Of Snow and Steel
by Jonathan J. Schlosser
part 1 of 2
My blade flickered under the moon, as silver as that orb and every bit as silent. The frigid air pulled at my skin and ran its fingers through my lungs with every breath. I crouched behind the boulder, leaving just my eyes exposed to take in the events unfolding before me. I had stalked my quarry through three miles of the Six Oaks Forest near the stronghold of Veragard, and I couldn’t afford to miss even a moment.
A rough-hewn log cabin sat in the center of the small clearing with fresh snow clinging to its roof and covering its front steps. Smoke drifted out of a stone chimney, disappearing into the night.
I could see the glow of the fire through the windows in the near wall. Shadows shifted within as the family moved around — they knew as well as I did what was about to happen. No doubt Peter Astire was already brandishing his wood-cutting axe and waiting for the door to splinter inward.
Five men stood a few meters from the cabin, four in black cloaks flanking their leader, who wore blue — the color of nobility in Veragard. The color of power. And if that wasn’t enough, they carried short swords that would hack through Peter’s axe like so much kindling, and through his body soon after.
Or through the body of his daughter.
“Bring her here!” The leader pushed his cloak back to expose leather armor, his hands on his hips. “Don’t make us drag her out.”
Peter didn’t respond, and I mentally applauded him. To bargain with these men would be a waste of breath. The only chance he had was in waiting for them to make a mistake, and exploiting it. And if I knew the noble in question, Dur Keen, even that probably wouldn’t help very much.
“Last chance, Astire!” Keen yelled again, his voice a rasp. He drew his sword, and the others followed suit.
I grimaced, but fear didn’t touch my heart. My own weapon had been forged in Sils’marin, the homeland of the elves, and it could snap the cheap steel the men held without receiving so much as a scratch. It also ran twice as long as any of theirs; they couldn’t get near me unless they favored their throats cut from ear to ear.
Still, haste made for a quick death, as did overconfidence. I waited. My time would come. If I let them see me and turn as a group, they may be able to overwhelm me with their numbers. I had to get close enough that I could take one or two down before they knew I was on them.
Keen turned to his men and snapped his fingers. He wore a gold necklace and bracelet, with the usual array of rings on his fingers. His long hair hung back in a ponytail, creating a slick sheen covering his skull and exposing his gaunt face to the elements. “Break it down.”
The black-robed men moved forward as one. Two sheathed their swords, knowing now that Peter didn’t mean to make their job easy, and produced instead a pair of heavy maces with heads as big as two fists pressed together. The blunt end could crush a knight’s helmet and kill him in his armor.
As the men began beating on the stout door, I knew it wouldn’t hold for long. The wood gave and compacted, then began to splinter off in long runs and showers of chips.
I almost expected Peter to throw the door open and attack, but he held his ground. I berated myself for doubting him — I had only known Peter for a year, but he had given me no reason to doubt his character or his mind. He made his living harvesting the oak trees that surrounded his home because he loved the manual labor, not because he lacked intelligence.
A hole appeared in the door and expanded as the maces tore it open. Keen produced a length of rope and held it in front of him, twisting it in anticipation. I considered leaping over the boulder and cutting it from his hand, but pushed the thought down. They wouldn’t be killing anyone, not yet, and I didn’t want to tip my hand.
With a crack like a clap of thunder, the door split down the middle and fell inward. The two men with the maces stepped back and their companions jumped up to replace them. They paused for a moment and then plunged into the house with cries of rage.
One of them fell back out, instantly, a swath of blood covering his chest and running down his stomach. He tumbled back, writhing in pain. Crimson painted the snow in long streaks around him. I could hear other shouts from within, the clash of metal on metal.
A loud roar drowned out the voices of Keen’s men; Peter Astire did know how to make his displeasure known. The roar sheered off as if Peter’s head had been plunged into water, and I cringed. But, if I knew Keen, he would have given his men explicit orders not to kill the man. He had much darker pain in mind than death.
Keen made no move to help his dying man, who, after a minute more of agony, passed out of consciousness or into death. Keen just kept swinging his rope in a circle, letting it whistle through the thin air with a soft, oscillating hiss.
I heard something crash to the ground — a lantern or an end table — and then a shadow flew through the air behind the window. A moment later one man stepped out of the cabin, holding a trembling young girl in front of him. Her dark hair hung to her waist; her wild eyes locked onto Keen. She bit her lower lip, trying hard not to cry, but her chest heaved anyway. Her name was Lana, I knew, and she had only seen thirteen years of life in the Andaren Empire. Not even a woman, but already in lethal danger.
The man brought her over to Keen, half-dragging her with her feet leaving furrows in the snow. The other two men had drawn their swords again, but they looked relaxed as they swaggered back into the cabin. They emerged again carrying Peter between them.
The hulking man’s beard gleamed with perspiration. A woman — Irena — clung to the soldier at her husband’s feet, beating her fist against the man’s chest and sobbing. She looked like a taller, fuller version of her daughter, right down to the hazel eyes and high cheek bones.
Keen took two long strides forward and backhanded her to the ground. “You pathetic, stupid woman. He is not dead. And he won’t be, unless he tries anything foolish.”
I pushed my hair back, out of my eyes, and my gaze hardened. You liar, Keen. You will kill him once you’ve killed Lana. And then you’ll finish off Irina for good measure, so this fictitious affliction won’t spread.
But still, I waited. Keen was the only real threat, and I needed him as distracted as possible.
Keen stepped over to Lana and ran a gloved hand along her cheek. She tried to pull back, but the man holding her didn’t give an inch. “My dear, don’t cry. It doesn’t become you.” He reminded me of a hyena, playing with its food before eating it.
“You stay away from her!” Irina sprang forward and threw herself at Keen. He spun, tossing her aside with one arm. She hit the ground and rolled through the dead swordsman’s blood. She came up on her knees, red staining her dress and washed across her face. Keen drew back his foot and kicked her in the bridge of the nose. Her head snapped back; she fell without a sound and lay still.
The blue cloak swirled as Keen turned back to Lana. “You see what happens when you cross me, girl? You see?”
Lana choked and shook her head. “Please. Please stop.”
Keen leaned forward, bending down to her level. “But you’ve brought this upon yourself, you know. You made your choice. I am only doing what I have to so that the gods don’t curse Veragard. Certainly you understand.”
“I’m not...” A sob cut off Lana’s words.
“Not what, my dear?”
“I’m not a witch. I swear to you. I don’t know anything about magick.”
Keen stepped back and laced his hands in front of him. “But, girl, a witch would say the exact same thing. And she would be a liar.” His eyes flashed. “As are you.”
“No, I promise.” Tears streamed down her face. “You have to believe me.”
“That is where you’re wrong.” Keen nodded to a large oak standing where the clearing met the forest. “Bring her.”
They walked to the tree’s base, and I circled with them, staying out of sight behind whatever cover I could find. It wasn’t hard; they weren’t looking for me and I had years of practice. I took each step with care, placing my feet between possible pitfalls or covered branches that would give me away.
My boots didn’t hold out the cold, just the dampness, but even with numb feet I managed to stay silent. I kept my slender sword in front of me, near my chest and ready to drop into a guard at a moment’s notice. This was the chance I had been waiting for, the chance to close the distance, and I didn’t want to lose it.
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan J. Schlosser