Authors: David Dalglish
Come nightfall, they set up camp. Several of the guards had slept during their day ride, and so they wandered about, eating, drinking, and watching the roads. Mark took the time to find Nathaniel. The boy ate by himself, huddled in a blanket with his back to a fire.
“Cold?” Mark asked as he sat down beside him.
Nathaniel shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I can’t be. Arthur says that makes me look weak.”
Mark chuckled. “Even the greatest of leaders needs to wear boots in the snow, Nathaniel. You’re allowed to be human.”
The boy pulled the blanket tighter about him. He looked so similar to his mother, the same soft features, stubby nose, and startling red hair. He glanced back at Mark, and then a smile crept across his trembling lips.
“Maybe I’m a little cold.”
“Here then,” he said, wrapping his own blanket around the boy. “This should help. From here on out, anything Arthur told you, you double-check with me, all right?”
“Why?” Nathaniel asked, suddenly looking worried. “You saying he lies?”
“No, no,” Mark said, quicker than he meant. “He just…has a peculiar way of looking at the world. He doesn’t think people get cold, remember? I’d love to see him wander in his skivvies during a snowstorm. I bet he’d look like a blue ogre when he came back inside. What do you think? Or maybe a blue orc. Nah. He’s too skinny to be an orc.”
He yammered on, telling jokes both humorous and terrible. It didn’t matter. He watched Nathaniel slowly warm to him, and it relieved Mark tremendously. He’d worried Arthur’s words had wrapped a spell about the boy, turning him into some mindless stooge believing his every word. But Nathaniel was still a five year old boy, and given the chance, he wanted to laugh and joke as much as any other kid his age. Mark knew he might not be the most charming dinner guest, but at least he knew how to make a kid laugh.
Mark let him keep his blanket, instead borrowing another from the wagons. They slept beside the fire.
Come the next morning, Mark awoke with a chill seeped deep into his bones. When he stirred, he saw a thin layer of snow atop the world, including his blanket.
“About time,” said Dave, who was busy untethering their oxen. “You sleep like the dead, Mark.”
“Better to sleep like them than to be them,” he said, shaking off his blanket and looking for a fire.
“No fire,” said Dave. “We need to save the wood in case the snow picks up. Move about. Help us pack. You’ll warm up soon enough.”
He found Nathaniel sitting in one of the wagons, half-buried in blankets.
“I hate winter,” he said when he saw Mark.
“I hear you,” Mark said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Just try to endure. We’ll be home with your mother soon enough.”
The snowflakes were light as they traveled, just a slight nuisance that wet their skin and occasionally stung their eyes. By midday it had thickened, until at last Dave called a halt.
“The wagons might get stuck if it continues,” Mark told him.
“Better stuck on the road than in a ditch,” Dave shot back.
They used the wagons to block the wind, shoveled snow until they found cold, dry ground, and then built a fire. They gathered around it, their own bodies sheltering the fire from the wind that sneaked in.
“Come morning we’ll dig out and then continue,” Dave said as they huddled there. “Run this route plenty of times, and I have a feeling for how the weather works. We’ll have clear sky tomorrow. Assuming we don’t break a wheel, we should reach Felwood in a…”
He stopped, for amid the howling of the wind he heard something strange.
“Horses,” said Dave.
“Who would ride in this weather?” asked one of the guards.
Mark drew his sword and stood, and the rest did likewise. There were only four guards per wagon, and the eight hurried to the openings between them.
“It might be a messenger meant to reach us,” said Dave, just before a crossbow bolt pierced his arm.
“Shit,” he cried, snapping the shaft in half and tossing it. “Stay down, all of you!”
Horses thundered by either side, and as they passed the gap, many fired crossbows. Mark dove into one of the wagons as the bolts flew, dragging Nathaniel with him. The horses turned around, and at their return charge, he heard the sound of steel hitting steel.
“Stay down,” Mark said to Nathaniel. The boy sat huddled in blankets beside the crate of gold. His eyes were wide, rimmed with tears that refused to fall in the chill air.
“I’m scared,” Nathaniel said, and his whole body shook.
“I am too,” Mark said as bolts tore through the fabric of the wagon, thankfully missing. He kept his sword facing the back of the wagon and listened. He heard screams, plus Dave hollering like a madman. From where he stood he could only see a small portion of the combat. The guards had cut down two of the riders, but the rest continued their charge, hacking as they passed or firing more crossbow bolts.
