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  • Writer's pictureT.R. Slauf

Hidden Realm: Chapter 3, Out of the Woods


In a flash of blinding light, Esther’s arms were empty and Nikita’s shop disappeared around her. Knees buckling beneath her, she fell hard to the ground. Staring at her blood-soaked hands an icy shiver ran up her spine, and realization came like a cold prickle across her skin. What had she done?

Sobs wracked her small frame, tears mixed with the matted blood on her hands. She didn’t know where she was, nor did she care; it hadn’t been worth what she sacrificed.

“Esther, Esther, look at me. Lass?” Something strong and warm gripped her arm. “Why are you bleedin’? Are you hurt?”

It was Oisin.

“It’s not …” She choked on her tears. “It’s not my blood.” Esther’s voice was thick and hardly audible. Looking up at the hooded, faceless man, she lost what little control she still held. “It’s not my blood!” she screamed.

“It’s all right, lass. It’ll be all right,” Oisin’s low voice hummed through Esther’s screams. Slowly her screams turned to sobs, which turned to whimpers.

“I’m sorry, lass, but we need to get moving. It isn’t safe here.”

Esther nodded.

Oisin’s hand still clasping her arm, he helped her stand. He retrieved the silver dagger and book from the ground beside her and placed them into her pack. “You’re goin’ to be all right, lass. I’ll take care of ya.”

Oisin gently guided her away from the forest and up the road. Esther’s eyes were downcast, watching the rhythm of her boots, one in front of the other. Her mind flooded with the last conversation she had with her father, the dreaded phone call that set everything into motion, and the horrors of Nikita’s shop. Remembering the feel of Viktor’s soft fur against her breast when she hugged him. His warmth, and the comfort of his purrs vibrating through her. A horrible hollowness engulfed Esther.

Oisin took Esther by the arm, startling her from her daydreams, and led her away from the road. They were no longer shrouded in darkness, and the Dead Wood was nowhere in sight. Esther hadn’t been paying attention while they walked; she didn’t know how far they’d gone or in which direction. Oisin led her to a peculiar arrangement of large boulders protruding from the hillside. Disappearing into the rocks, Oisin released Esther’s arm.

Sorting through piles of smaller rocks, he retrieved a canvas bag. “Ah,” he said, “good. It’s still here.” Rummaging through the bag, he pulled out a small canteen. He held it out to Esther, who refused. Shrugging her off, he turned away from her and drank greedily. “My canteen ran out a while ago, and that doesn’t normally happen. Usually, I try to be more careful with my water.”

Oisin turned back to face Esther, canteen empty and his hood again drawn low. Rummaging through the bag, he chewed on dried fruit and roots. Offering his humble provisions to Esther, she kindly refused.

Setting his crossbow aside, Oisin sat down with a heavy thump. Leaning against the rocks, he crossed his arms over his chest.

“We’ll rest here a wee bit. It’s still a ways to the Keep.” No sooner had the words left him than his head lolled to the side and his breath became deep and even.

Esther wondered how long he was in the wood looking for her.

Standing within the rock formation Esther turned around, looking back the way they’d come, her mind racing. Heaving a heavy sigh she removed her pack, slumping down into the rocks. She pulled her knees up to her chest and stared at her hands. Clasped around her legs, they were caked in dried blood and dust.

She shifted uncomfortably; sitting on the rocks was not an ideal resting place. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on her breath and tried to find sleep. Images of Viktor taunted her. Tears stung her eyes and she turned her gaze to the blue sky, her hands absentmindedly picking at the filth stuck to them. Esther’s eyes shifted, looking around the rocks, up at the sky, then down at Oisin. She watched his heavy chest slowly rising and falling.

Esther looked back up to the sky. Nothing around them changed, even the clouds sat still.

Shifting again and again until she couldn’t take it anymore, she rose to her feet. Scrambling up the side of the rocks, she scanned the horizon.

Closing her eyes, she held her breath and listened. To the left, a faint gurgling of running water was near.

Climbing down to the ground, Esther picked up her pack. Turning back to look at Oisin, she hesitated. He appeared to still be deeply asleep, but with his face covered, she couldn’t be certain.

