In the wake of the events that took place at Feldspar, the renegades find themselves separated by necessity. Darius is gone, traveling to the far-off stronghold of Lyonesse on a mission to ensure that a dangerous mage's interest in the fallen Reaper is well and truly ended, and Hunter is alone. In theory, the backwater valley he's taken refuge in should be safe... but fate has never favored the Heretic.
There was a man living in the hills above the village.
Wren knew because he'd seen him. Nobody else had, and so he didn't tell anyone. This was his secret; why share it, when nobody would believe him anyways? It wasn't that he made up stories, not often anyways, but he was seven and the grownups thought that meant he didn't know anything, which just wasn't true! He knew lots of things. Special, secret, important things. If nobody wanted to listen, then that was too bad for them.
He knew about the man, though, because he'd seen a fire up in the hills one night when Da had sent him out to get water from the well behind the house. Nobody camped up there. Amerril, the village where Wren had lived all his life, didn't have many visitors, and even when they did—like sometimes in summer when the fair passed through—the road came through the valley, not the hills. Hunters didn't go up there either; better game in the thick forest around town.
Nobody really went up there much, and so the next day he raced through his chores and headed off alone.
He wasn't afraid. Wren had been playing in the forests around the village all his life, like the other children; he was careful, and he knew his way. Besides, Amerril was a well-established settlement. Any real dangers in these woods had been long since stamped out; some winters when the cold lasted too long and the snows were deep, they'd have trouble with wolves, but most of the wolves in the area were loners and knew better than to attack humans. And so though he carried no weapon, he wasn’t worried. After all, it was a warm day, with only the first hints of the changing leaves to herald autumn's approach. The woods were sunlit and full of life, and his step was light as he walked west towards the hills where he'd seen that distant, glimmering light.
The terrain changed as he neared the edges of the valley and the ground began to slope upwards. The trees were thinner here, and began to transition from the lush foliage of the valley floor to wiry oaks and brush. Coming across a game trail that wound its way upwards, Wren followed it.
He paused after a time, coming across a large flat rock that bordered the trail, and sat to stretch out his legs. He'd come further than he'd thought already; from this height, much of the valley was spread out before him. There was the river, gleaming faintly through the trees; there, the fields that surrounded the village. Even from this distance, he could see tiny figures toiling away. His father and elder brothers would be out there, hauling water for the crops and weeding; harvest wasn't far, and when it came, every hand in the village would be called upon to help.
Summer was coming to an end for Wren. All the more reason to explore the mystery light now, while he still had the chance.
Continuing up the trail, the boy wished absently that he'd thought to bring a waterskin. There were streams in these hills, a few of them, but it was hard to say exactly where he might come across one; still, at least this high up the water would be fast-moving and safe enough to drink from. Maybe the trail would come across water sooner or later. If not, he'd just have to wait until later. If he wasn't home for dinner, Ma would worry, and he'd catch hell when he eventually returned. Last time Wren had been out too late, he'd not been let out of her sight for a week. Not how he'd care to spend the last few weeks of summer!
Still, as he continued on, the boy had to admit he wasn't sure where it was he was going. There was no telling how far the hills stretched for; he'd never been this way before, never had cause to; he was certain that the light had come from this rough direction, but... Frowning, Wren cast his gaze about and spotted a formation of rocks jutting out of the brush, not far off the path. If he could climb to the top, he'd be above the bushes; perhaps from that vantage point, there'd be some indication as to which way he should search.
Pushing through the bushes wasn't particularly easy; the scrub was tough, prickly, and toughened by wind and elements. Thankfully, Wren was small. Threading his way through earned him a few scratches, and more than one slap to the face from springy branches, but he managed to make his way to the outcropping quickly enough. From there, it was a simple matter to scramble his way to the top.
If the boy had been impressed by the view before, it paled before how far he could see now. He'd climbed trees near the village, but nothing quite rivaled this; never before had he felt so much like a bird. The world was filled with blue sky and the land spread out beneath him. Even the handful of twisted oaks that grew stubbornly against the far side of the rocks seemed short, and he laughed aloud in delight. Overhead, a crow answered with a harsh caw; he watched as it soared by to land in the branches of the oaks. A whole flock was waiting there, shuffling along the branches and croaking at each other.
Such a beautiful place, on such a beautiful day; he nearly forgot why he'd climbed up in the first place. Remembering, Wren quickly made sure he was sitting in a secure spot and then looked around, scanning the hillside in every direction.
Nothing. Just more of the same, rocks and bushes and the occasional cluster of stunted trees. There was nothing to indicate anyone was camped up here, or ever had been; Wren had been hoping he could still see some smoke from the extinguished fire, but it seemed he'd waited too long for that to be a possibility.
His failure was disheartening. Even the magnificent view seemed to have lost its magic; the boy's shoulders slumped. Was it worth it to keep looking, when he'd just be wandering aimlessly? It'd be blink luck if he came across anything, at this point, and it was entirely possible that he'd end up lost. Not lost, lost—after all, all he had to do was turn downhill and he'd end up headed for home—but lost enough that he'd risk being home late and facing all the consequences of tardiness.
Sighing unhappily, Wren rested his head in his hands and stared out across the valley... and was startled by the sudden clamor of crows in the trees behind him. Surprised, he turned, and saw the black birds hastily dropping out of the branches and out of view. What on earth had happened to stir them up? Maybe there was something interesting after all, something that might make up for not finding what he'd been after. Curious, he clambered over to the far side of the rocks and peered over the edge.
On the ground below—the rocks were steeper on this side, to be certain!—the crows were clustered in a small area, pecking at the ground. Something to eat? Then, as he watched, a spray of small objects flew out from somewhere below him. The crows clamored in excitement, flapping and pecking.
There was someone below him, someone hidden by an overhang of the rocks. It had to be the person whose fire he'd seen the night before; it had been a surprise to see that someone was up in the hills to begin with, but to find a completely unrelated person on the very next day? Too much of a coincidence. Staying quiet, Wren looked about, and spotted a charred circle of rocks on the other side of the clearing. There, then; proof. He'd found who he was looking for.
Of course, now that he had, caution caught up with curiosity. They hadn't had a problem with bandits that he could remember, at least not in his life; Amerril was too small a village to attract that kind of malicious attention, with no caravans traveling the road to be raided. Still, there was no telling whether this person, camped out here in the wilderness instead of staying in town, was dangerous or not. Better to watch him—or her, he supposed—without being seen. Quiet from years of sneaking in the way that small boys do so well, Wren crept carefully across the rock. The sheltering branches of the crows' oak stretched out invitingly, and it was no difficult feat to clamber into the trees.
He made his way through the branches quietly, slowly, making as much effort as possible not to draw any attention. At last, he'd gotten far enough from the rocks to see the small cave that had been hidden from above; it wasn't deep, more a shallow scoop from the side of the rocks than a true cave, but deep enough that the sheltered area within would likely be protected from winds and rain. There was a mess of blankets there, and a small pile of some indistinct items; more interesting to Wren, however, was the man standing and feeding the crows.
He didn't look like a bandit, but then, Wren couldn't rightly say that he knew what a bandit looked like. He thought, however, that one should look more fierce, with bandannas and lots of shiny loot from thievery and a great big sword and maybe a missing tooth. This man had none of those. To be honest, he didn't look like much of anything. Simple clothes, dark and plainly cut, belted at the waist with no weapon that Wren could see. He had dark hair tied back into a ponytail with a thin thong of leather, and a quiet and decidedly non-fierce face. One hand held a small chunk of bread; the other was steadily breaking pieces off and tossing them to the crows who flocked at his feet.
All in all, the man looked even less exciting than the travelers that sometimes came to town as bodyguards to those visiting family. At least they had great shining swords; this man didn't even look like he knew how to fight. His momentary trepidation gone, Wren swung his legs over the branch and made himself more comfortable. The stranger didn't even look up. Had he not heard? He definitely didn't belong out here if he hadn't noticed Wren not even trying to be sneaky. The boy shook his head, and leaned against the trunk while the crows ate.
When the bread had run out and the crows had flown away, the man stayed standing where he was, head bowed slightly and eyes closed. Bored and curious, Wren finally spoke up. “Hey mister!”
Slowly, calmly—really, too calmly for someone out by himself in the wilderness—the man standing below looked up. Grinning, Wren rocked back and forth on the branch. “Who are you?”
“I'm nobody.” His voice was very quiet. It sounded rusty, as though it hadn't been used in a long time.
“That's stupid. Everybody's somebody.” Looking down, the boy decided it was a bit far to jump. “I'm Wren. Why are you out here instead of staying at the inn?”
“It's quiet here. I can see the sky, and hear the crows.”
“Do you like crows?”
Wren considered this, still rocking back and forth on his branch. “Da says that crows are bad. They eat the crops and I'm s'pposed to chase them away if I see them in the field.” There was no response to that. “I guess you feed crows, though. So your crows are prolly okay.”
For just a moment, there was the faintest trace of a smile on the man's face. “I'm glad to hear that.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and then held his arm out; to Wren's amazement, a crow sitting in the tree across from him cawed, and swooped down to perch on the man's arm. It ruffled its feathers, and then settled contentedly.
Wren nearly fell out of his tree in surprise. “How'd you do that? Are you a mage? We haven't had a mage in the village in forever.”
That ghost of a smile again. “No. Crows just like me.”
Brimming with excitement, the boy shimmied his way down the trunk and hurried over. The crow fixed him with a beady stare as he drew near, but didn't fly away. Hesitantly, Wren raised a hand, and then paused. “Will he let me pet him?”
“Perhaps. I can't tell him what to do.”
Reaching out, he stepped slowly towards the crow... and with a angry shout, it flew off in a flurry of wings. Crestfallen, Wren watched it go.
“It's alright. The crows here don't know people. He just doesn't recognize you.”
Still somewhat let down, Wren shoved his hands in his pockets and looked up at the man. He wasn't so old. Not as old as Da, at least. “What're you doing here?”
“Waiting for what?”
“A friend of mine. I don't know when he'll be back.”
“Why'd he leave you here? There's nothing in Amerril 'cept farms and people. Everyone says so.”
There was a moment of silence. “I don't know why he left me here. It's quiet. Safe.”
“Oh.” Wren sighed. “You mean it's boring.”
“You won't always think that.”
The shadows were beginning to slide across the clearing; he'd been watching the man feed the crows for longer than he thought. Casting a regretful glance towards the tree where the crow sat, glaring at him, Wren sighed. “I have to go. Will you still be here tomorrow?”
“If I bring some bread will you teach me to get the crows to like me?”
“If you want.”
“That'd be nice. Well... see you then.”
As Wren turned to walk away, the man shifted slightly. “Wren.”
“Please don't tell anyone I'm here.”
It seemed like a weird thing to ask, but the boy shrugged his shoulders. “Okay. You should make your fire over there, though, I could see it from home last night.” Hurrying, Wren trotted around the rocks and made his way back to the trail. It was getting late, but if he hurried, he should still be able to make it home before Ma started fussing.
* * *
The boy was gone.
Strange. A long time, since anyone but Darius had talked to him like something other than... what he was. No fear. No revulsion. No hatred.
It had been like before. Good to remember, but the memories hurt.
Everything hurt. Little difference.
It was dark, then, and he had not noticed the sun's set. The crows spoke overhead, and he knew he was safe. They were ears and eyes to replace his long-deadened senses. They watched over him as before. Always. The crows, and Darius. They were all that did not change in a shattered world.
He made a fire, though he was not cold. Ate tasteless food, though he did not hunger. He had promised Darius that he would.
Darius. How long had he been gone? Time meant nothing to him anymore. A day? A month? When would he return?
Still, he would wait. He'd wait forever for Darius. His lover. The one friend left to him in the world. For Darius was only gone for his sake. In danger, for his sake, far away...
They'd traveled again across the boundaries of Genesis, crossing into another realm he'd never seen. It was Darius who'd opened the way. So many consequences from the blood they'd once shared to preserve the Seraph's life. It was that Reaper blood, still alive in another's veins, that Genesis recognized and yielded to. And so, no boundaries defied them. And so, they traveled like windblown leaves.
This place was quiet. Like that long-ago home. Golden sun overhead, blue sky, gentle wind and rolling hills. It would be warm here, if he could feel warmth anymore.
Together they'd climbed the hills, found the sheltering stones. It was the crows that had called out to him and shown him the way, voices raised in welcome. It was a good place. He could wait here until Darius returned.
For he’d had to leave, for a time. They'd spent the night together, huddled close under a single blanket.
“I'm sorry, Hunter,” he had said. “What happened in Feldspar... I can't be sure if that mage was truly alone. If he contacted anyone else and told them what he was planning, there might be others after you, and I won't risk it. I have to leave for a little while, travel to Lyonesse and see how important Evren really was there. And if there are others, then I'll kill them before they can come hunting us.”
“I promise, I'll be back soon.”
“I love you.”
And he had left with the rising sun.
And so he'd gone, and he did not know when he'd return. Days came and went, meaningless, unknowable.
But now, there was this boy who looked at him with innocent eyes.
Who liked crows.
If things had been different, if it had not all ended in fire and death, might he have someday had a child who liked crows? A boy with innocent eyes?
It was a dead future, and so it mattered not. But he'd wait for Wren tomorrow. Wait for Darius. Pass the days.
For a time, perhaps he'd be something other than Heretic.
The next day's rising sun found Wren trudging determinedly up the trail, a large hunk of guiltily swiped bread stuffed down his shirt. Hopefully nobody'd miss it. He'd gone scrounging out back of the baker's shop, looking for burnt loaves, and found one set out in the bin that was mostly burned black. It had been out there, so taking it was probably okay, wasn't it? It wasn't like they were going to sell it.
Still, he felt guilty, and hoped nobody had seen him. Even if it was for a good cause, so the man could teach him his crow-magic, it still felt a little bit like stealing. Wren wished he could have taken some from his own house instead, but Ma would have noticed half a loaf of bread missing. And finding a good excuse would have been hard. Ma always knew when he wasn't telling the truth. It was just one of those things that mothers knew. Mother-sorcery.
