"Untitled"
By Niko Wilde and Daryl Anderson
Copyright © 2001-2002, all rights reserved

-Alain-

Night had fallen in the Wildwoods, without warning or ceremony. It was as if the frigid wind blowing in from the south had smothered the light from the sky. Alain Blackthorne had been riding hell for leather from the Four Kingdoms for weeks now, and it wasn’t beyond his notice that the days had been getting steadily shorter. Even though the winds were merciless and the ground was covered in layer upon layer of frozen snow and ice, this meant winter was coming, and soon. True winter- it was a concept he barely understood, because the winters in Poynfeld had been nothing if not mild. Still, he remembered the tales of the Outlands he had heard as a boy at Tante Caleth’s knee, and he knew he was venturing into uncharted territory.

No one in the Four Kingdoms knew much about the Outlands, most especially past the Wildwoods. This was the last bastion of fairy tales, the stuff of which old nurses wrought tales of monsters and magic in hopes of scaring their young wards into behaving. Alain had passed Maiden’s Kiss days ago, and had plunged headfirst into the Wildwoods with renewed vigor and hope. If there were monsters here, then he would meet them with steel. If he could get through these woods, there was a chance that whomever had been following him would turn back- and Alain’s head would stay safely on his shoulders, just where he liked it.

But winter was coming, and the Wildwoods seemed to go on forever. Alain had begun to entertain the notion that perhaps finding shelter would be the best bet for safety- a place to weather the oncoming winter, and prepare for an even longer journey.

Not a star shone in the sky as he urged the horse to slow his pace, ever mindful of the hidden dangers lying buried in snow and ice. This was unfamiliar terrain, and even though his mind screamed at him to push ahead ever faster- sensibility whispered in his ear with such persistence that he had no choice but to obey. Overhead, barren tree limbs scraped and rattled like old bones. Alain found himself listening to the strange, unfamiliar music these nightsounds made- and here, in the dark…in the cold…it was comforting.

The frigid wind had found a way to burrow beneath his sable cloak…beneath his heavy woolen breaches and moleskin gloves. It had even found a way in through the layers of wool, ringmail, and boiled leather that covered him from nearly head to toe. It had become a part of him, and no fire was ever going to burn hot enough to make him warm again. It was miserable traveling running from home and hearth and everything he had ever known- but a kingslayer had no choice. Stay and rot in the dungeons under Bolairdis Keep until the day when Queen Lysa demanded justice for her slain husband, or leave everything behind for the chance at fading from the face of the earth.

But the Lady herself had set him free, under the cover of darkness. She had come to him in the dungeons, and whispered words of the Free Cities beyond the Outlands. She had unlocked his chains, and given him a horse and provisions. Alain didn’t understand what would have prompted the Queen to free him. He had slain the King, that much was beyond doubt. He remembered it all well enough- the song of the steel as it cut deeply into flesh and bone. The spray of blood that had coated his hands and face. The sudden and irrational thought that the King’s blood hadn’t been blue after all. Why should the King’s lady wife be interested in seeing him escape?

Alain had heard rumors of the King’s quick temper. Whispers had often reached his ears through the outer ranks of the kingsguard- stories of the King’s fondness for beating his lady wife until she screamed and begged for mercy…but oddly enough, Alain couldn’t recall one instance of seeing bruises marring her pretty pale flesh. To Alain’s trained eye, the king seemed more oafish than violent. Surely, the man had a loud voice and was prone to argue while drowning in ale…ah, but Alain knew he could be wrong. He would have never believed his King to be capable of murdering in cold blood. All it had taken was one court cobra whispering the word treason in the King’s fat ear…

Alain felt no remorse for the King’s death. He knew he would kill the oaf all over again, if given the opportunity. Justice was sweet, revenge even sweeter still.

He flexed his frozen fingers, cursing the moleskin gloves for not keeping out the cold. If he traveled just a bit further, Alain could allow himself to stop for the night. His stomach was growling loud enough to drown out the din of the wind, and even a small campfire would be enough to put some warmth back into his numb fingers. Sleep was altogether more difficult, although he had grown accustomed to waking at even the slightest noise.

