Branston learns of a new danger, and it may be close.
Tracks In The Snow
Three miles north of Maldin Branston waved his hand in the air, signaling to Olivar behind him. He steered toward a hill that broke the otherwise flat landscape, slowing his horse as it trudged up the slushed hill side, toward the high top crowned with a copse of bare-branched trees.
He pulled rein beneath the cover of the trees, dismounting as Olivar worked his way up. Staking his horse to the ground and placing a feed-bag around its muzzle, Branston looked over the land. Furrows in the soft snow marked their path. Good.
“Why did we stop?” Olivar asked drawing rein and dismounting.
Branston spoke over the sound of his horse chewing oats. “I told Vigo we’d be heading north. If he can get Faldashir and follow our tracks, we’ll be waiting for them.”
“And if soldiers come instead?”
Branston kept his eye on the plain, seeing the pillars of chimney smoke in the distance. “We have a good view from here. We’ll see soldiers coming. If we see more than two riders together, we leave.”
He pulled away the feed-bag and tied it shut, placing it in a saddlebag. He stroked his horse’s neck as he grabbed the bow case. He placed it on the ground and opened it, revealing a short-bow and a quiver of black-fletched arrows.
“What if Vigo sends soldiers after us?” Olivar asked, his voice tight and quick. “We abandoned both of them back there. Don’t you think he’d want revenge or something?”
Branston placed his arms and head through the strap of the quiver, aligning the arrows above his shoulder, before standing up with bow in hand and kicking the case closed. He strode to the edge of the hill, his heart racing, and took out an arrow.
“I doubt he’d do that,” Branston said, keeping his voice steady. “His king sent him to retrieve you, if he’s like Faldashir. I doubt he’d fail his mission for spite.” Then again, Faldashir has threatened to leave me behind a few times.
A cold wind rustled the trees, but it felt little more than a cool spring day. It was almost pleasant compared to previous weeks’ weather. He took the arrow in his hand and stuck it in the ground, which offered little resistance.
“If one rider comes,” Branston said sticking a second arrow in the ground. “We’ll stay, but we’ll be prepared.”
Olivar came to his side, leading his horse. “Are you a good shot?”
“I got most of my food from hunting.” Branston stuck a third arrow in the ground. “Check the other side of the hill, will you?”
Olivar turned and led his horse away, but Branston heard him the whole time; the crown of the hill was small.
Branston sighed, trying to calm himself. He wished he hadn’t left Faldashir back in Maldin, the man had saved his life. He kept an observant watch over the plain, hoping to see two riders heading his way.
Olivar returned, his horse’s steps louder than his own, and said, “All clear on the other side.”
“What about the landscape?”
“Flat,” Olivar said. “The hill is actually steeper on this side than the other. I saw a river, as well.”
Olivar scoffed. “I don’t know! A few miles, maybe.”
Good, that gave them an escape. “Did you see the bridge?”
“No, it was too far away.” There was a long silence before Olivar spoke again, “Are you concerned that we’re staying here at all?”
Branston turned to the fidgeting young man, who looked to have been only a boy a year ago at most. “What do you mean?”
“Best case, scenario, they show up and drag us to war,” Olivar said. “I think we should run. Head south and find a ship, sail far away.”
Branston shook his head. “You can do that if you want, Olivar. Remember: you’re not bound to me in any way. I don’t expect anything from you. If you want to go, go. I won’t be having this conversation every time you get scared.”
Olivar furrowed his brow. He held his hat on his head as a strong gust of wind blew over the hill-top and said, “Why are you staying? Why do you want to go to war?”
“I don’t,” Branston said flatly. “But every fighter will be needed, Dragon Guards more so. The world will need me to be there fighting.”
“Then why are you running?”
“Because I’m not sure of the Takinthites’ intentions.” Branston turned to the field, leaving Olivar to stare at the back of his head. “Faldashir is taking me to Veresses, and I’ll try to work out a peace with Krassos.”
Olivar appeared at Branston’s side, his horse in tow. “How bad will the fighting get?”
Branston stared over the plain, not seeing it. “I don’t know. If we can stop the war before it begins, then we will.”
