Chapter 1: Broken Justice

Copyright © 2013 by D.W. Craigie. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.

The late afternoon sun set on Kailen Tidespinner as he darted across the forest floor, slipping from shadow to shadow. The soft soles of his boots did not betray his step. His clothes, darkened green and brown, matched the foliage around him. Quiet as a ghost, he stalked his prey. Those he followed were not as silent. He knelt and inspected the tracks of four men. All were weighed down with armor and weapons. One set of prints, long and deep, had been made by someone big, very big. Using the undergrowth as cover, Kailen followed them. In this remote corner of the Ironbark Woods, close to the Grenfel Marshes and on the very border of Carodan, the path was kept open only by light foot traffic. Kailen guessed the raiders had been using the area for several months. A mile down the path, the snapping of a strong fire and an echo of voices peppered the air. The first traces of smoke, flavored with cooking meat, caressed his nostrils. His mouth watered. Once finished, he would have his first hot supper in days. It smelled like actual beef, not horse.

He slowed. Night would soon lend him cover. The trees here were not as closely packed, and fingers of sunset lit the forest in amber light. Kailen kept to the deep shadows between these slivers. Named Darogo’s Touch, after the Father Dragon that formed the sun, the evening twilight could expose him and spell his death. Alert to all threats, the breeze roared in his ears like the Upper Karneden after the spring thaw. Just over the next ridge the now-visible smoke of his quarry’s fire drifted through the branches of the surrounding ironbarks and pine trees. Kailen looked to the sky. Half an hour until sunset. He would wait. Concealed within the gnarled branches of a jade berry thicket, Kailen checked his gear. His leathers and harnesses were tightly strapped with no loose ends to snag or flap about. The oiled ironwood of his bow flexed comfortably under his draw. His gull-fletched arrows, secure in their quiver, were ready to pull. The two daggers strapped to his boots slid easily from their sheathes. Lastly, he held the hilt of his father’s sword, the leather worn to his grip. The bronze pommel was worn and pitted, the steel crossbar marked with dings and scratches, but the blade’s balance was perfect. He trailed a finger along the cold metal already knowing every spot of wear. Kailen sat cross-legged on the forest floor with his bow balanced on his knees and his hands folded over its center. He closed his eyes and focused on his pounding heart. A single, flowing breath threaded over his lips. The air filled his lungs, its crisp sting a shock to his body. Evening’s chill fingers seeped through his chest. His heart beat slightly slower. The first breath left him.

He took another breath, this time picturing himself slipping through the darkened underbrush with perfect body control, his prey unaware. The forest would shield him. It would give him the power to judge and sentence. The second breath left him.

He inhaled once more, thinking of the four-wagon caravan he had found three days ago. The family of a peat-farmer, they had been returning from town, their load of peat sold and fresh supplies filling the wagons. Kailen wondered how many people were still waiting for those supplies. No clues revealed the caravan’s destination. The oxen had been slaughtered, and everything of value was taken. Only the bodies, and their bog-stained clothes, were left; three men, two boys, and three women. The men had been killed quickly, but not the women. Their skirts were torn, the flesh between their legs a bruised and bloody mess. Kailen had at first thought this the work of bandits. Then he found the blonde girl. Carved into her forehead was a glyph. No Cardanan, bandit or not, would ever trace the Mark of Galantaegan.

The attackers were Noriziem.

Kailen didn’t know how the sons of bitches had made it this far inland, away from the safety of their longships, but it didn’t really matter. Eight Cardanans, dead at the hands of Noriziem, had nothing more than simple cairns and a brief prayer from Kailen to honor them. If he were able, he would kill every last Noriziem. The world of K’aeran would be better for it.

The third breath left him.

His thundering heart calmed and the jittery heat of nervousness cooled to hardened resolve. He opened his eyes to the failing light and let them adjust. It was the time of a Warden of Carodan. The branches of the thicket whispered with his light-footed departure.