The temperature was continuing to drop, and Alain began to wonder if sleep was such a good idea after all. It would be too ironic, coming all this way only to freeze to death because he hadn’t had sense enough to find shelter before now. The wind had died down, Alain knew…because the Wildwoods had suddenly become deathly silent. No wind, but so cold…

He could barely see through eyes clouded milk white from the cold- even rubbing them with the back of a gloved hand hadn’t done much good, only drove the icy needles further into his tired eyes. As if seeing through this blanket of darkness had been an easy task to begin with…where were the stars? Hadn’t the sun been up earlier? And perhaps his nearly frozen eyes were playing tricks on him, but Alain would swear that the shadows just up ahead were moving. Moving, and making the most bizarre sound…

Alain reached for his sword, but that sound…almost a high pitched keening, the only way he could think to describe it…caused the horse to startle, and no matter how tightly he pulled on the reigns, he could feel the graceless beast slipping. Horse and rider landed in a tangled heap on the frozen ground, with the sound of breaking bones echoing through the darkness.



Durn

His mount had been fresh some three hours earlier, traded for the animal he had ridden into the ground from Poynfeld. The steadily rising terrain and the dense forest were eating up whatever advantage he had gained. Mountain bred stock or not, it took concentration and time to pick a way up the slopes and navigate through the thick trees. The trail Durn Sevign was following wasn't much warmer than when he had stopped at an isolated farm to trade mounts, and the delays were increasing his frustration. The Outlands wasn't somewhere he wanted to continue this chase, and he had hoped to catch the traitor and turn back before the day was out, ending weeks of desperate hunting. With a wry expression, he turned green-grey eyes to the sky, barely glimpsed through the bare tangle of tree limbs. The forest's gloom was giving way to twilight. His time was running out. In more ways than one. Without the renegade, Sevign knew he might as well make his own run into the Outlands, giving up everything he had worked his whole life to achieve.

Resolute, he pulled the thick, fur-lined cloak tighter around him against the severe chill of the southerly wind, and pressed on into the Wildwood's gloom. The snow helped his tracking, without a doubt. The trail was clear, and wound its way up the mountain ridge like a serpent's spine. Unfortunately, it also kept his progress to a virtual crawl as his mount skirted close growing trees and stumbled over snow buried logs or rocks. When his mount went down on a knee, Durn swore and hauled mercilessly on the reins to bring the animal back to it's feet squealing protest at the rough treatment.

There was nothing else he could do. If he expected to make any kind of decent progress before night fell, he'd have to walk. Dismounting, he wound the reins around a thickly gloved fist and let his simmering anger give him the speed that had him almost pulling the reluctant mount in his wake. Keeping his eyes to the trail in the snow, his other hand holding the cloak's hood against the clawing fingers of the wind, Durn planted step after step, ignoring the climb and his surroundings until he was squinting in the failing light to make out where to step next. Pausing, he lifted the hood slightly from ice crusted, black hair and looked around.

Full night had fallen, and the wind had picked up, making the bare trees rattle and groan against each other. Looking up, blinking against the sting of driven snow dust, he could see no stars. A storm was in the air; he could taste it like a metallic aftertaste when he swallowed. He had a choice. Take shelter and risk losing the trail completely as the wind and fresh snow obliterated it; or press on through the night, gaining as much time on his quarry as he could. It was the closest he had been to the King-killer in weeks. Durn felt sure he could only be a day, two at the most, behind the other man. He decided to press on, forcing his frozen body to move, dragging the balky mount behind him like an anchor. Durn's lips thinned and nearly disappeared in the frame of frozen, black beard and moustache with the effort to keep going.

King-killer. That was ironic. If not for the existence of this man on the run, Sevign himself could be facing execution. The fact that he had held no love for the King was common knowledge, but it had always been tempered with the equally clear knowledge that Durn was a man who prided himself on loyalty. Be it to his own garrison, or the Crown of the Four Kingdoms, no matter what manner of man wore it. He was a soldier of the First Rank. Had worked since childhood to obtain that dream, and wouldn't let his personal feelings interfere with ambition. It hardly mattered that he wasn't noble-born when natural talent had him riding the ranks like so many ladder rungs. It didn't even matter that his lack of blue blood kept him in the Lesser Kingdoms during the course of his career, eventually landing him a post leading the Guard of Eeyrie. He excelled; the troops under him had prospered and even respected him enough to like him. Perhaps a bit too much. He had been hearing some disturbing rumors in Rivenstone over the past months. The Lady Verlie's eye had turned his way, from what he had heard, and his men were running interference. Durn's shudder was more revulsion than cold, even if the steady, frigid wind did find every vulnerable spot of his clothing and armor.

