A Fallen Star -- The Seventh Valkyrie Volume ZERO

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Chapter 6 -- Footprints in the Snow

Val

Crrrick.

Crrrrick.

Crrrrrick.

On the north part of my roof, there were two or three branches intermittently scraping against the slanted tile.

Crrrrick.

Crrick.

Crrrrrrrick.

I rolled over to my side, looking out the windows into the night. The moon had fallen behind the clouds, shrouding the world beyond my house entirely in black.

Crrrrrrrrrrick.

Crrrrrrrrick.

Crrrrrrick.

CrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrICK!

I sat up, listening.

Silence.

Nothing else but silence.

Crrrrrrrrick.

Crrrrrrrick.

I laid back down.

CrrrrrrrrICK!

It was in this way that the night passed.

Briiii-

I cut my alarm off before it had time to fully ring in the morning, sitting up in my bed. The wind must have died at some point, because I’d fallen asleep, and now found nothing to greet me but the steady quiet of the morning. For a moment I sat entirely still, as if waiting for something to puncture the unwavering peace, but nothing came. My eyes blinked back open, and I began my day.

Much of my routine would be left undone until I had brought Evan back, but I roused Edda and Rowan anyway, feeding the two sleepy wolfhounds and leaving them to feast as I donned winter clothing for the day. Rowan arrived at my door as I laced my boots, cocking his head to the side.

Need me boss? he seemed to ask. It wasn’t unusual for us to be up at this hour for a hunting trip, but I hadn’t gone through my usual preparations with them the night before, which would have left him confused. The past 12 hours would have been immensely out of the ordinary for the two wolfhounds, who had lived the majority of their lives aligned with my rigid schedule.

“Yeah, I want you two with me,” I said to the hound. “In case whatever it was that you saw last night decides to come back.”

As Edda arrived beside her brother I finished with my boots and walked past the two of them and out towards the porch, opening the door and bracing against the rush of cold air as I stepped out into the predawn snow.

The first thing that I noticed was that it was quiet. The wind had died down below a whisper, and as I stepped out onto my porch and down the stairs, the only thing that I could hear was the gentle sound of powder crunching underneath my boots. I stepped off of my porch and onto the couple-inch thick carpet spanning the entirety of my front yard and stopped, flanked by Edda and Rowan as they tentatively inspected the snow beneath their feet.

Again, nothing but silence.

There was no particular sound that I was looking for, but the absence of all sounds -- the trees rustling in the wind, the gentle chirping of birds, the insects buzzing, the sound of running water off in the distance -- brought me pause. I hadn’t remembered other winters falling so abruptly, so suddenly as to leave the whole valley caught off guard.

Edda and Rowan looked up at me, sensing my apprehension, but they had reported nothing of note, so I let my worries go, breathing in and taking a few steps through the snow to test it for depth and consistency. It was solid and dry, no doubt from the still-freezing temperatures, and made for sure footing even as I made my way down the hill to the path that led into town. It seemed so long ago that I had made this trek with Norah, despite the fact that a little more than a day had passed, and as I picked up to a jog down the road, I kept my wits about me rather than clicking into that runners trance that I used for longer journeys. Many things had changed since the previous morning, but I and my years of experience had not. I would be ready.

I arrived at the boy’s house probably fifteen minutes before dawn, just as the sky started to brighten on the edge of the mountaintops. Such was the valley that the sun didn’t rise over the tops of the hills until more than an hour later than in the flatlands, but that meant nothing to me. If there was light to see in, there was light to hunt in.

To my surprise, Evan was awake as I arrived with the hounds, quietly opening his door and stepping outside to meet me with a nervous nod. He let the door close behind him and strode out to me, clomping through the snow.

“Ah, good morning sir,” he whispered, arms around himself as he walked up to me. “Mighty fine day with the-”

“Go back inside and get some warmer clothes,” I said. “You’re poorly underdressed. You’ll want gloves, a hat, and your largest coat.”

I saw his face and ears turn red.

“Yes sir,” he said, turning around and scurrying back through the front door, forgetting to be quiet this time. When he came back out I saw him stop in the door, captured by his mother, who had woken up and insisted on giving him a hug and a kiss before he left for the morning. If it had been possible for the boy to turn even more red I think he would have, face probably hot enough to keep him warm as he made his way over with head down and collar pulled high. I waved to his mother as the door closed, getting a mouthed “thank you” as she disappeared from view.