He froze, turned, and peered through the growth behind him. The only light was the pale mist of moon and stars. The hairs stood on the back of his neck. The sensation was the same as when a mountain lion had once stalked him. He studied the forest, saw nothing, and shook it off.

Fog puffed from his mouth. He closed on the encampment and scaled the small rise. Reaching the crest, he peered through the branches at the small hollow below.

Kailen studied the encampment. The hollow was wide and well hidden, a deep bowl carved from the top of the hill. Several lean-tos and tents ringed its center. A spiked earthen berm formed the camp’s perimeter, but Kailen saw only two sentries, one close to him, the other on the opposite side. At the camp’s center six men sat around the bonfire, hunched over their food and drink. Their laughs and jests floated to him in pieces over the crack of the fire. The language was harsh and old. Lording over it all, nailed to a stripped sapling trunk, was a simple banner marked with the silhouette of a black dragon.

Kailen picked his path down the hill. He chose his footing carefully and avoided the loose stones and arced roots that dotted the downward slope. He trusted the twisting fire-shadows to hide him. The nearest guard stared back at the camp with an expression of hunger and irritation combined. He never heard Kailen slip beside him. There was no chance to cry out as a long dagger was driven below his jaw and into his brain. Kailen removed the dagger, wiped it off on the sentry’s shirt, and sheathed it. He pulled the body away from the camp and laid it beneath a large fern. None of the other men noticed the guard’s disappearance.

Drawing his dagger again, Kailen circled to the opposite side of the camp. This guard, more diligent, stared out into the forest. He had no reason to look back at the camp. Kailen snuck from under one of the sharpened barricade logs, right behind the man, and slid his steel cleanly between the man’s skull and first vertebra. The Noriziem could only gurgle on his choking blood. Kailen tucked this one’s body down into the encircling ditch. The men around the fire still drank and ate.

Over the berm he climbed, landing lightly on his feet behind one of the tents. The Noriziems’ conversation was now easy to hear. Peering around the edge of the tent, he watched a bear of a man, clad in tattered leathers and rusting chain mail, stagger to his feet with a splashing mug still in hand. The brute made pumping motions with his arms. Kalien was able to understand most of what he said.

“Now the blonde was a real joy. She fought and kicked, but you could tell she loved it. I haven’t had a woman like that in months.”

The man next to him, in furs that Kailen could smell from twenty paces away, chimed in, “And you won’t again anytime soon. You cut her deep.”

“Well,” the big man held a hand to his chest as if indignant, “the bitch did try to kick my cock in. She deserved it.”

“Aye, a true believer of justice you are!”

They roared with laughter, and the raiders slapped each other on the back, buried their faces in their joints of oxen, and poured beer down their throats. They did not hear Kailen draw his bow. They did not hear his bowstring creak. They did hear the man in stinking furs scream when an arrow sprouted from his eye. He fell back, dead before he hit the ground. The others stared, stupid surprise their only expression. Before they could turn to see where the arrow came from, a second shaft found its mark in the throat of a pot-bellied oaf sitting to the left of the man in rusted mail. The rest stood, drawing axe and sword, but Kailen was already moving.

He rushed between two tents and closed on the man nearest to him, a Noriziem of average build and wearing boiled leather armor. He wielded a mace in one hand and a dagger in the other. Clouded by ale, he took a clumsy swing at Kailen. The Warden side-stepped and gutted the man on the first hit and opened his throat on the second. The raider collapsed trying to hold his entrails in with one hand and staunch the flow of blood from his neck with the other. Kailen could have driven his sword through the man’s heart and ended his suffering quickly. He didn’t.

