Deliver it only to him. If he’s dead or you just can’t locate him, then bring it back. Why in the nine tails did I agree to that!?!? It seemed simple enough. Sail to Bolac and deliver a packet to Checaran for the Dode of Port of the Cascades. But no, he had to leave Bolac and go wandering high up in the Toes.
We’d left Bolac just before sunrise. Late in the afternoon the storm had blown in, too fast for us to find decent shelter so we’d discussed it briefly then pushed on. Our goal was to try and make it to a hunting cabin my guide, Kelin, knew about. The snow was soon knee-deep and my world reduced to an arm’s reach in every direction. For a while I’d wondered how my guide still knew where to go but after what seemed a thousand years I didn’t care. We plodded on, simply placing one foot after another in the eternal snow.
My angry thoughts were pretty much the only things keeping me warm as I trudged through the snow, closely following Kelin. I knew I could have stopped in Bolac and returned the packet to the Dode, but no, I had to overhear that Checaran had left and taken up residency in the Toes. So, of course, I had to try and find out if anyone knew where that was and could guide me there. A simple trip, a day up and a day back the guide said, unless there was a storm. So of course we get a storm. A great honking storm. And us with only enough food for three days. Stupid guide should have known better. But no, he thought we could do it before the storms hit. Winter storms not due for another seven days, he said.
My head hit the guide’s pack. Wearily I looked around at the near complete whiteness then focused on the guide. He was standing there staring forward. I tapped his shoulder and he pointed. Moving to stand beside him, I struggled to see what he was pointing at. The swirling snow obscured much of what was before us but I seemed to see the faint outline of a stone building. As I strove to see through the blowing snow, part of a childhood lullaby popped into mind: “Snow is cold water and wind is wind.” Suddenly the building was clearly visible as a freak gust of wind briefly cleared the area between us and the building. Seeing the building I was suddenly calm, my anger forgotten. I looked at Kelin, who was looking at me. I shrugged, and moving my head closer yelled, “Spend the night there?”
Kelin watched the building as it once again became a vague form in the storm. He nodded and we began the laborious trek to the stone building. It didn’t take us long to locate an opening in the wall. Stepping into it we were in a hallway, five paces long to the left. Near the end of the hallway, the sudden lack of wind made us feel warm again. Removing our snow goggles, simple wooden masks that fit over our eyes and had just a small slit to see through, we spent a few heartbeats stomping and brushing snow off before continuing. The hallway made a right turn for three paces then right again for another three paces, bringing us up against a door. Kelin banged on the door to announce our presence. When no answer was made, he banged again. Still getting no answer, the guide carefully opened the door.
The interior was dark though here and there light made a foray through cracks in the shutters. After the blinding whiteness outside not even that little bit of light seemed to alleviate the darkness. Entering and closing the door, we stood there waiting for our eyes to adjust. Finally Kelin said, “Wait here, I’m going to find a light.”
As my eyes gradually got more and more dark-adapted, things became dimly visible in the gloom. I could hear Kelin moving around, occasionally muttering a curse as he banged into the odd piece of furniture. Just as my eyes got used to the dark there was the sound of metal striking stone, followed shortly by a flare of light from an oil lamp. Using the lamp Kelin quickly located a few other lamps in the room and lit them.
As he moved about the building checking things I started looking around for something to do and seeing the fireplace my stomach growled it’s annoyance. I headed to the fireplace and began building a small fire, just enough to warm us and cook some food. Kelin was already preparing a stew in a pot he’d located, using both our provisions and some of the stores he’d found in the building.
By the time the stew was done cooking and the snow in another pot was all melted, both of us were ravenous. We ate in silence, too tired to talk, drowsy in the warmth from the fire and the hot food. Eventually, I got up and, stretching, looked around the small one-room building. I began moving around, looking for something to indicate who the owner was and where he might be. Kelin watched for a while then lazily pointed to a decorated pouch hanging on one of the walls. When I looked at it, he said, “Checaran”.
I nodded. “Any idea where he might have gone?”
He got up and looked around the room before saying with a grin, “Out.” He shrugged when I rolled my eyes. “Could be anywhere. I’d guess he left no more than three or four days ago. I see some arrows but no bow or quiver, so maybe he went hunting for meat.”
“Well, we’re stuck here until the storm passes?”
“Safer to stay here, definitely.” Kelin began putting his heavy cloak back on and picked up a large pot. “I’m going to get some more snow for water. There’s a cistern over there, next to the fireplace, we might as well fill it best we can.” As Kelin went out, I began clearing away our meal, setting the stewpot off to the side and cleaning our dishes. By the time we’d filled the cistern we were both ready for sleep.
Every time I tried to sleep, Landlubber’s Revenge would strike, making me feel as if the entire world was rocking. Closing my eyes didn’t help much, it still felt like I was rocking in a storm. Getting up I looked around the room. Kelin opened one eye for a bit, watching me, then grunted and rolled over. Noticing some hooks in the walls and some rope, I grinned. Quickly I used a large skin and the rope to create a decent hammock. Climbing into it, with my cloak over me, I could reach out and push off the wall, rocking the hammock. In no time I was asleep.
Throughout the night, from force of habit, I’d wake, check things, and rock myself to sleep again.
* * *
In the morning I woke to see Kelin sitting by the hearth, a flat piece of metal resting on a small stand over the fire. Glancing at me, he grinned. “A man after my own heart, one who knows when to wake for breaking fast.” I grinned back as I rolled out of the hammock. In just a few heartbeats I had the skin and the rope back where I’d found them.
Standing by the fire, I watched as Kelin sliced some meat and put it on the metal. “Need any help?”, I asked.
He shook his head, then gesturing to a shelf said, “I saw some syrup in the blue box over there. Break off a piece about half a fist, would you? Drop it in that pot.”
I did as asked and following his gestured instructions pushed the pot closer to the fire. Settling down, I watched as he pulled out a small pottery jar from his pack. The sour smell when he opened it was readily apparent. Carefully, he dumped it into another bowl, making sure he got it all in there. Rummaging around the cabin he soon came back with some milk and flour which he added to the bowl. The resulting mixture was thickly runny with a slight sour smell. I wondered what it was. Kelin finished the mixing then scooped up some of the mixture and put it back into the small jar, sealing it tight and putting it away in his pack. Seeing my curiosity he grinned.
