Chapter 378: Intruder
It was a rest day. Dappled sunlight shone down on the orphanage and the children in it. For once, the sun was shining in the winter. When afternoon swung by, the kids followed Auckes and Serrit into the woods to forage for goods.
All the kids had baskets strapped to them. They sang nursery rhymes as they hopped and skipped through the woods in search of treasures like petite shepherd's purses, dark, wrinkly cabbages, and wild onions growing within the cracks of rocks. Buckthorns and marigolds were on their list of items, and sometimes they came across little surprises as well. Bird eggs on low-hanging branches, sour cherries, and alfalfas for Wilt, Roach, and Scorpion.
The air was dry and filled with the scent of soil and tree bark, and the kids enjoyed themselves. Two witchers were leaning on a tree, chewing on foxtails. Their eyes were closed, and sometimes they would tell the kids to not stray too far from them.
Vicki broke that rule. Surreptitiously, she went in the opposite direction of the orphanage and almost buried herself in the patch of grass to get the marigolds. She was the top scorer for every test and would carry out all the tasks given to her perfectly.
Unlike the other kids, she wasn't cheeky. Vicki had no grandiose dreams to speak off. All she wanted was for the teachers to compliment her, especially when they patted her head and praised her in front of the kids for her good grades.
Her heart would leap with joy every time that happened. She would do her best to get all the important herbs just for the compliments. Fruits and greens were not what she would go for; only herbs.
The grass hid her from everyone's sight, and the girl kept going forward. Unbeknownst to her, the noises were getting quieter. Eventually, sweat started dripping from her face, and she raised her head only to find herself in an unfamiliar part of the woods. There wasn't anyone around. Not her friends, and certainly not her teachers. They were all left behind.
A gust of breeze rustled the leaves and bushes. The alder woods felt like a beast that had woken from its slumber, staring at her.
Vicki curled up and little and held her basket tightly. Her fingers were pale from overexertion, her breathing laborious. "A-Am I lost? Serrit? Auckes? Are you there? Lenna? Renee? Hello, is anyone there?"
Nobody answered her shouts.
"Calm down, Vicki." Vicki wiped her snot away and balled her fists. "Remember what the teachers taught you. Find your way out of the woods." She calmed down and hunkered down to stare at the trees' shadows. With a shivering voice, she told herself, "I-It's the afternoon. The shadows are in the east, and the orphanage is in the west. I-I should go in this direction. I can do it. You can do it, Vicki."
She took a deep breath and steeled herself. The girl ran and kept her breathing in check like she always did during the morning jogs. For a moment, she was like a squirrel hopping through the woods, but less than a hundred yards later, she bumped into something and fell back down. She held her backside and started to pout. Tears were welling up in her eyes.
There was something like a giant in front of her. It was at least six feet four and twice Vicki's size. The silhouette was as gaunt as a ghoul, and it was wearing a black cloak. Vicki noticed the stench of sweat and urine coming from the silhouette like it hadn't taken a bath in forever. And there was the smell of animals coming off him too.
His back was turned to the sun, his face hidden in the darkness. Vicki could vaguely see a long face and bloodshot, sunken eyes. And the thick, unkempt mustache hanging under the man's nose. He grinned, then darkness swooped over the girl.
Auckes spat his foxtail out and dug the soil under his nails out. There was a frown on his forehead. "Did you hear that, Serrit? I have a bad feeling about this. Kids, gather round! Right now!" Serrit raised his left arm and shouted. "Anyone who isn't here in thirty seconds won't get dinner tonight!"
"I'm not giving up dinner!"
"Go, people, go! Don't let the teachers take our dinner away!"
"Pick up the pace! What are you waiting for?"
Horrified, the children ran as fast as they could to the teachers and stood right in front of him. Less than twenty seconds later, the kids were already lined up as they used to every morning. Four rows and five columns, and not a limb out of the formation. One of the kids lost their boot, however, and was walking barefoot, but nobody laughed at her.
The witchers took a glance and noticed someone missing. "Who's not here?" Serrit's face fell, his voice filled with anger.
"Vicki's not here, sir!" Monti raised his hands and shouted. The reserve apprentices wanted Vicki to be their wife, so everyone had been paying attention to her.
"That's Vicki's position!" Lenna, the girl with the missing boot, said. She knew she looked embarrassing, but that didn't matter.
Carl was stomping his foot nervously. "Vicki's lost? I can't let my wife go missing. Sir, say the word and we'll search for her."
The kids started making noise, and Serrit shouted, "Shut up and stay right here, kids! We'll be finding and bringing Vicki back."
He gave Auckes a look, and the latter leapt to the place where the children were playing earlier. Like a beast, he looked around and saw ribbons of different colors hanging in the air. They represented different children, and most of them led to the kids.
However, one of them disappeared into the patch of grass and led into the unknown forest. Auckes whistled loudly, and an eagle with grey feathers flew down and perched on his shoulder. The eagle knocked on his armor to say hi.
"Roy told me you were a smart girl, Gryphon. You understand what I'm saying, right?"
"Good. Follow me. I'll need you to track someone."
Gryphon whistled again and flew out of the woods, circling in the skies. At the same time, Auckes darted into the forest in pursuit of that ribbon.
A silhouette was flitting across the forest. The man had long limbs, and he took big steps. The tree trunks, roots, and mulch couldn't even slow him down in the slightest. He was moving as deftly as an ape in the woods. His black cloak billowed behind him, and a petite figure rested in his arms.
Her hair was unkempt, her face was pale, and her eyes were half-closed. Her head was on the man's shoulder, and she was locked in an iron grip.
Before she was taken, Vicki only had time to leave her hair band, and then she lost consciousness. Before she did, she could feel despair grabbing her. Just when she finally found a place to call home, she was taken away unceremoniously. This man is a kidnapper. Where is he taking me to? Skellige Isles? Is he going to marry me off to some old geezer?
Regret welled up within her, and she made one wish. I just wish the teachers would praise me one more time. Just one more time.
An eagle descended and scratched the man's face. Gashes were made, and blood was drawn. The man grunted in pain and slowed down. An air current slammed into him, sending him flying back.
The branches and leaves cushioned his fall, and the man quickly stood back up.
A silhouette in brown leather armor leapt out of the bush beside him, his amber eyes filled with murder.
The gaunt man in a grey cloak refused to release the girl in his arms. He grabbed the hatchet hanging from his waist, but then he heard someone scoff, and the last thing he saw was a colorful firework. He blacked out without seeing what hit him.
"Nobody touches our children." Auckes spat in the man's face.
He checked on Vicki's breathing and heartbeat and heaved a sigh of relief.
He pinched her nose, and the girl eventually regained consciousness. When she realized she was in Auckes' arms, her lips puckered, and her hair swayed. Then she cried. "I-I'm sorry, Auckes. I shouldn't have run around."
"Young lady, the next time you go on an adventure, you tell me first. But you're smart."
Vicki was overjoyed that she was praised. Even though she was almost kidnapped moments ago.
Auckes tied her hair with the hairband she left behind and turned his attention to the would-be kidnapper.
He was gaunt, his face was almost skeletal, his mustache wasn't cleaned, and his hair was clumped. But most importantly, he reeked of animal urine and nature.
"Oh, he's a hunter? I see how he managed to dodge my traps." Auckes raised his leg and brought it down hard against the unconscious man's face. Once, twice, thrice, and even more.
"I'm going to break your face, or my name isn't Auckes!"
Marks of Auckes' boot were imprinted on the hunter's face. His nose was broken, and his cheeks swelled. Though he was unconscious, the man spasmed.
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