Howling winds invaded the green hood of Kannen’s cloak and kicked it up off her black hair. Heavy flakes pelted the mountain trail with relentless fury, coating everything in an ivory mantle of death. Somewhere beyond this raging storm, a frustrated sun blazed.
She tugged on the makeshift gurney trailing behind her petite frame. “The gods! What now?”
One of its stumpy branches, weighed down by the snoring mass upon it, had gotten snagged on a half-buried stone. She lifted either side of the dried vine off her narrow shoulders and yanked. The frail branch snapped under the stress.
“You no good---”
Kannen stumbled to one knee. The snow was growing deeper. The world around her spun in dizzying circles. She pitched forward. Her arms buried into the snow past the gauntlets and up to her elbows. What had once been cold, now felt warm and numb.
I’m not going to die in these mountains.
She pulled her chalky hands out of the heavy powder, and shoveled a handful of it past her chapped lips. As a wisp of life fluttered from deep in her gullet, Kannen leaned back on her legs. Thick clumps of crystalline precipitation hit her face and melted. The drone of the storm groaned among the trees on this mountaintop.
Her will to live clawed its way from the fringes of unconsciousness and shook the young woman into action. She crawled on all fours to the gurney. One senseless hand under its edge followed by the other. She watched as her numb fingers curled around the end of the sled. She pulled upward with little to show.
Kannen inched both knees of her blue leggings under the sled in the place of her useless arms. Using them as levers, she pried the gurney and its load free of the rock. It slid along the fresh snow a few paces.
Move! Time is not your friend.
She forced herself back onto unsteady legs. The two days of restless travel were now claiming their dues. Again, the mass under the pile of furs and her sole possessions snorted. Kannen grabbed the vine in either hand and trudged on toward the flickering light source amid churning gray tempests ahead.
Nightmarish visions haunted Kannen’s mind. Her town on fire. Unspeakable things that devoured every living being. She jerked her sled forward. One of which now slumbered under her watchful eye. Swirling flakes reclaimed the light tracks she’d made in a matter of fifty paces. The only way remaining for Kannen to discern the roadway from the rest of the near whiteout was the occasional bare briar poking up from the hillside. Somewhere just beyond the veil of the icy prison, a lone flicker rocked back and forth. As she grew nearer to the swaying light, a pair of curved stone walls emerged from their snowy purgatory. No gate. No guard.
Which of the Empress’s men would want to pull the short straw in this mess anyway?
Her arms tingled. Her legs were numb from the knees down. Again, Kannen stumbled in a divot beneath the snowfall. This time, pain exploded from her right ankle.
She yanked on the gurney, taking her frustrations out on the source of all her woes. Kannen cursed the stranger under the pile of furs. Nature and its furies. The vines for tangling themselves in the hilt of her sword.
Crossing the threshold of the alpine village, Kannen saw neither signpost nor markers. This desolate town, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist. Her energy stores were spent. The light source was a massive lantern hanging on a thick iron post in a tiny octagonal village square. Kannen collapsed next to it in the blowing drifts.
Several of the hamlet’s residents sat huddled within the cozy confines of the town’s inn. The Cleric lounged on one side of the table nearest the blazing fire. She nursed a small cup of steaming tea in the company of the Vicar. Being thirty years her junior, the youthful servant of the Lord did his best to ignore the sultry curves barely concealed beneath the sheer white robes of her Order.
“The Bishop says that I still have much to learn before I can apply.” The Vicar took a nip of his lukewarm coffee.
The Cleric brought her long ponytail of blonde braids forward and stroked it. “Being here a while longer wouldn’t be the worst thing, would it?”
He stroked his ring of short golden hair with a nervous hand.
The Innkeeper hurried to the long front window on the first story of her establishment. She gazed past the red hair in the reflection and out into the storm. “Did you see that?”
The Constable leaned closer to the window from his seat. “Guess not.”
“Someone fell.” She turned, looking the town officer in his blue eyes. “Out by the lantern.”
The Constable scratched his wavy blond locks. “Sure it wasn’t just passing shadows?”
The Miller eased his huge frame back into the soft cushions of his chair beside the crackling flames. “Who would be way out here on a day like this?”
The Innkeeper turned to surrender to their better logic, but stopped when dark wavy hairs whipped in a wind gust by the lantern.
“Bloody hell.” She grabbed a knitted shawl and rushed out her front door.
Moments later, she returned fighting for air, her cheeks rose with bitter chill. “I need a hand.” A few more hitched breaths. “Girl… barely alive.”
The Constable and the Vicar darted out into the gloom behind their hostess’s lead.
The Vicar dropped beside the motionless body in the snow. “Heaven’s name!”