The need to keep going, to gain time and distance on the running guard, was the only thing that kept Durn plowing one foot ahead of the other, straight into the wind. He lost track of time, and barely noticed when the wind became thick with falling snow. His fingers were numb through gloves stiff with cold, and he was having trouble keeping the flapping cloak securely around him. Barely able to see, yet able to see enough to know that the trail he was following was gradually getting erased, he finally admitted defeat.

He stopped to get his bearings and take stock of his surroundings, his exhausted mount nosing into his back with an unfelt puff of breath. The darkness would have been absolute if not for the eerie way snow tended to reflect any amount of available light. Even through the driving snow, he could make out the ruddy glow to his left, at the base of the darker shape of what could be the top of the ridge, or a mound of boulders. Over taxed muscles protesting every step of the way, Durn turned toward the fire in a cautious approach. It could be his quarry. He approached downwind, squinting into the frigid gale driving through the pass to the south, and got close enough to see two figures huddled by a fluttering fire. The leeward side of the massive outcropping of baserock provided some protection from the storm, and a small shelter hugged the natural crevasse between two large boulders.

Two of them. It couldn't be the man he was after, unless he found company. Squinting harder, he could see no sign of a mount. Turning his face into the fur of his hood and out of the wind, Durn frowned in thought. The trail he was following was definitely that of a mounted man, and he had seen no sign of a fallen animal along the way. These two had to be Outlanders. Outcasts, criminals, runaway slaves and the general misfits of the Four Kingdoms were rumored to make their way into the Outlands and to the fabled Free Cities beyond. Durn had always assumed they found nothing but death in the uninhabitable wastelands, in one form or another. Those that managed to survive had to be the toughest of the lot, and most probably the most heartless and fierce. These two were equally likely to welcome his company, or kill him for the mount and cloak.

Making sure his sword was loose in it's scabbard, he led the animal boldly into the camp. The difference was immediate, as the wind was blocked by the outcrop, and he straightened to his full height. The two took notice of Durn's approach with wary menace. Both were ragtag, scruffy and bore some resemblance to each other. The younger could be the elder's son, or brother. It was difficult to tell relative ages in the light of the wildly flickering fire and under layers of dirty cloth, pelts and facial hair. The elder did recognize the crest stitched into Durn's cloak, however, and bristled with a cold stare. It would hardly matter which of the four garrisons Sevign belonged to; he was a high ranking guard, and potentially a threat to the outlaws. Moving his empty right hand away from his side, Durn continued to approach, leading the tired mount. Still wary, the elder of the two watched his progress, the other's eyes widening with realization of what and who he was looking at.

When Durn ducked the shelter's hide roof to hunker by the fire, stretching stiff-gloved hands to the wavering heat, the elder of the two still had him fixed with a steely glare. "Yer a long ways from home, Commander." He said with open suspicion.

"Too far." Durn agreed, giving his own frank appraisal of the pair in return. "Mind if I share the fire till this storm blows itself out? I'll be on my way again either then, or at first light."

"The sooner the better." The elder grunted, adding wood to the fire. He gave his companion a warning glance, then ignored Durn. The message was clear. If a Garrison Commander didn't want them, the outlaw didn't care what or who the man was after, and would offer no information in return for the warmth of a fire. The sooner they parted company, the better the scruffy ruffian would like it.

That suited Durn fine, and he got up to make sure his mount would survive the bitter night. Grabbing a bedroll from behind the saddle, he shook out the cloths and fur before wrapping them around broad shoulders. Settling at the fire again, he noticed the elder had rolled into a sleeping blanket, a thin back to the flames. The younger was still watching him with wary awe. The kid, and he could tell now that he was closer, had probably never seen a garrison soldier before. Without a word the pale bearded youth rolled into his own threadbare blanket, leaving Durn alone with the howl of wind and fainter crackle of sap popping and hissing in the fire.

