A sickening feeling grew in the pit of Graham Walker’s stomach as his battered feet catapulted him beyond the edge of the cliff. As he launched himself into the air, out into the empty space of wind, a strange sensation of freedom and terror overwhelmed him. He felt his body tip agonizingly forward and his hands came up, futilely trying to reestablish balance. Before him spread the autumn grandeur of the Darst forest and mountain range, the chill wind of its embrace blowing off the Coldwell River far below and enveloping his body in a thrilling but deadly kiss. He heard the soft, flapping sound of cloth rippling about his arms and legs.
He barely heard Feddoran, one of the men from Kenna who had pursued him, shouting his name. In what could only be a moment, but what stretched before him like a thousand years, visions of his past bombarded him: the Hall of Warriors in Magnus, with its larger than life heroes carved out of solid rock; Port Sevlyn, its docks and streets still reeking of char from the inferno loosed upon them during the war with Beinison; the kindly woodsman Wolcott, offering him a job in the small but prosperous village of Kenna; the angry, jealous stare of the man Hylan as his girlfriend Naris paid more attention to Graham … Naris!
His feet broke the surface of the water first, a sharp, stinging pain slapping his legs. He felt himself plunge like a fist into a barrel of rainwater, a torrent of air bubbles rushing up the sides of his neck and tickling the back of his head. A sudden impact halted his descent. His left arm caught on some debris that tore away from him. Graham felt the bones break somewhere between his wrist and elbow and the pain that exploded through his body caused him to cry out. The river swallowed his scream.
He very nearly passed out, but as he choked on river water, the panic mounting in his chest demanded his attention. The current wrestled his body into submission, tumbling him head over heels, sometimes pushing him into and around submerged rocks that formed a rapids in this shoulder of the broad Coldwell. He lost his sense of direction in the tumult.
Furiously, Graham kicked out with his feet, fighting for his life in whatever direction the river held him. He vaguely made out light somewhere above. He kicked further, the lack of air in his lungs burning his chest.
As if the hand of the Coldwell uncurled its cold fist, his body moved upwards, and his face broke the surface of the water. Graham gasped for air, another slosh of water entering his desperate mouth. The world disappeared as he submerged again. He felt a hard object brush against his body and he reached out for it. It was a tree trunk, thick and solid, and it allowed him to get an anchor to push his head further out of the water.
He gulped the air greedily, trying his hardest not to cry out. He could not scream. He could *not*. The men from Kenna would hear him. They would hear him. But the pain in his broken bones swelled, and as he slipped in the water and became more entangled in the branches of the driftwood, the world shook itself in his head and he blacked out.
He slipped in and out of consciousness several times on his journey down the Coldwell, the tree branch serving as his cradle. With each successive wake he saw the sky darken. So severe was his pain that at times he wondered if he was truly awake or simply dreaming the stars glittering white and pure far above him.
The stars. He remembered looking upon them many times in his journeys across Baranur. Some nights he would pray to them, asking them for guidance, for they were the only evidence of beauty in this world. He did not believe in any god. There could be no god for what he had seen and done in this land. Deeper memories surfaced: he recalled the painted face of a whore in Shark’s Cove, the look of surprise in her eyes frozen for eternity … But Naris had been different. She had been innocent…
The memories stirred feelings of revulsion within him, but he was too weak to push them away. He passed out once again, plagued by dreams of Naris’ beautiful eyes.
When Graham came to, his muddled conscious realized that the trunk was not moving. The gnarled wood’s tendrils must have grabbed hold of the river’s bank sometime during the night. Graham heard his own humming barely audible above the sound of the water rushing below and around him. This time he couldn’t find enough strength in him to care. He finally didn’t care who could hear his song or if anyone should ever come across him again.
“Hail, stranger!” a voice called.
A silhouette blocked his vision, backlit by the rising sun.
“Rose,” it said, but its voice sounded deeper than it had in greeting. “The man’s hurt.”
Another silhouette appeared beside the first, a tinge of red in long hair that spilled about its shoulders. It was smaller and softer about the edges than its companion. “Imagine that,” it remarked. “We go out looking for my cat and he looks like something Old Carrot might’ve dragged back. Is he alive?”
The first silhouette moved closer to touch Graham’s face and brush the hair away from his forehead.
“He lives,” it declared, “but barely. His arm looks broken and his legs are more scratched up than our blankets.”
“I wonder where he comes from?” the second shadow, Rose, asked.
“Dargon,” Graham murmured, unsure if he had even spoken aloud.
