The bright, white moon shines above in the sky, clear and far, whilst the red moon wanes. Samaia, the goddess of life and rebirth, has dominion this night over her sister Ashyara, the goddess of death, as the white moon shines strong. The snows of the Lochlands are falling softly and silent in the lands of winter. Meredith Lockewood, the only child of Lord Theodore Lockewood, looks up and closes her eyes so that she might once more feel the cold and welcoming embrace of her home on her cheeks. For too many nights she has suffered the sight of black, cramped walls in the dark, with only the occasional flicker of firelight or the desperate wails of another captive for company.
‘The snow and the sky are beautiful tonight; I have missed them so much.’
She struggles to stand upright; her legs are weak and her back is bruised and cut. Her white clothing is stained and torn.
‘This moonlight is not welcome. It shall make our passing through much more difficult.’
A pale man garbed in black leathers, armed with sword and dagger, and with his face concealed by a hood looks down from a high embankment to see the entire road before them lit up clear and far by the light of the moon. He is an intimidating presence but she does not care, for he is the first in weeks that intends her no harm. The city of Wintermere and her home, glistens in the distance like a beacon shining bright surrounded by the darkness of the Winter Woods, only the odd glow of lamplight from the occasional midnight traveller marks out the roads leading into the city, or at least the roads known to many.
‘Is this the fastest way home?’ asks Meredith hopeful of a response from the man who has to this point spoken very few words.
‘No’ he replies sharply.
‘But it is the safest.’
‘Should we not take the White Road through the forest to get back to Wintermere?’
The man stops his scouting of the path he intends for them to take and turns his head to meet her gaze with a cynical scowl.
‘If you wish to spend another night in your prison then please, be my guest’ he utters almost without a care.
‘Walk the path safest and most known to your memory and I doubt even I can protect you. They are looking for you.’
‘Then where are we heading?’
‘This is the path we must follow’ he says pointing to a darkened road that is barely visible to her leading away from those paths she is most familiar with.
‘But that will take us too close to the fallen castle at Greyfort. Marauders have claimed that place for the last several years and they have been responsible for the raids on our farms and vineyards, they show no mercy to travellers.’
‘And that is our path.’
‘But why?’ she asks wondering if her rescuer is so eager to see her put in harm’s way once more.
‘If you had wanted me dead, then you should have just left me to rot in that prison. Why free me just to have me die at the hands of a cutthroat outlaw?’
The dark man moves over to a tall tree and pulls out his dagger. With a quick slice of his blade, he cuts down a low hanging piece of apple fruit and passes it to his companion. She is thin and frail for a woman of the Winterlands after weeks with little to drink and even less to eat. Without hesitance, she grasps the apple from his hand and begins to eat.
‘The trade roads into Wintermere, including the White Road, are constantly being watched by the soldiers of the Winter Court are they not?’
‘Yes, and that’s precisely why I think we should take the White Road’ she says sputtering apple juice from her mouth.
It is unbecoming of a noble daughter to eat in such a manner, but weeks of near starvation have caused her to dismiss her table manners without a thought or care.
‘Well your father is not entirely convinced it was not someone belonging to one of the Houses of the Winter Court that were responsible for your abduction. He may even suspect a traitor in his own House.’
Meredith stops eating and holds her breath suddenly as she contemplates the prospect of treachery in her own family.
‘Why do you think he sent only me, under the cover of night, to come for you? He could not risk sending a detachment of his own House Guard for fear of that very possibility.’
Meredith stares into the apple in her hand and realises she must trust this stranger if she is to have any hope of seeing her family again. What other choice does she have? Weeks with almost no food have left her too frail to hunt for herself, assemble any kind of shelter or fend off any possible threat from wild wolves or bandits that roam the roads in the night looking to prey on the weary and vulnerable.
‘So let’s go then.’
The two climb down the embankment and begin to make their way down the road the dark man has suggested. The trees in the forest are thick enough to blanket them from the snow and there is no wind on this still night, yet a chill grips the bones of Meredith as their pace has slowed since leaving her prison in haste.
