I wasn’t looking forward to traveling during winter. But, we had to go. There wasn’t anyone we could send word to in Golgotha to look in on John, to make sure if he was all right. All we had to go on was Tristan’s vision. And, it’s always been my experience that they are uncannily accurate.
The longer we were out on the trail, in the cold bitter winds, with the snow pelting our faces, the more I wanted to dig a hole, curl up in it and sleep until Spring. Or until the frosts claimed my body and froze me whole and killed me.
But…if I did that, knowing my luck I’d come back as a hungry ghost, and haunt my brothers in arms.
Tristan rode silently next to me, head down, the brim of his Stetson hat blocking much of the blowing snow, not to mention his field of view, which in our line of work, could . At one point, I caught him sleeping, his head nodding down, making him jerk awake and grip the horse’s reins tighter.
His horse surprisingly tolerated it. Mine would’ve let me fall off and kept on going until it found shelter. The jerk.
I pulled my wool scarf up over my nose, annoyed that it kept slipping down. My toes and fingers were numb. He had to have it worse though, he never was good at dressing for the weather.
“Hey, maybe we should find a place to stop and get a fire going,” I said. “My toes are going to freeze off soon if we don’t.”
He glanced over at me. “Sure.” He sounded out of it, like he was talking in his sleep.
“Tristan, I’m on fire.”
“Tristan, I’m stealing all your money, and am about to stab you and leave you to bleed to death in the snow.”
“Sounds good,” he murmured.
“Hey.” I leaned over and shoved his shoulder and he looked up, startled.
“You fell asleep on your horse.”
“Oh. Ah…yes. Sorry.”
“We should find a place to stop for the night. You need to sleep and I need to warm up my toes before they get frostbit.”
We plodded on. The snow was getting deeper and deeper the further north we rode. It was only going to get worse.
“How about there?” he asked and pointed.
In the distance, along the tree line, there was an old cabin. The roof had caved in on one half, but it still covered a bit of the structure.
“Good a place as any,” I said and reached back to scratch my shoulder and hissed. It was starting to really irritate me again.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine. Let’s get the fire going.”
I hopped off my horse when we got there, and yanked the door open. It got stuck halfway open on the snow.
I stepped in, looked around. There was a small fireplace, a falling apart wood table, and a bed covered in snow. One half of the cabin was water damaged, and the roof timbers had slid to touch the ground.
But, the cobblestone walls still stood, so, it was better than trying to set up a lean-to in the forest. Tristan tied the horses up around back, out of the wind and fed them while I draped our canvas tarp up around the support beams of the roof to block out the snow that drifted in from the hole in the roof.
I had to stop when my shoulder twitched. The itching was hard to ignore. It got worse at night. Always worse at night.
Tristan stepped in, took off his hat and shook the snow off his duster while I started the fire in the fireplace.
“Looks like this was someone’s hunting cabin,” he said and sat down on the ground next to me.
“Fire wood pile in the back, well a little further off. A deer hide in the trees.”
“Definitely a hunting cabin then.”
“If John were here, he’d be out finding something to hunt for us to eat.”
We both sighed and I stood and rubbed my back against the wall and hissed in relief.
He shook his head and dug out some rations.
“I’ll go get some snow, we can melt it, get some water to drink,” I said.
He wasn’t usually this quiet. It was a bit unsettling.
“Fine. Just tired.”
I nodded and grabbed a small pot from my gear and went out and filled it with snow.
The wind picked up, pushed against me, and I thought for a brief moment, that I heard someone calling my name. I looked around. The sun fast setting. The sound of snow pelting my hat was the only thing I heard.
“Get a grip on it Rourke,” I muttered and rejoined Tristan inside.
With the fire going, some hard tack in my belly, and clean water to drink, I felt a little better. I took off my socks and put my feet as close to the fire as I dared and sighed.
“Better?” he asked. He hadn’t said a word for over an hour.
He shook his head no.
“Want to talk about it?”
“Not really. But…you won’t stop bothering me until I do.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, that sounds like something I would do. Come on man, it’s just the two of us. You can speak your mind. I won’t be offended.”
“What? I’m not upset with you.”
“Hard to tell, to be honest.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“What then? Your feet still bugging you?”
“Yes, that’s part of it.”
“Then take off your boots and dry them by the fire, and put some salve on your little toesies.”
“You think you’re cute, don’t you?”
“I am a very handsome man, but this has nothing to do with it. If you don’t take care of your feet, they won’t take care of you.”