“Well the Coldwell doesn’t run backwards, stranger,” the first shadow replied. What was its name? “If you’re from Dargon, you either lost your ship or you fell off the mountain trying to get home.”
“He’s probably a new hunter out with his friends,” Rose chided. “Got drunk and went to pee at night and fell into the Coldwell. Happened to Jarrod last Melrin.”
The first shadow chuckled. “I remember that,” it answered. “But what should we do with him?”
“If we leave him out here, I doubt he’ll survive the day. Let’s take him home. Maybe later you can make the ride into town to find out whom he belongs to. Stranger,” she addressed him. “What is your name?”
“Graham,” he replied painfully. “Men call me Graham.”
Wolcott Thyle pulled the rough, homespun shirt over his wet body, watching the other two men from Kenna who continued the search in the shallows of the Coldwell. The cold had begun to gnaw on the old hunter’s bones and so he withdrew, leaving the task to the younger men. There was one from their small group, however, who didn’t seem up to the task at hand. One who sat a little ways up on the bank, watching listlessly.
Feddoran had been withdrawn since they had caught up with Graham on the mountaintop yesterday afternoon. The men from Kenna had searched for the fugitive’s body as long as the light held out, but eventually they had to break at nightfall and resume at dawn. This part of the Coldwell was littered with fallen trees and meandering shallows. It was taking time to search the crevices where a body might have gotten trapped. Feddoran had helped them scour the banks at first but gradually quieted when some of the others had entered the river to look for the Dargonian’s remains.
Wolcott approached the boy — man, he corrected himself. If there was anything to make a boy into a man, it was what they were doing now. Feddoran looked up as he approached, the youth’s stubbled face expressionless under a mop of curly brown hair.
“What’s the matter?” Wolcott asked.
The young man shook his head. “Nothing,” he muttered.
With a grunt the woodsman set himself down, taking the opportunity to lace his boots. “I dunnit think it’s nothing that has you sitting over here under a dark cloud. There’s something you’re not telling me, so speak up.”
He usually wasn’t a quiet youth, at least around the hunter. There were times Wolcott feared that Feddoran held himself back in the presence of others. Most viewed him as the younger, more inexperienced man of the village. It was true that the others like Hylan and Willit got the attention, if not for their looks then for their loud mouths. While the events of the last few days had shaken everyone up, Wolcott sensed there was more.
The hunter leaned back on his elbows and let out a sigh. “Feddoran, did Graham say anything to you on the mountain? When you found him?”
Feddoran’s shoulders tensed.
So there had been words spoken. Wolcott was intrigued. He hadn’t poised the question last night while Hylan was present. Better to find the body and be on their way back rather than continue to rub salt in old wounds. “What did he say, Feddoran? Did he offer any explanation?”
“No,” the young man whispered harshly. “He said nothing.” He looked up from his feet and into the old man’s eyes. “I came upon him at the cliffside and he simply looked at me, Wolcott. This look … I dunnit know if it was regret or sorrow … He didn’t breathe a word but just looked at me.”
“Did you say anything to him?”
Feddoran turned back to the river. “What could I have said?” he asked. “It was only for a few moments. He jumped before I could do anything else.”
The two of them fell silent and let the sounds of the world fill the void. Before them, the Coldwell stretched out wide and peaceful, as if it were oblivious to the drama that had unfolded along its banks just the other day. Crows echoed in the groves of multi-colored trees behind them. As if in response, the wind picked up and shook the branches of a few stately elms, dislodging some of the leaves that had grown too weak to cling any longer.
In an effort to soothe his friend, Wolcott reached out a hand and laid it on the young man’s shoulder, but the other winced at the contact, as if stung.
“Your shoulder,” the woodsman commented. “You’ve hurt yourself.”
Feddoran shook off the grasp and stood up. “I hurt it during the chase. We climbed so many farking rocks it’s a good thing none of *us* fell into the river.”
Their conversation was interrupted as one of the other men from Kenna made his way over to them from the riverbank. It was Hylan, his blonde hair plastered to his forehead and rivulets of water tracing their way down his chest. River dredge clung to his arms and waist, as if the Coldwell refused to cleanse him.
“There’s still no sign of the body,” he stated coldly.
“We’ll keep looking,” Wolcott sighed. “If we can’t find it, we’ll go back to Kenna and get one of the midwives to dowse for it.”
Hylan crossed his arms, immovable. “He could still be alive,” he said. “If we go back home this early we could lose him.”
