Prologue - A Blur of Shadows
The beast was nearly upon her.
Claws, keen and sharp as finely honed spearheads, descended in a horrid arc from above her, a blur of white among its ragged shadows. The mysterious wall looming upon the northern horizon, her only salvation from the monster at her heels.
Every jarring footfall sent the watcher’s heart racing faster… hammering from within as if it meant to break itself free of her chest. Each rapid breath seared dryly within her depths, feeling more like hot sand than fresh air. She had never in her life been so close to the Encios as she was at that moment. The wall had always been a worry to her as it dominated the eastern horizon from her home by the western shores of Roan’s Bay. Her aversion to it was a consequence of the superstitions in the wool of her weave, as her mother would have said.
However, she meant to live, and living meant reaching the wall.
Superstitions be damned.
She dove between the boughs of a strange, bent tree with lichen festooned in bright green bands against its coal-black bark. As her boots crashed into the soft earth on the other side of the doomed tree, she scrambled frantically to resume her flight. Another swipe of the savage beast’s claws burst through the dark skin of the tree’s knurled limb, sending chunks and splinters of its inner gray-green pulp scattering through the air. The creature caught and tore at her cloak before slamming heavily into the mossy mud caked against the base of the tree, sending a fan of stone-littered soil from beneath the black, matted fur of its massive hands.
It loped after her using all four of its powerful limbs, snarling and grunting through its slavering muzzle. The creature’s lips quivered and rescinded above its teeth, still wet and red from its recent prey. It barreled toward the watcher with wild abandon, and the young woman knew that she was one poorly chosen step from meeting her ancestors.
Even with the aelfen blood of her foremothers coursing through her veins, her lithe and nimble body could not long remain out of the wolf-like weren’s reach. She glanced over her shoulder, a risk borne of terror and curiosity, as if she needed to confirm that the nightmare behind her was real. What she saw was an embodiment of mad rage and bloodlust three-heads taller than the tallest man she had ever seen. From the tales told in tavern song, canithere were a wolfen species of the accursed, shape-changing beasts, the weren, and they were among the deadliest of the lot.
Ahead of her, in the space between her certain death and the wall, stretched a grassy tract of lush and fruitful lands, fecund, yet untouched and unsullied by the hands of men. Beyond, as hillocks descended into a shallow stream and rose again through stone-strewn fields, the Encios awaited.
It was a palisade as tall as a hundred men, formed from the intermingling boughs and exposed roots of colossal, petrified trees. The Encios was an enigma in the heart of the vast Freewilds, the Castillands cradled within the strange tree-formed enclosure like a babe at its mother’s breast. The areas outside the wall were truly and terribly free and wild, as the region’s name would suggest.
The unfathomable edifice stretched to the far horizon in either direction before her, its gnarled spikes of jutting branches offering asylum to those who dwelled within, and certain death to those trapped without.
She spat a breathless curse, clinging to a mantra repeating within her mind to the rhythm of her footfalls: I’m not dead, yet.
The drumming of her beating heart left her unable to hear much else, but the watcher did feel a rhythmic shudder and vibration beneath her feet. The wolfen creature’s great, raking claws milled the grassy soil as it drove its mass nearer and nearer. It let out a terrifying, thunderous growl. Hot, wet breaths could be felt against the nape of the watcher’s neck. She knew that she was not going to make it to the wall in time. She knew that she would have to turn and fight.
She knew, but she was too frightened to act upon that knowledge.
Her every fiber was driven to press onward. The watcher would have to rely upon each shred of her resolve to countermand her instinct to flee. To draw steel, to spin around, and to stand her ground, she would need to accept the inevitability of a grim and grisly defeat.
The watcher felt crumbling clumps of sod and earth pelt the backs of her legs as the creature tore after her, hot on her heels. Amid her harried retreat, she struggled to recall how she came to this perilous state, wherein climbing up an unclimbable wall represented her last, best hope of survival.
It was too fast, this creature, and she was too exhausted to maintain such a hellacious pace. Training and aelfen heritage could only carry her so fast, and only so far. She could measure the remainder of her life not in years, but in precious few footsteps pressed into Freewild soils.
Just then, opportunity!
She espied an old thatch-built burrow just a few paces to her right. It was likely abandoned by whatever hill-dwelling creature a weren just like this made game of. Dire beasts thrived in these lands, and some of them were keen den-builders.
The watcher prayed to her ancestors, to Ehlon, and to the heart that yet beat within her chest to see her safely to the burrow.
With dread, she took a great risk in spinning to her left, but the ferocious canithere seemed to be so enrapt within the fugue of its bloodlust that it pounced at the same moment the watcher’s pace slowed to accommodate her sudden turn.
Its monstrous silhouette overshot her relatively tiny form, its outstretched claws so wickedly sharp that they sheared off a few inches of her bedraggled locks. As it reclaimed its footing, its hind legs whipping outward in a clumsy arc, she succeeded in sliding into the hollowed-out shape of a dire badger’s seemingly abandoned den.