‘I am cold’ she exclaims.
Usually a daughter of the Lochlands is quite resistant to the bitter cold weather she and her people have grown accustomed too. But her weakened body and tattered clothing offer little barrier for her tonight.
‘Do you have anything I could wrap around my shoulders? This garment has seen better days.’
Her rescuer offers no response and does not even look at her to acknowledge her discomfort. She tussles with her rags as she attempts to tear off a piece of her gown. After a brief struggle, she wraps a thin piece of cloth coated in stale blood and dirt tightly around her neck and shoulders.
‘Could I at least ask for your name?’
Again she is ignored. His eyes have not averted from their direction as they move deeper into the forest. He is continuously scans their surroundings looking for any sign of possible trouble, or anything out of the ordinary.
‘Would you mind if I sang to myself a little? My mother used to sing to me as a child and her songs always brought me a little comfort. I wish she was here with me now.’
The dark man beside her stops dead in his tracks prompting her to do the same.
She gasps a little as he draws his sword from its sheath on his back slowly a few inches. A moment of complete silence passes them by that is interrupted by the rustling of a passing hare as it scarpers off into the night through the foliage. Now that he is certain that there is no immediate danger to either of them he releases the hilt of his sword so that it returns to its sheath. He turns around and moves so that he is standing directly in front of Meredith, almost close enough to feel her own breath on his face. She notices that he breathes in an unnaturally shallow manner, and that his eyes have a strange glow when she is able to glimpse them from underneath his hood, it seems as if he goes to great lengths to cover his face. She dismisses these features as a result of her starved and sleep deprived state and so pays them no further attention.
‘Every time you open your mouth to speak, you give away our position’ he whispers to her.
‘We are walking a road known to few and travelled by fewer still. That does not mean we have the luxury of conversation or aimless prattle, so please keep your questions to yourself and be as silent as the dead.’
‘I am sorry……’
‘I said be quiet. I assume the daughter of Lord Lockewood has never had to hold her tongue very often when you were amongst your kin. But I would have thought your time spent caged like an animal would have taught you some humility. I do not know who or what stalks this road this night, but if we are to have a chance of getting you back home to your father then please keep that tongue still.’
Her feelings are hurt, as is her pride. How dare this strange and dark man who bears no noble lineage speak to her in such a manner? But he is right, and the part of her that so desperately wishes to reunite with her family knows that she must do as he says, for now. She nods her head gently in agreement as she pulls her makeshift wrap around her shoulders tightly.
‘Thank you’ he whispers to her one last time.
The next two hours are quiet and thankfully uneventful as they move closer and closer to the city. Had they journeyed through one of the traditional trade routes, they would have reached their destination by now. But the chance of coming across a treacherous group of soldiers that would wish to capture or harm the daughter of Lord Lockewood is one chance too many. There would be blood, and noise, too much to keep his mission to escort her back home as they pass through the lands of winter unheard and unnoticed. But why would he risk taking her so close to the Greyfort, a once proud bastion of the Winter Court that fell to ruin? A castle that is now inhabited by the worst scum the Lochlands have to offer. Thieves, murderers and brigands dwell there now and she knows that her life is still in peril if she is anywhere close to such a place. And they are so very close to it now. But they will have to pass it by now, there is no other choice unless they wish to turn back. A river that runs so fierce and swift that only the great black bears of this land are able to navigate it for food, will prevent them from going in any other direction. And so as they move closer, their pace quickens once more.
Above the gaps in the treeline, the looming spectre of the Greyfort begins to make itself known to them. Shouting and crude, ill voiced singing can be heard in the distance as the outlaws in the castle care little for any possible intrusion, so sure are they that the soldiers of the Winter Court will make no further attempt to eject them from their home. The road is becoming narrower and the faint reek of burnt meat and sickeningly bad ale can be smelled in the air. Twenty feet from where they stand, the cawing of crows can also be heard as they gather and flutter together in one spot.