Then he heard Dave cry something that made no sense, but at the same time, was certain to be true.
“Lord Hadfield? But why?”
He died soon after, or at least his orders stopped. The cries of pain lessened. Swords struck rarely, then stopped altogether. Mark pushed Nathaniel further into the wagon and tried to shrink down. He might be able to surprise one or two of them if they didn’t realize he was inside…
A man rode up before the wagon, a crossbow in hand. Mark lunged at him, extending his arm as far as it could go. His sword pierced the man’s breast, punching through his leather armor. As he bled out, the crossbow fired harmlessly into the air. Mark retreated into the wagon, his blood running cold. He recognized the symbol on that armor. It was Hadfield’s men, all right. But why? Why would he ambush his own wagons?
He glanced back at Nathaniel and decided he already knew the reason.
“Mark?” he heard Arthur call out. “Is that you in there, Mark?”
“Just keeping warm,” Mark shouted back. “What’d your men do to deserve this?”
“Deserve? Nothing. They died in my service, as all men should for their masters. Where is the child? I don’t want him to witness your execution.”
Mark clutched his sword tighter. Behind him, he heard Nathaniel whimper.
“You’d protect him?” Mark asked.
“As if he were my own son.”
Or at least until you have a son of your own,
At least until you’ve consummated your marriage to Alyssa, you heartless bastard.
“Listen to me,” he whispered to Nathaniel. “He’s lying, I know it. You need to run, you understand? I know you don’t want to, but you have to try. He’s cruel. I’ve always known it, now just…”
“Mark!” Arthur shouted. “Come out and face this with honor!”
“That way,” Mark said, pointing to the opposite exit beside the driver’s seat.
Nathaniel nodded. Despite his fear, he was holding together. Though they lacked any blood connection, Mark felt proud of the boy. A child worthy to raise, to claim the Gemcroft wealth. A child who’d probably freeze to death in the next twelve hours. He almost thought to change his mind, to carry Nathaniel out and see what Arthur would do. But he couldn’t. If Nathaniel was somehow part of his plans, Mark wanted to ruin them. It was petty, perhaps, but by the gods, he had to do something to avenge his death.
He stepped out from the wagon, his sword still drawn.
aern kept his cloaks wrapped tight about him as he trudged along the road. He felt foolish not preparing for such weather. His feet were numb from the cold, and he’d have givenanything for a thick coat. He’d dressed for stealth when he should have dressed like a bear.
He lacked tools to build a fire, especially given how heavy the snow came down. Movement kept him warm, so that’s what he did. It’d been two days since he saw houses in the distance, farms both large and small. Before that, he’d stayed a night in the comforts of Felwood Castle, stocking up on food and, like a fool, refusing to steal anything warmer to wear. That was before the snow, before he realized just how pathetic he was compared to nature’s forces. His hood pulled low, he stared at the white ground and kept his feet moving. Night was approaching, and he pondered what he’d do. Surely he could find a tree for shelter, and should probably start looking. But he didn’t want to just yet. He didn’t want to admit it, but part of him feared the moment he stopped moving he would curl up, fall asleep, and never wake again.
The first time he heard the noise he thought it a hallucination. Then it struck again, and many times after. It was the sound of steel hitting steel, coupled with the neighs of horses. He felt some of his drowsiness leave him. He’d headed north in hopes of discovering the source of the Serpents’ gold. Could they be raiding the caravans?
He urged himself on, and despite the snow that blew in his face, he forced himself to stare straight ahead. The snow was thick, and it seemed as if a white fog had enclosed the land so many yards away from where he stood. When he saw the first rider, it was if he had emerged from another world. Haern dove for the cover of trees, then glanced back to see if he’d been spotted. He hadn’t. The rider turned back and charged into the unseen combat.
Not willing to risk such foolishness again, Haern weaved through the trees, making sure to stay close to the road. If the weather remained foul, it might be days before he found the path. He was no woodsman. The city streets were his home. Out among the trees, in the snow, he felt like a bumbling idiot.
The sound of combat faded. After a few moments of silence, he heard someone yelling. His numb ears at first refused to make words out of the noise. As he followed the sound, he started to understand.
“Where is the child?” he heard a man ask. “I don’t want him to witness your execution.”