Sevign didn't sleep. He alternated between feeding the fire and staring at it, huddled in his cloak and bedroll and letting his body rest between strong gusts of the intensifying blizzard. The snow fell thick and heavy with wet splashes of hissing deaths in the flames. The meager shelter provided by the outcropping of rock, a pair of boulders on either side, with a large, raw hide stretched between, was still better than being out in the full brunt of the southern winter storm. The first storm of the season boded for a long, harsh winter. The sooner he found his man, the better.

Then he could go back. To what, he wasn't yet sure of. His position was already tenuous. Probably non-existent, if he really gave himself pause to think on it. If he returned empty handed, he'd take the traitor's place and be executed as a conspirator to the King's death. A guard who was not at his post when he should have been, no matter the reason, can only be held accountable. Durn knew it, and wouldn't hesitate to enforce it if it were any of his men.



-Alain-

The instant his mount had gone down, Alain was greeted with a pair of snapping jaws hovering just inches above his face. Whatever this creature was, it was the source of the strange sound he had been hearing. The jaws opened, and there it was again- high, whispering, and reedy. Plaintive, as if the creature were asking him a question. But before the jaws could snap closed, the broadsword in Alain’s hands crashed down on the creature’s skull, embedding deeply in flesh and bone. The world disappeared in a hot flood of black, foul smelling ichor as the creature slumped heavily on top of him. Sharp teeth chattered convulsively, precariously close to Alain’s left eye- and all the man could do was hold his breath to stop himself from choking on the blood that ran over his face in a sticky, rancid gush.

It burned like wildfire, and it was alive with small parasites that wriggled in a mad dance across his skin.

He dropped the sword and took hold of the creature with both hands, wrenching himself free, pulling his trapped leg out from under his fallen mount, as well. Breathing heavily, Alain dug into the snow and brought handful after handful to his face, trying to wash the blood from his skin. He welcomed the icy burn of fresh snow, and he scrubbed is face until it was raw. The dead stench of the blood still hung heavily in his nostrils, and he could still feel the phantom parasites as they tried to burrow into his nose and mouth. He spat, and spat again for good measure. Only after he was sure nothing remained did he attempt to climb to his feet.

The horse lay on its side, struggling desperately to right itself. Alain stepped closer, and nudged the beast gently with his boot. One of the animal’s six legs had been bent at an unnatural angle- it didn’t take a genius to see that it was broken. There was only one thing to do, of course. There was no sense in hesitating, although he was mutely furious with himself for putting himself in this situation in the first place. He should have been more careful. But it was long past time to let go of the “should have’s”. He picked the broadsword up from where it lay in the snow, and brought it down cleanly against the horse’s neck.

“Gods be good, this has to be the end of the bad luck,” he said. The words were immediately swallowed by the churning winds, and swept off to some forlorn corner of the woods, but it felt good to hear his own voice again. He pulled his pack from the corpse of the horse, and hunkered down beside it to wait out the night.

The thick sable cloak wrapped tight did little to seal out the vicious wind, or the daggers of snow that sought to drive through the warmth of the fur. Still, it had grown quieter…nearly silent. His own breathing was deafening in his ears, and the trees overhead sounded like old bones in a tomb. He wasn’t alone, and he knew it. The shadows still twisted with malevolence, and if he listened closely, he could hear a chorus of plaintive cries being whispered on the wind. Whatever the creature was that he had killed, it hadn’t found him on it’s own. There were others, indeed- from the sounds- an entire pack of parasite-ridden monstrosities. Alain hadn’t gotten a good look at the creature yet, but he would at dawn’s first light. He had a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he was about to be confronted with a truth that he refused to recognize: the monsters in Tante Caleth’s fairy tales were real. Luck, the only bit of luck he’d had so far, had seen him through the first confrontation…but how would he fare against an entire pack?

That was reason enough to fight against the overwhelming exhaustion that threatened to drag him into a deep and dreamless sleep. The corpse of the horse was cooling rapidly, but it partially blocked the wind. And so he sat, broadsword lain across his knees, reflecting on what had brought him to this lonely place.

Who had brought him to this lonely place.

It had been Jorah, of course. Freezing and miserable, he could curse Jorah with every ounce of strength he had left, for being noble when common sense had screamed for survival, instead. For holding fast to the belief that honor would win out, in the end. For a million things, half formed in Alain’s mind- a million short comings, either real or only borne out of bitter disillusionment…a trick of the cold, so to speak. But there was one thing that Alain could never forgive Jorah for, and that was quite simple: the man had made Alain love him. That was the heart of it. That was why he was here, freezing beside a dead horse, soaked in the blood of some creature he had never set eyes on before. For love, he had given up the tenuous grasp he had held on his own honor.

