This is a fantasy tale that I wrote a few years ago. It’s gone through a few permutations and I’ve sent it out a couple of times without getting any bites. I’m hoping (like a lot of my other short work) to write more about the characters, since I set them up for quite a long quest at the end of the story, and there’s lots more to explore.
As darkness fell a gust of wind shook the cabin like the open hand of a giant.
It’s a wonder that it doesn’t tear the roof off, Jarvin thought, relighting his candle. He watched as the wick caught fire, casting weird shadows across his parchment.
Not much point to this. The next gust will just blow it out again. Jarvin pushed the thought aside and bent to his writing, painstakingly scribing the words with a battered quill. The paper was ragged and water stained, the ink thick and half-frozen, his words barely legible, but he pressed on.
The weather tightens its grip upon us. Outside, the standing stones are cloaked in heavy snow, and with each passing moment they grow more ominous. Above the constant howl of the wind we can hear them, and their numbers are increasing. The fire is down to almost nothing — we have burned everything at hand, and we dare not set foot outside for more. They will come soon.
What more was there to say? Jarvin sighed and put down his quill, blew on his hands to warm them, though he could barely feel it. He’d already lost a nail, and the others were turning black. A few more days in this cold and he’d probably lose them altogether, along with his toes and his ears. He reflected that it was probably for the best that he’d be dead in an hour or two. Anything was preferable to death by inches from the cold.
He drew on his gloves. They were scant protection against the fearsome chill that lurked beyond the cabin walls, but they provided him with at least some comfort and some reminder of the home he had left behind.
The others were huddled by the fire, looking alternately fearful, hopeless or resolute. Ragar Skallingson, the northerner, seemed untouched by the cold, but behind his expression of determination lay an unreasoning fear of magic and the supernatural, both of which described the fearsome things that circled the cabin, waiting for their moment.
“Done with your chronicle, boy?” he demanded, standing up. He was a burly man with black eyes gleaming from a tangle of hair and beard as brown as a bear’s, and he was clad in various mismatched animal skins. The crown of the northerner’s shaggy head barely grazed the ceiling beams, and for a moment Jarvin was warmed by the notion that he was like some mighty frost giant, come to help them in their time of need. But the quaver in the barbarian’s falsely-hearty tone quickly dispelled even that pleasing fantasy.
“I suppose someone will find it if we don’t make it out of this place,” Ragar went on. “Pass it on to future generations to warn them never to come here, no matter what the potential reward, eh?”
Jarvin nodded, his heart bleak. The wind dealt the cabin another thunderous blow, causing the joints and beams to creak in agony and extinguishing the candles again. He fancied that he saw Ragar jump slightly at the sound, but recovered so quickly that it was barely noticeable.
Give the man credit, Jarvin thought. He’s determined not to show how frightened he really is.
Of course, they were all frightened, though each showed it in different ways. Jarvin himself chose to conceal his fear by writing. Gods know, he thought, it seems to be the only thing I’m good at.
Jarvin did not relight his candle but instead gazed out the warped, distorted glass of the cabin’s only window. It was rimed with ice, further twisting the scene outside, but what Jarvin saw was clear enough — far too clear, in fact.
Less than 50 paces away, a cluster of five standing stones rose out of the ground, slightly curved inward, giving the unpleasant illusion of a giant stone hand breaking through the frozen ground. Snow and ice swirled around the stones, lit by a strange white glow, as if illuminated by a dozen or so invisible torches. At times the light seemed a living thing itself, expanding and contracting with the wind, occasionally reaching out with misty tendrils to sample the cold air around it.
Beyond the stones lay a phalanx of shaggy pines, also wreathed in snow, but to Jarvin’s eyes an impenetrable wall of darkness, where the things that hunted them lurked in ever-gathering numbers, awaiting the moment when the last flickering light inside the cabin finally went out, and they could advance unseen and unhindered.
Jarvin strained to listen with a horrid, fatalistic fascination. Yes, there it was — a thin, bestial whine, rising to a howl that issued from no natural creature, cutting through the scream of the wind and adding a new stab of fear to Jarvin’s already-unbearable dread.
How did we get here? Jarvin wondered, for the hundredth time in a week. How is it that I left my warm and sunny home to die in this gods-forsaken wilderness?
And for the hundredth time in a week, Jarvin remembered.
Tavern floors don’t taste especially good, Jarvin thought, especially when one’s head has been forcibly jammed into one by the knee of a city guardsman.
A ring of patrons surrounded him, silent and drawn back in surprise. Moments before he’d been regaling them with a new poem, his eyes fixed on a pretty raven-tressed woman who had returned his gaze with equal ardor. Then the door had burst open, a trio of guardsman had descended like eagles swooping on helpless mice, and now…
Well, now here he was, face-down on the floor, a burly and foul-smelling man in stained leather pinning his arms behind him. It took a few moments of reflection for Jarvin to realize that the brute was actually speaking to him.
“Jarvin Adamos, you are charged with the crimes of sedition, incitement of disorder and the inscription of statements calculated to bring a member of the noble class into disrepute.”
“If this is about that poem I wrote for Lady Margitte,” Jarvin said, his voice muffled against the filthy floor, “I can explain — you see she paid me to…”
“Shut up.” Jarvin felt rough ropes being looped around his wrists and pulled tight. “You can explain all you want to His Lordship.”
The guard and one of his companions yanked Jarvin to his feet, nearly dislocating his shoulder in the process. In his mind the magnitude of his trouble grew clearer and more ominious.
Sedition… incitement… Some nonsense about bringing nobles into disrepute — Jarvin didn’t even know that was a crime, since the nobles were pretty disreputable to begin with. I’ll be lucky if all they do is rip out my tongue… Damn that woman and her gold and her sighs and her low-cut bodice…
Jarvin’s unspoken regrets were interrupted by a booming voice from behind him.
“Let the man go, you lot. I have business with him.”
The guard who had tackled Jarvin replied in a bored voice. “He’s ours now, barbarian. Now save yourself a beating and go chase a bear or whatever you people do.”
That was evidently the wrong thing to say, for an instant later the pressure on Jarvin’s arms was released and he was pitched forward, his knees banging painfully on the floor. He rolled over and looked back to see what was going on.
Two guards lay amid broken furniture and crockery, moving feebly. The third was screaming, held aloft by a grim-faced, black-eyed man with a bushy brown beard and arms that seemed to be the thickness of Jarvin’s thighs. As Jarvin watched, the man threw the third guard against a wall. His body struck with a boom, sending patrons scattering.
With a contemptuous glance at the three fallen guardsmen, the bearded man strode to Jarvin and yanked him to his feet, once more wrenching his shoulder. This time Jarvin didn’t mind as much.
“Are you the scribe?”
Jarvin could only nod wordlessly.
It satisfied the barbarian. “Good. Leave these fools to nurse their broken heads and come with me. I have a proposal for you.”
Jarvin thought it sounded like an excellent idea.
The room was small and stuffy, lit only by a single lamp. There were five of them there — Jarvin, Ragar and three companions. As they spoke Ragar handed around mugs of wine.
“So this is the great scribe you spoke of?” said a dark-haired man in worn traveling clothes. “He’s just a child.”
“His notoriety exceeds his years,” Ragar said. “Don’t mind Michar, Jarvin. He’s been angry with the world for most of his life.”
Michar granted Ragar a grim smile. “No less than you, sword-brother. No less than any of us.”