He made a face. Once he could show her how he could magic the crows out of the trees, just like the crow man, maybe she'd give him bread for it then. Or maybe not. Da would have a fit, but maybe he could magic crows out of Da's fields for him too! That would be something useful.
He'd be just like a mage, even if the man said it wasn't magic. It was fair wondrous to be able to make birds come right to you like that. Even Brent and Lian'd admire him then, even if he was the youngest and couldn't help much in the fields yet.
It'd be worth taking the bread for.
Head full of ambitions, he didn't take long to find his way back to the rocks. Climbing over them and into the trees again—it was easier than going around, those bushes were nasty--Wren dropped to the ground and looked around expectantly.
The crow man wasn't waiting for him. Looking more carefully, the boy noticed that the pile of blankets looked... lumpier than it had the day before. Was he still asleep? It was past midday; who slept past midday?
At a loss, he shuffled back and forth. Should he wake him up? He was never ever ever supposed to wake anyone up at home unless it was an emergency, but then, he was usually the one who got kicked out of bed.
There was a rustle overhead, and Wren looked up to see a few crows perched in the branches. They seemed to be eyeing him warily; with a hopeful and hopefully disarming grin, he reached into his shirt and pulled out the less-burned half of a loaf he'd taken. Breaking off a few pieces like he'd seen the man do the day before, he tossed them onto the ground a few feet away. The crows shuffled, but they didn't fly down.
With a heavy sigh, Wren put the loaf back in his shirt and turned. The crow man had said he could come back. So he was probably expecting him. So really, if he didn't wake him up, it would be sort of rude, because then the crow man would think he hadn't come back after all. So really, he should wake him up. Moving rather tentatively in spite of his conviction, he crept closer to the blanket-wrapped figure, into the shadow of the rock overhang.
“Mister crow man?”
No response. If it weren't for that very shallow breathing, he wouldn't even think him to be alive; he must sleep even deeper than Da. Wren took another step closer. “Hello?”
There was a faint sound, an exhalation, but he still didn't move. Frustrated, Wren reached out and put a hand on the man's shoulder. Ma always shook him away, maybe--
It happened so fast that he barely knew what happened. One moment, the crow man was motionless; the next, he was awake, lunging half-upright. A hand lashed out so quickly that its movement was a blur, and a dagger was leveled at Wren's throat. Instantly, too shocked to move, the boy froze. He couldn't move; black eyes were locked with his own. He could drown there in those frigid depths, so deep and so very empty. All the warmth had drained from the sun's light...
And then the crow man blinked, and the world was normal again. His hand wavered, and drew back. “Wren? I... Forgive me.”
Still terrified, Wren couldn't bring himself to move. It was hard to forget that moment of infinite terror, even with the dagger withdrawn from his throat. As he stood there, motionless, the crow man turned away. That blade was replaced in whatever pack it had been drawn from; he passed a hand over his face, and then rose and turned back towards Wren. Those black eyes were still shadowed, but there was a faint sadness there as well. “Please, I don't mean you any harm. You... you startled me.”
Trying to speak from a throat turned dry, Wren fell back a step. “Who are you?”
The man looked down. “Nobody,” he said very quietly. There was a hesitation, a catch to his voice, where none had been before. “Nobody.”
“Stop saying that! You have to be somebody! Everyone is, so who are you?!”
“NOBODY!” Dropping to his knees, the man covered his face with his hands. “I am nobody. I have nothing. Only Darius. Only ever Darius! They're all gone, all lost, Andrea, lost, and I'm not who I was. I am nobody. Nobody.”
There was such pain in his voice, such utter despair, that Wren's fear eased a little. Even to a child, it was hard to believe that a man who sounded so broken could truly pose a threat. Steeling his resolve, he took a step forward, and then crouched down at the man's side and waited. From above, the restless crows watched them sit there, side by side as the shadows slowly edged across the dirt.
It was some time before the man's ragged breathing calmed; when he finally dropped his hands from his face, he seemed surprised to see Wren squatting there beside him. “You're still here?”
Staying silent, it had been easier to maintain his determination; now, the boy found himself fighting down fear again. A dagger at his throat.... Swallowing hard, he did his best to act unconcerned.
“You need to have a name, I'm going to give you one.”
“Alright,” the crow man said quietly. Whatever had been behind those eyes when he'd awakened seemed to be gone now, and its absence was reassuring. “What would you call me?”
“Hrm.” It was a puzzlement. “I could call you Crow, since you like them so much, but that might be kind of confusing what with the crows and all that.”
“Maybe Cirrus? It was the name of... a crow who was a friend of mine, once.”
“Sure. That's an alright name. I'll call you Cirrus.”
They sat there awkwardly for a moment or two, neither sure how to proceed. At last, Wren remembered his bread and pulled it out of his shirt once more. “I brought the bread like I said I would. Can you show me how to magic crows like you do now, Cirrus?”
Smiling faintly, the man took the bread. “I told you, it's not magic.”
“You said that, but I tossed bread just like you did and they wouldn't come near me or anything.”
“You're too close.” Breaking off a crumble of bread and handing it to Wren, Cirrus broke off his own piece and lobbed it a ways out, beyond the scattered pieces that already lay in the dirt. “That far. They don't know you yet, so they won't come close.”
Not entirely convinced, the boy tossed his bread out and waited. To his delight, a moment later the crows dropped out of the trees; they started when he punched his fists up in triumph, but eventually settled back to eating with a wary eye fixed on him.
The bread, sadly, didn't last so long. Cirrus contended himself with a small piece, throwing small crumbs from time to time, but Wren had no similar restraint and had gone through his in a matter of minutes. Still, he was content to sit and watch them as they ate. It was a good start. Though there was plenty of wildlife in the forest around Amerril, most were wary of hunters and would flee before even a small and determined boy could get close; to have the birds sitting and eating so close was something special. Now if only he could call them right to his arm, like Cirrus had the day before...
He was just about to turn and ask when he could learn to do that that the man preempted him, breaking the silence. “Wren, why didn't you run?”
“ I dunno.”
“I didn't scare you?” The question was phrased lightly enough, but Cirrus turned, and there was a stillness in his face that hid some powerful emotion. Uncomfortable, the boy lied with as much bravado as he could muster.
“ 'Course you didn't scare me. Don't be stupid; I've got two older brothers, and I'm braver than them both, and Da too! Nothing scares me. 'Specially not a crow-man who wakes up twitchy.”
His words startled a laugh out of Cirrus, which in turn startled Wren himself. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't thought that Cirrus laughed at all, really. “What? What's so funny about that?”
“Nothing. You are very brave, Wren.”
“I already knew that.” Feeling a little more at-ease, a thought came to him. “Who's Darius?”
“Darius? He's... a friend. My only friend.”
“Is he the one you're waiting for?”
“You're being stupid again. He's not your only friend, 'cause I'm your friend.”
The man looked surprised at that, and didn't seem to have an immediate response. Though Wren didn't notice it, his hands curled into loose fists for just a moment... and then relaxed. “Are you?”
“Yeah. And you're my friend. And 'cause you're such a good friend, you'll show me how to magic crows, 'cause that's what good friends do.”
“I suppose I can't argue with that.” Smiling—though there was a hint of sadness there, too subtle for the boy's distracted attention—Cirrus reached out to the crows. As before, after a time, one hopped a step or two closer, and then leapt flapping to his arm. Amazed anew, Wren held his breath and tried to stay as still as a statue. “They're already easier around you,” his new friend remarked quietly. “Crows are smart, Wren; treat them well, and they'll be friends to you.”
Though he didn't dare reach for the bird again, Wren enjoyed the opportunity to be so close. Crows were bigger than he'd thought, though admittedly they'd always been the distant birds in the fields until now. The afternoon passed quickly, as did many after.
Over the next few weeks, Wren went to visit Cirrus more days than not. It was a pleasant routine, and the climb up the hillside grew easier as his muscles became accustomed to the hiking. In time, the crows came to trust him; never as much as they trusted Cirrus, but they proved willing to perch on his arm when coaxed with a treat of bread. It was as wondrous as he'd hoped, but even after he'd achieved his goal, the boy kept returning to the rocks.
It really was nice, to spend time with Cirrus. The man didn't talk so much, and never had many answers to Wren's unrelenting questions about where he'd come from and what he was doing in Amerril's valley, but he was a good person to be around all the same. Even for a small boy with energy to spare, it was a pleasant pastime to spend the afternoon sitting in the shade of the oaks and watch the crows. And Cirrus was different from the grownups at home; he never said that Wren was small or stupid, and he listened to stories. He was more like a real friend; there weren't many children Wren's age in the village, none that he liked anyways, and it was nice having someone to talk to.
He'd be sad when Cirrus's friend came back and took him away.
At times, he thought back to that second meeting and the dagger that had pricked at his throat, and wondered at who Cirrus really was. There were a couple of grownups in the village who sometimes rented themselves out as guards; Rand, and Nary, and Lina, though she hadn't been guarding much since she got baby-sick. Sometimes they'd practice their swordfighting in the yard behind the inn, and it was generally considered the best sport in the village to watch, at least for the kids his age. But Wren had never seen any of them move so fast as Cirrus had when he grabbed that dagger.
Maybe Cirrus was a guard like them, but better? He could have come from somewhere in Genesis with lots of fighting and important things happening; one of the mystic cities that Ma would tell him about when he was still little enough for bedtime tales. Kitezh, or the Wandering City, or Iram of the Pillars. He'd always thought it would be a grand thing to live in such a place, full of mages and elves and all manner of wondrous folk. Or maybe Cirrus was a soldier on a secret mission. Or he could be a Hound! His brothers had scared him when he was little by telling him that Eihel would send a Hound just for him if he did anything bad; they were supposed to be masters of swordsmanship.
But it wasn't something he could do more than wonder at, and he knew from much effort that Cirrus would change the subject or just stop talking if he asked. So it remained a mystery, and something to wonder about while doing his chores.
The night after that meeting, Wren had sat and wondered whether he ought to tell his parents about the man living in the hills. That good with a blade, Cirrus could be dangerous... But he just didn't seem dangerous. And he'd promised not to tell. And probably nobody'd believe him anyways.
So it stayed a secret. His secret.
* * *
Dinner was done with, and Wren had started taking the dishes to the tub to be washed. It was one of his least favorite chores; everyone else got to sit around while he took their plates. At least he didn't have to wash them—Ma said she didn't trust any of the men to do it properly—but it still wasn't fair. It wasn't as though his brothers even stayed at the table; they'd be off doing whatever important business older kids did when there was work to be done. Stupid.
It was a daily reality, though, and so he'd long since given up on sulking about it. He'd just dropped off the last load of dishes and walking back to the table when he caught the tail end of something Da was saying.
“...sure what's out there, but it can't be good.”
Intrigued, Wren paused on the far side of the doorway and scooted behind a corner. This sounded like the kind of thing that Wasn't Talked About In Front Of The Children, which meant that, of course, he wanted to hear.
“Kait, this sounds like an awful lot of worry over a few dead deer.”
“You didn't see what the men and I saw, Leah. They weren't just dead, they were ripped apart.”
“What could have done that?”
“Hell if I know, but nothing natural. A haunt, maybe, or a shifter gone mad. Nothing that we want here in the valley.” Da was drumming his fingers on the table, a sure sign that he was worried. “If we keep finding signs like this, they'll be a hunting party. We don't want whatever it is snatching up a person next.”
“Are the children safe? The boys have been spending a lot of time off by themselves lately; Brent and Lian are probably over at that Redholt girl's place, if I know them, but Wren's been playing in the woods for hours every day. You don't think he's in danger, do you?”
“I don't know, Leah. I'd take him with me to the fields, but he'd just be underfoot right now. Just keep him close where you can keep an eye on him for a while.”
There was silence; it seemed whatever they'd been talking about, it was over now. Doing his best to look disinterested, Wren backed up a few steps and then shuffled his way back into the room. His parents looked up, but neither seemed to have suspected that he'd overheard. Ma smiled at him. “There you are, son. I was starting to think I'd have to fish you out of the tub.”
“I'm fine. Can I go now?”
“Alright.” He turned to go, but was halted by Ma's voice. “Wren, dear, you've been spending a lot of time off in the woods lately. What is it you do out there?”
He turned, shrugged. “Play. Climb trees 'n rocks 'n stuff.”
“And you don't go too far from the village, do you?”
“I know not to do that, Ma.” It technically wasn't a lie.
“Alright.” She looked far from reassured, but it seemed that for now, he was off the hook.
For the next few days, Wren was stuck at home.
It wasn't that he didn't want to go visit Cirrus; he did, and he wondered whether the man was worried at his absence. After all, this hadn't been planned. The day after the overheard conversation between his parents, he'd been finished with his chores and headed out the back when Ma had called for him.
“Wren, I have to go visit with Adelina. She's feeling a bit ill, and I promised I'd bring her some of that soup we had last night... I want you to come along. Her son could use the company, don't you think?”
He most definitely did not think. Adelina wasn't even much of a friend of Ma's, and her son was mean and stupid and always had a runny nose. But she had that tone that meant it wasn't a question he was supposed to answer, and so he had to go along anyways.
The day after that, she needed him to go to market for her. And the day after that, the house needed to be cleaned top to bottom and aired out for the winter.
It was clear that she was finding excuses to keep him out of the woods, but how was he to protest? Admit that he'd been eavesdropping? And so Wren had to keep quiet, fuming, as the days dragged by in mundane captivity. When he had the chance, he amused himself by crawling out the window of his room and onto the thatching of the roof. It had taken some time, but he'd finally managed to attract the local crows by leaving bread up there for them; now, they'd come near even when he was sitting out on the roof. It wasn't as easy as it was up at Cirrus's grove, but they'd still tolerate having him near, and it was a small comfort. It made being tied to his mother's apron strings a little easier to tolerate, if not by much.
At last, his chance came. It had been nearly a week, and though Da still seemed on edge, it seemed the men hadn't found any more mauled carcasses in the woods. Accordingly, his mother had started to relax a bit. Seizing upon the opportunity, Wren made his move.
“Please, Ma? I haven't gotten to go out and play in forever.”
Turning aside from the simmering pot on the stove, she fixed him with a stern eye. “Wren, don't whine.”
“Can I please go outside today?”
“What's so important that you need to do out there?”