“The things we do for love, ‘eh horse?” he chuckled softly to himself, patting the rump of the dead animal for emphasis. For the second time, he was comforted by the sound of his own voice, and the absurdity of it all settled on him like a heavy blanket. In a day or so, he would be as dead as well- there wasn’t a doubt in his mind. How could there be? His hopes of making his way through the Wildwoods before winter came had all but disappeared the moment his mount went down. He would never make it on foot, although he was determined to die trying.

He ached for a fire, but in order to gather the firewood- he would have to confront the pack of whispering creatures that crouched just beyond his line of sight. It wasn’t a risk he was willing to take, not until he could learn more about these creatures, and just what sort of a threat they posed. As it was, the scent of their brother’s blood seemed to be enough to keep them at bay- and that was enough for Alain.

The night was long, lonely, and bitter cold- but when dawn broke, the sunrise was magnificent. The sky burned a brilliant ruddy orange, shot through with pale red clouds that seemed to be the only testament left to the last night’s snow squall. He wasn’t sure how long daylight would last, but he was determined to make the most of it. Overhead, the hawks had begun to fly in, roosting in the trees, undoubtedly waiting for their chance to make a meal of the horse. He climbed to his feet, shaking himself free of snow and weariness, stamping his feet in order to return some bloodflow to his legs.

With the daylight came the chance to finally set eyes on the creature that had startled the horse, and Alain wasted no time in studying the carcass. The pack seemed to have moved on an hour or so before the sun had come up, and he was relieved. Stepping back, he lifted the creature’s head with the tip of his broadsword. Tante Caleth had spoken of Muties often enough, but he had never believed such a thing to be real. Supposedly, they were a strange breed of mutated animals- not precisely monsters, but close enough to fit the description. This one had the head and facial features of an obscenely large rodent, but the body was broad and powerful, with well-muscled flanks that reminded Alain of the wolves back home. The body seemed to be covered in coarse black fur- dense and thick, perfect for the ungodly cold that crept in at night. The tail was long and pink, again- like that of a rodent…but it was as thick as a man’s bicep. Something protruded from the creature’s side, and when he looked closer, Alain saw that it was a rudimentary fifth leg that hadn’t fully developed. The most disconcerting part of all, however, was the steady stream of fat, grey worms that spilled from the dead thing’s mouth, into the snow. Alain shuddered as he watched, realizing slowly that those had been in his mouth, if even for a moment. Reflexively, he spat again. He could still feel them squirming against his tongue.

Overhead, the hawks circled, squalling out their indigence to anyone who would listen. Alain knew that his presence here wouldn’t deter them for much longer- they were hungry, and there was suddenly a wealth of fresh meat waiting for them on the snow. Alain’s stomach lurched at the thought, reminding him that he was hungry as well- but he would find time for eating later, after he covered some fresh ground. He picked up his pack, and slipped the broadsword into the leather sheath on his back. Giving his surroundings one last look, he headed off deeper into the overgrown tangle of trees.

The sun shone brightly, chasing away the previous night’s shadows. It was like a mythical winter wonderland, covered in pristine snow, the tree limbs dappled with jewels of ice- but such beauty was cold comfort when faced with the overwhelming possibility that each footstep forward was just forestalling the inevitable. Prolonging death a few hours more. Alain began to speculate on how the end would come. Perhaps at the mercy of a creature similar to the one he had slain? He was good with a sword, calm and capable…but he had no desire to delude himself. If even half of the stories were true, even the most expert swordsman would fall when faced with such strange creatures. But, he was sure the end would hardly be as exciting as that. More likely, he would die from exposure to the elements, or perhaps a nice, drawn out starvation.

“Damn you, Jorah,” he cursed, to no one in particular. “Damn you to every hell that exists.”

