feeding that cat, but will you make sure there some food for us?” he barked at the boys.

Josah lifted his head, motioning to Caleb to join him. The young Evermore grabbed his sword and waded into the water. The clear stream made it easy to see the fish, as long as he remained in the shaded areas.

Graybard made spearing fish look easy. With one smooth motion, his sword pierced the side, all without making a ripple in the water. Caleb wasn’t quite as fluid. After watching the soldier a few times, he was able to spear and fling fish toward the shore.

“Let’s catch a few more fish as we’ll need to eat again at the end of the day,” suggested Graybard. “Doesn’t sound like there will be food in the Plains of Vandeer.”

The two moved along the shore, stabbing and throwing their catch towards the land. It was all Josah could do to keep Ena from stealing the fish. Graybard and Caleb stopped when Conall shouted they had enough.

Josah gathered smooth stones and placed them in a circle for a campfire. He scooped up twigs and branches Graybard found, then laid them inside the rocks.

Graybard continued walking around the trees, collecting firewood. “I hope this doesn’t become what I do from now on,” he grumbled.

It didn’t take long for clothes and people to dry off in the intense sun. Taking his knife, Conall cut down green branches and wove them together to form a cooking surface. There were enough twigs to make a second bough.

Adjusting the rock placement to support the woven surface, Conall placed one on top. Josah tossed him the flint so he could get an ember started. “Help me fillet the fish, once you start the fire.”

Living on an island had some advantages. The boys knew how to debone a fish and cook it over an open flame. Before long, the light winds wafted the scent of fish sizzling over the campfire. Josah poked the fish with his shipping knife and flipped it to the other side.

Caleb sat in the shade, watching Ena, who stretched out next to her favorite tree. The aroma of frying fish was too much for the cat, who sat up sniffing the air. Josah threw her a cooked fillet as he pulled the woven branches away from the fire.

“It’s going to be hot, so grab some fish when you can.”

While the others ate, Josah put the second woven branches on top of the rocks. He cooked the last batch of fish to perfection. When Josah sat down to eat, he found the fish was tasty but lacked salt and spices.

“My kingdom for a pint of ale,” shouted Graybard as he walked to the stream and drank water. “So, where do we go from here?”

Josah looked at the sun’s location and could tell there was still a lot of daylight left. “We walk west out of this Valley, and then north. When we get to the Plains of Vandeer, we’ll have a day’s journey to Bon Abbi.”

“The quicker we get through Vandeer,” said Caleb, “the earlier we get to Bon Abbi.”

“Put your clothes back on. Let’s get this journey done,” commanded Graybard, “We have a ship to catch, now less than a fortnight.”

It didn’t take long for the boys and Graybard to get dressed. “Follow the stream out of the valley,” Josah told them. “It will lead us to the Plains. We’ll turn with the river and go north to Bon Abbi. Go on. I’ll catch up to you.”

Nodding his head, Graybard led the way, followed by Conall and Caleb. Josah pulled out another linen shirt he had in his pouch and wrapped the leftover fish. He turned to Ena, who stretched out in the shade next to her hiding tree. Josah lifted both hands, palms up, and said, “Ena, get up. Up.”

The Dragoon didn’t move but stared at the boy who tried signaling with his hands many times. Josah hoped the cat would associate that movement with his command. When she didn’t move, he turned and walked away.

In moments, Ena jumped into action and caught up with Josah. He patted the Dragoon’s shoulder. “How am I going to get you to understand what I need you to do?”

The group followed the river for two kilometers. Mountains gave way to rolling green hills with groves of various trees at the top, on either side of the river. Graybard stopped and waited for Josah to catch up. “Will we see the same rolling hills all the way to Bon Abbi?”

Josah shook his head. “No. The hills will turn to plains and prairie grasslands. The river will lead us to Tuva. It’s the largest farming village in Bon Abbi. We should make it there by evening.”

“Finally, civilization!” Graybard chuckled.

“I thought we would have to sleep under the stars again,” Caleb said, somewhat relieved.

Conall playfully shoved his brother. Caleb returned the push. With little effort, Conall wrapped his arms around Caleb’s head and started squeezing.

“Oy! Enough!” snorted Graybard. “You’re making the cat nervous, which can’t be good!”

Conall grinned and released his grip. Ena stood to Josah’s right side and peered around him at the Evermores. The cat lowered its head then lifted it back up, once everything settled down.

The group restarted their journey, following the river. It meandered through the Plains, always seeking low ground. The skies were clear and blue, complimenting the lush green hills. The sun warmed the afternoon, forcing the group to stop on occasion to drink from the river.

The older Evermore took the lead when the heat slowed Graybard’s pace. Josah persuaded Ena to walk on his left as he caught up with the soldier.

Graybard wiped his brow with his sleeve and said to Josh, “Back in Buberra, I would walk many kilometers every day. Now, it’s a struggle.”

Josah agreed. He spent most of his last eight years on a ship with little time to walk around the various port cities. “Let’s stop at that next hill and eat under the shade of the trees. Let me get Conall and Caleb’s attention.”