He sighed. “You’re right.”
“Come on over,” I patted the blanket next to me. “Put your feet up for a while cowboy, and let me regale you with tales of glory and plunder.”
He rolled his eyes and sat next to me. He took off his jacket and hung it next to mine, which was currently dripping dry. Then he took off his boots and set them on the hearth. I could see blood spots on his socks.
“Oh, ouch! Man, you really got it bad.”
“I will. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
“Oh, I can think of a few things. Tie you up and gag you so you shut up for a time, and I can get a decent night’s rest.”
“You wound me sir.”
“You talk too much.”
“Tristan, we have hardly said a word to each other all day.”
“Hm. I guess you’re right.”
“Come on, take them off, don’t make me manhandle you and coddle you like a bairn.”
He gave me a wicked look that said if I did that, he’d definitely kill me.
I laughed nervously. “I’m just kidding.”
“You are half kidding. Half of the time. Always jokes with you. Never serious about anything.”
“I am so serious. I am very serious about a lot of things. Food, women, taking care of my friends. I could go on, but you say I talk too much.”
He sighed, pinched his nose by his eyes and closed them.
“You should rest. Take care of your feet and get some sleep. I’ll babble incoherently to myself for a time and pass out.”
He sighed. “Lovely.”
“Am I talking too loud?”
“No. I think it’s the weather, or maybe this place. I don’t know…I-I have a lot of my mind. It’s wearing me down.”
“I can tell.”
I reached for my bag and dug out a fresh pair of socks and some salve. I got extra because I just knew he’d need it and forget to purchase some from the apothecary before we left Solomon.
“Here,” I said and tossed them at him.
He stared at them and picked them up. His harsh expression softened. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I kind of figured you’d need them, so I got it before we left.”
“Is that what you were doing in there? I thought you just wanted to flirt with the clerk’s daughter before we got going.”
“Well, that too, but you know, two birds, one stone and all that.”
He chuckled. “She liked you.”
“I know. If we had wintered over in the city, I definitely would’ve gotten to know her better,” I said with a wink.
He smiled and shook his head and took off his socks and set them on the hearth.
His feet were cracked on the bottom, long lines starting to fissure from in between his toes, and up from his heels. If he didn’t get that healing up, they’d stretch all the way across them by the end of the trip.
It’s happened before, but he didn’t say anything until he couldn’t walk on them anymore without limping and giving away that something was wrong.
“You know, if this happens so much, you really ought to think ahead. Try to nip it in the bud before it gets so damn bad.”
“I tell myself that every time. And yet, I always manage to forget and neglect them.”
I smacked the back of his head. “Learn a new habit. It’s called…proper hygiene.”
“I am not dirty.”
“Your feet are delicate. You need to treat them like they are and stop being so damned stoic about it. Accept it. You have lady’s feet.”
“I do not.”
“Do so. They’re soft and pale white, like porcelain and ever so delicate, like early spring flowers. Lady’s feet.”
“Rourke, I swear to Sophia I will punch you into next week if you do not shut up.”
The wind blew into the cabin, and I heard a woman’s voice say, “Rourke. Help me.”
I stood up.
Tristan paused, looked up from rubbing salve on his sore feet. “What was that?”
“A woman. In the wind. Her voice. Cold. She’s suffering.”
“I gathered that.”
He put the salve down and grabbed my arm when I went to look outside. He shook his head.
“Don’t go out there.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. And the wind is calling your name. This time of year? Has to be a hungry ghost. Ignore it. Go out there and you’ll get devoured.”
“Good point. I’ll uh…put more logs on the fire.”
He nodded, went back to nursing his feet. He really had it bad. I felt sorry for him. He glanced over at me, pursed his lips.
“How’s your back?” he asked and I felt the skin twitch around the wound, and it started getting prickly, I had to reach back and scratch it. I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“It’s the same. Gets worse at night. Always itching. Hurts like hell too. Drives me nuts.”
“I have an idea,” he said and took some snow from the pot, shook the melting water off and gestured to me. “Take off your shirt.”
“Just do it.”
I took off all the layers I was wearing; jacket, sweater, another sweater, long wool shirt and long underwear. My torso and arms now bare, I shivered. Goosebumps rose on my skin.
“Damn it’s cold.”
“It’s about to get colder,” he said and took off the wound dressing he had helped me tie on before we left a few days ago. He pressed the snow against my wound. I could feel the ice melting and running down my bare back.
