He awoke once more with a pain in his chest like a knife twisting in his heart. He could feel his heart’s rapid beating, and struggled to find calm. The pain subsided, his heart beat slowed and he tried to convince himself it was only heartbreak.
He had forgotten what pain of the heart felt like, ran away from that kind of pain too many winters ago. One cannot evade heartbreak forever. For him the new pain in his heart was only an echo of that long ago pain.
The forest where he awoke was quiet and dark, his fire burned down to coals. He forgot, for a moment, where he was, imagined that perhaps he was still in the cave that he called his home. Imagined that Eponina was still with him. She was not, and he was alone with his pain.
He had opened the door to the Long Dark for her, set her spirit on its own journey.
Now, he had fallen back to his old custom; to wake in the night and stoke the fire. In the wild regions, the forested mountains, where snow and wind ruled, the fire was life.
Once, he had stood proud and tall, feared and loved by many. Once, he was a man held in high esteem, a man of great duty and respect. Now he was only a beast. A hunter.
And also prey.
The new wood sent thick smoke into the air before igniting. The air was crisp and cool. Underlying the scent-crushing snow lay faint traces of leaf rot, the smell of pines, smoke, and something else...something foul.
The forest was quiet and dark; the moon overshadowed by heavy white clouds. The man lay still, ears straining to catch the briefest shadow of a footstep in the snow. His hand curled around the hilt of his sheathed knife, his muscles tensed, his breathing steady and deep. He waited for the attackers, waited for the end, almost longed for it now that his heart wound was fresh again. His heart and his body longed for different things; that has always been his struggle.
From the darkness came a low sinister chuckle, revealing his enemy as clearly as if by sudden moonlight. In his minds eye he could see the creature: small and wiry, no larger than a child, with a round hairless head, and large pointed ears. Most who laid eyes upon the creatures did not live to tell the tail and so they had become more phantom than reality. But he knew better.
He had seen Kobal before.
From his other side came the same low chuckle, and he took a deep breath, schooling his thoughts. They knew that he was awake. They wanted him to hear them.
Another sinister chuckle, from yet another side, and then another and his heart started to beat faster. One Kobal for each of the four winds, but he had only two arms, had only a short knife and an axe. His heart bemoaned his fate, longed for the love he had lost, for the strong Eponina to return to his side that he might have some reason to fight and be strong. He opened his mouth to call her name but a song came out instead.
“Though it is dark in the night,
Morning will come and bring the light.
Dreamer’s net will fade with sunshine bright.
Morning will come and bring the light.”
It was a lullaby, sung by mothers and fathers to ease frightened children in their beds. He had not remembered it until it burst from his lips.
“Darkness will die in sunshine bright,
Morning will come and bring the light.
So have no fear in the dark of night,
Morning will come and bring the light.”
The chuckles had turned to groans and whimpers in the darkness. Kobal cannot stand to hear a song, particularly those sung for the gods. It was one of the things that kept them away from the Men in villages and cities. He had all but forgotten that as well.
He did not hear them depart, he had not heard them come, but he felt their disappearance in the air; the weight of their presence lifted, the foul smell withdrew and the fearful silence gave way to something more peaceful. He threw more wood on the fire, arranged his axe within reach and held his knife unsheathed. He sat, wrapped in his heavy cloak, honed his blade, sang and tried not to sleep.
He fought sleep with all his might, but it captured him so thoroughly he thought he was still awake. He could hear his father speaking, laughing, a memory from years long passed.
“No son of mine will let a blade through his flesh,” he laughed. “Not short nor long nor rusty Kobal blade.” His father unsheathed his sword and readied himself for practice.
But the sound was too real in his head, too real to be imaginings, and he woke with a start, staring into large, dark Kobal eyes, life and malice draining from them. Training and reflexes had saved him, his knife stuck to the hilt in the creature’s chest, hot, dark blood oozed to cover his hand. The creature opened his wide mouth, jagged teeth so close, and let out a low groan. Black blood bubbled on it’s lips before it’s eyes glazed and life left it.
He pushed the creature away, his muscles singing with adrenaline. Where were the others?