“Um… ah… I just… sorry about the delay sir-” Evan started to mumble. I stopped him again.

“Breathe, kid,” I said. “Do exactly this -- in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. Nope, no questions, just do it.”

Caught red handed as he tried to ask questions, he reluctantly shook his head and breathed as I told him.

“What you’re doing is called tactical breathing,” I said. “It hardwires your body and gets you back in control, calms you down. Now, if I ever tell you to tactical breathe, you do exactly this. Am i understood?”

He continued to breathe, but nodded.

“Good,” I said. “Another thing. If you stop and apologize to me every time you mess up, we’re going to be snowed and in the heart of winter before I can even get to my house. I expect that you will fuck up constantly, and your only job is to listen and learn when I point that out. At no point am I going to think that you are a failure for making mistakes, and if at any point I think that this life does not suit you I will tell you to your face, and we will stop right there. But until that point, you keep working, you keep trying, and you keep putting in effort, and you don’t apologize. Are we understood?”

Again, he didn’t stop breathing, but nodded.

“Good,” I said. “Our first piece of training will be conditioning. We are going to run down to town, and then up to my house. You will be exhausted when we arrive, and you may even throw up while we are running, but that will be normal. We will take a break when we get to my house, and at no point before.”

I saw his eyes widen.

“Let’s go,” I said.

He didn’t throw up before we got to my house, but I hadn’t expected him to. It had been a goal to surpass, something to succeed at so he wouldn’t feel hopeless. There would be more of them, because the training would be hard, and he would spend a great deal of it failing.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised with his physical conditioning. He’d only fallen behind two times, steps trailing behind me but never faltering as he gasped for air, and I’d used the small breaks to send Edda and Rowan searching off into the woods for any sign of the foreign scent. They came away with nothing, which I had little time to consider before Evan caught up to me and we would be off again.

As he removed his outerwear and sat down on the couch while I started a fire in the furnace and put a meat shank on the stove, planning to treat the boy a hearty breakfast to start his training. A bowl of porridge with some imported sugar would start things, and a little pile of mushrooms and berries would be a nice side dish.

His eyes opened wide as I came out of the kitchen with breakfast in hand, setting the bowls down in front of him and myself and beginning to eat. For the first few moments he just stared at the meal, almost in shock.

“Eat, it’ll get cold,” I said, between bites.

“Th-thank you sir!” he said. “I ain’t never had breakfast this nice before.”

“What you put in your body matters,” I said. “Like a fire -- you need good fuel to keep it burning.”

He nodded, and hesitantly took a bite, sighing in satisfaction before diving in. I grabbed a water skin from the well, which I had routed up into my kitchen, and tossed that to him as well.

“The first lesson that you’ll learn from me is taking care of yourself,” I said. “That means sleeping enough, putting good healthy food in your body and drinking enough water. You take those steps, you’re already on your way to becoming a good hunter.”

Evan nodded, continuing to dig in, and we spent the rest of the meal in a pleasant silence. I was the first to finish, giving the boy a second bowl of the sugary porridge to savor as I walked out to the hunting shed just on the outside of my house.

It had been made with as much care, if not more, as any part of the house, as I’d learned long ago to treat my tools with respect. At the center of the shed hung the second of my two composite longbows, hanging gently untensioned under a few cubbies’ worth of steel-tipped arrows of four different varieties, each fletched for different range and impact. On the left side were my blades -- split between longer, heavy hunting knives and a few sharper and more delicate carving knives -- and beneath them spare straps, holsters, whetstones and leather for when parts broke down or wore out. On the right side sat my four different camouflaged hunting jackets, one for each season. Then two lanterns, and three tents and sleeping rolls, all rated and adjusted for different temperatures and climate.

I crouched down under my spare bow as I stepped into the shed, looking in the back corner where I stored some of my practice runs -- early attempts at forging composite bows that I’d kept in the occasion that they’d be needed.