‘Aarh’ shrieks Meredith as a crow soars past her ear to join the frenzy on the road.
Her dark companion turns to check on her. She is startled and her eyes are closed for fear of something coming too close to her again. In the days and nights spent caged in her prison, with her captors still unknown to this day, she had to bear the brunt of many uncomfortable intrusions. She was not tortured or raped, but she was assaulted frequently enough when the insolence of a highborn daughter seeped through. The stench of her piss and shit still reeks upon her skin and clothing as she had nowhere to relieve herself as the walls of her prison were only three feet wide. She still bares the bruises and a couple of scars that still cause her pain, reminders that she will tolerate no one and nothing coming too close to her again.
‘It is alright, the crows ahead have found themselves a feast’ whispers her companion to reassure her.
‘As long as we do not interrupt their meal, they will leave us be, come.’
The two continue along the road and move closer to the swathe of black feathers of the frenzied crows as they peck away at their meal. As she walks past, making sure to keep her distance, Meredith gasps and tries to shield her eyes as she catches a glimpse of what they are feasting upon. It is the corpse of a passing merchant who has been killed and relieved of the few valuables that he owned. The crows are many and there is little left of him now but bones, blood and skin and what remains of his simple cotton clothing. The weapon used to kill him is still imbedded in his head. A rusted and splintered axe is stuck in the bone of his skull and refused to relent, forcing his killer to leave it there. She has never seen anything like this before and has only heard tales of the odd merchant or traveller going missing or being found dead on the roads. Her privileged life has shielded her from much over her years. Unfortunately for her dark companion, it is a sight he has become all too familiar with on his endless journey traveling this world, taking jobs and contracts that would make the average man turn ill.
‘Stop’ he demands suddenly.
Meredith looks ahead to see why they have ceased moving, she cannot see a thing. The shroud of the tall tree line has all but blotted out any trace of light from the moons above and so she can only make out faint shadows and outlines in the distance.
‘Why must we stop?’
‘Someone is coming this way.’
Meredith starts to shake slightly; she has become accustomed to an odd sense of comfort as they travelled this lonely road with only her companion for company. This comfort was now threatened by the intrusion of someone she can neither see nor hear.
‘Go over there and hide behind those trees. Make sure to stay out of sight and do not make a sound. Do you understand?’
She nods and hastily makes her way into the treeline in the direction that he is pointing. She squats down behind a dense bush that is placed behind two tall and thick pine trees and steadies her breath. Her ability to see her companion is undiminished though as she parts the branches so that she is able to see what is happening, careful though not to part them too far and reveal her presence. Ten minutes pass in complete silence but for the cawing of the crows they left behind. The dark man is still and as unmoving as a statue whilst he waits. No one has encroached at all and her weakened legs are becoming cramped. Just as she moves to adjust herself, she can hear footsteps. Her eyes widen and her breathing becomes more hurried as she lays eyes upon two men who have stopped just a few feet away from her companion. One is dirty, ragged and fat and armed with an iron hammer but the other is surprisingly well dressed and kempt, but unarmed.
‘Well Maellor be damned into the hollow, is that you Thane?’
Meredith hears the words of the well-dressed man and she finally knows something about the identity of her rescuer.
‘I would say that it is good to see you again Vaal, but I have to ask, is it good to see you?’ asks Thane.
‘I can understand why you would doubt me at this present time. I am not exactly in my usual element as we speak’ Vaal responds.
‘Eh Vaal, who is this guy, you know him or something?’ asks the ragged man.
‘It is alright Yarik, we are acquainted. We have…….somewhat of a history together, in business you might say.’
‘Well what business does he have being here?’
‘You are a long way from the Court Vaal. Has your station in life dropped so low as to need to consort with criminals?’ asks Thane referring to Yarik’s undeniable affiliation with the outlaws stationed at the Greyfort.
‘Please believe me when I say that it is not my ideal working situation but one must adapt to certain…..conditions when doing the bidding of another.’
