A heavy gale stormed its way through the narrow valley of poplar, setting trees flailing and whispering huskily as if startled by the intrusion. From their branches fell brittle, autumn leaves that covered the woodland floor like fiery snowflakes, mingling with the sprawling bracken and dying ferns. The valley’s western slope rose lazily to become the squat, bleak peak of Gor Gariner, which cast a shadow in the late dusk over the forest at its back.
“He who walks with cautious steps and withheld breath deceives himself …”
Wolcott Thyle faced the chill wind that came off the ill-regarded mount of the Darst Range and recalled those words as he walked determinedly through the underbrush of mulched leaves.
“For in the heart of every man lies a beast whose home is the dark sanctuary of the forest.”
Pillars of trunks stretched before him, each one a possible hiding place for the fugitive.
Wolcott’s gray eyes watered unexpectedly, shedding a tear that streaked across his weathered and white-bearded face. He wiped at it with a callused hand. The wind’s insistent presence masked any sounds of movement, and there had been scarcely a trace found of the man that he and the others from Kenna had pursued all afternoon. The morning had revealed a hastily beaten path along the Coldwell’s banks, headed southeast into the forest and mountains. Their prey should have been more careful than that, as any local would have used the well-worn gully further upstream. It was a sign as obvious as a smoking fire.
A hand grasped his shoulder and Wolcott turned quickly, hunting knife drawn. A younger man with curly brown hair and the beginnings of a beard stepped back. Wolcott sighed. It was Feddoran.
“Come with me,” the boy shouted over the wind, “Willit found something.”
The woodsman backtracked and climbed after his friend up the valley’s slope. Under a ledge that wound its way like a scar on the landscape, some of the undergrowth had been cleared and a pit hollowed in the rocky soil. Blackened leaves and twigs filled the depression. Wolcott kneeled and stuck his fingers in the ashes. They were faintly warm.
Across from him, one of the men looked on with hunched shoulders, as if it took all his strength to keep his hands still. And while the man’s square jaw projected an image of steadiness, muscles twitched just beneath the skin.
“He can’t hide forever.”
“No,” Wolcott agreed, brushing his fingers clean. “He can’t.”
There were tracks continuing eastward in the soft earth, staying close to the ledge. Rising to his feet, the old man wondered numbly how this had all come to pass. A sennight prior, there had been no hunt, no worry, no distrust …
A dozen arms tensed. Grunts escaped tightly clenched lips. The old, grizzled trunk rose begrudgingly from its rest as men on either side of it lifted it from the ground.
Wolcott came forward to throw a broad leather strap, blessed by a wizard for strength, over the end. The strap fit snuggly, and he worked to pull it down further on what would become one of the two central posts for the new dock. Around him, the men strained to keep the thick trunk upright.
“C’mon, Wolcott,” cried a voice in the distance.
The woodsman ignored the jeer and continued his work. The strap had to be placed an arm’s length from the top of the trunk, to be later covered with rope that would help bind the pillar to the beam nailed to it.
“Are ya’ going to strap it or fark it?” the voice interrupted again.
Wolcott became increasingly aware of the strained breathing of the surrounding men. Giving one final tug, he pushed the strap down to the appropriate position. He stepped back and motioned to the group. The men groaned and let the beam thud to the ground, a cloud of dust lifting with its impact.
Wolcott’s taunter was revealed as the dust blew away, a comely, fair-haired lad stripped to his waist, who sat atop one of the finished posts in the riverbed.
“Hylan,” the woodsman yelled back. “Remind me again why I dunnit take my hammer to your thick head?”
“Because you’d ruin a good hammer,” Feddoran answered from behind.
The gathering of men laughed. The building of the new dock was a fairly light-hearted affair. Most of the workers came from the lands and fields surrounding Kenna and were eager to help in the construction. The new dock would help accommodate growing river traffic on the Coldwell and bring more trading to the young village. Already, a new merchant’s house was going up on Main Street in anticipation of the dock’s completion.