Selecting from a few, I pulled out a small composite bow, a two-thirds scale practice version of my two major bows, and held it up, quickly stringing it and drawing back to judge the draw strength. I needed something light, something for him to work on his aim while his shoulders got stronger, and this would do the trick. I grabbed a few dozen of the more blunted arrows, ones that I was planning to sharpen or repair, and loaded up one of my older quivers to the brim with it. Then, I filled my quiver with a five-seven-seven-five distribution of arrows, a standard practice while I was out hunting. A hunting knife, and a carving knife went into a holster that I judged could fit his slender build, and with equipment in hand I made my way back into the house.

He had finished his bowl of porridge and was sitting quietly at the table, hesitantly petting Edda as Rowan watched him intently. The two hounds turned as I came in, standing at attention until I gave them a subtle shoo and stepped past Evan to the living room table, nodding towards the couches and laying the equipment out. Evan walked over to where I was and sat down on the couch across from me, fascinated.

“How much of this have you seen before?” I asked.

He looked over it.

“I’ve learned to handle a knife,” he said, pointing to the holstered blades. “And I’ve practiced with a bow and arrow before… my dad had one... although I’ve never seen one made out of metal.”

“I prefer a composite bow since they can reach much higher draw weights,” I said, tapping the larger bow lying on the table. “This one tops out well above anything that you can make out of wood, which means more accuracy, less arrow drop, and a much, much higher killer range. Unfortunately, that also means that with no practice it’s nearly impossible to string, much less draw back and fire.”

At my suggestion, he raised the bow, straining with all of his might but barely moving the wire from its resting position.

“Now, if I’d had a little more notice I could have cut you your own bow out of wood -- and as it is I’ll do that during the winter -- but for now you’ll use this one,” I said, tapping the two-thirds composite. “You’ll need a hell of a shot to kill anything, but it’ll be good practice .”

He reached towards it instinctively, but I stopped him.

“I want you to look at me,” I said.

He looked up.

“Everything here, even though it’s a smaller version or a duller version of what I’ll make eventually, can still kill like that,” I said, snapping my fingers. “These are weapons, and they can be just as dangerous to you or a fellow hunter as they can be to any animal out there, maybe more. You will treat them with respect, and you will follow one of the most important of the huntsman’s rules -- you will not aim your bow, you will not draw any weapon, unless you are sure not only of your target, but also that you are willing to kill it. Am I understood?”

He nodded sheepishly, looking at all of the equipment.

“Tactical breathing,” I said. He stopped and looked at me, almost forgetting, but eventually he remembered and began to breath. I gave him a few counts before continuing.

“Do you know how to get a holster on?” I asked. “Nod, yes or no.”

He nodded.

“Good, take a look at the equipment and do your best to get dressed with it while I get Norah ready,” I said.

“Sir?” he asked.

“Norah is my horse,” I said, almost out the door. “Sorry for not mentioning that.”

“Sir… you said we were gonna hunt?” he asked.

“The best way to learn to hunt is to hunt,” I said. “Get ready.”

With Norah prepared, I returned to the house to find Evan struggling, but I’d partially expected that. It was hard to balance a quiver full of arrows, hunting knives on their sheaths, a bow across the back. I watched him with half a smile on my face for a few moments before stepping back out and reopening the door, loudly this time. Evan was frozen in place, equipment jangling to a stop.

“Need a little help?” I asked.

To which I stepped over, tightening his shoulder holster for his knife, showing him how to hang a quiver so that it hung diagonally, leaning towards his strong shoulder, and tightening his jacket so that the collar didn’t get in the way of his draw. Last, was the bow, which I strapped in line with the quiver, and stepped back, patting him twice on the shoulder.

Kid didn’t look half bad.

“Does that feel alright?” I asked.

He nodded, but after looking at me for a second his gaze fell to the floor, and I felt a painful silence creep into the air.

Evan hadn’t forgotten why we were here together. It wasn’t because he’d wanted to learn from me, or because I had wanted to train him.

We were here because he’d lost his father, who would have been standing exactly in my position were he still alive. I hadn’t stopped to ask what Evan’s dad had done for a living, but there weren’t many things to do in the valley. Most likely, Evan had watched his father don many of the same pieces of equipment day in and day out for the entirety of his childhood. And now, the weight of all of those memories were dragging him down.

“Your father would be proud of you,” I said, finally breaking the silence. “I know it.”

It wouldn’t do to let the boy be distracted all day.