“And how would we do that?”
“We kill the creature before it puts those souls in play. I can’t imagine what it wants with that many.”
“You think it’s one entity?”
“I don’t know.” Branston’s hand came to his chest, feeling the saldacrosse under his coat. I could find out, if I wanted. He thought about it for a moment. The risk wasn’t worth it, he decided. Who knew what was happening in that world?
“Look!” Olivar pointed to two specks moving in the distance across the snowy plain. “You think it’s them?”
Branston took an arrow from the ground, nocking it in his bow. The horsemen drew closer, following along Branston and Olivar’s trail.
“Un-stake my horse and hold onto it. We need to be ready to ride,” Branston said.
As the riders drew closer, he saw it was Faldashir and Vigo, and Faldashir raised his hand in greeting.
Branston stepped away from the hillside, letting out a sigh of relief. Now to find out what Vigo had told Faldashir.
“Planning on shooting us?” Faldashir asked as they came to the top of the hill.
Branston stuck the arrow in the quiver and met Faldashir’s eye. “Where were you?”
“I saw the column approaching so I ducked into a shop,” Faldashir said drawing rein but remaining in his saddle. “Vigo told me you two left without a thought for me,” his voice was flat, and Branston’s breath held.
“Good,” Faldashir added. “You understand the importance of your escape. I am your guardian, Branston. At least until we reach Murindin. If you have to go on without me, do so.”
Olivar stepped forward, a rein in each hand, leading his own horse and Branston’s. “What were you doing talking to them?” he asked Vigo sharply.
Vigo turned his expressionless gaze on Olivar’s glare. “I was asking after their arrival. And they told me.”
“And?” Branston motioned with his hand after Vigo’s long pause.
“They’re hunting something,” he looked to Branston. “Something, not someone. They told me there is evil in these parts: a wraith.”
Branston’s mouth fell open. “A wraith? What would it want here? Where are the soldiers getting their information?” Wraiths hadn’t been seen for hundreds of years, the appearance of one was a bad sign.
“Apparently Krassos can track any breaches in the Divide, and one appeared around here, three weeks ago. Good timing, isn’t it?” Vigo tugged on the hems of his sleeves. “A wizard was sent down here, along with the company of soldiers, and they spotted the wraith. They say the wizard was killed along with most of the soldiers. Worse,” Vigos’ voice darkened now, “hands came through the Divide and pulled out the dying souls.”
“What?” Olivar snapped, beating Branston.
Vigo nodded, fear touched his eyes. “Their souls were pulled into the Second World. The captain said that arms came from nowhere, straight out of the air and pulled the souls from the dying bodies.”
Branston looked around, feeling an itch between his shoulders. Never had he heard anything like that before.
“What are we going to do?” Olivar asked, his voice cracking.
“We press on,” Faldashir said. “We head to Murindin, and we fix what we can.”
Branston stepped forward between the horses and picked the arrows out of the ground. He slung his quiver off his shoulder and placed it and the bow in the case before tying it to his horse’s saddle. He mounted his horse, taking the reins from Olivar, and they rode away.
They crossed over a snowy field before coming to the river Olivar had reported. Branston looked down as they rode alongside the slow current. His stomach twisted and he called for a halt.
“What is it?” Faldashir asked, looking to the tracks.
Branston dismounted and held his horse’s reins. He stooped to look at the tracks.
He cursed and growled, “Wolgs.” The tracks were twice as large as his head, and paw-shaped. Dozens of tracks overlapped each other and only a few prints were complete.
Faldashir muttered the word again and pulled out his bow, slinging the quiver onto his back with a pained grunt for his ribs.
“How old are the tracks?” Olivar asked.
Branston straightened and huffed. “I don’t know. But it looks like they headed for the bridge over there.” He pointed ahead, to an arched stone bridge that crossed the wide water.
He climbed into his saddle and followed Faldashir, who held his bow with an arrow nocked. He stared to the opposite bank.
They came to the high-railed bridge, and Branston saw the wolgs’ trail continued. Branston scowled at the tracks; they looked to belong to a massive pack. No clean patches of snow remained on the bridge, just many paw-prints.
