"Are we being followed, father?"
"No, Astartes, we are not being followed."
"How can you be sure? You didn't even look!" Astartes whined. Struggling to turn in the saddle behind his father, Astartes craned his neck to look back through the night. The dirt track meandered this way and that, winding through the Emberfen Forest. The path was hard to make out amongst the muddy browns of the woodland, made all the more difficult by the thick canopy obscuring the glow of the stars and moon overhead.
Nicolas shook his head, scratching idly at his flame-red moustache. "Don't let your eyes play tricks on you, son
there's nothing out there."
Beneath them, the horse continued its steady walk as if it were plodding around the yard back at the family home. 'If an animal doesn't seem bothered, then why can't I shake the feeling that something isn't right?' Astartes scolded himself.
Trees stood to attention as far as the eye could see in the night, which wasn't very far in the dark even before the crowded woodland got in the way. Faceless, nameless, numberless trunks ranked up as if on parade, stood silent and still. Nothing stirred, not even the air, but Astartes was sure someone, or something, was watching them.
He almost leapt clean out of the saddle when the horse snapped a twig in two.
Nicolas laughed. "No-one on the roads but you and I tonight!"
"But how do you know?" Astartes whimpered, clutching tightly to his father's waist.
"How do I know?" Nicolas chortled, rolling his shoulders and straightening in the saddle. "No outlaw worth his weight in coin would dare stray this close to Hearth Village, never mind being as close to the Mercenary Guild."
The assurance fell flat with Astartes. He shrank in the saddle, pressing himself tightly to his father's back. The air trembled. Ferns to either side of the track shifted as an icy breeze stirred, branches overhead creaking ominously. Astartes shivered, whether from the cold or fear he couldn't tell. The forest seemed to stir restlessly, a ripple of life passing over it. Shadows danced in the corners of Astartes' eyes, but every time he spun to face them they shrank away into the woodland. Off in the distance, Astartes heard a wolf howl in the moonlight.
"Hm, looks like it'll snow tonight," Nicolas said matter-of-factly, pursing his lips and flaring his nostrils. Astartes admired his father's talent to predict the weather, a skill that Nicolas had picked up during his seasons as a Tax Collector. "Here, try and get a few hours' sleep." Nicolas shrugged his cloak off of one shoulder and draped it over his son. "We'll reach Hearth just shy of midday. I'll need you bright-eyed to help me count the coin."
Astartes saw no reason to argue. Concealing himself wholly within the travel-worn cloak, he left a gap only for his face. Tendrils of mist curled from his lips and nose as he breathed, steaming before his eyes. The cloak was warm, but more importantly, Astartes felt safe in its folds. He could watch the passing woodland without fear of someone watching him back.
Since his tenth birthday, Astartes had accompanied his father on the rounds. It was his second winter on the road, travelling from village to village, town to town, collecting the taxes from the local Keltir clans. As Arneuton citizens, Astartes and Nicolas were shunned by the Keltir in most settlements. The Arneut had conquered and colonised the Wroge territory after five years of country-wide war, and the clans now lived in servitude to the foreign nation and its monarchy. Whenever he followed his father about his duties, they were greeted with begrudged coin and swift goodbyes. Few Keltir held little but enmity for the Arneut, particularly one of Nicolas' profession.
Astartes took solace in Nicolas' humming as his father steered their horse along the track, woodland debris crunching under-hoof. The empty coin sacks swung back and forth with the rolling gait, and the Tax Collector's satchel bounced against his thigh after every step. Each scuffle of sound seemed deafeningly loud over the wind's whisper, the forest all the more silent for it. Yet, for all his fear, he found his eyelids drooping of their own accord.
Astartes wasn't sure when he had fallen asleep, but he awoke with a start when the horse stopped. He thrashed in the saddle, arms pinned to his sides by an unseen enemy. Gasping loudly, he surfaced from the tangled folds of his father's cloak. Feeling the fool, Astartes wormed his way free of the suffocating embrace, breath coming sharp and short. With the cloak still trapped about his waist he cast about in panic, expecting to see dark shapes looming from the woodland.
"Father! What's going on?" he squeaked.
"Shh, son. A moment
" Nicolas said, swinging one leg over the saddle. "Look after the horse while I speak to
my friends." Without so much as an explanation, his father strode away from him.
Astartes stared blankly after his father. He snapped to when he noticed two other men crouching on the track ahead, little more than shadows in the night. They conversed in hushed tones, pointing at something in the hard packed dirt and shaking their heads. They stood as Nicolas approached. A chill crept up Astartes' spine as he watched, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Rubbing irritably at the tingling flesh, he was surprised to find his glove came away wet. From finger to wrist, cool droplets sat like dew beads on the lint balled about his glove.
Looking up, Astartes was met with open sky. The horse had stopped under a break in the trees and a shaft of moonlight cocooned him from the terrors of the night. The moon itself was at its highpoint overhead, majestic and ethereal in the heavens. Even the pregnant storm clouds from the North couldn't blot out the moon's presence. Astartes looked at his hand and then back to the sky, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto his face.
'It's snowing.' He realised, 'just like father said it would!'
As the glassy flakes spiralled from above, Astartes heeled the horse after his father, hunched in the saddle against the cold. The two strangers looked up as he approached, but they made no greeting to him as they spoke with his father. Their voices were low, secretive, and Astartes had to strain to hear them.
"Should I be worried?" Nicolas hissed, looking from the face of one man to the other. "I have my son with me; will we be safe on the road?"
"Nicolas, don't panic," the shorter of the two men said, his tone pinched, nasally with an Arneuton accent. "It's nothing to worry about. A bloodied print in the forest is as commonplace as a coin in your collection sacks."