He looked up at me, tears suddenly welling in his eyes, but biting his lip as if he was trying to stop himself from crying.

“Don’t be afraid to cry,” I said. “None of them can see you here.”

Edda and Rowan had noticed Evan’s distress, and instinctively sidled up next to him, looking up at the boy. With that, he fell down to one knee and cried, leaning into the two wolfhounds for support. I stood where I was, saying nothing as he wept, letting out the longing and the sadness that would have been building inside him since the day his father died, probably only allowed to escape in short brief moments of solitude.

He was the new man of the house, after all. Those who now counted on him wouldn’t allow him to cry, not without being torn down themselves.

I was silent until the boy had cried out all that he could, and began to force his own body back into those steady four counts. When he was ready, Edda and Rowan stepped aside, and allowed him to stand, wiping his face and calming down, looking up at me.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

He nodded.

My job while he wept had been to be a witness -- without judgement, without comment. Now, my job was to let him move on.

I turned on my heel, opening the door.

“Norah’s ready outside when you are,” I said. The wolfhounds waited until he had stepped out behind me onto the porch before they left, sticking a little closer to him even as we approached the horse and got Evan mounted up. Wolfhounds were pack creatures, and even though Evan was no longer crying they could sense that he was wounded. They would stay with him for a while longer, until he began to feel a little better and no longer needed protecting.

“Are you going to ride with me?” Evan asked, as I stretched out.

I shook my head.

“No, I’ll lead from the front,” I said. “Norah’s an old gal and I’d hate to put the stress on her while we’re climbing the ridge.”

Evan started to get off.

“Sir, I’ll jog with you if-” he started, to which I raised a hand.

“Right now the important thing is that we get to the hunting grounds as quickly as possible,” I said. “I’d have you ride even if you didn’t have jelly legs from this morning.”

Evan nodded, gripping Norah’s reins tight.

“Yes sir,” he said.

I patted Norah on the snout, tapping two fingers to my chest, the signal for her to follow me.

She snorted.

I walked up to the ridge trail, about fifty yards, and began to jog, Norah keeping pace behind me.

The snow on the ground concerned her at first, but she gained confidence after a few hundred yards, beginning to trust the ground beneath her feet. I cleared and levelled this trail every fourth time I came down it to ensure that I could travel from home to hunting grounds as quickly as possible, so apart from the unlikely event that my two bridges had collapsed we had an open road to the top.

As the sun began to crest the ridge I felt a warm wave wash over me, banishing the colds of winter for a little while longer. The twitching in the back of my neck that told me to look behind every tree and under every rock started to soften, and I didn’t tense with every breeze or crack of a twig.

I glanced back at Norah and Evan, keeping pace just behind me, flanked by the wolfhounds. The sun had brightened Evan’s face too, and even as he squinted into the light directly ahead of us I saw more strength in his shoulders, and more confidence in the way that he held onto Norah. Beside him, Rowan and Edda were trotting happily, no longer stealing glances at him to ensure his safety.

Without warning, I turned back to the road and tripled my speed, sprinting towards the top of the mountain at a breakneck pace. There was a moment of pause and confusion as the animals watched me go, and then the quiet air was punctuated by a yelp as Norah broke into a full gallop, Evan holding onto her for dear life. Edda and Rowan quickly responded to my challenge, gaining ground on me until we were running side by side with wind zipping past us as we scaled the mountain in leaps and bounds. After almost half a mile at pace, Rowan playfully began to edge forward, teasing that he could go even faster if I was willing to give chase.

I pushed myself to my limits driving everything that I had into my arms and legs as I shot ahead past Rowan at a blinding kick, eating the mountain trail alive. The wolfhound gave chase but eventually fell behind, leaving me alone as I raced up through the snow towards the top. Before I had realized it I was only a few hundred yards from the summit, and with a final effort I exploded up the slope to the flat ground that marked the top, slowing down to a stop with lungs screaming for air and heart pounding. Rowan was the second to reach the summit, tumbling in and flopping down in the snow like an oaf, landing unceremoniously splayed across the ground. Edda was next, breathing just as heavily as her brother but showing a bit more class, and finally came Norah and Evan, the young man barely hanging onto the deceptively hardy old horse. As Norah reached the top she came straight for me and then suddenly reach an abrupt stop in the snow, sending Evan tumbling forward off of the front of the horse.