Two Noriziem charged him at the same time. One held his sword high over his head and screamed. Spittle flew from his mouth. The scream turned to a gasp of surprise when Kailen’s sword pierced the Noriziem’s stomach and its point punched clear through his back. The second man almost on him, Kailen tried to pull his sword out of the Noriziem, but it was lodged in his ribs and would not budge. He dumped the body in front of the other Noriziem. The man tripped, sprawling on the dirt, but he was quick and regained his footing. Kailen drew his daggers and parried the Noriziem’s clumsy swings. The man was using a short, heavy sword and Kailen’s arms numbed from the impact. The Noriziem swung at his head. Kailen ducked the sword and slashed the man’s thigh. His attacker cursed in Norzaat and was thrown off balance. Kailen drove one dagger into the man’s side and the other up through his jaw. He collapsed, his blood staining the forest floor. The giant in chain was the only one left. The brute held a great axe in both hands, but he hung back. Just the slightest quiver of uncertainty lurked behind the anger in his eyes.

“Shu tack au? Vaut kay au toqeth?”

Who are you? What do you want?

Kailen said nothing. He wanted his sword back. He walked, with exaggerated calm, to the formerly screaming berserker and braced his foot on the man’s chest, grabbed the hilt, and pulled. The sword came out with a wet, grinding hiss, the blade smeared with blood. Kailen held the weapon ready and kept one of his daggers in his offhand. He approached the big Noriziem. Grunting, the barbaric foreigner charged and swung his axe. Kailen sidestepped, the battleaxe whirring past his left shoulder. He slashed with his sword and felt it skip off the man’s chain mail. Kailen circled to the right, dodging another chop from the axe. He came in low, distracting the Noriziem with a feint from his sword and then burying his dagger in the man’s thigh. The Noriziem screamed and almost dropped his axe. He held on though, and brought the butt of it down on Kailen’s shoulder. His left arm numb, Kailen struggled to hold on to his dagger. His fingers wouldn’t respond and the small blade was suddenly heavy. He dropped it and swung wildly with his sword, pushing the bigger man back.

Trying to shake his arm back to life, Kailen circled again. The Noriziem couldn’t put any weight on his injured leg, and his arms sagged with fatigue. Kailen had had enough of this. He switched his sword to his left hand, consciously willing each finger to wrap around the hilt. With his right he drew his other dagger and threw it straight at the Noriziem. Cold, tempered steel sunk into the man’s groin. The giant dropped his axe, falling to his knees and clutching his crotch. Kailen kicked the man in the face, laying him out. Bracing his boot against the pommel of the dagger, he ground it in deeper. The man screamed so pitifully that Kailen almost felt sorry for him.

He finally answered the Noriziem’s question. “I am Kailen Tidespinner, a Warden of Carodan. What I want is to find every Noriziem who steps onto our shores and kill him.”

Looking into the man’s tearing, panic-filled eyes, Kailen pulled out his dagger. The man whimpered but couldn’t scream. His skin was fast turning white and beads of perspiration dotted his pitted and scarred face. Kailen smelled the filth that filled his enemy’s pants. The Noriziem tried to speak but had no breath left in his shaking body. Kailen placed the dagger under the man’s chin and said, “You’d ask mercy of me, wouldn’t you? You don’t want to die.”

With a spastic jerk the man nodded.

“That blonde girl, with your bastard god carved into her forehead, did she ask you for mercy? You had none for her. I have none for you.”

Kailen flipped his dagger down, its point to the man’s heart. He punched the knife into the Noriziem’s flesh and pulled it out while twisting. A puncture in the man’s chest, visible through his torn armor, oozed crimson with a steady, slowing beat. The man gasped at first. Desperately he clung to life, but as the minutes passed even his lungs began to whisper. His body relaxed.

Kailen wiped his blade off on the Noriziem’s shirt. “It’ll be a clean death, but as you bleed out it will be slow. You can feel death coming, can’t you? Remtagast’s cold breath is working its way down your spine. Your last moments in this world are going to be spent lying on your ass, shit in your pants, fear stinking your breath. You will greet the White Dragon as a wretch. Covered in filth and pitiful.”

