This electronic book, in whole and in part, is protected by copyright and may not be copied, resold, or transferred to third parties without the consent of the author. All events and characters portrayed within are fictional. Any resemblance to real events or to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
To my mother, with love
Wreathed in the whirling blizzard, Suar looked for all the world like an enormous bird that had lost its way and plummeted earthwards. His dark cloak flapped like tired wings in the gusty wind, as though the bird wanted to fly but couldn’t find the strength, beaten down against the ground and forced to seek shelter from the biting snow. The milky-gray Sky was eternally appealing, promising in its embrace protection from misfortune and from the raging storms — if only one had the strength to break through the thick layer of snow clouds. Today, this was not likely: the clouds stubbornly clung to Suar, mercenary and monster-hunter.
He pressed on, locked in a brutal battle, the likes of which this road hadn’t seen in a terribly long time and which no one else could have survived. The Sky knew the hunter was no easy prize and it smiled a little to itself, silvering the hunter’s hair with a new dusting of snow. Sooner or later luck always came to an end. Such daredevils usually barely lasted until their bones started to creak with cold, and their thoughts turned only to heading home and thawing themselves at the hearth. Suar was comparatively lucky. He’d hunted long and successfully, and was considered a veteran, though his hair hadn’t yet gone grey.
With the fight over, the man came to his senses. Around him the earth was scorched and fringed with traces of blood and flesh and entrails. The snowfall hadn’t yet managed to hide the evidence of magic, and without it, it was possible to see how much ground had been burnt. The surface had melted and there wasn’t so much as a trace of grass; it was as though grass had never grown there at all. Wisps of smoke rose from Suar’s gloves; he rarely had to use so much magic in one hunt.
His companion, Aluri, sprawled wearily on the ground nearby, taking no notice of the cold. Today’s skirmish had brought with it numerous injuries and severe fatigue: Sizhen never went down without a fight. Her breathing had only just returned to its normal rhythm; she could hardly believe that they’d stood fast. Their survival was no mere gift of fate — without thorough preparation, they’d have come to a bad end.
Aluri’s body throbbed like one giant bruise, and she could barely move her arms and legs. She longed to sink herself into a warm bath, infused with healing herbs, and then climb into bed and sleep for a very long time, but her longing was only that, and would have to wait quite a while to be made reality. Hunters like her roamed the Frozen Lands, and leaving those took than just a quick stroll down the road.
Aluri lay a moment with her eyes closed, gathering both her thoughts and her strength before she rose and prepared to get moving again. Her heart still pounded as she looked over the carnage, the severed claw lying on the snowbank, the body carved up by the hunters’ blades. Snowflakes peppered the corpses of the ice monsters and made the whole scene look like nothing more than an image from a bad dream.
A predatory creature, born to kill, with no concept of pity or mercy: that was a Sizhen. They’d had a taste of human blood, once, and hadn’t stopped hungering for it since — but they also knew that humans didn’t take kindly to such killings. As a result, the Sizhen took care to hide, making their lairs in rocky caves or other places inaccessible to ordinary people. Suar and Aluri had spent several days tracking this one. Bad weather had complicated the search, and conditions only worsened day by day, but Suar had managed to find a clump of Sizhen fur, which had led them to the trail. The hunters had spend tedious days lying in wait, hidden invisibly in the forest shadows, unable to talk or move. Their patience and planning had been rewarded… except the fight had started in the area where they hadn’t laid their traps.
They’d fought instead in a small clearing squeezed between the forest and the mountains, and now home to bloodshed. The first Sizhen attacked when they returned to their camp for the night. After spending a day studying its tracks and setting up the ambush, the hunters had determined the creature wouldn’t be returning to its den, and Suar didn’t dare spend a second night in the frozen forest. They’d followed the familiar path and had almost made it to the camp when the Sizhen, biding its time until the last possible moment, sprang out of the darkness and took off the horse’s head. Suar barely had time to make sense of what was happening. He yanked his foot out of the stirrup just in time to avoid being crushed. The second horse bucked in terror, nearly throwing Aluri. The smell of blood permeated the air, feeding the predator’s frenzy.