I jumped forward and caught the young man before he hit the snow, grabbing him around the midsection so he didn’t fall on any of his equipment. The breath went out of him and he wheezed at the sudden impact, but I preferred that to a stray knife to the chest.

“Norah, be careful,” I scolded the horse, as I gently set Evan down in the snow. The mixed-breed snorted sarcastically.

“Hey, cut it with the attitude, you needed the exercise,” I said.

Norah snorted again, but let me pat her side. On the ground, Evan was slowly standing up, adjusting his equipment, but I turned away from him and quickly vaulted up the boulder resting at the peak of the ridge, standing to meet the sun as it shone in full over the valley and the lands beyond. For a moment I stood with my eyes closed, feeling the warmth of the glowing light and letting it fill my body as the crisp breeze gently teased my hair, before opening my eyes and looking out across the valley.

The seasons were long and full around here, but there were times when they changed like a fickle god had grown tired of the scenery. What had started as a gentle dusting of snow last night had turned thick, and stretching out beneath us it was like someone had emptied an enormous bag of powder out from the heavens across the tops of the mountain and the valleys below. A few of the brighter reds and oranges still marked the landscape with streaks of color where the snows had fallen by the wayside, like spilled paint on a white canvas, tracing the contours of the land as they zigzagged down the hills. In the next few weeks the snows would come again and again, until the trees were nearly up to their necks and all of us were forced inside, turning the entire valley a stark black-and-white, but for today the shining snow of winter and the warm remnants of autumn pleasantly intermingled.

I heard a gentle huffing of breath as Evan climbed up next to me, and then a gasp of awe.

Even leaving aside the brilliant colors, you could see for miles in all directions. To the west, the one road leading out from the mountains through the woods, which peeked in and out along two lakes before disappearing again behind a few more hills, and eventually reaching the coast far beyond our vision. To the north was more mountain country as far as we could see, and I knew that far beyond that the mountains would grow and grow until they reached the sky at the edge of the icelands. To the south, the hills ran down to the plains and then to the Mandarian, the great river connecting the coast to the capital.

And finally, to the east lay the wilds of the Killiara Valley. Out there, far from any human development, laid the hunting grounds that had kept me fed for almost five years now.

“This one of your most important lessons,” I said. “Do you remember what I said to you about respect? How it’s important that you continue to show it to me throughout your training?”

He nodded.

“That wasn’t just for me,” I said. “Look as far as you can in every direction and what do you see? Just more and more of this world -- mountains taller than you could ever climb, seas and oceans so wide that you could never cross them, a forest so wide and deep that you could wander it for a hundred years and never see it all -- and then beyond them lies more and more and more, far beyond where any man has ever gone.”

Evan’s breath caught.

“This view, everything that you can see, is so beautiful to me that there are times I get weak in the knees when I stand up here,” I said. “But as beautiful as it is, standing here is also a reminder of how small we are compared to that big world, and that’s something that you should never forget. No matter how skilled you are, no matter how long you refine your craft, no matter how strong or fast or smart you become, you can never take that world for granted, because if you do it will find a way to kill you. That is why respect is important, because the moment you think nothing can touch you is the moment that you’re as good as gone.”

He nodded again, already learning that sometimes, words weren’t needed.

Another few moments of silence passed, when suddenly I twitched and leapt forward, dropping eight feet down onto the ground, tucking and rolling, and dove behind a rock a few feet up the mountain. In another moment I had drawn my bow, lying in wait behind my cover.

Now we would see how Evan responded.

Above me, I heard Evan gasp, hesitate in confusion, and then drop down behind me, landing hard and crashing into the ground. Before he could even fully pick himself up he was scrambling, throwing himself against my small cover and trying to gain his breath as I motioned for silence.

I peeked over our cover, scanning the mountaintop and finding nothing but a pile of rocks before turning back to him.

“Directly behind this, about forty yards up the mountain, huge 4 point buck,” I breathed. A total lie, but that wasn’t the point. Evan’s eyes went wide.

“This one’s yours,” I said, “I’m going to walk you through it. Now draw your bow, and knock one of your arrows.”

I watched him struggle for his bow quickly, clattering the metal against the rock, and spilling three of his arrows out across the ground. I stopped him.