“Ragar seems to think that our task is significant enough to require a chronicler,” said a tall, blonde-haired woman with an accent that Jarvin could not quite place. “We heard that you had gained some notoriety in this little hell-hole of a city.” She snorted. “We didn’t expect to have to rescue you from the city guards.”
“It was all a misunderstanding,” Jarvin said. “Lady Margitte gave me some gold to write a poem about a faithless ex-lover, and — ”
“…And that faithless ex-lover turned out to be Prince Daeros. Yes, we heard. You’ve made yourself a very powerful enemy, poet.”
“The prince has a reputation for violence even in my land,” said a slightly pudgy young man who sat on the bed, his back against the wall.
“It’s for the best that I came along when I did,” Ragar said. “You’ve a reason to get out of Ederin and we’ve reason to help you. This,” he said, indicating the blonde woman, “is my sharp-tongued friend Veesha. I’ve already introduced Michar. The moon-faced scholar on my bed is Tevlos, our guide.”
“I’m honored,” Jarvin said, nodding at each in turn. “And thanks for your timely arrival. But I’m still mystified as to why you want to talk with me.”
Ragar chuckled. “Straight and to the point you are, scribe. I like that.” He sat on the bed beside Tevlos, took a deep pull on his wine cup, draining nearly half of it in a single swig, wiped his beard with the back of his hand, and went on. “You see, my people once ruled all the northlands. We were called the Aethros then — in my language that means ‘the bear people.’ Today, we’re scattered, flung about the known world like dust blown on the wind. There’s nary an Iskerian port where there aren’t at least a dozen, sitting drunk in taverns and singing songs of the old days. We’re dying out, my people are, and it grieves us.”
“Then why hasn’t someone done something about it?” Veesha asked irritably. “Oh yes, I know — you’re doing something about it now.”
“I am indeed, woman. I grew to manhood in the streets of Numa-Hai, far to the south. My parents wouldn’t tell me about our people, so ashamed were they of our history. I became a criminal and a drunkard. Then one day, my friend Michar rescued me from a gang of murderers in an alley, and we grew to be fast friends. He saved my life in more ways than one, scribe — he helped me realize that my people are still strong, and that once united we can once more be great. He’s a grim bastard, but honest, and I want all my companions to be honest.”
Michar said nothing. The man seemed to live inside a wall, dark and brooding. Jarvin wondered why.
Ragar drained his wine cup and again sloppily wiped his beard. “So it was that I began to learn the ways of the Aethros.” His tone and manner seemed oddly archaic, as if he was a priest or a shaman relating an ancient epic to spellbound tribesmen. “I learned that our people were driven from our homeland by wicked wolf-spirits whom we had offended. I also learned that our last king died in battle against the wolf-spirits in a circle of standing stones in the heart of Aethros lands. His crown and sword fell beside him, and with his dying breath he prophesized that anyone who could retrieve them would become his heir, and lead his people out of darkness. After he died, the Aethros fled from the north, and became the pathetic nomads and beggars that we are today.”
Jarvin considered this. “Why hasn’t anyone sought out the crown and sword before now?”
Veesha’s tone was tart and sarcastic. “They have. Tell the scribe what happened to them, Ragar.”
Ragar grunted dismissively. “Foolishness. They set out with no idea where they were going and perished in the wilderness. We are different, because we know where the circle of stones is, and how to get there.”
Jarvin didn’t reply, but looked expectantly at the northerner.
“Tevlos, of course,” Ragar said. “He a scholar, trained in a university, and he has discovered several references to the circle of stones and the great battle that was fought there.”
“I’ve confirmed the location a dozen different ways.” Tevlos’ voice was as eager and bright as his grin. His clothes were worn, but had once been fine, and he had the manner of a young nobleman, eager for adventure but unfamiliar with the discomfort it brought. “It is said that the riches of a thousand warriors lie there as well, for anyone who can find the place. Aethros legend holds that anyone who can take their riches back from the wolf-spirits who hold the place will be blessed and considered Aethros themselves.”
“And with the riches of the battleground and the sword and crown of the mighty king, we shall be proclaimed leaders of the new, reborn Aethros nation,” Veesha said in a weary tone, as if repeating something she had heard a thousand times before. “The scattered Aethros will flock to our banner and we shall lead a heroic crusade to reclaim the old lands, the gods will smile on us, and we will all live happily ever after. Isn’t that how it goes, Ragar?”
The barbarian cast her a withering glance. “Yes, that is how it goes, though perhaps without the skeptical tone.” He turned his gaze to Jarvin. “Veesha is a fine warrior and a good companion, despite her obvious doubts about the endeavor.”
Veesha rolled her eyes. “After you and Michar helped me save my brother from slavers I swore that I would be your companion for two years. There are times when I regret making that oath.”
“You won’t when the Aethros proclaim you their living goddess,” Tevlos said. “Think on that for a time and perhaps you won’t be so skeptical.”
Javrin frowned. It all seemed like a dangerous, hair-brained scheme to him, and he still wasn’t certain why they needed him.
As if in reply Ragar went on. “We want someone to chronicle our quest. Someone to commit the story to parchment so that it can be sent out and proclaimed across the known world, so my people will hear of it and know that the Aethros have returned. I’ve heard your words. There was a bard in a tavern in Nessos who had put one of your epic poems to music. I asked about it, and he gave me your name. Fortunately for you, we arrived just in time to save you experiencing Prince Daeros’ hospitality.” The northerner held both hands out toward Jarvin. “So what say you, scribe? Join with us for both glory and gold. Your words will ring from one end of the Iskerian Sea to the other.”
Jarvin swallowed the last of his. His father’s words echoed in Jarvin’s mind, as clear now as on the day he’d said them. Close the damned books, you laggard. Take up a sword, like your brother. Prove your worth to me or, by the gods, I’ll send you so far away from here that you’ll think you’re on the moon.
He’d been good to his word. If Edarin wasn’t the moon, it was closer than Jarvin would have liked.
Oh father, if only you could see me. If only you could understand.
The others looked at him with various expressions. Ragar seemed confident, Tevlos excited, Veesha dubious and Michar distant and unreadable.
“What about these wolf-spirits?” Jarvin asked. “Aren’t they still there? And what the hell were they anyway?”
Ragar snorted contemptuously. “That was a thousand years ago, boy. What might have lurked in those forests has dwindled to nothing, and what remains will be easy prey for our blades. How are you with a sword, by the way?”
Jarvin made a noncommittal gesture, remembering the endless days of practice under his father’s critical gaze. “Good enough, I suppose. I received training when I was younger, but I’ve little need for it here.”
“We’ll get you back in shape. What Michar doesn’t know about swordplay isn’t worth knowing.”
Jarvin was silent for a time, memories of his father contending with the terror of Edarin’s dungeons and the uncertainty of the future.
Hell, he thought at last, what choice do I have? I can’t stay here and I can’t get out on my own. Besides, it will give me a chance to see more of the world.
”Very well,” he said at last. “You need a scribe, and I need to get the hell out of Edarin. I’m with you.”
Ragar and Tevlos broke into delighted grins at this. Veesha seemed pleased but was determined not to show it, and Michar’s demeanor remained as dark as before. Jarvin poured out more wine.
“Welcome, scribe,” Ragar said, raising his cup. “May your words live on for a thousand generations!”