Feddoran stared in amazement. “Hylan, he couldn’t have survived that fall!”
Hylan barely glanced at the youth. “I won’t have Naris’ murderer slip my grasp twice. The rest of you can go back to Kenna if you like, but I’ll stay here to look for him. Unlike some others, I won’t let him get away.”
Feddoran’s back straightened in indignity. Wolcott started to reprimand Hylan, but Feddoran turned and stalked away into the woods. It had been an uncomfortable night when they had set camp. Hylan had disappeared once or twice into the dark of the forest. The hunter guessed the man had gone down to the river to listen — to make sure no one was sneaking along its shores.
“So you want to stay behind,” Wolcott said, getting to his feet. He walked forward until he stood uncomfortably close to the other man. Hylan didn’t give ground, river water dripping into his dark, inset eyes. The two men’s noses were about a hand’s length apart, the old man’s gray eyes piercing a younger man’s brown. “What will you do, Hylan? Will you search these woods alone?”
Hylan said nothing, his gaze unflinching.
Wolcott had bested larger men in his time. No matter the grief, Hylan had been nothing short of obsessive since they started this trip, and nothing but cruel to Feddoran. “You listen carefully,” the hunter said, lowly. “You can not force any of us to stay with you, so if you’re planning on going on a bloody manhunt, you better be prepared to do it alone.”
Hylan continued his glare for a moment or two longer, then took in a deep breath and staggered back, a hand coming up to clench the space between his eyes. His breath shook for a moment, as he fought to gain control of himself.
Wolcott felt a pang in his heart. The old Hylan still existed under the stone mask and harsh words. The hunter came up to the man who had brutally lost his love, and put a comforting hand on the back of his neck.
“Easy, lad. It will be all right. We’ll find him,” the hunter soothed. “We will continue to look around here for a bell. If we can’t find him, we’ll go on down the river. Regardless of whether Graham lived or no, he wouldn’t have been in any shape to swim upstream. More likely we’ll find his body further down. And if not there, Kenna won’t be able to miss him if he drifts by.”
Hylan nodded, his hand still covering his eyes, wiping away a few grudgingly shed tears. Without uttering a response, however, he turned back to the river, his shoulders knotted in grief.
Rose watched her husband Herrit lay the stranger gingerly onto their sleeping pallet. The hearth wasn’t far removed, a pot of last night’s stew still sitting over the cold embers. Nothing in their small, wood-planked home was far removed from anything else. The pallet by the hearth lay on one side, a pantry of dried herbs and other stores taking up an adjacent wall. A small table and two chairs, carved by Herrit himself, stood near the door. The shack was nestled in some of the steeper climbs of the Darst Range, overlooking the Coldwell far below. It wasn’t fancy, but it served to keep them sheltered from the elements, provided they closed the door tight.
“We better not make a habit of bringing people home every time we go looking for that stupid cat,” Herrit said, stretching his shoulder after carrying the man up the hill.
The stranger’s eyes opened briefly, a glassy, far-off look in their depths.
Where have you gone?
Your master’s a-worried
And home all alone.”
Herrit looked down at the man and snorted. “He’s a poet.”
The man named Graham came in and out of consciousness throughout the entire trip up the mount. At times he had seemed on the verge of tears, mumbling about the stars or this or that. Rose squatted down to put her hand on his forehead and found it warm.
“He has a fever,” she declared.
Herrit nodded. “It’s a good thing we found him when we did. It coulda’ been a lot worse. Do you have the herbs for it?”
Rose went to the corner where two small racks stood, their shelves crowded with earthen jars of various shapes and sizes. She fished out the one she was looking for: a squat, blue-tinged clay pot. She undid the twine around its cloth top and had to look away as the pungent odor of skunkweed stung her eyes.
Herrit wrinkled his nose from where he sat. “I guess we do,” he said.
“We had better get him out of those clothes, though,” Rose answered, pulling out a few straggly roots. “We have some extra blankets in the chest.”
Her husband leaned over and pulled some old quilts out of their cedar chest, then started to carefully pull off Graham’s shirt. He treated the broken arm with care, then grabbed a board by the hearth to use as a splint. But as Herrit lay it by the hearthside, he paused. “Rose, come look at this.”
“What is it?” she asked, wrapping up the jar in her hands.
“The man has a mark on him.”
She saw Herrit looking puzzled at the man’s waist. Setting the jar back on its rack, she walked over, placing the skunkweed roots in the stewpot as she did. On the stranger’s waist there was a tattoo about the size of a man’s hand in the semblance of a rose, its colored petals encircling a decorative initial at the center. Rose grew excited.