The hunters still hadn’t realized the Sizhen would come in packs. Hard frosts drove them to stick together: it increased the chances of a successful hunt.
Suar and Aluri dispatched the first Sizhen together. The unexpected battle lasted longer than they’d hoped it would, but they didn’t let that worry them — they had yet to learn that this was but the beginning of their troubles. They’d wanted to capture a monster alive. Bringing it into the court would be considered a resounding success, for which they’d reap an excellent reward; enough to forget about fishing for at least a month. Wasn’t that the dream of all hunters who’d grown weary of the chase?
Suar and Aluri nearly never spoke in the midst of battle, as it was rumored that the Sizhen could understand human speech. The rumors might well have had a ring of truth to them — what else could explain the creatures’ ability to escape the most difficult traps, or throw off the most dogged pursuit? Any other wild beast would have struggled and thrashed, and in so doing made a fatal mistake. Only the Sizhen didn’t. They could only be captured by overwhelming force, or by cunning strategy.
— and even with cunning strategy, the hunters couldn’t have foreseen the arrival of two more creatures, come to help their kin. The second one popped up just as Suar, himself wounded, slashed the throat of the fist Sizhen. The second beast tore one of the hunters’ dogs to shreds as though it were little more than paper and cleanly bit the head off another. Aluri screamed in anguish — she’d raised the dogs from birth, and they’d been her most faithful companions. And now she hadn’t had a chance to help them, or to so much as say goodbye. It all came to an end in an instant, so fast that Aluri barely had the chance to realized what had happened before the hunters, too, were fighting for their lives.
The big Sizhen swiped at the remaining horse, at Misa — she jerked to one side and, near-maddened with terror, dashed across the snow-covered field, temporarily drawing the monster away. The smaller Sizhen attacked with greater caution, ducking behind sparse boulders to avoid the hunters’ arrows. Taking down that one was no easy task — Aluri waited for it to lunge, and ran it through. Even when it was speared on Aluri’s sword-blade, it struck at her with a heavy paw, flinging her aside. Miraculously, she didn’t lose her head, only her consciousness, and only temporarily. Upon seeing this, Suar struck furiously at the creature’s side, ripping it open. It bellowed in pain and tried to creep toward the forest, dragging bloody ribbons of guts behind it. The noise it made drew the larger one’s attention back, and it swiftly forgot about the horse — the scent of blood was in its nostrils, now, provoking it and calling to to kill.
Weary and worried, Suar circled the last Sizhen. He wanted to end this, now, so he could check on Aluri — but the beast sensed his urgency, and refused to give way, not letting a single step falter. It toyed with Suar instead, feinting at a strike.
Suar knew that if he lost this battle, his beloved Aluri would lose her life. That thought broke his concentration, made him jumpy. If only he could get even one step closer to her, to at least see whether she was breathing. The worry knocked him off-balance and kept him from finding his rhythm. The beast noticed this, too, and leapt at him more confidently, lunging for his head and shoulders.
That lunge woke Suar up. This creature before him was no dumb beast; he needed to be more careful. The Sizhen’s surehanded movements only confirmed his suspicions — but to Suar, everything was fine. He felt no fear, only the need to reach his goal. Frenzy flashed through the monster’s eyes as it readied itself to feast on his blood.
The two powerful opponents battled in the bitter cold, leaving nothing around them alive. Like two storm squalls they clashed together, fighting alternately for life and for dominion over the frozen lands.
Growls. Crashes. Wild lunges. Screams. Blood splattered the trampled snow, and clumps of fur flew through the air. Suar lost count of how many times he’d been knocked down, but each time he got back up, vowing to give as good as he got. The blood in his veins boiled with hatred for the Sizhen. When his sword-blade finally took the creature’s ear, he howled in furious triumph, as though he himself were an animal. The Sizhen plunged its face into the snow, briefly stanching the flow of blood, and rushed Suar with all the force of a frenzied hurricane.
In Suar’s experience, opponents would sometimes deliberately slow the fight’s tempo, trying to find a weak spot — not this time. Meeting an equal was a rare opportunity. The Sizhen — terrible and magnificent, like a shard of obsidian — both attracted and repulsed Suar. If the situation had been different, who knew? Maybe even a hunter would have let the gargantuan beast go free. But not today.
