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1. A Warning
JERRICK BUR STARED IN DISBELIEF at the green haze emanating from the creek. Blinking away sleep, he thought it a remnant of a dream until, with uncanny deliberateness, it wafted, rose, then billowed over the banks, transforming from oddity to potential threat in the span of a breath. Jerrick's mind cleared as patroller instinct took hold. Grasping the sword he always kept close, he scuttled back. He'd only just managed to stand when the fog engulfed him.
The voice echoed from the walls of the narrow canyon, making it impossible to tell from which direction the speaker called.
"Who's there? Show yourself!"
Jerrick … please …
Jerrick crouched, waiting and watching, but he saw nothing but smoky emerald in all directions. The canyon grew deathly quiet; even the sound from the rush of the stream had disappeared. Jerrick counted ten heartbeats before curiosity tugged at him. He rose, and padded toward the source of the fog. His bare feet were sloshing in the water before he realized he'd reached it. Immediately, he saw why the noise from the stream had grown quiet: the water was completely still, as if time itself had stopped. Mesmerized by the stillness, Jerrick looked deep into the now mirror-like surface. The reflection looking back at him was not his own.
The delicate, feminine features were familiar. Her eyes, the color of jade, and the smooth, emerald hair brought back many memories. He struggled to say something, but found no words adequate to greet the impossibility of the face looking back at him.
Jerrick … please … you must help me!
The tears streaming down her cheeks shook Jerrick from his trance.
"Aliah! What—how is this possible? Help you with what? What do you mean? Where are you?"
Dead … they're all dead … She was sobbing.
"Who's dead? Who—"
You must return to the Simarron. There is so little time. You must help me!
"I'm on my way to the Simarron now. Who's dead, Aliah? Help you with what?"
I cannot go on alone. You must return. Together— She stopped to look over her shoulder. When next she spoke, her face loomed large on the still, watery surface. They're coming! Anger gave strength to her voice. I will not allow them to take me. Then, with renewed urgency, There is so little time, Jerrick. Please hurry!
"Aliah, wait! What of the King's Patrol? What—"
Her visage faded. As it disappeared completely, the mist contracted, sucked back into the water from which it had sprung. Jerrick, frustrated, interrupted the surface with his hand, but there was nothing there. Then, the last of the mist disappeared, the water's flow started again, and all returned to normal.
Jerrick sat back to find Ash standing next to him.
The dog had disappeared sometime during the night, and must have only now returned. Absentmindedly, Jerrick put an arm around him as disbelief and confusion warred with each other. Dead … they're all dead. Aliah's foreboding words echoed in his mind. Was she talking about the patrollers? How could they all be dead? The notion struck Jerrick a heavy blow, and he found the need to rise. They're coming. Who was coming? There was no telling. But Jerrick had seen the fear in her eyes. It was not something he'd seen there often.
Jerrick shook his head clear. He was sure of only one thing: there'd be no more sleep tonight. Best he break camp and get moving. Whether coincide or fate, the Simarron was already his destination. Aliah couldn't have known that, yet still she'd sought him out. They'd been friends—still were—so of course she had. But that she'd enlist his aid and not the patrollers already in the forest … There was no answer. Better to reach the Simarron than waste time speculating.
It took only a moment to kick dirt on the last of the glowing embers of his campfire and gather his things. With weapons at his belt, pack slung securely over both shoulders, and his bow held in one hand, Jerrick motioned to Ash to get moving. The dog took off running, disappearing into the darkness. Ash was a solitary creature, a frontier dog. He'd pick his own path, only remaining close when the terrain or the path made doing otherwise impossible. Theirs was a relationship built on tolerance.
Partial moonlight allowed Jerrick to maintain a solid pace. Already, he was deep in the foothills, his home of recent years behind him, with the rising slope of the mountains underfoot after only an hour of walking. The familiarity of the trail afforded him time to ponder not so much the warning his friend had delivered, but the deliverer herself. Aliah Starbough. A creature of the woods if ever there was one, but one who ultimately had wanted to experience more than her own little corner of the world. She'd left the Simarron even before Jerrick had. He hadn't seen her since, and so didn't know when she'd come back to the woods. Jerrick himself hadn't been back for just over four years now. Like Aliah, he'd sought something more, but returned now because that life was no more.
As if to remind him of what might have been, Ash popped out from the brush ahead. Tongue lolling, the dog sat, and waited. The look he gave as Jerrick approached suggested a singular desire: food. The sun was rising now, and Jerrick supposed it as good a time as any to break his fast. He found a fallen log to sit on and ate in silence, tossing Ash his share of their jerky. Jerrick hadn't packed for two, but the dog had insisted on following him. He didn't know why. Ash didn't like him. Jerrick's introduction those years ago had caused a reordering of the hierarchy. Most dogs adapted to such change. Not Ash. The dog's loyalty belonged to the one and only person who had raised him from a pup. There was no replacement for her. Ash would never understand how much Jerrick agreed with him on that point.