"Are you sure, Godfrey?" the Tax Collector asked.
"That I am," the speaker insisted. "By Abbatte's gavel, we've seen bloodied trails like this in the Emberfen Forest more times than I can remember. Probably one of the other Mercenaries taking a shortcut through the woods, rather than sticking to the roads."
"If you say so." Nicolas didn't sound convinced.
"Look, you be on your way. Coin won't collect itself, especially in Hearth village. You know what the clans are like." Godfrey placed a hand on the Tax Collector's shoulder. "Ivebian and I will follow the trail see what we can find out about the man that left it. If we struggle with the tracking we'll be heading into Hearth ourselves to fetch their Huntsman. He'll know what to make of it."
"Why not come to Hearth with me now?" The Tax Collector took hold of Godfrey's hand, looking him in the eye. "Don't waste your time following trails in the night! Come to Hearth and fetch the Huntsman!"
Godfrey hesitated, glowering at his companion who had yet to voice his piece. "Ivebian, what say you?"
The other stranger grunted, folding his massive arms in the darkness. Astartes gawped at the man from the saddle, and found that even though he sat atop the horse he still had to look up to meet Ivebian's gaze. Brown eyes flecked with gold met his own, not once blinking. The stranger was bigger than any man Astartes had ever seen, standing so tall as to stoop through a door, with shoulders twice as broad as his own father. Dumbstruck, Astartes was caught unawares when the man winked at him before turning back to Nicolas.
"No can do, boy." Ivebian rumbled in a deep, heavy tone as low as the echo of a bell tower. It struck Astartes as strange that the giant addressed Nicolas as 'boy' but in terms of size his father was childlike by comparison. "Ain't heading to Hearth unless it's the last choice left. By my reckoning, if you ride like the wind through the night you'll make the village an hour or so after sun-up."
alone?" For the first time in his life, Astartes heard doubt in his father's voice. "How about I stay with you? The child and I will be no bother. We'll follow you until you find the man who left the trail. When it's safe we'll carry on our way."
Ivebian reached one hand between his shoulder blades, leather armour straining about the bulging muscles in his arm. With a swift jerk, he drew a huge double-headed battle-axe from the holster on his back. The weapon's edge caught the moonlight and glinted menacingly, the naked blades bared like the maw of a snarling bear. A stray snowflake landed on the head and the iron steamed at its touch. The battle-axe was large enough to warrant two hands, but Ivebian hefted it easily in one meaty paw.
"You might not want to be around if the man ain't the one we're expecting," the giant warned. The battle-axe in his grip posed no question of his meaning.
"Ivebian's right and he's a clansman, they have a nose for a good scrap," Godfrey said, slapping the sword sheathed at his hip. "Best be off with you, Nicolas. Are you stopping by the Guild after Hearth?"
Nicolas, as pale as the falling snow, stumbled dumbly to Astartes sat astride the horse. "Yes, yes, of course. The Guild's dues are next on the rounds." The Tax Collector stammered, his moustache quivering, hands shaking as he took up the reins.
"Well, we'll see you there if not before!" Godfrey smiled uneasily. "Right, Ivebian?"
The giant bowed his head, bald pate catching the moon and casting light over his gruff features. A thick beard matted his cheeks, jaw, and chin but his massive bull neck was free of hair, cords of muscle straining in its absence. When Ivebian looked back up, scowling, the lines of his brow were skewed by a scar that arced from over his left eye to the peak of his crown. He opened his mouth as if to speak but seemed to think better of his words. With a great sigh, mountainous shoulders sinking, Ivebian took a long drawn out breath.
With a bellow, the giant brandished his mammoth battle-axe to the skies. "Hyah!" Ivebian yelled, slapping the horse's rump. "Off with you now!"
The animal bolted in panic, eyes wide and ears pinned back. Nicolas let loose a cry and Astartes joined his father with a shriek of his own. The woodland sped by to either side, ferns and low hanging branches whipping at them as they careered down the dirt track. In the darkness they were fortunate that the horse did not lose footing and throw them. In his panic Nicolas seemed to have forgotten how to calm the animal. Astartes found himself praying to the Arneuton god Abbatte for their safety as the long minutes stretched on. Given its head, the horse devoured the path under stride as it thundered through the forest, snow whirling around them in dizzying flurries.
Eventually, the mount slowed of its own accord. Its flanks were slick with sweat and its breathing came in shallow, ragged snorts.
that was fun!" Nicolas feigned a laugh, looking around to check on his son.
Astartes couldn't meet his father's gaze as he felt the damp patch at his crotch. He'd let fear get the better of him on the ride and his bladder had unmanned him shamefully. Thankfully, Nicolas didn't seem to have noticed amongst the sweat that slicked his own back.
y-y-yes, father," Astartes whimpered.
"Haha, I thought you'd enjoy that!" Nicolas continued his pretence of courage-inspired-mirth. "And to answer your earlier question, son, there's no way we were followed after that!"
Astartes nodded slowly. Somehow he still wasn't convinced. During their flight he had caught glimpses of things in the undergrowth.
'Tricks of the light, shadows
' His thoughts did little to sway his fear. 'You're tired and the snow is confusing your eyes!'
When he looked back, Astartes shivered. Snatched images flashed in his mind's eye; a figure, stood atop a knoll in the roaming forest hills, had watched the horse gallop by. It had been neither of the Mercenaries, Godfrey or Ivebian. Astartes could remember little of the scene, but what he could remember put the fear in him like none other.
Horns had crowned the figure's head.
To Be Continued in 'It Began With Ashes'. Available to download from Amazon.