And even in the stuffiness of the tiny room, Jarvin felt a sudden chill.
The journey north was everything that Jarvin could have wished for. Slipping out under cover of darkness they took ship to Nessos and rode with a caravan to Parnelium, the last great city before the wilderness. Equipped with cold weather clothing and sturdy pack animals, they struck off into the forest.
Each evening Jarvin wrote of the day’s events in a great leather-bound book that they carried wrapped in oilcloth to protect it from the elements. At first it was easy, but after a time the cold made it harder, and he struggled to find new things to write about his companions. Each was a cipher of a different sort.
Tevlos’ enthusiasm never wavered; he continually consulted books and parchments, choosing their routes and making infinitesimal corrections based upon various arcane navigational devices that he had brought with him.
All the while, Michar drilled Jarvin in swordplay. The taciturn Varundian spared him neither words nor thoughts beyond his lessons, and Jarvin learned little about him. It made the chronicle harder to write, but he persevered nonetheless. The quiet man was here for a reason, the same as all the others, but Jarvin was baffled as to what it was.
Without question, Michar and Ragar were inseparable. Beside the campfire, Ragar told tales of their past together, and they had saved each other’s lives so many times that he’d lost count. Michar never spoke when Ragar told his stories, but sometimes nodded and smiled humorlessly.
There was ample opportunity to put Michar’s lessons to good use. Jarvin helped Ragar hunt for game, and one day actually managed to take down a good-sized stag. Bandits attacked them twice on the march north, and were sent fleeing in disorder both times. Jarvin mostly stood his ground and defended himself, but in the second attack he traded blows with a foe, and left the emaciated man with a fearsome wound to the shoulder.
Jarvin found himself liking Veesha the most. For all his bulk and bluffness, Ragar was as inexperienced and uncertain as the rest. Veesha at least had the courage to express her doubts openly, and not pretty her thoughts up with high-sounding words and heroic images. She felt that they were headed for disaster, but she was oath-bound and — unlike so many that Jarvin had met over the years — oaths were important to her.
Soon, they had left all signs of civilization behind, and a thick, cold wall of forests and mountains lay before them. Ragar said that only lone hunters and trappers ventured this far north, and even they were rare visitors. Jarvin wondered how such a realm could possibly support an entire nation, but kept his doubts to himself.
The cold began to creep into everything, working its way past the thickest blankets and the heaviest furs. Soon, Jarvin began to think of the cold as the normal state of things. Port Ederin and the balmy heat of the Iskerian Sea faded into memory.
Only constant motion could hold back the cold, but the pace of their march slowed to a crawl. Frozen fields, ice-choked rivers, snowy hills and even mountains blocked their path. They advanced doggedly, sometimes moving only a few hundred paces each day, and each of the obstacles fell behind. Eventually, they left the pack animals behind and continued on foot.
The cold was worse for the loss of the horses. Most of the time Jarvin could barely feel his fingers and toes. At night he struggled to write with clumsy fingers and ink thawed by the fire. Most nights he gave up on the ink and wrote with charcoal, or did not write at all.
He kept his face muffled and protected by a fur-lined hood, but some days even drawing breath was agony. Soon he could not feel his face any more than his fingers and toes.
Time seemed to both slow and hasten as they slogged north through knee-deep snow, under frozen white fir trees, across icy streams. One day blurred into the next, with only Tevlos’ painstaking measurements and directions to guide them.
In his own way the scholar was as much of an enigma as Michos. He was clearly not used to deprivation and hardship and he struggled to keep up, often delaying the entire party. Yet he did so without complaint, gamely following and doing the best that he could. For all his rugged warrior’s affectations Ragar indulged Tevlos and rarely if ever grew impatient with him.
“He knows how important that little bookworm is,” Veesha explained one day when she and Jarvin were gathering firewood. It was a comparatively warm day and they both had their hoods down. “Without him we’d have been lost weeks ago.”
Jarvin reached down to break a limb from a snow-covered deadfall. “He trusts him that much?”
Veesha nodded and exhaled slowly as if forcibly trying to calm herself, a cloud of steam swirling around her. “Yes. Perhaps too much. The boy has a lot to prove and his enthusiasm may lead us to the bottom of a frozen lake.”
Jarvin handed her the branch. “What’s Tevlos’ story? He looks as if he belongs in a classroom and not in the middle of the frozen wilds.”
Veesha chuckled. “You’re right there. He was a university student back in Venadium. It seems he cheated on his exams and was expelled. He’s trying to win his way back into the headmaster’s good graces by discovering a lost civilization. And he just happened to run into the very man who was willing to encourage him.”
Jarvin looked Tevlos differently after that day, torn between admiration and doubt for the earnest ex-student.
At last, nearly four months after their departure from Port Ederin, the travelers stood at the crest of a forested slope, gazing down.
“There it is,” Tevlos said, gesturing across the long valley below, black with trees and surrounded by a sheer wall of grey granite mountains. “This is the old homeland of the Bear People. In that valley lie the standing stones and the crown of the Aethros.”
Ragar glanced at the sky. Though he seemed eager to move on, the sun was hanging low, and the shadows of evening began to creep out of the trees.
“We’ll make camp,” he said, “and scale down into the valley at first light.”
The mood that night was better than it had been in weeks. Jarvin and Tevlos gathered wood, and Ragar made a great, crackling blaze near the top of the crest. Jarvin imagined himself as a lone hunter down in the valley, looking up to see the yellow-orange fire burning overhead, and wondered if it would be a happy or a discouraging sight.
They broke out the last of the wine and drank with enthusiasm. Ragar sang several old Aethros songs, his deep voice booming down and rebounding from the valley walls beyond. Veesha played on a flute, Tevlos made an impromptu drum from a log and a pair of sticks, and even the grim-faced Michar threatened to smile once or twice.
Later, they banked the fire down and huddled around it, wrapped in blankets. For once, the cold was held at bay and Jarvin began to feel almost warm.
After the pleasant companionship of the previous hours, however, the old doubts and fears began to return. Ragar told several traditional Aethros stories, but Jarvin felt they were all grim and usually ended with tragedy or, at best, heroic death. He wondered how much of his people’s fatalism had rubbed off onto Ragar.
It was Veesha who finally spoke up, voicing concerns that Jarvin had had since the beginning.
“What do you really seek down there, Ragar?” she asked. “Your people were driven from this place a thousand years ago, and now there’s only trees and stones and death where they once lived.”
“My people,” the northerner replied in a tone of voice that sounded as if he had rehearsed these words a hundred times, “were robbed of their birthright. Their lands were stolen by wicked spirits. It is our right and duty to return to these lands and make them what they once were.”
“You still live in a past that is a thousand years dead,” Veesha said. “How can you recapture glories that are so ancient? Glories that can’t even be remembered?”
There was a flash of temper in Ragar’s eyes. “You cannot understand,” he snapped. His voice grew emotional, absent the overly formal and almost archaic phrases he normally used. “We were great once. Now we are nothing. Less than nothing. Worthless, homeless savages, scraping out a meager existence in a world that holds us in contempt. My people have been despised and spat upon long enough. I’ve been called beggar, drunkard, wastrel, and rather than grow angry and strike back I have chosen to restore our greatness. It is time we took back what is ours.”