As soon as Jerrick began stowing the remainder of the food, Ash stood, bounded down the trail, and disappeared from view once more. Jerrick followed at his own pace. Only when the trail grew steeper and more rugged did he see Ash again, for then the dog chose to stay in view as he blazed the way more slowly. With evening drawing near and the fringes of the mountain's cold already touching them, Jerrick stopped and made a patroller's camp: a small fire for cooking, with a bedroll laid out next to it. A comfortless arrangement for most, he found the simple efficiency of it settling. He tried not to think of the green mist and Aliah's plea as he warmed a meal of porridge sweetened with sugar. He shared more of the jerky between them and let Ash eat the remainder of the porridge. The dog licked the pot clean, leaving Jerrick to clean it more properly. Jerrick had already fitted himself with fur leggings, an undercoat of deerskin, and a jacket to help stave off the growing chill. The mountains were cold at the best of times, so he'd sleep dressed as he was now for the next several nights. Sleep came, but only fitfully. Morning began with a quick meal, and then they were moving again.
Evergreens were thick until they surmounted the tree line. What remained was a barren landscape moving ever upward to the great, snowy peaks of the Ugulls. They'd stay below the worst of the snow and ice by making their way between those peaks. They found shelter that night in a low spot nestled amongst a jumble of boulders either exposed by wind or brought here by a landslide of old. There was no wood for a fire, so they ate a cold meal and retired immediately. Ash remained in camp, sleeping close for warmth more than anything else, Jerrick figured. They started out early the next morning, nearly reaching the trail's highest point close to nightfall. Knowing better refuge lay ahead, Jerrick pushed them on a little farther, until Eagle's Nest came into view.
Eagle's Nest was a place of old. Once called Eagle's Tower, soldiers and patrollers alike had stood at its crenellated top to watch in all directions for the goblins and gorgons once infesting this part of the mountains. That duty, if it had ever been truly needed, was no more, as was the Eagle's Tower of the past. Now, the only portion remaining of the roofless structure was its uneven stone walls and, leading up to them, the chipped and cracked remains of a staircase carved from the very rock. The only purpose Eagle's Nest served now was as a wayfarer's station, a bivouac for travelers seeking a temporary respite from the wind and the mountain cold. Most times, the ruins were empty. The trail over the Ugulls was infrequently traveled, less so this late in the year. Another month, and with the first snowfall, the trail became impassable. So it was with some surprise that Jerrick smelled the smoke from a fire. No lighted emanation greeted them from behind the walls of the ruins as they closed the distance, but Jerrick's closer proximity confirmed the smoke, as he saw it now, rising lazily. Eagle's Nest was already home to one visitor this night.
"Hello, there!" Jerrick called out.
It was customary—and good sense—to announce one's presence in such circumstances. When the way across the mountains was traversed, it was most often by merchants, missionaries, or the occasional patroller. Given the present lack of wagons and pack animals, Jerrick ruled out the first. The second, perhaps. The third … no reason to get his hopes up.
No one had replied, and so Jerrick called out once more. He waited another few seconds, and when he still heard nothing, decided to mount the stairs and try again. Ash went ahead. Once, the stairs must have led to a sturdy door. Now, there was only a dark opening. Jerrick was about to call out again, but, slightly annoyed, he wondered if he ought to step forward and throw caution and courtesy to the wind. Ash made the decision moot. One moment the dog paused before the entrance, the next he was gone from view. Jerrick swore under his breath. There being nothing else to do, he went in after him.
Inside was the expected fire burning at the center of the circular room. On one knee, facing the flames, was a man wrapped in a dark cloak. Busy warming his hands, he seemed at first to take no notice of either Jerrick or Ash, who stood halfway between Jerrick and the stranger. But then the man's head turned ever so slightly, and the fire's light revealed skin neither black nor white, but whose exact color was indeterminate from his silhouette alone. The stranger spoke with a tone of welcome. "Ah, other travelers walking the weary road. Please join me at the fire and warm yourselves."
Jerrick kept his distance. He saw no sign of weapons, though the stranger's cloak might conceal any number. Jerrick figured the man had to be alone; there was nowhere for anyone else to hide. That, and he saw only one leather pack and a gnarled walking stick propped up against the wall. Hanging from the stick was a trio of conies, dressed and ready for skinning.
"Are you alone?" Jerrick asked. Despite the signs, it seemed worth confirming.
The man's hands stopped their motion. "Hmm? Why, yes. I am alone."
Ash glided forward, his attention fixed more on the rabbits than the stranger.
"Perhaps you should stand, and turn around. Slowly."
"Hmm … Oh, yes. Never can be too trusting, after all. Very well." The man rose and turned, empty hands extended away from his body.