He trudged through the wind-deepened snow, drifts that were already knee high and bound to get deeper still before night fell…or more accurately, when day fell out of the sky. That was how abrupt the transition came. Time had ceased to exist, if such a thing had ever existed in the first place. The castle, the Kingsguard, Jorah- that part of his life had already begun to take on the disjointed feel of dreams- and someone else’s, at that. The only thing that was real now was the overwhelming urge to survive, even if the odds did seem to be stacked against him. Slowly, he could feel his old resolve strengthening, even as the snow soaked through the heavy wool breaches and left him chilled to the bone. He had faced worse, and lived to tell the tales. His life would not end here.

Deeper still into the unknown forest, until every sound was unfamiliar, until his heart hammered painfully in his chest- one hand always at the ready to reach for his sword. Every so often, he would force himself to stop his desperate push forward…to stand still, and listen past the unfamiliar sounds. He sought the sounds of another horse and rider, the one he knew had been following- the one who belonged to that other life that only came alive again in dreams. When he was satisfied with the silence that lingered beyond the safety of the trees, he would begin again- adrenaline pumping hot and heavy with every beat of his heart. Wading through the snow made his muscles ache, but he was able to push the weariness to the back of his mind. He prayed for a strong wind, or perhaps another snow squall sometime after night had descended…anything to make his tracks more difficult to follow.

And that was when he saw it.

It was enough to make him rub his eyes with the backs of snow encrusted gloves, because he was sure this vision couldn’t possibly be real. It was a dwelling: small, made of logs with a thatched roof…but a dwelling, nonetheless. The door was opened wide, as if the occupants had simply fled into the night. Alain pushed through the snow, grim determination flooding through every pore. A roof was a roof, and anything was preferable to spending the night out in the open again. If he found the place as empty as it looked, so much the better. If not…the owners would find themselves with a guest through the winter. The threat of steel could be very persuasive.



-Durn-

It didn't take a genius to know that given the chance, the Outlanders would kill him in his sleep and take everything, leaving his body bare and buried in the snow. Durn Sevign wasn't a genius, admittedly, but he hadn't become a garrison Commander relying on his charm and good looks. Twice during that long night he caught the glimmer of the elder Outlander's eyes reflecting light from the fire. Each time he made certain the man could see his hand resting easily on the thick pommel of his sword. The boy slept through the night, stirring only in the grip of some dream or other. Going without sleep wasn't something Durn was a stranger to, and when the light was enough for him to see that the steady gale still drove snow from the south, he abandoned the rough shelter and his would-be assassin.

He left the two alive. It was to the elder's credit that he didn't try anything during the night, and Durn understood well enough that living in this wasteland could drive even an honest man to murder and theft. It would only be in keeping with the reputation for brutality Southerners had earned. It was also better for the boy that he didn't have to be introduced to that part of his rough life yet. He might have a beard, but his eyes were still guiless. Perhaps the elder wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. Perhaps Durn did as well. At any rate, they were both still breathing when he checked his gear and lead his reluctant mount into the dying blizzard.

The trail he had been following was long gone and buried under fresh drifts. The dense forest did manage to preserve parts of it, and Durn found himself heading south, the same direction he had been going for weeks, hoping to stumble across these faint traces of disturbed old snow. They were very far and few between, and as he neared the crest of the ridge he was climbing, they disappeared altogether. So did the blizzard.

The clouds hung low and laden over the mountains that continued to the south. The peaks marched in ever-higher progression until the horizon was nothing but glacier and cloud mantled spires. Sevign felt his stomach lurch. His quarry was out there, somewhere, in all of that, a good day ahead of him. He could be anywhere. It would take an army to find one man in this wilderness, and perhaps two. By the Twelve Hells an army could be lost in those mountains. His eyes turned cold as marble as he gazed out over the valleys and climbing foothills, all of it densely clothed in thick forest. Wildwood. Could it even be called Wildwood anymore? He was already past the last boundary markers that indicated the lands of Summervale.

Durn was about to turn back to the mount that was eagerly chewing up clumps of frozen, wind cleared vegetation, when he noticed the hawks. He was a man of Eyrie, and the raptors always caught his attention wherever he was. These birds were gathering, swooping in descending spirals above the next ridge. Their four-foot wingspans lazily stroked the steady southerly in competition with each other to be the first ones down. They were going for carrion. No, not carrion. Squinting into the bitter wind, his eyes tearing with moisture that froze to his lashes, Durn watched the avians. They weren't landing. They were circling and roosting in the treetops. Whatever it was, it was still alive.