“Nothing, but Ma, I've been doing cleaning and chores and stuff for a week now!” He gave her a pitiful stare. “Why can't I go play?”
Looking at him, she paused for a long moment, and then sighed. “I'm sorry, dear. I guess I'm just trying to hold onto you while you're still my little boy... You're growing up so fast, Wren.” Ma shook her head, and turned back to the stove. “You can go play, but promise me you'll stay close to the village.”
“I'll be careful, Ma.”
A half an hour later, he was trotting through the woods, headed for the hill trail. It was a beautiful day; the boy couldn't remember having seen the forest looking so green and alive. What a difference it made, being cooped up for a week inside. Now, out and free and on his way to meet Cirrus, he felt great.
There was a caw overhead, and he looked up; a pair of crows soared along, wings angling back and forth to catch the breeze. Wren couldn't help but grin. “Tell Cirrus I'll be there soon!” For all he knew, maybe the man could talk to the crows. They showed enough kinship, after all. It certainly didn't take such a stretch of the imagination.
As he quickly climbed the hillside path, Wren turned around every so often. Having been away had renewed the impact the view had on him; it seemed even more grand today, enhanced by the massive, mountainous thunderheads that were building on the far side of the valley. Tiny specks wheeled about the contours of the clouds; birds, made tiny as gnats by the distance. Perhaps there'd be a storm tonight.
A cloud of crows rose into the air as he finally pushed his way through the brush to where Cirrus's rocks stood, harsh voices raised in warning and welcome. As he'd hoped—for truly, the fear had crossed his mind more than once that he might return to find his strange friend gone—Cirrus was standing in wait for him. One of those rare smiles broke across his face at the sight of the boy.
“Wren. I'd worried something had happened to you.”
“Sorry it's been so long. I wanted to come see you, but Da thinks there's something bad in the forest, and he had Ma keep me at home. I only just got out today.”
“Something in the forest?” His friend frowned. “Something's been troubling the crows. I'd thought little of it, but...”
“I've never seen anything out there, and I'm careful.” Wren was eager enough to head off this line of reasoning before it could get started; he'd had more than enough worry from Ma, and didn't want to be fussed over again! “Cirrus, can we feed the crows now? I brought—” Abruptly, he realized that in his hurry, he'd forgotten to bring any bread. The boy's face fell. “I forgot to bring bread.”
“It's alright. I think I still have a little left. It's too old for me to eat.” He gestured to the small mound of belongings under the rocks.
Relieved, Wren padded over and crouched down next to the pile. There wasn't much there; a few saddlebags whose leather was stained and scuffed from age, a loosely folded cloak of heavy wool, and a sack that gave off a dull metallic clank when Wren knocked it over. Though it surely couldn't be the bread, the boy found himself curious; fumbling at the knotted twine that held the mouth closed, he got it undone and peeked inside.
There was armor inside, dark and dull. At first Wren though the dullness must be rust, but when he brushed a finger reverently across it, it came away dark. Soot? Who carried fire-charred armor?
A soft footstep behind him made him jump, and the boy looked up guiltily to see Cirrus looking down at him calmly. “Was there no bread after all?”
“Oh, er, I was looking for it...”
“Check the saddlebags.” There was no acknowledgment at all in that smooth, quiet voice of the blackened armor. Burying the multitude of new questions that clamored on the tip of his tongue, Wren reached into the closest saddlebag and found a round of bread. It was hard, probably stale—certainly not much good to be eaten by a human anymore—but the crows would still enjoy it.
The two of them passed a few hours feeding the crows. By now Wren had learned to ration the bread, to make it last as long as possible; Cirrus had given up his portion, instead making only quiet suggestions about how best to coax the birds closer. They talked, but about nothing in particular. Small, meaningless conversation; comfortable, and avoiding the sorts of questions that would not be answered.
As they sat, new crows arrived, soaring in to perch in the trees with raucous cries. For a while, it seemed to make little difference, but eventually Cirrus looked up. His brow furrowed. “Rain's coming. You should get home.”
Surprised, Wren looked up and saw that the once-distant stormclouds now loomed close overhead. A few stray shafts of sunlight still pierced the gray, but all too few; the sky overhead looked dark and ready to unleash a downpour at any moment. “Oh no— I didn't realize... Ma'll be furious.” He scrambled to his feet.
Unexpectedly, his friend stood as well. “I'll go with you. At least to see you there safely.”
“I'll be fine, Cirrus, I know the way.”
“It will be dark when the storm breaks. I want to be sure you're safe.” His eyes locked with Wren's. “Please.”
Secretly, the boy was glad at the thought of having company. The clouds looked like it was going to be a major storm; it had been a while since they'd had one, and the thought of making his way home in the rain and wind was more intimidating than he cared to admit. “Alright. Thanks.”
In a few fluid steps, Cirrus made his way over to where his pack lay and gathered up a handful of dark material. Returning to where Wren was waiting, he held out a bundle. “Here.” Curiously, the boy held it up; it was an overcloak, made of heavy leather. On an adult, it wouldn't reach past the middle of the back, but on him it would be almost the length of a proper cloak. “It'll fit you better than anything else I have. It should keep the worst of the rain off.”
The man swung his own cloak—the same long woolen garment Wren had seen folded up earlier—and then waited for Wren to awkwardly fasten the leather cloak about his neck.
“Come. We'd best hurry.”
Moving quickly, they made their way down the trail. The first drops of rain started to fall, the initial light drops quickly turning into a roaring deluge. All the world seemed to disappear behind a veil of shimmering gray; the stones underfoot were treacherous now, the steep incline slick with runoff. Wren came close to falling more than once, but thankfully Cirrus was right behind him. Each time he lost balance, the man seemed to sense it; hands shot out to grip his arms and steady him until he could find his footing.
Thankfully, it was easier once they reached level ground and moved under the cover of the trees. The world was still a dark and unfamiliar one compared to what he was used to; rain fell heavy through gaps in the canopy, and Wren was forced to follow a weaving path to avoid the worst of it. Worse, it was dark, much darker than he'd thought it would be. The clouds had blotted out any light from the sky, forcing a premature nightfall. It turned the forest sinister, disorienting, and again the boy was glad for Cirrus's comforting presence. In the dim half-light, it was all too easy to believe his father's fears about shadowy monsters lurking behind ever tree.
They walked for a length of time that he couldn't hope to measure. Longer than they should have been walking; Amerril wasn't this far from where the hills began, he was sure of it. Pausing at last under a massive oak's shielding branches, Wren looked about and realized that every direction looked unfamiliar. Fear began to prick at him.
“What is it, Wren?”
It was hard to hear Cirrus's quiet voice over the thunder of the rain, but he could make out the words if he listened hard enough. Looking up anxiously, Wren could feel his lip quiver. “I th-th-think we're l-lost.” He was starting to get cold, even though the leather cloak he wore had kept him mostly dry. Cirrus must be freezing—the wool cloak he wore hung about him like a shroud, soaked, and his dark hair was plastered against his skull—but didn't show it. Kneeling, the man put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know it's dark and things don't look the same. Just concentrate. You know these woods; I know you can find the way.”
There was confidence in that voice, enough that Wren felt his own flagging spirits steady a little. He took a deep breath, nodded, and then looked at the woods anew, trying to imagine them in the sun, as he always saw them. Nothing seemed to change. But then... there! Half-hidden in the gloom, to their left, he could see a low cluster of boulders that he recognized. It was the way to the stream; they weren't exactly on the path he'd hoped to take, but they also weren't far from his home. In the gloom, they'd just overshot the village itself.
Heartened, he caught hold of Cirrus's hand. “I know where we are. Come on.”
In the dark, he didn't see the faint smile on the man's face. “I'm right behind. Lead the way.”
They walked to the boulders, and Wren sighted the way again; now that he knew where they were, it was a simple matter. There was even a path to follow now, if a faint one; generations of children walking to fish at the stream had worn a stripe of raw dirt into the grass of the forest floor. They couldn't be far from Amerril now. Lights should be coming into view soon.
Wren was hurrying, eager to be home, and thus it came as a shock when Cirrus's hand suddenly tightened on his. “Wait.”
He halted, looking up in confusion. “What is it? We're almost there.”
“Hush.” There was tension in his friend's voice that he hadn't heard before, and Wren stilled. “There's something near.”
All at once, the shadows seemed to loom darker. It was easy to imagine dimly-glimpsed shapes moving in the gloom. He shivered, unconsciously inching closer to Cirrus's side.
And then, a figure stepped out from behind a tree some distance away. It was Da, and for a moment Wren felt an overwhelming surge of relief... and then he saw the grim look on his father's face, and the taut bow trained in their direction.
“Da? Da, it's me!”
“Wren, get over here.” He'd never heard his father's voice so cold.
“Get yer arse over here.”
Shaking with fear, but unable to defy his father's command, Wren miserably squeezed Cirrus's hand, and then crept towards Da.
He'd not gone far, not even half the distance between the two, when there was a snap and a rough whirring sound. Horrified, Wren whirled to see Cirrus diving out of the path of his father's arrow. It was a close call; too close. A ragged tear showed in his friend's cloak where he'd had to rip it away from the tree its trailing edge had been pinned to. And already, there was another arrow on the bowstring.
“Vamp or haunt or whatever you are, stay away from my boy!”
Though he knew he'd pay for it later, the boy couldn't just stand there; Da was a good shot, the best hunter in the village, and sooner or later an arrow would find its mark. Dashing forward, Wren barreled straight into his father. Both of them stumbled back, landing in the mud with a jarring crash.
“Damn yer bones, boy, what—”
His father shoved him aside, scrambling back up, but Wren had bought enough time. All that remained beneath the trees was rain-soaked darkness.
Cirrus was gone.
* * *
“Explain yourself. Now.”
Miserable and dripping wet, Wren cowered on a stool in the middle of the kitchen floor. Looming over him, Da was standing with arms crossed and an angry expression on his face. His mother hovered in the background, her own face alternating between upset and worried.
“Kait, he's soaked to the bone; can't we talk about this later—“
“No.” There was no hint of leniency in that voice. “Talk, Wren.”
He didn't have a clue what to say. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get back late, it just started raining and then I got lost...”
“Dammit, boy, that's not what you need to explain— What the hell was that thing I found you with?”
“He's not a thing!” Indignation made him fierce, but the dangerous glint in his father's eyes was enough to cow Wren into submission once more. “He's my friend.”
“And where exactly did you meet this 'friend' of yours?”
“I found him when I was out playing.”
“...Out in the hills.”
Ma made a small sound of surprise at that, and his father's fists clenched. “You know yer supposed to stay near the village.”
“I know I'm supposed to! I just... I got kind of lost one day, and...”
“And just wandered uphill?” Wren flushed with shame. “You're a damn fool, boy. There's all sorts of things up in those hills that wouldn't think twice about pulling your head right off your scrawny neck; did you ever stop t' think that there's other things than men that can wear a man's skin? Did ye ever think that maybe yer so-called 'friend' might be hungerin' after yer blood more'n yer friendship?” Da's speech was getting rougher and rougher, a sure sign that he was angry, or worried, or both.
And still, he couldn't seem to shut up. “He's not like that, though! He's not, Da! He just talks to me, and lets me feed his crows, an'—”
“Crows?” For just a second, his father's eyes widened, and then narrowed dangerously. “Black feathers— Damn. Damn it all.” Abruptly, he spun on his heel. “Wren, you go to your room and stay there. Leah, I'll be back when I can. I need to raise the guard; we're hunting this thing down now, before it can escape.”
“Hunting?” Horrified realization dawned across Wren's face. “Da, no, you can't! Cirrus isn't a monster, you can't kill him!”
“GO, Wren! I won't tell you again!”
Ma stepped in, gathering Wren up rather forcibly and hustling him towards the hall. “Be careful, Kait, promise me.”
“I'll be back.” The door slammed.
His mother let out a low sigh, and then marched Wren up the stairs to the cramped room at the end of the hallway. “Get changed into something dry before you catch your death of cold, Wren.”
Miserable, his mind out in the rain-drenched woods with Cirrus, the boy followed her instructions mutely. When he was changed—though not much warmer—she tucked him into bed and draped an extra blanket from the shelf over him. It was only then that she folded her arms. “Wren.”
“I told you stay close to Ammeril. You deliberately broke your promise.”
“No. Just listen.” She sighed. “Your father's angry. You know that. I'm angry too, but we're both scared for you. I thought something terrible had happened when the rain started and you weren't home; your father's had half the village out looking for you tonight.
“You said this... man, that you were out there with, that he's your friend. I know you may think that, Wren, and maybe he is. But there's something terrible out there too, and your father can't risk putting you in danger by just ignoring what happened. If this 'Cirrus' really is human, and if he's really just a harmless traveler, I'm sure he has nothing to fear. I don't like it, that he's living out there in the hills instead of in town like an honest man, but that's all there is to it.” She turned, resting a hand on the doorframe.
“Go to sleep, Wren. I'm sure your father will want to talk to you in the morning; for now, I'm just glad that you're home, and that you're safe.”
She closed the door, and it was dark.
Lying there in the dark, with the roar of the rain on the low eves overhead, Wren felt guilt and conviction mingle. He hated that he'd made his parents worry, when he hadn't been in any danger. But more than that, he hated the thought that somewhere out in the storm, his father was trying to kill his best friend. And that was the thought that motivated him now.
It was a long shot, but the only one he had. Slowly, so as not to creak on the floorboards in a way that his mother might hear downstairs, the boy climbed out of bed and moved to the window. There was an overhang, where the upper roof protruded out over his window; it helped him now, sheltered him from even the wind-driven gusts of rain. Emboldened, Wren unlatched the window and swung it outwards. Only the dark outside greeted him. He'd never seen crows at night; maybe this was a fool's idea.
Leaning out as far as he dared, he whistled into the darkness. It was a loud whistle, but the sound of the rain muffled the noise; hopefully, his mother below wouldn't have heard. Now if only...
Fate must have smiled on him.
On the days he'd been trapped at home, feeding the crows on the roof in secret, Wren had always whistled to signal his arrival. At the time, it had been a hope he could use the whistle to summon them; one day, he'd wanted to impress the other village children by summoning crows from the sky, and a call would certainly aid the effect. He'd never been quite sure if it had worked, or if they'd simply seen him crawling out onto the roof.
