The Crimson King: VII
Another rabbit. Isaac was sick and tired of rabbits. The Evergreen Wilds was full of them. The wilderness was also filled with deer, moose, grouse—but unfortunately for Isaac, he had never been much of a hunter. His archery was good enough, as was his aim, but the waiting! Oh, how he hated the waiting. Especially when he was hungry and cold. The hunger, he could master, but the cold—it seeped into his cloak, numbed his fingers, and bore its way into his bones.
The White Wakening came earlier than he’d anticipated, and still, there had been no sign of the boy. Isaac was losing hope. The Evergreen Wilds was almost forty leagues wide and nearly twice as long; to find a person who would not wish to be found in such a vast wilderness was next to impossible, but Isaac had combed through the woods best he could. It was a noble boy, after all, and such a person would never dare venture into the deepest depths where bears, wolves, and Mountain Folk resided.
When the weather turned cold, Isaac even expected to stumble upon a body, frozen to the core. But there had been no such turn of events. The forest had remained just as vast and wild as when he’d first entered it, months ago.
When he had first descended into the darkness of the Evergreen Wilds, he had been very naive. He had gazed upon the wilds many times in his life but never before had he ventured into it. How different could it be to any other forest, he thought, but he quickly realised that the Evergreen Wilds was a place unlike any other.
This was an old place, untouched by Kings and Dukes. The Architects claimed it to be a place of evil, where lost souls wandered, those who were expelled from the Void; those of the Old Faith said that the Evergreen Wilds was the home of the Wild Gods.
Isaac never believed in ghost stories and superstition, but this ocean of pine and moss could frighten anyone. At night, when the moon tossed its pale light over the trees, and mist settled upon the moss and the roots, it was easy to imagine something moving in the milky fog. Even more haunting was the silence.
During the day, the forest was quite a pleasant place with song and life—at night, however, it was silent as the grave where only the gusts of wind chiming in the trees were heard. Sometimes, the bloodcurdling howls of wolves echoed from the mountains, and sometimes, the whining wind could sound like whispers in the dark.
Isaac did not like this place at all. He didn’t believe in ghosts as the remaining soul of a deceased, but he did believe in ghosts as memories, guilt, and pain. In a place like this, on nights when the winds whispered in the trees and when the mist hovered like a veil over the ground, Isaac’s ghosts came back to haunt him. Alone with nothing but his mind as company, he would eventually go mad.
Thankfully, he didn’t need to be alone all too long. People lived in the wilds, people that weren’t Mountain Folk. They weren’t many, but they were kind and hospitable, offered him food and shelter, and even prayed to their gods for him. Isaac wasn’t so arrogant as to object to such a gesture—he didn’t have to believe in the Wild Gods, but if there were such deities, he surely could use their help. Every time he passed a farm, he asked about a boy, but for the most part, Isaac was the first stranger they had seen since summer.
Some paths leading through the wilderness were more travelled than others, if anyone dared to step foot into the cursed woods. Next to one of the crossings connecting the wider paths rested a farm. Even though it was seldom visited, the place was more or less an inn—albeit a small one. Isaac had stayed there for the past weeks, keeping a steady eye on the paths beside it. He thought that if the boy was alive and somewhere in the forest, he would keep to the paths or he’d be lost.
The owners of the house, Eileth and Wayla, were an old couple, odd to the naked eye. Eileth was a crooked man with a long, grey beard who seemed to have been blessed with a few more years than what should have been, and Wayla was just as old, thin as a twig, and with barely any teeth left.
In a sense, Isaac even wondered how the two of them could still be alive in such an unforgiving place like this.
Even though they had a hammer of stone outside their property, they were devoted to the Wild Gods and had no love for the Dukes of Nornest, the Golden Empire, or the Knighted Brethren. Isaac knew enough of the Mountain Folk and the Forest Dwellers to know that they would not bend over backwards for him just because he was a Knight of Westbridge. He thus kept his name and title to himself, and simply called himself Isaac.
He did what he could to contribute—chopping wood for the fire, mending roofs and walls, and hunting rabbits were some of the things the old couple were relieved to have someone else do, and it filled his days. In return, he received hot meals and a warm bed to sleep in. Eileth and Wayla, despite they oddness, kept the man sane in the dark autumn evenings.
Every day, he waited. The seasons changed, and the cold crept south. Eventually, he waited so long that he forgot what he was waiting for. He had already accepted that he wouldn’t find the boy, at least not in these woods, so why wouldn’t he return to Kingshaven? Why wouldn’t he return to Isobel?
Every day, he toiled with the firewood, with the farm, and with the hunt, as though the forest itself had enchanted him. But he knew it wasn’t the forest. In a way, he was frightened. Insecure. Isobel was a dream—a mirage in a savage world—and a future with her was nothing but a fantasy.
Her words haunted him every waking moment. If you asked me to marry you, right here, right now, I would accept in a heartbeat. He was a fool for leaving her, but he knew she would never be happy with someone like him. The thought of returning to see her wed to someone else was, however, not something he wished for. He had chosen the boy and the promise of his old life. Going back would only make a mockery out of himself and her devotion. So he kept on waiting.