“But it is not yours to take,” Veesha persisted. “It was lost two dozen generations ago. It can never be what it once was. It can only be a shadow of lost memories.” Now she stood, holding her blankets about her like a cloak, and strode to the edge of the slope. “Down there, you think you will find your destiny. But I know better. The past is dead, Ragar. You must look ahead, not back. Remember the past — yes. Remember it and learn from it. But don’t try to find it again. You’ll find only heartache and sorrow.”
“My people are lost,” Ragar said. The words were plain, unadorned by pretentious trappings. “They must be saved.”
“Then save them some other way. Save them by leading them forward, not back. The past is nothing but ash and corruption and things that never were.”
Now Ragar stood, and looked down into the valley himself.
“You see the dead past,” he growled. “I see the living future. I see my people there — villages and roads and castles. I see farmers and hunters, warriors and nobles. I see great lords and ladies, and a proud, reborn race.” He shot Veesha a disgusted glance. “You see only death.”
“No, I do not see only death,” Veesha replied. “I see life down there. I see the forests and the rivers and the animals — all alive. But I do not see the life that you see. I do see death. Our death.”
Then, as if to punctuate her words, a sound echoed from the forests below — a high-pitched wail that deepened into a bass howl, rising and falling like a fearsome wind.
“What the hell is that?” Jarvin asked, suddenly aware of where he was, and how dark the night was beyond the circle of the fire.
Ragar spat. “It’s nothing. The wind. A lone wolf.” He patted his sword. “So long as its blood is red, I’ve no fears.”
Veesha did not reply, but cast Ragar one last glance. To Jarvin’s surprise, her expression was neither angry nor contemptuous. Rather, what he saw in the woman’s eyes was sorrow tinged with pity, as if she was gazing at an innocent man condemned to die. She turned and went back to her place by the fire.
There was no more conversation or merrymaking after that. All bundled up in the warmth of the fire and tried to sleep.
It was a long time before Jarvin finally drifted off. Several times he jerked awake, thinking that he heard the howling again, but at last convinced himself that it was only the wind.
Morning was bright but not warm, though in the distance grey-white clouds scowled on the northern horizon.
“There’ll be snow by night,” Ragar cautioned. “We’ll cache most of the provisions here and travel light. We’d best make camp well before dark.”
The descent down the valley wall was treacherous, slowed by shifting slopes, thick growths of trees, and slippery patches of snow and ice. The sun was high in the icy sky when they reached the valley floor and stared in awe at the mighty timbers that grew there.
“These trees have stood guard for centuries,” Ragar said in awe. “They await the return of this land’s rightful heirs.”
Jarvin had to admit that he was growing weary of the barbarian’s affectations and high-sounding pronouncements. At least last night he had spoken like a real man with hopes and dreams, and not like a skald singing heroic ballads.
Tevlos once more consulted his maps and papers, took readings with his strange devices, and assured them that the standing stones where the old king had fallen were near the center of the valley, at the confluence of two streams.
“At least that is what these accounts claim,” Tevlos said. “I admit that the terrain could have changed since they were written — streams could have shifted, new forests grown.”
“Hedging your bets, are you?” Veesha asked as they trooped northward through the sun-dappled gloom of the trees. Her breath came in vast steamy clouds.
“I’m just saying that things can change,” Tevlos replied, and for the first time Jarvin heard a note of doubt in his normally-jovial voice.
Yes, he thought to himself, things can change, and not for the better.
It was around noon that they encountered the first of the creatures. The wind had been growing steadily stronger, rustling the heavy branches above, and through gaps Jarvin could see that the grey-white snow clouds were now sailing across the sky overhead.
The howl burst from the woods ahead of them. It was the same sound they had heard the previous night — thin and piercing at first, then dropping down to a deep-throated growl. This time it was closer and louder. The hairs on the back of Jarvin’s neck stood up and his scalp crawled with an icy chill that was deeper than the cold around them.
“It dares draw near,” Ragar said, drawing his sword with a ringing clang. “Let it come.”
Beside him, Michar drew twin swords and Veesha unslung her bow. Jarvin prepared his broadsword, feeling far less confidence than the others showed, while Tevlos held a shortsword in a trembling hand.
“Do you think it will attack?” the scholar asked, his voice quavering.
“I don’t know,” Jarvin replied. “I’m sure Ragar can deal with it, whatever it is.”
The howl sounded again — close enough this time to chill Jarvin to the marrow.
“Come on, spirit!” Ragar shouted. “Come see that the Aethros have returned!”
It came at them, whirling through the trees like a thing made of the very wind and snow. It was like a white mist, shadowy and vaguely wolf-shaped, with glaring yellow eyes and snapping jaws that raced on the air itself. It howled as it flung itself at Ragar, so loud that Tevlos cried out in terror and Jarvin had to struggle to keep from covering his ears.
Ragar bellowed, swinging his sword at the creature, and Veesha snapped off two shots, but both sword and arrow passed through it harmlessly, as if they were fighting a wisp of cloud or a swirl of wind-blown ice.
Then it was past him, roaring between the trees and passing close by Jarvin. He tried to strike out with his sword, but missed completely. Tevlos screamed and threw himself on the ground, his sword bouncing away, his pack full of instruments and parchments crashing down noisily.
A whack of cold wind followed in the wolf-thing’s wake, then it was gone, the last echo of its fearsome howl fading in Jarvin’s ears.
They stood in shock and disbelief for a long moment before Ragar finally broke the silence with a loud laugh.
“Ha! The fearsome wolf spirit!” he shouted, gesturing after it with his sword. “Is this all that remains of the monsters that drove out my people?”
“Don’t be so sure of yourself, bear-man,” Veesha cautioned, retrieving her arrows. “There was only one — your legends speak of thousands.”
Ragar laughed again, though Jarvin thought the laughter was somewhat forced.
“I saw but one,” he said. “And there are many of my countrymen who will be eager to return once they know that our old enemies have vanished.”
“If you find the damned crown and sword,” Veesha said, smoothing her arrows’ fletching and replacing them in her quiver. She looked up. “And if you hope to do it today, we had best get a move on, since it looks as if that snow is coming in faster than you’d predicted.”
Indeed the snow came, and within an hour it filled the sky above the trees. Thankfully, the heavy boughs stopped much of the stuff, but a steady stream of cold flakes drifted downward through the shadows. The gloom grew as the storm increased in strength, and soon it was as if they were walking through the forest at night.
They reached the banks of a small stream before they lost the light altogether, and Ragar called a halt.
“Make camp here,” he said. “This may be one of the rivers that Tevlos mentioned. We’ll follow it tomorrow and see where it leads.”
Now, with snow falling ever-thicker, they would need shelter. Jarvin strung ropes between trees and flung blankets across them. In the center of the circle of rude tents they cleared away debris and Michar kindled a fire. Soon, the heat of the fire filled the enclosure, warming the air and melting the falling snow, transforming it into a steady cold drizzle. As the darkness fell and became complete, they drew straws for watch shifts, then tried to sleep.
Jarvin lay in fitful half-slumber for several hours, watching as the fire cast dancing shadows, and wondering if he would ever be warm or dry again.
The howling exploded from nearby, cutting through the night, and Jarvin tumbled out of his blankets, blearily grabbing his sword, and making for the fire, where Ragar and the others were already standing, weapons drawn.
“More wisps of snow and monsters of wind,” Ragar said. “Let them come at us again, and we’ll send them off into the night once more.”