I shivered, and sighed. The pain, the itching, stopped. It soothed it. Numbed it wonderfully. I felt my whole body relax. Muscles I didn’t even know were tense started letting loose.
“Oh my gods you are a beautiful man.”
He chuckled. “You’re welcome.”
I sat there, him holding snow against the gash in my back and closed my eyes, shivering, yet not in pain. I could deal with the cold, if it meant the damned itching stopped.
I dozed off, and leaned back against him, he made a strange sound and shifted his weight and I jerked awake.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“It’s fine. I didn’t anticipate that you’d lean back so far.”
“Oh shit, did I hit you someplace sensitive?”
He laughed. “No, just elbowed my stomach. It’s fine.”
I grimaced. “Sorry man.”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry on it.”
I sat up, yawned, stretched. My back was still wonderfully numb. I could see where he scooped out handfuls from the little snowbank that had built up inside of the cabin under the hole in the roof. He must’ve been doing that for a while.
“You were sleeping so nicely, I wanted you to rest.”
“Tristan, you are too kind. Aren’t you tired?”
“I slept on my horse most of the afternoon, remember?”
“Oh, right, I guess you did.”
His right hand was wrinkled from being in water too long. He had taken a kerchief and tied snow up in it, and held it against my back. For a few hours at least.
“You know, you could’ve shoved me off and just tied that on me and replaced the snow when it melted.”
“Yes. I could’ve. But…you got salve for my feet and no one asked you to, so I wanted to repay you.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
Something started scratching on the window shutters, and we both stopped talking. Tristan immediately went for his sword and unsheathed it. I crept over, silently, and peeked out the window, pulling a throwing knife out of my belt.
At first, I thought I saw a long spindly clawed hand raking across the shutter. But, it was nothing more than a tree branch.
I waved at him to put his sword down and sheathed my knife.
“It’s just a branch. Wind must’ve knocked part of the limb down. That’s all.”
He visibly relaxed and put his sword back. “I thought perhaps it was a winter wight.”
“Isn’t it a little early for them?”
“Not this far north.”
I pulled the shutter closed and rushed back to the fire, shivering. “Damn that wind is bitter cold.”
“It really is. I hope we don’t end up riding into a snow storm. That would be awful.”
I took another blanket out of my travel bag and wrapped it around me and huddled up next to the fire.
Tristan sat next to me. “You fine now?” he asked and nodded at my back.
“Yeah. It’s fine at the moment. Thank you. I haven’t really slept much since it happened. Fitful dreams, the pain…and the itching. Doesn’t really make for good sleep.”
“I gathered that. You look exhausted.”
“So do you. Well, you know what’s bothering me, but what’s on your mind? What’s keeping you up at night?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Many things.”
He sighed. “Rourke. I…ran into some trouble on the way to Solomon.”
“What? Why didn’t you say something when you got there? You expecting someone to come after us?”
“No. They won’t be coming for us. I made sure of that.”
The tone of his voice, so flat, so dead. That far off look in his eyes. It made my stomach sink.
“Talk to me. What happened?”
“After John and I parted ways, I was in a foul mood. I wasn’t careful. I went to the wrong town. Got spotted by someone. It got ugly.”
“Oh no. Who was it?”
He made a face, shifted his weight, uncomfortable with this conversation.
“It was a cousin of mine. My uncle’s son. Barnabas. I hadn’t seen him in years, but he recognized me right away. I was in the bar. Drunk. Hating the world. Hating myself for getting into a fight with John. Hating what you would say to me about it. Everything.”
“It’s not your fault. You were trying to stop him from doing something suicidal. I don’t blame you any. I would’ve done the same damn thing.”
“No. You wouldn’t. Not like that. You would’ve talked him out of it, like you always do. I don’t have a gift with words, not like you do. I’m all force, no parlay.” He held his hands together in his lap, rubbed one over the other, absentmindedly.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re allowed to be pissed off at him for being stupid. You know that, right?”
“So what happened in the bar?”
“He pulled up a chair next to me and started chatting. I wanted to be left alone. He wouldn’t shut up. And he told me…he told me what my family was planning. To do. To me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Word got back to my father somehow. He found out I was still alive. He put a bounty out for me to be returned to our House. He wants to turn me in to the Imperial Guard. They’re looking for more psychics. They want me in their ranks. They’re getting desperate.”
The whole reason he left home, was to avoid that. I didn’t know all the details, but I had heard some things about what they did to people like him. It wasn’t pretty.
