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Authors: James Wolf

The Grim Wanderer

BOOK: The Grim Wanderer
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Chapter 1 – End of the Trail



‘Not much further now,’ the Sodan said. ‘About another two miles.’

‘Good,’ Hirandar muttered, from beneath the muffle of her great cloak. ‘Let us hope we are not too late’.

‘Do you think this could be the one?’ The Sodan sat bolt upright in the saddle, his heightened senses picking up the slightest movement, the softest sound, the scents on the wind. He caught a crow flapping its wings in a faraway tree, the rustle of hares moving through the snow.

‘What do you feel, old friend?’ Hirandar turned to the Sodan warrior riding alongside her, to look into his dark eyes.

‘That the Light will shine on us this day,’ the Sodan laid a hand on his sword hilt.

Hirandar smiled. But was reminded of how cold it was by a biting gust of wind. Her wrinkled hand clasped her cloak tighter around her shuddering body, as her poor horse trudged on through the snow. Hirandar gave the loyal beast a gentle pat on the neck, relieving some of her tiredness. The horse had served Hirandar well. She had borne the old woman the length and breadth of Hathlore in her ceaseless search.

Hirandar gazed towards the eastern horizon and could see, through a gap in the snowy mountains, the fiery red sun on the ascension. But as she took in the sun rising over the white dawn, and her breath frosted on the air, she wished she was spending such a morning in front of her own cosy fireplace.

Hirandar’s hair had turned silver during her years of wandering, but even in the wilderness she kept it styled and tidy. Under her thick grey cloak the old woman’s travelling dress was red. A red once bright and splendid enough for the King’s court, but that was long ago, when her name had been famed for fire and magic. Her robes had since been dulled by the arduousness of the road. The long years had worn her out, yet her bright blue eyes still held her old sparkle. There had always been something about Hirandar that caught people’s attention. She was a humble woman, raised in the poorest quarter of the city, and yet she had always carried herself with a natural sense of gravitas, of confidence, of charisma – that drew others towards her. When she talked, people listened. Where she led, people followed. But even when she had commanded armies, and shaped the future of nations, she had never forgotten her modest roots.

Hirandar looked at her friend riding alongside, and wondered how he could remain so indifferent to the freezing conditions – but then again, Logan was a Sodan warrior. He seemed forever ready, poised to strike. Logan was in his mid-thirties, with dark hair and brown eyes that cloaked an inner rage. Hirandar always thought Logan’s noble face could have been chiselled from rock. He wore the shades of the forest under a stout brown cloak, the hood down to leave his keen ears free. The colours of Logan’s clothes helped him blend into his surroundings. He could become a ghost in the right terrain.

By his side Logan carried a most extraordinary blade. He did not bear a sword as most men did – his sword was not
him, it was
of him. For Logan was a Sodan. He followed the Old Ways of the Sword. A path of honour, valour and virtue that was now all but forgotten.

‘Are you cold?’ Logan stared at the snowy hills of the distant horizon.

‘No, no,’ Hirandar said softly, ‘just admiring this fine Aritian country of fields and woods.’ Hirandar struggled to force her chattering teeth into a grin. ‘It is most comforting after some of the landscapes we’ve had to endure.’

‘This may be Aritas, my friend,’ Logan watched the snowy forest of leafless trees to the south. ‘But do not let the well-tended fields deceive you. These frontier lands are dangerous. The threat from the Dredgen is ever present. King Aswan is a great king, and his warriors are many, but even his broad shield cannot reach out here. And when the raiders come… it is always the innocent that suffer.’

Hirandar heard all the vengeance back in Logan’s icy tone. She knew there were some hurts that may never heal.

‘But still,’ Hirandar smiled, ‘Aritas is a fine kingdom. And remember Arilon! Splendid Arilon! The heart of the strength of Men, where King Aswan the Just holds court.’

Logan was silent for a time, as he gazed at the great mountain range laid out before him. The Dredgen could be a wild place, and he pitied the settlers that were forced to make a hard living off this land. Only the poorest or the most desperate people would live in the shadow of these mountains.