The howling grew louder, its origin invisible behind the wall of blankets that surrounded them. To Jarvin’s horror, the first howl was joined by a second, issuing from the woods on the opposite side of the fire.
“There are more of them,” Veesha said.
“More phantoms trying to scare us. I await them eagerly.” Despite the brave words, Ragar’s voice quavered slightly.
A cold wind flapped at the blankets, and the fire guttered. In front of Jarvin, the improvised tent shook, then blew away, rent asunder by unseen claws. The wind-wolf tore through the tattered fabric, flying through the chill air toward them. It was more substantial this time — its outlines more wolf-like, its body less wispy and indistinct. Ragar charged and swung at it, and his sword seemed to find purchase. The thing yelped, then struck at the barbarian with teeth and claw. Ragar cried out, then fell clutching his shoulder, and the wind-wolf vanished.
Instantly, the second creature unleashed its own dreadful howl and tore through the blankets on the other side, loping along two feet off the ground. Jarvin pivoted, swinging his sword at the apparition as Veesha released an arrow. The shaft caught the wolf-thing in the shoulder but not before its jaws had closed on Tevlos’ neck, rending flesh and drawing blood. The pudgy scholar cried out and fell, then the second wind-wolf was gone.
There was no triumph in the silence that followed. Ragar rose painfully to his feet, nursing a bloody shoulder. Tevlos gasped and choked as Veesha saw to his wounds.
“Gods,” he babbled, his voice thin and racked with pain. There were tears on his cheek. “Gods, I’m so sorry. Gods.”
It’s too late to apologize to the headmaster, Jarvin thought. He’s probably forgotten all about you anyway.
Michar looked even grimmer than usual. “They were stronger this time.”
Jarvin nodded, panting and staring at his blade. He had hit the thing, he was certain. But there was no blood on the blade, only a thin rime of shining ice. “There were two of them.”
“Yes,” Ragar said, grimacing as he tested his wounded shoulder. “Yes. There were more. Perhaps they gain strength in numbers.”
“That’s as may be,” Veesha said. “Whatever the reason, these wolf-spirits are more dangerous now. I advise we not linger in this place.”
“Agreed.” Ragar seemed shaken, his bravado now muted by bloody reality. “We follow the stream until mid-day. If we have not found the stones by then, we turn and march out. We can return next spring with a larger party.”
Veesha shook her head dubiously, but said nothing and returned to bandaging Tevlos’ torn neck.
“It missed your vital spots,” she told him. “You were lucky.”
“I don’t feel lucky,” Tevlos said. He was calmer now and the tears were frozen on his face. “I’m beginning to wonder whether this was all such a good idea.”
You’re not the only one, Jarvin thought, stoking the dying fire and trying to restore some warmth to his body.
They did not sleep any more that night, but instead stayed close to the fire, waiting for dawn.
Morning did little to lessen the gloom in either the air or in their hearts. Snow still fell, and the branches above them were growing heavy with ominous burdens of icy white.
In silence, they breakfasted on stale bread and dried meat and set off along the stream. The banks and outer edges were sheathed in silvery ice, and Jarvin was careful not to tread too close lest he slip and fall into the rushing water.
No one spoke, and for over an hour the only sounds were the water, the wind and their own labored breathing. Without the shelter of the trees, the snow blew down directly into their faces, and the wind seemed to grow stronger as they advanced, as if trying to push them back.
At last it was Veesha who spoke.
“Your people would want to come back to this icy hellhole?” she demanded. “I’d as soon stay in the warmth of the south, were I them.”
Ragar stopped and turned, fixing the woman with an angry glare.
“I’ve had enough of your complaints, woman!” he barked, his old tone of formality and tolerant fellowship blown away on the icy winds. “We’ll seek out the stones today, and if we do not find them we will go back! It is enough for me to know that this place exists and that we can find it again if we need to.”
Veesha looked as if she was about to speak when the now-familiar sound of the ghost-wolves’ howls echoed from the trees on both sides. The quarrel died stillborn as all five instinctively drew weapons and prepared to meet the onslaught.
Their outlines were solid, though occasionally they shimmered and flickered as they flew down from the snowy boughs. They were bigger, too, and less wolf-like, running through the air, sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four. White-furred, flame-eyed man-wolves they were, howling and ravening as they came. Jarvin counted four before they were upon him.
The fight was a nightmare, as the wind-wolves rushed around them in a circle, howling, biting and slashing. Jarvin could scarcely tell the ice-white beasts from the snow that swirled and danced in the air, and several times he found himself striking at empty space.
The others were not doing much better — Ragar roared and set about with his grim iron sword, occasionally hitting one of the wolves, biting into its icy form, but just as often missing completely. Veesha’s bow sang and struck home on two of the things, but the arrows stuck for but a moment then fell to the ground.
Michar’s twin swords flashed and flickered, and once Jarvin saw them both connect with a wolf. Ice flew in sparkling shards and the howl trailed off into a moan of pain, as the ghost-wolf fled back into the forest, wounded but still alive, leaking silvery motes of ice instead of blood.
A wind-wolf struck at Jarvin’s arm and he felt its teeth bite into his flesh. Unbearable, numbing cold spread out from the wound and he cried out, striking at the wolf with his sword. The wolf released its hold and Jarvin tried to strike at it again as it fell back. He overbalanced, lost his footing and felt himself slipping down the ice-covered bank, landing in the icy water with a splash.
This was worse than anything he’d yet experienced — worse even than the wolf’s bite. Jarvin’s muscles screamed in agony, then refused even to function, locked in a merciless fist of ice. With a greater effort of will than he thought himself possible, Jarvin struggled stiffly to pull himself out. His sword fell from numbed fingers as he scrabbled at the slick, silvery bank. He could find no purchase and fell again, his head plunging beneath the water, cold cutting through his brain, stabbing him like a thousand razors.
With failing strength, he pulled his head above the surface, drawing a long, agonizing breath, looking up on the bank, trying to cry for help, though his near-paralyzed lungs could barely make a sound.
On the bank, two of the wolves had Tevlos, one by an arm, the other by a leg. They dragged the scholar into the air, whipsawing his body, shaking him like a mastiff with a helpless cat, until his screams abruptly stopped and his corpse flopped limply back and forth. The wolves released the lifeless body and it fell to the frozen ground with a crackling thud.
Apparently content, the three wolves made off into the forest again, their howls fading. Jarvin struggled in the water, trying to pull himself out, until Ragar clapped a huge hand around his waist and hauled him bodily up onto the bank. The cold seemed to scarcely lessen, as if the plunge had frozen his very blood. He couldn’t feel his arms or legs and when he looked down he saw with horror that the water soaking his clothes was turning to ice. He lay, unable to speak, and barely able to draw breath.
The scene before Jarvin was so terrible that he almost could not bring himself to look. Ragar, wounded in a half-dozen places, leaned against a tree, panting heavily. Blood caked the animal skins he wore. Michar sat on the ground nearby, utterly spent, his swords still clutched in gauntleted hands. Veesha kneeled beside Tevlos’ body, checking for signs of life though by her expression Jarvin knew she expected to find none.
They’ll never know. The thought swam up through Jarvin’s ice-fogged brain. You died here seeking redemption and no one will ever know or care.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said at last. “They’re getting stronger. Every bone in his body has been frozen and shattered.”
Ragar nodded wordlessly and shambled toward Jarvin.