It was not as deep as she desired, nor was it nearly as uninhabited. However, the critter taking up shelter within the den was hidden well enough in its depth, covering itself with mud, grass, and reeds. The watcher noted its presence, but her attentions were rightly affixed upon the weren that tore and clawed its way within the first half-dozen paces of the burrow. It left her perilously little room to maneuver, and the watcher began to fear that she made herself the bait in her own trap.
She slammed her back against the scooped and hardened clay, twisted tree limbs and crudely wattles of straw all about her at the base of the badger-built recess. Gritting her teeth, nodding through a strange, primal smile, and wrapping her shaking fingers around the haft of her only remaining weapon, she stomped and dug her toes in, rage supplanting fear, and roared right back at the feral monster that would make her its next meal.
Exhaustion, however, had begun to take its toll; she had been fleeing from the weren beast since the earliest hours of the morning, when the watcher had become separated from the search party that had led her so perilously close to the Encios.
They had been scouting through the Thicks, a smattering of dense wooded coverts in the shadows south of the wall, and as she realized she could no longer see nor hear her fellows, the watcher quickly became the intended prey of the very same canine weren her group had been tracking.
The watcher had the advantage of her wits, and her experience as a hunter of both beast and man prepared her to survive being hunted in ways she could never have anticipated. She recognized, quite early, the similarities between the way her pursuer conducted itself and the way a wolf might stalk its prey.
Wolves were pack hunters, and this weren, though mighty beyond measure, chased her on its own. It was also preoccupied, somehow. It would have had her several times if not for occasional moments where it seemed to get confused and lose its sense of direction.
It seemed as if there was some sort of a conflict within the weren’s mind. The watcher was reminded of a paranoid sailor she encountered years before, in Westport. He had lapses of concentration, looking off in strange directions as if he just overheard his name being spoken by some cloud, stone, or tree nearby. Unlike the sailor, however, the weren could be just as lethal in its fits of confusion as it was in its more salient, calculating moments.
She knew not what foul thing it had done just prior to setting its cold, feral eyes upon her, but its jaws and chest were still stained sanguine, rivulets of pink saliva pushing out from between its sharp teeth. Its eyes shuddered rapidly in chaotic patterns. The watcher could see her distorted reflection in their glassy surfaces.
Now, she was left only with her will to survive, her fear-driven focus, and her long-hafted double-edged sword. The canithere’s shoulders snagged and scraped against the loosening thatch over its head. She took a desperate, foolish stride forward, maneuvering for a piercing thrust with a sword meant for hacking and slicing. Blood was drawn as it dug a few inches into fur, flesh, and shoulder muscle, making the canithere aware its prey had teeth too. However, the watcher’s sword did not bite so deeply to deter the mighty monster’s pure, instinctual resolve to kill.
The watcher managed to move laterally, pressed back against the sloped, rear wall of the den, dragging damp gray clay along and against the tattered threads of her cloak. Then, as the weren reached a death-dealing hand underneath, the tangled thatch of the roof tore free. The watcher moved to her right, then shuffled out in the shrinking space between the creature and the collapsing edge of the den’s roof, slipping the straight, keen edge of her sword beneath the canithere’s arm. As she gripped the long haft of her sword with both hands, the watcher cried out in panicked defiance, pushing off against a solid mass of stone and grinding steel against flesh.
It bit deeply, this time, she knew from the sudden, slick heat and noxious smell of the creature’s blighted blood washing against her right side. Within the sword’s handle she felt the tremble of metal blade against bone.
She inhaled the hazy stench of the canithere, then thundered a warrior’s shout, even as did the roaring beast she injured. She knew she had only slowed the weren. Her strike had purchased her at best a few brief, precious moments. She was determined to make it to the Encios.
Not… dead… yet!
She grinned, blinking away the weren’s spilled blood as it fell down her brow and across her eyelids, looking back briefly with satisfaction that the wound she inflicted was delaying the beast even longer than she imagined it would. It was clutching its left arm against its ribs, staring off into a darkened space in the burrow. It wasn’t turning toward her. It was fixated on something, and it wasn’t the wound she opened. To spite herself, the watcher looked over her shoulder while she scrambled to retreat, wanting to see what it was the beast saw in the darkness. There, she spotted the other inhabitant of the burrow.
“Divines!” she gasped as she came to a stop, breathless as she blinked in disbelief. The monstrous beast had rescinded from the burrow a bit, its attention drawn to the shape of the creature in the shadows of the burrow.
It was a quivering child of no more than nine or ten years, by the watcher’s hurried estimation.
She hesitated, haunted by the prospect of leaving the child behind, yet terrified that to do otherwise would be a futile, fatal endeavor. Her eyelids closed.
The watcher’s legs began to stride back toward the burrow despite her fear, and her grip on the haft of her sword tightened. Her pace quickened. Her lips parted, teeth exposed, as a rebel shriek against the terror of the weren burst from some furnace of valor that seeing the child lit within her. . .
To her shock, the wolfen horror reacted differently than she ever would have imagined. It backed away from the burrow, and from the child within, staring into the watcher’s eyes as its forearms descended to the ground before it.