“What’s going through your mind, Wolcott?”
Feddoran appeared at the woodsman’s elbow, the youth wiping a film of sweat from his brow. He was a small lad who came up just above Wolcott’s shoulder. Being on the younger side, Feddoran was prone to being pushed around by the others and Wolcott had struck up a fatherly relationship with him. The woodsman’s own children had never lived out of childhood.
“Just a lot of nonsense, Feddoran,” Wolcott sighed. “It seems only a sennight ago Elijah and Mariel Kenna were setting up their trading post here … Now look at the place.” He motioned to the throng of children that were playing at the water’s edge, the dozen other men involved in the cutting of planks and splitting of lumber for the dock.
“Times change,” Feddoran agreed, although the young man was hardly of the age to remember the old days. “My father says that maybe, at some point soon, Kenna will be larger than Dargon if it keeps growing at this pace!”
Wolcott shook his head at the lofty vision. “No, times aren’t changing that fast,” the old man muttered. “And I wouldn’t want them to. There are some things better left in Dargon that I wouldn’t want in Kenna — and that you would not want either.” Feddoran was too young to know the harshness of the world, or what its harshness did to others.
A few catcalls and whistles interrupted their conversation. Wolcott turned to catch Naris, Hylan’s girl, walking towards the group, a stranger in tow. Skirts in hand, she picked her way among the wood chips and logs, shooting a disarming grin at a number of admirers who returned the gesture happily. She was an image of beauty — a delicate chin and full lips beneath soft, brown eyes crowned by long lashes. Wolcott chuckled as he saw Feddoran straighten his posture.
“Naris, who’s yer new beau?” someone called out.
“Looks like he delivers more’n Hylan can offer!” another cried.
The stranger behind her smiled tentatively, his eyes moving from unknown face to unknown face. He was thin of build with rough-cut black hair and ragged boots. The mended pack and unshaven face stood in sharp contrast to his pale blue eyes, alert and scrutinizing the scene around him. This was a man who knew the harshness of the world.
“What’s this?” a voice called out. Hylan’s face appeared amidst the crowd and he rushed determinedly towards Naris, lifting her off her feet and throwing her over his shoulder. She squealed and beat her hands against his rump, much to the delight of the gathered men.
“Put me down, Hylan!” she yelled.
“What? Who said that?” Hylan asked. He turned around mockingly, looking for the source of the voice. Laughs burst out in the crowd.
“You know perfectly well who said that,” Naris replied, “and if you dunnit put me down this instant, you won’t ever get a chance to put me down again, if you get my meaning!”
A number of the men chuckled and Hylan’s eyes grew wide in mock fear. He squatted to let Naris down, and as she regained her balance she thumped him heartily on the chest with a balled fist.
“Ow!” Hylan answered, catching her wrists. “Well, dearest, how do you expect me to react when you bring a new man about?”
“This man is for Wolcott,” she stated, her cheeks flushed.
“Ho, ho!” Hylan replied. He let go of her and stepped back to throw a sweaty arm around Wolcott’s shoulders. “That’s right nice of you, Naris! The woodsman doesn’t seem to have much luck with the ladies! Perhaps a man would serve him well.”
A few more whistles cut the air.
The girl came forward and put a hand on Wolcott’s face, patting it gently: “He stays away from the ladies because I keep ‘im well satisfied, love.”
The gathered crowd roared in response.
Wolcott rolled his eyes and shrugged off Hylan’s embrace. “Enough of this, you two! Ol’s Balls, if you talk this much when alone it’s a wonder you ever get a chance to kiss!” He turned to the stranger. “You’ll excuse your welcome, sir. My name is Wolcott Thyle, a woodsman who has to put up with these runts. How do men know you?”
The stranger grinned at Hylan and Naris, appearing amused by their antics. “By the name of Graham Walker, sir.”