“He’s no mercenary,” she muttered. “He’s a bard. That’s the mark of Gesalde, one of the elite houses in Magnus.” She reached out to trace the delicate pattern of vines. Once, in a time that seemed long past, she had studied to be a bard, leaving when her father had been killed in the war with Beinison and all available hands were needed back here, near Kenna. The mark that the stranger bore was something that she and all of her studying friends had yearned for: the sigil of a secret collective who only chose among the best singers to invite into their group. Whoever this man was, he was recognized as an outstanding storyteller.
“Should’ve figured as much,” Herrit said, “the way he’s humming all the time.”
Rose sat back on her heels, quieting her excitement. Examining the mark more carefully, she realized that there was something wrong here.
“We’re not going to have enough to feed him and us tonight,” she said, trying to sound sincere.
“We can eat the stew you made yesterday,” Herrit replied, gesturing at the pot. He used his hunting knife to cut up some strands of cloth and lashed the man’s broken arm to the splint.
“That won’t be enough,” she answered, reaching over to make sure he lined it up straight. Graham cried out as they touched it but Rose put a hand on his chest and tried to quiet him. At least the stranger would likely forget this whole ordeal when he got better. After the arm was set, she continued her argument. “You should go out and catch us something so one of us won’t have to go hungry.”
Her husband stopped what he was doing and stared at her. “What, you want me to leave you alone with him?”
She rolled her eyes at him, pretending that he hadn’t figured out what she was trying to do. They had been married for too long. But she felt it was in Herrit’s best interests. “I want you to get us some food so that your belly won’t keep us up all night.”
Herrit didn’t move.
“What’s he going to do?” she finally exclaimed, pointing at the stranger in exasperation. “Look at him. Broken arm and he had to lean on the both of us just to get up the mount. Just go and fetch us something out of the river. You’re always bragging about your fishing. Should take you no time at all.”
Her husband sighed in disgust. She knew he was only trying to protect her, but he needn’t be so damned possessive. He acted as if she were going to jump on the man the moment he walked out the door. Herrit grabbed his net and pole from beside the entrance and stomped out, not bothering to say goodbye.
Rose was relieved, even though she felt a twinge of guilt at having lied to her husband. She needed some time to talk to this stranger — bard to, well, almost-bard. Herrit got upset whenever she mentioned anything from that part of her life. Maybe he was afraid she missed it, which, from time to time, she did.
If anything, maybe the stranger had news from Magnus to share with her. The feeling of excitement welled in her again as she struck some flint against the hearth, making sparks to ignite the kindling. She wondered if anyone she knew was still in the city.
“I had a cat once.”
Rose turned. Graham’s eyes were narrow slivers of blue in the pale lump of his face. His breathing was returning to normal. The blanket that Herrit had wrapped him in was bunched around his shoulders and neck; he looked small and frail in its embrace.
The fire caught. She fanned it until it was a little stronger, so that the flames grew steadier. “What was its name?” she asked, grabbing some more kindling. When Graham didn’t answer, she looked back and saw that his eyes were closed again. Was he thinking or had he just passed out? No matter. Herrit wasn’t as good a fisher as he bragged. He’d probably be out for a bell trying to catch something.
The fire was established. She let it burn on its own while she stirred the pot to get the skunkweed mixed in with the broth.
Rose heard the answer faintly. Giving the stew one last stir, she moved away from the pot and went to sit next to him. She realized he was humming under his breath, a faint tune she didn’t recognize. Graham opened his eyes as she set herself beside him.
“Did you have your cat during your time in Magnus?” she asked tentatively.
The man’s head tilted in confusion, but there was a glint of recognition in his eyes. Maybe he was becoming more lucid?
“My husband and I saw your mark,” she explained, wringing her hands a little nervously. “Herrit didn’t know what it meant — he thought you were a mercenary,” she laughed. “But I know what it means. I studied in Magnus for a time. You’re a very talented bard if it’s genuine.”
Graham tried to look away, but winced as he moved his splinted arm. “That was a long time ago …” he croaked.
She put a hand on his forearm, feeling that now would be a good a time as any to broach the topic. “You told us your name is Graham,” she said softly, “but that isn’t the letter on your mark.” Herrit couldn’t read — nor would he have understood it if he could. But she knew better. The letter in the mark of Gesalde was supposed to be that of the first initial of the bard. And it was not a ‘G’. “Is Graham your real name?” she asked.
