Along The Kingsway Carvesh
It was nearly an hour before Carvesh caught the sound of Jadoc approaching from the west. He, Carwell and Quelana had already ridden several miles east of Kervale, following the Kingsway as they sought some sign of Dane’s passing. The road was little more than a wide, dirt path that meandered towards the mountains, and though they had spotted a few small footprints amidst the dozens of others that marked the passing of villagers and other locals, neither Carvesh nor Lord Carwell had the keen, observant eye of an experienced tracker. They could not determine how fresh the tracks were, much less whether they had been left by Dane. They could just as easily have marked the passing of some other child.
With the sun sinking lower and lower in the sky, and Carvesh’s own anxiety growing with every passing moment, it was somewhat of a relief to hear the beating hoofs of approaching horses. Reining Stepper in, Carvesh quickly turned toward the sound. Jadoc was mounted atop a large black stallion, leading the smaller mare that ran at his side. Madik was nowhere to be seen.
“You’ve overrun the trail!” the farmhand called once he drew within shouting distance. Moments later, he was reining both horses to a halt. “Madik’s picked up the boy’s trail. About a half mile back. Looks like he turned off the road and headed south.”
Carvesh furrowed his brow. He had not expected that. Most of the farms in the region were scattered along the the flatter, more fertile lands north of the Kingsway. His own fields were among them, as were those that had belonged to the Rasmas family. Turning south would have led Dane away from his home and toward the foothills, where the land was rockier and virtually impossible to farm. A few daring shepherds would occasionally lead their flocks into the hills to graze, but otherwise it remained a thick wilderness. There’s Crier’s Rock, he thought absently, but that’s little more than a barren stone hill. Dane wouldn’t be going there. Nobody goes there.
“Are you sure about that?” asked Carvesh.
“Madik seems certain enough. And and so does Winter.”
“He found her already?”
“More like she found us,” grumbled Jadoc. “Just melted out of the trees. I almost lost control of the horses. I don’t know how something some big can move so quietly. But Madik says she has the scent.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” muttered Carvesh.
“The boy heading south? Can’t argue that, but then not much of anything’s making sense lately, least of all how that boy’s alive in the first place. After what was done to the rest of his family…” the farmhand shuddered.
“Let’s see what your hunter friend has to say,” suggested Aurin. He had already helped Quelana dismount, allowing her to take the mare’s reins from Jadoc.
Carvesh nodded and, once the healer was mounted, the small company began the short run back along the roadway, throwing up a great cloud of dirt and dust as they went. Jadoc rode several strides ahead, though it was not entirely necessary. All they needed to do was follow the road itself. It lead them directly to the place where Madik was waiting for them.
Winter was at his side, and though Carvesh had seen her many times before, he could not help feeling a fresh sense of amazment at the sight of her. She stood nearly a full four feet at the shoulder, tall enough that the black tip of her nose rested right around the middle of Madik’s chest. Her broad, powerful body was covered in a coat of dense, greyish fur, which would thicken and whiten noticeably as the colder months began to approach. The only blemish on her otherwise remarkable coat was the single patch of black beneath her left eye, about the size of a golden falcon. It was that mark, along with the unusual blue of her eyes, that lead many to suspect that her veins ran with more than just the blood of a frostback. Several packs of wild dogs were known to prowl through the northern foothills of the Stonewall.
“Ashes and embers,” he heard Carwell mutter. “That’s no wolf. That’s a bloody hellhound.”
Carvesh grinned. “Big isn’t she?”
“Big? She’s the size of a bear. When I served with your father in his campaign against the Titans, we marched across Schaan and into the Ice Range itself. I saw more than a few frostbacks over the course of that particular trek. None of them even came close to that.”
“Let’s just hope she can sniff out Dane.” Carvesh reined Stepper to a halt several dozen yards away from where the she-wolf stood. The horse was already snorting and kicking at the ground nervously. “Easy boy,” whispered Carvesh reassuringly as he dropped slowly from the saddle. “It’s going to be alright. Nothing’s going to hurt you.”