“Starter for sourdough cakes.” When I made no response, he continued, “I think you’re going to like them.”
I watched as he finished cooking the strips of meat to a brittle state and moved them off to the side. Then he scooped out a spoonful of the mixture and poured it onto the hot metal. As if the meat hadn’t been enough, the smell of the sizzling mixture pushed things over the edge. My stomach growled loudly enough to cause Kelin to grin in my direction. After pouring several discs of the mix on the hot metal he used an oddly shaped, very flat knife to flip over each of the cakes once they were full of holes, revealing a smooth almost crisp brown surface. A little later he peeked under the cakes and took them off the metal and put half of them on each of two plates. He similarly split the meat and handed me one of the plates. Before I could dig in, he took the pot from the side of the fire and poured some of the thick, clear, sticky mixture over his cakes and handed me the pot. I mimicked his actions and was happy to see there were no further delays as he started eating.
From time to time he glanced in my direction and apparently the sight of me wolfing down the food pleased him because he went back to his eating with a smile. When we finished, he poured out the rest of the sourdough mixture onto the still hot metal, making two large cakes for later. I set about cleaning up the dishes as he finished cooking those and set them aside to cool. He took the small pot with the syrup and poured what was left back into the blue box then took that outside, leaving it out there to cool.
As he came back in, he said, “Storm is still raging. I don’t think it’s going to let up before night.”
We spent the next two days in the cabin, waiting for the storm to end or for Checaran to return.
* * *
Early the third morning we woke to find the storm dying out. Throughout the day we checked conditions outside and by evening we were both glad to see it finally drop to just blowing snow. With any luck, by morning we would be able to safely leave the cabin.
Over the last couple of days I’d noticed a few coincidences that had me wondering. I was loathe to bring them up and ask Kelin about what I’d noticed, not knowing whether there was any merit to what I had seemingly worked out. For one thing, Kelin’s quiver contained several arrows very similarly marked to some incomplete arrows on the shelf. For another, he seemed rather at home in the cabin, seemingly knowing where everything was. I was beginning to wonder if his banging in the dark when we’d first arrived might have been contrived. But if Kelin was actually Checaran, then why had he guided me up here instead of simply accepting the package in Bolac? I shrugged mentally. Short of outright asking, I had no way to tell if Kelin and Checaran were one and the same. The Dode hadn’t described Checaran other than to say he’d look like a local. Even if I asked, after such subterfuge why would he admit it now if not then?
After breaking our fast, we were standing outside the cabin. We’d tramped down the snow in the area of the opening to the door hallway, and were enjoying the sun and the clear blue sky.
“What do you want to do?” asked Kelin, glancing in my direction.
“Well, I’m sick of this cabin.” Kelin chuckled as I continued. “It took us two days to get up here in that storm. How long to get back to Bolac?”
“In all this new snow?” Kelin was quiet, apparently thinking. He finally said, “A day and half to two days. Most of it would be breaking a path. I wouldn’t want to head down now, though.” He gestured to a cliff face some distance off. “We have to go under that and it’d be good to let the snow settle first. See the snow falling off the top of the cliff? And the overhang of snow?” He waited for me to nod. “If that overhang falls while we’re there, that would be bad. Better to wait until the snow stops falling and is just windblown. Then we’ll know it’s settled down and as stable as it’s going to get.”
I grimaced. “How long’s that going to be?”
“We’ll know tomorrow.”
“I feel bad eating up his food and using up his firewood.”
Kelin merely shrugged. “It happens in the mountains. It’s expected that people needing the cabin when the owner is gone will use it. You never know when you might need to use someone’s cabin to survive, so it’s an unwritten law that any who need to use your cabin are welcome. Just leave it as you found it.” He looked at me. “Somehow, I don’t think Checaran will mind. I’d like to do some hunting, though. See if we can replace some of the meat we’ve used.”
I nodded. “That’d be good. I’ll see if I can gather up some wood.”
“Good idea. Put it under the roof on the end there. It’ll probably have to dry out before it can be used.”
I made my way around the indicated corner of the stone cabin. There, the roof extended out several paces. I went back into the cabin to find something to dig the snow with. Kelin took some odd nets made of wide leather straps fastened to a round frame off the wall. “Going fishing, too?”
Kelin looked at me uncomprehendingly then realized what I was talking about. Holding up the two nets, he said, “Snowshoes. They help keep you from sinking into the deep snow.”
We went outside again. I watched as he strapped on the snowshoes then headed out on top of the snow. He walked with an odd gait, making sure the snowshoes didn’t step on each other or hit his legs. Adjusting them after a few running/hopping steps, he looked around then said, “I should be back in two or three hands.”
I waved and watched him head off, walking like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Grinning at the sight, I turned to go dig out the back so I could start finding wood.
* * *
The best wood, still dry, was to be found in the hollows around the base of trees where the snow didn’t pile up as deep. In there, it was also warmer, although the work was also keeping me warm enough. It only took me one lesson to remember to be very careful breaking dead branches off. The first time I was careless several handfuls of snow dumped down my back along with half-filling the hollow I was in. After that I tried to ensure the only branches I broke off were free hanging and not supporting any snow or other branches.
It was slow, hard work. By the time I decided to stop, the sun had moved three hands but I’d managed to stack more wood than we’d used. Most of it was smaller stuff, about the thickness of a wrist or so at most but I’d had the good fortune to stumble across a few larger deadfalls. Stretching as I came around the corner, I saw Kelin making his way back. Even with a deer over his shoulders, the snowshoes still kept him from sinking more than a hand into the snow. Turning to go into the cabin, I saw the snow behind him move.
I had seen it out of the corner of my eye, so I turned back, looking hard at where I thought the movement had been. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I began looking off to the side, all the while ensuring that area remained in my field of view. When nothing happened, I deliberately stood facing off to the the side, shielding my eyes from the sun as I pretended to study the distant cliff.