‘Thank you,’ Logan said eventually.

‘For what?’ Hirandar said.

‘For always trying to help.’ Logan managed a rare smile. ‘You are the finest friend I could ever hope for. You gave me a purpose when I had none, and I’ll not forget it.’

Hirandar placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder. It was strange, she thought, how the best men always thought the worst of themselves.

The two companions had been riding since before dawn, eager to reach their goal. For years everything they had done had been concealed. And now, all their wanderings and adventures had led them here.

Hirandar gazed into the clear blue sky, and noticed distant wisps of smoke rising in the air.

‘The village must be just over that next rise,’ Hirandar watched the smoke drift skyward.

‘What will we do when we get there?’ Logan’s gaze scythed over the hedgerow beyond the fields.

They had spent so long in the search, that neither had really thought what would happen at this journey’s end.

‘When we get closer,’ Hirandar said, ‘I’ll know who it is.’

In a determined silence the two companions continued along the path at a ground-eating pace. Even their mounts could sense the determination in their riders, quickening their step. As they rode, snowflakes began to tumble earthwards, carried on the freezing eastern winds.

Logan felt alarmed, though he did not show it. There was an extraordinary amount of smoke rising into the air, blackening the pure white of the falling snow. A sliver of fear lanced through the Sodan warrior. But, as always, he brought such thoughts under the control of his iron will.

‘All the fireplaces in the village,’ Logan gestured up to the smoke, ‘must be lit to create that amount of smoke.’

Hirandar reared back her mount to look to Logan, questioning the Sodan with her astute blue eyes. Knowing only too well how Logan could sense when something was amiss, Hirandar sped off up the rise, spurring her mount to a fast pace. Logan matched his companion’s gallop and followed her up to the top of the low hill.

,’ Hirandar gasped, as the companions arrived at the crest of the hill. Her heart seemed heavier than stone.

Even on Logan’s grim face there was anger and sadness. Laid out below them, the companions beheld what remained of the settlement.

The village had been burnt to the ground. Logan saw some areas were still smoking, or even on fire – the sacking must have happened within half a day. There had been fifty buildings in the village, and not one of them had remained untouched by flame. Most of the buildings had been reduced to burnt-out shells, others had collapsed into dust and ashes. In fields to the left of the settlement sheep were motionless, their woollen coats stained red. In paddocks beyond the village horses lay dead where they had been slaughtered. Logan could see the village must once have had a pretty green, a quaint church, a cosy inn and a village hall – but now nothing of that once peaceful way of life remained.

The two wary friends started down the slope. They could see no sign of activity, either in the village or the surrounding area. As they descended the rise the snowfall became heavy, clouding their vision. The day darkened as the red mid-winter sun was enveloped by grey cloud, and the companions were filled with terrible foreboding as they advanced on the smoking village.

Logan noticed some tracks on the ground, covered by the falling snow. Whilst Hirandar continued on towards the desolated village, Logan dismounted and bent down to examine the markings. He traced his finger through the snow, around the edge of the depressions. The marks were fresh, imprints of crudely made boots, and some footprints. Logan could see the feet that had left the marks were short but wide for their length: they did not belong to anyone tall. The indentations in the mud were shallow, the owners had not been heavy either. Logan was adamant as to what manner of creature had left the tracks. The Sodan did not want to believe it, but the awful truth was undeniable. He remounted, following after his distant companion into the settlement.

The friends rode into the village and down what used to be the main thoroughfare. Hirandar’s shoulders drooped further still as she saw the many bodies lying on the streets and amongst the smouldering rubble. The murderers had been indiscriminate in who they had killed, butchering every inhabitant. Logan saw how Hirandar had the crushed look of a broken woman, one whose hopes had crumbled and turned to dust, whose ultimate fears had been realised. Hirandar dismounted and knelt down beside the limp form of a dark-haired young girl. As snow fell on her hunched-over back, Hirandar gently turned the child’s body to reveal a pale, lifeless face.