On his feet now, fully awake, he tried to calm his breathing so he could listen. But there was nothing. No sound, no scent, naught but pines and shrubs and snow, far as the eye could see. He took a breath to calm his nerves. His guts were all twisted up, his muscles tired from too much tension. He wiped his bloody blade on the creature’s tattered jerkin and washed his hands with snow. Kobal blood stank nearly as bad as their flesh. His breath billowed out in front of him in the first pale light of morning. Finally, he looked down at his enemy.
It was not a large creature; three or four feet tall, thin and wiry. The Kobal’s black eyes stared at nothing, it’s mouth half open revealed two rows of small, jagged teeth. Garbed in filthy, tattered rags, with strips of blackened cloth wrapped round it’s feet, it’s clawed toes poked out the end. It wore no armour, but carried a bronze knife, dull and green with corrosion. He pulled the blade from the Kobal’s hand and examined it. It was long for a knife, a span and a half, leaf shaped, with a mere rounded lump for cross-guard. Even in the bare light of the fire he could see that it was old and in poor shape. The tang loose in the hilt, and the corrosion seeping right the way through. It would still have killed him had the Kobal been fast enough. He shuddered to think of the consequences of that dull poisonous blade slicing his flesh just a little.
Kobalos, though intelligent, did not have the patience to mine and smelt ore, to create weapons and armour. Most of what they used was stolen from burial mounds and tombs; ancient and in poor shape.
He loosed the hilt from the blade, that the other Kobal could not return to get it, and stoked up the fire until it was roaring. He threw the pieces in and the Kobal after them. He would not foul the forest with the scent of rotting Kobal. He gathered his belongings; a sack of rations, a skin of water, slung them onto his back. Axe and knife at his side he pulled on cloak and gloves. His cheeks and nose were already rosy from the chill morning air.
He set off before the burning creature began to stink too much.
He moved through the forest. His body was aware; his ears pricked up for any sound, his eyes scanning, his breath steady, easy. But his mind raced round and round in a sickening spiral, his heart sinking ever deeper into despair. He had been happy, for a while, he had found some small peace, he had even thought that he’d found forgiveness. For himself and for those who had cut his heart those long years ago. He had run from the pain, run from the only life he had known, run from the loss, and stumbled upon something akin to Maravan, paradise.
A monastery deep in the mountains, a brotherhood of men devoted to the works of a God that had no name, a God that was no longer a God, devoted to peace and sustenance and prayer. There he had mourned his loss through physical labour, and it had helped to mend his broken heart. But though he knew the prayers and wore the sigil of the Nameless One around his neck, a lidless eye with eight points like a compass, it had not been the God that had helped him, but the monks. He had walked away before they understood that he did not love any Gods, and had hidden himself among the trees, had chosen the hard life of a beast. He thought that he would never love again, until Eponina threw herself upon his mercy. He had loved her easily, freely, as he had never loved before. He had thought his life was complete. He had not thought of the future. He had not thought of the Gods.
Until Eponina’s death.
He had tried to hide from the gods, but they found him. He had tried to live without them, but they were always there, toying with him, always just out of reach. Eponina’s death was a cut just deep enough to open up the old wound, and her face was not the only one weaving its way in and out of his thoughts. Her short dirt-blonde hair grew out and darkened, her features transformed, but the eyes seemed the same, blue as the summer ocean: Rora’s eyes.