This time I saw movement again. Slow movement, like a small snow drift shifting. I couldn’t tell what it was, but since it seemed to move only when I wasn’t obviously watching it, I turned to watch Kelin. It took a while for him to reach the cabin and I could tell from his puzzled expression he didn’t understand why I was just standing there watching him. He tossed the deer to the snow a few paces away and before he could say anything, I said quietly, “Movement.”
He cocked his head, staring at me as he stretched his shoulder muscles. With my eyes, I looked at him then beyond him. I repeated that two more times as understanding grew in his face. Taking his quiver, he laid that beside the bow then took off the snowshoes. Grinning, He turned to look at the deer and said, “Fresh meat.”
I moved to examine the deer, nodding. “It’ll be good after all that dried meat.” As he crouched beside me, he looked a question at me. I took out my knife and laid it on the deer, preparing to help skin it. As I did so, I tapped the point of the knife.
Pretending to look at the deer’s haunches, Kelin followed the line of the knife. Shaking his head, he said, “Well, better get to it.”
As I picked up my knife and cut around the deer’s neck, I said quietly, “Only when I’m not looking that way.”
He nodded and moved to the hind end. I could tell that he was also watching that area from the corner of his eyes. As we quickly skinned the deer, we discussed the situation.
“How many?” Kelin asked.
“I only saw the one. Looked like a snowdrift. Unless it moves you can’t even see where it is. Been trying to keep an eye everywhere just in case but since it stays still when I’m looking in that direction, I thought it best to keep it pinned down until you could get to here.”
“Thanks. Let’s just keep an eye out and not obviously watch in that direction, but keep one or the other of us usually facing that general direction. Until we get this done, anyway.”
We soon had the deer butchered, the cuts of meat piled on its skin. Throughout it all, there had been no further movement. I was starting to doubt I’d actually seen anything when Kelin said quietly, “Another one.” He stood and stretched, then stood there with his knife casually pointing off to his right. Louder, he said, “Right. Now we’ve got to hang the meat. We’ll hang it from those two trees.”
He plunged his knife into the snow repeatedly then carefully wiped all traces of snow and deer from it before sheathing the knife. He quickly cleaned all the blood and viscera from his arms with fresh snow as I did likewise. Nodding, he picked up his bow from where he’d set it aside and headed for the cabin entryway. “I’ll get the rope. You…”
As his voice trailed off, I glanced at him then turned to look where he was staring at a point half-way between the two previous movements. At first I saw nothing, then I noticed first one, then several movements in the shade of the trees. As we watched, a shadow detached itself and moved carefully into the clearing, pausing just in view to sniff. It was dog-like, but larger than any dog I’d ever seen, easily chest high at the head. It’s fur was pure white and long enough to shimmer in the breeze.
“Mered Moroc!” The whispered oath burst from Kelin. “Snow Wolves!” The animal’s head jerked in our direction, its baleful stare visible across the distance.
As I watched, three more of the fell beasts emerged from the distant trees, spreading out and in their turn sniffing the air. Belatedly, I realized they were downwind from us. The lead wolf began to head in our direction.
“Get what meat you can and get inside! Don’t turn your back on them and for your life don’t run!”
We both grabbed as much meat as we could and carefully made our way back to the cabin. The snow wolves continued moving in our direction but the one on the far right suddenly paused. A low growl floated over the intervening space and the entire pack froze at the sound. We also froze, the opening a mere two paces behind us. For long heartbeats nothing moved.
I barely heard Kelin say, “The instant any of them moves, run. We can make it into the cabin before they can get to us, but be sure of your footing. They’re blindingly fast.”
I said nothing, frozen still with the only movement my eyes flickering from beast to lump in the snow and back, watching for anything to happen.
The snow wolf on the right half-crouched and still we waited. It took a slow step towards the mound we’d been watching then stopped. It seemed even the wind was still though I could still see it moving their fur. The wolf took another step then a third and froze again. Several lifetimes passed then the wolf began to rise from its half-crouch, its head swinging in our direction.
It was only the smallest of movements. A shift in the mound, as if the camouflaged man turned his head to better see the snow wolves. The right two wolfs exploded, covering half the ground to the man before he could even begin to rise. I saw him raise his bow and start to draw then turn to run, the deep snow hampering his efforts. The remaining wolves were already a quarter the way to us as I heard Kelin shout “Now!”
Without waiting I turned and ran, bouncing off the turn at the end of the hallway. Behind me I heard Kelin similarly hit the wall at the turn then the door was open and I was in. I tossed the meat to one side and whirled, slamming the door shut as Kelin in turn tossed his meat and grabbed the first lock bar and dropped it into the holders. I barely had time to save my fingers before he dropped the second lock bar into place. Just as it thudded home there was a jarring thud against the door, followed by a deep growl. The door shuddered against the bars briefly then all was quiet.
“Keep quiet and keep away from the windows.”
As Kelin whispered those instructions in my ear, I saw the far window darkened by a shadow. It hovered by the window for several heartbeats before moving on. From the corner of my eye I saw Kelin release the tension on his bow and glance at me. Both our breaths were fast, but under control. I opened my mouth to say something and Kelin shook his head.
We stood there, frozen in place, not daring to move as the adrenaline slowly drained from us. We had just relaxed when Kelin turned and started to say something. As he did so his bow tapped lightly against the leg of the table. That quiet tap was enough to trigger blows against the door again and we froze, adrenaline coursing through us again.
This time, we waited much longer. Kelin caught my eye and shifted his bow slightly. I nodded and he tapped the bow lightly against the table leg. After several heartbeats, he tapped again, harder. When that also elicited no response, he turned and stretching, tapped the bow against the door. He looked at me, shrugged, and said loudly, “Looks like they left!”
When even that failed to provoke a reaction, we both straightened up, realizing as we did so how stiff we were from having frozen in place at least two fingers ago. I watched as Kelin, still moving quietly, went to the door. Suddenly, he began pounding on it. Looking at me apologetically, he said, “Never trust a Snow Wolf.”
