The light from the candle flame flickered on the jail's rusty, thick metal bars. The reclining figure wore rags that were rotten and foul-smelling. He had been shivering for hours, but now could not even feel the cold anymore.
The young man focused on the door, across from him in the bare room. On the other side of that very door, in the only other room of the small building, was the village guard, a liquor-smelling man now dozing off. The young man had passed through the door that morning, pulled along by the guard’s rough hands. There had been the click of a key in the lock, then darkness.
He brought a hand to his stomach, shaken by his roaring hunger. He opened his eyes wide and stared down at the filth that covered him. Then he closed them again, as spasms and numbness chased each other under his skin.
And this was all because of an apple.
He cringed at the memory—he had held out his hand at the wrong counter in Locam, a small village in the woods of the South County, too hungry to think of what a small theft could cost him. He had just barely felt the soft, waxy skin of the fruit before the merchant shouted for the guard.
This village be cursed, he thought.
But he knew not even anger could save him now.
It doesn't matter, it will be over soon.
The royal guards would arrive in the morning, he was sure. When that door reopened, only death would be waiting for him. His eyes closed. Death. The image of his mentor, Horatius, lying in his own blood, flashed in his mind. Horatius and he had been on the run, but the knights, all bearing the same cursed insignia, had chased them. The kingdom that had protected him for so many years had betrayed him. It had torn everything away from him, leaving him destitute, scrounging for food he couldn’t even steal properly. He was alone, and the end was approaching.
Two hard knocks sounded on the outside door, the one in the other room that opened onto the street. He heard the door open.
"Good evening, gentlemen. It's a strange time for a visit," complained the jailer, who had been snoring in his chair for a few hours.
“We know you have a young man in custody. Come on, you oaf, give us the key."
Boren shuddered. His resignation was swept away by terror.
"You must have a pass," replied the jailer.
"Shut up, you fool. Don't you see that we are guards of King Ferdul? Do as we say!"
"King Ferdul...well, here.” A fumbling jangle of keys. “To tell the truth, the merchant would have liked to flog the young man himself as a punishment, tomorrow at dawn. You can attend if you like."
Boren didn't understand what happened, but a thumping sound followed.
"Imbecile," said another voice.
"Here is the key," said one of the two guards.
Boren heard the jingle of the key and got up, tired of waiting for fate on his knees. It would all be over soon. At least he would no longer be cold and hungry. The light that filtered under the door from the next room was obscured as one of the guards approached.
"Good evening, gentlemen."
Yet another voice. The guard at the door turned around. For a moment there was just silence in the other room.
"What the heck?" said the first guard.
There was a grunt, then something hit the door with the strength of an earthquake, making it creak on its hinges. Screams rose through the air and were followed by the sound of splitting wood—chairs and tables, Boren guessed, backing away from the edge of the cell. Even the horses outside the building began to neigh wildly. Then, the hustle and bustle came to a halt.
"You always need to make a scene, eh, Feridun?" a female voice complained.
"You were not holding back either," a deep male voice replied.
Boren tightened his fingers around the bars, trembling, as the lock clicked.
Feridun? I have heard this name before, Boren thought, despite his mind being wrecked with fear.
The light blinded him for an instant, then revealed a woman in heavy-plated armor. She held a spiked club, dripping with blood. Much older than Boren, the woman had a mass of black hair that fell around her scar-covered face. At her feet lay the corpses of both guards.
"Over here, Feridun," the woman called.
She took a step back and kicked one guard’s body, freeing the doorway. A massive man entered the room. His head touched the doorjamb, so he had to bend down to enter the room. Boren couldn't remember ever seeing a man that big and muscular. He seemed to have been carved from stone. Shirt and trousers of brown cloth covered his body, leaving his head bare. His olive-skinned face was covered with scars—at least as many as the armored woman had. On his shoulders, the man wore a cloak large enough to pitch a tent. He didn’t wear armor, and he didn't seem to be holding a weapon. He turned to the young man, who was staring at him with wide eyes, and nodded. One corner of his upper lip lifted into a half-smile.
"Boren?" the man asked, turning to the young man.
Without thinking, Boren hurried to nod. He should have been afraid, he realized, but there was no threat in Feridun’s question, either in words or tone.
"The key, Varya?" the beefy man said, holding out a hand the size of a dinner plate. She placed the ring of keys in his hands, and he filtered through them with surprising dexterity.
Boren stared at the man's face and understood that those peaceful gray eyes should not deceive him. His unexpected savior returned his stare with a hesitant frown. In a fleeting moment of clarity, he realized how absurd it was that a man who looked strong enough to uproot trees with his bare hands would look at him with caution. The key arrived, and the cell was opened. Boren staggered past the bars, approaching the strangers. The woman seemed bothered by that moment of quiet.