His humming grew more strained, but he didn’t answer her question.
“Stranger,” she said, trying to sound soothing. “I sent my husband off. As I said, I studied in Magnus for a while and so owe some fealty to other bards. I will help you if I can, but only if you’re honest with me. What kind of trouble are you in?”
Graham’s eyes met hers, pools of deep blue filled with a sadness she couldn’t understand. “Let me show you,” he whispered, and his hand reached out from under the blanket to grab her wrist.
Wolcott and the troupe from Kenna had been walking for a bell along the banks of the Coldwell, searching its nooks and inlets carefully as they made their way north. All morning they had continued to look for evidence of the stranger’s demise or his passing, looking for torn bits of clothing, of places where a body could have been caught. But nothing was found. In something akin to paranoia, Hylan had insisted on swimming over to the other side of the Coldwell, to make sure they didn’t lose Graham that way, but Wolcott wasn’t going to let the boy out of his sight. In an effort to appease the lad, the hunter sent Willit over.
Feddoran returned to the group prior to their departure. Maybe he had watched them from the forest or on one of the small mounts that seemed to grow plentiful in this area. The youth made no mention of Hylan’s comment, nor seemed interested in talking further. He kept away from them, sullen, but occasionally paused to investigate some debris along the waterside.
Wolcott wondered what would have happened had they caught Graham. What would he have said if he had been the one to corner the man at the cliffside? For an instant he imagined himself up on the mount with the Dargonian, the wind whipping along its edge. What would a murderer say to someone who had befriended him? Would Wolcott have recognized the man who had asked for a job in Kenna, or would he have looked altogether different?
He remembered Graham’s words: “I have no worldly wisdom to share … I have stories; stories of men’s cruelties, wives’ infidelities, and the world’s ideas of justice …”
How much of the cruelty had been Graham’s doing? How much justice had the man escaped in other cities? Was Naris his only victim? It seemed unlikely. But somewhere, the woodsman wondered, somewhere there is always a first victim. Wolcott recalled Feddoran’s enthusiasm only a sennight ago: “My father says that maybe, at some point soon, Kenna will be larger than Dargon!”
The little town on the edge of the Coldwell had crossed a threshold with this event.
It’s better that the man had jumped.
“Wolcott,” Feddoran called out. “There’s someone up ahead.”
Thigh deep in the banks of the Coldwell, a thinly built woodsman held a pole in his hand and looked to be fishing. On the shore behind him lay a pile of small fish, glinting in the morning sun. He was dressed in simple breeches and a tunic, worn with the look of a local.
“Do you know him?” Hylan asked.
“I think so …” Wolcott replied, squinting his eyes. “He lives in these parts with his wife. I think his name is Herrit.”
As the stranger grabbed her arm, Rose’s vision shifted dramatically. She felt yanked out of her body, the room spinning at wild angles. Graham’s song filled her ears — she wanted to stomp it out but found she had no way to do so. It was a horrible, deep tune that turned her stomach foul — harmonies full of bloodshed, melodies of pure murder. But as much as she detested it, however much she wanted to shut it out, it formed an anchor for her bodiless self. Using it as a beacon, the room straightened itself and she could make out the fire in the hearth, lapping greedily at its kindling.
Sunlight appeared to have been yanked out of the world, replaced by shadows that ruled the corners and crevices. There was a breathing about them — soft and raspy, as if waiting for a moment to come forward. Graham’s tune caressed them in their hiding places, caused them to shiver in delight. As his song penetrated the dark corners of the room, it urged the shadows to come to him. A small one in the corner, lithe and delicate, pranced forward, the excitement of its summons evident in its trembling limbs. It paused for only a moment, as if recognizing her, then dashed out of the house. Rose found herself helpless to do anything but follow, a shadow of a shadow.
There was light outside, but it was harsh and unyielding — a guardian who rapped her on the knuckles for any disobedience and barely tolerated her presence. In the glare that bleached anything in its grasp, the light hurt her eyes. She trailed low on the tail of the smaller shadow, darting from boulder-nook to tree-hollow, under piles of leaves gone brittle with the coming winter. She heard the wind but could not feel it as it kicked up small dustclouds and whirlwinds of pebbles. It was only as she and her shadow-guide leapt across the path leading down the mountain that she realized they were following tracks.
Small, feline treads were embedded in the dirt. As they entered fields the tracks disappeared, but grass stalks were pushed aside with the passing of a small body.
She wanted to turn around and look more at the surroundings, to try and get her bearings, but her vision blurred at the edges. It was as if the shadow-guide refused to let her notice anything but the path they followed.