I moved to the table and poured a cup full of water as he joined me and did likewise. He was no longer being quiet about moving but I noticed he didn’t remove the lock bars from the door. After the first sip I realized just how thirsty I was and drank two cups of water before saying, “What’s a snow wolf? I’ve heard of them but….”
He poured himself a third cup of water as he answered.
“A Snow Wolf is…well, you saw what it was?” He waited for my nod before continuing. “Some say it’s a cross between a bear and a wolf, others say it’s the most ancient race of wolves. I believe that last is more likely the truth. They’re rarely this far down, usually being found far deeper into the mountains. I only remember one time in my life when I’ve heard anyone encountered a snow wolf around here, and that one was old and alone. This seemed to be the better part of a pack.”
Seeing my question, he said, “A pack usually consists of eight or twelve snow wolves, almost always more females than males. They seem able to run on top of even the softest snow pack and they’re difficult to kill. I have only heard of one instance where a single warrior brought down a snow wolf, usually it takes a hunting party working in concert to defeat even a lone wolf. They usually roam their territory singly but move and hunt as a pack. The queen of the pack rarely leaves the area around their lair and there’s always at least three wolves fairly near to the lair at all times. They’re highly intelligent and, as you saw, deadly fast.”
He paused to take another drink. “They have a highly developed sense of smell and night sight. Their day sight is nothing to sneeze at either, nor is their hearing. It’s said they can hear between snowflakes.” Seeing the question on my face, he said, “Snowfall dampens sounds, as you’ve no doubt noticed. It doesn’t seem to impair their hearing any, even in the most ferocious snowstorms.” He shrugged. “I think it does dampen their hearing, but given all their senses and intelligence, it certainly doesn’t seem to make any difference if they’re tracking you in a storm.”
“So, deadly animals by all accounts,” I said. “What now?”
“I’m not going out there for a day or two.” He grinned and said, “You can if you want.”
I made a show of looking around then back at him. “I think I’m comfortable enough to just keep you company.” Gesturing at the meat we’d managed to snatch and bring in, I said, “Where do you want that?”
* * *
Another storm had moved through the second night. The cabin had creaked and groaned throughout the night from the snowfall, prompting Kelin to mention it was the worst kind of snow: wet and heavy. We’d have to go and clear out the opening, most likely. He wasn’t worried about the roof or walls, the cabin was built to survive the worst storms of deepest winter but we needed to clear out the opening before it got too packed and possibly trapped us inside for the rest of the winter. By now we both wanted to get back to Bolac. I no longer cared about delivering the packet and Kelin wanted to warn the authorities about the snow wolves.
Kelin took his quiver down from the hanger by the door and settled it into place across his back. Taking the bow up from where it leaned against the wall, he quickly strung it and nocked an arrow as I moved to the door. Standing back so he’d have a clear shot, he nodded. I removed the first lock bar and set it in it’s place against the wall behind the door. As I removed the second lock bar and leaned it against the wall by it’s partner, Kelin drew his bow. At his nod, I eased open the heavy door.
The lack of attack was almost disappointing.
I opened the door fully and looked out into the entryway. I shrugged at Kelin and stepped out, my heavy war knives in my hands. Carefully, I made my way to the first turn then on to the final turn to the opening. The entire passageway was clear of snow wolves or anything else. Going back to the first turn I saw Kelin had moved into the hallway, his bow drawn and ready to shoot if I’d come running back.
“All clear. The opening is blocked but not completely. There’s no sign of anyone or anything entering or leaving since the last storm.”
Kelin lowered his bow but didn’t remove the arrow from the string as he came to join me. We went and looked at the opening. Sunlight streamed in through the top two hands of the opening not blocked by snow. We could see blue sky and white clouds. The snow came several paces into the hallway.
“We’ll have to pack this snow as much as we can and dig out from the top. It’s going to be a lot of hard work. Let’s get a good meal first then hit this.”
* * *
We packed the snow inside using first snow shoes then stomping it down more with our boots. We were careful to leave a ramp to work on so we could reach the top of the snowpack without having to use the shovels above our shoulders. Even so, the wet snow was heavy as we dug it out, first shoveling the snow from the opening onto the ramp until we had enough cleared away to start throwing snow outside and away from the building. By the time we finished, we were both exhausted and wet, working in turns on the ramp. As we dug the snow away from the doorway header and made a sloping path outside, we also dug out the ramp we’d stomped down inside. By the time the doorway was completely cleared out, the sun was already setting.
From the top of the ramp away from the cabin opening, the snow lay gleaming all about. Trees that had been two or three times a man’s height above the snow were now a man shorter. The cabin had snow almost to the eaves on the upward side and three quarters up the front. It was clear we were pushing our luck regarding storms for the season.
“It’s going to be an early winter.”
Kelin’s words brought me back to the present. I’d been enjoying the view and the cessation of work. I couldn’t resist remarking innocently, “Didn’t you say we could do this trip before the storms hit?”
I grinned at the look he gave me. A rueful smile grew on his face and he said, “I didn’t say there wouldn’t be any storms after we got here.”
I chuckled. “Well, we better hope there’s not another one tonight. I’m guessing we won’t be heading out tonight?” The question was only half a question. I really didn’t want to hike out from here without a good rest first.
“No, too risky. We’ll have to head out tomorrow.” He looked at me and with a straight face said, “Weather permitting.”
I merely groaned. Then we stood there chuckling like idiots until the chill of the encroaching shadows reminded us we weren’t exactly dressed for being outside at the moment. Wearily, we made our way back inside.
Before I could sit down, Kelin said, “Take those buckets and fill them with snow.” I looked where he gestured, looked at him, then shrugged. Grabbing the bails of the two leather buckets, I headed back outside, wondering what he was planning.
When I returned, there was a low wooden frame set up near the fire. Hanging inside the frame was a leather trough. A slow smile spread across my face as I said, “Where do you want the snow?”