“Well, Graham, how can we be of help?”
“He comes from Dargon,” Naris volunteered.
“Yes,” Graham answered, nodding to her. “I heard upriver that there was need of men in Kenna to help build a bridge?”
“Dock,” Wolcott corrected, “but we need carpentry skills nonetheless. Do you have such skills?”
Hylan came forward and poked Graham’s arms. “I dunnit know, Wolcott,” the man tsked. He circled the stranger and looked at him as if he were appraising a horse. “Thin arms, flat chest … You know them Dargonites. He dunnit look like he has enough skill to nail a board.”
Without missing a beat, Graham met Hylan’s gaze and replied: “Why don’t you ask Naris? She knows my nailing quite well.”
The men surrounding them laughed hard at Hylan’s shocked look and Naris came up to Graham and intertwined his arm in her own.
Wolcott extended a hand in friendship to the newcomer at once, saying: “Any man who can make Hylan eat his own words is welcome in Kenna, my friend.”
“My friend …”
Darkness had fallen across the wood, and the band from Kenna had camped for the evening after following a trail haphazardly east and south deeper into the mountain range. They caught no glimpse of the fugitive, and his tracks were lost from time to time among the scree and crags. The group had spread themselves apart, Feddoran and Willit bringing up the rear and occasionally scouting behind to see if their prey had looped back.
Wolcott sat across from Hylan, a fire between them. The younger man, once a source of endless jokes and pranks now stared vacantly into the flames, casually breaking twigs at his feet and throwing them into the crackling mass. The laughing, jovial Hylan had been broken, much like the twigs in his hands, and his remains cast into a flame that could not be so easily extinguished.
“We should cut a trail southward tomorrow,” Wolcott said suddenly, breaking the silence which had prevailed since setting camp. “It’s possible we may get ahead of his trail once he realizes he cannot cross Marrow’s Gorge.”
Hylan shrugged his shoulders noncommittally.
Wolcott watched the darkness that gathered about his friend’s shoulders and face. It was deeper than merely shadows cast from the surrounding forest. Bits of the woodland leaves and twigs littered Hylan’s blonde hair, emphasizing a look of madness. The woodsman couldn’t recall ever seeing the youth look this way.
“It wasn’t your fault, Hylan,” Wolcott offered across the distance.
Hylan raised his eyes from the fire. In their depths smoldered a deeper flame.
“Isn’t it?” he asked simply. He looked to say more but then closed his mouth, tightening his lips against his teeth.
“We seek the man who performed the wrong,” Wolcott countered.
“Oh, I know who committed the greater wrong, woodsman.” Hylan nodded slightly, drawing his knees up to his chest and hugging them with broad arms. “But there are other wrongs to account for.”
Wolcott didn’t answer, unsure of how to respond.
“There was a wrong of jealousy,” Hylan continued, moving his gaze back to the fire. “A wrong of mistrust and of leaving her to walk home — ” his voice choked and he stopped speaking, swallowing with difficulty.
There was a rustle from the darkness and Feddoran came into the fire’s light. He moved his gaze from Hylan to Wolcott uncertainly, aware that he had walked into a conversation.
“What do you want, Feddoran?” Hylan asked thickly, his eyes glassy but fierce.
The younger man squatted by the fire’s edge, again turning his head, first to Wolcott, then to Hylan. “Willit and I didn’t spot any fires in the distance …” he started hesitantly. “And I was thinking about our pursuit … about which way we should go in the morning. Wolcott and I spoke of this earlier. I know he’s of the mind to try and cut the fugitive off. But I wondered if we should not go south but instead travel east?”
Hylan glared at him contemptuously. “We go south,” he answered.
“But the trails show him going east,” Feddoran protested. “If we go south, we may lose him.”
