The tree braced him as he slid down to the ground. The fire was still burning well. The heat soothed his sore, cold muscles. Edan could not remember the last time he saw a Taztlwyrm. Or had to fight one, for that matter. Or fight anything. He was getting old, and his muscles did their part to remind him.
Isn’t it good to be back where the weather is nice?
He scoffed again at the question. Although Edan spent many years in the north, he never did fully adjust to the cold. He was more than capable of preforming in it, even exceling at combat and traversing it, when he was a newly appointed Witchguard. Young and strong. When it bothered him, he would simply shrug it off. But that was then. Not now. Now he could not even hide the colds effects on him.
Billy-Bob, the Barbarian he had met in Heldren, lay on the ground. He spent a lot of his time this way. The rest was in fits of incredible rage, which served him well when he was on his feet. He was stable, but the three had agreed to let him rest a minute while Elsa tried to identify the treasure they had acquired.
Mahkus sat by the fire, looking over his pistol and counting his remaining ammunition. Edan had fired a long-rifle once upon a time, but had never had the pleasure of firing a pistol. The Hobgoblin’s gun was very loud, and embedded into things with incredible ease. Many of his shots hit their targets true. The resulting effects varied from target to target, but this was not the young Hobgoblin’s fault.
Edan knew that with more training, and time, both his new friends would be powerful assets. And, perhaps more interestingly, Edan felt he could guide them somewhat. He had never considered himself a teacher, but perhaps with the proper motivation and some trial and error, this small group could be destined for greatness.
At least, he hoped so.
Elsa sat on the crate, examining the wands they had found inside. Edan had dragged the empty crate to their little camp under the tree. He had figured it would be more inviting to the young lady than the damp, cold ground. His instincts had served him well. She had joined them immediately, retreating from her lookout on the worn path.
When Elsa finished examining the wands, she laid them next to her on the crate. She peered to Billy-Bob, then to the tree branches, and about the rest of the dugout snow fort that was serving as their camp. Finally, she rested her head in her hands, facing the warmth. Her eyes reflected the soft glow of the fire, even in daylight. Edan smiled. She looked very much like her mother.
Her gaze shifted from the fire to Edan, and his smile remained. He became painfully aware that the situation might be awkward for the woman, but her candid demeanor put that worry to ease fairly quickly.
“How did you know my mother?”
Edan closed his eyes a moment, thinking back. His smile widened. Slowly he turned his face to the fire and opened his eyes. It warmed his heart that she had asked. It was a start.
“It is quite the story. And I am more than willing to share it, but it will take some time.”
Edan looked back to the girl, his expression warm. Elsa raised her head and looked around briefly, shrugging. She was right after all, at this particular moment they had time.
“I will make you deal. I will tell you the story, and answer any questions you have, if you let me tell it in my way. And I warn you, men of my age have a way of going on and on and on,” he paused, “We have to feel like our story is important. And every story, truly, is about the telling. Not the ending.”
Edan removed his stiff right glove, laid it by the fire and extended his warm hand towards the young witch.
“Are we agreed?”
Elsa tried to look away casually, as if she hadn’t seen the extended arm. Yet she blushed slightly, knowing it was a moment too late to look natural. Her own hands pulsed and ached under her elbow-length cloth gloves, and the thought of shaking with Edan made her wince. It had been a long time since she had exerted her powers so forcefully. In fact, the last time she had to focus like this, she was in very similar icy surroundings – no matter that they were hundreds of miles away. She instead continued lightly stroking Myrin, staring out over the snowy expanse before responding.
“Of course. I will try my best to avoid interrupting you. Or falling into a slumber, should that be more likely. But do try to keep it clean: The hobgoblin looks quite young”
Edan smiled, tilted his head slightly and retracted his hand, removing his other glove. Elsa had made a good point. While Billy-Bob was in no condition to protest, Mahkus might not want to hear the tale. In an attempt to be polite, and as an act of friendship, Edan turned his palm upward and gestured to the young Hobgoblin.