Harsh training, brutal, deadly, and if you survived it, you weren’t the same, just a mindless drone for the Imperator’s army. No personality left. At all.
Tristan had faked his death and left home soon after he learned that his parents were discussing his abilities. He thought that he had hid them from them, but someone figured it out. This was before he started sleep walking and channeling people. That was a relatively new thing. Started up a few years ago.
“Barnabas wouldn’t shut up. He wouldn’t. He was making a scene, trying to get me to show him my gifts. I…I slammed his head against the table. Too hard. I knocked him out with one hit. I accidentally let my anger get the best of me.”
“Oh no. Your fighting magic…you used it without thinking.”
“Yeah,” he said softly. He sounded so sad.
“Did you kill him?”
“No. But I could have. I left him in a coma Rourke. My uncle won’t forgive me for that. He’ll come looking for me. They all will.”
“Well shit. That complicates things. I mean, I don’t have issues with fighting a minor Noble House but damn. Yours is a tough one. House Montebalm is the strongest of the Imperial Cousin Houses, mystically speaking.”
“I am aware.”
“I mean, you guys are direct descendants of House Andiron. So closely linked that their fighting magic is in your blood.”
“And you have a lot of relatives. Like… a lot.”
He punched the floor, left a deep depression and I scooted back. He was angry enough to talk now…talk or beat the shit out of me.
“So what are we going to do about it?”
“I…have no idea.”
“That’s what you’ve been thinking about? That’s what has kept you so quiet for days since we started out on the road?”
I rubbed my hands down my face. “Great.”
“Don’t apologize. Your cousin was a dick for doing that. Was he drunk?”
“Not as drunk as I was.”
“You’re a mean drunk.”
“I can be, yes.”
“You should’ve come straight to Solomon. You should’ve sent word for me to meet up with you sooner.”
“Yeah. I should’ve. But…I didn’t want to see you. I didn’t want to talk, to anyone. I was so disgusted with myself.”
Tristan had a bad temper. It took him a while to really get angry, but once he did? People, or furniture, got broken. I’ve seen first hand what can happen.
He’s a complicated man. I mean, I am too. We all are. But, when the three of us traveled and worked together, things were alright. We meshed well, personality wise. Apart? Not so much.
I guess I was the one holding us all together. Without me there to talk them down and smooth things over, things got too heated and they got into a physical altercation.
I put a hand on his shoulder. His stormy grey eyes met mine. Emotions flashed on his face. Anger, sorrow, frustration, fear.
He was scared.
All that anger, stemmed from fear.
“Listen to me. And listen close. You aren’t a bad man. You just made some poor choices that led to some misery. We’ve all been there.”
“Not like this you haven’t.”
There it was, that scratching again. This time, on the door to the cabin. We both slowly looked over to it. I saw a hand, a pale, white hand, with long jagged fingernails, scraping down the door. It had reached inside, just enough to pull its fingers against the wood.
“You see it?” Tristan whispered.
“Do they work in pairs?”
“So just one?”
We moved slowly.
I crept close to the door, pulled out several of my knives, eyes trained on the hand as it kept scraping against the door. The arm was long, impossibly long. I saw that the elbow was far back in the snowbank. It was reaching down from the roof. My eyes flicked up, I saw a hunched over figure in the faint fire light that shone on the roof. A crooked smile, full of broken teeth, emaciated human body, head against a shoulder, its neck broken, bone stuck out of it. Ice for blood flowed from the wound.
I glanced back and motioned to the roof. Tristan nodded, grabbed his sword.
We’d have to move fast. That thing could manipulate its limbs, lengthen them at will.
It’s cold dead ice blue eyes were staring right at me. The wound in my shoulder itched, and the sensation grew stronger and stronger. I gritted my teeth, waited for Tristan to step close to me.
“I’ll take the door,” I whispered and nodded to the hole in the roof.
“On it,” he said.
In a blink of an eye, I had thrown all of my knives into the wight’s arm and pinned it against the door.
It yowled in pain. Tristan bounded up the collapsed roof beams effortlessly, jumped on the roof and sliced the wight in twain. It screamed, shrieking loudly and leaped off the roof into the snowbank, it yanked its arm back, and it broke off. The hand and arm still pinned against the door, twitched, turned to snow and melted.
I retrieved my knives.
Tristan was out there, I could hear him hacking away at it, and it screamed.
“Damn it.” I threw on my long-coat and went outside, barefoot, hissing as the cold snow bit at my skin.
The wight had grown taller, at least double the size of a normal man.