She was drawn from her thoughts by movement in the corner of her eye. A blue bird hopped along the rocks to sit beside Oisin. Esther stared at the curious little bird; it stared back, mimicking her head movements.

Without warning the bird let out a loud call, making Esther jump and drop her pack. Oisin hardly stirred at the racket.

Then she heard it; the sounds of footsteps and men talking were coming closer. Crouching low, Esther maneuvered through the boulders. Peering out, she saw a group of ten men walking along the road. Each was carrying weapons, while the horses were burdened with the rest of their luggage. The closer they came, the clearer she heard their conversation.

They spoke of villages plundered, relishing in the terrified screams of their victims and the ones who feebly fought back. They bragged of the plunder they’d seized, and the men and women they’d subjugated. Their talk turned to what they planned to do once they reached their current destination: a small farming community whose defenses had been demolished by the wolves.

“I wonder what fresh pussy be waitin’ for us. I do hope they be screamin’ virgins. I love it when they scream.”

“Even better when they try to hit ya.”

“Bet’er yet, you get them men kneelin’ into the mud. They ain’t never expectin’ a dick up the arse.” They roared with laughter.

“Oy! What ya doin’? The road’s this way,” one man hollered after another, who strayed from the path.

“Shhh! I thought I seen something.” He was walking toward Esther’s hiding spot.

“Like what? We ain’t seen nothin’ on this road all day.”

“I thought I seen someone. I’s just gonna take a look.”

“Well, if you find someone, do share ‘em with the rest o’ us, will ya? Not sure I can wait till we reach the next village.”

Esther’s heart pounded in her ears, her palms quivering and sweaty. The men roared, their laughter echoing through the rocks surrounding her. With an unsteady hand, she gripped her knife.

Unsheathing her blade, she crouched low, ready to pounce. She’d never been in a fight before, so she hoped the element of surprise would throw favor in her direction. She tensed, ready for a fight, when several things happened simultaneously.

A firm hand gripped Esther’s arm, pulling her backward. Another clasped tightly over her mouth. Oisin held Esther flush against his chest.

The blue bird flapped out from behind the rocks, making an awful racket as it went.


Flying into the man’s face, the blue bird screeched, flapping itself into a tizzy around the intruder’s head. Cursing, the man swung his blade wildly at the evasive bird.

The troupe of men jeered at their companion.

“Is that the little lady you was expectin’?”

“Oh, look out, it’s one o’ them killer birds!”

“Bloodthirsty monster, that is.”

The men’s voices drew faint, traveling further down the road away from the rocks. Oisin’s grasp on Esther loosened; she scrambled around to face him, but he pulled his hood down before she saw him. The blue bird returned, landing beside Oisin’s head.

Esther stared at the strange bird; it hopped happily along the rocks, looking expectantly between Esther and Oisin. Oisin placed a small piece of dried root on the rocks beside the bird. A sweet song pierced the air and the bird was gone, flying away with its offering.

“What were you thinkin’, lass?” Oisin said. “Those were bandits. Not only were you outnumbered ten to one, but you were out-trained. Have you ever even held that before?” Oisin pointed at the knife on Esther’s hip.

“How long have you been awake?” Esther demanded, getting to her feet.

“Since the bird told us they were comin’. So what were you doin’?”

“You knew they were coming, and you did nothing?”

“Why would I? We’re well hidden, and it’s no use goin’ and startin’ a fight for no reason.”

“I wasn’t trying to start a fight; I was trying to protect myself.”

“By jumpin’ out from behind your protection?”

“No.”

“Lass, the bird told us they were comin’ so that we’d stay hidden, not so you could jump out at them and get yourself killed.” Oisin took a deep breath. “I do admire your bravery, but next time don’t go a chargin’ in when you don’t need to. Or at least wake me, so I can go with you.”

“What do you mean ‘the bird told us?’” Esther asked, ignoring his other comments.

“I meant what I said. The bird told us they were comin’. He’s one of Blue’s scouts.”

“Hold on, you understood a coherent thought from that bird—from squawking?”

“It’s not his fault he sounds like that.”

“Excuse me?”

“What? Don’t they have birds where you’re from?”

“Yes—yes, we have birds.”

