Jagged branches and prickly shrubs crisscrossed his path as he sprinted into the dark forest, half of his face throbbing from his recent fight but by no means under as much strain as his heart was. He'd been keeping up at his fastest pace for what seemed like ages now, and his legs ached and stiffened with every long stride he made.
His mind could not help him decide when to stop running because he wasn't sure if he'd be safe at any place at any time. It was almost as if he could feel the breath of galloping chargers grazing his neck and hear the barks of accompanying hounds vibrate in his ears, almost as if he could already see what was to become of him.
From ahead he spotted a glade in the patch of dense forest and aimed to reach it before stopping to rest, but his left leg sudden tightened, his muscles cramping and fixing his limb in a tense position that'd hurt if he were to change it. He rolled over onto the ground, landing on a bed of bony twigs and dead vegetation as he held his sore limb. Misty puffs of warm breath escaped from his panting mouth as he rubbed his calf vigorously, trying to rid the searing pain clawing up his leg.
He snarled through clenched teeth as the tight, frozen muscles of his limb refused to give way, and his rubs turned into beatings, punching his leg to relieve it of strain and following agony and to get his frozen muscles moving again.
"Curses," he muttered, his balled fist changing course and smacking the snow instead of his cramped leg. The powdered ice launched into the air from the impact and through the falling flakes, he eyed the glade keenly, almost glaring at it from his embarrassing position.
More hot mist shot out of his nose as he made another effort to push himself back up, but he didn't even take one step before his tense leg betrayed him again, and he collapsed face first onto the snow. In his mind, the memory of his fight with Aeddan flickered with a bright light and he frowned as he recalled the result of such a confrontation.
Aeddan could have been dead, and he could be announced a murderer.
That same sense of apprehension gripped him again, and it was the panic of being caught and sentenced that motivated him to rise up again and head towards the glade.
He didn't make it far and but made two large steps before he tumbled over again, crying from his desperation. And as any desperate man would do in times of flight, Cadwgawn crawled the rest of the way to the glade, his body chilled to the bone from direct contact with the snow and his face blue from the cold. Still, even as he reached the safety of the clearing and rested his head against the coarse trunk of a tree, he imagined the hoof beats of war mounts and the barks of ravenous hunting dogs coming closer, closer, and then fading into black.
His consciousness was waking and growing keener with the familiar presence of sound reaching his ears, and the rest his mind had been at was fading, for now that he detected the hum of voices, he ventured to decipher who those voices belonged to.
The sense of touch was revived as he became aware of something cold and wet flopping onto his forehead, and the frigidity of the object sparked a bodily reaction, which was his eyes opening slowly. His initial survey of his surrounding environment brought him only bright, warm colors and blurry figures, but the longer he looked around, the clearer his vision became, and he soon matched the voices he heard with faces.
He was back in his room in Lord de Montfort's castle, but the beds of the other boys who shared the room were empty and the only people in there with him were Sir Peder, Lord de Montfort himself and a maid who was repeatedly setting a cold wet cloth on his burning brow.
I'm in trouble, was the first thought he had as he looked from face to face, staring at them indifferently.
"Cadwgawn," began Sir Peder, approaching his bedside calmly. "Ye sent us on a long and arduous hunt, that's for sure."
The knight signaled for the maid to stop fussing with the wet cloth with a wave of his hand, and the servant nodded and moved away from the bed, standing with her head bowed at the other side of the room. Cadwgawn made no answer to what Sir Peder had said. He knew they were chasing him. The news was nothing shocking.
"Lad," said Sir Peder, attempting to start his conversation again. "We learned about what happened before ye ran away. Yer not going to get beaten or enslaved or killed. You'll just be taught separately from the other lads."
Cadwgawn stared long and hard at Sir Peder, his grey eyes limpid with grave seriousness and his jaw set tightly. "I'm not?" he said, not believing that he could be exempt from punishment after hurting or critically wounding someone he was supposed to treat as a friend. That was what they had always been taught by the knights who were their teachers. Every other boy training was to be regarded as a brother, and yet he had sent a blow to Aeddan's head so ferociously that the boy had blood leaking out of his ears after he had done so.
He did not deserve such graces after what he had done.
"No, yer not. But you must understand, Cadwgawn, that if it had been the other way around—if you started the fight with Aeddan, you would have lost your head. And I would have been the one to do it."
Cadwgawn gulped at that image and his eyes began to wander as he lowered his head and looked at his hands—his scarred, calloused, murdering hands. He moved his eyes without blinking, trying to elude the truth that lied in the hands that faced him openly, and trying not to shed a tear over his sinful self.
"I'm… sorry," he managed to croak. "I didn't mean to hurt him, Sir Peder. I—"
"It's done, Cadwgawn. There's nothing more you need to say. And crying won't help, boy," replied the knight tersely. He never liked seeing boys cry. That was saved for women, like the maid who stood in the room with them.
Sucking in a sniveled breath, Cadwgawn nodded and swallowed anymore sobs that tried to escape him. He glanced quickly at Sir Peder, who was already leaving the room with Lord de Montfort and he was sad to admit that he had some disliking of the teacher who had taught him so well. He just didn't know why, and the irritation he felt towards the knight dried his tears, and he got out of his bed and dug into the chest at the foot of his it for his bow and quiver.
"Young sir, you must—" started the maid, reaching for him, but he jerked his shoulder away from her hand as she touched him.
"I'm going to practice. There's no harm in that," he replied curtly, fastening the quiver around his torso and then walking out of his room with the bow clenched in his hand.
