Years of hiding are ruined when Branston is found by his pursuers, and a questionable ally
The two brown horses leading Branston's cart whinnied nervously as the snow covered road crunched under their hooves. A harsh winter's wind blew through the surrounding trees, carrying snowflakes that clung to Branston's shaggy blond beard and brown woolen winter clothes.
He shivered and pulled his blanket around his shoulders, hoping to ward off the persistent wind. In the wagon behind him lay various furs and wine that he intended to sell at the town of Maldin.
The horses whinnied again, and he craned his head, listening. With one gloved hand holding the reins, he grabbed the bow that lay across his lap. Wolves were common in the surrounding woodland, and his neighbor had warned him before leaving.
"They don't seem like regular wolves, neither," his neighbor had said. "They're more aggressive these days. Some say they've gotten bigger. Just be careful."
He surveyed the wide trees on either side of the narrow road, first one side, then the other. Not today, he pleaded. He hadn't slept well the past couple of weeks, due in part to recurring nightmares.
The snow crunched next to his wagon and he started, dropping the bow and yanking free the knife that hung from his belt.
"Hey!" came from Branston's left.
Raising his long curved knife, he looked to the voice in time to see a man leap onto the seat and throw a fist. Branston shouted as his nose cracked, and a hand grabbed the collar of his shirt from behind. He was dragged twisting and clawing out of the wagon seat, his bow snapping under his weight and his knife lost in his thrashing.
He hit the snow, and a man stood over him, pressing a dagger against his throat.
"You better be still," the large man growled.
Branston froze, his mind unable to work a solution. His horses let out piercing screams, followed by the sound of liquid splashing against the snow.
"No! No stop!" Branston pleaded. His aggressor added weight to the blade, and Branston shut his mouth. His horses stopped screaming and thumped to the ground.
"Get him to his feet," a voice came from out of sight.
Branston's heart raced, and frigid tears trailed down his cheek as he was dragged by his collar to his feet, the blade against his throat the whole time.
"The wagon's full of supplies," Branston cried, looking desperately at the broad man in front, who held a bloody short-sword. "Take it all, just please don't kill me!"
"Shut up!" the man behind him growled in his ear. Branston's node wrinkled at the rancid breath.
The man in front said, "Get his gloves off."
No, not my gloves! Was this the day? Was this what his father warned him about?
A third man came into view, shorter than the others, but meaner looking, a delighted sneer twisted his bloodless lips and his eyes never left Branston's. His bony hands seized Branston's wrists and forced his arms up.
"Y'better be still," the man with the knife snarled in his ear.
The third man yanked off Branston's gloves, and his squinted eyes widened. "Yes, sir. This's him."
The second man, the tallest, with the blood-stained sword, came forward and looked with no expression at Branston's hands, at the black dragon markings branded into each palm.
Branston spoke, careful not to nick his throat on the blade. "Krassos sent you."
The tall man looked up at him. "You know, don't you? And you've been avoiding us the whole time?"
The man's dull brown eyes went back to the dragons on Branston's palms, their wings outstretched and their heads held high. The dragons' jaws were wide in what his father told him was a 'triumphant roar.'
"I don't want to go back," Branston said frantically, "I don't-"
The man behind Branston jolted and fell backwards, dragging Branston down with him. Branston tore at the aggressor's arms around his neck, already feeling the knife dig into his throat. As he hit the ground, atop the man's chest, he heard the other two shout curses. Branston slammed his elbow into the man's chest, but got no response. Finally Branston tore the knife from his hand and stood, looking down to face him.
An arrow stuck up from the man's eye, the broad arrowhead pointing towards the murky clouds. Branston glanced to the treeline, and saw a man crouched, an arrow ready. He flinched as the arrow was loosed, and he felt the wind shift as it flew past his face, missing by an inch.
Behind him, a man screamed, followed by gurgling. He dropped to the ground as the man in the trees yanked free another arrow, loosing it in the same motion.