He stumbled in the snow, pulled himself from his dark thoughts to find his gloved fingers clutching numbly at the edges of his cloak, trying to hold it closed against a furious wind, his booted feet were stiff and frozen, and icy snow lashed his face, froze in his beard and hair. He had stumbled into a storm. White cloud, thick in the sky as the snow was on the ground, dimmed the sun’s light. The air was solid with it, cloud and snow, and a howling wind tossed everything about. He was in snow up to his knees and his muscles burned with the effort of every step. Perhaps it was that very burning that pulled him from his despairing thoughts. He found himself in an unfamiliar landscape, so white he wondered if he had stumbled right out of the world. He turned around, but could hardly make out his own footprints. Tried to find his way, but found nothing. With the high wind and blowing snow he could not tell where the sun was, could barely see ten paces in any direction. The wind snapped at his cloak and the exposed skin on his face. His feet sank deep in the snow making every move more difficult. He fell against a tree trunk, pushed by the wind and sank into a crouch. Already he was shivering, his mind racing, he had to get out of the wind, out of the cold, and wait out the storm. Chances were it would not last longer than a few hours. Using the axe, he hollowed out a small burrow in the deep snow. Packing the walls hard was easy, scraping the snow off of the frozen dirt less so, but the movement helped to warm him a little. Soon he had a space out of the majority of the wind, large enough for him to huddle in and warm up. His nose and cheeks felt burnt from the wind, his body shivered and ached and he flexed his toes, trying to keep his feet warm. He ate a little and drank some and soon his eyes had drifted closed.
He dreamed a memory.
“The city is different now, with her on the throne,” Rora told him, her blue eyes seemed to glow in the faint light of the fire. “It’s changed. It’s dangerous. We should leave before it is too late.”
“How can you say that?” he asked, taken aback. “You, who were once so enlivened by this place.”
“Cities are rat warrens,” she sneered. “They are waiting to fall to disease and desperation. Why should we remain while the gates are open to us? We could go anywhere, we could go where it is safe. When the plagues come they will close the gates and leave us in Bella’s hands.”
“I would not let that happen to you,” he said. “I would never let any harm befall you.”
But he had.
The dream-memory shifted with the wind and all was darkness and flickering torchlight. He descended the stairs, as he had done over and over again, his breath blooming in front of him, the walls slick with condensation. His body shivered and he tried to wake himself.
It’s a dream. Wake up, it’s only a dream.
But his dream-body kept moving down those worn steps, anxiety pushing the blood through his veins like spring runoff down a riverbed. He moaned in his sleep. He knew what was coming, what had come and he could not stand to have these nightmares back. As his foot touched down on the straw strewn floor of the dungeon he thrashed in his sleep and woke himself with a shout.
He crawled out of the burrow he had made, tears freezing to his cheeks. Clouds still shrouded the sky but the wind had died down and the snow had stopped falling. He gathered himself and moved off down the mountain. He did not want to spend the night at this altitude.
The falling snow filled his footprints in behind him, but he had no fear of losing his way again. All he need do was descend and the weather would calm. Dry snow would become heavy and wet and eventually turn to rain. In the valley there was always rain and mud and only rarely snow. His surroundings changed noticeably as he descended, from tall Atlas Pines, with their thick russet trunks, to the smaller, shrub-like Lady Pines, with pinkish needles and a sloping, spreading way of growing so as to cover as much ground as possible. Towering over these were Whip Pines and Bervaena Fir, the former tall and thin as their name suggested, the latter with long and twisted trunks and roots rumoured to stretch for miles. The forest around him became less row on row of straight soldiers and more a twisting myriad maze of plant life. Whereas in the higher altitude death came swiftly from cold and weather, below death became a slow struggle through grappling greenery.
Somewhere in the grey zone, the in-between place where the snow was heavy and wet and the two areas of growth intermingled, he stumbled into a tall stone.
Floundering, drowning in the weather, stood a waist high stone road marker, carved with the symbol for roadhouse, a simple pentagon. Soaked from the weather and with night fast approaching, he followed the direction the marker pointed and found another, and then another.
Soon enough, in the greying light of evening he could see, through the snow and trees, a faint light in the distance. Closer and closer he moved until the light was distinct, a glass panelled oil lantern, lighting up the stone front of the roadhouse. A two storied building made of logs and stone, with warm light desperately trying to filter through the few grimy windows. The wind seemed to howl out its fury at his finding shelter, whipping his cloak out of his grasp, but he did not care. He strode toward this bastion of hope, planting his footprints in the once cleared path up to the door. Recollection filled him like air in his lungs, but he tried to brush it away, telling himself that all Roadhouses were similar and that the familiarity of this one was merely imaginings. But as his gloved hand grasped the handle and turned it he knew he was wrong and his heart sank in his chest. He knew this Roadhouse, and now knew just how lost he had become on that mountainside.