“Then I don’t understand the problem, lass. The bird told us trouble was comin’ and you decided to go stormin’ into it.”

“Are you telling me you can talk to birds?”

“Well, yeah. Can’t you?”

“No. No, I can’t. No one where I’m from can talk to birds, Oisin.”

“Well, you can talk to the other ones then, can’t you?”

“Other ones? You mean you can talk to other animals, too?”

“Yeah, lass. Birds are the easiest, but there’re other cross-animal talkers who are more skilled at communicatin’ with the others. Don’t you have cross-animal talkers in your realm?”

“Humans can only talk to humans.”

“So, then, what? You just go about never knowin’ what the others are thinkin’ or doin’?”

“Well, we don’t have much of a choice.”

“I guess you don’t,” Oisin muttered to himself, retrieving his crossbow and bag of food from the ground. “We should get goin’. We still have a long walk to the Keep.”

Esther grabbed her pack, following Oisin out of the rocks and back onto the road.

“Hold on,” she said, catching up to Oisin’s side. “Is there a creek or something nearby? I thought I heard running water earlier.”

“It’s that way.”

“Good.” Esther marched off in the direction Oisin pointed to.

With a sigh, he turned and followed her off the road.

It was a short walk to the small creek. A slow gurgle of clear water trickled over smooth brown stones. Esther dropped to her knees, plunging her hands into the shallow waters and rubbing the matted blood from her hands.

A lump formed in Esther’s throat. She watched the blackened blood turn red; swirling into the pure waters, it danced around the stones. She would never be able to take back what she’d done. Sitting up, she removed her pack, fishing inside for a bar of soap. Scrubbing her hands clean, she watched Oisin from the corner of her eye. He crouched beside the water, handfuls of the clear liquid disappearing beneath his hood.

“Your arm,” Esther said. “It needs to be cleaned.”

“I’ll be fine, lass.” Oisin shielded his bloodied arm from her view.

“No. No, you won’t.” Esther sat next to him. “So just … just hold still and let me clean it.” She carefully took his arm and rolled back the torn sleeve, revealing a long, deep gash up his forearm. Oisin grumbled but didn’t refuse. He turned his head from Esther while she gently cleaned his arm, careful to keep his hood covering his face.

Esther set the bar of soap to dry in the sun. She found a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a suture kit. She poured the liquid over his arm and Oisin flinched. She poured the alcohol over her own hands before pulling out the curved needle.

Esther wished she’d practiced giving stitches before insisting Oisin have them. Her first knots were sloppy and uneven, her hands trembling slightly. Forcing herself to focus until the end, her hands started to steady and her knots became cleaner. She finished stitching, poured alcohol over the cut again, and taped a gauze pad over it.

“Now you just need to keep it clean and dry. In about seven days they should be able to come out, but I’ll need to look at them to be sure,” Esther said.

“I think that is the best care my wounds have ever received. From now on, I think I’ll be coming to you instead of Margery,” Oisin said.

“Margery?”

“She’s the old maid who works at Grey Keep. She used to be a Huntsman, but now she stays behind and takes care of the Keep while we’re all gone. I think she’s the only reason that place is still standing. She’s the closest thing to a mother most of us have left.”

“She sounds remarkable,” Esther said, packing up her medical supplies.

Oisin stood, shouldering his crossbow over his uninjured arm. “Come on, lass … we’ve a way to go.”

She picked up her pack and followed Oisin back to the road. They walked in silence, Esther lost in thought. Climbing the winding path up to the Keep, the day turned dark. There was something she desperately wanted to ask—needed to ask—after all she had done.

“Why am I here?” she whispered.

“What?”

“Why am I here, Oisin?” she asked again.

He did not reply.

“Please, after everything I’ve been through to get here, I need to know,” she pleaded.

“I’m not the right person to tell ya that, lass.”

“Then who is?” Esther asked, louder than she intended.

“Blue. He can answer all your questions once we get to the Keep.”

“Who is Blue?”

“The leader of our Keep. He’s learned in the magical arts; he’s the one who told us you’d be arrivin’ in the Dead Wood. That blue bird that warned us was one of his scouts. He has ‘em all over.”

“How do I know I can trust this Blue person? How do I know I can trust you?”