Haern surveyed the area from his position amid the trees. Two wagons were pulled close together, the oxen tethered behind them. Eight men on horses mingled about, all with swords or crossbows. The speaker seemed older than the rest, and he wore no armor, just a thick coat of bear skin that Haern felt ready to kill for. All around them lay bodies, their warm blood melting the snow beneath them.
It didn’t make sense. All of the horsed ambushers wore the same insignia, a sickle held before a mountain. This wasn’t the Serpent Guild. They didn’t wear green cloaks. What then? Should he interfere?
Meanwhile the older man continued talking, evidently with someone inside a wagon given how muffled his voice sounded.
“Mark!” cried the older man. “Come out and face this with honor.”
And then it seemed Mark obeyed, stepping from the back of the wagon. He looked young, his armor dark and expensive. The riders circled about him as the older man smiled.
“Hiding during a battle,” he said. “Such shameful behavior.”
“Perhaps,” Mark said. He lunged at the nearest rider. He never got close enough to swing. Two crossbow bolts pierced his back, and he stumbled, his weapon falling from his hand. Haern winced. At least the man died bravely, even if he hadn’t accomplished…
But then he saw the child leap out the wagon’s front and bolt for the forest. Haern’s eyes flared wide. The kid was heading straight for him.
“Get him!” the riders shouted. One took off, dismounted at the forest’s edge, and then rushed on, his sword drawn. Haern flung his back against a tree. Should he interfere? Would they kill him, or merely keep him captive? Was this for ransom? Too much he didn’t know. Too much!
The boy rushed by, followed by the soldier. Haern stared, paralyzed by indecision. If he acted now, he’d reveal himself. Eight riders…what chance would he have? He’d be throwing his life away, and why? For all he knew, the boy belonged to the ambushers.
The soldier quickly gained ground, for he could make longer strides in the snow. He kept his sword drawn, and Haern recognized the way he held the blade in preparation for a thrust. This was no capture. This was no ransom. He ran, feeling slow and clumsy in the snow. The boy glanced behind, saw his pursuer, and then stumbled. Haern wanted to cry out but didn’t dare reveal his location. The soldier thrust. Blood spilled across the snow.
Haern slammed into the soldier with his shoulder, flinging him back. Before he could stand, he drew a sword, slapped aside a weak defense, and buried it in the soldier’s throat. The man gargled blood, quivered, and then lay still.
“You get him?” a man shouted from the road.
Haern ignored him and instead looked to the boy. He lay on his back, his whole body shaking. The thrust had cut deep into his arm, right to the bone. The blade had continued on, piercing his chest. He still breathed, and it didn’t sound wet. The tip hadn’t gone deep enough to pierce a lung. With proper care he might live, but at the moment he was wide-eyed with shock. He’d need time, which at the moment Haern sorely lacked. He sliced off a strip of his cloak and tied it around the boy’s arm, then took the boy’s hands and pressed them firmly against the wound on his chest.
“Stay still and quiet,” Haern whispered, propping him against the nearest tree. “I’ll come back for you, I promise. No matter what you do, don’t let go.”
He stood, drew his swords and looked to the road. Through the snow and trees he saw the thinnest glimpse of the riders. Amid the forest, the horses would be useless. There, he had his advantage, and he’d need every single one. So long as they didn’t know he was there, he had a chance.
He stepped gingerly across the snow, crouched low and hidden behind the trunks. The forest was quiet, and he heard their discussions with ease as they grew steadily heated.
“Terrance!” one shouted. “Where are you? Did the brat lose you somehow?”
“Jerek, Thomas, go look for him, and hurry. I don’t want to be out in this weather any longer than I have to.”
Haern smiled at the lucky break. He stayed to the side and watched two more men walk right past him. He started creeping after them, but they stopped halfway.
“See that, Jerek?” asked Thomas as he pointed. “Something ain’t right.”
They drew their swords and looked about as Haern realized what he pointed at: the footprints he’d left in the snow when chasing after the soldier and the boy.
Give me a city any day.
They followed the footprints, but they were no longer hurrying. His surprise advantage was nearly blown. He continued following, using the trees to hide in case they glanced back, but they were getting too close to where the soldier’s body lay.
“Found them!” said Jerek. “Shit, his throat’s cut.”