‘And just who are you doing the bidding of? Is it someone in the Court? Which Lord or Lady is paying you for your contacts and resources?’
‘I can assure you Thane that I am not working for anyone in the Court.’
‘I highly doubt that. Only the Houses of the Court can afford your prices so either you are here by their command or by the direct orders of the King of Wintermere?’
‘Oi, you ask too many questions stranger! I don’t care who you know, I suggest you turn round and sod off back to whatever shithole you climbed out from’ demands Yarik as he grasps the hilt of his hammer.
‘My overtly courteous associate here is right Thane. It might be wise for you to leave here for now. Come and see me again the next time you are in Wintermere, I am sure I can rustle up some work for you. Your talents have long been appreciated by my associates and I wouldn’t want to sour that relationship by any means.’
‘Enough talk, let’s just be rid of him so we can get back to finding the girl. She was sighted heading this way a few hours ago wasn’t she?’
‘You must really learn when to keep your mouth shut Yarik!’
Thane stares at the mismatched pair in front of him and prepares himself for a confrontation. He has rarely heard such a harsh tone come from Vaal’s mouth before but when he speaks like that, someone usually pays the price, with their lives. Vaal reaches into his sleeve and pulls out a small dagger and without a moment’s hesitation, he plunges the blade into Yarik’s neck. A cascade of blood begins spurting from the wound as he was struck in a very precise manner. The outlaw falls to his knees clutching his throat, desperate to scream out in anguish, but unable to do so before he dies.
‘I believe I have lingered here long enough and I have business to attend to. Thane, I suggest you find yourself far from here very soon. Some of my associates are prowling these woods as we speak and I think it would be unwise of you to meet them. They are not as civilised as I’ says Vaal before disappearing back down the path from which he came.
Meredith is panicking and struggling to control her breathing as she watches the horrific events unfolding before her eyes. Not far from where she is hiding, she can hear voices and breaking twigs as the associates Vaal was referring to seem to getting closer to her. With great haste, she moves from her hiding spot and rushes to Thane’s side.
‘I told you to stay where you are….’
‘I know but I can hear someone coming from over there. For Maellor’s mercy, I don’t want to go back.’
Thane stares into the forest, she is right. Several men from the nearby Greyfort are hacking through the branches and stumbling their way through the trees as they appear to be searching for someone.
‘They are looking for me, aren’t they?’
‘That would appear to be the case.’
‘I recognise that man you were talking to, Vaal. He has had dealings with my father recently. Is he the one responsible for my abduction?’
‘I cannot say for certain, though it is likely that he is working for someone else. His resources are vast and many turn to him when they need something done quickly and discreetly.’
‘What should we do now?’
‘We need to leave immediately. This way……AARH!’
Thane winces in pain as he is struck deep with an arrow that pierces his shoulder.
‘Here they are lads, over here’ shouts an outlaw, holding a splintered wooden bow, to his partners searching in the woods.
‘Oh gods, Thane, are you alright?’ asks Meredith stunned by the sudden blow of the arrows strike.
Thane grasps the arrow firmly and pushes it all the way through until it has almost fallen out at the other end. With one hard pull, he yanks the arrow from his shoulder and discards it onto the ground.
‘You weren’t supposed to hear my name’ he exclaims as he pulls his sword and readies it.
They are now surrounded by three outlaws from the Greyfort, each armed with crude blood stained, some of it fresh, weaponry.
‘Now listen here lad, we only want the girl so hand her over and we will be a little quicker in how we go about killing you. Sound fair?’ one of the outlaws asks laughing to himself.
Thane steps forward one pace, he pulls Meredith to his back with his left arm and grasps the hilt of his sword with his right.
‘I have a better deal for you. I want you to look at her carefully so that you understand why you are about to die.’
The three outlaws look at each other confused but not at all amused with this dark man’s presumption.
‘And look into my eyes now so that you will know the one who will claim your life.’