Branston dropped the knife and tugged on his gloves, - "Always hide the dragons, Branston. Show no-one." - and turned to see the two men dead on the ground, one with an arrow in his eye, the other with one in his throat.
Relief took Branston and he looked to the treeline to see the archer walking towards him. The man held his bow at his side, and didn't look like he intended to use it.
"Thank you," Branston said, and he took a step back, the man was still coming.
The man stopped just a few feet away, and said, "You're hurt. How bad?" His gray beard barely hid the scowl on his face.
Branston nodded. He could feel the faint slice in his neck, and blood trailed into his collar. "It's not bad. Thank you again, for saving me." He shivered at the thought of going back to King Krassos. His attackers would surely have taken him.
The old man peered at Branston from beneath his white hood, "Show me the dragons."
Branston's heart sank. He thought the man was saving him!
He spun and took off running in the opposite direction, the cold wind stinging at his eyes and his cut. He ducked under a low branch as he disappeared into the treeline.
The trees were sparse, making Branston wish there was more cover. He didn't think he could outrun the man, already the man's feet hitting the ice.
He had to be careful, his boots were designed for walking on ice, but he nearly slipped.
"Never show the dragons," his father had said, "Or Krassos' men will come for you. And we can't go back to him."
Icy air pained his lungs as he drew in ragged breaths. He couldn't hear the man behind him, maybe he had -
Branston cried out as something struck him in the back of the knee. He hit the ice hard, his teeth biting the edges of his tongue. He scrambled to his feet unsteadily, cursing, when another hard object struck him in the shoulder blade. He fell on his face with a frustrated scream.
He tried again to stand, but the man's boot pressed against his back and pushed him to the ground.
"No, please!" Branston cried, "I can't go back! I can't face it!" Blood spilled over his lips, and the frigid air pained the punctures.
Branston squirmed as hard as he could,
Branston tried desperately, he clawed at the ice in the hopes to drag himself forward. A sharp object pressed against his neck. He froze.
"Krassos didn't send me," the man said through ragged breaths, "He sent those men back on the road. I am here to help you! Now, can I trust you to hear me out? If I let you up, can I trust you not to run?"
Branston thought a moment. At the very least he could get off the ice. His entire front was numb.
"I'll hear you out." Branston's voice shook.
The boot lifted, and the ice crunched as the man backed up. Branston stood up, seeing the two rocks that had struck him and turned to face the tall old man. The man's age-lined face glared at him, and he panted just as much as Branston did.
"Show me the dragons. I need to see." He slid his short-sword into a scabbard at his left hip.
Branston glared at the man, and spit blood onto the disturbed ice, before pulling off his gloves and sticking them in the pockets on the front of his coat. He held up his hands, exposing the dragon markings.
The man eyed each palm, and nodded, meeting Branston's eyes. "You fled Tagronad, correct?" His voice was gruff, but easy to understand.
Branston nodded slowly, lowering his palms. "With my father, yes. Who are you?"
"I am Faldashir, I work for King Dendlo, and he's tasked me with searching for your kind."
"I'm not with the Guard anymore!" Branston snapped, "I am not going back!"
Faldashir raised his hands in a calming gesture, though the effect was lessened with the bow in his hand. "I'm not here to take you back, but to give you news."
Branston spit blood and said, "Alright then." A hard wind blew through the tress, tugging at his coat and green wool hat.
Faldashir lowered his hands and said, "The dragons broke out again. There aren't enough Guards anymore. Like you, a lot of them left after the Sal'Tathern incident."
Branston cursed, drops of blood flying from his mouth. He was sure Krassos would have taken better precautions. "So what did they do, when they got out?"
"Every single one went north," Faldashir said grimly, and Branston knew what he meant. "Sir, I beg you, put aside your fears and help us!"