“Breathe,” I whispered. “Right now quiet is better than fast.”

He slowed his movements, stilling shaking hands, and drew his bow, with his arrow rising straight towards my chest. I slapped the bow away, making him lose his grip and firing an arrow straight into the ground, where it snapped.

“What did I say was the first rule?” I spat.

“Uh-um,” he stammered.

“Don’t aim at anything you aren’t trying to kill,” I hissed.

He nodded, head hung in embarrassment, but I quickly patted him on the shoulder.

“You’re learning, remember? You’ll fuck up,” I said. “I’m here to improve you, just as long as you don’t kill me first.”

He nodded again, and repeated the steps I’d told him. He rose up above our cover, knocking his arrow calmly, and took aim down the mountain.

He had alright form. The pressure of the situation had gotten to him though, and with the way his shoulders were shaking he would never hit anything. I watched him scan the mountain, and finding no sign of the imaginary buck, he slowly released the tension. When he turned to me, he had tears in his eyes.

“It’s gone,” he said. “I missed it.”

I shook my head.

“It’s still there, look,” I whispered, pointing down the ridge. “Forty yards. See him standing there? Gray and covered in snow?”

He was deeply confused.

“H-him?” he asked. “I don’t see anything.”

“Well that doesn’t mean you can’t practice for when you do see him,” I said.

Finally, realization dawned over his face, and then in a moment he nodded, looking out with the utmost seriousness as he edged his way over the top of the rock, drawing his bow.

“Account for wind and drop of the arrow,” I said. “Breathe your four counts as you find your point of aim, and release on the down hold.”

He waited two more four counts before he was ready, but his hand was calm and when he fired, his form was near perfect.

His aim was less so. The arrow careened off the ground about fifteen feet away from his target and skipped through the snow harmlessly.

Before he had a chance to slump in disappointment I shepherded him over the rock and to the side, sliding to my knees at a different angle and calling out orders in full voice.

“He’s making a run for it, find an angle through the trees and fire!” I barked. “Faster now, but never out of control. Keep your four counts.”

He followed along with me and stopped, aiming at the same rock, drawing back and firing.

Another miss.

He was clearly frustrated, and let his bow fall to his side, cursing under his breath.

I turned to check on Edda and Rowan, who were both standing at attention with confused expressions on their faces. My sudden movements would have reminded them of an actual hunt, but I hadn’t given them any signals, and to their senses it would have been quite apparent that there was nothing of interest on the mountaintop. To ease their confusion I snapped my fingers twice, the sign for them to relax, and with the closest thing they could have given to a shrug the two wolfhounds diverted their focus elsewhere.

When I looked back at Evan, he had his bow drawn to full bore again, aiming for the same rock.

“Nope,” I said. “Wrong.”

He held the bow taut.

“I just want to practice one more time,” he said. “I just want to… I want to hit it.”

“You’ll never take the same shot twice when hunting,” I said. “So you need to learn how to judge a shot and take it on instinct, rather than just relying on muscle memory.”

With a final, disappointed breath, he lowered his bow.

“It’s okay, you’re already getting better at it,” I said. “That second shot you took was much closer than the first, and the third will be closer than that, and so on. It takes a long time to learn this way, but when you do you’ll be far more capable than a man who relies only on rote repetition.”

“How long did it take you?” he asked.

“A long time, like I said,” I answered. “And don’t worry, you’re just as good as I was when I first started.”

“Really?” he asked.

“Yeah, really,” I said, leaving out that when I had started I had been half his age. “Now come on, we’ve got a lot of practicing to do. Edda, Rowan, Norah!”

I clicked my tongue and nodded towards the east, starting to walk towards the Killiara. It was a long hike along the ridge, and an even longer one down into my usual hunting grounds, and I wanted to make sure that we had as much time as possible.

“From now on, we’re on the hunt,” I said to Evan, who had scampered up and fallen into step alongside me. “Every move you make should be quiet and deliberate, and you should pay constant attention to your surroundings. But, you follow my commands to the T and we just might have something to bring back this evening.”

“Really?” he asked, looking up at me with wide eyes.

“Hey, I told you that we’d practice hunting by hunting, right?” I said. “And I have a reputation to preserve.”