“Would you hear a story, my friend? Well, at least the beginning?”
With a smirk on his face but not looking up from his tinkering of his pistol.
“Things I see, faint you would. This story, could not compare.”
His fiery red eyes raise, first to the fire, then to Edan’s. He gives a slight nod of confirmation to Edan and looks back down to his weapon and continues to tinker. This being the first time they all have had to actually sit and speak to each other, Edan can tell there is something behind Mahkus’ eyes. There isn’t the cold stare of a hardened man to match the sharp words nor is it the dark gaze of something evil. It almost looks as if there is remorse and regret.
Edan nodded to Mahkus and took a seat in front of the fire, his hands now facing the warm flames. It would seem their young friend had something weighing on his conscious. Edan had seen similar looks in people’s eyes before, and knew the Hobgoblin stood at a crossroads. One path led to acceptance, serenity and peace. The other led somewhere quite different.
Good. My story will not be lost on him.
Edan drew in a few deep breaths. He looked to his young friend, tinkering with his pistol. He looked over to Elsa, petting her bunny and staring off into the void. Edan looked into the flames, and for a moment thought of Elsa’s mother. He shivered, closed his eyes and began to speak.
“Well, once upon a time I was a Witchguard. I served the Winter Witches and the Winter Guard with honor for many years. You asked me, Elsa, how I knew your mother, and the only place I can think to start is what happened at Witchfyre Rock all those years ago.”
The Witchguards had been huddled under the large ridge for what seemed like days. The snow danced slowly across the early morning the sky, the wind fairly calm for this time of year. The occasional gust did slice through their leather tunics like a knife, and many shivered. A handful rubbed their arms and chests vigorously. Some whispered to each other as quietly as possible, trying to pass the time. Others rested with their eyes closed, attempting either to sleep through the cold or appear stoic.
Then there was Edan.
He was shivering so severely his teeth continuously chattered together. One of the older Witchguards had given him some smokeless fire that he stored in his tunic, warming his hands and avoiding frostbite. However it did little to stop the shivering. Nothing seemed to help.
Edan looked at the other Witchguards. He admired most of them, feared others. His eyes eventually locked with Rythis. He drew in a sharp breath and smiled weakly, shrugging. Rythis continued to stare and began to shake his head in disbelief. He looked ill, and whispered something to the rather large Witchguard next to him. Both grinned and looked to Edan, shaking their heads.
Edan had hypothesized Rythis hated him, though he could not explain why. It never occurred to him that some people, no matter who you were, how hard you tried or how friendly you were, would always hate you. It did not sit well with him, but not a lot did.
He would have to adjust. There was, after all, cold everywhere.
“Shut up, Gods damn you,” hissed the leader of their Flight. His eyes were ablaze. All 18 of them silenced, looking up to their leader. He was the only person standing beside the ledge, his eyes watching the path below when they were not attacking the rest of the Flight.
Last night, right before lights out, they received information that indicated sensitive materials were using this very trail to be delivered to the capital of Irrisen; Whitethrone. Their leader, Levi, told them little else. They left immediately, readied their weapons and settled in the best possible ambushing spot on the path—Witchfyre Rock.
As legend told, Witchfyre Rock was the place for those who broke the most sacred Irrisen laws and were to be executed publicly. Many of the most deviant traitors, heretics and rebels over the years met their end at the pyre found atop the rock. The formation was large, and the top was a charred crimson color. The formation also made a very good hiding spot from the path that passed down below it.
All the Witchguard had to do was wait; and wait they had.
The Flight was silent except the chattering teeth of Edan, who after a few glares covered his mouth. He heard Levi mumble something to his second, a red haired giant of a Witchguard. No one knew his real name, but everyone called him Hammer. Rumors were he actually had giants blood in his veins. Hammer nodded, and got to his knees.