Through more fields she pounced, down scrags and lees to the river’s edge. The smaller shadow stopped at the water and picked its way along its edge. Rose felt chills go up her back to not see her reflection in the pools that gathered there — as if the world knew nothing of her existence or that it didn’t bother to notice. Perhaps this was the life of a shadow: to be unnoticed and uncared for, to have no identity but that of your caster.
The two of them left the water’s edge and headed back into a field of tall heather, browning in the cooling weather. There was movement somewhere within — cautious, tentative movement that seemed to know of their presence. Rose caught a glimpse of a white tail and furred back before it bolted further infield. Her shadow-guide gave chase, bounding in the hare’s wake with a fury as if it could possibly catch it.
But as they moved further inward, away from sheltering brush or bush, a terrible sound frightened her. Her guide wheeled about in place, another shadow descending. She saw an opened beak as it came at her, then a terrible, slashing feeling crossed her chest.
Rose fell back from the stranger, almost into the hearth, scattering pots and kindling across the floor between them.
“Wizard!” she hissed, taking the stew pot off its stand and holding it like a weapon before her, its broth sizzling inside.
Graham regarded her through half-lidded eyes. His face was flushed and sweaty; moisture beaded on his forehead.
“No,” he breathed with some difficulty. “Not wizard.”
She took a moment to calm her beating chest. The house had returned to its normal state: sunlight streaming in through the open door, although it entered the house at a lower angle than she remembered. How long had the vision held her? She licked her lips and tried clearing her head. The shadows in the room frightened her, although they were nothing more than shadows now, not living things that breathed or moved.
“What did I see?” she demanded, raising her voice. “What was that?”
Graham appeared to try a smile but ended up grimacing. “You tell me,” he replied. “The song is over and I’ve given it no words. The vision has to do with you.”
She remembered the small shadow — its delicate appearance and single-minded existence. While she didn’t glimpse it, she could almost imagine a tail in its wake. It was a cat she had followed. Carrot? A lump developed in her throat. Had she followed her pet to its death?
“I don’t understand,” she said. “If it wasn’t magic — how did I — how did you — ” she stuttered.
“I don’t know,” he replied simply, closing his eyes. He looked deceptively peaceful lying there. Graham’s wan face and stringy neck didn’t look capable of singing the tune she had heard. “I’ve done it for a long time and never known what to make of it,” he continued. “Gods,” he took a sharp intake of breath. “I haven’t sung this much in so long.” He raised his trembling, good hand to his face. “I try not to sing,” he continued. “At least I tried for a very long time. And yet it comes back to me always, to seduce me …”
Rose lowered the pot slowly. Graham seemed to be truly in pain, and he hadn’t lifted a finger to harm her. Somehow he had shown her something that had frightened her, but he hadn’t hurt her. She was no mage, but she was a good judge of character. This man was telling her the truth.
“So you don’t sing anymore?” she asked.
Graham shook his head.
“And Graham isn’t your real name?” she pushed, wanting the answer to her original question. She put the pot back over the hearth. The fire had nearly died again.
He paused for a moment, as if deliberating on whether or not to tell her the truth. Finally, he whispered: “Jakob.”
She couldn’t understand his reluctance until the significance of the name dawned on her. Then she very nearly fell to the floor, incredulous.
*The* Jakob. “The one they sing about?” she asked, still unwilling to believe. The story came back to her across the years. The story of a bard banished from the College of Bards for his curse. For his ability to sing dark songs that came true. “But that’s just legend,” she countered. “There’s no truth to that. It’s a story to scare adepts …” But she remembered the feel of the vision, and the ‘J’ on the stranger’s tattoo. Jakob was supposed to have been a top-rate bard, worthy of the king’s audience, and knew it all too well. Until the day the gods cursed him with a dark prescience.
“Why were you in the Coldwell?” she demanded, his words worrying her. “How did you get there?”
“I was chased,” he said thickly. “By men from Kenna. They think I killed a girl because of one of my songs.”
She took a moment to digest what he said. He hadn’t hurt her. And she knew the legend of Jakob. But could this man be telling her the truth? She sat down where she stood, still keeping a good distance away from him. “Why don’t you sing them away?” Rose asked. “If you’re really the Jakob they tell of in the songs … you have the power. You can sing anything you want to be true.”