Three rabbits were his haul as he returned to the farm for the evening. The frost crunched beneath his boots and the wind whistled in the trees. The Evergreen Wilds was indeed a frightening place in the dark; he could understand why the Nornish people had feared it for centuries, but Isaac had started to grow rather fond of it. Perhaps, he thought as he stepped over shrubberies and roots, the whispering winds were the Wild Gods wailing in the night.
But then he heard sounds that could not be mistaken, sounds he hadn’t heard for months—horses and men. He quickly dove behind a tree and waited for the travellers to move ahead. Perhaps, he thought, it was Mountain Folk seeking their way to better hunting grounds.
Peeking out, ever so carefully, he could see four horsemen riding in the mist along the path with torches in their hands. The fog was too thick for Isaac to see any details, but he could hear the familiar sounds of clinking armour. They moved north, towards the farm. Carefully, and as silently as he possibly could, Isaac followed.
The four riders stopped outside the hut, dismounted their horses, and tied them to some trees nearby. All four of them bowed in front of the hammer, one after another, before they proceeded to knock on the door. Isaac hid behind the granary, carefully listening.
Eileth opened, and when the men spoke, Isaac could hear that they had a strange accent. Not Kingshaven, definitely not Westbridge—but perhaps somewhere east?
Being this close, he could now spy swords at their belts and the crests on their chests. It was indeed the sigil of the Rising Sun of Eastshore. These men were Dukeguards. Isaac clenched his jaw. What did Dukesguards form Eastshore do in the Evergreen Wilds, and why were they heading north? Intrigued, he moved forwards.
Eileth had invited the riders into his home and Isaac took a deep breath before he entered as well. If the men recognised him, he didn’t know what would happen. Either they would help him with the search, or they would kill him to look for the boy themselves, but the men did not seem to remember his face as he stepped into the light.
“Ah, Isaac!” Wayla smiled toothlessly as the man stepped into the kitchen. “Oh, rabbit again? Very well.”
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Isaac and handed her the dead animals, his eyes fastened on the men around the table.
“Another Tree Dweller?” scoffed one of the men.
Immediately, he was jabbed in the arm by an older man. “Forgive my brother, he’s clearly uncivilised.”
Isaac glared at the lot of them. “I’m a traveller.”
“Well, it’s rather strange seeing anyone else out on these dark paths this time of year,” said the older man. “I’m Emmet, this is my uncivilised brother Erick, and our comrades Tyress and Albert.”
Isaac eyed them all carefully. “Is that a Varsaii accent I hear?”
Emmet laughed. “Born and raised!”
Still a bit wary, Isaac sank down on a chair by the table. “Wearing the Mortimer sigil too, I see.”
Looking down on his armour, Emmet shrugged. “It is what it is. What’s your name, stranger?”
Emmet nodded. Silence fell over the kitchen as Eileth and Wayla served the men hot soup and some warm ale.
After a few spoonfuls, Emmet said, “What is a lonesome traveller doing out in the middle of the woods?”
“Exploring the world,” said Isaac, causing the older man to laugh. “What are four Dukesguards from Eastshore doing here, travelling north?”
Emmet’s smile turned sour as a shadow seemed to veil his brown eyes. “The Builder has forsaken Noxborough, and Duke Arlington’s daughter is still trapped inside its walls.”
“You boys aren’t going north in winter, are you?” Eileth asked and frowned. “There are dark things lurking in these woods, I tell you. Dark things.”
“We must,” said Emmet. “Leaving a lady is such a peril would be a disgrace.”
Isaac narrowed his eyes. “Word has it she joined the beasts willingly.”
Erick leaned forwards. “Not according to her brother, and not according to the cry of help we’ve received from the citizens themselves.”
Even though Emmet jabbed his brother’s arm again, Isaac felt his heart shoot out his throat. So, he was alive, after all? In Eastshore?
“We’ve been tasked to extract the girl and bring her to Duke Mortimer,” said Emmet, but as he looked around at the others, Isaac could see that they were all rather sullen. When Emmet returned his gaze to Isaac, he said, “After what we’ve heard of the beasts and the Crimson King, we don’t expect it to be easy.”
“If you make it that far,” Eileth muttered.
Isaac tightened his jaw. After what he had seen that night in Noxborough, he wasn’t sure anyone should expect to get in or out of such a place alive. But he could not be bothered with their fate.
After having a spoonful of the soup, he said, “I thought Sebastian Arlington was dead. No one’s seen him.”
Erick huffed. “Well, we’ve seen—” Again, Emmet jabbed his arm, and Erick cleared his throat. “We’ve heard he’s been seen.”
Nodding, Isaac continued eating his soup.
He had spent months roaming the Evergreen Wilds while the Arlington boy had been on the other side of the mountains all this time. All he really wanted to do was to pack his few belongings and go south that very night, but he stayed until dawn.
The four guards were sleeping soundly, as did Eileth and Wayla. In a way, it felt wrong leaving the old man and woman to fend for themselves at the start of a harsh winter, but Isaac had a mission he had to see through. His honour as a Knight of Westbridge, as a Dukesguard, forced him to.
He filled a satchel with food from the kitchen, grabbed one of Eileth’s fur coats, and stole one of the Dukesguards’ horses before he rode south into the misty morning.