“Marrow’s Gorge will stop his passing,” Wolcott said. “And he will not dare the higher peaks to the north. Other men from Kenna were sent to warn the brothers of Coldwell Abbey. They know to be on the lookout for his passage. It also seems likely that the fugitive knows there are pursuers. If we travel south, we’ll intercept his passage.”
“But won’t a madman dare anything to prevent capture?” Feddoran asked.
“Your decision-making isn’t worth Nehru’s Pointy Nose, Feddoran,” Hylan snapped. “You’ve been incompetent since the day you were born. Leave the decisions to the men.”
Feddoran’s face turned red, noticeable even in the firelight. “Well at least I’m doing something to help, Hylan.”
“Help?” Hylan shouted. He rose to his feet, fists bunched. “You question my contribution?”
Wolcott rose quickly, intercepting Hylan’s movement towards Feddoran. It was a feeling of helplessness that drove this argument. “Hylan,” he commanded. “We are all helping in this quest. Dunnit get angry at Feddoran for simply making a suggestion.”
There was murder in Hylan’s grimace and his fists trembled. He lowered his arms and swallowed heavily. Wiping his eyes with haste, he stumbled toward the forest and disappeared from sight. Feddoran was left shaking by the fire.
“Thank you, Wolcott,” he said.
“Dunnit mind me,” the woodsman replied sharply, “mind your tongue. Hylan should not have come with us in this state. I should have had the presence of mind to forbid it, but he’s here and there’s naught we can do now. His memories are clouding his thoughts, driving him to act. It’s best that we all look to not anger him further.”
Feddoran nodded. “I kn-know,” he stuttered, “I didn’t mean to make him think …” his words drifted into the night.
Wolcott continued to stare in the direction Hylan had gone. Memories were dangerous things, lurking in the back of one’s mind. The woodsman had his own memories to deal with, trying to determine where his judgement had gone wrong …
“How goes the dock, boys?”
“It goes, Elijah.”
Wolcott and Hylan sat in the back of the River’s Edge, a tavern on Kenna’s Main Street. The two drank ale while mopping the remains of their stew with last night’s bread. Elijah Kenna, one of the city’s founders, took a seat between them, producing a flask from his satchel and placing it squarely on the table.
“What’s this?” Hylan asked, greedily taking the bottle into his hands.
“Sarna’s Blood,” Kenna answered. He reached over and took the flask back. Unstopping the cork, he poured some into the two men’s cups. Wolcott made a movement to stop him, but Hylan pushed his hands away.
“Come on, woodsman! You spend your day ordering us about, playing at lord, enjoy some of the rewards!”
“Hylan has a point,” Elijah agreed. “Let’s celebrate somewhat, Wolcott. I’ve been to your home in the woods, I know you enjoy a good drink.” He winked conspiratorially. “Besides, it seems that you and the men make good progress.”
“If you call the jokes and the pranks progress …” Wolcott muttered between bites.
“They’re harmless, Wolcott!”
“What pranks?” Kenna asked.
At that moment the newcomer, Graham, entered the empty tavern, his clothes thoroughly drenched. He’d been with the group for several days now and unfortunately had been the butt of many a joke.
Wolcott groaned and pointed towards the stranger. “Throw you into the river again, Graham?”
“One could say that,” Graham replied. He pulled off his shirt and walked towards the group. The back of the tavern was where most of the out-of-town workers slept.
“We all know Dargonites like to keep clean,” Hylan chuckled under his breath.
Wolcott glared at his friend. “Elijah,” he asked, changing the subject, “have you met our newest man, Graham Walker of Dargon? I dunnit believe he was here last you came ’round.”
Graham bowed while undoing his trousers. “You’ll excuse my state milord, I don’t usually bare myself to strangers on our first meeting.”
Elijah laughed, “It’s all right, Graham. When you’re through, sit down and have a drink with us!”
“Yes, Graham,” Hylan said, “Elijah’s broken out the heavy brew!”