But now, as though in answer to his most desperate prayers, a dark shape soared out of the darkness and the rain. Droplets of water went flying, spattering Wren, as the crow backwinged into a precise landing on the thatch below the window, and looked up at him with an expectant eye.
“Sorry,” he whispered, still not quite believing the whistle had worked. “I don't have any food, but this is important. Cirrus says you're smart, and I believe him; maybe you can't understand me, maybe this is just a stupid idea, but I have to try.” The boy took a deep, steadying breath. “Cirrus is in danger. You know Cirrus? There are men coming after him. He has to run.”
“If you can understand me, warn him, please. I'll feed you and the other crows every time I can, forever, if you just warn him. Tell him to get away before they... before they...” He broke off abruptly, choking back a sob. “Please, warn him! You've got to!”
The crow was still watching him; was there understanding in that beady eye, or just the reflection of his own desperate hope?
With a rough caw, the crow took off and disappeared into the night.
Wren stood there at the window a long time, staring out into the darkness after it. When weariness finally began to overtake him, he stumbled to his bed, and was asleep in an instant.
* * *
When he woke, it was morning, and the golden sunlight streaming in his window seemed to defy any memories of the stormy night before. He lay there for a moment, just staring at the roughhewn rafters overhead. Then it all came rushing back, and he leaped to his feet in horrified realization.
Springing out of bed, the boy ran from his room and hurdled down the narrow staircase. Only when he reached the kitchen—and saw his father slumped in a chair while his mother tended a kettle at the hearth—did he skid to a halt.
A stealthy entrance it was not, and Da looked up... and scowled. There were dark circles under his eyes. “Get back to your room, Wren. Ye stay there until you're trusted to be let out... which may be a long time.”
“Did you kill him?” Wren blurted out. “You didn't kill him, did you, Da?”
“To your room, Wren!”
It was an angry growl, but there was also a note of defeat in it. Cirrus had escaped. The boy could tell, and it brought a wide smile to his face as he turned and returned to his room.
* * *
Not as far away as either Wren or his father might imagine, the man who Wren called Cirrus emerged from the shallow riverbank cave where he'd weathered the night and squinted his eyes against the bright light of the sun.
He'd known there would be a pursuit, after the boy's father had taken a shot at him. It wasn't unexpected. He was used to running by now.
There hadn't been much to gather at the rocks which had served as his home these past weeks. Saddlebags slung across a shoulder, the sack that held his armor over another, and he'd been away, crossing the hillside under the cover of blinding rain. To the valley, this time. They'd search the hills as soon as they knew, and Wren would tell them, whether purposefully or not. There was no talent for deception in that boy. It was no betrayal.
As always, the crows had watched over him. He was skilled enough at evading detection, but this was unfamiliar ground that his pursuers would know far better than he; more than once, it was only the clamor of his winged allies that warned him to stay silent and still as dark shapes moved past in the rain. But he'd escaped, with their help. Circled far around in the hills and then back into the valley; the runoff from the hills had widened into a small river as it carved its way into the soft ground of the flatlands, and he'd followed it. The rain was his ally here, masking his scent and erasing his tracks.
As the downpour began to lighten, he'd found a place where long-gone floodwaters had gouged out a hollow beneath the roots of a great oak at the water's edge. It was not a comfortable place to shelter, not compared to his hillside grove, but it was dry, and it was hidden. He'd passed the night there in wary half-sleep, and then risen with the sun.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach, surprising him with its insistence. Food, sleep... they'd seldom plagued him, since everything had happened, and their recurrence now was unexpected.
He'd been different, lately. The boy was making him remember.
Shaking his head, the man stretched and crawled back under the bank to where his supplies waited. Little enough left now; hard to say how long Darius had been gone, and there was little chance of entering the town to replenish his supplies. Still, there was a river on his very doorstep, and more than enough game for him to hunt. He'd survive.
At some point, he'd have to return to the grove and leave a marker for Darius. His old friend wouldn't hesitate to turn his fury on the village if he thought his lover had come to harm, and that was the last thing that he wanted. He couldn't blame Wren's father for what had happened, nor the other villagers. To be hunted... it was a familiar thing. Blame, rather, the source of their fears. There was something in the forest; the crows were sure of it, and through them, so was he.
No way to know how long until Darius would return. Little chance of seeing the boy again, after what had happened the night before.
He'd hunt whatever stalked this valley. Even if nobody ever knew, even if it made no difference in the minds of those who hated him, he would still do what little he could to leave them safe.
Time had never passed so slowly.
Wren lay on his back, staring up at the rafters in boredom. He'd been stuck in his room for a week and a half now. He'd never stuck inside for so long
Still, there was at least the consolation that Cirrus seemed to still be evading any attempt to find him. After a few days of frenzied hunting parties scouring the hills, life in the village had returned to an uneasy peace; Wren had watched from his window, and silently delighted at each fruitless day of searching. Though he'd been nervous, a part of him was confident that his friend wouldn't be caught. Cirrus was... well. Cirrus was whatever he was. In the hills, he'd been a quiet man who liked crows, but whatever lay beneath that quiet persona was surely more than a match for the farmers and woodsmen of Amerril.
As time passed with little to do, the boy found new ways to occupy himself and keep informed of what was going on beyond his bedroom walls. To his delight, he'd discovered that crawling out of his window and onto the thatch could let him listen in on his parents ' after-dinner conversations; the season was still warm enough that Ma left the windows open until full dark, and a quiet and crafty boy could get close enough to listen in with a bit of effort.
This discovery, as it turned out, served him well. The very next night, he heard something useful.
From below, as he lay on the thatch and idly braided bits of straw together, he could hear his parents' voices drifting up.
“...thing today, Kait?”
“Nothing. We swept the hills again, but didn't find anything new; no signs of a fresh fire at that old campsite we found.” There was the sound of a plate scraping across the table. “Wren's 'friend' isn't gone, though. We found what was left of another deer on th' way out, and something savaged one of Lysson's goats last night.”
A soft gasp. “Do you mean it's coming straight down to the village?”
“Seems t' be.”
“Sweet Jensa preserve us all. If it's so bold, the children can't be safe...”
“Hush, Leah, 's alright. Wren's here in the house, and the boys are with me all day in the fields; they're safe enough. The men've been bringin' weapons along, but I don't think this creature'll show itself under the sun.”
“How can you be sure, Kait?”
“Lots of human-shaped things, like a vamp or a shade, wouldn't be able to come under the light anyway. And if it's somethin' else... If it wasn't so bold as to make away w' Wren right off, it's probably not strong enough to face us all, at least not until there's dark to hide it. You weren't there when I found it with Wren, it was gone like a shadow into the storm. Might be it won't make its move until it's sure of escaping again like that.” There was a pause. “Still, we have t' find it. Longer we take, the more nights it has to wait for the chance and courage to snatch one of us.”
Chairs scraped out from the table, and though Wren lay there a while longer, it seemed they'd moved off. He was about to crawl back into his room, in case anyone was headed upstairs to check on him, when their voices returned.”
“I wanted to show you this.”
“What is it?”
“While you were out with the men today, I found that cloak-cover Wren was wearing the night you found him. It'd fallen behind the firewood, had you looked at it?”
“No, I hadn't even remembered. What about it?”
“Look here.” A long pause. “That's a maker's mark from the Isle, isn't it?”
“It looks like it. I don't know th' crafter's sign below it, but the apple tree and sword can't be mistaken. But why would something tha's come from a wider territory like that have come here? Amerril's not the sort of place where the missing won't be missed.”
“It might not be that. Maybe it's simpler, maybe whatever it is just killed a traveler and stole the cloak; Avalonian leather might not mean it's come from there.”
“I don't know. But I don't like it. Maybe it's time to hire some protection... The harvest needs to come in, and we can't spare the men to be watching our backs every moment.”
“I wish you would, Kait. The village can spare the money, if the harvest is good, and I think we'd all feel a lot better knowing there are hired swords to keep watch.”
“You're right. I'll talk with the others tomorrow, and we'll send someone to Enbarr.”
This time, the conversation did seem to be over, and Wren hurried back to his room. Sellswords... that couldn't be good. Even if Da said they were just to guard, he wasn't sure it would stay at that; was Cirrus good enough at hiding to keep out of the way of paid hunters?
Of course, Cirrus might be gone. Maybe his friend had come back and taken him away, where it was safe, but Wren didn't think so, and that meant he was probably in danger. If only he wasn't stuck in the house! It was so stupid and stubborn of his parents, they weren't listening to anything he said... but then, if they were listening to anything, they'd listen when he said that Cirrus wasn't a monster, and there wouldn't be a problem to begin with. But they didn't. They never listened.
He bounced up and down on the bed, legs swinging over the side and full of nervous energy. At least his friend was probably able to take care of himself. The news about the cloak was just another part of the mystery; he'd known Cirrus was from somewhere important, but Avalon? Probably not the actual Isle, since he didn't seem like a cleric, but New Avalon was one of the larger cities in this part of the world. There were plenty of mercenaries there; maybe that's what Cirrus really was, though that didn't really explain what he was doing in Amerril.
Maybe Cirrus was a mercenary, and a good one, but if Da was sending someone to hire other mercenaries, he'd be outnumbered. If it came to that, Wren'd have to find a way to warn him.
He just had to think of a way.
* * *
He'd found tracks again, marring the soft mud at the river's edge, and the gnawed bones of what had once been a goat. Following them hadn't been easy, but he'd managed well enough and tracked the light pawprints as they made their way up into the deadfall of the forest. Once, he wouldn't have needed to stop and search for the tracks; once, fate would have guided him unerringly to his quarry. But he wasn't that person anymore, and so in the brief periods of lucidity he'd learned to track as a human, with a human's capabilities and limitations. These same limitations were what left him frowning once again, as the tracks ended as abruptly as though his quarry had simply walked out of the world.
Another dead end.
When a careful search of the surrounding area revealed nothing further, the man straightened up and shook his head. Anything that could vanish so abruptly couldn’t be good. The world was full of things that still lingered beyond the limits of mortality; Free Spirits, beings that owed allegiance only to their own driving purpose. He’d fought alongside some such creatures, once, and fought against others. They were the stuff of dreams, and of nightmares, and as he currently stood they’d be well beyond his power.
But no. Most such creatures, though not always bound, tended to linger close to a place they’d claimed as their own; for one to travel here, now… It didn’t seem right. Didn’t feel like the right answer.
But there was something here.
A sound overhead sent a prickle through his nerves, but he looked up to see a few crows perched in the branches of the tree he stood beneath. Smiling, the man held up his hand, and with a croak of interest, one of the birds hopped down to the new perch. It eyed him, head cocked to one side, and then started preening in apparent boredom With a chuckle, he absently stroked its back with a finger. The crows brought back good memories, better than most. Cirrus. What had happened to the nightmare, after everything? Had he simply faded back into the shadow he’d been born of? Did he live there still?
No use in wondering. The Shadow was lost to him now, like so much of the past he’d abandoned. Cirrus was a part of the past, just another friend who lived only in memory. Better, instead, to live in the moment while he still had the chance.
“Do you know?” he asked the crow perched on his hand. “Can you take me to whatever haunts this place?” It looked up for a moment, then returned to preening. With a self-deprecating smile, the man sighed. “I suppose not.” He lofted his arm, startling the bird into flight, and it returned to its branch with a reproachful caw.
However the creature had disappeared, it appeared there was nothing left for him to find here. Better to move on, start fresh rather than drive himself to distraction looking for hints that weren’t there. Sooner or later, he’d find his quarry. It’d simply take time.
As he started off towards the camp, his thoughts turned once again to the boy, Wren. How was he faring? To be sure, his parents would be keeping a close eye on him now; perhaps it was for the best. It had been good, to have company that neither knew nor cared who he was, but it was better to know that the child was safe. It’d be a selfish thing indeed to put his own comfort above the boy’s well-being,
Better for them all when he found whatever hunted the valley.
* * *
From not so very far away, a pair of narrowed eyes noted the man's passage. Days now spent watching this one, this hunter. He was different from the other men who blundered through the forest, their eyes blind and senses dead. There was something that was kin in this one; it did not mean he was to be feared, but his presence should be noted. Hunters who did not mark other hunters' paths earned their inevitable fate.
This crow-dark man was hunting. So be it; if they were to fight one another for the right to this valley, let it be settled, let blood soak the earth. Territory mattered little, the crow-man could have this territory, but a challenge? A threat against quarry so carefully chosen and stalked? It was not to be tolerated.
Not long now. And when they came at each others throats, let the Father in Many Skins choose the most worthy.
* * *
A week later, a day before the start of the harvest, the mercenaries arrived.
By this time, Wren had slowly regained free reign of the house, even if he was still banned from setting foot outside; as such, he was sitting at the table along with the others when there was a knock on the door. A moment later, they filed in with his father; two men and a woman. They were dressed in a mix of chain and leather, dull and scarred from blades; swords hung at their sides, and one man had a crossbow slung over his shoulder. Each wore an orange band of cloth about their left bicep.
They looked tough, competent, and ready for a battle. They looked like danger.
Shrinking back in his chair without meaning to, Wren forced his eyes back down to his plate and kept picking at his dinner.
“Sorry to interrupt your meal. We were told this was a good place to start.”
“Oh, please, think nothing of it.” There was a thin note of nervousness underlying his mother’s voice. “How can we help you?”
“Your good husband said that one of these boys had seen what we’re after.” There was the sound of boots crossing the floor, and a shadow fell across Wren. His heart hammering, the boy didn’t look up. He could practically feel his mother’s glare.
“Wren, don’t be rude.”
“No, it’s alright.” A face came into view as the mercenary crouched down until they were eye to eye. “So, you’re Wren? We’ve heard a lot about you.” At his ongoing silence, the man glanced back over his shoulder. “Can we have a moment alone, if you don’t mind?”
“S’fine. You two, let me show you tha’ cloak.” There was a sound of shuffling feet that quickly receded towards the kitchen, and then silence reigned. Nervous, Wren kicked his heels against the chair leg.