Both of them had a reason to seek vengeance, and in vengeance they both had a reason to live. Neither of them was willing to yield.
Suar’s years of training had practice had not been in vain. He managed to strike the beast’s foreleg, cutting all the way down to bone — and from that moment, he knew the battle’s outcome would be decided within minutes. With muscles and tendons damaged, the monster couldn’t move as easily or attack as readily as it had before. The Sizhen knew it too, and for the first time Suar saw the spark of fear appear in its eyes. Even so it growled fiercely, calling one last challenge out to Suar. Something in Suar’s heart trembled, but he stood fast under its gaze.
The Sizhen rushed forward, trying to crush him under its mighty bulk. Suar dropped his sword and leapt aside, catching hold of its fur and clinging with all his might. On his second attempt he managed to pull himself up so that he was directly astride its neck — an indignity the likes of which the Sizhen had never before experienced, and which angered it thoroughly. It spun round as though it had just stepped on hot coals, trying to dislodge the hunter. Though Suar had the advantage, he was wounded, and weary, and those things led to clumsiness. He did his best to make every move count. He still hadn’t caught sight of Aluri. The thought pressed on his mind, dark and terrible. He wanted to rush to her and gather her up in a hug, hear her breathing and forget everything else.
He wouldn’t have to wait long for that moment. He just had to take the beast down first. The bloodthirsty giant of a beast, with stinking breath. Could he do it? His sword, thrust into the far-away ground, was unreachable. All he had left was his trusted dagger — a true friend, honed by a skillful master.
The steel rent the beast’s neck, ripping open the artery. Suar’s next blow stuck it through the ribs, but didn’t pierce the heart. Blood rained upon the snow, counting out the last minutes of the Sizhen’s life. The Sizhen knew it, and resisted to the last. It caught the hunter by the leg and threw him off. Suar hit the ground and rolled away seconds before the beast’s paw smashed the spot where he’d landed. But even the Sizhen couldn’t fight blood loss, and it was forced to go on the defensive. When it saw Suar scrabbling away from it, it too began to retreat. If it hadn’t taken such a grievous wound, it would have defeated the hunter. As it was, the beast was exhausted, and could barely count on its strength to let it get away.
Aluri, cast aside, came back to herself at last. She surveyed the situation, and immediately understood what had transpired. She drew a small vial of a magical solution from a hidden pocket, estimated her distance from the beast, and lobbed the vial as hard as she could towards the retreating Sizhen. The beast, caught unawares, was quickly engulfed in a Circle of Flame. A towering wall of fire rose up in front of it, singeing its muzzle, and danced a deadly ring around the creature. Not for nothing had Aluri spent such a hefty amount of silver on those vials! The spell-flame burned wide and brightly, such that no person could dare run through it — to say nothing of the beast.
The dying monster tried several times to break free, but whenever it got close to the flames they leapt even higher, reaching the height of a full-grown oak, and promising a terrible death. The beast tossed from side to side, snapping and snarling at the flames, as though it could frighten them into submission.
The magic was so powerful that within minutes the beast’s fur began to smolder and the heat blinded its eyes. It roared as the flames darted for its face, searing its whiskers. It lunged forward, maddened. It no longer remembered the hunter; it only knew that it wanted to be as far as possible from this fatal hellfire. Anywhere — the freezing snow, the salvation of a dark cave. Anything but this.
But the only thing that lay ahead was a trap. A bola, thrown by the hunters, wrapped around its forelegs, entangling them. With a great heaving sigh it collapsed into the snow. Suar’s sword came down in sweeping arc before the beast could so much as show its fangs. Its life drained away and with that, the hunt was finally over.
The tree trunks groaned and crunched under the hard frost, as though an invisible giant were moving through the grove and crushing the fragile aspens. The hunters’ hounds and one of their horses had been killed in the fight. Suar himself was seriously wounded, and it was quite a way to any settlement where they might be able to find help.
