Nikolaos worships Lokke, the god of guile. He views politics as a wearisome game to play and little more. He views power as being more trouble than it’s worth.
Nikolaos does what he must to live a comfortable life, but comfort grows increasingly difficult to find under the rule of King Kallias. If he could think of a way to improve his situation, he would happily take it.
Nikolaos expected to collapse into the grass at any given moment.
Yesterday, he had intended to scout only a brief distance—perhaps fifteen miles from camp. He planned to have plenty of time to return to base and sleep snugly in a tent with a belly full of warm stew. Camp rations were low, but at least at night he could usually expect a big slosh of watery soup full of scraps from the daily gathering. After adding a dash of chili powder, Nikolaos could almost imagine the stew delighting his senses with exotic spices. Then he would have sat next to a campfire and shared his scouting adventures with his fellow soldiers. He liked to narrate his wanderings in such a way that captured peoples’ interest and inspired them, rather than just reporting his work as a scout. Doing so made his own job seem more glamorous, and he rather enjoyed the attention. Finally he would return to his tent, throw off his grubby clothes, stretch his limbs over his blanket, and sleep like a baby.
That’s how he would have liked last night to play out. Instead, he had lost his way—a grave sin for a scout like himself.
Scouts should never get lost. They should be capable of distinguishing slight changes in the landscape, tracing every slope and plant into memory, so they could describe it in detail to their superiors or even draw out a map. Nikolaos should be able to guide his comrades into new terrain with confidence and reliability. More than that, he should be able to look beyond the superficial appearance of the landscape enough to assess its potential as a source of security, supplies, or strategic placement.
Not Nikolaos. Not yesterday.
He blamed his hunger. The large servings of stew every night usually satisfied him enough to grant a good night’s sleep. But the night before this fateful outing, he’d felt the first ache of hunger before tasting sweet slumber. Breakfast did nothing to satiate him, like a weak puff of air against a ravenous flame. His hunger had consumed him by midday, making his limbs drag and his thoughts tangle. The fact that the damn savanna looked the same in every direction didn’t help matters—just endless yellow grass and occasional trees stretching into a circle of sky. He had tried to return to camp, only to wander further into strange territory. When the sun started falling, he focused on finding shelter instead.
Now, after another day of wandering, he still had no idea where he was, and his hunger had become a monster possessing his faculties. He could concentrate on nothing but food, yet he couldn’t think clearly about how to obtain it. He only knew that when he saw a blur of green foliage in the distance, promising water and wildlife, he moved fervently towards it. What other hope did he have of finding food?
He ignored all the warnings he had ever heard about the jungles of Darzia. The darkness beneath the canopy harbored incredible danger, he knew, including a wide variety of animals and plants in every shape and size imaginable. Meanwhile, every single one of those strange plants and animals possessed its own unique way of killing enemies. Poisonous plants mimicked safe ones. Small creatures with frail bodies compensated with quick cleverness and sharp memory. An animal wearing the guise of prey could easily lead him into a maze of foliage from which he’d never escape. And as for the larger beasts, such as bears of griffins… well, they could just kill him with one blow.
But starvation worried him now more than any conceivable creature. So he continued moving towards the jungle, one heavy step at a time, heaving slow breaths of air through his leathery mouth. Everything exhausted him—even breathing, even holding his eyes open. The sword hanging from his hip felt like it tried to pull him into the soil below. His blue cloak, draped over one shoulder in the old Elborn fashion, yanked at his torso as it flapped in the wind. His ear-length black hair slapped his face and open eyes. He wanted to fling off his burdens and maybe chop off his lashing locks. But even doing all that would require too much effort.
So he stared vacantly ahead, watching the dark entrance of the jungle yawn wider. Even through the fog of his weary mind, he wondered briefly what he intended to do once he got inside. Hunt for an animal? In his current state, he’d never catch one. Search for water? That was a start. Surely the water of the jungle wasn’t poisonous, was it? He would have to take his chances. Maybe then, at least, he would feel good enough to hunt. If not, he would have to try eating a plant. He had no idea which ones were safe, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t matter. Even people who spent years studying botany struggled to analyze the plant-life of Darzian’s jungles, which were full of tricks and surprises. Once again, he would just have to try his luck.
He looked briefly towards the heavens and thought of his god, the mysterious Lokke, lord of mischief. Normally, Nikolaos didn’t bother praying, even though he worshiped Lokke devoutly. He didn’t think Lokke appreciated typical prayers the way other gods did. Even so, he whispered hoarsely, “Please Lokke, lend me some luck, would you?”
He dropped his head again, for it felt too heavy to tilt skyward. He watched his boots crunching through the dry yellow grass.
He noticed something shift on the top edge of his vision, towards the mouth of the jungle. He looked up reluctantly. Then he froze in his tracks.
A girl. No… a young woman. Or someone caught directly between the two stages. But not awkwardly, he thought. On the contrary, she seemed to embody the brilliance of youth and adulthood. She moved with incredible speed, even as she came to a sudden halt at the edge of the forest. An aura of wildness surrounded her as solidly as the jungle itself; she had bright red hair that tangled around her face and shoulders like a lion’s mane. She wore a small brown tunic, tattered and dirty, leaving most her arms and legs bare. But she seemed neither scantily clad or fully-dressed: merely a girl in her natural state. Her body was small altogether, but even from a distance he could see the firm flow of her muscles, and the steadiness of her grip as she twirled a spear at her side.
Then she stopped and saw him, too.
He felt stricken with a lightning bolt. Her big green eyes affixed him as surely as if she had thrown her spear into his stomach. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Just stare straight back at her and wonder what she would do next.
She turned around and darted back into the jungle.
“Hey, wait!” he cried hoarsely. But it was already too late, and he knew without a doubt he had no chance of catching her.
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