“Jadoc tells me the trail leads south.” Madik nodded, stroking his moustache as he studied the ground. “You’re sure about that?”
“Sure as the sun rises over the Stonewall,” replied the hunter.
“What on earth could he be thinking? There’s nothing out there.”
“What if there is?” asked Lord Carwell, gazing thoughtfully over the rolling hills. That he was still mounted was a testament to the discipline and training of his warhorse. Banner’s ears were tilted noticeably forward and his gaze was fixed firmly on Winter, but otherwise he showed no signs of fear or agitation in the wolf’s presence. “When Merek and I were young he would sometimes come and stay with my family at Sharenden. We’d sneak out of the city and run away to a secret place we knew of. It was little more than a thicket of small trees the grew in a nearby ravine, but to us it was a special place. Maybe the boy had a special place of his own?”
“He’s still very young,” said Carvesh dubiously “Only about six years old. I can’t imagine that his parents would have let him run off on his own.”
“Dane’s always been his brother’s shadow,” said Jadoc. “And Kip was always one for exploring. Maybe he brought Dane out here once.”
“Maybe,” said Carvesh, though he was not convinced. At thirteen years of age, Kip had been growing into a skilled woodsman. He had already been showing signs of wanting to pursue the life of a hunter, rather than staying to continue his father’s work on the farm. But Kip had also been fiercely protective of his younger, mild-mannered brother. While there was nothing particularly dangerous about the foothills, it did not seem like the sort of risk that Kip would have taken.
Something just doesn’t feel right here, Carvesh thought.
Winter, it seemed, shared that particular sentiment. All at once, she tensed, lowered her head toward the ground and let out a deep, guttural growl, followed by a prolonged snarl. The fur along her back bristled, making her appear even larger than she already was. Her black lips curled back, revealing her long, dagger-like teeth. Carvesh had never seen her behave in such a manner. He found it to be an unsettling experience—one that reminded him all too clearly of just how dangerous the she-wolf could be.
“Easy now,” whispered Madik, running his hand reassuringly along her flank.
“What’s happening?” asked Lord Carwell.
“Something’s got her spooked,” replied the hunter, reaching over his shoulder to pull an arrow from his quiver. Every ounce of his normal mirth drained from his voice. His eyes had gone as cold and hard as flint as they darted back an forth across the landscape. “Haven’t seen her like this since we got ourselves cornered by an icebear a few years back.”
For several long moments, no one spoke another word. Gradually, Carvesh became aware of a strange hush that had fallen over the Kingsway, as if all the world was holding its collective breath. Only the soft ring of steel broke the silence, as Aurin Carwell slowly drew his long sword from its scabbard. With a quick sideways glance at each other, Carvesh and Jadoc promptly followed the Lord’s lead. Somewhere in the distance, something wooden snapped, echoing through the quiet evening air.
Winter growled again.
Madik knocked his arrow, pulling the bowstring back about halfway.
Aurin slipped from his horse, stepping with all the silent grace of the rockcat of House Carwell.
Moment by passing moment, the silence deepened around them. The tension grew thicker. As his ears strained against the quiet, it was only the burning in his chest that reminded Carvesh of his need to breath. The blood drained from his straining knuckles. His hand ached from the strain of holding his sword so tightly. Somewhere to his right, Quelana’s horse shifted nervously. Again, Stepper snorted and kicked nervously at the ground.
“The Guardian give us strength,” muttered Jadoc. His voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. “What in the burning hells is going on?”
“Hush,” snapped Madik. The hunter’s bow was nearly fully drawn now, and he was leaning his head forward, as though straining to hear something imperceptibly quiet.
“There you are!” he jerked to his right, pointed and fired. This hiss of the arrow tore through the silence. A shrill wail shattered it. No less than twenty yards away, a thicket of bushes exploded in a sudden shower of leaves, thorns and heavy wooden splinters. The horses screamed. All but Banner turned and bolted down the Kingsway.
With its concealment gone, the demon rushed towards them. It carried death in its black eyes.