“You’ll freeze to death,” he said. “Get out of those clothes and put on Tevlos’.”
“Can’t…” Jarvin’s tongue was as frozen as the rest of him. The world seemed to narrow down into a long, shadowed tunnel with Ragar at one end, shouting. “Can’t… move…”
Ragar shook him. “Move, boy! You’ll die if you don’t!”
Every move was agony, but Jarvin knew the northerner was right. Painfully, he rolled onto his stomach and rose to his knees. Ice cracked and fell from his clothes and he was crawling toward Tevlos’ sundered body when the howls came again, from behind this time, rushing downstream toward them.
“Gods!” Ragar barked and roughly yanked Jarvin to his feet. “There’s no time. Run!”
The desire for sleep and peace rolled over Jarvin even as he felt Michar hoist his motionless body and sling him over one shoulder.
The next moments were nothing but isolated images like paintings in a museum. They ran through the trees, ice crunching beneath their boots, snow blowing and coiling around them, the howls of the pursuing ghost-wolves stabbing at his heart. He felt as if he was only watching from a distance, like a disembodied spirit floating above the scene, detached an uninterested.
A glance back revealed six pursuers — they were fully-formed now, bipedal wolflike creatures, with muscular manlike arms ending in wicked claws, and the same hate-filled yellow stares that Jarvin had seen on the others. Almost casually, he turned his attention back to their flight, part of him knowing that they would never be able to outdistance these creatures — supernatural beasts of the wilderness driven by instincts too savage and monstrous to comprehend.
All over, Jarvin mused, feeling unaccountably warm and strangely comforted. All over, and I’ve not even finished the chronicle.
In the lead, followed by Ragar and Michar, struggling to carry the semi-comatose Jarvin, Veesha cried out, pointing.
Ahead of them, indistinct in the spinning white wilderness, was the unmistakable outline of an artificial structure — a lone cabin standing at the top of a short slope, overlooking the stream below.
Driven by fear and instinct, they all made for the building, the wolf-things rushing from the trees behind them. A dozen paces from the cabin, Ragar stopped running and turned to face their pursuers.
“Go! Get inside!” he shouted. “I’ll hold them off!”
Veesha was first to the cabin, and made for the door, fumbling with the latch, pushing the door open, waving frantically at Michar and shouting for him to hurry.
Behind them, Ragar’s war cry sounded above the wind and he flung himself at the advancing wolf-things, sword whirling. The barbarian’s attack seemed to take them by surprise, and the lead creature advanced straight into Ragar’s stroke. The sword passed cleanly through its midsection, slicing it in two, and the sundered halves dissolved into snow and wind with a sharp wail of pain.
The other wind-wolves stopped short, snarls dying on their lips, and stared in perplexity at the bellowing northerner. Sensing his opportunity, Ragar spun and raced toward the cabin. The ghost-wolves’ surprise was brief, and in an instant they were after him again, howling and roaring.
Ragar burst through the door in a rush, then both Michar and Veesha threw themselves against the door, slamming and bolting it from the inside. A fraction of a heartbeat later the door jarred with the impact of a heavy body, causing the cabin to creak, dust and debris falling from the roof. The howls outside redoubled with rage and frustration, and for several long moments, Michar and Veesha held the door against repeated batterings.
Then at last, the howls faded, replaced by the steady drone of the wind and the rattle of snow and ice against the cabin walls.
“This place hasn’t seen use in years,” Ragar said, inspecting the walls and floor of the cabin.
“Decades,” corrected Veesha. “One of those rare hunters or trappers you talked about probably built it.”
“Fortunate for us he did,” the northerner replied.
The cabin was small and cramped, but provided refuge from the blowing wind and falling snow. It was equipped with a miniscule hearth and chimney, as well as a supply of well-seasoned firewood.
Wrapped in blankets, Jarvin huddled by the fire, warming himself as his sopping clothes dried nearby. He was beginning to feel his fingers and toes again, but they were raw and red, the nails black and painful. He winced.
“Be grateful you can feel at all,” Michar said. “We almost lost you.”
Jarvin nodded. “Thanks. Thanks for saving me.”
The swordsman grunted. “You’re welcome, scribe. Gods forbid I deprive Ragar of his chronicler.”
Veesha glanced out the single window — it was small (thankfully too small for the wolf-things) and made of warped, distorted glass. There wasn’t much to see, in any event, only a shifting wilderness of white.
“It may be letting up,” she said, “though I doubt we’re in any condition to make it out before nightfall.”
Jarvin shivered. The thought of holing up overnight in this pitiful shelter was not a pleasant one, but at this point it appeared to present their only chance for survival.
“We’ll be back,” Ragar promised. “We’ll be back with an army. I killed one of them. You saw. They’re not immune to steel, for all their speed and ferocity.”
“Only one,” Veesha said. “There were more each time, and they grew stronger. By tomorrow there could be dozens.”
Jarvin listened apathetically. Part of him wanted to dig out his chronicle and thaw out what was left of his ink, to set what might be his last words to paper. But far more was exhausted, demanding sleep. At length, bundled in blankets, feeling the spare warmth of the fire envelop him, he rolled onto his side and let the world around him fade away.
Ragar’s voice swam up out of darkness.
“Look out there, by the gods!”
Jarvin heard several more exclamations, and the sound of movement. With more than a little effort, he wrenched his eyes open, and realized that he was truly warm for the first time in weeks.
The other three were clustered around the window, staring into the white void beyond the cabin. Wrapping the blankets around himself, trying to hold onto the delicious sensation of warmth and comfort that they and the fire had created, Jarvin moved over and joined them.
Outside, the snow had stopped, and the late afternoon sun shone through a patchy sky. On a rise, a few dozen paces beyond the cabin, on an elevated neck of land formed by the confluence of two streams, rose five stone monoliths, each twice the height of a man. Each was covered by a light dusting of snow and ice, but neither seemed to adhere to the weathered surface, and even at this distance Jarvin could see elaborate carvings — whorls, knotwork and even crude figures of men and animals.
“The standing stones!” Ragar said. “The gods are with us. We’ve fled right to them.”
“I guess Tevlos was right after all,” Veesha said. “Poor bastard.”
Jarvin felt a sudden sting of regret and sorrow at the thought of Tevlos’ remains lying unburied somewhere in the forest. He thought of the university and of Tevlos’ teachers. If they remembered him at all it was as a disgraced cheat, not as a frightened young man willing to risk his life without complaint in order to earn their forgiveness.
“A lot of good it’s done us, though,” Veesha said. “We’re trapped in this cabin and those damned wolves are waiting to pounce.”
Ragar shook his head. “No. I’m going out there. You others can stay here or come with me as you choose. But I go to claim the crown and sword of my king.”
Jarvin swallowed. His throat was parched and his head hurt, but he forced himself to speak.
“I’ll come,” he said. “I’ll write of this in my chronicle.”
Veesha cast him a look of resignation.
“I’ll go as well. At least I’ll get to see how this all ends.”
Michar was already donning cloak and swords; there was no question that the silent warrior would accompany his sword-brother.
Jarvin’s clothes were still by the fire, and mostly dry. The chronicle was nearby, safe in its oilcloth wrappings.
“This is the cleanest they’ve been since we left,” he commented, lacing up his shirt. “I suppose falling in the stream was a blessing in disguise.”
No one replied, and Jarvin continued to dress in silence.
“I’ve lost my sword,” he said. “Is there anything else I can use?”