On the other side of the river the tracks continued northward, along the company’s path. Branston looked around, searching for danger as hills slowly rose around them as they gained distance, putting the river behind them.
It was late in the afternoon while Branston chewed on a piece of dried meat when Faldashir spoke.
“The tracks have split.”
Branston swallowed and looked to the ground. The tracks had branched off in two directions.
“Wolg packs usually stick together.” Branston said. Everybody drew rein and Branston dismounted, Vigo joining him.
“There doesn’t seem to be a sign of struggle,” Vigo said. “It doesn’t look like they were fighting.”
Branston scratched at his beard. “It’s like some were distracted.”
A set of prints had branched off and headed straight west, over a hill. Branston looked around, they were surrounded by hills, so he couldn’t see far in any direction.
“I’ll follow it,” Branston said, “Just to the top of the rise, see what I can see.”
He pulled free his sword and jogged along the branching trail, to the top of a hill. It was tall, allowing a vantage point for miles around. The tracks continued down the other side of the slope, but continued their westward path. He stopped and studied the prints, then called down the hill, “This trail seems more hurried! The snow is kicked up more up here!”
He couldn’t see where the trail led off, so he returned to his horse. Once in his saddle he said, “I don’t know what diverted them, but their tracks were more frantic. We should go.”
They rode on, a knot growing in Branston’s stomach. First arms from the Second World, now wolgs behaving strangely.
Olivar steered his horse to Branston’s side and asked, “Where’s the nearest town? I don’t want to sleep out in the wilderness.” The fear was plain in his voice, and the desperation in his eyes.
“I think we may need to,” Branston said, trying to conjure an image in his mind. He had always studied local maps, planning an escape route. “I don’t think there’re any towns for quite a way.”
“There are not,” Faldashir said. “I took this way getting to you, and I’d say we have about two more nights before we reach a town.”
Olivar groaned a curse and buried his face in a gloved hand.
Branston’s stomach soured. He didn’t want to be out in the wild a night either. He found his reins shaking and steadied his arms.
“I know of a spot, however,” Faldashir said. “When I came this way I found a cave, still some miles from here. It’s in the forest up ahead, which may give us firewood; maybe.”
“Do we want a fire?” Vigo argued. “Wouldn’t fire in a cave be bad? More, might fire in the open draw attention from wolgs or otherwise?”
“It may be warmer than last night,” Faldashir replied, “but it’s still cold. We need a fire.”
“I agree,” Olivar said.
Branston nodded. The wind had begun to pick up over the last hour, and he wanted to do inventory on his saddlebags to see all that Hythern had given him.
“Alright, then,” Vigo said resignedly. “Fire it is.”
“We’ll keep watch,” Faldashir said, speaking as if he led the company. “I can take the first watch, but first we need to steer towards the river.” He patted his horse.
So they turned slightly, navigating north-east through the hills. They came to the river again, which had curved north some miles back.
The group stood along the river while their horses drank. Branston sighed as he urinated into the slow current.
“Any ideas on the wolgs?” Vigo asked next to him.
Branston buttoned his pants and said, “No, none. Really I’ve spent the trip thinking on the arms.” He looked at Vigo. “I don’t know what could do that. Worse, I don’t know how they could show up. Olivar said that some wizards found a cage full of souls in the Second World.” Vigo crossed his arms, his brow furrowing. Branston continued, “I think the arms are what’s gathering the souls. But what are they, and what do they want with the souls?”
Olivar added, “Millions of souls, the wizard said. Millions.”
Vigo nodded slowly, his eyes distant. “I have no answers. But maybe Krassos will.” His eyes met Branston’s suddenly, “Let’s hope Krassos is willing to pardon you and Olivar.”
He turned away and stroked his horse’s head while it lapped up water.
Branston stood holding his horse’s reins and thinking. What would he do if Krassos didn’t pardon him?
They soon took to riding, with Faldashir leading the way.
“How big is this cave?” Vigo asked. “Will it hold all of us?”
“No, the horses will need to remain outside. But there will be a watcher at the mouth of the cave all night.” Faldashir sounded deep in his own thoughts.