* * *
After the most luxurious bath I’d ever had, followed by a feast of fresh venison and stored vegetables we were sitting by the fire, relaxing. I glanced at the bath, Kelin, then back into the fire. Eventually, I heard Kelin stretch wearily then say, “Yeah, I been thinking about that too.”
“Leave it until morning?”
“Well, we could do that. Or we could empty it now and not have to do it in the morning.” We sat in peace for a while then he said, “I really don’t know which I’d rather do.” I said nothing. “It’s always expensive having a bath up here in the winter.”
I snorted. After a bit, I finally admitted, “I think I’d rather take care of it now than have to face it in the morning.”
“You had to say that, didn’t you?”
Neither of us made a move to get up until he eventually tossed another log on the fire. “It’s not going to empty itself.”
With that, we got up and, using various buckets and pots, began scooping water out of the bath and dumping it outside. We made several trips until there was enough water out of the trough for us to be able to lift it and carry it out to empty. When everything was put away and we were sitting at the fire again, I made a point of looking where his quiver hung and the bow rested against the wall.
Kelin followed my look then looked at my face before looking into the fire. I pulled my pack over to me and dug around in it. Pulling the package out, I looked at it thoughtfully.
Looking up to see him watching me, I said, “Those two men out there when the wolves attacked…if I had to guess I’d say they were Logarthi.”
“It would appear so. We could check, if you want, by digging up that one body. Assuming we could find enough of it to identify.”
“Too much work.” I grinned wearily. “I’ve had enough digging snow for a long time.” I saw a brief small smile. “When were you going to tell me?”
Kelin sat there looking at me for a long while before turning to stare into the fire. I waited patiently, letting him gather his thoughts. Finally, he asked, “Tell you what?”
“Who you are.”
I looked at him steadily. “Let me guess. Kelin Checaran.”
He nodded as he leaned back in his chair. “How’d you figure it out?”
“Slowly,” I admitted. “It wasn’t really until after the wolf attack I started putting it together. I’d had some suspicions earlier. I’d seen the fletchings and paints when we first got here. You’d mentioned this was Checaran’s cabin and seemed pretty familiar with the cabin.. That could be due to using it from time to time like you say is the custom in the mountains. After I checked the entryway and we came back in before eating and digging out, you hung your quiver and set your bow there naturally. That’s when I really noticed the fletchings and colors on your own arrows, and how they matched up with what was here. Including those partially finished arrows that had been on the table. In the bath, relaxing in that hot water, not thinking…it all just came together.”
He shrugged. “Eventually. I needed to get a measure of you when I heard you were asking around for me. A quick trip up here and back seemed the way to do it. To tell the truth, I was surprised you agreed to come up here instead of just heading back without delivering. I didn’t know if that was just…persistence or some other reason. I’d seen enough before you arrived to be wary of anyone asking around for me.”
“The people of Bolac? How’d you get them to keep quiet and go along with you as Kelin?”
He laughed. “They know me only as Kelin.”
“How do I know you really are Checaran?”
He stared at me, incredulous. “All that and…???”
I shrugged. “Think about it from my perspective. Who’s here to vouch for you? All I’ve got is my guesses and your word. For all I know you killed the real Checaran.”
He continued to stare at me. Several times he started to say something and didn’t. Finally, he held his hands up, shaking his head. “I can’t.”
“Take your shirt off and turn around.”
“Just humor me.”
He shrugged. Pulling off his shirt, he rose and turned to show me his back. Turning back around, he said, “Well?”
“When I took on delivery of the package, it occurred to me that I needed some way to identify you. So, since the Dode was so adamant about the delivery conditions I put the question to him: if all else fails, how can I truly identify the person I have to deliver this to?”
“The Dode? Why would he send me a package?”
I shrugged. “He said you have a scar of a certain shape from when you fell on some rocks. I noticed those scars when we were digging out the snow but couldn’t tell the shape then. That was another clue who you were.” I tossed him the package. “Here you go, one package from the Dode of the Port of the Cascades, special delivery to Checaran.”
He caught the package but made no move to open it.
“Want me to turn around or somehow give you some privacy?”
“No. I….” He was silent for a while, turning the package over in his hands but making no attempt to open it. Finally, without looking up he said, “Why would my brother send me a package?” His voice had a faint trace of hope in it.
“Toss me that package, would you?” Startled, he looked up. “He also said, if that fails to convince me, get him to admit he’s my brother.” I pulled out another package from my pack. “This is the real package.”
He looked at the two packages. “I can see why he choose you.” He tossed me the package he had and I tossed him the real delivery. Looking at me suspiciously, he said, “How do I know this is the real one?” Mimicking me, he said, “All I have is your word for it.”
“You’ll just have….” Slowly I grinned. “You’ve already got your proof.”
“Yes, I do, don’t I?” He smiled faintly in return, holding up the package. “You delivered it.”
I stared into the fire as he opened the package and looked through it. From time to time I heard the quiet crinkle of parchment then all was quiet. I refrained from looking at Kelin, giving him whatever little privacy might be available in the small cabin. I already knew the gist of what was in the package, of course, in case something happened to it before I could make delivery.
* * *
Lost in the flames, I didn’t understand what Kelin said when he finally spoke. Looking at him, I was surprised to see he looked almost ten years younger. He’d been crying, the trail of tears visible down his cheeks. He was smiling now, and his eyes showed his happiness.
“I’m sorry? I didn’t catch that.”
“I’d like passage to Port of the Cascades.”
“I can’t promise. First we have to get out of here and back to Bolac. Then I have to see what cargo my crew might have arranged. If it’s in the right direction, I can provide passage, if not….” I shrugged.
“I understand.” Kelin was thoughtful for a bit. “How about I buy whatever cargo you might have?”
I raised one eyebrow at that. Deliberately I looked him over. “Doesn’t quite work that way. If we have a cargo, the agreement is to deliver it to a certain person at a certain place where the merchant wants it in order to further his business. Unless it’s my own goods I can’t just sell the cargo wherever I want or no-one will ship with me. Since I’ve been here I’ve had no chance to buy my own goods. Any cargo I’ll have when I get back to Bolac will either be the crews’ or some merchant’s. You’ll have to make arrangements with them if you want to do that, not with me. Even then you’ll still have to deal with me if Pa’adhe has a cargo when I get back…there’s a penalty fee for loss of business if someone else makes a deal with the merchant for the same cargo after I’ve accepted.”