“Alright Kits, listen up,” Hammer whispered, his voice gruff but hushed, “the ambush is about to be sprung. Remember your targets, ready your weapons and do not hesitate. You hesitate, you die. If you somehow survive that, I will kill you. And Levi will pay for a Cleric to bring you back. And then he will kill you. Hopefully in that order. Understood?”
The Flight nodded, knowing enough not to indicate their understanding with the usual yelp. Edan chattered in understanding.
“Good. On Levi’s mark. Ready up.”
The group readied their weapons, rising to a crouch and trying the new position out. They could hear voices from the path below, muffled but unaware of the Witchguards presence. Edan could hear horses, and perhaps a wagon or two. He swallowed hard. How many were there? 20? 50? 100? 1000? Did it matter?
Levi’s hand raised into the air, and came down briskly.
“Go,” he whispered, the first wave of six down the hill as quietly as possible. Levi smiled to Hammer, nodding.
“Alright,” Hammer said, “Second group with me, here we go”. The second six, Rythis and his large friend included, stood straight up. They readied their weapons and shields and charged down the hill screaming. The first six unloaded their range weapons to cover the charge. Edan could hear screams and shouts, his first experience with the sounds of war. Levi looked to the last six, smiled and yelled “For the Winter Guard! Attack!”
Edan grabbed his weapon, readied his shield and flew around the rock. He flew down the hill with his shield in front of his face. He could hear the crackle and snap of ice magic, energy and ice particles impacting the rocks, trees and his ally’s shields. He found stable footing, left the hill and lowered his shield to survey the battlefield.
There were three wagons, and a total of 20 or so witches. The first wave was still behind wave two and three, their bags of snowballs almost empty. The first wagon was all abandoned save the driver, an elder Witch and her Witchguard. Edan could see the smiles on all of the adult’s faces.
The recently recruited witches were screaming and giggling, firing off small bits of ice magic or forming their own snowballs from the copious amounts of ammunition laying around. Some of them were wailing, covering their faces with their hands; causalities of the battle. A few of his Flight were frozen to the ground from the knee down, hiding desperately behind their shields trying to guard their face and stomach at the same time.
Levi flung snowballs wildly, hitting a few of the young witches. Hammer was taken down by a snow ball, laughing as he fell to the ground. Edan could not see Rythis, or his friend, but decided to start throwing snowballs at witches.
He missed many throws, impacting on the wagons and the ground. One witch looked his way and began to speak her magical words. Edan raised his shield just in time to block the blow, lowered the shield and belted a snowball at the witch. It hit her in the stomach. She fell to the ground giggling.
Levi’s shriek silenced the battlefield. He had been struck by powerful magic. Had one of the Elder Witches intervened? Edan could no longer see any of the chaperons. He feared that the fun had come to an end and punishment was inevitable. It was the greatest risk of the mission, after all. They all signed up knowing this.
Many of his Flight were on the ground moaning. Others, upon hearing Levi’s scream, dove for cover or feigned defeat. Edan stood defiantly in the open, Levi within his sight. Whatever had taken him out was blocked from view by one of the wagons. Everyone was silent, and he could hear footsteps in the snow. Slowly, from behind the wagon, an apprentice witch came into view.
She stood over Levi, the hood of her cloak over her head. She spoke plainly, her voice sharp and almost whimsical.
“You are the ones meant to guard us? And you are their leader? Please.”
Slowly she reached down, tearing the leader-sigil patch from his sleeve. Levi mumbled something to her, enticing her to kick his side lightly. It was then the sound of chattering teeth started to emanate from Edan, some 40 feet away. The hooded Witch turned her head curiously, locking eyes with Edan.
“Oh,” she cooed, “Last man standing.” She gingerly stepped over Levi and started to walk towards Edan. Edan glanced into his bag. He had one snowball left. He took it in his hand, removed the shoulder strap of his bag off his shoulder, and readied his shield.