In the blink of an eye, Thane cleaves off the head of the laughing outlaw in one clean swipe. Another is standing very close to his headless victim and so he plunges his blade into his throat almost as quickly. Seeing his partners die so easily, the third turns rapidly to run away as he drops his own sword in fear. Thane will not allow this and so he throws his dagger at the exposed head of the outlaw. He drops to the ground to meet the same deadly fate as the merchant they passed not long ago on the road. Only Thanes blade is clean and sharp, so he is able to easily retrieve it. He wipes the blood from the dagger on his leather wrist brace and then passes it to Meredith who is now in shock.
‘Take this and go.’
Meredith stares down at the dagger and slowly takes it from him as her hand trembles.
‘Listen to me carefully. Into the woods, in that direction, I want you to run as quickly as you can. Follow the sound of the river as you go and stay where the trees are dense. You should run into your family’s House Guard waiting for us on the road into the city. There you will find your father.’
Meredith is trembling and unable to respond.
‘Look at me Meredith!’ Thane demands sharply.
She meets his gaze with wide eyes.
‘Do you understand what I have told you?’
She nods without saying a word.
‘Then go, now!’
Three arrows strike Thane in the back just as he finishes speaking. He does not flinch at all and offers no indication of pain, just the gritting of his teeth and a look of determination on his face.
Meredith turns and flees as more arrows fly at them from the distance. As she moves into the forest and in the direction Thane commanded her to go, she can hear the rally and the shouting of what sounds like at least twenty men heading toward his position. As she moves further and further away, the sounds become distorted to her ears and her vision becomes blurry as she forces her body to its limits. The sharp bushes and the needle tipped branches of the dense forest are resisting as she pushes past but not far off she can see the moonlight once more. She moves closer to her destination and she can see the glisten of armour as the light of the moon reveals the way to the guards waiting for her. Finally she breaks from the tree line and falls onto the ground. As she gasps for breath she looks up to see a tall figure standing above her. The large man pulls her up by her arms and drops her onto her feet, so light is she from weeks of hardly eating. She cannot make out the one who is holding her but she recognises his scent. The smell of lavender fills her nostrils.
‘Meredith, can you see clearly. It is your father my dear, I’m here.’
Two large and formidable arms wrap themselves around her in a sudden yet comforting embrace. She grew up with the memories of her father tending to his lavenders in the garden when the duties of the Court could spare him some free time. And this very same smell fills her nostrils and her heart as she hugs her father in return when she realises who it is.
‘Yes Meredith, I am here. I am here to take you home.’
A smile briefly forms on her face for the first time in a long while, but only for a moment.
‘Wait father, we have to go back.’
‘Please my daughter, I have you back. Why would I risk losing you again?’
‘Please father, we have to return to the road. The man you sent for me, who rescued me from my prison, he is still out there. We need to find him and help him; he risked his life getting me here.’
Lord Lockewood holds onto his daughter firmly as he looks away from her and closes his eyes for a moment to think.
‘I am sorry Meredith, but no.’
‘No……but I would not be here were it not for him.’
‘I am aware of that, but he has served his purpose and I will not risk losing you again. Nor will I risk sending my own men onto that accursed road.’
‘Father, please’ she begs.
‘I said no’ he snaps back.
‘He knew what he was getting himself into. Men from his line of work will all ultimately meet the same fate. He is with Maellor now.’
‘As you wish, father.’
And with those words stuck in her head, Lord Lockewood and his daughter return to Wintermere surrounded by his guards as the sun rises dimly above the city. Despite her exhaustion she did not sleep that day as her mind became restless and troubled. She will never see her rescuer ever again but her life is hers once more because of him, no matter his reasons. She swore to herself the same night to become a powerful figure in the Winter Court and follow in her father’s footsteps. She intends to ensure the criminal elements surrounding the city are removed and will endeavour to make life extremely difficult for men like Vaal to continue to operate in this kingdom. She will become Lady Meredith of the House Lockewood and heir to her father’s seat in the Winter Court, with a strong mind and with the will of harsh, bitter winter forged from painful memories to see her visions for the future through to whatever end.