The Dargonian rummaged through his belongings and pulled off his trousers. “No thanks, gents. I’ll take a glass of ale, but I’m just as happy to stay away from the stiffer drinks. I roamed Dargon at the bottom of a cask for a few seasons. It’s a familiar poison I could do without.”
“Graham,” Elijah Kenna called, “What is that mark you bear?”
Wolcott had noticed it as well, at another time when the man had been thrown into the river. A fist-sized blossom lay on his waist with something that looked like lettering at its center. The woodsman couldn’t read, so he had no idea what it said.
“Just a mark, my lord, nothing more.”
“I’d hardly recognize it if I hadn’t spent some time in Magnus,” Kenna said to Wolcott. “Isn’t that a mark of the Bardic College?” he called out.
“Yes,” Graham said, throwing his wet clothes into a corner, “but I have never attended. ‘Twas a joke — from some comrades who remarked on my singing ability and took advantage of my drunken state.”
“Does the naked bird sing?” Naris’ voice interrupted. She stood at the door to the tavern, leaning against its threshold and grinning wickedly.
Graham grabbed a shirt and covered himself hastily while the other men shouted at her.
“Naris!” Hylan yelled and rose to his feet. The girl winked before ducking back out. Graham pulled the shirt over his body and shook his head. “That girl is a handful, Hylan.”
“For all her flirting, Graham, her heart belongs to me,” the fair-haired man responded, still frowning at the door.
The Dargonian pulled on a dry set of pants, and only Wolcott noticed the sly smile on his face. “She has a queer way of showing it,” Graham remarked.
“What do you see?”
Wolcott lowered his hand from his eyes. “Not enough,” he answered.
The Darst woodlands still held too much foliage for him to glimpse any details beneath their canopy. Wolcott was not used to hunting men. Bears and wolves, those were his usual fare and their actions were predictable: find the lair or the watering hole and lay in wait; you’d be likely to find the prey then. But here he was laying traps and guessing the mind of a criminal in the foothills of the granite range.
Hylan hadn’t returned that night, but instead appeared as the camp was being disbanded. Wolcott had dreamed of the man searching the forest by moonlight, trying to find the source of his distress and twist its dark-haired head from its body. The woodsman wasn’t even sure what he’d do when they found Graham. Could he really prevent Hylan from exacting his revenge? Didn’t the Dargonian deserve his fate?
Feddoran stood a dozen steps behind, surveying another expanse of land. The wind, blowing from the direction of Gor Gariner, had picked up again in the morning, as if conspiring against them. It whipped past the two men on the outcrop even now, making hearing any noises from the valleys below impossible. Marrow’s Gorge, several peaks north and visible only as a grim, jagged line from this distance, should have stopped Graham’s progress. That is, unless the madness which prompted his crime also drove him to commit suicide. The chasm’s walls were steep enough to prevent crossing unless a traveler hiked far north or south to find a natural bridge. It was unlikely Graham would risk coming across them by traveling north.
“You know, I still have nightmares,” Feddoran said unexpectedly.
Wolcott turned. The younger man surveyed the land before him without emotion, almost unwilling to meet the woodsman’s eyes.
“It was a horrible sight,” Wolcott replied.
“Naris’ body, yes,” Feddoran said, nodding. “But I also mean of Graham’s tale that night. The hunting … the restlessness … I’ve never heard a song of that ilk.” Almost level with them, a hawk circled above one of the valleys, riding the currents of the mountains expertly and almost lazily. It, too, was hunting. “Do you ever feel what Graham spoke of?”
Wolcott thought about the question for a moment. Had he ever felt that way? He stooped to pick up a rock at his feet. “Of murder? No, Feddoran. But the passion, the feeling of something within? Yes, lad, I do. I think every man does at some point in his life.” He threw the stone out above the colored mantle of the forest, watching its journey as it fell among some of the trees further out. “The human soul is full of passions, not all of them of good intent. If it’s any consolation, it lessens with age. Come on, let’s head towards the river. He couldn’t possibly pass us higher.”