It was grueling, sometimes thankless work, but how could he possibly give it up when he’d spent so long wrapped up in the thrill of the chase, when the excitement had him firmly in its grip, daring him to go further? After his first successful expedition, no hunter could bear to give it up — the rush of gambling luck and skill against monumental risk. Though there were those who changed occupations, seeking a more peaceful way. How much do you really need in order to put food on your table? they asked. Why the neverending chase? No home, no shelter! Those ones switched to taking small assignments, and became artisans or farmers by trade — Hunters in name only. They were treated as Hunters still, sometimes, but this was only a flattering echo of the past, and not reflective of reality. They hunted to capture predators attacking cattle, or take down the occasional wandering monster, and in so doing, they themselves often perished. A hunter’s skills quickly grew rusty when not in use, a fact that not all former hunters were willing to admit. They paid for such hubris with their lives.
Suar viewed these “hunters” as little more than merchants, seeking only personal gain. Hunting certainly paid off, but it also took much in return — so much, in fact, that no mere payment could cover the loss. No one got out of bed one day and just declared himself a hunter. Even making the first journey into the forest took years of preparation, time spent building knowledge and sharpening one’s skills.
Suar had lived this way, and only after it had become his life had he realized he could use it to feed himself, too. When he was young he’d taken any mission, and hadn’t been above receiving food or drink in lieu of monetary payment. And what of it? A village might be so poor it hadn’t seen a scrap of silver in years. The monsters needed to be purged regardless, or they’d destroy that village and move on to the next.
So Suar went to the places that the other hunters didn’t deign to look. He became more discerning over the years, of course, but he never stopped helping those in need and kept the true Hunter spirit alive within himself, following and living in a single rhythm with the beasts.
Through the shroud of the weakening blizzard, a dark shape slowly approached: Misa, the surviving horse. Now that the threat had passed, she was returning to her masters. Misa had been through much in the time that she’d been with Aluri. Suar was preternaturally unlucky with horses — losing them in almost every engagement — but Aluri was the opposite. This was her third year with Misa, a long time in such a dangerous life.
Aluri looked up from where she’d been studying the damage to her armor, and rose to meet the horse, who sighed with exhaustion but was obviously glad to be back to her mistress.
Aluri gave her a gentle hug. “You’re back at last!” she said, and quickly checked Misa for injuries — nothing. “Oh, who’s my good girl? I’m so glad you’re alive!”
Misa nodded in happy agreement.
“Maybe we’ll stop and rest a moment. I wouldn’t say no to a little sleep! There’s nothing left in this area that would be a threat to us. And I have to look for armor again, imagine that.” Aluri smiled, sadly.
It had taken her two months to find the last armor she’d bought. Everything the merchants had was heavy, designed to sit on a man’s shoulders. Female hunters nearly never wore such armor — they generally preferred to fight from a distance, using arrows or magic to deal with the enemy. Aluri, too, liked to start her battles from afar, but once they’d begun she dove into the thick of things, helping Suar. He’d been the one to insist that she wear armor, and not expose herself to unnecessary risk. She’d had close calls where she’d barely managed to dodge the claws and fangs. Before hunting the Sizhen it had taken Aluri a very long time to persuade a tailor to reshape the leather armor she’d bought to fit a female form. In the end it had cost her a hefty surcharge and several hides. He’d spent five days devoted to the work and created an excellent set of light armor that had saved her life more than once.
Suar, meanwhile, had begun feeling a little better. He sat on the ground, inspecting his equipment and wiping away the Sizhen’s foul blood. His tattered gloves were practically useless, now, but he didn’t toss them away. In such bitter cold every bit helped to keep from freezing. He looked up, and, seeing that Aluri was upset, he rose, wearily, and put an arm around her.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “We’ll find a craftsman to fix it, and it’ll be even stronger than before.” He paused, then, looking at her. The shock of the fight hadn’t left her face. It was as though she expected the Sizhen to rise up at any moment, and attack them anew. “How hard were you hit? I was worried I’d have to go on hunting alone.”
“You’re so gallant,” she breathed, a little shakily. “As always.”
“I try,” he said, and pulled her into a hug. “I really was worried about you.”