He got out to the training grounds with ease, knowing that most of the other boys were stuffed and slow like pigs after supper and would thus be lounging around the castle instead of outside. Therefore, there'd be no soul to tattle on him should he be spotted on training grounds when he shouldn't be.
As he stepped out, his booted foot sank into a higher level of snow, and he gathered that winter's treachery had only amplified at his leave. Nonetheless, he lumbered through the snow, his blood icing as the bitter night air circled him in a choking embrace with the song of a stinging wind scratching his cheek. The sky was veiled in a mantle of dreary grey, dimming every part of the land so that the snow did not gleam or sparkle and that lit fires seemed outmatched by the rapidly growing darkness of evening. His eyes scanned the colorless terrain, spotting the encompassing pine forests as black and drooping, as if the cold and sadness they bore were too much of a weight for them. It seemed as if every part of a tree was leaning downwards, expecting to drown in the growing ocean of frost.
Convinced that he was alone with nature, he withdrew a feathered bow from his quiver and fastened the end at the string of his bow, his fingers stiff and dry from Winter's numbing breath. Aiming his weapon at the marked red circles painted on a distant haystack, he pulled the string back, arrow wedged between his knuckles, and after steadying his shivering arm, he released the arrow, watching it zoom towards the target with a light whistle, and hearing its journey end with a thwack.
He took a step forward and narrowed his eyes as he tried to see if he had hit his target, but the arrow was off the center ring by a few inches or two.
I'll try again. And I'll get it this time.
He latched another arrow to the string of his bow faster than before and fired again, and he missed again, seemingly by a larger amount. Grunting, he reached back for another arrow and was about to take it out when he saw out of the corner of his eye another arrow fly out from behind him. It darted straight to the target and hit the inner circle head on, as if the object itself was destined to be fired perfectly every time.
Startled and angry with the intrusion and purposeful display of superior skill, he shoved the arrow back in his quiver and whirred towards his intruder, his nose slightly flaring and half of his face on the verge of twitching.
"Hello," said his trespasser cheerfully, coming forward with an extended hand. Cadwgawn glared at him, his exasperation vividly plastered on his stone cold visage. But then he remembered the principle of camaraderie that had been expected of all pages. He had hurt one "brother" already, and he decided it was best to redeem himself by showing amity to the stranger who had so graciously interrupted his concentration.
"Greetings," he muttered, gripping the other's hand and squeezing it tightly before letting go. He wanted the handshake to be painful, and his intruder took note of the hidden belligerence with a grin as he looked at his throbbing hand.
"You're angry that I interrupted your training. I apologize. I just thought you'd like an example before you took another twenty tries to get the arrow in the center."
Cadwgawn resisted throwing an insult at the new face. He hadn't seen this boy around the castle grounds before, and he deemed that he was just another recruit taken from his home as were the rest of them. Instead, he maintained his perfunctory attitude towards the novice.
"I don't need your example," he retorted gruffly. "What you should be doing is finding your lodgings and getting duties from Sir Peder or one of the other knights."
"Already done," yawned the boy. "You're the lad who sent that boy, Aeddan, into painful shock, aren't you?" He looked at Cadwgawn with a sinister smirk that revealed his inner thoughts. He knew he was right.
Has word spread that fast?, wondered Cadwgawn, his livid face dropping into one of troubled concern again. He predicted that by morning, the whole castle and the neighboring town would know he had nearly killed Aeddan. But he wasn't about to add to this trespasser's ego by confessing. So he didn't say anything at all.
"I'm right, aren't I?" laughed the boy. "There's no need to be angry with me, Cadwgawn. Even if you did throw a punch at me, I'd beat you harder than you did Aeddan. Trust me."
"I don't pick fights," murmured Cadwgawn turning away from the lad and drawing an arrow from his quiver and focusing his mind back on his target. But he wasn't sure what his target was now. Was it the hay stack yards away, or the newcomer who had done nothing but provoke him since he arrived?
"Of course you don't. That's exactly why the brawls come to you. How long have you been training, hmm? Five years?"
"That's none of your business."
"Right. Sorry. I heard that you were a reserved fellow. I'll leave you alone now, Cadwgawn." The sarcasm was so abundant in the boy's words that Cadwgawn imagined them basically dancing with glee.
"What do you want with me?" You dirty cur, he added inwardly. He dropped the arrow and veered his head back at the arrogant fool, his grey eyes bright with fury.
"Nothing actually. I just wanted to see what you were like. I've heard lots of stories about you." The boy turned to go and finally leave him be, but he turned back and added, "By the way, I'm Reis Gwgan. And I train with you in the morning."
What?, thought Cadwgawn, about to go after Reis, but he stayed in his spot as he remembered what Sir Peder had said to him. He would not be trained with the other boys. He was going to be taught separately. But Reis was a novice. He was supposed to train with the other inexperienced lads. And yet…
He looked back at the haystack streaked in red and at the arrow Reis had fired so effortlessly straight into the middle. It was then when he knew that Reis was exceptional, and the lad knew how great he was.
"One more time," he said to himself, fixing another arrow to the bow once again. He aimed and fired, anticipating his arrow to miss for yet another time, but as he looked at the progress of his arrow, he saw it lodged directly in the middle of the target, with Reis' arrow broken in two from the shot and hanging on by a thread.
That's impossible, he figured, running towards the haystack and looking more closely at the arrows. However, his eyes did not fool him. He had made his own exceptional mark.