Pulling the flapping length of fur back over his face and wrapping it securely, Durn turned to the mount. It wasn't much of a lead, but he'd take it. This was a harsh land, and a King's guard might have lived soft enough in the palace to have run into trouble in these mountains. He pulled the animal's head out of a clump of frozen grasses by a horn, and tightened the bridle and then the cinch. With lazy though weary ease, he stepped into the saddle and turned into the wind and over the crest of the ridge. No, it wasn't much of a lead at all, but Durn knew how to play a hunch. It was the best one he had, and beat the Hells out of the thought of searching this region on his own. A task like that would take him the rest of his life. It was probably the very reason his quarry chose to flee south. He had to find the Kingslayer, and soon....or join the fugitive in exile.

The windward side of the ridge was more scree and rock than snow. Ice clung dangerously to any surface stable enough to hold it, but was thankfully easy to see since the constant wind kept the snow swept clear. Gritty granules hid from the wind under rocks and behind clumps of dry, brown vegetation. Durn picked his way carefully toward the treeline, trusting the splayed feet of his mount to keep it upright on the uncertain footing. It's six feet faired better than his two could, so he stayed mounted, and didn't take a full breath until he rode into the forest once again.

The Wildwoods closed cold and quiet around him, even the wind hushed, the descent becoming easier the deeper he rode into the shallow valley. Every once in a while he looked for the sun to keep him on course toward the next ridge, tracking his progress by the swing of the dim orb that spent most of it's time hidden by the remassing snow clouds. The day wouldn't last long, he knew, and he wanted to be on that ridge before it gave out.

If the woods were not so silent, he might have missed the small sounds. They were irregular, unpredictable, and Durn grew gradually convinced that he was being followed. Skirting a large copse of trees, he quickly dismounted and pressed up against the rough bark of one of them, taking a position beside his own trail. He didn't have long to wait. Stumbling along his back trail, breath puffing from the middle of a frost crusted beard, came the boy. Durn's lips thinned with displeasure. He'd have to kill the kid after all. Stealthily, he drew his sword.

Durn stayed out of sight, tensely ready with his breath held, until the youth stepped into view beside the bulk of the tree. In an instant cold steel pressed against the lengthy stubble of the boy's throat. With a strangled yelp, the youth froze in mid-step, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. Brown, Durn noticed. Those eyes were brown. The Eyrie Commander kept the heavy sword's blade pressed against the youth's pulse as he stepped away from the tree. In the light of day, the boy seemed at once older, and much younger, than Durn originally thought. His cheeks, jaw and lip were covered with a youth's sporadic first growth of blonde beard, a few shades lighter than the hair that had escaped a rawhide hood. It was hard to tell how heavy he was under the patchwork layers of hides and pelts that served as clothing, but he was only as tall as Durn's shoulder. The boy lifted a hand as though to push the blade away, then dropped it helplessly back to his side. Sevign could feel the nervous swallow transmitted through the blade.

"Where's your brother?" Durn studied the boy with a suspicious gaze, guessing the relationship between the two, and flicked glances to the surrounding woods, wary of ambush.

"I...I left him," the boy stammered, certain he was about to die. Why he was still breathing could only be because the Commander wanted answers. He was still in enough shock to know that he'd blurt out anything, most probably the truth.

"To follow me?" Durn's bearded mouth twisted in a cynical smile.

If not for the press of cold steel, the boy would have nodded. He was frozen, rooted to the spot, and he doubted his head would have obeyed the command for motion anyway. "I wanted to see where you're going," he said in a rush. "Are you hunting someone? Are you running? Why is an Eastern Commander in Wildwood?"

Wry amusement glittered in Durn's eyes. "For someone at the point of a sword, you have a lot of questions, boy. You're either that brave, or that stupid. My vote's on stupid." He lowered the sword and stepped back a pace, careful to keep the large tree to his flank in case there was an ambush. "Why shouldn't I believe you weren't sent ahead to draw me out?"

The boy's face showed every emotion clearly. Shock, fear, indignation at being called stupid, then finally indecision. It wasn't his face so much as his expressive, deep brown eyes. Durn found himself watching them intently, reading everything in their depths. Coming to his own decision before the youth did, he sheathed the broadsword. The boy was harmless, and likely telling the truth. It needed only the boy's words to cement it. He waited expectantly.