“I'm Varya, kid. This is Feridun. We saved your skin today, hmm? Happy?"
Then the woman burst out laughing. The other man merely curled his lip, as he had before, and continued to stare at Boren. The young man didn't understand what was happening, in shock and still weak from hunger. His vision blurred. The two fighters became flickering shadows. He couldn't even find the words to thank them—did he have to thank them? He stumbled a few more steps, then stopped, narrowing his eyes. He was on the verge of collapsing.
“The young man has to eat something,” Varya said, after her laughter died out.
Passing them, Boren lost his balance, then fell to the ground. The fearsome woman looked down at him for a moment, but decided there was no need for pity.
"Don’t pass out on me now, young man. They won’t be too happy if they find us helping a wanted man to escape.”
She went to a nearby shelf and returned with a chunk of dried bread. Boren, now sitting on the floor next to the door, found his mouth stuffed with the somewhat moldy food before he could speak.
"Eat up," Varya ordered.
While the young man tried to swallow the first bite, Varya went over to the bodies of the jailer and the two royal guards. She took a cloak from one of them and pulled off the boots from another. They would no longer need them. She dressed Boren up in them like a little girl would with a rag doll. Boren finished the bread, the pain in his stomach ebbing.
By the time they left the shack, Feridun was already out in the freezing wind, glancing down the road as they left the shack that served as the village's prison.
"Are we going to the inn?" asked Varya, who had one arm around the young man's waist.
"After paying our dues," came the reply.
As if on cue, a hooded figure emerged from the shadows, hurrying towards them. The withered, sunburned woman approached them silently. Feridun went to greet her and handed her a small coin sack. The woman did not wait a moment before pulling it open and rummaging inside. Then she mumbled something and retreated among the scattered buildings.
"Not even a thank you," Varya croaked. "Those farmhands, they are nothing but deadbeats." She spat on the ground, to emphasize her point.
Feridun shook his head. “A deal is a deal.”
"Fine, fine. Well, we’ve done it. Let's go," said Varya, after one last look at the young man. “And quickly.”
Boren’s face was still very pale.
“Hungry,” Boren muttered. That moldy bread wasn’t sitting too well in his empty stomach.
They went to the nearby tavern, and the young man did not stop eating the whole time. Lamb stew, bowls of it, one after the other, dripping down his chin. Meat cost a fortune in these lands, but Boren didn't worry about that. After all, he would not be the one paying.
Varya had tried to contain the young man's voracity, but had given up. He was too hungry. At the same time, the stench emanating from him killed the woman’s appetite. With the stink of sweat and death, the table might as well have been a battleground—but at least the young man was getting back some color. The couple stared at him as they sipped their tankards of beer. Varya rejoiced in the fact that, given the state the young man was in, there weren't any patrons sitting too close to them.
"Take it easy, rookie!" she said to Boren, winking at Feridun.
The warmth of the inn lifted Boren’s spirits. He leaned back after a countless bowl of stew, feeling much better. He was alive—and, better yet, his stomach was finally full.
Satisfied, Boren examined his saviors. They were not his father's soldiers—he would have recognized them, if they were—nor were they assassins of Ferdul, the grandson of the king who had taken the throne...and who had been chasing Wilhem's last heir for weeks.
My family, Boren thought, remembering the tragedy. He had been so focused on his impending doom lately that he hadn’t had time to think of them.
Feridun snapped his fingers in front of Boren's face.
“Boren. I asked you if you wanted another bowl?”
Boren blinked. He hadn’t even heard him. “No, thank you.”
Feridun drained his mug, then rose and went to the counter, where the innkeeper thanked them profusely.
“I hope you liked the meal, gentlemen. My food is the best on Siskail Island, don't you think?”
Feridun knew that more town guards would come if they left without paying, so there was little he could do but pay the expensive bill.
“And would you like a room for the night?”
“No, thank you,” Feridun said. “We’re heading off.”
"Oh? Where are you headed?"
"To the south. We're thinking of looking for work down in Atrenal."
Boren heard this, but wasn’t sure if he believed it. Were these two really planning to drag him back to Atrenal?
The bill paid, the trio plunged back into the winter frost. Boren thought it was time for answers. Real answers.
"Who…” he faltered. “Who are you? Why are you here?"
Varya turned to face him, while Feridun looked around the increasingly dark, cold path through the village.
"Yes, Feridun, why are we here?" the woman piled on.
Feridun shook his head.
"Not here, young man. Not now. We don't know how far behind they are."
Boren shivered, both at the cold and because of the fear that those words awoke in him. The new king, Ferdul, wanted him dead—and a couple of murdered royal guards in the prison were not going to make Ferdul stop hunting him down.
Whoever these people were, Boren had no choice but to trust them.