They came again to the hills, and soon they found the wolg tracks. Branston wondered about them again, and worried on their distance. No snow fell to cover the tracks, so the tracks could be as old as day or an hour
He was glad when Faldashir led them away from the tracks, claiming the cave was only a mile away, by his estimate.
They came to a treeline, and soon found a large hill that rose far above the trees. The hill was of stone, small twisted trees grew here and there over the side. The thing was too steep to climb, and the briar branches that time had woven over the surface didn’t allow it, anyway.
Faldashir dismounted with a growl for his rib and led his horse toward the hill. “The cave should be around here.”
Branston drew his horse close to the rise, looking for the cave as well. “Here,” he said.
Faldashir came to where Branston pointed and nodded. He pushed aside the briars that drooped down, revealing a gap in the stone half as high as he stood and three times as wide.
“What made you crawl into that thing?” Vigo asked, the disgust clear in his voice.
“A terrible snowstorm,” Faldashir replied. “Branston will you help me set a horseline?”
Branston dismounted and pulled a rope from his saddlebag, tying one end to a tree and tossing the other end to Faldashir.
Faldashir looked to Olivar and said, “Get a fire going. It’ll be dark soon.” Branston looked up to see a sky of deep purple and orange. Branston hooked his white to the horseline, making sure it had room to move, and went to work attaching a feedbag to its halter. It munched vigorously on the oats within.
Soon Olivar had a large fire going, having chopped apart a thin tree that had fallen and propped against another, and Branston finished looking through the saddlebags piled in the snow. Hythern had supplied them well.
“The forest is quiet,” Vigo said, sitting cross-legged before the fire.
Branston stopped and listened. But for the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the horses, the forest was still.
“At least the wind is gone,” Faldashir said, taking off his white coat and gray shirt, revealing a bandaged chest. “Toss me the bandages, will you, Branston?”
Branston complied and sat next to the fire, completing the circle. Olivar had begun cooking potatoes in a pot, and Branston’s stomach rumbled.
He looked to the cave, the hanging briars having been chopped away, and frowned. “You’re sure that will fit all of us?”
Faldashir dabbed at his wound and said, “Pretty sure. You won’t be able to stand in it but it widens out once you get past the opening. Of course, you’re free to sleep outside if you’d prefer.”
Branston drew his cloak around himself, thinking of the wolgs and the arms from the Second World. What was happening over there?
The sky darkened quickly, leaving the group to eat potatoes by the light of the flame. Soon Branston crawled into the cave with a lantern supplied by Vigo and searched the small cave. It was indeed small; Branston couldn’t stand as Faldashir had said. But it was wide, and could fit three people easily. Branston had a feeling that whenever watch shift changed, they all would be roused.
But the night passed with no problems, and Branston held the shift before dawn, which he spent pondering his dream and staring into the dark woods. He woke everybody and they set off, steering toward the river, as Faldashir led them.
The air was warmer than the day before, and no wind assaulted them, Branston even took off his cloak and stuffed it in a saddlebag.
On the way to the river they picked up the wolg track again, and Faldashir kept his bow handy.
At the same time they reached the river by coming over a long hill, they found the wolgs.
There were dozens of the beasts, all twice the size of wolves, lying in the snow. The group froze atop the hill, watching the large pack.
“They’re dead,” Olivar muttered.
Indeed the animals’ eyes were open, and their bodies as still as the ground.
Branston looked to Faldashir and said, “Can you shoot one?”
Faldashir nodded, loosing an arrow into the flank of the closest, two dozen feet away.
No reaction. The arrow struck and the beast was still. Branston rode toward the wolgs, his horse needing a push. Vigo followed with knife in hand.
They rode among the bodies, examining them from atop their mounts. No wounds marred the thick blond fur of the canines, and no fangs were bared. They looked peaceful. Maybe they died without knowing it.
Branston looked at Vigo. “People say you can’t survive without your soul.”
Vigo met his gaze, understanding in his small brown eyes. “The arms.”
“We should leave.” Branston steered his horse toward the hill, and felt suddenly that he was being watched.
END OF CHAPTER SIX