The wind whistled at their backs as they descended, its melody a dark song, just as puzzling and seductive as Graham’s on that fatal night …
The group of men brought the tankards to their lips, slamming back the contents, some of which splashed about their chins and down the fronts of untucked, unlaced shirts. The evening’s revelry had started a bell prior.
Wolcott and Naris stood at the door to the River’s Edge, taking in the scene before them.
Hylan sat at a table by the hearth’s side, drinking greedily with the group. He brought his tankard down first, thumping its bottom against the table and wiping his mouth while laughing. “Now that’s what I call work!” he announced to the men around him.
Graham also sat at Hylan’s table, albeit slumped with a mug spilled by his arms. Wolcott approached and sat down across from him while Naris took a seat beside the Dargonian.
“Graham?” Wolcott called. The man raised his head slowly. “Hylan, what’s the meaning of this? I thought Graham didn’t drink heavily?”
“He didn’t, up until a bell ago,” Hylan winked. “The boy asked for some ale and that’s what we gave him, more or less …” The men around him broke into laughter. “It’s a shame our pretty Dargonite can’t hold his liquor better.”
“Oh, Hylan!” Naris scolded. She started to pat Graham’s cheeks to awaken him but Hylan grabbed her arms and pushed her away roughly.
“Dunnit touch him!” Hylan growled, his eyes full of anger. “He’ll be fine.” He put a friendly arm around Graham’s shoulder. “How do you feel, Dargonite?”
Graham shook his head, his eyes unfocused. “What’s going on?” he asked. More laughter from those at the other tables.
“We’re hoping Graham will sing for us,” Feddoran shouted from across the room. Naris’ eavesdropping had made its way around the workers the day before. Now the men in the tavern started banging their cups against the tables in unison, chanting loudly “Sing! Sing! Sing!”
Graham stood up unsteadily, a severe look on his face.
“Stop!” he shouted, but the chanting continued. “I do not sing,” he declared. But, for a moment his strength sapped and he leaned one arm heavily against the table. “I mustn’t …” he mumbled, as if pleading to Wolcott and Naris.
“Aw,” Hylan chided. “What’s the matter with our Dargonite bard? What’s happened to your golden tongue, Graham? Did some pretty pussy trap it?” He took another long draught and looked accusingly at Naris.
“I’m warning you, Hylan,” Graham snarled.
“Ah, he probally wannit any good at it anyway,” someone else chimed in.
At that remark, Graham’s back straightened as if an invisible hand had jerked the strings of his pride. “Any good at it?” he shouted. He let out a laugh, a look of incredulity on his bleary face. “Good at it?” he repeated. “Oh you idiots!” His laughter changed into a shriek.
“All of you! Look at you!” he declared. He picked up his discarded mug in a fist and threw it at one of the men at another table. “You sit in your safe little houses, your cozy groups of friendships. Has any of you ever been to Magnus? Been beyond Dargon?”
Some of the men in the room stirred, muttering amongst themselves, but no one answered the question.
“I didn’t think so,” Graham replied derisively. “You act all high and mighty here in Kenna, under the watchful eye of Elijah and Wolcott — but this is no city, no destination worth traveling to. You fool yourselves in your naivete!”
“Graham,” Naris pleaded, pulling at his arm. “Please, sit down.”
“No,” Hylan called from his seat, his eyes glittering dangerously. “Why dunnit you enlighten us, Graham? Share some of your worldly wisdom.” Around the room, a few of the other men echoed Hylan’s statement.
Graham stood there, his fists clenched, as if holding an internal debate. But as the taunting calls for his wisdom grew, his fingers eased, as if some battle had been resolved.
“My worldly wisdom,” he snorted. “I have no worldly wisdom to share, Hylan. I have stories: stories of men’s cruelties, wives’ infidelities, and the world’s ideas of justice. I have despair, Hylan, that’s what I have.”