Feridun, he thought again, I know I have heard this name.
They headed north, trying to get as far away from the village as they could, although the young man's too-large boots didn't help. Boren remained silent.
It was past midnight when they settled down to sleep. They reached the forests which, although cold, would keep them hidden from prying eyes.
A ruckus would break out in the village when they discovered the dead guards, Varya thought. Best to keep out of sight.
Despite the chill of the frost, they fell asleep quickly.
A canvas of colors exploded in the darkness of his mind. Shreds of images, followed by sounds, burst into his sleep. Tonight, the spots of color were ravenous. They were formless—possibly men, possibly monsters he had only heard of in legends. He saw a scorching sky and, beneath it, a red storm that shook the world. A blue veil between him and the fury. He thought he was safe, only to realize that he had been abandoned. He was helpless, paralyzed, and the screams around him grew until they were as loud as a thousand thunderclaps.
He woke up in the heart of the forest when dawn broke a few hours later. Reality seeped back to him. It was another dream. The dreams had started after he had escaped from home a month earlier. They were always different, but all of them equally incomprehensible. Sound and color, fear and screams. Senseless, but nevertheless leaving him ill at ease.
Sitting up, the young man noticed his back was wet due to the frost. Varya had left, perhaps to scout around the area.
"Good morning," said a deep voice behind him.
Boren turned to see the man staring at him. He sat next to a tree, looking as well-rested as if he had spent the night on a goose-down mattress.
"Who are you?" asked the young man, trying to look him in the eyes.
Boren’s voice was hoarse; he had said little for several days. The man nodded at his words.
“Straight to the point. That's better. Good lad, we're friends. You must know that by now. We saved you from those guards. We're here because someone gave us gold to transport you and—"
"Transport me where?" Boren asked suspiciously.
The young man jumped to his feet as if a snake had bit him, throwing off the cloak he had used as a blanket.
“Relax. We're not taking you to Ferdul. Although, to be sure, we're taking you to someone just as powerful."
Feridun stopped for a moment, trying to gauge Boren's unsure reaction.
"Do you know the Supreme?"
The young man's eyes widened. “The head of the Order of the Righteous?"
"In flesh and blood," was the reply.
Boren was lost.
What do the priests have to do with this?
“We received a message, Varya and I, on the way back from Atrenal. We were heading to Fort Blade in the East County. We knew about what happened to your family, but the message from the Supreme took us by surprise. Nobody realized that you were still alive. The new king," he grumbled, clenching his jaw, "spread the news of the tragedy that befell your kin by blaming unknown ‘bandits,' promising justice would be served. It was no bandit that did that to your family, but to be sure some poor innocent fellow will be hanged for it. What a bastard that Ferdul is."
The young man trembled. Those words awakened the dormant memories of the tragedy, and he began to sob, trying to loosen the knot that formed in his throat. Understanding the effect of his words, Feridun tried to divert the young man from those too-recent memories.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme didn't bother to tell us what he wants from you. We’ll find out when we get to the capital."
"If we get there," hissed the young man. "Ferdul's men seem determined to finish the job."
Feridun hesitated, then nodded. He looked at the young man, at the hint of moustache under his nose and the sparse hair on his cheeks. Feridun had seen and lived through hardship in his youth, but not outright murder. Not outside of a proper fight at least. Boren’s eyes told him the young man struggled to hold on to any kind of hope after what he had witnessed.
"I'm sorry. It's a tremendous burden for such young shoulders to bear. While you’re with us, you’re our responsibility, and we’ll do all we can to protect you."
Boren quieted, saying nothing. Then words flowed from distant memories, like morning light chasing away a dark winter night.
“Feridun, the hero of the Scymnee…” Boren half-mumbled.
“What did you say?” the man asked.
“That’s where I heard the name!” Boren jumped up.
“You…you are Feridun the Anvil?”
Feridun looked surprised.
“How…” he began.
“You knew my father,” said Boren. “You knew Wilhem.”
“I did. It was a long time ago.”
“You fought with him down south. He told me about your battle with the savages and their leader. What was his name…”
“Urkron,” said Feridun, a dark shadow crossing his face.
“The hero of Siskail.”
Boren stared at the silent man for a while.
“My father’s stories said you disappeared after that battle, never to be seen again. Off fighting mythical battles all over the empire.”
Feridun shook his head.
“Look at me, young man. I am no hero. I left the battlefield never to return…until now, I guess.”
The great Feridun. A shadow of his former, glorious self, Boren thought, comparing the shining knight image of his dad’s stories to the grizzled, unkempt vagabond next to him.
“Soon, we’ll be marching on,” Varya announced, emerging from the forest with a sack full of berries for breakfast. “We’ll seek information from Rugor, this County’s Vicar of the Righteous. The message said to seek help from him. Maybe he’ll be able to lend us horses to go north."