“No!” he replied violently at first, then clutched his broken arm. “No,” he repeated, less heatedly. “I can’t do that! You better than anyone else should know that songs are never complete and utter truths. My songs don’t even work like that. They … they’re there, inside of me. If I let them go they sing themselves. I have no choice in what they say.”
“Do you know who did kill the girl?” she asked. The vision of the winged shadow was strong in her memory, but she couldn’t recall any details. Were all of his visions like that?
Jakob swallowed heavily. “I-I think so,” he said.
“Then why dunnit you tell them!” she pressed.
“Because they won’t listen to me!” he managed to shout. “Stupid woman, you don’t think I’ve been through this a hundred times before? You don’t think I’ve nearly lost my head in situations like this in Shark’s Cove or Port Sevlyn?” Jakob lay his head back on the pallet, chewing his lip. “There was a time,” he said, more softly, “that I thought I could use the songs to my aid. But now, after years of running from them and of singing them … Now I don’t know if I see things and sing of them or if I sing of things and cause them to happen. I just don’t know anymore.”
“But Carrot had been gone for days,” she replied, “before Herrit and I even found you!”
“And I sang of the girl’s death before she died,” Jakob finished, resolute. “I heard her cry out that night …”
Herrit’s voice came shouting from down the mountain, frantic. There were scrambling feet behind it, too many to be her husband alone.
There was a group of men running up the mountain.
“They’re here,” Jakob said.
Wolcott pushed past Herrit as they approached the house. Hylan was behind him, running with all the strength he had. It was a combination of sheer will and the narrow path for Wolcott to keep ahead. Willit had joined them from across the river and Wolcott had warned him to keep an eye out. It was likely they were going to have another murder on their hands if they weren’t careful.
The woodsman ran into the house and found objects strewn across the floor as if a struggle had occurred. But in the center of the one-roomed dwelling stood an adamant Rose, just as he remembered her: red-haired and resolute. She held her head raised high and a pot in her hand like a weapon.
Graham lay back in a corner of the room, a blanket clutched around his pale form, but he was obviously alive and awake, a look of cold dread on his face.
Hylan and Herrit pushed their way in, the others crowding outside the door. As soon as the blonde youth caught sight of Graham, his face turned an angrier shade of red.
“You!” Hylan shouted.
“Stay back!” Rose yelled, her weapon at the ready. “The first man to come near him will have to get through me first!”
“Rose!” Herrit spluttered. “What the hell are you about? These men are from Kenna and are after that man! He’s a murderer!”
“These men think he’s a murderer, Herrit,” she responded fiercely. “But I know the truth. Jakob did nothing to that girl!”
Wolcott stood dumbfounded. Jakob? What stories had the Dargonian been telling this woman? “His name is Graham, Rose. If he’s told you otherwise, it’s a lie.”
Feddoran had stuck his head in, squeezing next to the woodsman. “I can rush her, Wolcott,” the boy said to him earnestly. “I can hold her down while Hylan goes after Graham.”
“Hold on,” Wolcott answered, confused. Since when had Feddoran become so violent?
Hylan let out a growl and shot forward towards Rose but Herrit grabbed his shirt as he passed and took him down to the floor, falling over a table in the process. Hylan got entangled in some netting and Herrit stood up, taking a place by his wife. “Dunnit think about touching my woman!” he shouted.
Now there were two of them protecting the fugitive. Wolcott stepped forward, trying to take control of the situation. Hylan had disentangled himself but sat where he had fallen, his chest rising heavily.
“What has he told you, Rose?” Wolcott asked.
“That you’re here because of a song,” she responded, shifting her grip on the pot. “A song! You’re ready to kill a man over something he sang to you!”
“We’re here to take him back to Kenna!” Wolcott said. “No one will be killed, but he will have to answer for his actions.” He shot an angry glance at Hylan.
“Then why did he describe her death so well?” Hylan countered, throwing the netting off him. “Why did he run away? If he didn’t kill Naris, why did he run like a felon?”
“He told me!” Feddoran shouted, interjecting himself into the conversation. “Graham admitted to killing Naris when we were up on the mountain!”
Wolcott rounded on the youth in disbelief. What was Feddoran saying?
Hylan sprang from his perch but Herrit met him halfway, taking the brunt of the attack. The scrawny woodsman was no match for the burly youth. They both fell to the ground in a pile. “Willit!” Wolcott shouted. “Get Hylan off of him!”
Willit scrambled forward through the door and jumped onto the forms of Herrit and Hylan, helping wrestle the latter into submission.
Rose lost some of her resolve. She was looking at Graham questioningly, but the blanket-wrapped stranger’s eyes never left Feddoran. Wolcott turned to the boy.