Michar looked up, considered for a moment, then drew one of his two weapons and handed it to Jarvin.
“Don’t lose this one,” he said, his voice low and grim, but not without a hint of humor.
Jarvin accepted the weapon gratefully, and slid the naked blade through his belt.
“I hardly know you, Michar,” he said. “You barely speak, you never share what’s in your mind. Why are you even here, Michar? Why did you do this?”
Michar’s harsh expression softened, but only for an instant. He looked over at Ragar, who stood impatiently near the door.
“Because,” Michar said quietly, “of all the men I’ve known he’s the only one to call me friend.”
Jarvin faltered for a moment, then met Michar’s gaze. “I’ll call you friend as well, Michar. And I hope you’ll do the same for me.”
Michar nodded. “Aye,” he said. “That I will, Jarvin. That I will.” Then the old hard expression returned and he fell silent.
“Come on,” Ragar urged. “Darkness isn’t far off. We might still find what we seek.”
Outside, the air was bitterly cold, and the land around them was a pristine and painful white. Taking the lead, scanning his surroundings for signs of the wolf-spirits, Ragar led the way, blazing a new trail through nearly knee-deep snow. The others followed, trudging grimly up the rise to the cluster of monoliths beyond.
The snow was thinner here, blown away by the wind. Looking down, Jarvin saw something jutting out of the ground. He kneeled down, brushing the snow away to reveal a corroded and rusted sword-hilt.
Ragar saw this and nodded.
“Then a battle was fought here,” he said. “The stories were right.”
Jarvin waited for Veesha to utter some retort, but the woman was silent, squatting down beside what looked like a small boulder. She cleared the snow from the mound, then gasped in sudden surprise.
Jarvin looked. The boulder was a human skull, half-sunk in the ground, covered in ice.
“My people,” Ragar said. “My people fought and died here.” The old fire suddenly flared in his eyes again, and he turned, rushing headlong through the snow toward the crest of the hill and the center of the monoliths. “The king fell here! Come, quickly!”
In the center of the stone circle was a jumble of rocks, nearly free of snow. More weapons lay among the rubble — spearheads, daggers, even a few swords. All were rusted and useless, and Ragar paid them no heed.
“Where is it?” he demanded, as if calling upon the gods themselves. “Where did he fall?”
Abruptly, he stopped short as Jarvin hurried up beside him.
“Gods,” whispered Ragar, in a dim, broken voice.
There, against a large boulder, lay the remains of a man. Once, he had been clad in fine mail, but the armor was almost gone to rust and corrosion; only a few links remained. The body beneath was weathered and battered by countless winters, but in one hand it clutched a rusted sword, and on its brow the ancient skull wore the remains of a crown.
These were not the proud sword and crown that Ragar had spoken of. Rather, they were the pitted, corrupt remains of a dead king, and a kingdom that would never return.
Ragar knelt beside the skeleton of his king and reached out toward the crown. At his touch, both crown and skull collapsed, falling into fragments of bone and rusted metal.
The barbarian looked up, his eyes bright with tears, his expression one of hopelessness and despair.
“You were right, Veesha,” he said. “The past is dead. All rust and loss and sorrow.” He stood, breathing heavily. “We should never have come here.”
A gust of wind bit at them, and from the forest came the howl of a wind-wolf, quickly joined by another, then another and another and another. Soon, a deafening chorus of unearthly cries echoed from the woods, surrounding the four and filling them with terror.
“Back to the cabin,” Ragar said. “Quickly.”
I must end this chronicle here, Jarvin wrote. They surround us in the hundreds now. We see them moving in and out of the blowing snow like ghosts. They howl and rage at us, and I know that it is now only a matter of time before they come through our door and end this mad, disastrous endeavor. I pray that someone finds these words, and learns from them. Should this ever reach my father, know that I am sorry and that I love you. For now, I must say farewell.
Jarvin signed his name as the last flickering remnant of the candle guttered and vanished. With a sigh, he closed the book.
So it ends, he thought. Poor Ragar. Poor Tevlos. Poor me.
“Done with your last entry?” Ragar asked. He was sitting beside the dying fire, his unsheathed sword across his knees. “I hope you didn’t make me out to be too great a fool.”
“You’re not a fool,” Jarvin said. “You dreamt of greatness and the rebirth of your people. This was no fool’s errand.”
“Kind words, boy,” Ragar said sadly. “But we both know the truth.” He looked over at Veesha. “You spoke it, woman, and had I but sense to listen to you we’d all be alive and happy, not frozen and ready to sell our lives dearly.”
“It’s of no importance now,” Veesha said. “You led, I followed. I fulfilled my oath and my bloodline will survive. I thank you for the opportunity to show my true worth.”
“I too,” grumbled Michar. “I too.”
Jarvin swallowed hard and pulled Michar’s sword from his belt. The coals were fading now, black engulfing the glowing orange. Outside, the howls sounded louder, more insistent.
Ragar stood, sword on guard.
“Ready now…” he said, then shouted. “Well? Come on, you bastards! We’re ready for you!”
The howls rose to a fearful crescendo, combining into a single voice as if one mighty spirit-wolf now stalked outside the cabin. Then, with a resounding crash and the crack of timber, something flung itself against the cabin door. Snow and dust fell again, making Jarvin choke. The door bowed inward, almost ready to fall.
“One more blow and they’re through,” Ragar cautioned.
The door exploded inward and a horde of white-furred forms bounded into the cabin, borne on a rush of icy wind and a cloud of snow. They were upright, these wolves — burly humans with lupine features, tails and claws. They were also solid, for Ragar’s first blow decapitated one, and his second nearly clove the next in two.
Michar drove in, stabbing a wolf-man in the gut, then slicing sideways, leaving the creature writhing in a pool of black blood. Jarvin struck at one that came at him and felt his sword cut flesh. Blood spattered across Jarvin’s face, and he felt a rush of numbing cold where it fell.
Veesha fell back, shooting white-feathered arrows, taking down several of the beasts before drawing her sword and wading into the fight alongside Jarvin.
Wolf after wolf fell, crashing down in silence, their great white-furred bodies forming a bloody tangle on the floor of the tiny cabin. But soon numbers began to tell.
Ragar roared, hewing left and right, beset on all sides by the beasts. Behind him, a wolf-thing leaped onto his back, claws raking his face, and another seized his legs, dragging him down to the floor with a shattering crash. A third wolf pounced on him, jaws slavering and snapping, then howled in triumph, its fur stained with Ragar’s blood.
“Ragar!” Michar flung himself recklessly at the crowd of wolf-things surrounding his friend’s body. One wolf fell, then another, but then a third slashed at him, catching the swordsman under the chin, snapping his head back and sending a crescent of blood arcing through the air. Michar fell beneath the spirit-wolf, dying as silently as he had lived.
“Gods,” Veesha hissed. She and Jarvin were alone now, standing back to back, weapons on guard as a dozen snow-white man-wolves slowly spread out in the gloom, surrounding them, fixing the two humans with dark, hateful gazes.
For a moment, they were still and silent, though the howl of the wind filled the shack, blowing cold, stinging handfuls of snow into Jarvin’s eyes. As he watched, one of the man-wolves loped forward, walking something like a man, something like a wolf, but at the same time unlike either.
