1

 

THE NIGHT had taken on an ill wind.

It was enough to stir Auraq Greystone from his musings. He looked up from the flames of his small campfire and scanned the tree line. The clearing was still quiet, but Spirit had lifted her head from her feedbag. The young bay’s ears perked up, and she stamped her hoof twice. She sensed it too.

Auraq focused his attention on the night sounds in the surrounding forest. The campfire bathed the clearing in warm light but didn’t reach far beyond the first circle of trees. If anything was out there, he wouldn’t see it. Nothing out of the ordinary reached his ears. He lifted his nose and drew in a few long breaths—the smell of smoke from his fire, the sweet fragrance of the scorched meat on the spit, the lush forest loam beneath him—again, nothing he wouldn’t expect.

But a deeper, more primal sense registered something else. There was a trace of malice in the air. Faint, but undeniable. He could feel it brush against his skin like a night mist moving silently through the trees.

He sat very still, waiting.

He wondered if it was just his imagination. After his earlier run-in with brigands, he was understandably jumpy. But the feeling was prickly enough that he was reluctant to ignore it. Perhaps the wiser thing after all would have been to take a room at the inn he passed some ways back, but his purse had grown too light as it was. He didn’t need to spend good hard-earned coin on a needless luxury when he could make do perfectly well on his own in the wild.

Besides, a crowded inn could carry more danger for him than a dark forest in the middle of the night. There was no risk of someone recognizing him here.

Nothing happened. The forest remained still.

With a tight frown, he returned his attention to his dinner. The plump rabbit was nearly ready. Fat dripped down to sizzle and hiss on the hot coals. He gave it another quarter turn on the spit and then sat back again to stare at the flames.

Something moved out in the dark wood.

The sound was clear and distinct. A dry twig snapping. He lifted his head and his back straightened as his hand drifted to the hilt of one of the swords on the ground beside him. It could have been an animal out foraging, but something about the sound made Auraq reject that. He waited, straining to pick up anything beyond the crackle of the fire and the sizzle of fat. Then heard it again—the sound a boot makes when snapping a twig on the leafy ground. It came from the direction of the road. Auraq curved his fingers around the grip, ready to slide the blade from the sheath.

Brigands again? Either a new band was thinking he was an easy target or the same ones from before had returned, thinking to retaliate for their bloody failure.

The warm fire and isolation from the road had persuaded him to take off his heavy leather jerkin. He wore only his undertunic. Now, he wondered if he had the time to slip the jerkin on before an ambush. Unprotected, he could be killed by a well-aimed arrow or crossbow bolt. But even with his vest on, there were no guarantees.

More sounds. He could hear breathing now, and the whisper of brush being pushed aside. Someone was approaching his camp. Perhaps two by the close proximity of the sounds. Either they were poorly trained at stealth or no longer cared about being heard. Bandits were at times overconfident in their ability to overwhelm their victims.

He caught movement. The firelight reached out just far enough and at the right angle to catch the white of a tunic sleeve.

“Ho there!” came a warm and friendly call. A leafy branch was lifted aside and a shape emerged from the darkness. “Hail and good eve, friend. You’ll not be needing that weapon for us.”

An old man stepped into the clearing. His face was a chaos of white hair, but among the mess, Auraq spotted a gentle smile peeking through. A rustle of foliage behind him announced the arrival of a second visitor. A man much younger than his companion. Twenty maybe. He stood partly in shadow behind the old man’s shoulder.

“We saw your fire from the road, good sur.”

Auraq didn’t respond and held his fingers to the hilt of the sword. He waited, measuring the two of them, wondering if this was an elaborate ruse to get him to lower his defenses.

“We hoped you’d be kind enough to share it with us at this late hour. We have provisions we could share in return for the kindness.”

The two hovered at the edge of clearing waiting for an invitation. The old man was dressed simply, but well for travel. Heavy breeches and thick boots for long days on foot, a tunic and jerkin and a thick woolen cloak. He had a small canvas haversack on his shoulder and a line of pouches and purses on his belt. Auraq caught the glint of metal underneath the cloak. A dagger or short sword, still sheathed. The younger man was less adequately attired. His boots were well-worn, and he had on only a thin tunic with no cloak upon his shoulders. A bulkier pack was slung on his shoulder.