Her cheeks were blue with more than the cold of the falling snow. Logan saw the girl’s eyes were empty and sad, lifeless. Her yellow dress was covered in dried crimson. Hirandar sighed, as she held the girl in her arms. She felt the death of an innocent child was grief beyond words. Hirandar recited a charm to ease the passing of her spirit. The melodious humming of barely audible words was similar to a song, but there was no joy to it, only sorrow. Hirandar gently closed the child’s eyes and laid her down on the ground.

‘Krun raiders.’ Logan growled, there was fury in his eyes and his voice was full of hate. ‘I found their trails all through the village. I also found this,’ Logan showed Hirandar a short, black-shafted arrow, with a black-feathered flight and a cruel, jagged arrowhead.

‘You are right,’ Hirandar said in a hollow, empty voice. ‘Only Kruns would use such an arrow.’ A shudder of horror swept over Hirandar as she imagined how the fiendish creatures would have slaughtered the villagers – screaming with gleeful abandon, and slicing through the doomed people with wicked blades.

‘For the amount of tracks,’ Logan gestured around the village, ‘there must have been over a hundred Krun in the attack. They came from the mountains, attacking swift and hard. They took no prisoners. The tracks are recent too, no more than a day old.’ Logan paused and looked around, searching for new clues that might alter the conclusion he did not want to believe possible. ‘There is no evidence they took
Hirandar. The livestock were slaughtered, and the food stores were burnt with the rest of the buildings. Very unusual for a Krun raid.’

‘Which means they were following orders,’ Hirandar said sadly, ‘but how did they know?’

Logan turned to his friend, with a face as though the grave itself had come to claim him, ‘What does this mean? Is there no hope?’

A clattering sound brought them both to attention. In an instant Logan’s sword was drawn from its scabbard on his back and in his hands, whilst the Sodan leapt to position himself between the threat and his companion. The noise had come from a blackened hut to their right, the one semi-standing structure left in the entire settlement. Logan glared at the small shed with its sloping roof. Only yesterday it must have been a log-store to a large house that had not survived the sacking.

‘Show yourself,’ Logan growled.

The Sodan warrior was ready to unleash his wrath on any enemy that came, but none did.

Instead, a young boy stumbled out of the doorway. Logan saw the boy was covered in soot from head to foot, apart from under his piercing blue eyes, where the ash had been washed away with tears.

‘A little Light in the overwhelming darkness,’ Hirandar murmured.

Logan relaxed and sheathed his sword.

‘Come here boy,’ Hirandar said softly, ‘we will not harm you.’

The child was hesitant, but staggered forward, exhausted. As the boy began to fall Hirandar rushed to catch him. She knelt down and steadied the boy with her hands, as she examined his remarkable blue eyes.

It is him
!’ Hirandar looked the boy up and down. ‘I do not know how, but some force of good has triumphed this day.’

‘The Light be praised!’ Logan gasped.

‘He doesn’t appear to be hurt,’ Hirandar said to Logan, ‘just fatigued’. Hirandar smiled, and the terrified boy was soothed by the old woman’s kind face.

Hirandar laid a slender hand on the boy’s brow, her eyes focused in intense concentration. The bewildered lad stared up at Hirandar, gasping in surprise as an invigorating sensation ran through his drained body. Somehow the old woman had removed some of the tiredness from the boy’s worn-out body, and eased the fear and sorrow that plagued his mind.

‘Now boy,’ Hirandar said warmly, whilst Logan removed his cloak and wrapped it around the child, ‘tell us what happened here?’

The boy, struck dumb with shock, grabbed Logan’s arm and pulled the warrior back to the hut where he had been hiding. Sensing the boy was frantic, Logan let the boy lead him to the charred hut. Logan had a hand to his sword hilt as he peered inside, but was amazed by what he saw and bolted within.

‘There are more children in here!’ Logan shouted, and Hirandar hurried to join her companion inside the hut.

BOOK: The Grim Wanderer
2.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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