He waved that aside as of no import. Holding up the pile of parchment, he said, “The Dode insists I return immediately and that I do so on Pa’adhe.”
He looked puzzled at that. “I said insists, but it’s actually a command.”
“I don’t care.” The surprise on his face clued me in. “I’m not under the Dode’s command. I’m a free trader. I take what jobs I want, when I want, where I want. So, the Dode’s command doesn’t apply to me, only to you.” I grinned to take the sting out of my next words. “As a trader, I’d say I have the upper hand now.”
I saw understanding and chagrin spread over his face. I let him stew for a bit before letting him off the hook. “Don’t worry about it. As I said, until we get back to Bolac and find out the situation with Pa’adhe we can’t determine what’s going to happen. There’s no sense in worrying about it until then and we’ll work something out.” He cheered up at that. Then I added, “We still have to figure out if the other assassin is out there or not.”
The Assassins of Logarthi usually work alone but a team of two is not uncommon either. We had seen movement at two locations before the snow wolf attack so it was likely we were dealing with a pair. Killing one member of the team does not stop the assassination attempt. Once dispatched on an assassination, there is no way to stop them from completing their job unless the person ordering the assassination calls them off. The Dode’s package mentioned an assassination team had been contracted with Kelin as the target. A team was typically two but could be more depending on the target. The contractor had been caught but unless the current assassination team was eliminated there was no way to call off this team. This particular assassination contract had stipulated that if the contractor was captured at least the team hunting at that time was to continue the mission regardless.
So, we had at least half an assassin team still to deal with unless somehow the wolves had eliminated both assassins, which we considered unlikely — the other assassin had been far enough away when Kelin saw him to be able to just stay still and escape as they fed on the one assassin and the meat we’d left behind. The wolves would share and move on, preferably back into the deep mountains. If the assassin was lucky, they’d leave in a direction other than towards him. We had to assume he was lucky.
Packed and ready, we cautiously left the cabin. At the top of the ramp from the cabin opening, Kelin dropped his pack and I did likewise. He went back down the ramp and reaching up in the eves pulled out a long pole. Bidding me wait, he went to where we’d seen the other assassin and after studying the ground began driving the pole into the snow. Eventually he returned and replaced the pole under the eaves. As he shouldered his pack and picked up his strung bow he explained.
“The pole is used to find people buried under the snow after an avalanche or storm. I hoped to find some indication the wolves had got to him, but no luck. If they’d gotten him, there’d have been at least some trace of bone or clothing. Either I missed everything or he got away. We’d better guess he got away.”
“And we’d better guess the snow wolves are still around.”
He grimaced but nodded. “You’re right, that’s the safest thing to do.” He thought a bit, then said, “We’ll skip the snowshoes. It’ll be harder going until we get down, but seeing you’re not used to them it may well be faster if we just take turns leading and breaking a path.”
He headed off, his strung bow in his left hand. Almost immediately he sank to his knees. After about three paces, he muttered, “I wonder if this was such a good idea.”
“How about you use the snowshoes and go first?”
He stopped, thinking. “You’ll still sink and have to fight your way through the snow anyway. No, I think we’ll both use snowshoes. It might be tough on your legs for a while but it’ll be far less effort than this. It shouldn’t be a problem unless we have to run.” He turned to me. “You may not be able to run at all for any distance. Keep that in mind.”
It only took a moment for him to return to the packed snow and fetch the snowshoes. It took longer to teach me to walk on them, but by the time the sun had moved a finger in the sky, we were making reasonable progress. The aches and pains in my legs were similar to those when I first started riding a horse after a long absence but they were definitely muscles that I didn’t know existed before. We’d been able to speed up once I’d learned it was easier to walk in snowshoes using a sort of half-jog. Who’s the drunken sailor now, I thought, remembering my amusement watching Kelin heading out to hunt. The biggest problem was getting used to not stepping on each snowshoe. Fortunately, it only took me three dives into the snow to learn that lesson.
* * *
It was getting dark when Kelin halted. “Lady Moon won’t be out tonight. We’ll have to make camp. This seems the best spot over the last hand.”
I looked around. “You’re the guide.” I moved to stand closer. “We’ve been followed.”
“I noticed. Didn’t know if you had.” He looked around, then pointed. We’ll set up camp there.”
I looked where he pointed, then back at him. He grinned and led the way to a large tree. After packing the snow near the tree, he took off his snowshoes, sticking them in the snow. Having tramped down the snow more with his boots he then used one of the snowshoes to dig under the low hanging branches into the snow well around its base.
I made a fire a little distance away, using the dry twigs Kelin passed out from the snow well. The small but hot meal was a welcome boost but we were glad to finish eating and get into the comparative warmth of the snow well. Mindful of being followed, we kept watch, alternating every three hands or as close as we could guess. Once during the night I thought I heard someone or something searching nearby but nothing came of it.
Before we climbed out of the snow well in the morning, I mentioned having heard something in the night. Kelin nodded, he’d also heard something during one of his watches. Knife in hand, he exited the snow well and as soon as I handed him his bow and quiver I followed him out with my war knives in hand..
Checking all around, we saw nothing to be alarmed about. Satisfied there was no immediate threat, we then checked the snow around the tree for several paces out with one eye on the surroundings. The result of that search was not good as both human and snow wolf prints were in evidence. Kelin went back into the snow well and handed out our gear. We quickly started a new fire in the remains of last night’s fire for a quick, but hot, meal while discussing the situation. There really wasn’t much we could do, so we ate fast and got on the trail again..
We hadn’t gone more than a mile or so when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned my head for a better look, I saw a man in white step out from a tree, bow raised. Even as he released I lunged forward, shouting at Kelin. That was a mistake.