“Because we’re all you’ve got right now, and you’re all we’ve got.”

The pair reached the entrance of Grey Keep. Esther stood to Oisin’s left at the edge of a trench. Upon seeing the structure closer, she realized it was not the Keep itself but rather a great stone wall around it.

Atop the wall there were mounted weapons. To Esther they appeared to be very large crossbows. There was a trench dug around the perimeter of the wall and a drawbridge that permitted people to pass.

“Stop right there!”

Esther looked up. There was someone manning one of the mounted weapons, and it was pointed directly at them. She held up her hands.

“What are ya’ doing, lass? They aren’t bears—making yourself bigger won’t help,” Oisin said.

“Bears?” she asked. “Where I come from it means you’re not a threat and that you surrender.”

“What do you want to surrender to him for?”

“Because I do not want to get shot by a giant arrow.”

“Oi! Stop talking, you two!” the guard called out over them. “Who are you and what’s your business here?”

“Calm down, Windsor; it’s me, Oisin. I’ve just returned from the Dead Wood with the Realm Walker,” Oisin explained to the man.

“Oisin, eh? Well, you’ve been gone for a long time; you were supposed to return weeks ago. How do I know it’s really you?” Windsor asked.

“Come off it, Windsor, I’ve only been gone for three days.”

“Three days? It’s been six weeks!”

“It’s only been three days, Windsor! Now open up and let us in! I’m too tired to deal with you right now.”

“No. I need to see your face.”

“Windsor!”

“Things have been getting worse, so I need to know it’s really you before I open the gates. Now if you want to come in any time tonight, swallow your damned pride and take off your hood, Oisin.”

“Worse? What do you mean worse? What happened?”

“I’m not telling you anything until you take off your hood.”

Esther had half a mind to pull off Oisin’s hood herself. She couldn’t understand why he was so reluctant. She swallowed her curiosity and forced herself to look forward.

Cursing under his breath, Oisin reluctantly pulled his hood off.

From the corner of her eye, Esther could see Oisin’s hair was bright red, his face held a fair complexion, and his entire left side was heavily scarred. Several long, angry red marks ran from above his hairline down into his tunic, obscuring his eye and the corner of his mouth. She resisted the urge to turn and gape.

“There’s your pretty face, Oisin!” Windsor exclaimed.

“Fuck you, Windsor! Now open the bloody gate!” Oisin yelled back.

As the gate was being lowered, Oisin glanced at Esther to see if she was staring. With a huff and a quick flick of his hand, Oisin retreated into his hood. Esther silently followed him through the gate. Once inside the wall, Esther was greeted with a friendlier sight than she expected. A few trees were scattered across the courtyard along with a well and what looked like a garden. There were two smaller buildings and one main building with large lanterns in front of the stoop.

She followed Oisin into the main building; the great hall was plain but comfortable. Long wooden tables with benches sat in the center of the room, and on the back wall was one of the largest fireplaces she’d ever seen. There were hallways leading off the great hall in different directions and one stone staircase by the main door.

“It’s late; I reckon most of the lads are asleep by now.” Oisin went to inspect the pot hanging over the fire. “And they’ve eaten all the food. No matter, Margery will surely have breakfast ready in the mornin’. We’d best find you a place to sleep. Come along, there’s an empty room next to mine.” Oisin lit two candles and gave one to Esther.

She followed Oisin further into the building. The narrow maze of stone halls flickered with the yellow candlelight and cast deep shadows on the rocks. With every step she took, she grew more uneasy. The clicking of footsteps echoed down the dark hall. The hair on her neck stood up. The sound grew louder—the footsteps getting closer.

“So you’ve finally returned, have you, Oisin? Now tell me, did all your childish dreams of finding your Realm Walker come true, or have you finally given up?” The man laughed at Oisin, stepping closer to the candlelight. “Or perhaps you found this mythical Walker and couldn’t get them here safely.”

“Byron, glad to see you’re still here. The women of the village haven’t tarred and feathered you yet?” Oisin asked.

“The bloody whores won’t get up off their backs long enough to catch me!” Byron laughed. “Who’s that behind you? It’s not Genny, is it—no, she’s much too short.”