Jarvin’s heart was racing; he felt a trembling inside that was far deeper than the cold, and that he could master only through sheer force of will. He had written about death many times, yes. But now it all seemed to Jarvin like the mindless drivel of a fool who thought himself a master.
I knew nothing, he thought. Nothing of this. If I had known, I would have run home and done everything my father asked of me.
The man-wolf approached Veesha, who stood defiantly, her sword poised. But the creature made no move to attack, and only looked at her, head cocked to one side like a curious dog. Then it spoke.
“You,” it said to her, in the voice that Jarvin had always imagined a dog would have if it learned how to speak. “You are oathbound?”
Veesha looked surprised for a moment, then recovered and replied calmly.
“Yes. I came with the northerner because I swore an oath to accompany him.”
The creature seemed to think about this for a moment, then spoke again.
“You did not come here freely,” it said. “You may go, but you must never return to this place.”
Veesha’s face clouded with doubt and confusion for a moment, then broke into an expression of relieved comprehension.
“I will go,” she said. “And never return. This I swear.”
Jarvin saw Veesha cast him a quick, concerned gaze and seemed about to speak, but the man-wolf now moved to stare directly into his eyes, his breath cold on Jarvin’s cheek. The face was indeed like that of a huge wolf, though the eyes seemed to bear so many different expressions that Jarvin could scarcely grasp even one of them.
“You,” the wolf-thing growled. “You are a storyteller?”
Jarvin gulped and tried to reply, but all he could do was nod. That seemed enough for the creature.
“We once dwelled in this place,” it said. Its voice seemed to echo inside Jarvin’s head and he felt pictures forming there, of the ancient forest and the wolf-folk who had lived there. “We lived in peace. But then the others came, and killed our people, and took this land for themselves.”
Jarvin saw men in animal skins, armed with iron weapons — men like Ragar — descending upon the forest, mercilessly slaying. “We swore vengeance. We swore that the outsiders would never know peace so long as they dwelt here. And our spirits gathered together and drove the outsiders from the forests.”
Now the images were of battle — of the fierce wolf-spirits, some insubstantial and blown on the wind, others real and solid like the creature who confronted him, of the last stand of the barbarian king in the ring of stones, of the wolves hewing him down, leaving him where he fell, sword in hand, crown still bright on his brow.
“And so our realm has remained ever since. Other outsiders have come here. Those who came and hunted and left the land as it was — those we did not harm. But the ones who wished to steal what is ours, to once more take the land from our people — those we destroyed.”
The man-wolf gestured at the sprawled corpses of Ragar and Michar. “These came with greed in their hearts. They sought to take this land from us again. Now they will never leave.” It drew itself up, towering nearly a head taller than Jarvin. “You are a storyteller. You will go and tell the others. Tell them never to return here. Tell them to leave our land in peace, or we will slay them in turn.”
Jarvin felt his legs turning to water and he staggered, but he stayed on his feet. At last he found his voice.
“I will tell them,” he said. At first, his words were weak and distant, but as he spoke they gathered strength. In his mind he heard Ragar speaking in his strange archaic fashion. It had seemed foolish to Jarvin, but now at last he spoke as Ragar would have spoken, and understood. “I will tell Ragar’s people that they can once more find greatness, not in the ashes of the past, but in the bright flames of the present, and the promise of the future. That what they can be is far greater and more glorious than what they were. I will tell them that Ragar did not die in vain, but that his memory will light the way ahead.” He swallowed. “I will tell them that they can never return here, but instead must go forward. March ahead into the dawn, not back into darkness. This I will tell them, and they will listen.”
The man-wolf’s eyes met Jarvin’s then, and its expression softened.
“You speak well, storyteller,” it said. “May your road home be short, and may your life be long.”
Then they were gone, vanishing with a rush of wind and snow.
Jarvin felt his legs finally give out under him, and he fell, but Veesha grabbed him, holding him up.
“That was a fine speech, poet,” she said. “I was afraid they wouldn’t find a reason to spare you and I’d have to fight them again.”
Jarvin grinned up at her. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
The morning was bright and either the cold was less or Jarvin was learning to live with it. They gathered what supplies and provisions they could scavenge and made ready to leave.
“Wait,” Jarvin said as Veesha laced up her pack. He pointed at Ragar and Michar, lying lifeless on the floor. “I doubt the wolf-folk would mind us laying these two to rest before we go.”
Veesha looked dubious. “I think we should go before they change their minds.”
Jarvin shook his head. “I’ll risk it. Ragar gave his life for this quest. The least we could do is leave him where he wanted to be.”
Her expression didn’t waver, but she nodded reluctantly. “All right, then. Damn you poets and your sentimentality, anyway.”
They dragged the two bodies through the snow and up to the standing stones. Jarvin found the corpse of the northerner’s king, the rusty sword still held in its skeletal hand, and arranged Ragar and Michar beside him.
“That will have to do,” Veesha said. “The ground’s too cold to dig.”
“No, I think this would be fine with him,” Jarvin said. “To lie in this place between his king and his sword-brother.” He bowed his head and dropped to one knee. “Goodbye, Ragar. I hope that you’re with your gods now, and that you will see your people find greatness again.” He looked at the other corpse. “I didn’t understand why you came, Michar. I thought that you harbored some deep secret, but now I know. You came for the best reason of all — because Ragar was your friend. You served him well, and will be at his right hand in paradise.” Then he looked out into the forest. “And poor Tevlos. I hope he’s at peace as well. I’ll tell that damned university what happened, and by the gods they’ll remember him. Goodbye all of you.” He stood. “That’s about all I have to say.”
Veesha nodded. “That’s about all there is to say. I’d not have said different.” Now she too looked toward the forest, but with a very different expression. “Now, for the love of mercy, let’s get the hell out of this place.”
Jarvin nodded and followed her down the slope, past the cabin, and into the forest.
It was early evening when they finally clambered over the lip of the valley and arrived at the old campsite. To Jarvin’s relief, the cached supplies were still there, safely buried or hanging from the trees.
“I think we’re going to make it back,” Veesha said. “It’s the first time I’ve felt optimistic in half a year.”
“I’m exhausted,” Jarvin said. “Shall we make camp?”
Veesha agreed and they set to building a fire and retrieving the stored supplies.
Hours later as the moon rose, they sat by the fire, wrapped in blankets, eating dried meat and feeling sleep steal over them.
“Will you really tell them to stay away?” she asked. “Tell Ragar’s people to seek glory in the present, not the past?”
“I will,” Jarvin said. He fell silent for several long moments. “I’ve been wasting my life, reading and scribbling, basking in other people’s adulation, pretending that I was doing something worthwhile. Ragar showed me how foolish I really was. For all his misguided pride and vanity, he tried to do something, tried to have a life worth living. Perhaps he failed in his quest, but I’ll make sure that his life meant something.” He swallowed hard. “Yes, I’ll keep my promise. I swore. Oaths are as important to me as they are to you, you know.”
She smiled grimly. “That’s good to know, poet. I’ve nowhere else to go now. Perhaps you’d like some company in your endeavors.”
Oh father, Jarvin thought once more. If only you could see me now.
From the forest below, the piercing howl of a spirit wolf rose up on the wind. For the first time, it did not fill Jarvin with fear.
“I think they know that as well,” Veesha said. “I think they’re saying goodbye.”
Jarvin looked out across the valley, its crowded, snow-clad trees now lost in the gloom.
“Yes,” he said. “I think they are.”