One of my snowshoes hit my other leg and then came down on the edge of the other snowshoe, tripping me. As I attempted to step forward to recover, the rim of that first snowshoe dug into the surface and I went down face-first into the snow. There was no support to my outflung hands and I fell several fingers below the surface. My pack swung up onto my head, pushing my face even deeper. Frantically, I tried to push myself up but my hands simply plunged further into the loose snow. Realizing that wouldn’t work and trying to get my head out from under the pack, I arched my back, raising my head and gasping for air. The mix of snow and air made my throat automatically clamp shut. Trying to get a clean breath, I managed to roll part-way onto my back. For a few heartbeats I thrashed about, trying to get my face clear, then the soft stuff was finally packed enough by my thrashing about to give me sufficient purchase to partially sit up. As the pack settled back down onto my back, I was able to sit up all the way, quickly brushing the cold snow off my face and taking deep breaths. With air in my lungs again, I tried to shake all the icy white stuff out from inside my clothes as I calmed down enough to take a quick look at the situation.
As I looked around, I suddenly remembered seeing the assassin release his arrow. Twisting around I saw that Kelin was similarly sitting there and from the disturbance in the snow I apparently had knocked him down. As we got to our feet I saw the arrow sticking out of his pack.
Immediately I lurched forward towards Kelin. As he looked up I said frantically, “You’ve been shot!”
As he opened his mouth to deny it, I overrode him. “Lay down, we have to get that arrow out!” As he tried to tell me he was not hit, I forced him to lie down on his side, the arrow sticking up. Quietly, as I grabbed the arrow, I said, “Play along with me. The Logarthi weapons are always poisoned so that even a scratch kills. Also Logarthi assassins always confirm their kills, it’s part of the code. We may be able to use this to our advantage.”
I pulled out the arrow, showing it to him. Then quickly, I took his pack off and pulled up his jacket and shirt. Making a fuss, I pulled a shirt out of my pack and ripped it into strips and bound them around him. Pulling his clothes back down, he looked up at me
I helped him up and as I did so, whispered, “I barely saw the assassin behind the tree and only just saw him release. I tried to push you down and tripped over my snowshoes. When I saw the arrow stuck in your pack, I knew we had to do something. He’s going to try again otherwise. This will at least buy us some time.”
Reaching down, I pulled up his pack and helped him into it. “I have an idea but I need to think it out. I’ll fill you in as we go.” Gesturing down the path, I said, “Let’s get going.”
* * *
After a while, I called out, “How are you doing?”
“What? Oh.” Kelin stopped and turned to look at me, his face a little confused. Seeing the concern on my face, he winked. “Fine. Doing fine. A little tired, but doing fine.”
I moved up by him. “Let’s go a little further, then take a break and have some lunch.”
He nodded and resumed snowshoeing. Eventually he started wandering a little aimlessly off the trail, but I noticed he always moved continuously in the direction we needed to go. Eventually, I called out, my concern evident in my voice, “Let’s stop here.”
Kelin dropped right where he was, sitting in the snow and just staring off into space. I settled down nearby and prepared a cold lunch of bread, venison, and cheese. Moving to sit by him, I handed him his share. He took it without speaking but made no attempt to eat. I took his wrist and moved his hand to his face. As the food touched his lips he began eating. I watched for a while, then under the cover of eating laid out my plan.
“I have no idea what the effects of the poison is or how long we can get away with this. We’ll probably have to do something soon or he will likely try another shot, this one possibly more successful.”
Kelin continued staring forward and eating but he nodded slightly.
“Your actions are probably pretty close to what the Logarthi expects or he’d have done something by now. I’ve seen him flitting in the trees.” Kelin nodded again, indicating he’d also seen the assassin. “Here’s what I have. It’s highly dangerous, maybe more than I know, and all on you so it’s your decision. Soon after we leave here, you will fall as if overtaken by the poison. I’ll check you out, then bury you in the snow. I don’t know how best to protect you while you’re buried. I’ll then leave the area and circle back as fast as I can. I’m counting on the assassin to come dig you up enough to verify you’re dead and the right person. That’s when you’ll have to attack him or I’ll have to try and shoot him with your bow.”
We ate in silence a while as Kelin thought over the plan. He gave a slight shrug then said quietly, “I can’t think of anything better, myself. If you just bury me a few fingers deep, and he comes soon enough, I should be able to react. The cold from laying still too long is going to be the biggest problem.”
I nodded. “Right, then. Let’s get a move on.” I packed up the remains of the food and swung my pack onto my back. Looking at Kelin just sitting there, I reached down and helped him to his feet. He stood there swaying slightly. Pointing in the direction we needed to go, I gave him a gentle push and he began snowshoeing down the path. I stood there watching him for a few heartbeats then headed after him.
We hadn’t gone far when Kelin dropped to his knees. As I hurried forward, he collapsed onto his side. Kneeling by him, I went through the motions of trying revive him. Eventually I gave up and squatted back on my heels. Tossing my pack to one side, I tramped down a space conveniently just a little larger than he was. Taking off my snowshoes, I further packed down the snow as I moved around removing his pack and snowshoes. Digging around in his pack, I found his heavy cloak and spread it out on the compressed snow. Next I rolled him over onto his back on top of his cloak. As I did so, I slipped his knife from his sheath into his hand. Then I carefully wrapped his cloak around him to leave him with as much freedom as we could while also as protected from the cold as possible. Then using a snowshoe, I began shoveling a light layer of snow onto him, doing more make-work than actually covering him so that it looked like I was burying him deeper than I was. As soon as I got a nice layer over the rest of him, just enough to uniformly cover him and not have him show, I drew his hood over his face with a whispered “Good luck.” Quickly I covered the rest of him with a finger or two of snow then jammed his snowshoes at his head as a marker.