With his remaining strength, in broken Cardanan, the Noriziem said, “Galantaegan will burn you. Carodan will burn. The Noriziem carry his will.”

Kailen didn’t respond. He didn’t want the Noriziem to think his words affected him. He watched the man’s last breath escape. An odd sharpness tainted the air. It felt like the temperature dropped, and Kailen imagined the sound of great, leathery wings beating. He glanced around but saw nothing. He thought of the White Dragon Remtagast, god of ice and death. The moment passed, and he felt warmer. There had been no sound of beating wings, only his imagination dwelling on old legends. Kailen ignored the goose pimples covering his arms.

The hungry roar of the fire was the only sound. Soon it would burn higher, fueled by the bodies of the eight Noriziem. Kailen walked to the fire, still shaking his tingling arm. A cut of meat still roasted on the spit, and a mostly-full cask of ale sat open by a log. As the strength of battle left him, Kailen’s stomach rumbled and his limbs trembled. His arms ached terribly. He sat down on one of the logs, his body jarring as his knees wobbled from the dissipating battle-rush. He picked up the spit and gnawed on the crackling flesh. It burned his mouth but tasted so good he didn’t care. A rusted and dented mug lay in the dirt before him. With it he drank a healthy portion of ale that helped to cool his scorched palate.

His eyes, blue and cold, trailed across the dead men strewn around him. He took another draught of ale then set the pewter mug and joint of beef on the log beside him. He kneeled before the fire, crossing his arms over his chest and gazed into the flames. He prayed. “By the edge of steel and the light of flame I send these souls to you for trial, Antaunna. They have darkened the world with their deeds, and I pray that the souls they stole from life will now find peace and satisfaction. May your brother Remtagast find a just sentence for them in the Hereafter. I pray that you will watch over us, as you always have, and keep Carodan strong. Keep me strong. Lady of the Azure, Lady of the Deep Seas, I offer this prayer to you.”

With his sword he traced an angled glyph of his own in the loose soil, its lines evoking the shape of waves; the Mark of Antaunna. He sat back on the log, picked up his drink, and took another bite of meat. Looking over at the dead man in chain and tattered leathers, he again wondered what these Noriziem were doing so far inland. The more he thought of that, the less he thought of the dead blonde girl.

With a full belly and the comfortable buzz of ale tickling the back of his eyes, Kailen destroyed the bandits’ camp. He collapsed the tents and knocked down the lean-tos. The fire climbed high as he fed it debris. He sifted through the bandits’ loot, still searching for some sign of where the caravan had been heading. In a pile of almost empty leather satchels he found it. A writ of sale, dated recently, to the Twistreed Settlement. A very small village on the border of Carodan and the Grenfel Marshes, it was two days west.

He would make the journey. With the writ he found some of the homesteaders’ belongings: a few necklaces, a dagger, and a ring. The necklaces were gold and silver, the emblem of their sept engraved on the front. The Twistreed sigil was several stalks of reed, caught in the gentle pull of a stream. The dagger was well cared for, but the date inscribed on its pommel, 1203, showed it to be over a century old. It may have been the only real weapon that family had, passed down from father to son. Lastly, the ring, a band of twisted gold, held a small, dingy sapphire secured in a dragon-claw setting. It was an engagement ring, most likely also handed from generation to generation. It could have belonged to the blonde girl; she had been the right age. He slipped them into his rucksack. Buried beneath the empty leather bags, he found a full one. Bulging with gold and silver coins, the satchel weighed against his palm. He ran his fingers over the top layer of coins and threw that into his rucksack too. Many Cardanans had died to furnish the Noriziem with that large a sum.

Anything he couldn’t carry went into the fire. It grew tall and cast a vivid light into the forest night. When all the wood, leather, and cloth were aflame, Kailen threw in the bodies of the eight men. He had already extracted one tooth from each. Proof of fulfilled duty. The smell of burning human flesh stung his nose and eyes, the way it had when Noriziem raiders sacked his town eighteen years ago. He forced those thoughts away, instead thinking of turning the Noriziem into cinders, appropriate, since Galantaegan, their god, was the Lord of Ash and Chaos.