“It all happened so fast. I don’t even remember — everything just went dark.” She shrugged her shoulders, as though she could shrug off the memory of the Sizhen’s mouth, of its bloody fangs. A monstrous creature, built only for killing, its very breath carrying the stench of death and decay. Just a little more and it would have all been over…
“I looked into the maw of death, and I wasn’t even scared.” She gave a half-smile. “And now it’s frightening.”
Suar gave her a squeeze, and pointed off into the distance. “Look! Smoke. It’s probably another village.”
Aluri squinted, trying to see. “Yes,” she said, “There was a small settlement there, before the winter came.”
The smoke was barely visible against the backdrop of the pale grey sky, but for the two tired and frozen hunters it was as good as a beacon.
“There’s probably somebody still living there,” Suar said. “I want to check it out.”
“Why?” she asked. “Suar, I thought we were leaving after we got our bounty. You remember how much you complained about this weather? Or have you suddenly developed a taste for snow?”
Suar wiped his face with his hands, scrubbing the hoarfrost from his beard, and shrugged, wearily. “I appreciate the humor, but I’m not up to it right now. I need to find some healing herbs. The Sizhen finally got me.”
Aluri gasped, and involuntary flinched away. “What?”
She was taking the news better than expected, but Suar felt the whole word tremble around him. She put her hands to him face, looking him deeply in the eyes. Neither of them spoke for a long while. They embraced again, closer than before. Their gazes spoke volumes — worry, care, love. He held her close, kissed her tenderly. This was the conversation he’d never wanted to have.
Suar had taken two deep wounds to his shoulder, where the monster’s claws had gotten under the edge of his armor and stabbed, deep and quick, like a pair of enormous needles. He hadn’t noticed it in the heat of battle — a stinging pain, only, there one second and gone the next. Now blood streamed down his chest, soaking his undershirt. He’d drunk a healing potion and it had helped to stem the flow, a little. Without the potion, he’d have been going weak from blood loss… but without the curse, Suar wouldn’t have had to pay such trifling wounds any mind.
With the curse, the future looked grim, but he’d held on so far, and was ready to meet whatever fate was in store for him. Luck, he knew, wouldn’t always be on his side. He was happy, at least, that of the two of them this punishment had fallen on him, and not Aluri.
Sizhen blood had borne a curse since time immemorial. Any hunter so touched was condemned to a terrible fate. Suar would have three days, now, to find the ingredients for a potion to stave off the transformation — or he, too, would become a monster. The coming days would be the most difficult thing they’d ever done, and there was no guarantee they’d make it through.
“Does it hurt?” Aluri asked, softly. A lump formed in her throat. She hadn’t even noticed the blood; she’d been so busy worrying about her armor. How foolish she’d been.
“No. It looks worse than it is. The healing herbs help with the pain, too.” He was trying his best not to scare her any worse. “The bleeding’s stopped already. It’s nothing to worry about. We just have to find what we need for the potion. Maybe we’ll get lucky that that village will have a healer or a Shaman. Someone around here must be able to make the potions; these monsters are all over their lands.”
“The herbalists have already abandoned these places. There’s nothing left to collect.”
“We have to check. My appearance will start changing soon. We’ll split up, so we have twice the chance. Sound good?”
Aluri froze. They couldn’t split up. It wasn’t right. She and Suar had spent so much time together, had shared everything between themselves: food, shelter, life. They hunted together, like two halves of a whole. Splitting up was as good as losing half of herself. “No, Suar,” she said. “I don’t want to. We never split up.”
“I know,” he told her. “But this has never happened to us before, either.”
Aluri squeezed his hand, silently, and buried her face against his shoulder. She wanted so badly to find the right words — the words that would dissuade him from making such a choice — but it seemed that luck wasn’t on her side, either. She couldn’t think of anything. She stood in silence, trying to fix his image in her memory. Red, black, and white. A flash of light and a glint of steel. It all fractured into an intricate mosaic, until she had to close her eyes. It was as though he’d disappeared, gone further away than the most distant stars. Only inside, in her heart, the familiar warmth remained.