“You never said anything about this before!” the woodsman hissed.
“Because I didn’t think it mattered!” Feddoran exclaimed, his own face gone red. “We thought he was dead! He’s a murderer! Let Hylan have his revenge!
“Wolcott, let me go by!” Feddoran pushed past the woodsman, reaching for Herrit’s wife. Wolcott caught hold of the youngster’s shirt at the collar, and as he strove to yank him back, the cloth tore. His shirt split down the front and across the young man’s chest and up his shoulder were bloody scars … four to five-fingered marks raking across his flesh.
For a moment the woodsman saw a flash of Naris’ fingernails, bloody …
Wolcottt held the boy in his grasp, a knot of cloth in one hand, looking into Feddoran’s eyes with horror and grief.
“Feddoran …” he choked. The boy had stopped in his grasp, a look of shock and surprise in his face. The others were behind him, they had not yet seen his chest beneath the ruined shirt.
Wolcott grabbed the youth’s head between his hands in a fierce grip. No wonder the boy avoided the river that morning. They had all removed their clothes to search for Graham’s corpse in the waters of the Coldwell. But Feddoran had refused to enter the river … and now the boy seemed strangely intent on Hylan getting his hands on the Dargonian.
“Oh, Feddoran,” Wolcott said, his voice cracking.
“Wolcott …” Feddoran started, his face falling. He stepped back out of the woodsman’s grasp, his shirt falling and the others in the room seeing the marks on his back and sides which could not have been made by any chase in the woods.
Feddoran had killed Naris.
The boy, now alone by the door, turned and ran. Hylan let out an anguished shout and rolled Willit off of him. He was out the door before anyone could stop him. Willit recovered and looked shocked at Wolcott. The woodsman settled to the floor, a feeling of numb shock growing in his chest.
Graham quietly pulled the blanket over himself in the corner.
“No wonder he’s so farking calm,” the woodsman thought. “He knows how this ends.”
Cold, bitter wind sailed off the Coldwell, rushing into the leafless trees huddled at its bank. Wolcott stood among the rocks, down the mountain from where Herrit and Rose lived. A month had passed since the troupe from Kenna had come down this way. Willit had been unable to catch Hylan, as narrow and dangerous as the path had been down the mountain. Wolcott never saw fit to ask the blonde man whether Feddoran had jumped or been pushed, although if they were to believe the bard’s tale, it had been Feddoran’s own doing. Elijah Kenna and the whole village was beside itself, unsure how to treat Hylan when he returned. The man had likely driven another man t o suicide, but could he be blamed, especially given Feddoran’s deceit?
Rose was standing beside the woodsman, kissing Jakob on the cheek. The bard looked better than when he had been lying in the cabin, and he had gained some much-needed weight. His legs had also healed, but his broken arm was still injured, albeit out of its splint and in a sling.
“You don’t have to go,” Rose said, repeating the offer Wolcott had heard at least a dozen times that morning. “You can wait until next spring if you need to.”
Jakob shook his dark-locked head. “I have to go,” he replied gently. “There are too many who know about me here. There’s too much pain I’ve caused. Believe me, Rose, it’s best if I seclude myself from others.”
“Are you sure about that?” Wolcott asked, spitting out a twig that he’d been chewing on. “Maybe it’s better to stay around those who know what you’re capable of.”
Jakob smiled thoughtfully. “Perhaps,” he replied. “I can’t say I’ve ever been given that choice before. But I’d put all of you in too much danger by remaining here, Wolcott.”
There was no argument to that. What would they do when the man came down with a fever? Bind and gag him?
“Where will you go?” Herrit asked, putting an arm around Rose’s waist.
“Lederia, perhaps,” Jakob said, turning to the east where the sun was poking its head over the Darst Range. “Or maybe I’ll find my own mountain along the way. A place far away from anyone.”
“Take care, Jakob,” Rose said, managing a smile despite her obvious worry. “And know that you’ll always be welcome here if you should ever find your way back.”
Jakob smiled, his blue eyes tearing. With a wave of his hand he turned, a bag slung over his back. He started going upstream along the banks of the Coldwell, following directions Wolcott had provided him, taking along a map and advice on the best passes to follow to get through the mountains before the really cold weather came. The three of them watched the bard go for a while, and Wolcott wondered what would become of the man.
“I wish him peace,” Herrit finally said, hugging Rose tightly. She nodded in agreement.
“I wish him silence,” Wolcott finished.