The Constable stepped over the girl and knelt next to her. He rolled her onto her back, holding a hand under her nostrils. Weakened warm puffs cut through the bone-chilling storm. “Still breathing.” He cupped his hand under an arm. “Let’s get her inside.”
The men took the unconscious girl under either arm and dragged her in out of the cold. The heap on the sled moved and moaned. The Innkeeper lifted the bear fur garment. A wave of numbing tingles cut through her bitter cold flesh.
“Call for the Cleric!”
The Constable bobbed his flake-coated head as he stumbled indoors. Once they had the girl under roof, the healer staggered through the footprints left behind to the sled.
Another gust whipped her blonde bangs. “What is it?”
The Innkeeper threw back the fur. A dark-skinned man lay unconscious. Deep lacerations. Bound at the hands, neck, and feet by iron chains and shackles.
The Cleric felt his neck for a pulse. “Nothing.”
“He groaned,” the Innkeeper said, clasping her thin arms around her chest. “I heard---”
The Stranger moaned once more.
The women exchanged a concerned glance.
The Innkeeper’s hand hovered over the man’s fresh wounds. “He’s in some sort of predicament.”
“I’ll take him to my cottage.” The Cleric dug the vines out of the snow and heaved.
Her neighbor started for her inn. “I’ll have the Miller assist.”
“I can manage.”
The Innkeeper waved off her offer. “He’s probably snoring beside my fireplace. He could use the chore.”
The big lug came lumbering out the front door in a cloud of flatulence from both ends. “What’s all the ruckus?”
The Innkeeper pointed to the heap on the sled. “Give her a hand getting that back to her cottage, won’t you?”
The Miller groaned. “That’s on the far end o’ the---”
“Clam it.” The auburn-haired woman had him where she wanted him. “If you can’t help your neighbor with a dying man, then I suppose the pie will have to wait.”
He turned his meaty head of long black curls and spat into the snow. “Devil of a woman.”
Satisfied, she strode back toward her cozy fire. “I do what I must.”
The Miller rubbed his large paws together and tromped over to the waiting task. He took both ends of the vines in one hand and pointed down the snowy road with the other. “Lead the way.”
Once they had disappeared into the whiteout, the Innkeeper went inside and closed the door. The others had set the girl in the Miller’s soft seat. Her head of black waves fell over a trembling ashen face.
“Is she injured?” The Innkeeper strode closer, examining her for signs of a struggle. None existed.
The Constable shook his head. “Looks to have a few weapons on her, but no visible signs of a struggle.”
She shooed the Vicar toward her main desk and kitchen. “Can you fetch me a few fingers of the winter gin?”
His head bobbed. The holy man disappeared in a flurry of brown robes and shuffling boots.
“Where you suppose she came from?” The Constable stepped away from the girl.
The Innkeeper’s lean shoulder elevated. “Hard to say. The city’s the nearest point on any map before these hills.”
“True.” The lawman walked to the long front window and looked out into the storm. “Wonder what led them way up---?”
The Vicar returned, sliding across the polished wooden slats in the floor. The spirits sloshed out of the crystalline tumbler and onto an arm of the ornate velvet chair.
“Apologies.” He blotted the mess with a brown sleeve.
The Innkeeper took the cup from him and set it against the girl’s lips. A mumble, then a painful swallow.
The Innkeeper gave her a break, “That’s it, child.” Then, she tilted another swill down the newcomer’s gullet.
This time, the girl gagged and came up swinging.
The front door creaked ajar. A short woman bundled in lavish furs stepped inside. “What do we have here? A visitor?”
The Constable nodded. “Afternoon, Mayor.”
The Mayor dusted the flakes from her boots and thighs. “Quite a mess outside today!”
She took measured paces to the newcomer.
“Found her passed out next to the lantern.” The Constable slid a wooden chair next to the girl and sat.
The girl squirmed. “Who are you?” Her eyes darted around the room. “Where are my things?”
The Innkeeper attempted to set a soothing hand on her arm, but the girl retreated. “Easy. You’re in safe company. Our cleric took your friend and belongings to her cottage on the other side of town.”
“Friend?” The newcomer’s expression soured. “That thing is no friend of mine.”
She rose from the chair and stumbled to the windows.
“Take your time,” the Vicar said, shuffling over to assist. “You’re still weak, uh…” he waited for her to fill in the blank, but nothing came. “What should I call you?”
Her head turned back and forth, searching. “Kannen. Call me Kannen.” She spun around to face her new company. “Tell me you didn’t release him.”
The Innkeeper cleared the long red curls from her blue eyes and scoffed. “Release? The bonds were on him when I found him as were his wounds.” She closed the distance between them, her face stern. “Care to tell us how that happened?”
“We haven’t the time,” Kannen said. “I’ve got to make sure.”
She started for the door, but the Innkeeper and the Constable cut her off.
He stroked his moustache. “First, we’ll need some answers.”