A strange sudden fright struck Aluri. It was worse than that; it was as though Suar had never existed in the first place, living only in her dreams and visions. She sought to rid herself of the unpleasant idea, and kissed him, fiercely.
“Let’s go together to find what you need,” she said. “This isn’t the time to take chances.”
“The worst of it is over.” Suar shook his head. “I know you’re worried, but we’ll have better chances if we split up. We’ll take anything that can be of any help. We’ll buy what we need for any price, or barter whatever we have to.”
“I guess I have no choice but to listen to you.” Aluri tried to pull herself together — she didn’t want to leave him with the image of her looking worried. He didn’t need that right now. He needed support from anywhere he could get it. “You go to that village. Follow the smoke. I’ll check the houses we saw near the bay. There must be people in the village who can help.”
“Depends on what kind of people they are.” Suar chuckled. “They might just drive a stake through me.”
“Are you trying to scare me to death?” she asked, and tried again to reason with him. “There’s a while to go until the transformation. Maybe we should just go together?”
Suar shook his head. He’d already decided. Aluri squeezed her lover’s hand. First the battle and then this...she’d fallen from the frying pan into the fire, and the thought of losing Suar burned at her worse than flames ever could.
“All right,” she said. “We’ll do as you say.”
“Take Misa and get moving. Hurry. I’ll go on foot; it’s not far.”
Aluri reached out, wanting to embrace him one last time, but Suar only brushed chapped lips against her cheek and stepped back. “Go now, before the delay kills us! We’ll have plenty of time for hugs and kisses when we meet up again.”
“A day from now, in the village?” she asked him, hopefully. “Will you wait for me there?”
Suar nodded silently, confidently, and that smile shored up her courage. Not wanting to test his patience, she hopped into the saddle and gave Misa’s flank a kick. The horse, affronted, broke into a gallop across the snow-covered field, quickly leaving the site of the battle far behind.
Freezing wind stung Aluri’s face, making it hard to breathe. She was afraid to turn her head — she knew that if she did, she wouldn’t be able to resist turning the horse back, too. Her faith in their success was fragile enough, but her beloved’s life was at stake, and for that, she’d follow fragile hope to the ends of the earth.
Suar waited until the retreating figure was swallowed up by the snowstorm, and sat down, heavily, as though Aluri had taken the last of his strength with her when she rode away. With insubordinate fingers he fumbled at the buttons to his cloak, took off his light armor, and grimaced at the sight that greeted him.
Two wounds, small enough that only a greenhorn would fret over them, now dictated the course of his future. Suar dabbed at the punctures’ edges, trying to determine how deep they went. It made the blood rush forth with renewed vigor. This was clearly going to be more difficult than he’d thought. He needed to get to the village and fight the potion ingredients. Difficult to do, but better than turning into a Sizhen and being hunted down by one of his comrades.
Suar rose again, and shook the snow from his cloak. He’d been planning to field-dress the dead Sizhen, but now there was no time. He spared a moment to harvest ears, fangs, and claws from the monsters, and headed through the icy forest, making for the village.
The healing potion he’d drunk kept Suar’s strength up long enough for him to reach the village. The wounds had stopped their bleeding, and although Suar’s head sometimes swam a little, he walked with confidence. At least they weren’t in the mountains, Suar thought with bleak humor. In this terrain, he was less likely to break a leg when he stumbled.
He staggered up the narrow path, following a set of solitary footprints. Life persisted here, in spite of it all. Why the people didn’t choose to leave the North, he’d never know, but right now he was thankful for it.
As he approached the village the snowdrifts grew higher — over his head, in some places. The covered over the windows of the small log houses that huddled together to form a settlement. It was as though a flock of turtles had flash frozen, and gotten caught together in a blizzard. If not for the smell of smoke, he would have thought the village was long-abandoned.
He could barely see the inn’s swaying signboard — The Whispering Oak — under a thick coating of snow. Candles burned in the window of the squat little building, shining like a lighthouse beacon. It called to some long-forgotten place in Suar’s soul, to distant memories of places where he and Aluri had traveled together, to cities whose names had slipped from his mind. Upon seeing the welcoming light, he felt that he might just have a chance.