Haern gave up stealth, knowing he couldn’t muffle his running. The crunching of the snow turned them about, but he was too close, too fast. He gutted Thomas, ducked under a dying slash, and then turned to Jerek. Instead of the desperate lunge he expected, Jerek pulled back and held his sword with both hands in a defensive position. Haern felt respect for the man, as well as agitation. He didn’t need a drawn out duel against a worthy opponent. He needed the man killed before any others arrived.
“Ambush!” Jerek screamed. “It’s a fucking ambush!”
“One against five,” Haern said. “Some ambush.”
“There’s six of us, wretch.”
“You’ll be dead soon enough.”
He feinted, stepped to the left, and then lunged for real. Jerek bit on the feint, but not enough. He parried both blades aside, but he extended to do so. Haern closed the distance between them, slamming an elbow into the man’s chest while they both shoved their weapons together. Jerek tried to separate, but Haern shifted again, positioning his right foot in the way. When Jerek stepped back, he tripped, and that was all the opening Haern needed.
“Jerek? Thomas?” asked another soldier as he approached the bloody mess. Haern watched from his perch, doing his best to keep his breathing calm. Only three had come, not five, which meant one had stayed behind to protect the older man, presumably their leader. They were only a handful of paces from where the boy lay, but they stopped at the bodies of their comrades. Two held swords, while the third held a crossbow. They looked, and it took them only a second to realize Haern had climbed the tree, but that second was enough.
He fell upon them, leaving one bleeding from a gash in the neck and another holding a crossbow with a broken string. Haern kicked him in the chest to force him back, needing the space. The last swordsman hacked at him, but Haern spun his cloak, using it to appear further to the right than he was. The strike hit nothing but air and cloth. Haern continued his spin, slashing his arm, reversing the spin, and burying his sword into the henchman’s stomach, just below his armor.
Pain spiked up his arm. He struck on reflex, which ended up cutting the crossbowman across the mouth. The man dropped the dagger he’d drawn and clutched his jaw as blood ran across his hands. The man tried to say something, but it came out as an unintelligible sob. Haern glanced at his arm. The cut would scar, but assuming it didn’t get infected, he’d be fine. Frustrated at his mistake, he leapt at the lone survivor, who turned to flee. A kick took out his knee, and he fell. Haern’s swords pierced his lungs, and then he sobbed no more.
Cursing at the pain, Haern approached the road. He kept the blood on his blades, wanting the fear it would bring. When he stepped from between the trees, he saw both riders on the far side. The younger raised his crossbow and fired. It tore a hole in his cloak as he flung himself to the side. He spun around a tree and emerged, but the soldier had not even begun to reload.
“Who are you, stranger?” asked the older man. “What are you hoping for? Is it coin you want?”
“Too many questions,” Haern said, watching the other fighter. His hand kept inching toward his hip, but for what?
“Then answer me just one: is the boy alive?”
“I don’t know, or care. He was a distraction. If he lives, he’ll freeze by morning.”
Their leader seemed pleased by the answer. Haern made sure he didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, didn’t reveal the lie.
“Good,” said the older man. “Then what is it you want now? You cannot kill us, and you cannot make off with my gold. You’d need to tether the oxen and drive it many days to town. So please, accept my offer. Take your gold, as much as you can carry, and I will allow you to leave.”
“You’d buy your safety with what I could freely take?” Haern asked.
“Freely? Nothing is free, thief. Everything is bought with sweat and blood. Come spill it if you’d dare.”
Haern chuckled. Whoever the man was, he reminded him of his father. Not a good comparison.
“Leave,” he said. “I have no use…”
He rolled behind the tree as the throwing dagger pierced the bark, hurled with frightening precision from the soldier’s hip. From behind it, he laughed.
“Ride off or die!” he shouted to them. “Even if you have a hundred of those daggers to throw, it won’t matter. Flee or die!”
He listened and waited. The men muttered quietly, and when done, they rode north. Haern sighed and looked to his arm. Still bleeding, and its pain was now a deep ache. It’d have to wait. He trudged off for the boy, who looked horribly pale.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t bandage these sooner,” he said as he knelt before him. He pulled the boy’s hands away and looked at the stab. “You can thank Ashhur this wasn’t an inch deeper, or you’d be like the rest of them.”
He used more cloth from his cloak to tie a bandage around his waist, then turned his attention to the arm. So far the boy hadn’t spoken a word, only watched with a glazed look in his eyes. Fearing he might pass out any moment, Haern slapped him a couple times across the face.