Jerrick saw right away the man was an eslar, who dwelt far to the north and east and who rarely trafficked beyond their own borders. Jerrick had seen their kind only a handful of times, when merchants of theirs ventured to the Hall to trade goods and knowledge of the forest. This one was much like those others, with blue-black skin and russet-colored hair cut short. He had a hawkish look to his face, a nose which tapered at the end, and, most unusual of eslar traits, eyes stark white and devoid of color. Those eyes were unreadable, but the tilt of his head and the beginnings of a smile on his dark lips suggested something between curiosity and amusement. Clad in worn leather breeches, high boots much like Jerrick's, and a cuffed white shirt beneath a fur-lined leather vest, he stood taller than Jerrick, but by his posture seemed to favor one leg more than the other. Forearms were covered by metal bracers, and his traveling cloak—dark blue and much too thin to provide adequate warmth at their current elevation—shimmered in the light of the fire like no other material Jerrick had ever seen. At his belt hung a short sword and dagger, both resting in jeweled sheaths. Though his age was indeterminate, the eslar's demeanor suggested the callowness of youth had been left behind long ago.
Ash, whose attention remained on the conies, now looked at the stranger. The eslar held his hand out, a gesture Ash accepted as he padded in to sniff. The hand wasn't enough; Ash took his leisure sniffing boots, legs, and crotch. Jerrick admonished him for the last. The eslar remained unperturbed other than to let out a short burst of laughter as Ash performed the last part of his inspection.
"We're a long way from Panthora," Jerrick said. "What business brings you to Eagle's Nest?" Once, demanding such answers was well within his rights. Now, he supposed patroller instincts died hard.
The eslar lowered his arms. "Is that what this place is called? Eagle's Nest? How intriguing …" Still facing Jerrick, he looked about, taking in the high, empty walls as if constructing in his mind what the tower must have looked like in its former glory. Finally, he answered Jerrick's question. "I am but a simple traveler, come through these mountains on my way to the Simarron Woods to the east. My final destination is a place called the Hall of the Wood. Perhaps you've heard of it?" The eslar did not wait for an answer. "I came across these ruins and, as it was getting dark, thought it a good place to stop for the night."
The answer satisfied Jerrick, and Ash as well, who took it upon himself to lie down by the fire.
"My name is Murik Alon Rin'kres, of Isia."
Jerrick stepped forward to clasp the eslar's outstretched hand. "Jerrick Bur, of Rell."
"Rell … I'm afraid I've not heard of it. And your dog?"
"His name is Ash. But he's not mine."
Murik moved back to the fire, where he knelt next to Ash and rubbed his side in long, even strokes. Ash closed his eyes in ecstasy. "He is a beautiful animal, though a tad dirty. Not yours, you say? Is there someone else with you?"
"No. I meant only that Ash has a mind of his own. He calls no one 'master.'" Once he had, but not since … Jerrick left the thought unfinished. "Accept my apologies for the reception."
Murik waved a hand in dismissal, then gestured toward the modest blaze. "Please."
Jerrick moved closer to the fire, readily absorbing its warmth.
"I was about to indulge in a small repast. You and Ash are welcome to join me." Murik gestured toward the conies. "Though I fear the meal may prove rather meager."
Jerrick removed his pack, setting it and his bow against the wall as he moved to inspect the rabbits. There were three, all of good size. "These will do just fine. Thank you."
"Think nothing of it."
"One rabbit each, then. I have bread and some vegetables in my pack."
Murik looked confused for a moment. "Oh … yes, of course! One rabbit each. I'm afraid I forgot about Ash here."
At the sound of his name, the dog plopped himself into Murik's lap.
"He certainly is friendly," Murik said, "though I had my doubts when I first saw him. He's quite big."
"He's friendly enough," Jerrick said, "especially when he knows there's food coming."
They said nothing more as Jerrick saw to skinning the rabbits. While Murik kept the fire up, Ash licked his chops in anticipation. With the rabbits cooked, Jerrick retrieved the promised loaf of bread and what remained of his stock of carrots and turnips from his pack, and they ate. Ash tore into his meal, gobbling the whole affair down in minutes. Jerrick and Murik took their time, savoring each greasy bite.
While they ate, a biting wind kicked up, creating a persistent howl which swept over and around Eagle's Nest. The trio was protected well enough within the ruined tower, but a harsh chill still embraced them, and they took turns keeping the fire up. With their bellies full, the two men settled into an easy silence. Ash had already dozed off near the fire. Every once in a while, one of his legs jerked out or he softly whined before growing quiet again. Murik showed a genuine interest in the history of Eagle's Nest, so Jerrick related what little he knew of its former glory as a scout post. Eventually, the conversation died away and the two bid each other good night. Jerrick, his sword and knife close, lay listening to Murik's soft breathing as thoughts of Aliah filtered through his mind.
They're all dead.
Jerrick remained awake a long time, thinking on the words and the fearful expression of the woman who had spoken them. The Hall wasn't far now. Soon enough, he'd have an answer.
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