Winter fell in ghost-like flecks against the silver glow of a moon stifled beneath the press of heavy clouds. The trees reached bare branches toward the unseen stars, shivering in the wind, rattling their mournful tune to the hush of snow-ladened forest atop its ridge of stony cliff, glistening with ice.
Standing between the shelter of shadows, drawn tightly in his dark cloak, the man paused at the narrow path that led toward the descent, his eyes trailing toward the bottom of the valley, the cluster of darkened homes with smoke trickling feebly from their chimneys. Bracing against the bite of wind, his golden eyes were pulled to the only building with light prying between the shutters, the warm glow evident even from this distance. A grim smile lifted his lips, his hand tracing to his side, resting on the ornate sword hilt. There. As if they were waiting on him, inviting him, if only by their own attempts to remain hidden. How very foolish. Foolish to believe that they might move unnoticed through these lands, his lands.
His knuckles shone white, gripping the hilt as anger and satisfaction congealed through his chest. They would pay for this most dearly, their doubt, their aspersions in trying to avoid him so poorly.
The shadows behind him shifted, the darkness seeming to hold its breath. Long years made it easy to sense the movement of others, though untrained eyes might not notice the whisper of a cloak, the glint of eyes in the dim light. It was harder to see the figure moving back along the narrow cliff path toward him, but he could sense the approach, the light step. A feeling of pride in his charge’s trait for silence rose through him and he at last pulled his eyes from the chink of gold that split from the darkened village beneath.
“Tell me then, what did you find?”
It was almost disconcerting how invisible the young man had been on the cliff path. Seeing him straighten now on the place directly beneath the older man’s perch, pull away his hood from his young face, his golden hair falling over blue eyes, would have made most other people start in alarm. Not the man, however. He was the mentor, the elder. He would always he knew, be the superior.
The younger man snorted in disgust, running a hand through his hair and glancing back toward the dark cluster of homes below. “As we believed—they broke into the old Stoneway tavern, used boards on the windows to hide themselves, and now seem to be congratulating themselves on a job well done. The horses are stashed in the attached stable, the doors are barred.” He raised his brows, turning back to the older man. “They suspect we are following though, I can assure you.”
“How?” the older whispered, his tone colder than the sting of the wind. They couldn’t know, not truly. Unless someone had told them…
“They’ve left three on guard rather than one,” the younger explained, casually leaning his shoulder against the wall of stone at his side and tilting his head back to look at the older man. A smirk twitched over his lips, barely visible in the press of night. “The rest, however, don’t seem to think they need worry. They have walls, a roof, a fortress as far as they are concerned.”
“Walls fall, roofs collapse, and fortress are simple enough to turn to flames,” the older muttered.
The younger chuckled. “I thought you may say that, Acra. But, I’m afraid that fortress is mostly stone.”
Annoyance bristled through Acra’s skin at the younger man’s casual use of his name, his nearly laughing tone. As though they were equals, as though anyone might be his equal. Still, he did not let the expression break through his features. Instead he only inclined his head, allowing his eyes to drift once more to the building beneath their perch. The silence pressed around him, sending a thrill through his skin, the familiar feel of the hunt beginning. The invisible eyes between shadows pressed against him, the motionless figures rigid and awaiting orders. Even the wind held its breath, the trees silent, the world listening for his command.
He reveled in the power a moment longer before running a hand over his jaw, across his white beard, and narrowing his golden eyes. “Then it’s time we use their bones for kindling.”
The hiss of excitement, the bite of cold winter, the breath of movement rushed about him. Darkness detached itself from the forest and pressed nearer as Acra pull his hood low and, with the ease of long practice, vaulted from his place on the cliff edge to the narrow path beside his younger companion.
He straightened in time to catch the flicker of hesitation in the blue eyes and stiffened, turning to the younger man. It sent prickles of fury through him to find that this man now stood several inches taller, his build lean and powerful.
“What is it, Nicolyn?” Acra whispered.
Nicolyn faltered, glancing back again toward the abandon cluster of homes, barely a village, lacking in life. “You said we would know the reasoning of this, Acra, but you still haven’t told us. You swore, when we took in the Shadow Dale boy, you’d explain this, him, all of it.”
The shadows above faltered in their own steps, Nicolyn’s doubt creeping into their own blood. Acra’s hands balled into fists, his rage flaring warmth across bitter skin. “That time is not yet.” As the younger man opened his mouth, brow furrowing, clearly ready to protest, Acra shifted his fingers to Nicolyn’s shoulder. He gripped until he felt his fingers biting through cloak and tunic, gripping the flesh beneath in a vice-like hand. Pain flickered in Nicolyn’s blue eyes, giving Acra a moment of satisfaction. Lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner, he nodded past Nicolyn, down toward the trail of smoke that drifted into the sky. “I ask you trust me, Nicolyn. Trust that what waits ahead will change all in our favor. It will mean bringing things how they should be, righting the wrong. It means proving yourself, proving you’re prepared for what I need from you.”
“Prepared?” Nicolyn murmured, a frown creasing his brow.
“I need someone I can trust, Nicolyn,” Acra said, raising his voice again. The figures hovering along the forest edge seemed to relax. “I need to trust you, so you must show you trust me.”
Nicolyn nodded, though Acra thought he could sense the hesitation. There wasn’t a moment to search the face further for concern, to press his point further, as Nicolyn pulled his hood low once more and fell into silent step at Acra’s side.
The narrow trail might have once offered protection to the village, but Acra felt the uneasy sense that they were stepping deeper into the trap that had left these homes empty. Nestled beneath the trees, hidden at the foot of the steep ravines, he could almost imagine the rain of arrows that once fell from above. In his head, he imagined people fleeing their burning homes, sprinting toward the escape of the cliff paths, only to find others were there. Others with blades and ill intent...
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