Tristan had sliced it up several times, but it had reformed, leaving a scar of pure ice where the wound healed back up.
Soon, it would be covered in them.
“Go for the head!” he shouted at me. “The fetter is in there!”
Tristan summoned his fighting magic, I felt it stir the air. Make the hair on my arms stand up. His hands glowed gold, an aura of the same color outlined him as he ran forward and started slashing rapidly, his sword a blur.
I stood back, waited, and after a moment, the wight’s head landed in the snow nearby. I picked it up, avoiding the gnashing jaws, and grabbed its loose skin and yanked it off, revealing a skull with a magic sigil on the forehead.
“Gotcha,” I said and sank one of my knives down into it, shattering the sigil.
The wight screamed and thrashed, as its body turned to snow and melted.
I saw out of the corner of my eye, a shadow, a silhouette of a woman, wafting up into the air with a sigh as it left this mortal world and entered the land of the dead.
“I hate wights,” Tristan said, panting.
“I gathered that. You didn’t waste any time.”
He nodded, leaned on his sword, magic spent, his physical energy waning as well.
“Come on, let’s get back inside. My feet are numb. Again.”
He shuffled behind me. Worried that he’d collapse in the snow, I made him go inside before me. He slumped onto the ground by the fire, dried off his sword and sheathed it.
I put back all my throwing knives, grabbed my blanket, wrapped it around him and myself and we huddled together in front of the fire.
“It’s fucking cold,” I muttered.
“It’s winter. What do you expect?”
“Sunshine and roses.”
He snorted and we laughed. Both tired, worn out, weary, and chilled to the bone. There was a handprint on his arm, frostbite, burned through his shirt, into his flesh.
“It got you.”
“I know. I had to act fast, or it would’ve killed me before you even got outside.”
Well…sor-ry! I had to grab a jacket or I’d be out there almost completely exposed to the elements.”
“Yes. I know. That’s why I had to move fast.”
“I thought you didn’t like doing that maneuver.”
“I don’t. It’s exhausting.”
“You’re just young. You need to age, get a larger magical reserve or something.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“How does it work then?”
“No clue. Never learned. My teachers were always short with me. Acted like I was stupid most of the time, because I couldn’t quite grasp what they were saying.”
“Well…that’s dumb. Because you’re not slow, or stupid. Just different.”
“What, that was a compliment.”
He shook his head, looked up at the ceiling, like he was pleading to the heavens. “You’re welcome by the way.”
“Thanks for saving me from being frost bit to death. You're a real pal.”
“Enough with the sarcasm.”
“You were burnt by the wight. Let me wrap it up.”
I grabbed some bandages and put some salve on his burn and wrapped it up. He said nothing. Just watched me do it, then moved his arm under the blanket and shivered.
“Oh, now you’re cold?” I asked and started putting back on my clothes so that my torso wasn’t exposed anymore. It was getting really cold out there.
“Wind shifted,” he muttered, the blanket pulled up around him, and lowered his head so it covered part of his face.
“I’m going to go check on the horses.”
Thankfully, the horses were fine. They were sleeping huddled together, covered in their blankets. I refilled their feed bags and went back inside.
Tristan was sleeping sitting up in front of the fire. I gently moved him over so he wouldn’t fall into it if he slumped forward and sat next to him. I grabbed the other end of my blanket and wrapped it around me and shivered as I warmed up.
“They know we’re coming. They don’t want us to find Jon,” Tristan said. His eyes were closed.
“Are you asleep?”
“No. You woke me up when you moved me aside.”
He shrugged, looked at me with tired eyes. “We’re walking into a trap, you know that, right?”
“Yeah. I know. Which is why we’re going to keep on trekking. We need to get to Golgotha. Then we’re going to find him, and get the hell out of Dodge, before things get any worse than they already are.”
“You really have a great way of jinxing us, you know that?”
I laughed. “I guess. But I’m always doing that. Wrong place, wrong time, my whole life.”
“That, my friend, is quite the understatement. I just pray that our presence here doesn’t attract anything else that is undead and hungry before morning.”
I shivered. I didn’t like the way he said it. It was ominous. Foreboding.
“You really have a way with words, don’t you?”
“No. That would be you.”
I shook my head and slept very little until dawn broke. Neither of us said much as we got the horses ready and set back out on the trail.
I was worried about John. About Tristan. About myself. Things kept piling up, and they weren’t getting any better.
I couldn’t shake that little voice in the back of my head, that was telling me that by the end of all of this, we’d all be dead.