Squaring his shoulders, the boy found some courage when the sword was sheathed. "If you're after that other soldier, I can help you, you know," his voice tight with the lingering sting of being called stupid.

Now he had Durn's complete and undivided attention, sharply focused. "You've seen him? You know this terrain well enough to track him?"

"I didn't see 'im, Rolf did, but he told me about 'im. He told me to stay away if I knew what was good for me. 'Nuthin' but trouble', he said. 'String us all up', he said. Then you came along, right on his trail. I knew you had to be hunting him. Am I right? Are you?"

Durn listened, then turned away with a noncommittal grunt to gather up the reins of his mount. He had wasted enough time, and wanted to be on the next ridge before the day played itself out. The youth dogged his steps.

"I am right!" He was saying, stamping through a drift to keep up with Durn. "You are chasing him. Is he a deserter? What Kingdom are you from? Will you have to kill him?"

About to mount, Sevign turned to regard the boy, pointedly not answering any in that rush of questions. "What's your name, boy?"

Pelt covered shoulders squared again, and Durn had a feeling that it was only the pelts that gave them any breadth. "My name is Evhen, and I'm not a boy!" The scowl he gave Durn wasn't as effective as he would have liked. "I'll have twenty years come spring. I'm not a boy."

Durn grunted again and climbed into the saddle, settling himself comfortably. "You're a boy, right enough. I guess you're going to keep following me?" Evhen looked away pensively, and Durn sighed inwardly. 'He's really going to have to learn to control that give-away face of his,' he thought while he waited.

"I guess I'll stick with you," the youth finally said. "You're going to need a good guide before long."

"Fine," Durn answered, turning the horse's head south again. "If you're still behind me when I need you, I'll yell." He heeled the mount into a walk, and didn't look back to see if the boy was following.

Glancing into the leafless canopy, he found the sun only by its crystal ringed glow behind a heavy snow cloud, a few flakes beginning to fall. Just past midday, and the terrain hadn't begun to rise again yet. He considered picking up the pace, but noticed another hawk angling overhead, riding a thermal. Taking a course from the bird, he pressed on. Whatever was injured was still on the ridge, and he hoped it was his man. He would prefer alive, but after the weeks of chasing he'd be just as happy to bring back a body. He turned his thoughts instead to the youth following.

After a couple of hours negotiating the close growing trees, the terrain climbed once again. Sevign called back without looking, "Why did you leave your brother? Rolf, you said his name is?"

"Yeah, Rolf," came the panting reply from not far behind. "He was being... He wanted.. I didn't want to listen to him anymore!"

"Didn't agree with his idea of killing me, did you?" Rounding the bole of a large tree, he glanced over his shoulder in time to catch the shocked expression on the boy's face.

"How did you know that?"

"Not quite as important as how you talked him out of it. Or did you? You came after me, and he didn't. Is he getting help? Your job is to keep an eye on me, and mark the trail?" Turning in his saddle, he met Evhen's sullen look. "Don't feel bad. The plan was all too easy to figure out. What I want to know now is, are you going to help them, or do I kill you now?" Barely a tug on the reins had his mount stopped, and Durn watched Evhen's range of emotions again. In turn, the youth was flicking nervous glances to the sheathed sword and shifting from foot to foot.

"I really wanted to get to know you, that's why I agreed to follow you." Evhen finally said with a bowed head. "I've never seen the Kingdoms, not that I can remember. I was three when my family came to the Wildwoods. I guess I wanted to hear what it's really like down there." He looked up, and met the cool, green-grey stare of the Commander. "I won't help them. I had never planned to. That's why I said you'd need a guide. I've only left one marker so far, and it points down-valley. Once the snow starts, they'll never know the difference until it's too late."

Durn looked at the youth for a full, long minute, then nodded and held out a hand. "Get up then. I want to make that ridge by dusk."

Evhen's face broke into a wide grin, dissolving the illusion of age that years of rough living had given him. He looked fresh and boyish, and Durn smiled at the transformation as he gave the boy a hand up onto the mount's rump behind him. As the snow finally began to fall in ernest, they made better time through the dense forest, climbing gradually up the slope to the next ridge. By the time they reached the crest, the snow was thick, the wind fresh and bitter, and the hawks had descended from the trees.



<<