Neil’s mind was busy thinking about thinking about the possibility of leaving Laeris with Faleth, Cade, and Tevarin as Willow pulled the cart merrily down the road. Even though the horse heard and smelled the wolves that were following them, Neil’s mind was miles away with his hands off the reigns as they normally were on the trip.
Neil’s attention snapped back to reality as a wolf darted from the edge of the woods and snarled at Willow. She reared up to avoid the attack and bolted at a near full gallop as soon as her front hooves returned to the road.
Neil fell from the cart at the sudden movement, landing heavily in the dirt as the cart careened away leaving three wolves circling slowly around him. He sprang to his feet and put his hands up as he moved slowly toward the tree line. His father had taught him early to scale a tree if ever faced with wolves, which often preyed on the area.
He was only a foot or so from the edge of the road, and ten feet from the nearest tree when the first wolf lunged at him. He ran for the tree, jumping for a branch, and pulled himself up narrowly avoiding the teeth of the wolf around his leg.
His heart racing, he waited and watched the wolves circle the tree for nearly twenty minutes before they lost interest in him and wandered off. He was high enough in the tree to know that he couldn’t jump down if it meant landing on the twisting roots that surrounded the base of the tree, jutting from the earth in a tangled mess of wood that reached for nutrients.
“Great,” he muttered as he began sliding his way down the branch trying to reach the trunk of the tree, “This is exactly what I needed today.”
A sharp crack sounded from the trunk of the tree, and the branch broke, falling with him to the ground. Even though he tried to land softly, his foot landed halfway on one of the roots and twisted sideways.
Neil cried out as a loud pop reverberated through his body when his ankle reached its limit and continued bending. He crumpled to the ground in a heap, reaching for his ankle at first, but the barking of a wolf nearby brought his attention to more pressing matters. Through the pain, he was able to grab a stick from the ground and scoot himself back against the tree when he spotted the first wolf as it returned.
A second wolf appeared a minute later, followed by the third. They faced him with their teeth bared as he pointed the stick at them.
“Get back!” He yelled, swinging the stick wildly at one that got too close.
They continued to test him, moving close until he would swing, then retreating back to safety. He pressed himself harder into the tree with his good leg, gradually coming to a standing position.
He could hear his pulse thumping loudly in his ears as he tried to figure out a way to get back up in the tree, but the branch was too high for him to jump to it with a potentially broken ankle.
A wolf lunged at him as he swung with all his strength. This time it connected with a loud crack as the stick slammed into the beast’s head. It whimpered in pain as the other two lunged forward before he could ready himself again.
Neil screamed as the wolf flew through the air, but it didn’t land its attack. Instead, a large fireball erupted around the wolf before it slammed into him, knocking him over. It fell next to him, a charred husk of what was once a wolf staring blankly as the smell of burnt fur filled Neil’s nostrils.
The two remaining wolves ran away whining into the forest as Neil searched for the source of the fire. Through the smoke, he saw the outline of a man, too big to be any of the adventurers currently staying at the inn.
“You should be more careful,” the man said as a hand extended toward him offering to help him up. “Are you hurt?”
“Yes,” Neil replied as he grabbed the man’s hand. It felt warm and calloused in his grip as he winced from being pulled to his good foot. “I think my ankle is broken.”
Neil’s eyes adjusted to see a haggard-looking man with dark hair digging through a pouch on his hip. He looked up at him as he pulled his hand out and presented a small vial filled with crimson liquid. The man’s gold-ringed eyes looked harshly at him, making him feel like a child once more.
“Drink this, it’ll fix it and anything else physically wrong with you,” he demanded.
“Th-Thank you,” Neil said taking the vial.
He pulled the stopper from the top of it and tasted the liquid. It tasted of sweet spices and felt warm tracing its way down his throat. In a single gulp he swallowed the remainder of the vial before holding it out to the stranger.
“What’s your name?” the man asked.
“Neil, sir,” he replied.
“Where were you heading, Neil?” he asked pointedly.
“Home, sir,” Neil answered.
“You should get moving before something else happens to you,” the man said before he turned away walking toward the road.
“Who are you?” Neil asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
“No one of consequence,” the man replied without turning around.
Neil watched him step off the road on the far side. It suddenly dawned on him that he was putting weight on the wrong leg and his eyes looked down in disbelief for a moment before he looked up to see the man had vanished.
Neil stepped up on the road and looked into the woods for a long moment before beginning the long walk up the road toward his family’s farm. An hour later he came upon the cart as Willow grazed lazily in the grass near the road.
“There you are,” Neil said as he walked up to the cart.
Willow looked up at him and whinnied.
“Let’s get home,” Neil said as he grabbed the reins.