When several minutes had passed in silence, the boy stealthily stole a peek at the mercenary. He had risen from his crouch, pulled up a chair and was seated patiently; one leg crossed over the other and an arm flung over the chair back. He looked relaxed. Confident. From his closer vantage point Wren could see the silvered scars on the backs of weather-beaten hands turned brown and leathery from the sun. The mercenary’s face was just as imposing, narrow eyes and a thin beard tracing the line of his jaw. But when he gave Wren a grin when he caught his gaze.
“Never seen a sellsword before?”
“I have. Sometimes.” Wren spoke grudgingly.
“I have! They hired some two years ago to guard the fields during harvest.”
The man chuckled, then raised his hands in apology at the sight of Wren’s angry bristling. “Peace, peace. I don’t doubt you. That’s just a different sort of mercenary, is all.”
“They looked the same as you.”
“Lookin’ the same and bein’ the same are two very different things. My Salamanders and I hunt bigger prey than wolves or bandits.” He held out a scarred hand. “I’m Raethe.”
Wren fixed him with a suspicious stare for a long moment, then finally put out his own hand and shook. “You don’t need to be here. There’s no monsters.”
“Oh?” Hard black eyes bored into his. “Listen, Wren, your father’s told us a bit about what happened, but I want to hear it from you. A tale’s always truest from the source. Your father and the others are paying us to hunt a monster, and he thinks whatever it is has got a spell on you, but… well, I’d rather not be chasin’ after false trails if there’s nothing for me to find, y’ken?”
Not quite daring to hope, Wren raised his head. “You mean you believe me? Nobody believes me.”
“I’d like to hear your side of things, at least. Tell me about this friend of yours that lives in the forest.”
“I…” For a moment, the boy paused. These men were here to hunt Cirrus, and he didn’t want to make it easier. But they were adults. If he could convince Raethe, maybe Da would listen. And maybe this could all stop. “His name’s Cirrus. He likes crows, we used to feed them together. He’s not a bad person, he’s always really nice to me, and he listens instead of just telling me that I’m making things up or that I’m little and I don’t know anything and—”
Putting his hands up in mock defense, the mercenary grinned. “Hold on, hold on. One thing at a time, how’d you meet this Cirrus fellow?”
“I saw a fire up in the hills one night. So I went to go see what it was the next day.”
“And how long ago was this?”
“I don’t know. A couple of weeks? More’n a month.”
“That seems like an awfully long time to be living out in the wilds with your charming town right here, doesn’t it?”
“Cirrus likes the quiet. ‘N he’s not staying, he’s just waiting for—” Realizing belatedly he might have said too much, Wren halted midsentence, but he could already see the surprise—and suspicion—on the man’s face.
An agonizing pause. “…for a friend of his.”
“Do you know who?”
“I don’t wanna say. I don’t know. It’s his friend, it doesn’t matter because all of this doesn’t matter!” Feeling tears beading in the corner of his eyes, Wren clenched his fists. “Cirrus isn’t a monster! Why won’t anyone believe me?”
Raethe was silent for a moment, then gave him a smile. But Wren hadn’t missed the flash of cruelty and anger that had lanced through those cold eyes a moment earlier. “Well, we’ll just have to see what me and my men can find, then. Don’t worry, Wren. If he’s as harmless as you say, he’s nothing to fear from us when we find him.”
“You won’t find him! Cirrus is smarter than all of you, just leave him alone!”
“We will find him. Nothing escapes my Salamanders when we hunt monsters.” Pushing the chair back, the mercenary got to his feet. One hand rested easily on the hilt of a sword. “Thanks for all your help, Wren. I’ll be back if I have more questions.”
And then he was gone, and Wren was left sobbing in an empty room.
* * *
Days passed, and turned to weeks. Wren stayed confined to the house, and the crows circled in the hills.
They still hadn’t caught Cirrus. That was something; though he couldn’t spy on the Salamanders and their progress from the prison of his room, Da would have said if they’d caught him. Every day of silence was a small victory.
Raethe had been back to the house once, but Wren had refused to talk with him. The mercenary scared him. That coldness in his eyes… that was the memory he’d taken away from their conversation, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that if Raethe found Cirrus, he’d kill him whether Cirrus was a monster or not. Already he regretted telling the man as much as he had, though he’d had plenty of time to sit and agonize over whether what he’d said had been anything the Salamanders could use.
But it couldn’t have helped them. Cirrus was still alive. Still free.
But for how long?
Wren was lying on his back, tossing a ball up and down, when the tap came at his window.
He bolted up in an instant. It was a dark afternoon, the clouds overhead heavy with unshed rain, and the lack of sunshine cast his room into gloom and shadow. With Da and his brothers out in the field, and Ma tending to some quiet pastime downstairs, it was almost like being home alone. Not that he was scared. He wasn’t scared. But it was a grim day to be practically home alone, the sort of day where the corners of his room seemed full of darkness deeper than shadows.
Still, for all of his half-formed fears, Wren’s face lit up at the dark shape outside his window. A crow was perched there on the thatch; even as he watched, it tapped insistently at the window a second time. The sound was loud. Too loud. Hurrying over, he unlatched the window and threw it open.
The crow eyed him for a moment, looking hesitant, and then delicately stepped up onto the frame of the window. No further. Grinning, Wren bent down to the rough-hewn chest at the foot of his bed and pulled out the hunk of bread he’d hidden there the day before, breaking off a piece and holding it out to his visitor. After a moment, it gravely accepted the offering from his hand.
It was still such a wondrous thing. Before Cirrus, he’d never imagined such a thing could be done; to have a wild animal eating right out of his hand… Cirrus. He missed Cirrus. Was sick of the fear at the end of each day before Da got home, waiting nervously to know whether or not his friend had been caught or killed. Of course, it was possible that Cirrus was already gone. Maybe his friend had come back, taken him away… but Wren didn’t think so. Somehow, he was sure that he’d know if Cirrus had left.
“Do you know if Cirrus is still here?” he asked the crow softly. It looked up at him, caw’ed softly, and somehow it sounded like more than just a noise. There was something glimmering deep in that beady eye, some wary intelligence that sent a chill down Wren’s spine. He lowered his voice. “Can you understand me?”
It dipped its beak, and he shivered despite himself. Now, more than a month later, his thoughts flew back to that rainy night and the crow he’d called to his window. Then, he’d begged the crow to warn Cirrus of the danger that was chasing him. He’d never known whether or not it had been a fool’s hope.
But this crow…
“Did Cirrus send you?” Wren asked softly, “Is he still here in the valley?” The crow dipped its head again. “Is he alright?” It made a hoarse sound deep in its throat, still staring at him. “Yes?”
For a moment the bird cocked its head to the side, as though considering. Then, deliberately, it hopped from side to side on the sill.
“He isn’t? Is he hurt? What happened?”
Looking almost frustrated—though how a bird could look frustrated, he couldn’t quite have said—the crow hopped back onto the thatch of the roof and flapped its wings in a small, sharp motion.
“I don’t understand.”
Turning, the crow hopped to the edge of the roof, then turned back to him and flapped again. Hopped up and down.
“You want me to go with you?”
Feeling a fluttering sensation in his stomach, Wren couldn’t help but look over his shoulder uneasily at the closed door behind him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to go out. He’d broken that rule before, obviously enough, but this was different; this time he wouldn’t just be bending the words of his parents’ command, he’d be defying them outright. If he was caught, there’d be Nine Hells to pay… but his friend was out there somewhere, and something was wrong. If Cirrus was hurt, who else was there to help him? His friend Darius had been gone at least a month and a half now, there was no counting on him to come back at precisely the right time; aside from Darius, and from Wren, who else was there? Nobody who meant him anything but harm.
He couldn’t just sit here knowing for certain that his friend was in trouble.
Filled with a fragile resolve, Wren put his hands on the windowsill. “I’m coming, just be quiet for a second, okay?” What would he need to bring? Trying to recall the things his father brought when looking for someone missing in the forest, he crossed the room and grabbed his worn cloak from the wall. There was a bag with a strap that he’d bought from the merchants one year; he took that too, shoved the blanket off his bed into it. It didn’t fit well—the ends trailed out and it wouldn’t close—but a blanket might be good to have. Some more bread he’d been saving to feed the crows with, a little stale but still edible. What would be really helpful, with the clouds looming so dark overhead, would be a light… Wistfully Wren cast his gaze to the lantern that sat on his bedside table. He couldn’t take it, though. He knew that; it’d be hard enough climbing down off the roof, and someone might see the light.
Finally, he climbed up on the bed and reached up to where the wall met the thick rafters and thatch overhead. When he’d been young, it had been hard to reach, but he’d grown up since then and now he could see the seam between wall and roof easily. And there, hidden behind the rafter, was a secret he’d been saving for months now; a knife.
It was dull and worn, chipped along the blade in a few places. He’d found it in the forest one day, exploring; it had been half-buried in the sand along the river’s edge, but even dull metal had caught the sun and his attentive eye. He’d saved it since then, not quite daring to carry it with him—it’d mean his hide if Da found it—but content simply in the knowledge that he, Wren, had a knife of his own. There was something special to knowing that, something that made him feel a little more grown up. One day he’d be able to carry a knife properly, but for now this one would be enough.
For the first time since he day he’d found it, Wren carefully pulled the knife from its hiding place and slid it into the folds of the blanket stuffed into his bag. Then he turned, walked back to the window and pulled himself up over the sill. The crow was still there, still waiting with an impatient glint in its eye. “I’m ready. Take me to Cirrus, okay?”
The bird took off, crossing from the roof to the branches of a tree some yards away in a few effortless flaps of its wings. Wren’s journey wasn’t nearly so graceful, but he managed; there was an old tree that had grown near the house for as long as he could remember, and its gnarled branches leaned obligingly close. For a boy used to climbing trees, it was a small matter to climb down it to the ground.
Within moments he had disappeared into the shadows under the trees, the window to his room swinging forgotten behind him.
“Are we almost there yet?”
Ahead, the half-visible shape of the crow darted between the branches again, and a hollow caw drifted back to Wren’s ears. It had been a long time now since they’d set out from the house, and beneath the trees the already watery light was all but lost. It was dark, as dark as it had been on the day of the storm, and the boy found himself wondering with a shiver whether there’d be rain.
What a difference the darkness made. This was, at least in Wren’s young mind, his forest. He spent his days playing beneath these selfsame branches that now loomed so forebodingly overhead; he’d walked every trail for miles. And yet now he found himself feeling uneasy, uncertain how far they’d come or where the crow was taking him. With the sky so dark, he didn’t even have a way of telling which direction they were heading.
They’d come a long way, to be certain. And maybe that way good; it meant they were less likely to run into the Salamanders, or anyone from the village who might wonder what he was doing so far from home. It was safer this way.
So why did he feel fear slowly crawling across his skin?
Somewhere in the distance, crows cried out. He’d heard the noise several times, but it was hard to tell in this directionless gloom which way the sound came from, or whether he was moving closer or farther away.
Nervous, Wren slid his hand into his bag and touched the reassuring chill of the knife hidden within the folds of the blanket. At least he had that. Wolves wouldn’t give him trouble, not in the valley, especially not if he had a knife. But for all his reassurances, his mind strayed to the conversations he’d heard from the open window below his room, stories of animals ripped apart until they couldn’t even be recognized…
At once, he came to a halt in a clearing beneath the trees.
The shadows ahead of him were still, and the air was silent.
He’d lost the crow.
“Hello? Wait, I can’t keep up…”
His voice trailed off miserably, swallowed by the hushed stillness. The shadows seemed to almost lean in, growing darker by the moment.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
Something rustled in the branches overhead, and Wren whirled to see nothing more than empty darkness.
There was another sound, behind him again, and he spun and nearly fell. Fear seemed to sap all the strength from his muscles; he was suddenly all too aware of how far he’d come, how alone he was. The empty woods mocked him, trees bleak and barren and so very dark.
And then, horribly, a rasping, shrieking voice answered, “Are you still there?”
Deep in the shadows, too deep for him to see clearly, something darted between two trees. Something huge. Letting out a choked-off cry of fear, Wren backed up a step, two, and then turned and ran.
Somewhere overhead, the crows screamed.
He was sure he’d never run faster in his life, but Wren had never felt so slow. The ground, ground that had been smooth enough below his feet before, seemed a minefield of hidden roots and stones that reached up to grasp at his feet. And terribly, at the edges of his vision he was sure that something flitted through the shadows, keeping pace with him effortlessly. Horrible, low laughter echoed through the trees until it seemed to come from every direction.
Though the air was cool, his breath burned in his lungs. He couldn’t run all the way back to Amerril; they’d come two miles or more, and the shape that stalked him through the trees could catch him any time it wanted. It wasn’t chasing him, it was toying with him, mocking his utterly hopeless fate. Wren had watched Patches, the blacksmith’s cat, play with a mouse before, chasing it in circles for almost an hour before finally slamming it into the dirt with one lethal paw. But he was the mouse now, and the end of this chase was just as certain.
Endurance giving out, he came to a halt in another, larger clearing, a stitch burning in his side. His legs ached. Still, despite the exhaustion gnawing at him, the boy managed to stagger to where a low cluster of rocks jutted out of the ground and pressed his back to them. His hand slid into his bag once again, curling around the handle of his dull knife.
Maybe terror would give him the strength to at least stab it, whatever it was. Before it… no, better not to think about it.
But then that awful voice came slicing through the air again, rekindling every horror buried in his imagination. “Giving up so soon?”
“What—” It was hard to draw breath. “What are you?!”
“Disappointing to find you so weak, child. Maybe I should find another heart worthier of being mine.”
It was still impossible to tell where that voice came from. Wren’s eyes darted in panic from side to side, frantically searching, trying to pierce the darkness that surrounded him as laughter rolled through the air again. Overhead, the crows were still screaming, their voices raised in a raucous chorus. Had they led him to this? Had it all been— no, he wouldn’t believe it. He knew that Cirrus was no part of this. But that would do him no good now…
It walked out of the trees, then, and all his thoughts turned to dust and were silent.