He placed his fingers into his mouth and whistled, causing Ena to cock her head. The brothers looked back and nodded as Josah signaled to wait. Once they caught up to the Evermores, Josah then led them to the shady hill, with Ena following him nearby.

Josah took his leather pouch and Mandolin from around his neck and gently laid them next to a tree. He reached into the bag and drew out the fish he wrapped earlier. There was a fillet for everyone but Ena.

Pointing into the grove of trees, Josah said, “Ena, go find food. Go!’

The cat waited for a moment before it trotted into the grove. It wasn’t long before Ena returned with her meal. She dropped a hare next to Josah. The boy kicked the dead animal with his foot, encouraging Ena to eat. Grabbing her catch, the cat withdrew to a nearby tree to consume her prey.

Graybard leaned against a tree and slid down into a sitting position. The others follow his lead, as the shade provided comfort from the sun. With its descent already started, it wouldn’t be long before evening arrived.

“Will we make it to Tuva before it gets dark?” Graybard asked.

“We may not make it there before sunset, but it will be close. I don’t remember, ” Josah admitted.

“Tell me, Josah,” said Graybard. “How do you know about Lord Mayweather? Why are you all paying your respects?”

Conall wasn’t sure Josah wanted anyone to know, so he answered Graybard. “Our father does business with most of the cities in Bon Abbi. He couldn’t make the trip, so he sent us in his place.”

“Really?” Graybard questioned the answer. “Casselberry has a chokehold on all shipments that come into Southport. Merchants rarely make it to Midland. I find it hard to believe that your father made it to Bon Abbi.”

Conall and Caleb looked over to Josah, who shook his head slightly. He cleared his throat and said, “Sometimes Captain Munro sailed to Northport. He transported his cargo on wagons to Bon Abbi.”

The answer satisfied Graybard. “It’s my turn to ask you something, ” Josah said. “Before we went into the Valley and you couldn’t make it back to Casselberry on time, you said you had to leave anyway. What did you mean?”

The soldier paused for a moment. “As you are aware, I was building an army for Casselberry. I’ve been doing so for three years. Lord Edmund Robion, Luka’s father, was a fearful man. He worried about the Midland army to his north, and the Liez army south of Casselberry, on East Mainland.”

“I never heard of those armies attacking anyone,” said Josah.

“Nor I,” admitted Graybard. “But I agreed to build his army anyway. Then something happened before planting season. Lord Edmund and his wife died. The story is that Luka poisoned them, but no one knows for sure.”

“Odd,” said Caleb. “That’s around the time Lord Mayweather passed away.”

“Right, right.” Graybard stretched his arms in front of him and yawned. “That’s when I heard from Luka. He ordered me to get my soldiers ready for the next planting season.”

“What was going to happen then?” asked Conall as he glanced at Josah.

“Well, he wants to send his troops to Bon Abbi. It seems like there isn’t a Mayweather alive today to become the ruler. So he wants to govern Bon Abbi, now that Lord Mayweather has passed.”

“That can’t be,” said Josah. “He has no claim on Bon Abbi.”

Graybard tilted his head toward Josah. “Look, I don’t even pretend to understand what goes on between cities. All I know is that Luka plans to challenge the current ruler, some young girl.”

Josah stared at Graybard. He could only think of one girl in Bon Abbi brave enough to take his father’s place. That girl had to be Evelyn Miller. “What about a girl?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Graybard replied he didn’t know. “Lord Rando had been sick about the time I got to Casselberry. A healer from Midland helped him for a while until he passed away. Now, she’s taking his place.”

“What does Luka want with Bon Abbi?” asked Caleb.

Graybard stood up and stretched again. “Look around you. If the rest of Bon Abbi is like this, what’s not to like? All I know, I don’t want to plan the siege.”

Josah stood up and walked over to Graybard. “He’s planning to attack Bon Abbi? The people in this city can’t defend themselves.”

“Well, that’s why I wanted to leave. Luka won’t attack, at least not right away. He’ll try to kill the young ruler first.”

Josah turned away from Graybard and the brothers. He didn’t want his expression to give him away. He slipped his pouch and Mandolin around his neck and called Ena to follow.

“We have to get to Bon Abbi,” he shouted behind him as he quickened his steps down the hill.

The others followed Josah. “Slow down,” pleaded Graybard. “Luka’s not coming to Bon Abbi today!”

Josah ignored the soldier. Growing up as a Noble was lonely in a city of commoners. Evelyn, the daughter of the miller, was not a Noble, but she was his friend. A loyal friend.

Josah recalled during the city-wide celebration when his brother announced the wedding plans. He asked Evelyn if she would marry him, even though they were both ten years old at the time. Josah couldn’t remember if she ever answered him.

Now, he dreaded going to Bon Abbi. If the girl ruling the city was Evelyn, then she was in danger. He thought of her often while away these last eight years. His trip back home was no longer about his father’s passing.

It was now about Evelyn.

Written by Mike Arroyo

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