The old man maintained his warm smile down at Auraq, but the younger man stared at his boots and shifted awkwardly. Nervously. When the moments lumbered by without a response from Auraq, the younger swore under his breath. “Leave it, Tan,” he grumbled. “Let’s return to the road. We’ll find something.”

Auraq felt his mouth turn down. He thought he’d traveled deep enough into the wood to not be seen from the road. He’d been romanced by the clearing he’d found, counted himself lucky at finding it in the gathering dark, and hadn’t bothered to check if it was safe. He’d been foolish and sloppy. If they had spotted his fire from the road, others might too.

The old man must have seen the change in Auraq’s expression. He nodded in resignation. “Sorry to disturb ya, then.” He glanced at his companion over his shoulder and signaled with his head to leave. “We’ll leave ya to—”

Auraq broke in with a grunt deep in his throat. “No.” He lifted his hand from the hilt of the sword. These two were just as they seemed—travelers like himself, out on the road at too late an hour. “You’ll find nothing nearby on the road tonight.”

The two stood frozen, the younger one half turned to head back into the trees. They exchanged glances, telling Auraq they weren’t sure if it was an invitation. Auraq wasn’t sure either, until he found himself gesturing toward the ground on the opposite side of the fire.

“Oh, many thanks, sur. Many thanks,” said the old man. He scrambled to join the fire. Dropping his haversack, he lowered himself to the ground and extended his hands toward the flames. “Oh, it’s a cold one tonight, sur. It would have been a long night without your generosity.”

The younger man approached more slowly, clearly apprehensive of Auraq. No surprise—Auraq tended to have that effect on many. His size alone was enough to cause people to give him a wide berth. But the long days on the road had him likely looking as if he’d been dragged by a horse. The younger man kept his eye on Auraq while he slid the heavy pack from his shoulder at a distance from the fire. He joined the old man only to be slapped on the thigh before he sat down.

“Whatcha doin’ leaving the pack way over there, lad? Bring it on closer.”

Whatever Auraq sensed earlier, whatever ill forces had passed through the wood around him, these two were not part of it. They settled in across from Auraq, with the pack now positioned between them.

“We will leave you to your thoughts. We’ve no interest in being a nuisance. Kane, pull out what we can share with this kind man.”

Auraq held out his hand. “No need.” A part of him was surprised to discover he was happy for the company. A rarity—most of the time, people grated on his patience. But it had been too long since he had spent time with others, and perhaps these other souls might distract him from his own thoughts. He had spent far too much time alone with them lately. And it would certainly be better than spending yet another night staring at a fire until sleep took him.

“Nonsense,” the old man replied. There was a genuine warmth to the man and Auraq, despite his own trepidation, felt drawn to him. “We have fresh pears that we found today and a goodly number of hickory nuts. Kindness should be rewarded, sur. I insist.”

“Very well. Then share my catch tonight too. It is more than I can eat anyway.”

The offer got Kane’s attention. He looked up with wide eyes first at Auraq, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard, and then at the sizzling roast.

Kane pulled from the sack what they’d foraged while Auraq took the rabbit from the spit and, using his dagger, divided it into quarters. The food was passed around, and the three of them sat in silence while they ate. The meat was juicy beneath its crispy charcoaled skin and tore easily from the bone. The pears were ripe and sweet. One by one, bones and cores were tossed into the fire. When the last bone of his quarter was picked clean, Auraq leaned back licking the remnants from his fingers. The old man did the same, while Kane helped himself to the final quarter. He showed no signs of slowing.

“Shall we wash it all down with this?” the old man asked with a grin, pulling a skin from the sack.

Auraq lifted a brow.

“Not the best vintage, I’ll admit,” the man said as he pulled the stopper from the top. “But much like a woman, it’s better than having none at all.” He took a swig and passed the wineskin over to Auraq, who raised it to his new companion as a toast, and took a swig from it himself.

“What’s your name?” Auraq asked.

“Mentanus from the duchy of Har Purdea, at your service.”