I stood there for a few heartbeats, head bowed. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and picking up the two packs and his bow, I moved off down the trail. As soon as I was positive I was safely out of sight, I dropped the packs in a tree well beside the path. Carefully, I made my way back to where I could just see the grave. I’d already strung the bow and had made sure I was on the opposite side of the trail from the side the Logarthi assassin had so far always been on. Moving as little as possible, I carefully nocked an arrow then very slowly moved forward to be within bowshot, always keeping a tree or bush between Kelin’s grave and myself. Reaching a good spot behind a tree on the edge of the clearing , I switched carefully to a kneeling position and edged sideways just enough to have a clear shot, hoping the trees behind me would break my outline if any part of me was visible from where the assassin might be. Then I waited, not moving and barely breathing, grateful it was warm enough my breath didn’t show.
* * *
There! The movement was very slight but I’d seen it.
Now that I knew where he was, I was able to track the assassin as he carefully made his way from tree to tree while he moved towards the grave. I admired his technique, studying how he moved from shadow to shadow, hide to hide, slowly and carefully, constantly looking around with just his eyes, barely moving any more than he absolutely had to. Eventually he made his way to the last tree before the grave. We’d deliberately buried Kelin away from the trees and out in the open to force the assassin out of cover. For a long time the assassin was still, watching and waiting.
As he cautiously stepped out from the last tree and began to move towards the grave, I realized my mistake. I, and Kelin, had been unmoving for so long that the simple action of straightening my wrist preparatory to drawing the bow was difficult. Unused to being still for so long, my muscles were burning and stiff. As long as I had been still I was able to ignore the pain but any attempt to move quickly would be bound to fail. I would have to do something.
The Logarthi finally squatted down near the head of the grave. For several heartbeats he just sat there, scanning his surroundings. Finally satisfied, he reached out and began brushing aside the snow. In no time he had cleared the snow from Kelin’s covered head and shoulders.
As he reached for the hood covering Keylin’s face, I stumbled out from my hiding spot, ignoring the pain screaming through my muscles. Before the assassin could react, I had the bow drawn and yelled, “You killed my friend!”
The assassin froze, looking at me. Neither of us made a move as he studied the situation. I didn’t know if he could see my trembling arms and legs at this distance, and hoped not. Slowly, he reached up and pushed his hood back, revealing his face. As the Logarthi pushed back his hood, I was startled to realize how young he was, surely no more than eighteen summers. Maybe his lack of experience… flashed through my mind. I was also happy to see he used the hand that had been closest to Kelin.
“Why? What did he ever do to you?” I deliberately spoke loudly, hoping Kelin would divine my goal.
“It was nothing personal, strictly business.” He gestured at himself, “I am Logarthi. If you know anything, you know what that means.”
“Who, then? Who hired you.”
The assassin shook his head. “We do not reveal that.”
“I should kill you.”
“Perhaps. I do not seek to defile or rob your friend. Our Guild Code requires I verify that I have the proper target.” He gestured at the body before him. “I simply want to see his face and compare it against the painting I was shown.”
As he reached towards Kelin’s hood again, I said, “Wait!” The assassin withdrew his hand to his side, looking at me curiously. I shrugged, enough that he could see the action. “I don’t think I have a choice. I have to kill you or you’ll kill me.”
He shook his head. “No, I will not seek your life. The Guild was paid to kill him, not you. If I had to kill you to kill him, then yes, but as I’ve killed him, I have no need to kill you as well. That, too, you should know about the Logarthi. We only….” His voice trailed off, not finishing what he was about to say.
Even at this distance I could see the sudden flash of suspicion over his face. He glanced down at Keylin then up at me. His eyes narrowed and he suddenly reached for the knife at his side.
The explosion of snow took us both by surprise. I barely saw the flash of bright steel before everything was hidden by the flying snow from Kelin’s sudden attack. When the flurry cleared, the assassin was squatting there looking down at Kelin and there was blood everywhere, Kelin was crumpled on his side in his grave. Dismayed, I saw the knife in the assassin’s hand and instinctively let the string fly from my fingers. Even before the arrow hit, the assassin began to fold forward and I realized he was already dead. As my arrow struck home in the assassin’s chest, pushing him over backwards, I was already moving towards Kelin.
As I got closer I could hear Kelin groaning softly. Dropping by his side, I asked, “Are you hurt?”
Kelin turned his head to look at me then rolled his eyes. “I hurt everywhere!”
“Where did he cut you? We need to stop the blood flow immediately. Treat it like a snakebite, get the poison out!”
“Oh, that?” Kelin shook his head, grimacing. “Not him. Laying here then moving fast. I think someone poured boiling oil on me.”
Unable to help myself, I began to laugh.
* * *
We reached the top of the last ridge between us and Bolac as the sun was setting. Looking around, Kelin gestured at a tree several paces away and headed for it. It was slow going as we kept breaking through calf deep snow. We’d taken off the snowshoes some time ago when we’d come out of the actual mountains into the foothills and encountered less snow. I was tempted to insist we head for Bolac but I knew it was further away than it looked. Besides the idea of a hot meal at last was too tempting. We’d eaten lunch on the march rather than stop and our water bottles were both almost empty.
As Kelin set about clearing a place under the tree I cleared snow from an area in front of a boulder. The boulder provided a wind break for the fire, a heat reflector and a welcome warm place to rest against. Soon Kelin and I were watching the pot boil and the venison roasting over the fire. If any snow wolves had dared disturb us then it would have certainly regretted it.
Neither of us spoke until we’d eaten our fill.
“I realized only too late that if you had to lay there still for any length of time, you might not be able to move fast enough to defend yourself.”
Kelin nodded. “That occurred to me when the Logarthi didn’t show up right away and I was getting colder and stiffer. That was good thinking on your part to get him talking. That gave me an idea where he was and even let me know it actually was him.”
“I wasn’t sure that would even be enough. If you’d had to fight….”
“Yeah. After that one strike, my muscles cramped on me. Even with the advantage of surprise, the Logarthi was fast enough to draw his own knife. Happily, it wasn’t enough to save him.” We were quiet for a while. Then he gestured, “There’s the valley, there’s Bolac, and there’s where we’ll be tomorrow.”
From where we sat, I could also see the small bay and beyond it the black ocean. “I’ll be very glad to get back on board Pa’adhe. I don’t mind adventures on land, but I’d like to get someplace warm for a while.”
Kelin chuckled. “Not as much as I do!”