To ensure the fire didn’t spread, he stayed until the flames gave way to embers. Kailen slung his rucksack and bow across his back, gave his sword one last wipe with a cloth, and sheathed it. He knew he should sleep and not travel at night, but he couldn’t. There would be no sleep until he reached Twistreed. At least he could do that much for the families of the dead. He climbed out of the hollow and looked back at the fire. Only a few scattered timbers, too heavy to lift, remained of the camp. A good night’s work. Far from the dying fire, the blue light of the stars and moon cast its gentle touch upon his skin. He looked at the moon, round like the blonde girl’s face, and wondered what her laugh may have sounded like.

He left the hollow, slipped between the trees, and melted into the shadows. He was far distant when another shape moved down into the encampment. With the exception of the tingling on the back of his neck, Kailen had never even known he was being followed. This creature was made to move in the forest.

Two heads taller than an average man and twice as wide, the Grenar possessed a silence and grace that did not fit his size. His iron gray skin blended into the forest without the need of camouflage; his senses functioned as well at night as they did in the day. The muscles bulging beneath his dark skin were tensed and powerful. He wore only some boiled leather and cloth but was otherwise unencumbered. The only thing of real weight the brute carried was a great halberd, seven feet long tipped with a two foot blade of hammered steel.

The Grenar came to the edge of the ember pit, drawn to the stench of burning human. He knelt in the dirt, surveying the drying pools of blood and the wrecked camp. He had followed the Warden for three days and had been impressed with the little man’s speed and stealth. Watching the battle, his respect for the human had increased greatly. This Cardanan knew how to fight.

Another scent caught his attention. He found the keg of ale and the joint of meat by the log the human had sat on. He had never eaten their food, but after watching the tiny man in action, he was curious to experience things as the Warden had. The meat was sweet and parted easily under his long, sharp canines. The beer was a new taste, but not unpleasant. It was very different from the mead the shamans of his tribe made.

Having watched the Warden bury the people from the ambushed caravan, the Grenar realized these were the men who had been responsible for that slaughter. Their smell, different from a Cardanan’s, had been all over the slain people and their ruined wagons. The Warden had been impressive in his tracking and handling of the men. Having observed Wardens before, the Grenar knew they were skilled fighters and woodsmen, but this one possessed an admirable fierceness. Even outnumbering the Warden, the raiders never stood a chance. This man had strength and honor. So many of his people thought the humans completely lacked these traits. While often true, it was a misplaced and short-sighted prejudice. A quiet unease, crouching in the back of his mind, urged him to continue tracking the Warden.

He couldn’t ignore last night’s dream. Most Grenar did not experience visions when they slept, but he had, and vivid pictures of the Warden, encircled by flames and clouds of ash, had haunted his sleep. The fire consumed everything, leaving nothing but char and desolation in its wake.

Chapter Four: Only so Much

Copyright © 2013 by D.W. Craigie. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.

Waves lapped against Kailen’s toes. The cold water of the North Ebon Sea numbed his feet, but it felt good against the hot, humid air of midsummer. Even in a light shirt and rolled up trousers, sweat coated his skin. The closeness of Carra, her head cradled in the nook of his shoulder, made the heat almost stifling but he didn’t care. Only a few days remained before he mustered out on his next deployment.

This was their spot. They’d discovered it years ago after sneaking out of temple lessons one day. East of the town the ocean had cut a small cove into the rugged shore. A much smaller twin to the cove their town was built around, the inlet was hard to reach over rocky terrain and steep sand dunes. The winds blew constantly over the open expanses, but once you descended to the shoreline the tall rock formations and dunes formed a sheltered hollow. It was quiet here. They’d found a rock, right on the shoreline, shaped like an oversized chair. As they grew older its comfort lessened, but they never considered sitting anywhere else. They’d been so young, barely entering adolescence, when they’d first ventured over the rocks and dunes and sat on the same rock, their feet barely touching the water.