He stumbled away from Wolcott and Naris, over to the neighboring table and took a man’s tankard straight from his hands. Gulping down the contents, he tossed it onto the rough planks of the floor and kicked it.
“Each of you knows despair, don’t you?” he asked, almost cheerily. “Or perhaps you’re too simple-minded for it. You know lust, don’t you?” At the mention of the word lust, some of the more drunken men stirred. Graham nodded smugly. “There’s an easy emotion. Yes, each one of you knows that. I’ve seen it in your eyes from time to time. But have any of you ever acknowledged it? Acknowledged how deeply it courses within you?”
Graham stopped in the middle of the room and lifted his head to the bare, wooden supports of the tavern. From his throat issued a song the men could not identify, but in its sweet melody and haunting notes it spoke of darkness. Dangerous shadows grew in the corners, and the roaring fire burned more intensely behind the Dargonian, transforming him into a silhouette of a man, a demon borne of the hearth’s anger. Wolcott could not tear his eyes from Graham’s form; his growing terror would not allow it. Around him, at the other tables, the fidgeting and drinking stopped. The room’s attention focused on Graham utterly.
The vocals from the song ceased, but the would-be bard did not drop his eyes from the ceiling. Graham looked up with a fierce passion, the lines of his neck strained. “I once knew a man who knew lust,” he hummed. “A lust so strong it would choke any of you who tasted it.
“He went by the name of Delial Barrond. A simple man, much of the likes of all of you. He had no family worth speaking of and lived in a village, much like this sopping pit in the center of nowhere. He worked hard, he drank with his so-called friends, but in his breast he harbored a secret. A deep secret that he shared with no one. Not his father, not his friends, not even with the occasional wench that shared his bed.”
Graham dropped his gaze, leveled it at Hylan. “In every man’s heart lies a burden, a secret self: the dark side, which fills his loins and fires his fists.” Graham’s silhouette boxed playfully before the hearth. Those nearest to his wild lunges flinched. “He who walks with cautious steps and withheld breath deceives himself. All men fight to contain their wild selves, this is no new knowledge. But do you know Barrond’s secret? That which he wished no one to know?”
He paused dramatically. “His secret? Barrond had ceased that struggle! He could not quench the lustful thoughts that filled his head while about his work in the village, the rage that boiled his blood when he was put in his place within the pecking order.
“There were nights,” Graham dropped his voice to a murmur, “restless nights when Barrond turned within his linens, when the cloth felt like straps that restrained him, unable to let him slumber in the solace of darkness.
“Aye men, you know the feeling, don’t you?” Graham leered, drawing close to some of the tables and staring deep into the faces that watched him. “Those nights when the sweat gathers at your temples and you’re aware of every muscle in your body? The nights when the moon’s blood courses within you, raising the heat between your legs? Those were Delial Barrond nights.”
Another burst of song issued from Graham’s throat, sharp and unexpected. Wolcott felt his stomach clench at the sound and, for the first time in years, a deeper heat blushed within him: a heat of youth that he had misplaced or forgotten. He turned from Graham for a moment to catch a glimpse of Naris and felt an old stirring between his legs.
“He took to walking the forests when the mood became unbearable,” Graham continued, drawing Wolcott’s attention back. “For in the heart of every man lies a beast whose home is the dark sanctuary of the forest. He stalked things in the wild woods: buck, boar, and wolfhound. There were nights he could not even remember. There were mornings when Barrond would awaken on the floor of his home naked, his body littered with bruises and scratches, sometimes with dark stains under his fingernails.
“Until one early morning, when he awoke and tasted the heavy, coppery taste of blood on his lips … smelled blood on his chest and arms, on his cod. And it was not his blood.”
The crackling of the fire filled the absence of sound. Graham hummed softly, weaving his song, but spoke no words. One of the men, Willit, finally dared the question: “Whose blood was it?”