“Auraq, at yours,” he said with a respectful nod. Out of habit he omitted his surname and his own place of origin.

“Friends call me Old Tan,” Mentanus added. “A bit of jest, on account I’m a tanner by trade. This here is my apprentice, Kanteron Elrus.”

The younger man flashed a glare of annoyance at Old Tan. “Kane will do.”

Auraq narrowed his eyes at Kane. Apprentice? Seemed old for that title. Auraq would have expected journeyman by now. At the least. He dropped his chin in a single nod in his direction.

Kane tossed the last of the rabbit bones into the flames, then rested his elbows on his raised knees. He stared into the fire without expression.

Auraq had thought perhaps the old man was his father or grandfather. Not his master, certainly. There was something curious about the two. Why would a master and his apprentice be traveling alone down an old road late in the night?

They sat in silence for a time, each seemingly retreating into their own thoughts while passing around the wineskin. The wine was better than Old Tan had intimated. It felt good going down Auraq’s throat and left a warm glow in his stomach.

He glanced in Kane’s direction again. The younger man still stared at the flames and absently rubbed his thumb over his forearm as if it were sore.

Old Tan pulled a wooden pipe and leather pouch from inside his vest. He pinched out black leaves from the pouch and packed them into the pipe. Gripping the end of the pipe between his teeth, he held a flaming stick from the fire to the open end. He sucked in air and the end flared red like a single demon’s eye. While he puffed out pillows of white smoke, he tilted his head to look at the space beside Auraq. His brow tightened in a curious expression. “Two swords, friend?” he asked. “You wield them both?”

Auraq felt his shoulders stiffen. “I do.”

“Not sure I’ve seen that practiced before. Most folk settle for one and use a shield for protection.”

“It is a preference of mine.”

“They are not the same blade either, I see. One at least is military issue. Were you enlisted in the king’s army?”

Auraq tensed further. The questions, though innocent enough, were making him uncomfortable. “I was,” he replied. “Some time ago.”

Old Tan must have sensed his discomfort. “Forgive me. I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that I’m a former military man myself, and it’s always nice to share a story or two with another veteran at arms. But alas, I forget I’ve had more time for my wounds to heal. And seen less than many. I’ll not press if you’ve no wish to speak of it.”

“Appreciated,” Auraq replied. The man had read his thoughts. He had no desire to speak of that time, brief as it was.

“Ah… but that one is well-made by the look of it. You were of some rank then, I gather. Me, I was just a lowly recruit. Signed on by my father at age sixteen. He dragged me to the noble commander by the ear and left me there. Thought it’d make a man out of me, and make one less mouth to feed at home.” His voice dropped an octave. “‘Let the king foot the bill for that bottomless stomach of yours,’ he used to say to me.” He chuckled at the memory, then sighed. “Served six years with the company. Fought in the battles that gained us the Lendera province.”

Auraq’s stomach cramped at the name. Lendera. Small world indeed. He’d been stationed there to protect what this man had fought hard to earn.

Old Tan shook his head. “Good lads, they were. Never seen their like before or since. Fearless. Wouldn’t even blink in the face of those barbarians.” He looked up and grinned. “It’s where I learned my trade, you know.”

“That so?” Auraq responded dryly. The old man had apparently already forgotten his promise to not be a bother.

“Yep. Began by helping with skinning the deer we caught. Didn’t take long for them to figure out I had a penchant for forming the leather, so they put me on repairing armor. In a year, they had me making new.” He shrugged. “Been doing it ever since. Have my own shop in West Tunniville now.”

The Tunniville River ran along the eastern edge of Har Purdea, and close to the wild margins of Davenia itself. These men were far from home indeed.

“Not so much armor these days,” Old Tan continued. “Lots of belts and saddlebags and such.” He paused to take a swig from the skin, then passed it on to Auraq. “What direction you heading, lad? If you don’t mind my asking, that is.”

Auraq bit the inside of his cheek and averted his eyes to the fire, the wineskin forgotten in his hand for the moment. He’d been reckless—allowing his brief feelings of solitude to govern his decision-making. Having these two join him had been foolish. Conversations came equipped with questions. Ones he was not keen on answering. Old Tan’s inquiry was innocuous enough, but Auraq had grown wary of these types of prying questions over the years for fear of where the answers might lead.

