The wind had picked up. It was bitterly cold and it nipped at my nose. This land was true to its name, Winter Land. I hadn’t seen anything like it in all my wonderings.
The wagon I was tied to jerked forward pulling on the shackles around my wrists, cutting into flesh with every movement. My magic was warmest there, healing as fast as it could, but it didn’t do much for the pain.
In the back of my mind lingered something. I couldn’t help but think there was something out there watching us. Maybe it was the woods that made me paranoid. With the magic that lingered here, it was hard to tell. The trees were dark. Shadows jumped and played in the corner of my eyes when I wasn’t looking. When I did watch the trees, I felt like someone was watching me back. There couldn’t be. No one lived this far north. It was too cold and baron to support life. Plus, Farenan sent sentries into the surrounding woods to alert the group if anyone or anything was near. I still felt uneasy.
Snow was beginning to fall sideways. A storm was coming. I could feel it in my bones. The wet flakes stuck to my jacket and pants. Little Ruan was huddled to my side, trying to keep out of the wind and stay warm. Her arms wrapped tight around her waist. I wanted her near me so when the time came we could run.
As the morning passed, we traveled further into Winter Land, heading north into the vast nothingness. The trees became denser and the snow was deeper. There wasn’t a single sign of life, but yet we pressed on with no knowledge of our destination. Only Farenan knew where we were.
After midmorning, word had spread that a few of the sentries that were scouting to the west had gone missing, three in all. Farenan didn’t seem worried all though he was annoyed. “They probably wandered off to take a piss and got lost in the white out. Serves them right for abandoning their posts in unfamiliar territory. Send six men to search for them.”
It might not seem odd to Farenan, but I had heard stories of these parts. People would start disappearing. One by one, until there were only a handful left. Then the madness would set in. Those who were left would become crazy and violent. They would attack their own. Slaughtering them, turning to cannibalism. There were only a few accounts of travelers returning from Winter Land. Even then they were ill and struggled with frost bite.
With all my knowledge of the cold, this land would be hard for me to survive alone, not that I would want to, but it was a thought that crossed my mind. If we had to run, the only place for us to go was deeper into this harsh land.
Something caught my eye to the west. My heart jumped in my chest. There was a streak of black in the shadows of the trees. It lingered there just outside the light of the afternoon sun. My breath caught in my lungs, my body went stick straight. What was there? I didn’t want to look. Maybe it was my eyes playing tricks on me again. It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t with the snow coming down as hard as it was. The white made everything blend together. One big blur of snow.
“What is it, Tabri?” Ruan asked. I didn’t want to alarm her. It was probably just my eyes playing tricks on me anyway.
“It’s nothing. These woods play games with my eyes.” She seemed to relax slightly with her face pressed into my side, her hood blocking the snow from her skin. She reminded me so much of Delah. She was sweet and innocent. The bond of trust we had developed during the short morning was much the same as the one I shared with my old friend. It felt nice to have Ruan near.
A blood curdling scream rang out in the woods nearby. It echoed all around us, making it hard to tell where it was coming from. It wasn’t one of the men. It sounded more like a woman’s voice. Was it to my left? No, another scream came from my right maybe. Where was it coming from?
The horses pranced around uneasily, wanting to run. The men franticly watched the trees, waiting for an attack.
“Stay close to me, Ruan. Be ready to run.” My mind raced, looking for a way out of this barren land.
This might be the distraction I was looking for to escape. If the opening arose we could grab a horse and ride hard into the forest, not looking back.
With another scream, Farenan’s horse bucked in front of me almost throwing him to the ground. He held fast to the saddle and was able to steady the beast. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter in his saddle. “Fall in. Protect the women! I will not lose their magic.”
Soldiers hurried all around, forming a ring of protection around Ruan and I. My heart raced with anticipation. I saw the shadow pass through the trees, this time in front of me. It was a cloud of smoke that almost floated off the ground making no sound as it moved. This all felt so familiar, like I had experienced it before. I shook the thoughts away. There was nothing like this feeling of pure terror, except maybe being Farenan’s captive. I took a deep breath and released it, trying to calm myself.
The shrieking came again, closer, louder this time. Every human being nearby held their breath. The only sound was of the horses huffing and prancing in unease. It was an eerie silence, almost as if the forest had died right then. There was no pulse of life here, not even from my own heart as it felt like it had stopped with the silence.
Was I the only one who could see the mist floating through the woods? No one reacted to it, when it showed itself. Could it be a trap left by the Articans to ward off any intruders to their territory? Maybe I could only see it because Artican blood ran through my veins? I couldn’t answer my own questions, but I hoped it wasn’t coming for me. I kept my eyes on it. It was more constant now, weaving in and out of the shadows. There was an uneasy feeling deep down in my stomach that it was watching me, waiting for me to run.
The horses bucked with another shriek, lurching the wagon forward and pulling on my chains again. I had to get these things off of me. With all the magic I could find, I let it lose through my skin. It poured into the metal that held me captive, turning it red and hot. It didn’t take long to melt the shackles away from my wrists. Ruan held her hands out to me, wanting her chains off as well. I clasped my hands around her wrists and worked at the metal.