“A maiden’s!” Graham responded gleefully, his teeth bared in the firelight. He was back by the table with Naris and Hylan. “Barrond found her in his bed, her clothing torn, her pale, supple skin ravaged with gashes and wounds, her throat bloodied with the marks of human teeth.” Graham turned to Naris for the first time, taking her chin in his thin, long fingers and studied her with sad eyes. “She was beautiful and innocent,” he uttered softly. “A woman who knew not her danger, the threat from the man who harmed her.”
“Was she dead?” Naris asked, her eyes tearful. Her arms were crossed over her breasts, as if she were trying to hide her femininity.
“Most certainly,” Graham replied. “Barrond was not enough of a man to control himself. Or perhaps he was too much of a man. That is the deeper question. His next thought was to escape — to run away before the maiden’s family discovered her absence, but he was a fool. He was found and chased to his death by the very men he once called his friends.”
The room fell silent again. All at once, the color drained from Graham’s face and his shoulders sagged, as if he had just released an enormous burden. Wolcott thought the stranger was going to be sick. Graham tried to seat himself on the ground but fell clumsily. Wolcott rose and came to his aid, but was pushed away roughly.
“What have I done?” the Dargonian whimpered.
“Nothing, Graham, come,” Wolcott said. “We’ll get you to bed.”
“I can’t go to bed!” he shouted. “I must walk. I must … get out of here.” He scrambled to his feet, grabbing the nearby tables for support, and bolted from the room.
Naris turned to her boyfriend, her arms still held defensively before her. “Are you pleased with yourself, Hylan?”
Hylan finished his draught and stood uncertainly. Without a word he stumbled between the tables and out of the room, venturing out a different door than Graham into the night beyond.
Looking after him, Naris shook her head, then shuddered. “Wolcott,” she asked, rising to her feet. “Will you walk me home?”
“Westward!” Hylan’s angry shout echoed like a mandate through the quiet, dying woods. And Graham appeared to be listening. The wind had quieted a bell before dusk, and in the newfound silence they had heard their hunt’s shambling footsteps in the forest’s cover of brittle leaves. Gor Gariner could no longer shelter its kindred spirit.
Wolcott saw Graham in the distance, a small skittering figure climbing desperately over fallen limbs and around rocks. The woodsman and the others followed mercilessly, Feddoran the closest of them all, running through the forest and attempting to cut off any chance of escape. But the fugitive was being driven upwards, up the flank of a peak. There was no chance of his escape in those craggy heights.
“He was found and chased to his death by the very men he once called friends …”
Wolcott had walked the girl home to her door, returning to the River’s Edge afterwards and falling into a restless sleep. But that had not been enough to protect her. Naris’ body had been discovered in the woods the morning after the tale, her pale, beautiful skin ravaged with scratches and gashes, her fingernails caked in blood. Her throat … Wolcott’s mouth tightened at the memory. Graham was nowhere to be found. Why the stranger had chosen to enact his tale was anyone’s guess.
Feddoran’s cry cut through the mountains. Wolcott found a last measure of strength to hurry his pace, scrambling around a boulder to find Hylan, Feddoran and Willit perched at a cliff’s edge. They turned as Wolcott approached.
“So this is the end of the story?” Wolcott asked grimly.
“Chased to his death …” he thought.
He went to the edge and saw that down below, the closer bank of the Coldwell cut near the side of the mountain, with rocks and shallows abounding.
“He couldn’t survive that,” Feddoran whispered, his face stricken, just like the morning the villagers had found Naris’ body.
“We will find the remains,” Hylan answered, his eyes never once leaving the surface of the river.
“Very well,” Wolcott said. “Hylan, you stay here to watch the river. Feddoran, Willit, and myself will go down below to start combing the banks. Alert us if you see any movement. Once we find the Dargonian’s body, we can put this sad tale behind us.”