Without thinking, I reached over and tousled his hair, giving him a half-grin. He was startled at the sudden touch, but then I saw him swell up with happiness and smile from ear to ear in an unabashed display of joy that seemed to fill the air with light and warmth.

A moment later my knees buckled and I nearly collapsed, catching myself bent half-over and disguising my sudden inability to breathe under a few fake coughs. Evan was startled, hopping back as I put my hands on my knees and continued the act.

I couldn’t breathe in. I felt like I was going to throw up, and throughout my chest, arms, and legs it felt like molten lead had been poured into my veins.

“Val, are you alright?” Evan asked, reaching out and putting a hand on my back.

No.

I wrenched myself away from him, barely remembering putting up a finger as I took a few paces away, barely able to walk straight. My chest was being crushed, and I could taste bile in the back of my throat. My vision was going black and spinning because I still hadn’t breathed in, and as I looked back at Evan he didn’t look like Evan very much at all.

Instead, he looked like a young girl, with bright eyes, a shining smile, and a brown braid down her back, who would forever be ten years old.

I vomited the entire contents of my stomach onto the ground and nearly passed out, stumbling once but locking my knees and staying upright. I could hear Evan cry out, startled, and Edda and Rowan made their way over to me, but I waved all three away with a hand.

I forced air back into my lungs, lightening my vision, but still unable to turn and rise just yet. I couldn’t see what I’d seen again, not right now.

I took a few more breaths before arranging my face into a smile and standing back up, wiping my face to rid myself of any remaining vomit, and offered a grin.

“Must have eaten something bad,” I said, with a forced laugh.

I reached to my side and pulled out my water skin, swishing around the vomit from my mouth and spitting out what I could, but even as I joked with Evan about how he might be in for it later, and motioned him towards the other side of the ridge, I felt a sour taste left behind, and an feelings of inescapable dread.

They were there as I took one last look at the valley beneath us and turned to guide Evan.

They were there as we worked our way down the hill constantly training Evan’s aim at all manner of different targets and distances.

They were there as I began to teach him to track the movements of a herd, how to interpret signs on the ground and against trees that indicated how many bucks and does to expect.

They were there as Evan began to learn, making steady progress in hitting the targets that I set out for him.

They were there as I discreetly told Edda and Rowan to find us a herd to track.

They were there as Evan picked up the trail and, hands nearly shaking with excitement, began to guide us through the woods after them.

They were there as we arrived within range of the herd, and Evan confidently slid into position.

They were there as I handed Evan his first truly deadly arrow.

They were there as Evan drew back calmly and loosed.

They were there as the arrow barely wounded his target, sending the whole herd scattering.

And they were there as I rose, drawing my own bow and firing a single, long-range shot at a sprinting deer, killing it from nearly a hundred fifty yards.

Those feelings were there as we cleaned the buck and saved the meat in wrapping, loading them onto Norah.

They were there as the sun began to dip in the sky, and I made the decision that we would head home for the afternoon.

They were there as we made our way back up the hills, and up towards the top of the ridge in the evening light, with Evan happy but exhausted, and tired enough that he didn’t complain when I told him to ride Norah.

And they were there as I approached the top of the ridge again, waiting for the lazy horse to catch up.

But as the sun cast down on us in golden light, and we crested the ridge and began to walk towards that point at the top of the world, those feelings started to fade. Maybe it was the perfect weather, the warm afternoon sun finally turning to evening. Maybe it was the satisfaction in Evan’s voice every time he talked about his lessons from today and his training tomorrow. Maybe it was the healthy soreness in my body that said I would sleep well tonight.

Or maybe, it was something indescribable. Something that I’d never understand.

But as I scaled the boulder with Evan to take in the world just half a day later, those feelings of fear and dread seemed ready to drift away. I closed my eyes.

Maybe… just maybe, that wrenching fear was only an illusion, a ghost hiding in the shadows that had waited far too long to be set free.

Maybe here, standing tall over the four points of the valley and the enormous world beyond… maybe this was all finally a home.

I breathed deeply, in and out, with Evan next to me and the wolfhounds and Norah down below, a moment of total stillness.

The smell in the air was utterly familiar, one that I recognized as well as any... in the entire world.

“Sir, is that… is that smoke?”

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