So many years between then and now, Kailen wished for the simplicity of that age. Yes, his limbs were too long and thin for his body and his voice cracked constantly, but he saw Carra every day and he’d never lifted a blade against another man. If it weren’t for the Noriziem, Kailen may have never joined the Legion. He’d have become a fisherman and during days of rest brought Carra here for picnics. The simplicity could have survived.

Carra shifted, rolling on to her stomach and propping her chin on interlaced fingers. “Let’s not go back. Ever.”

“Would we build the cottage in the same spot?” Kailen asked and pointed over his shoulder to a plot of stable and sheltered land.

“Unless you’ve come up with a better place. The children could play in the tidal pools, I’d be able to watch them while working around the house, and I could see when you came in from fishing.”

“Housework? You? If it weren’t for the girls your bar would be a disaster. I’ve seen the way you keep your rooms.”

Carra shrugged. “That’s what kids are for. Train them right and they’ll behave perfectly.”

“Right. That worked well for us. Who set Father Ambersong’s robes on fire?” “I still hold that was an accident. The candle slipped out of my fingers and rolled across the floor.”

“Directly at him.”

“The floor slanted down from the choir stands.” “True, and his earlier scolding of your fidgeting was completely unrelated.”

“I was nine! What did the bastard expect? I still fidget.”

She was right. Even here, in the quiet of the cove, she shifted often and her limbs constantly moved. A few times, Kailen felt tremors ripple across her body. “You were lucky he was standing next to the Holy Cistern.”

“I’ve never seen a priest move so fast. His dive was almost graceful.” A wicked grin illuminated her face.

“So, totally an accident?”

“Odd things happen. You never know when a lit candle will roll across the floor directly into the folds of your robe. It could happen to anyone.” Carra’s grin grew and she slipped her hand beneath the top of his trousers.

“Are you trying to distract me?” Kailen chuckled and then sighed as Carra’s hands found their way.

“Never,” she said and kissed him.

*** The setting sun painted the stone blood-red and the ocean liquid copper. Kailen and Carra curled up together on the rock, their clothes a makeshift mattress and Kailen’s cloak a blanket. The breeze coming off the water was cooling, and goose pimples covered the flesh on both their bodies. They would have to dress soon, but Kailen didn’t want to move. “Maybe I should resign.”

Carra’s eyes flashed open. Facing him, her mouth was a thin line. She blatantly struggled to keep the hope off her face “You can’t do that. You’ve only served eight years. They won’t let you go for another two.”

“Normally, no, but I’m sure I could arrange for a dismissal-without-honor. I know which offenses will get me kicked out but not land me in the stockade.”

“Absolutely not. Why would you throw away your career? If you leave the Legion that way it will follow you the rest of your life. They brand you, literally. Why, in Antaunna’s name, even think of it?”

“To be with you.”

The simple statement, unadorned and unassuming, hung in the darkening air.

“To be with me?”

“Yes. To marry you. Live with you. Run the tavern with you. Share your bed every night. I hate doing this to you. We spend days in bliss, then I disappear into the wild for months. I see and do things most people cannot comprehend. I’m tired of that life. I don’t want to hold a sword, I want to hold our child.”

“But,” Carra said, “if you leave that way you will lose everything. Your pension, the land they grant you, your status. I’m so tempted to agree with what you are saying, but I know you, Kailen Tidespinner. If you do this it will hang over your head. You will grow to hate your choice and resent me for letting you do it. I’ve waited this long, I can wait two more years.”

“I don’t know if I can, Carra. No man should endure what soldiers witness. I don’t want it to change me into someone you don’t know.”