In the dull light, the creature was the color of coal, its—fur? Feathers?—a dun black against the darkness that surrounded it. A crow’s head stared at him with faintly luminous eyes, but it was huge, as big as Wren’s torso, and attached to a body unlike anything he’d seen before. The thing’s shoulders were perhaps five feet high, framed by the long sweep of leathery wings; it walked hunched, those wings folded and acting as limbs where scaly claws scraped at the ground. Somewhere behind, he got a glimpse of a thick-furred tail swinging gently from side to side.
It was like nothing he’d seen before. Like nothing he’d seen in his worst nightmares. And his fear multiplied a thousand times when that wickedly-tipped beak parted and the creature said, “I suppose you’ll have to do.”
He whimpered, pulling the knife from the bag and pointing it towards the monster.
“You think your little claw will stop me? Don’t be a fool, child.”
At last, Wren found his voice as the thing stalked closer. “CIRRUS!”
It laughed at him. “Nobody is coming for you. I have watched and I have waited and I have made very sure that you are alone. Where is your father, who tried to protect you? Where are those pathetic men who think they might hunt ME?” Another step closer. There wasn’t much space left between them. “They are far and far away. You are alone. You are mine.”
“CIRRUS!” His lungs were screaming at him, still struggling for air that was like fire in his throat. “CIRRUS… Please, help…”
“You are MINE.”
At the unexpected voice, the creature’s head whipped around and it hissed. Disbelieving, Wren’s eyes followed just in time to see a dark form leaping over the low rocks to his right, moving between him and the creature.
Dagger in hand, Cirrus stood facing the monster.
It was a fool’s hope. Cirrus was an adult, and he had a real weapon, and Wren knew full well how fast he was, but even so… What could Cirrus do against something so terrible? And yet, despite it all, the boy felt a surge of hope rise up within him.
“Cirrus, I’m so scared…”
“I’m here. I will not leave you.”
For a moment, the monster had seemed startled by the appearance of a new adversary, but now it chuckled darkly.
“You? You cannot save him.”
“I will not stand aside and let you take him.” There was something in Cirrus’s voice, something brighter and stronger than Wren had ever heard there before.
The creature hissed again. “Selfish! This one is mine, chosen and caught. What claim do you have on him?”
“I need no claim to protect him from you.”
“So you, who have claimed your own heart, would deny me mine?”
For just a moment, the man seemed taken aback. “I am no valravyn. I’ve stolen no heart.”
“Liar!” The creature—the valravyn?—lunged closer, and Cirrus dropped into a fighter’s stance, dagger held before him. “I feel the raven blood in you, brother; you are of the flock, I know it! Stand aside, or fight me with claw and talon as it should be!”
“I will not stand aside!” There was a lean tension in Cirrus’s body. He shifted slightly as the valravyn circled. “Don’t doubt my resolve. Take a single step more towards this child and I’ll destroy you.”
There was a long, long pause, and for just a moment Wren dared hope that that would be enough, and the creature would leave them in peace.
And then the valravyn sprang forward.
He’d learned about valravyns only in passing, and that had been long ago. Never had he encountered one, never had he fought one, but he remembered what he had learned; it had seemed so unnatural, such a curse, that he had remembered.
A raven, born like any other. Feeding upon the heart of a king, carrion on the battlefield, it is cursed with a human’s mind. It becomes monstrous, twisted in mind and form, hungering only for that which can give it a human body: devouring the still-beating heart of a human child. Cursed, tormented by its fate until it does that which is unthinkable and then lives forever after in the knowledge of what it has done. An innocent creature, twisted into an evil monster, twisted into an evil man.
A monstrosity, to whom the only mercy would be death.
As the beast lunged towards him, the man who had become the Heretic spun away from that snapping beak. Not far, though, just enough to put himself out of its path; as it passed him by, its eyes fixed on Wren, he pivoted back and plunged his dagger into the muscle of the monster’s neck. It wasn’t a killing blow—he wouldn’t hope for that sort of luck—but the valravyn’s own momentum opened a long gash all the way down to the bulge of its shoulder.
The creature screamed in shock and fury, and he darted away as it swung towards him. It had forgotten Wren for the moment. Good. He wanted all of its attention focused on him, and that seemed to have been accomplished surely enough.
It was fast, though. Faster than he’d thought such an unwieldy creature could be on the ground, to be sure, but it seemed that he’d surprised it as well, and that was good. He might not be who’d he’d once been, but he was still skilled enough. Perhaps there was a hope of winning this fight after all. He’d not been sure of that, when he ran into battle; only that he couldn’t stand aside and let the boy be killed.
The valravyn eyed him with a wary hatred, now, its muscles tensed and crouching very, very still. From the gash in the side of its neck, blood that seemed too dark to be red—though perhaps that was just the light—fell and sizzled as it hit the dirt. “You’ll pay for that,” the creature hissed. “Traitor.”
Though the words had nothing to do with the wound that still bled deep within him, he flinched. “No.”
“You would deny me my heart? We were meant to feed. We were meant to take human form.” It snapped at the air. “It is our right! My right! The right the Father gave us!”
“It’s not his time to die. It’s not your fate to end his.” The words came out without thinking, and the beast’s eyes widened.
“You? Fate—You ARE kin! The Skinwalker’s Child! But you do not—” He flinched again, hearing the words from so long ago, and the valravyn halted abruptly. There was silence, and then a low chuckle filled the air. Somewhere nearby, Wren was whimpering softly.
“It’s YOU. You… you do not have the power to stop me. The Father in Many Skins will smile on me if I spill your blood upon the earth!” The beast was still laughing, and the sound of it was unbearable. Filled with a mix of shame and fury, the Heretic threw himself at the creature; it was as quick as he was, though, and sprang to the side in a lightning-fast motion. His recklessness cost him; claws lashed out, scoring a trio of shallow gashes into the shoulder of his right arm, and he fell back with a cry.
Amused, the valravyn watched him clutch at his wounded shoulder. “You bleed like a human now, traitor.”
“Stop talking and fight.”
“Why rush? Give your precious boy a few more moments of life while we play. Let him see how pitiful you are.”
He snarled, knuckles white on the hilt of the dagger in his hand. This anger… it was making him reckless. Where was the numbness he’d lived in these last few years? Where was the dispassion now?
“He followed me into the woods because he thought you were in danger, you know. What a brave child. Another death to your account, more blood on your hands.”
No! He didn’t need apathy. Not now. He would fight, for his life, and for that of the child who had showed him friendship. And if he died--Darius…—then let him die with a faint reminder of being alive!
Screaming his denial, he leapt forward, focusing his will into a state of pure concentration. Once, he’d fought with the instincts of the hundreds who’d come before him. Even now, with everything else lost, that remained; he would not be killed here, not by this monster! Ahead, the valravyn reared up to meet his attack, great wings spread like blades.
He closed ground faster than he’d anticipated, faster than either of them had anticipated; in close to the beast’s body, he was more maneuverable than his foe, and slashed a deep wound along its ribs. Ducking under the mass of its chest, he reversed his grip and stabbed in towards the thing’s body… but the window of opportunity had passed, and it twisted away, leaping backwards with a flap of mighty wings that staggered him back a step or two as well. The blow he’d hoped to puncture vital organs with became only a shallow puncture on the side of its abdomen.
It recovered quickly, sweeping in, both wings reaching forward to slash at him with formidable claws; he threw himself into a roll to the side, but even so the leathery mass of a wing slammed into him and threw him into the air. He came down hard, crying out as a rock knifed into his back; the rush of pain was hot, almost liquid. It was entirely possible that he was bleeding from that, entirely possible that rock had done more than break skin. And the valravyn was close behind; it was luck more than anything else that he rolled aside just in time to miss a stab of that vicious beak that would otherwise have impaled him.
But his luck didn’t hold. It never did. And claws came down, pinning one arm to the ground and tearing gashes into his flesh, He stabbed up, tearing at the muscle of the muscle of the thing’s wing… and then the valravyn’s beak wove deftly in and yanked the dagger from his grasp, flinging it across the clearing and well beyond any hope of recovery.
It was over. The valravyn stared down at him, panting, eyes glazed with pain and hatred. Its breath smelled of carrion.
“And now tell me, traitor, what have you accomplished? What have you changed here this day? What difference have you made other than sacrificing two lives when all I asked for was one?” It laughed, the sound low and filled with contempt. “What was the point?”
“I have to try.” He could hear Wren sobbing, the sound thin with terror, and that hurt more than the wounds.
“You are weak. No wonder the Father turned his back on you.”
Do not presume to know my will, child.
The voice seemed to shake the very foundations of the world, and the valravyn’s talons bit deeply into the Heretic’s arm. The pain bit deeper still, but he held it at bay; it wasn’t important. That voice… it had been a long time, years, but he knew that voice. He could no more forget it than he could forget his own.
Heretic, valravyn, child; they all turned to the figure that stood at the clearing’s edge. Overhead, the branches were thick with silent crows.
As it—he—stepped forward, the world seemed to alter subtly. It was as though gravity had changed, or the source of light; suddenly, that cloaked and hooded figure was the heart of everything, the focal point of the universe itself. Dark brown wings, massive, fanned the air; a crown of antlers framed a face lost in deep shadow.
A god walked among the shadows of the clearing.
The valravyn bowed its head, though it did not release its foe. “Father— I mean no disrespect—”
You who would kill my favored child, who was mine before all others? You mean no disrespect? That all-consuming voice was filled with a quiet scorn. You shame yourself with such falsehoods.
“I seek that which is mine, Father, by your own law! We have fought for the sake of the human child; it is my right to the child’s heart if I am the stronger—”
You have fought with no understanding of what it is that you fight. Be silent. At a gesture of the Skinwalker’s hand, the creature’s beak snapped shut; slowly, the god crossed the downtrodden grass of the clearing and looked down at him where he lay.
It has been many years.
“Yes, my lord,” he answered softly. Indescribable, the feelings seeing the god brought back. Memories, both good and bad, of what used to be.
Child of mine, why do you not use that which I gave you long ago? Have you forgotten my gift to your kind?
“I am not… I am not what I was, my lord. I gave up the power I was given.”
You gave up the powers of the Reaper. Fate, Time, the Cycle… The Skinwalker waved a hand in a startlingly human gesture. They gifted their power to you so that you might serve their will. But you are my child. You were born with my gift to you, and one day, you shall die with it. But it has never left you.
For just a moment, harsh golden eyes flashed deep within the shadows of the god’s hood. Fight. Use that which I gave you. If it is your desire, then by the right of your strength and your will, save the human child.
You are my children, both, and much beloved. But if you would settle this, then fight, as has always been and was always intended.
And then, in an instant, he was gone.
The valravyn was still frozen, and a glimmer of fear burned somewhere in the depths of its eyes. And in the split second of time that gave him, Artemis Hunter, who had once been the Reaper, reached deep within himself and found a savage other he’d though lost.
The change surged through him faster than he remembered it being, as though the power was eager to be unleashed. Limbs swelled, twisted, bones crackling as they were forced into newer, stranger shapes. Somewhere, he was dimly aware of the valravyn falling away, pushed aside by his sudden growth, but it seemed unimportant. All that mattered was the sweet, feral joy flooding through his veins, surging through his mind in a hot rush. For the first time in years, that other self pressed on his consciousness, fierce and yet comforting. It felt like greeting an old friend, and a small part of the pain within subsided. Rearing up on legs thick with muscle, dark-feathered wings fanning at the air, Hunter roared his exultation.
He was alive again, a part of himself that had been dead since Darkmere, and all that had happened there. In time, the pain and loss and sorrow would all return, but for now, for this brief moment, he had the power to turn it all aside.
Not this time. Not this time.
He landed on all fours again, shaking the earth. The valravyn seemed so small now, so much less imposing; he could smell its uncertainty, its fear. It was a good smell. The smell of blood to come. This little, cowering raven-kin, it would try to kill him? No.
“You would challenge me, valravyn? You would try to take this child who I have told you is under my protection?” He snarled, and the sound rumbled through the air. “No. NO!”
And yet, incredibly, the creature snarled back. “I cannot give him up! Not now! Not even to you!”
“You are human, traitor! You will die as easily as a human!”
And then they came together, and the air was filled with rending claws and the bright copper tang of spilled blood.
When it was over at last, Wren watched with wide eyes as the great beast that Cirrus had become dwindled and shrank into a man’s shape once more. His friend knelt there, shaking slightly amidst grass churned to blood-soaked mud. Cirrus’s clothes were torn; even from yards away, Wren could see the wounds only half-hidden by the dark.
At the far side of the clearing, the ragged shadow that was the valravyn lay still and unmoving. The fight between the two hadn’t taken long, though he’d watched every moment with his heart in his throat; whatever Cirrus had turned into had been bigger and stronger than the monster, and the difference had showed clearly enough. Wren had heard the snap of the valravyn’s neck as a massive claw slammed into its head and knocked it down. It was over, the monster was dead, and he was safe. But Cirrus… Cirrus…
In the back of his mind, fear lingered, but the boy pushed it aside and stumbled forward. He came to a halt a few steps away. “Are you okay?”
At the sound of his voice, the man’s face jerked towards him… and then relaxed, partially. Somewhere overhead, a last glimpse of sun must have broken through the trees, and for just a moment Wren could have sworn he saw a gleam of gold deep in his friend’s eyes. “Wren? I… You’re still here?”
“Of course I’m still here!” Tears of suppressed emotion welled up, for all that he tried to stop them. “I th-thought it was going to k-k-kill y-you!” Ashamed of weeping, but so glad to be alive, Wren dropped down into the mud and wrapped his arms around Cirrus, burying his face in his friend’s bloody shirt.
“I…” For once, Cirrus seemed at a loss for words. But his arms encircled Wren as well, comforting, holding back all the terror of what had happened. “You’re safe, Wren. We’re both alright. It’s alright.”
Time passed. Eventually, the boy’s sobbing slowed and then ceased altogether, and Cirrus helped him back to his feet before standing himself. Rubbing the back of a hand across his eyes, , Wren looked up. “Are you really okay?”
“I’m hurt, but I’ll heal. It isn’t bad.”
“Okay.” For a moment, Wren looked down. His thoughts whirled with all that he’d seen; the valravyn, that horned man—a god, his heart said, though he couldn’t quite believe it—and the thing that Cirrus had become. “Cirrus? Can I ask you a question?”