“Take the child,” it said, its voice deep, fraught with inner struggle and panic.
The watcher stopped between beast and child, facing the tortured expression in the weren’s eyes. It was obviously doing all it could to stave away its instinct to kill them both. For the watcher’s life, she could not fathom why.
“Go!” the creature said, slamming one of its hands down into the earth and goring deep grooves in the soil. “Now!”
Turning to retrieve the child, she did not let the canithere out of her sight. She could sense the conflict in the creature, its irresistible drive to kill tempered by some indefinable, volatile objection to endangering the child’s life. It was barely able to keep itself from descending upon them. Tears welled in the black lids of its eyes as they darted to and from the watcher and the child in her arms, running down the sides of its muzzle.
Backing away slowly, at first, with the blade of her sword held out defensively toward the weren, the watcher turned and began to flee as quickly as she could manage. Her every muscle ached, the weight of the child not helping matters, and she lost her footing a few times, nearly toppling onto the still and silent child clutched tightly against her.
The going became more and more difficult as she drew nearer to the wall. The Encios was formed from ancient trees that sprung up from the firmament, twisting and enveloping one another as they climbed hundreds of feet skyward, and the exposed roots of those trees spread out in abundance, making the lands surrounding the wall a treacherous crossing.
Chancing another look back toward the burrow, she saw no sign of the massive creature. She took a few cleansing breaths, scanning the horizon with her eyes. Then, far from satisfied that the weren was gone, she turned and made her way closer to the wall. She looked down at the child in her arms. It was a dark-haired boy with haunted eyes that stared off into nothingness, his traumatized face lost in an implacable nightmare.
He was emaciated, his cheeks gaunt, and it seemed as if he had been in the elements, and on his own, for at least a week. She couldn’t fathom how he had survived so long on his own, especially considering the ever-increasing presence of savage weren prowling throughout the region. He had the presence of mind to camouflage himself, coating his exposed skin with mud and grass where possible, but still… the boy was a complete mystery to her.
With the towering Encios but a few dozen hard-won paces away, the watcher heard a sound that made her heart leap in her chest and the child in her arms tremble and bury his head against her armored chest. It was a deep, resounding growl. She looked over her right shoulder and saw that the same weren was standing a few dozen paces away, lost in its feral bloodlust once more. It almost seemed to the watcher as if the creature were under some outside influence that fed its inhuman nature, overriding its desire to spare the life of the child in her arms, if not her own. Its movements reminded the watcher of a dog chafing at its leash.
Turning and running once more, hearing the rapid approach of the canine beast closing fast, she leapt up into the air, left arm grasping the child tightly by his waist while the fingers of her right hand found purchase in the deep crevices gouged in the stone-like bark of the wall’s lowest boughs. She strained and pulled herself up with all her strength, muscles burning in her chest and shoulders.
Her legs flailed below her, desperate in their search for a foothold, but her focus was on getting the little boy up onto one of the stone-solid limbs out of their tormentor’s reach. The weren dove after her, slashing its vicious claws, as long as one of her hands from palm to fingertips, and tore at the petrified wood of the wall’s surface just beneath her feet.
Then, she felt the impact as its teeth gnashed and clamped onto her left leg. one wicked, blade-like tooth erupted through the front of her thigh in a wet, hot cloud of crimson. It shattered her femur, splinters of it ejecting into the beast’s gullet as it chewed and ate the meat of her thigh, supping upon her very marrow.
She squealed, the shock of the injury causing her body to stiffen and her head to swirl. The watcher fell to the ground below. The following moments were dark and distant to her mind as it struggled to spare her from the worst of the experience, and soon, there was nothing at all.
“Ronah,” a distant, familiar voice called out. She heard it again, but clearer. Louder. Then, she felt her hand being pulled free from its glove, held in the warm grip of another.
Her eyes opened to see the face of Sare Agath, a fellow woman of the Westport Watch and one of those who had volunteered for the search party she became separated from.
Another figure, that of the vaunted knight errant, Ser Thamus Ramelle, approached and knelt beside her, helping her to sit upright.
The dreadful wound in her left leg was being wrapped by another member of the search party, a man named . . . Kherne, Ronah thought. She couldn’t remember well, at the moment.
The watcher was trapped in a nightmare of agony, and she struggled to reclaim a momentary cognizance, finding the truth beyond her pain almost impossible to discern.
“The . . .,” she began to speak, her voice deep, slurring, and alien to her ears. “The beast. The. . . the boy. . .”
Watcher Agath, Ser Thamus, and Kherne all looked to Ronah Gustav’s left, and her eyes followed their gaze to find the corpse of a hefty, hirsute human male, his mouth and chin and chest still bloody from when he was in his feral canine form, clawing through her upper leg. A massive, piercing wound ran through the center of his burst-apart abdomen.
Beyond the dead weren, huddled up against the edge of the Encios clutching the haft of Ronah’s sword, was the boy she had rescued from the burrow. The feral canithere’s blood yet flowed down the blade’s edge and over the little boy’s knuckles, and his eyes yet bore the same distant, tortured stare.