Carra sat up, the cloak falling away. She sat bare in the wind, unflinching. “Right now I don’t recognize you. You sound like a whining cunny. If you left the Legion now I would lose respect for you. I know you’re a stronger man than this, Kailen. There is something else going on. What brought this on?”

Kailen also sat up and hopped down from the rock. He walked to the surf and let it wash over his ankles. The words of the Grenar had not left him. He never asked to be part of any destiny. How could he, a small cog in a giant war machine, affect the outcome of two entire races? He didn’t want any part of it, and if that meant disgracing himself he felt it worth the cost. He would be with Carra, and that’s what mattered. “I’m tired, Carra. Simply tired. I miss you.”

Carra joined him at the surf. “And I miss you, but how will you explain to our children, maybe our son, how you intentionally disgraced yourself and your family’s honor because you are tired. Do you think you’ll be able to look him in the eye?”

“I... I didn’t think of that.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, because you’re a man and you don’t think beyond the here and now. Listen, I appreciate the gesture, and I want you here more than I can describe, but not like this. Not at this cost.”

“Are you sure?”

Carra hugged him from behind. “Absolutely. I couldn’t live with myself. I’m lonely, I’m not going to lie, but I’m proud of you. Keep making me proud.”

Kailen turned to her and returned her embrace. “It would be so easy to lie down and forget it all.”

“The things worthwhile in life are rarely easy,” she whispered into his ear.

“My father always said that.”

“I remember.”

The way she said it, quietly and knowingly, brought Kailen back to when he and Carra would lie on his parent’s kitchen floor and listen to his father tell stories. Tears welled in his eyes. “I think I need a drink.”

Carra kissed him on the cheek. “I brought just the thing. Come on.”

She took his hand and led him to a basket she’d set by the chair-shaped rock. They sat on the sand and she pulled two bottles from the folds of an old cloth. She handed him a clear bottle, he pulled the stopper, sniffed, drank and smiled. “A Northern Red. My favorite. I’ve had a lot of ale, but none have ever beat this brew.”

“I know,” Carra said and poured herself a glass of wine, “That’s why I brought it. It’s the last of the keg and I was saving it for you.”

“Thank you,” Kailen said and kissed her.

She smiled and shrugged. Pouring herself wine, she settled down next to him, pulling her knees under her chin. Her legs shook. Barely noticeable, Kailen looked closer and saw the muscles of her thighs twitching. “Are you cold?” he asked and reached for the cloak hanging off the edge of the nearby rock.

“No,” Carra said and followed Kailen’s eyes to her legs. She frowned. “That happens time to time. Don’t worry. I just need something to calm my nerves.”

“The wine doesn’t do that?”

“Not by itself,” Carra said. She reached for the basket, but before she could open the lid she stopped. Clenching and splaying open, her hand twisted in the air. She fell over and her entire body wound in on itself like a tightened knot. Her breath shot in and out with quick, startling gasps. Kailen grabbed her shoulders and felt the muscles beneath her skin knotting and shifting. A cold panic, unlike anything he’d ever felt, flooded his gut. “Carra. Carra! Can you hear me?”

She grimaced, barring her teeth in a grotesquely large smile. Her eyes rolled back, bloodshot white replacing sea green. Her legs kicked out, spinning her on the ground and pushing her into the basket. It tipped, flipping over onto the sand. A gold phial, no thicker than Carra’s index finger, rolled to Kailen’s feet.

Opening Scene

Copyright © 2013 by D.W. Craigie. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.

“Something is out there.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have lit the fire.”

“We had two options,” said Garon. “Light a fire and possibly attract attention, or not light a fire and certainly freeze to death.”

His lithe companion curled her upper lip. The woman’s raven-black hair was frosted with ice crystals that had formed in just the short time they’d stepped away from the fire. She glanced up at him and said, “You were born in Noristar. I thought tolerating the cold was second-nature to your people.”

Garon didn’t like the way she said your people. “I am aware of my heritage. And if a member of Clan Nathikan says it is cold enough to require a fire he does so with reason.”