Branston shivered, though not against the cold, but against his duty. "What do you -"
"Hush!" Faldashir held up a hand, his head swiveled side to side, searching. "Down." He lowered into a crouch, and Branston did the same, his eyes scanning the trees.
"What is -"
Branston heard only the wind at first, but then he did hear something. A horse was drawing closer. Galloping.
"Behind you!" Faldashir leapt to his feet and drew free an arrow.
Branston dropped to his knees and elbows and craned his head to see behind himself. A tall horse charged toward him, chainmail covered the animal, and as it drew closer Branston could hear it rattling. But worse, Branston saw the rider wore a white tunic with the Takinthad insignia stitched on the front: the Sun and Star.
The rider wore a tall steel helmet that hid his face, but he had a crossbow aimed at Faldashir, and he was drawing closer and closer...
A twang announced Faldashir's shot as the arrow flew over Branston, connecting with the rider's chest and bouncing off.
The rider aimed his crossbow and fired. Branston flinched as the bolt soared over him, and he heard a grunt from Faldashir.
He looked at the older man, who's blazing blue eyes met his. "Get up and run!"
Branston growled in frustration as he scrambled to his feet. A quick look showed him the rider had thrown his crossbow to the ground and drawn his sword, and he was bearing down on Branston fast.
He took off running, and cursed Faldashir's name as pain surged through his leg. The clopping drew closer, heading straight for him. He picked up the pace, his knee hurting each time his foot hit the ground. The horse was almost upon him, so he jumped behind a tree, and a sword whistled overhead. He heard the rider curse through his helmet as he passed Branston, who struck the ground with a pained grunt.
"Krassos may want us dead, Branston," his father had said, "He may be afraid we'll spill his secrets, so from here on out, never speak a word of what happened. We don't need his men after us."
The rider turned his horse, and Branston could feel the man's eyes on him, despite the helmet.
Twang! Faldashir let fly another arrow, but missed.
"Get up, Guard!" Faldashir growled nearby.
Branston grimaced at the title, but stood and ran the way he had come before. The horse took to a gallop, and Branston ran, the pain in his knee no longer an issue.
The horse was gaining on him, the rattling and clopping growing louder and louder.
Keeping his pace, he stooped to snatch a thick branch off the ice. He turned abruptly and ducked as the rider's sword whipped toward him. The blade whistled over his head. Branston swung the branch with all his might, and the branch struck the horse in the knee.
Snap! The horse screamed and collapsed, the rider pitched forward, striking the ice as violently as his animal.
The rider stood unsteadily, avoiding his thrashing squealing horse.
Faldashir was at Branston's side suddenly, and had an arrow aimed at the rider. Though his face was covered, Branston was sure the rider was stunned by the way he stood and looked around.
"Stop where you are!" Faldashir commanded. "I can see your throat so you better answer my questions!"
The man looked at him, and reached into his pocket, pulling out a polished black stone.
"Wait, no!" Branston shouted. "Shoot him! Shoot -"
But the man vanished in a blink. No trace remained but his sword, his horse, and his bootprints. Branston bellowed a frustrated curse. The man had gotten away!
"What was that?" Faldashir's eyes darted around, searching for the rider, his mouth was open and he stared out that the spot where the man had been only a moment before.
"Well?" Faldashir roared, and then he looked at the horse, who was on its side screeching and trying to stand. He shot the creature in the exposed chest, and the squealing stopped. He rounded on Branston. "Where did he go?"
Branston rubbed his eyes and said, "Krassos will know I'm here now." He couldn't go back to Krassos; he wouldn't! "It's time I leave." He looked at Faldashir, who glared back. "That man will take your description to Krassos, surely. He was looking at you before he vanished, you need to go into hiding."
Faldashir squared his shoulders and unfurrowed his brow, "I can take you to King Dendlo, he'll keep you safe. I promise you that."
Branston nodded. His legs grew shaky. "Thank you." What other choice do I have?
END OF CHAPTER ONE