They spent half a day on the path, walking warily through the forest underneath an ash-grey sky. It was already afternoon when they were at last able to catch sight of the village where the Vicar lived.
"Bristus," Feridun announced.
They approached the hodgepodge of shacks that made up the village. It was little more than a throughway and, although it was still daytime, the only faces that turned on their arrival were those of old people who sat in a circle, grumbling to each other under a veranda. Lounging on chairs made of straw, their only concern was when the cold season would pass.
"I'd say it's time to stock up," Varya blurted out.
Feridun frowned. In response, Varya pointed to a construction slightly larger than the others. A discolored sign, painted with a yellowed name, said that this was the local emporium. Varya stopped in the middle of the road and looked around carefully. The old men gave them a hostile look, to which the rather unladylike Varya replied with an insult. The villagers understood that, since there were no guards around, it would be wise to let the two fearsome-looking individuals be.
“Don't look at me like that, Feridun. I know after that meal at the inn, the money is all gone, but we need supplies. I'm all for saving, you know,” she joked.
She laughed again, revealing blackened teeth. She left them there, and headed for the half-opened door, her holey boots rasping on the pebbles.
Shouting rose from inside, but Feridun had no intention of sticking around to witness Varya's criminal deeds.
"Let's go, young man."
They went to talk to a farmer who approached on a mule. They discovered that Rugor lived not far beyond Bristus, along the path that bisected the village.
"If you leave right away, you'll get there around sunset," the farmer said.
They stood on a corner, waiting. Soon Varya rejoined them, a bulging canvas sack on her shoulder. She was smiling from ear to ear. Varya was chewing on a piece of dry meat, each of her pockets stuffed with a flask of liqueur.
"Such generosity. I did expect a discount, but he insisted that I pay nothing at all!"
She handed Boren the meat, offering a bite. It was half-chewed, so Boren refused it with an awkward smile. What Boren did not reject, however, were new wool trousers and a pair of leather boots his size. They were a real upgrade compared to the rags and oversized shoes he was wearing. Boren had to change on the street, under the gaze of Varya, who didn't miss the opportunity to laugh at his bony physique.
They left Bristus behind, hoping they would never have to set foot there again, and took a path that climbed the hills beyond the village. Soon, they saw a lonely building that occupied the top of a nearby hill. They reached an open gate, supported by two columns, that marked the entrance to the property. From the top of the columns, two stone animals, of the kind Boren had never seen before, watched them attentively, their jaws parted, their heads framed by thick manes. It had no border walls, but the house was high enough for its inhabitants to watch over everything that happened around the property.
"Here we are," said Feridun, pointing at the mansion.
The angular sentinel was all dark stone and sharp edges, towering over the quiet woods. The sound of distant neighing broke through the eerie silence. Boren was about to cross the gate, following Varya, when he realized that the man was not moving.
"Isn't that where we're going?" Boren asked.
"Yes, young man, but wait. Varya, listen."
"What is it?" she asked. As arrogant as she appeared, Varya was respectful of Feridun, the young man realized.
"I want you to go back to Fort Blade first.”
"You heard me. Since we entered the village, I haven't been able to shake the feeling that someone is following in our footsteps. The young man and I will go to talk to the Vicar, but I want you to go back to the Fort, gather some Wolves, and go wait at the tavern near the bridge over the Mosel river. If something goes wrong, we may need help, and I don't think the young man and I will have time to go to the Fort ourselves. The bridge is a good meeting point."
"Are you afraid of getting ambushed?" said Varya. The man remained silent. "If so, I don't know if it's really a good idea for me to leave you alone with him."
"It's risky, but I want to avoid having no options when they find us.” He shifted. “I think this is the best course of action. We will see you at the river, I hope."
Varya nodded a final time. She offered her sack to Feridun, who rummaged through it and stashed a few items in his pockets, leaving the rest to the woman. Then Varya approached the young man and patted him vigorously on the shoulder. The gesture surprised Boren.
“Even though the Wolves bear no great love for nobles, I can see you are strong, young man. You just might have something of your old man Wilhem in you, after all."
She smiled at him, patting his shoulder more firmly. Then she turned and, without saying more, hurried toward the main path they had just left. The surrounding silence grew more intense. While they went along the gravel road, past the open gate, there were no sounds—save the crackling of stones under their boots.
They were halfway to the manor when Boren couldn't stop himself from asking: "Who are the Wolves?"
“They are warriors like Varya. Mercenaries,” was Feridun's reply. The man seemed to be lost in thought. "I was part of their ranks once...a long time ago," Feridun added after a pause.
Feridun looked down at the ground for a moment.
“Now I survive, young man, like you."