“Har Diamante,” he said.

“As are we,” Old Tan replied with a wide grin. “Perhaps tomorrow we can share the road together.”

Kane’s head jerked up. He threw a sudden worried look in Old Tan’s direction. The expression was clear. He wondered if this stranger could be trusted. Sharing his fire and his meal was all very well—almost a necessity. But Kane was certainly uninterested in forming any partnership with him.

Auraq didn’t blame him, really. He was brutish-looking, surely. And after months on the road, he doubted he looked the trustworthy sort. His hair was overgrown and hadn’t seen a comb in a fortnight, and his ruddy beard was wild and untamed. But Kane’s unease seemed to extend beyond the healthy concerns one should have when traveling. He was guarded and suspicious. Auraq couldn’t help but wonder what had caused this deep-seated wariness of strangers.

While Kane glared at Old Tan, Auraq took the opportunity to study him further. Since they’d joined him at his fire, Kane had hardly spoken a word. He was comely and well-formed—someone not unaccustomed to physical labor. His dark hair had been recently groomed, and there was only a shadow of growth along the length of his jaw. But he was pensive and withdrawn. Auraq could see the tension he held in his shoulders and the deep furrows in his brow. His dark eyes revealed little of his thoughts, but Auraq recognized the sorrow behind them nonetheless. Auraq had seen this look on other men, ones he’d served with in his company. The ones who’d experienced too much for their young years. Kane bore deep scars.

He wasn’t sure why, but despite his own reservations, he found himself compelled to agree to Old Tan’s offer. Less for himself, and more for them. A vision of the two of them alone on the road was unsettling, especially considering the highwaymen he’d encountered earlier. They would be easy targets.

“It is always better to travel with others when you can,” Auraq said. “I will join you tomorrow.” He looked directly at Kane. “As long as all are in agreement.”

Kane held Auraq’s gaze for several moments as if trying to gauge his character. “You travel by horse, sur. We will slow you down.” His voice had a deep resonance that surprised Auraq.

Auraq shrugged. “I’ve no appointments at the moment. And I walk more than I ride anyway.” Kane’s subtle lift of his eyebrows betrayed his skepticism about the truth of that. “You seem decent folk,” Auraq added. “I would appreciate the company, I think.”

“You know nothing about us.”

Auraq felt the corner of his mouth lift a fraction. “I know enough.”

“And we know nothing of you.”

“But we know enough,” Old Tan put in gently.

Kane glanced at Old Tan, then made a barely perceptible shrug of one shoulder. “Very well,” he said, attempting an air of nonchalance. “If we’ll not be inconveniencing you.”

“Not at all,” said Auraq.

Old Tan’s grin widened. “Well, then, there it is. What a happy meeting this turned out to be, yes?”

The fire was dying down. Flames hugged closer to the wood and burned redder and tamer. The fragile cathedral of spent wood collapsed in on itself with a crackle. Auraq reached over and grabbed another pine log from his meager pile and tossed it onto the flames. Bright sparks leaped into the air riding the eddies of smoke.

“Sleep,” Auraq told them. “I’ll keep watch for now.”

Old Tan’s brow furrowed, and he looked as if he was on the verge of protest, but Auraq cut it off before he could voice it.

“I’m not tired,” he said.

Old Tan looked like he wanted to argue, but Auraq could see the fatigue winning over. After a long pause, he nodded.

Kane glanced over at his master a moment, then turned his eyes back to Auraq. “Wake me when you’re ready. I will tend to the fire next.”

Auraq replied with a nod. Old Tan wasted no time curling up on the ground in his cloak. Eyes closed, he fell into a steady rhythm of breathing almost immediately. Kane, on the other hand, spent time clearing away sticks and pebbles from his spot by the fire, smoothing the ground out with his hand. This was not someone accustomed to sleeping out under an open sky. He tried first to lie on his side, grunted, and moved onto his back. Arms folded over his chest, he closed his eyes.

Auraq leaned back, propping his torso up with his arms behind him, and stared into flames eating up the fresh wood.

Then the ambush began.