He leaned his shoulder against the heavy door, and pushed. Inside it smelled of warmth, and the distant sounds of a fiddle could be heard, driving away even the deepest melancholy. Here, inside, the deadly winter didn’t exist. The patrons ate, drank, and argued. Life went on as usual.
Suar stepped over the threshold and pulled the door closed behind him, stopping to look around. Delicious smells wafted from the open hearth, enough to drive a hungry traveler mad. A fine pig roasted on a spit, and as he watched, the innkeeper took a quail, now finished roasting, and set it on a plate alongside a generous helping of stewed cabbage. A kettle of bouillon bubbled next to it. Inwardly, Suar smiled: he wouldn’t go hungry, here.
None of the patrons turned to look when the old door creaked, dully. They all knew it liked to protest when it had been opened too widely. And who was there to look for? Everyone was already gathered at the inn, and there hadn’t been strangers in these parts for quite some time. Why trouble themselves? It was pleasant to sit, here, in the warmth, and dream that one day the hateful snows would depart and spring would arrive, and the village would be happy and prosperous. The fiddler’s melody helped with the mood: it brought to mind a land of warm sunlight and wide oceans, where all the world was in bloom. Here everyone huddled underneath layers upon layers of clothing, blankets, and heavy furs: winter kept a firm grip on these lands and showed no sign of letting go.
Neval, the innkeeper — a bulky fellow — didn’t immediately turn to the door, either. Few were the events that would make him do so. Over the course of a day the old door would creak dozens of times. The butcher always coming in and lingering, and nearly demolishing the door in his rush to depart. The woodcutters — brothers — always did a number on it too, thundering in and out like a herd of bulls. The blacksmith, spouting expletives at anyone and everyone, because he found it impossible to speak otherwise. Even his beloved Varla, mistress of the tavern and keeper of his heart, would linger in the creaky doorway before launching herself out into the frosty wind. She, of course, was allowed to do so.
Neval dished up a massive spoonful of stewed cabbage, and thought a while.
Until this winter old man Kashan had liked to make a grand entrance, standing in the doorway and showering everyone with a deluge of salty language. But he’d gone off somewhere, and he wasn’t the only one.
Neval had spent many an evening yearning for missing friends, lost now along with the merry times they’d had. Uninvited guests didn’t worry him. Too many years and too many hearty meals may have given him a bulky frame, but he could still hit hard enough to deter even the most insolent upstart. It wasn’t for nothing that he’d once been called Right Hook. Many troublemakers regretted ever making trouble in front of him. Mere mention of his name had been enough to send them running. But that had all changed. His fighting days were behind him, and his thoughts centered on the tavern, and on Varla.
He dreamed of opening a dairy, someday, of becoming a cheesemaker, but to actually do it would be enough work that Neval preferred it to remain a dream. Varla always had a laugh over it, but she was glad. She had enough trouble with the chickens. It seemed that every day foxes or weasels found their way into the henhouse, killing chickens and stealing eggs. He didn’t like to bring up the idea of a dairy barn with Varla. She would rather have had ducks. Ducks give delicious eggs for less work, she said, every time he brought up his dream.
The innkeeper set aside the plate with a sigh. Times had been good, before. He’d been younger. He moved to the North and built a house, and then the inn. It wasn’t just a place, it was practically a fairy tale. Near the port, surrounded by forest, and many travelers and traders too — anywhere you looked! Varla was kept well-satisfied, and lived a luxurious life. He’d lost count of the gifts he’d given her. And they profits they’d made!
But that had all dried up, now. The only thing he could do was remember it, and hope that one day the snow would cease, and life would return to the valleys once again. Pears would blossom in the orchards, fish would frolic in the ponds, and bees would buzz with abandon. He’d brew beer and listen to the neighbors’ idle gossip. Neval would even put up with the gossip, so long as life returned to the way it had been before.
There had been five dozen families in the village. Some had died and some had disappeared into the frozen mist. Rumor said that that three of those had managed to make it elsewhere, but no one knew how. Maybe they’d sailed away on the last of the ships, or… who knew. There was no one to tell.