“This is Esther.” Oisin turned to the side, giving Esther room to step forward. “The Realm Walker.”

“Are you serious?” Byron asked.

Oisin didn’t respond.

“You sure she isn’t just some girl that got lost in the Dead Wood and went mad? It has happened before, you know.” Byron stepped closer to Esther and inspected her like a used car. “Hmmm. So, this time the Walker is a girl. Fancy that.”

Byron encroached on Esther’s personal space and she stepped back, avoiding him.

“Byron! That’s enough now, we’ve only just arrived and I’d like some rest before I have to kill ya.”

“If I recall, last time you made that threat you failed to deliver on it.” Byron laughed.

“You’re right, I didn’t kill ya; Borus and Windsor stopped me before I’d had the pleasure.”

“Windsor? That joke of a Huntsman is too busy off being a fluff in the village to be of any use.”

“You remember what happened last time you called him that?” Oisin stepped forward, hands shaking at his sides. “Now move along, as I’ve to get Esther a room.”

“The rooms are all full. You and Genny were the only ones who’d gone on hunts, and now we have some visitors from the other Keeps here. But not to worry, Esther can stay with me.”

“I’ve had enough of you, Byron, now get out of the way.” Oisin shoved Byron against the wall, walking Esther past him.

“Well, he seemed like a pleasant man,” Esther said dryly.

“He’s a bloody scoundrel.”

“Duly noted.”

Oisin took Esther further down the hall to the room that was his. It was small and bare. On the one side of the room was a modest bed, on the other a small dresser with a wash bowl, and hooks on the wall by the door for his weapons.

“You can wait here while I find you a room. If the guest rooms are full then you’ll have to stay in Genny’s room tonight. I’ll be right back.” Oisin hung up his weapons and made to leave the room. “Lass? Stab Byron with your wee sword there if he comes in here.”

Esther laughed to herself.

She set her candle down and removed her pack. She always felt odd sitting on another person’s bed, so she stayed standing, pacing the small room. She looked about the room, taking time to inspect Oisin’s weapons. They were well crafted and heavily worn by battle, but not rusted or tarnished.

Esther walked over to the dresser. Next to the wash basin was a small portrait. The picture was faded, slightly torn at the edges, and set in a simple frame. The painting was of a young girl, no more than five, with curly red hair.

Esther went to pick it up to get a closer look. The painting fell out of the frame. She scrambled to put it away before Oisin returned. Her heart stopped when she saw the back of the painting. Large, crude letters were painted across it: YOU FAILED HER.

Esther gently put the portrait back together and placed it in its original spot. She put her hands in her pockets and went back to looking at the weapons. The more she learned, the more curious she grew about her companion.

Lost in thought, she jumped when Oisin returned to the room.

“Easy, lass,” Oisin said as he walked in.

“I was just admiring the craftsmanship of your weapons. You startled me.”

“I see that. Looks like Byron was right: The guest rooms are all full and all the Huntsmen except Genny are here tonight. Genny’s room is just across the hall, so you can stay there tonight. I’m sure she won’t mind; even so, it’s the only option you’ve got. Come along and I’ll show ya where it is.”

Esther grabbed her pack and hurried after Oisin. Genny’s room looked exactly like Oisin’s, except she had a large colorful quilt on her bed.

“All right, lass, there’s a wash basin over there with clean water you can use. And if you like there’s a small lock on the door as well.

“I’m just across the hall, but if you’re more comfortable havin’ your door locked that’s fine; your nerves must be a fret. I can come knock on your door when breakfast’s ready; you can meet the others then and we can get you proper clothing, too. For now sleep well, lass.”

“Thank you for everything, Oisin.”

With a small bow of his head, Oisin left Esther to her own devices.

She shuffled about the room uncomfortably for a while, her adventure having left her disoriented and tired. She locked the door and washed her face in the basin. After removing her belt and knife, she paced the small room.

Esther wanted to remove her blood-stained sweater but found the room to be too cold in just a tank top. She reluctantly sat on the bed and took off her shoes and socks. Sleeping in someone else’s bed was far from appealing to her, but her fatigue started to take hold. She lay down atop the covers and a short, restless sleep fell over her.


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