He stepped back into the ruined barn they’d taken shelter in for the night. The farmstead appeared long-abandoned, but enough of the barn remained to provide adequate protection from the wind and snow. Their moderate fire sat at the very heart of the structure and cast dancing shadows over the crooked stalls and failing walls. His pack and weapon leaned against the rotted ladder that led to the hayloft. The battleaxe had been handed down through the generations of his family and its smooth haft fit perfectly into his hands. Checking the weapon’s edge, he returned to the barn door and his companion.

She’d given her name only as Tatyana and spent most of the time concealed beneath a hooded black cloak. They’d met on the road two days prior, and when each learned they shared a common general direction they had agreed to travel together. She was careful to keep the cloak around her, but Garon had captured glimpses of her finely crafted steel and leather armor and the clan crest embossed on her breastplate. She was of Clan Lobrenth. Even if he had not seen her armor, her fine features and constant disdain would have betrayed her. Those of Lobrenth considered themselves superior to all other Noriziem clans. To her, he was nothing more than a brute that swung an axe and drank ale. The implied simplicity irritated him, in spite of his aptitude in both activities. An uninterrupted glaze of snow blanketed the surrounding fields and rolling hills. The moon, full but still low to the horizon, beamed down from a shrouded sky. The blue-white glow granted the empty terrain an ethereal beauty it did not deserve. This far north, on the border of the Plains of Thiqok and the Eastwaste, no people remained. Yet, from beyond the next rise, the sound of crunching footsteps shattered the still night.

“It sounds like a single soul, not moving quickly,” Garon said.

“Agreed. I’ll wait in the shadows. Give our guest a kiss for me.”

Garon frowned and looked down at where Tatyana stood. Had stood. The space was empty. Several deep pools of shadow, cast by copses of trees and tumble-down walls, surrounded the barn and Garon knew the Lobrenth could hide easily in any of them. Shrugging, he slung his axe over his shoulder and stepped towards the source of the footsteps. He proceeded until he’d left the shelter of the debris and shadows. A Nathikan did not hide.

The emptiness of the land unnerved him. In the dead of a winter night there was often little sound, but here silence was absolute. Only the footsteps, uneven and belabored, challenged the void. To Garon, it sounded like a weary traveler, but such assumptions were dangerous. He and Tatyana were on their own this far north. Any slip of judgment could be catastrophic. A slender figure cleared the rise. Beneath a tightly wrapped cloak, the curve of the wanderer’s chest and thighs was obvious. Her shadow extended to Garon’s feet, its ragged outline jagging across the snow. Garon gripped his axe tighter, even though there seemed little to fear. The stranger noticed Garon, faced him, and fell to her knees. Movement to his right distracted him. Tatyana had broken cover from the copse of trees and was sprinting across the snow. Her steps crunched lightly across the frigid surface, and rarely did she sink below the hardened crust. With great effort he tried to match her pace and close on the stranger, but his much larger frame fared poorly in the snow. Tatyana reached the woman, dropped to her own knees, and cradled the newcomer in her arms. She pulled the other woman’s hooded head to her shoulder and wept. Garon reached the two, lowered his axe, and raised an eyebrow. “I take it you know her?”

Tatyana didn’t acknowledge him, instead whispering, “Anaka, why are you here? In Galanteagan’s name, why did you follow me?”

The other woman, Anaka apparently, looked up and managed a response. “The Highhouse are searching for you. I’ve seen several hunting parties and knew they followed your trail. I needed to tell you.”

She stopped, out of breath. Garon took note of her blue lips, deathly white skin, and lack of shivering. The cold had worked its way into her bones and her body was failing. They needed to get her inside. Tatyana said so, but Anaka shook her head. “We need to keep moving. They’re close.”

“Who is?” Garon asked.

Tatyana answered without taking her eyes off Anaka. “The Galan-tora. Truly, how skilled are you with that axe?”