The Road Not Taken – Yuri Webnovel Chapter 1

Artumes could smell the rust from here. 

She turned her horse towards the fell wind that brushed against her face, closing her eyes and extending her senses.

Yes. A few miles north-east, past the hills that obstructed their view.

It was always the same reek that spread in the aftermath of a Marrower attack. It tickled her nostrils with its tangy scent, too sweet to be pleasant, with a hint of smelted metal and the echoes of pain and misery it carried with itself. 

“I think I found something,” she exclaimed with her clear voice. “I’ll be taking a look over those hills, be back in one hour.”

The Captain raised his eyes from the map looked towards where she was pointing.

“Take Urthir with you,” he replied, tilting his head towards the closest of  the grey-clad riders. “If you did find something, it will be good for him.”

Artumes bit the inside of her mouth – she was not really keen on the idea to take a recruit with her, especially one so green he had yet to earn a single kill, but the Captain was right.

It would be good for him. 

If a bit scary, perhaps. 

She rode to him and the new soldier looked at her with a light of trepidation in his blue eyes. He was the son of a noble house, and as far as she could say, he did not really want to be there, in the middle of the Outback, just miles away from the enemy border.

Unlike her and the rest of the squadron, he carried himself like he was taking a stroll through the marble streets of the capital, his coat rimmed with silk and his armor lined in silver and gold (a bit of a feat to make it both weaker and bulkier at once!), his back too straight for a comfortable ride.

“Stalker Artumes,” he began, pulling his lips in a line that ought to be a smile, but maybe two weeks out in the open had made him forget how something like that worked. “What do you think you have found?”

“What does a Stalker goes looking for, my friend?” She replied with a grin. 

He stumbled over his words, unable to even speak the cursed Word. 

“F-Flesh Slavers,” he said at last, his dark skin growing paler at the thought of meeting one. She turned and began to bring her horse uphill. 

To his credit, Urthir hesitated only a moment. 

Artumes gave him a glance as they left the boughs and brown grass for the tall beeches, leaves crackling about as they fell to the embrace of the wind. The air smelled more and more like rust. He looked so plump and well-rested, and yet he must be what… two or three years younger than her? 

His hands were still covered by gloves, but she was ready to bet he had yet to get a single callus over them. His stark blue eyes shifted left and right, as if he waited for a Marrower and his entourage of chained slaves to rush out of the forest, casting ruin and blasting death. 

“Take a breath, friend.” Artumes pulled her horse closer and set her hand over his shoulder. “We are not jumping straight into the dragon’s mouth. You get this smell only when the Marrowers have completed their foul business.”

She felt his muscles relax under her touch.

“Ah, that’s a relief. Are you sure, Stalker? Not that I doubt your keen senses! But this is still my first foray out in the open… I do not know what to expect.”

“I am quite confident,” she replied, turning her smile in a grin. “If anything happens, you can go back to call the others and leave me to deal with it.”

“I’d never!” He shouted. 

“Keep your voice down, friend.”

“Yes. Uhm. I mean, I would never do anything like that, leaving a companion to their own devices. Unbecoming of my upbringing and my house.”

“That’s reassuring.” He was boasting for sure. 

But at least she appreciated the quick response. His hand even reached for his sword, tinkling at his side. She had caught a look during training once or twice, and it seemed like a fine blade. Again, the son of nobles surely carried better equipment than her… with probably one or two exceptions.

She brushed her hand over Moonbite, reassured by its weight and its ceramifold blade.

She had to admit: he did have some of the bluest eyes she had seen in the last year. 

Something shifted uneasy in her stomach as the claws of envy scratched her. She had often wished her Anthilian blood ran truer. 

They rode uphill for a while, without sharing words – she caught him turn a few times to look at the rest of thew squadron, but other than that he matched her pace. Of course, the real test would come in shortly. 

As they reached the top, the trees grew sparser the wind began to carry something different: red-colored flakes, turning in the air like crimson snow. Urthir raised his glove and caught a few between the dark leather, brushing his fingers and turning them into dust that smeared his hands. 

“What is this?”

“You will see,” Artumes replied. She was not wrong.

She seldom was, in similar matters. 

Artumes slowed down her horse and then stopped it right at the edge of the downward slope, looking towards the source of the flakes. Next to her, Urthir coughed and spat, and he pulled up the hem of his shirt to cover his mouth.

“What is this smell? It’s terrible.”

Artumes took in a long breath. She felt it stark and clear: the trail of a Marrower assault.

It coiled around her stomach, her hands trembling with the awareness that if they had been just a little faster… if they had rode just a bit quicker, took less stops… maybe they could have put their swords to better use.

Following the slope, there were a few miles of open terrain leading towards the clear ribbon of a river, hugging what might have seemed from afar like a crimson cloud. But inside it one could clearly see the outline of roofs and chimneys, the tall belltower of the temple and the hunting huts from the people who used to live there. 

Fields and orchards sprawled around what remained of the village, as the crimson cloud slowly covered the withering plants and crops with the scattered remains of those who used to till them.

“This smell is people,” Artumes told him, pulling up her own cloth to cover her mouth. “Gods willing, you will never quite get used to it.”

Author’s Notes: I am quite proud of this first chapter. Still need to work on that graphic. I probably will just throw in something simple, as more complex ideas do not really compel me.

Thanks for reading.


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