“What… When that person came and talked to you, what did you… I mean…”
“What did I become?”
Cirrus looked aside, and the shadows and lines Wren had seen on his face when they first met seemed deeper than ever. “It was part of what I used to be. Years ago.”
“Were you really the Reaper?”
“I…” Pain. “I was. A long time ago.”
There was silence, and eventually Cirrus put a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “You should be home, Wren. Let’s go.”
Reaching up, the boy caught hold of Cirrus’s hand; his friend seemed startled, but a moment later a faint smile passed over his face. They’d reached the edge of the trees when something half-sensed, half-felt, made them turn.
The Skinwalker stood atop the rocks in the clearing behind them, wings spread wide. Far in the distance, the moon rose through a break in the clouds and lent the god a copper-hued halo. Wren shivered; for all his life, until the day he died, he would never forget that sight.
I mourn my dead child, the god said softly, But I am glad you have remembered that which is your birthright.
“Thank you, lord,” Cirrus replied, “For both our lives.” Awkward at his side, Wren bowed. He felt a ripple of silent amusement pass through the air, and blushed.
A final word before you go, Reaper.
“I’m not the Reaper, lord. Not anymore.”
You were born to be the Reaper, chosen by Fate to carry the bloodline that I gifted long ago. For just a moment, a shadow of a smile was visible beneath that hood. You are a child of the gods, and no parent so easily abandons a wayward son.
And then, as abruptly as he’d appeared, he was gone.
Cirrus stood still for a long, long moment, staring at the space the Skinwalker had so recently vacated. His face was filled with emotion, fear and sorrow and longing all mingled together.
“What did he mean?”
“Maybe nothing,” the man said at last. He looked down, and smiled, a little sadly. “Come on.”
The walk back was long, longer than seemed possible. After a time, they came to the bank of the river, and Wren tugged at Cirrus’s hand and guided them both down onto the firm-packed sand at the water’s edge. The footing was easier there, in the half-dark; less hidden stones, and a scant bit of light still made its way down through the gap in the trees overhead.
Truthfully, he could have still managed the path in the halfdark, but he wasn’t sure that Cirrus could. In the time they’d been walking—minutes? Hours?—his friend’s step had slowed, and his breathing had become more labored. Wren’s mind drifted uneasily back to the fight; Cirrus had taken more than a few hits, whether as a man or the creature he’d become, and though he’d seemed fine enough earlier he didn’t seem so fine now.
“Cirrus?” he said at last. His voice came out thin, reedier than he’d intended. “Cirrus, are you alright?”
“Don’t worry, Wren.” There was a thick undercurrent of pain in that voice.
“You’re not alright, are you? Are you— What should I do?” Are you going to die, he’d almost said before his mind caught up to his mouth. Please, Cirrus, don’t leave me here alone.
“It’s not that bad. Please don’t worry.”
“That’s what you said before, but it is bad, isn’t it? It is, I know it is!”
Cirrus’s hand, which had been steadily loosening on his own, gripped tighter for just a moment in silent reassurance. “It’s… there’s a lot of pain. I can… I can heal myself. But I need to know that you’re safe. I—” He staggered, dropped to one knee with a wordless grunt of pain.
Fear rising up thick in his throat, the boy dropped to a crouch in the sand beside him. “I can wait, just heal yourself now! Please!” When his friend didn’t answer, just kept breathing in harsh, ragged gasps, Wren clutched at his hand tightly. “Help! Someone help, we’re here, helllpppp—”
For what seemed like forever, there was nothing. Only Cirrus’s gasps of pain and the merciless silence of the nighttime forest that surrounded them. It was starting to get cold; the last of summer had faded into autumn some weeks ago, and the air was filled with the chill of winter to come. Shivering slightly, Wren pulled the blanket from the bag he’d somehow, impossibly managed to hold on to through it all and tossed it across Cirrus’s shoulders before wrapping himself up in the trailing end. It was an old blanket, and not meant for bitter cold—in winter, his mother would bring down the heavy blankets she kept in the storeroom—but it served well enough for now. Huddling, close, however, only left Wren all too aware of the terrible wetness to his friend’s torn clothing. Was he still bleeding? He shouldn’t still be bleeding if he was fixing himself, should he?
“Help…” he cried out again, weaker this time. It wasn’t right. After surviving the valravyn, was Cirrus going to die here, in the mud of a riverbank?
At the corner of his vision, through eyes blurred with the fatigue that comes after too much adrenaline, he saw fireflies dancing through the trees. Pretty. Almost mocking their desperation.
Muddled by fear and weariness, it took him longer than it should to realize the season for fireflies was over. He blinked, focused, and realized that dim glow was something else entirely. Somewhere off to their left, across the river, torchlight was reflecting off the trunks of the trees.
Hope kindled and roared up in his heart, a gust of wind on dying embers. “Here! We’re over here, help!”
And then, thank all the gods, he heard voices through the trees.
“Wren? Wren, are you there?”
“Yes! We’re here, help!” The lights were moving closer now, shadows flickering over the trunks as figures came into view with torches held high. Wren could feel tears of relief sliding down his cheeks. “Hold on, Cirrus, help’s coming, this way, down here!”
At last, the men on the far side of the river came into view; familiar faces, his father, Raeth, the other Salamanders. Wren looked up at them with a wavering smile as they filed down onto the far bank of the river. “Da, you’ve got to help me get Cirrus back home, he’s hurt really bad—”
“Wren, come here.” There was something so familiar to the words that the boy’s eyes widened.
“No, it’s not what you think—”
“Please, Wren.” Last time, his father’s voice had been cold; now, it was strained, with an undercurrent of something that he would have called fear in anyone’s voice but Da’s. “Get out o’ the way. You have to come here.”
“We don’t have a clear shot with the boy in the way,” Raeth muttered. The words were quiet, probably not meant to carry, but a rogue breeze brought them across the river to Wren’s waiting ears. Adrenaline surged through his veins, not a spark anymore, but a dull ache.
Da’s eyes were distraught. “You have t’ try; quick, a’fore it can— Wren—”
As though in slow motion, the Salamander archer raised a bow, drew back an arrow. Wren could see muscles in the woman’s arm tense; hear the creak of the bowstring…
And then came the familiar thwap of an arrow leaving a bow.
A second voice shouted out a moment after his, loud and clear and furious, and a blurred figure seemed to drop out of thin air to land before them. There was a sharp cracking sound, and Wren winced as something struck him in the shoulder. It bounced away, and his eyes followed… and widened at the sight of half an arrow lying on the sand.
“Fire another arrow,” that same voice intoned, low and pulsing with rage, “take another step, and I’ll gut you.”
Numb with shock, Wren looked up with widened eyes to the man who stood before them.
Though his back was turned, one feature jumped out in the light of the fire; long hair, surely stark white, stirred restlessly in the breeze. A red band of cloth held it back, knotted with loose ends trailing down to the pushed-back cowl of the man’s cloak, which was a non-descript gray. His clothes marked him as nothing, a traveler, one of a thousand wanderers who crossed Genesis in an endless drift… but the speed with which he’d moved and the shining blade he held leveled towards the band across the stream marked him as something else entirely.
“Darius,” Cirrus murmured softly, and the word explained everything… and nothing. This was Cirrus’s friend? But then, knowing what Cirrus had been…
“Darius,” Wren repeated reverently, and for just a second the man looked back over his shoulder, surprise in narrowed gray eyes. But just for a second; a moment later, his attention was focused forwards once more. Across the stream, the boy could see the Salamanders closing ranks, moving uneasily back and forth; Da’s gaze was locked with his own, despairing.
“One more step,” Darius warned.
“There’s four of us to one of you, stranger,” Raeth answered angrily. “And you’ve no say in this. Yon thing behind you stole the boy. We’re here to take him back, nothing more.”
“Thing?” Somehow, his tone was more dangerous than before.
“Sommat’s been preyin’ on the animals,” Wren’s father burst out. “Nothin’ human, gods only know, to tear them apart so, and that— that creature, there, it’s been stalkin’ my boy, I know that—”
“You know nothing.” Contempt layered heavy in Darius’s voice. “You and your miserable friends should look harder for your monsters. There’s a dead valravyn in the woods not a mile northeast of here.”
The mercenary leader spat on the ground. “Convenient excuse. And by the time we’ve returned, you and your dark friend have vanished, no?”
“By your own words, you’re here for the boy and nothing more. My friend and I are none of your concern, unless you insist on a fight that I assure you that you will not win.”
“Oh?” With a motion too deliberate to appear casual, Raeth laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. His allies tensed.
“I’ll warn you once more; leave us in peace.”
So caught up in the mounting tension, Wren didn’t even hear Cirrus’s words until a cold hand squeezed his weakly. “What?”
“Wren.” The man’s voice was low, barely audible. “Go to… your father. Nobody has… to die for this.”
“Go. I was glad… to know you. You…” He fell silent, voice trailing off.
Fresh tears sprang to the boy’s eyes. “I… thanks for being my friend. And for the crows.” He squeezed Cirrus’s hand in return, and then let go, unwound himself from the cloak. “I’ll miss you, Cirrus.”
“My name… Hunter.”
“I’ll miss you.” Slowly, hesitantly, Wren rose to his feet. Darius stepped aside to let him pass, and he walked slowly down to the water’s edge. The river ran shallow here; it only came up to his shins as he crossed it, and as he stepped out of the far side the boy broke into a run as he went to his father. Da swept him into a rough embrace, lifting him up off the ground.
“Let’s go, Wren. Your Ma is worried sick abou’ ye.” There’d be anger, later, but for now Wren could hear only a ragged relief in his father’s voice.
“Go. We’ll be along shortly.”
“We’ve got me boy, tha’s all—”
“Go, man.” Raeth spared them a single glance, and Wren was frightened by the gleam in the Salamander’s eyes. So, apparently, was his father, for he set off without another word. As he was carried away, Wren could only look back helplessly to where Cirr— where Hunter crouched on the riverbank with Darius at his side.
Be careful. Stay safe.
As the boy and his father disappeared into the gloom, Darius turned narrowed eyes back to the men clustered on the stream’s far shore. How had this happened? He’d been gone for longer then he’d expected, yes. He’d worried about Hunter, but he’d never imagine he’d come back to his friend being hunted through the woods like a beast. And that valravyn… No. Too many questions that he couldn’t afford to distract himself with now; there’d be time for that later.
As soon as he drove these jackals away.
“So,” the man he could only assume was the leader asked casually, “you think that you can take the three of us in a fight?”
“I know I can. But this isn’t a fight I want. Leave us be.”
“Sounds like another excuse.”
Darius gritted his teeth. He could hear Hunter’s breath behind him, the ragged gasping that meant nothing good; there was no time for this.
“What makes you so special, stranger? What makes you think you could beat the Salamanders?”
“I don’t have time for this!”
“Make time. You’ve got me curious.” The man took a step forward, hand curling more deliberately around the pommel of his sword. It would take only a small motion to slide that hand to the grip, unsheathe the sword.
Out of patience—resigning himself to the inevitable—the Seraph swung Char back to his side, the blade’s tip pointed rigidly at the sand. Calling to the fire in his blood was effortless, and he let flames flow out and across his body. Harsh light flickered across the dirt walls of the riverbank and danced across the water; finally, his would-be opponents took a step back in surprise.
“You will not win a fight with me!” Darius gritted out. He brought Char arcing back up with fire dancing along the blade, leveled it at the leader. “You do not know me. You do not know what I am, what I am capable of. My friend is hurt, maybe dying, and you are wasting my time. Push me, and I’ll kill you all and never regret it; I’ve no mercy for fools like you.”
“You’re a Seraph!” It was the woman, this time, the one who’d shot at Hunter. The bow rested slack in her hands, now, an arrow nocked but forgotten. “You must be, the fire…” She paled visibly.
“Yes,” he replied very softly, “I was a Seraph.”
“No you’re not.” Their leader spoke again, his own voice shaken. “You can’t be a Seraph. Not here. Seraphs can’t enter Genesis.”
“Darkmere, Raeth! They did at—”
“Quiet!” Eyes narrowed, the man—Raeth—stared at Darius, almost visibly fighting against uncertainty. “You can’t be a Seraph. Not here, and not alone.”
“My name is Darius Nightwalker, once Huntlord of the Seraphs. I am the son of Joshua, Huntlord of the Seraphs, who was the son of Ak’har Bloodwing, Huntlord of the Seraphs.” Setting his feet, Darius lowered his weight into a fighter’s stance and let his mouth widen into a grim smile. “If you’d challenge me, if you’d throw your lives away, then hurry. I’ve no time, and it won’t take long.”
He could see Raeth’s will wavering, guttering like a candle by an open window. So close; if that resolve broke, there’d be no fight. His lackeys would never fight without him. Wavering, wavering…
With a cry, the mercenary lunged forward with the ring of drawn steel.
Darius met him with his own roar, though his was frustration mingled with fury. Raeth’s sword shot forward, a fast and surprisingly accurate blow, but Char rolled around the blade and shot it out wide. Flames flared where the blades met, and the man flinched; it was easy enough to take advantage of the moment of distraction, and Darius’s leg scythed around to sweep the mercenary’s feet out from under him. Raeth landed hard in the stream, but he rolled and bounced back up quickly enough. In a way, it might have even given him an extra defense. A Seraph’s flames might be magical in their origin, but they obeyed the laws of the elements; wet clothing would not catch alight.
So be it.
This time, Raeth was warier. He’d have a measure of Darius’s speed in relation to his own, another variable to factor into his attacks. And now he circled, slow, steady. The Seraph cared not at all, ignoring the natural temptation to circle in turn; he’d stay firmly on his own side of the stream. Seizing the opportunity that his opponent’s newfound caution presented, he lashed out with a hand. Fire roared into being at his command in a wide arc, streaking towards the woman who’d made the mistake of simply watching the first blows exchanged. She gasped in shock, fell back quickly enough to avoid being burned but not quickly enough to save the bow that fell flaming from her hands. Snorting softly to himself, Darius spun to meet a new attack as Raeth and his other companion attacked in unison.