Only The Whispering Oak remained to remind Neval of the distant past. The remaining villagers all fit in the three houses surrounding the tavern. With little hope of getting away, they’d drawn together instead. It was warmer that way, and a little less frightening. In the evenings they gathered with Varla and Neval, and pooled their supplies: everyone brought something. Like an eternal holiday. It helped to take the edge off the neverending gloom and gave a meaning to their existence: not personal gain, but helping each other to survive.
Neval took an immediate dislike to the strange character in the cloak, once he caught sight of him. It wasn’t just that he was a stranger. His appearance now meant he’d have made his way up here through the snowy valleys. No ordinary mortal could fight through the heavy frosts, which meant this stranger was most likely dangerous. Only a desire to hear news from outside made Neval beckon this new guest in.
Neval kept a close eye on him as he stepped forward. The stranger’s heavy footfalls and slow movements reminded him of the prisoners he’d seen as a child in the Kingdom, walking shackled along the road and dragging thirty-five-pound weights. That had been a long time ago, but in the ensuing years every time that particular memory involuntarily popped up it meant that serious changes were coming.
HIs guest walked between the tables, though the big room, and leaned heavily on the counter opposite Neval. He was obviously weary, and smelled of frost, and, strangely, dog. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Neval thought, taking in the stranger’s tattered clothes and ragged appearance. He’s a werewolf or something. “How’d you end up here?” he asked. “It’s not exactly traveling weather out there. Not these days.”
“I followed a long road,” said the traveler peaceably. “And the weather wasn’t my choice.”
His face was scarred, Neval noticed, an old line running up his cheek and across his temple to disappear under his dark hair. He didn’t look young, Neval thought, but appearances could be deceiving, and life’s experiences the experiences of the years wore on the face well before they wore on the soul. Neval might not have needed to do so much guesswork — with strangers like this, sometimes it was enough to just ask. They could be very talkative indeed, ready to tell everything about their lives. And the stories were good, too. On those evenings the beer flowed like a river and the inn fell silent as everyone listened to the guest.
This newcomer, however, was clearly not one of those. Severe and silent, he froze, looking at the hearth. Neval knew one thing: the man was very hungry and altogether exhausted.
“A little service, please, and be quick about it,” said the stranger. “I won’t try to haggle with you. I don’t plan to linger here.”
“You’re smart fellow,” said Neval, “But I’ve nowhere to be quick to. I’m happy to just talk, and listen, besides. We’re stuck here, bored and snowed-in.”
“Stuck? You live here.”
“I’d say it’s less living, and more watching life go on.” Neval snorted. “Life here is nothing like it used to be, and so it’s not like living at all. It’s a pastime.”
“If you’re going to look at it that way you might as well stick your head in the noose and be done with it. It’s a hard life, but you’ve survived it, and the frosts are already starting to thaw. The rest of the world is waking up, although winter didn’t hit them as hard. The ports didn’t even close. The Islands got the worst of it.”
“That’s wonderful news! I’d never expected to hear it in my lifetime. So everything will be available here soon. Is the winter finally coming to an end?”
“It is. The Great Lands live well, and trade is booming.”
“You really think so? All those ships crushed in the ice, and the bay was frozen solid… but now you say it’s thawing. And what’s in store for us? Who’s the tavern waiting for?” Neval waved a hand. “Everyone settled here, before. They even made a good living. And now we’re sitting here, waiting. Maybe it’s true and our old life will return again. Thank you, traveler, for the good news. Now, then, who are you, and where are you from, and where are you going?”
“I’m a hunter — what else? I had business in this area, and I was held up. Now I’m ready to pay for a plate of chicken and potatoes and a mug of beer, and leave the talking to the others. There’s no time for it. I’ve been on the road a long while and there’s something I’m looking for. If you help me find it I’ll pay you for your assistance, but I don’t plan on talking about myself. I’ve said too much already.”
Their gazes met, and Neval saw the thread in the stranger’s eyes, and decided not to tempt fate. “Very well,” he said. “If you don’t want to, then don’t. I just thought it might be a pleasant way to pass the time. We don’t get many guests, here, and so we don’t get much news…”