That slight distraction was all the mist needed to claim its first victim. I heard his death, but didn’t see it. When I turned, I saw the body, headless, lying in the snow nearby. The cut was clean, cauterized by some kind of unearthly weapon. There was barley any blood. I couldn’t imagine what kind of blade could do such damage, or where the mist could conceal such a weapon. But by now, I didn’t doubt that it was possible.
The shrieking started again. It was so loud that I felt like it was in my head. Covering my ears wasn’t good enough to keep out the sound. It was almost as if the tortured souls of all the dead were leaking from the Underworld. It was horrible, maniacal.
I saw the mist again. It was right in front of me, watching through the trees. Watching me. I stared back. I thought for just a second that it was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t understand. It circled a tree and came to stop again in front of me. It was almost as if it was frustrated. Then I saw it. For the first time in the last few days I felt calm. The mist turned a deep red. I knew I had seen this situation play out before when Nell had shown up the first time on mount Erined. She had come for me like she had said she would. I almost cried out with relief, but stifled it with my hand over my mouth.
How stupid was I? The thought of Nell finding me had never crossed my mind. I had put all my hope in Arsan and he wasn’t the only person watching out for me. Although I still didn’t know why Nell cared, there was a sense of calm in my soul.
I smiled at her and nodded to let her know that I understood. She swirled back into the grey mist and slid into the darkness once more. Her shriek rang out through the forest, echoing all around. Ruan whimpered under my arm in fear. I placed a hand over hers for comfort. “Don’t be afraid, the mist won’t hurt us. She is on our side.”
“How do you know?” Her face nuzzled in the crook of my neck.
“Because, she is my friend.” They were odd words to say, but they felt right. Ruan relaxed slightly at my back. She trusted me and I trusted Nell. I knew she wouldn’t let me down.
The men kept a wary eye on the tree line around us. The snow was coming down heavier now, making any movement beyond our small clearing hard to make out through the white. They were nervous, as they should be. Nell would stop at nothing to free me. If that meant taking every life in this forsaken land, than so be it. She would do what had to be done.
I wanted to throw up my hands and beg Farenan to let me go, for the sake of his men, but I knew he would never consider surrender. Even taking those actions might cause him to lose his mind. The cool demeanor that he had been carrying might disappear leaving me to his wrath once more.
A slight wind blew over the heads of every person sitting and waiting for death. The snow followed it across the group. Then the mist immerged from the forest with a silent presence. Most the men didn’t even see it coming. They had their back turned protecting the flanks when it passed through the group.
Death came swiftly to those in its path. I watched as they fell one by one. Wounds cauterized like the man before them. Their lifeless bodies fell to the ground in silence where the falling snow worked quickly to cover them. I didn’t want to see their dead faces staring back at me. It reminded me of the look in Mr. Deddubs eyes as his soul drained from his body. He died to free me, but these men died to enslave. There was no point in their deaths, at least not to me.
Nell disappeared back into the shadows of the woods before anyone could make sense of what was happening. I watched a soldier nearby sob hysterically as he pushed a dead companion off his legs and scurry backward into another disemboweled body. The man was young. Maybe too young to be a soldier, but he had most likely chosen this life and he would have to deal with death one way or another.
The shrieking began again. It didn’t frighten me this time, but the young soldier nearby was beyond distraught. I watched as he rolled to his knees and began to pray rapidly for his salvation. The gods would not hear him today. He would be dead soon enough, along with his fellow fighters. I was beginning to not care.
What was this place doing to me? I wanted to run, but I knew I had to be patient and wait for the right time.
The next time Nell passed through the clearing I would have to make my move. It was my only chance. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest with anxiety. I took a deep breath, watching, waiting for the right moment. I hoped that what was left of Farenan’s men would be just as confused as before, and wouldn’t notice my escape as I rode along with the mist.
Again in the silence came the mist from the shadows. It was crimson red, the color of blood. Its ominous sight sent chills down my spine even though I knew it was Nell. This time the men saw it coming and they began to run and scatter. Farenan yelled from atop his horse for order, but no one listened. “Turn and fight you pansies. You are soldiers of the Dominion and you will act like it!”
His words were in vain. Men ran in circles, yelling in fright. Some fell to the ground without limbs or died in front of my eyes from Nell’s unseen sword. Pandemonium was all around. This was my chance.
A horse pranced without a rider nearby. I grabbed Ruan’s hand and ran for it. Swinging up into the saddle, I pulled Ruan up behind me and laid my heals into the flank of the animal. Ruan clung to my back tightly, her arms squeezing my ribs almost painfully.
The mare ran at full gallop toward the tree line. The branches were low and heavy with snow. They hung in my path and scraped at my bare skin on my face, but still I flew. When the sounds of death fell behind us another sound filled the silence. It was a second set of hooves pushing through the soft snow on the ground. Someone was pursuing me. I knew who it was. I glanced over my shoulder. It was Farenan coming for me, his blue eyes sharp and deadly.
I should have known it wouldn’t have been that easy to slip from his grasp. He was born to battle, not scared of the unknown. The confusion of his men wouldn’t have transferred to him, but only made his senses sharper, more aware. Why didn’t I realize that he would follow me? I pushed my horse farther, faster. We had to escape.