They weren’t bad. He’d give them that much credit; against bandits, some dumb beast, they’d have been effective enough. But he had been Huntlord. The title had been his by right of his blood, but even more by the right of skill; he’d been the best with a blade, the strongest with the fire of his birthright. The years had done nothing to dull those abilities. If anything, he was stronger now than he’d been then.
And so they came at him, these Salamanders, and he wove circles of deadly steel around them as they fought in the stream to the light of fire on the water.
A blow came in low from his right; he blocked it, darted fluidly between his two attackers and brought Char wheeling up and over his shoulder in a downward slice. His blow connected. The man simply hadn’t had enough time to react to his abrupt movement, and leather armor parted in a long, curved line along the mercenary’s back. Flesh parted as well—the armor had been meant to turn claws and crude blades, not an elven sword—and the man screamed, staggered forward. Darius was still moving, though, wheeling aside and bringing another sharp cut in against the side of the exposed ribcage. He turned the blade this time, though, hitting hard, but with the flat. It knocked the man off of balance and sent him stumbling towards the far bank of the stream; the cut across his back would be painful, debilitating in a fight, but not lethal. For all his warnings, the Seraph knew he wouldn’t kill if he could avoid it.
Not for their sakes. They’d provoked any fate he dealt them. But Hunter… for Hunter’s sake, he’d try not to kill this time.
Now it was one to one again; the woman had drawn a sword in place of her smoldering bow, but she seemed more concerned with her groaning companion than with joining the battle. Raeth, however, still waited in the stream with open hatred contorting his face into a scowl.
“Damn you, Seraph.”
“I’ve never heard that before,” Darius retorted, keeping the same grim smile on his face. He feigned, watched the other man flinch back. “This is your chance, Raeth. Leave while you can. Leave us in peace.”
“Go to hell!”
“I’ve been there. Have you?” With the last word, he brought his power up in a wave, lashed forward with both steel and fire. Raeth danced back quickly enough to avoid Char’s blade, but not out of the fire’s reach; flame washed over him, and he screamed. Instantly, Darius was in range. His sword sliced up towards the mercenary’s throat… and then halted. Sighing, he reversed the blow and struck out with the pommel instead. There was a dull thunk, and Raeth collapsed bonelessly into the water flowing around their feet.
For a moment, just a moment, he was tempted to leave him there facedown in the stream, but the temptation passed. Snarling, Darius bent down and hoisted the man by his armor, then dragged him until he lay half-in and half-out of the water. Only a few paces away, the last of the group stared at him with wide, frightened eyes.
“So I’ve been told,” he snapped. Already, the grace of battle was fading, and he was all too aware of the fact that Hunter was now lying on his side in the sand when before he’d been crouching. “Your fool friends still have their lives. If they’d like to keep them, they’d best not follow us.” He turned his back on the woman, stalked back across the stream and bent at Hunter’s side, feeling for a pulse with more calm than he felt. It was still there; weak, but still there. Thank all the gods.
Bending down, he dug his arms under his friend’s body and hoisted him up. Still so light. If only he could get him to hold onto some weight… But no, now wasn’t the time. For just a moment, one of Hunter’s eyes slid open. “Darius?”
“Hold on just a little longer. I want to put some distance between us and those men before I heal you.”
“Alright.” There was silence for a time; even carrying a good-sized load, Darius’s steps ate up the distance rapidly. “Did Wren… did he make it out before… the fighting?”
“Who, the boy? Yes. He and his father both left before it started.”
“Good. That’s good. I didn’t…”
Darius cut him off, shaking his head. “Tell me later. I want to know what happened, but I need you to save your strength now.” Weakly, his face drawn with pain and weariness, Hunter nodded and closed his eyes again. “Don’t die on me, Hunter.”
“I won’t.” But the words seemed so very weak…
It was early afternoon of the next day before Hunter’s eyes finally fluttered open again.
The night hadn’t been easy. Healing had never been a talent of Darius’s, and even with the carved talisman that helped him draw the hurt out, it was no easy task. And so many wounds… he’d done what he could, and wrapped the rest in clean bandages. In a day, when he’d regained some energy of his own, maybe he could close them further, but Hunter’s own body would have to do what it could.
How had this happened? The Seraph had chosen this no-name valley as a place to leave Hunter because it was so remote; there’d seemed little risk, in a place where none should have had reason to recognize the Heretic. So how had Hunter—only a shadow of the person he’d used to be, silent and passive—gotten himself mixed up in all of this? Mercenaries, and this business about the boy? And a valravyn?
Truthfully, it was the valravyn that worried him the most. Worried and confused him. Darius had come across the monster’s body by pure accident; when he’d found nothing at the standing stones where he’d left Hunter two months ago, he’d struck out down into the valley in a aimless search. Coming across something like that… It was troublesome. A valravyn wasn’t a common creature, given the complicated nature of its creation, and it was dangerous. Darius himself, armed with his magic and a sword forged for killing magic-blooded creatures, would have his concerns about facing one. For Hunter, with no magic and a plain dagger…
Winning a fight like that wouldn’t have been easy. It would have been damn near impossible. And though he knew that when lucid, Hunter still retained more than a little of the skill that had made him Darius’s match… The wounds on the body didn’t match up. He’d examined it, seen the marks left by a dagger; he’d also seen the marks that looked as though they’d been left by claws, long, ragged tears. And something had snapped the valravyn’s neck. The thing had probably weighed seven hundred pounds to Hunter’s scant hundred-and-thirty; there was nothing to explain the force required for such a fatal blow.
Once, he might have thought… But no. That had been years ago.
He was leaning back against the wide trunk of a tree, eyes closed but still alert, when he heard Hunter stirring. Instantly all traces of weariness vanished. Getting to his feet, Darius crossed to where he’d left his friend wrapped securely in a thick blanket and knelt down at his side. The other man’s eyes were open at last; upon seeing him, Hunter smiled faintly. The sight kindled a warm spark of relief in his heart. Two months had been too long.
“I guess you had to save me again, huh?”
“You’re a regular damsel in distress.” But there was no sting to the words. He put a hand on Hunter’s shoulder, wanting to hug him but still concerned about whether or not a rib was fractured. “I’m glad that you’re alright.”
“And I’m glad you’re back.”
“I didn’t mean to be gone so long. I’m sorry for that.”
Hunter smiled, a little sadly, and Darius kicked himself mentally. No need for the reminder that Hunter’s perception of time was looser, now. “What happened in Lyonesse?”
He didn’t want to think about Lyonesse. Didn’t want to think about what he’d done there. “It doesn’t matter. It’s over.” Thank the gods for the understanding in his friend’s eyes. “And you, what happened here? I thought that I’d left you somewhere safe.”
“It… it’s hard to explain.”
“The boy, then. Who was he? How’d he get mixed up in whatever happened last night?”
“My fault. He found me, in the hills. We fed the crows together. I suppose we became friends. The valravyn lured him out, told him I was in trouble.”
“And the valravyn?” Darius wasn’t sure how far he should push. Something had happened in that bloody clearing, something he didn’t understand, but he didn’t want to risk breaking this brief lucidity.
“The valravyn…” Looking pained, Hunter closed his eyes again. Several minutes passed before he finally said, “I saw the Skinwalker yesterday.”
Though they were said plainly enough, the words sent a shock down the Seraph’s spine. They’d seen nothing of the gods since the day his friend had relinquished his powers; if Hunter still heard the gods in his mind, he’d said nothing of it. For one of them to resurface now… “What happened?”
“I fought the valravyn. I’d lost, and the Skinwalker…” He stopped. Seemed to struggle to find the words. “Darius, I changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I changed. The Gift.”
For a long moment, Darius could do nothing but stare at his friend blankly. There had to be some other meaning to what he was hearing, some hidden interpretation of the words. The Gift. The Skinwalker’s Gift, the second form that hid beneath the skin of a Reaper… but no, Hunter had given that up, given up his power.
“It’s not gone, Darius,” Hunter said very quietly, “Not all of it.”
Slowly, life returned to normal in Amerill.
The Salamanders had limped back into town late that same night, staying long enough only to lick their wounds before departing for whence they’d come. A day later, the men of the village had struck out into the woods and, true to the stranger’s word, found the bloated corpse of the valravyn rotting in the clearing. Even the scavengers and carrion birds had left the thing alone, as though it was too foul to be touched; it was left there as it lay. No man was willing to take a trophy from a monster that, even in death, had its own unholy presence.
But the monster had come and gone, and there were no more killings of game or livestock. The harvest was in, unspoiled despite the seasonal storms, and life began to slow into the more languid atmosphere of winter. A sense of easiness returned to the village. The tension that had left doors bolted and windows tightly latched began to lift, and children were allowed to play outside again.
And then, a week after the death of the valravyn, there was a knock at the door.
It was Kait who opened the door, and perhaps that was best. Wren was away somewhere, doing whatever it is that young boys do during the last warm days of the season; his father didn’t know quite what, but didn’t much mind. It was harder to be angry at the boy now, knowing that his tales had been true. Let him enjoy the end of summer, Leah had said, and it had seemed alright.
When the man opened the door, a pair of chilly gray eyes met his own.
To be sure, Kait’s first instinct was to slam the door again, make a run to where his own notched sword hung on a peg in the wall. But a moment later he was reminded that there was no point. This white –haired stranger was a demon, to hear the Salamanders tell it; though that seemed somewhat doubtful, the truth of it was that he’d bested three battle-hardened mercenaries, and seemed none the worse for wear. Whatever the truth of it, Kait was a farmer first and a swordsman second. A fight with this man was not a fight he had a chance of winning, and so he stayed standing where he was. Only the whitening of his knuckles where he gripped the door betrayed the tension he felt.
“Don’t look so edgy,” the stranger said curtly. “I’m here to deliver a message, not start a fight.”
“There’s no one here who needs t’ talk to ye.”
“Then don’t talk, just listen.” His eyes never leaving the farmer’s face, the man reached under his cloak and pulled out a small burlap pouch. He tossed it on the doorstep between them with the distinct clink of metal. “All else aside, your son was kinder to my friend than any have been in a long time. He helped him when I wasn’t able to. I’m grateful to him for that.”
The coin’s a pittance to me, but maybe it’ll help him leave this village someday, if that’s his wish. If you’d use some of it yourself then so be it, but see to it that he’s left an inheritance of his own. And if ever he has need…” There was a long pause here. “If ever he needs aid, then have him call upon Darius Nightwalker. My friend and I are rarely in one place for long, but I think a servant of the Mirror God will find us if it’s in answer to his call.”
Kait’s hand tightened on the door. “We don’t need yer charity.”
“Then don’t take it. The gift—and the offer—are for Wren, and only Wren. I’ve not forgotten what nearly happened that night.” Turning on his heel, the man began to walk away before pausing. “We’ll be moving on by tonight, before you begin searching every shadow again. The only reason we stayed this long was to say goodbye.” And as abruptly as he’d appeared, he strode into the trees and was gone.
It was long minutes before the farmer finally bent to pick up the pouch left so casually on his doorstep. When he finally looked inside, though…
It was full of gold coins, enough to last them through a year’s bad harvest and more, and a note.
I’ll never forget your kindness, Wren. My thanks.
For the first few days, the woods had seemed so very dark; even given back his freedom, Wren founds himself strangely hesitant to venture under the shadow of the trees. But it had passed. The crows had helped, once he’d been able to put the valravyn’s disguise from his mind; they’d flown close overhead every time he left the trail as though keeping watch… and in truth, maybe they were. He’d heard nothing from Hunter or his friend, Darius, since the night he’d left them facing off against the Salamanders; though it was common knowledge that the mercenaries had lost badly, nobody knew what had come of the mysterious pair they’d fought. Common thought—following a few days of halfhearted searching—was that they’d moved on and left the valley behind.
It was probably true, and it was probably safer. But Wren still wished, just a little, that they had said goodbye.
And so, a week later, he couldn’t help but break into a grin at the sight of a familiar dark figure standing by the trailside.
The man smiled in return, then stumbled back a half step when Wren tackled him in a hug. “Careful, Wren. Darius just finished patching me up.”
Instantly chastened, the boy jerked back as though he’d wrapped his arms around a briar bush rather than a friend. “I’m sorry, are you okay? I was worried that—”
Hunter almost laughed. “I’m well enough. Time will heal me.” A moment later, though, his gaze sobered. “I came to say goodbye. We’ll be leaving tonight.”
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you ever come back here?”
“I don’t know, Wren. Maybe someday.”
More carefully this time, wary for any potential wounds, Wren hugged his friend again. “I hope so. I’m going to miss you.”
“And I’ll miss you too. But the crows will still be here for you. I wish I could do the same.” Hunter gently detangled himself, and then knelt down until their eyes were on a level. “If ever you’re in danger and you need help, find a truthsayer. Do you know what that is?”
“Nan Elsa in the village is one. She tells fortunes in a mirror and says whether the harvest’ll be good or bad and when to plant and stuff like that.”
“If you need help, tell her to call for Artemis Hunter or Darius Nightwalker. We’ll come if we can. And if there’s not time…” Hunter paused, and his face grew grave and thoughtful. “If there’s not time, call to the Skinwalker. He doesn’t often hear a human’s call, but… he showed himself to you. There’s something to that.”
“I’ll be safe, Hunter. I promise.”
He laughed softly. “And I’ll try to be safe too, Wren. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Caught in the act of leaving, the man looked back, and Wren looked at the ground in embarrassment. “Can you stay just a few more minutes? You’re the only real good friend I’ve had. I don’t want you to go yet.”
“Everyone has to leave sometime.” For a moment, just a moment, there was something so very sad in Hunter’s eyes… but then it was gone, and he smiled. “You’ll be alright now, I think. And it’s my time to go.”
“Okay. Goodbye, then.”
“Goodbye. Gods watch over you.”
Wren watched him go, watched as that dark figure dwindled into the shadows beneath the trees. The trail ran straight, here, straight enough that he could watch his friend go. Some distance away, another form slipped out of the underbrush and fell into step alongside the first. Darius.
If anyone could be safe together, it’d be the two of them. And the crows… the crows would keep them safe.
He waited until the two travelers were swallowed up by distance and the forest, and then turned away. It was the end of summer, and he was young still.
There was much to do.