“Uh-oh. One left?” the witch teased. She stopped about 15 feet in front of him, drawing her hood back. Edan’s eyes glazed over, his mouth slacking a bit. The witch that stood before him was gorgeous. He had never seen anyone that could match her beauty, and her smile insinuated she knew it. Edan also knew she was strong enough to drop Levi, and that her magical talents extended far beyond most of her classmates.
“Go ahead. I will give you a free shot, Kit.” She put her hands on her hips, tilting to one side. He could see her figure vaguely through her robes, his eyes searching for a target. She was older than him by at least a few years. It would explain her prowess for magic, and that she could drop the older Levi.
Edan swallowed hard, fell into position and threw his snowball as hard as he could. It bound towards her face, flying true. Everyone watched in shock as the projectile closed the space between them. As it was about to hit her, the weapon stopped midair and fractured apart into a thousand little snow flakes, revealing her smiling face and open palm.
“You missed,” she teased. Her hands started to move, words filling the air. Edan realized what was happening, panicked and charged the witch. Her eyes filled with surprise as she hurried through the incantation, the spell erupting from her hands as Edan impacted against her with the only thing he had—his shield.
The spells energy spiraled into the air as Edan and her fell to the ground. Edan, his face embedded in the snow, slowly raised his head. He realized he was atop of the witch, face to face. Her face was fiery red, a mixture of embarrassment and what he figured to be anger.
“Get off me, boy,” she spat, her eyes aglow. Edan giggled, smiling at her as a strong hand grabbed him around the neck and pulled him off the witch. He landed at his feet, an Elder witch helping the apprentice to her feet. A Witchguard stood behind him, staring at the Elder witch. He took only a moment to glance at Edan, and winked. Edan smiled.
“Well,” the Elder witch began, “It seems the future of the Witchguard has decided to attack the witches they will someday protect. How,” she paused, searching for the word, “ironic. Round them up, they will follow us back on foot.”
All of the apprentice witches were put back into their wagons, the Witchguard rallying their own recruits and putting them in a marching formation. One of the adult Witchguards helped Levi up, spoke with him and patted him on the shoulder. Levi thanked him, nodded to Edan and walked with him to the rest of the recruits.
Edan retrieved his bag, and walked towards the formation. He felt a hand on his shoulder, stopped and turned to face the young witch he had just tackled. Her face was soft again, a thin smile on her lips. She reached a closed fist towards him and opened it, Levi’s patch in her hand.
“This is for you,” she said softly. Edan took it from her hand, the warmth from her hand stirring him slightly. He grinned at her.
“What is your name?” he managed. The young witch smiled, took a step back, drew her hood up and returned towards her wagon. Edan stood there, watching her walk away. The shout of Hammer pulled him back to the ground. He rejoined his Flight and they guarded their witches all the way to Whitethrone.
Edan stirred from his spot. His leg had fallen asleep during the telling of the story. He looked to Elsa, smiling.
“That was the first time I met your mother. She was one of the strongest apprentices the Elders had seen. At the time I met her, she had already spent a year or so training. She and Levi were the same age, a year or two older than me. At the time I was 13, almost 14,” he paused and looked to the fire. “When I met your mother, I knew only one thing: I had to be her Witchguard. I wasn’t sure why, or how, I just knew it.”
Edan looked to Mahkus, and then to Elsa. He actively worked to gauge their reactions to the telling of his story, a story in which he had never told before.
Elsa smiled thinly as the story came to a conclusion. “How…sweet. I didn’t realize that you met one another so young. I take it that you did not grow up together though? The woman you describe is very different from the one that raised me. I suppose time always takes its toll.”
Edan thought a moment, and nodded in agreement. “Time changes us all.” He reached down to his gloves and required them. “I knew your mother for many years, but I guess we did not grow up together.” He paused, frowning, “I had not seen your mother in a long time.”
After setting Myrin on the ground, Elsa lifted the thin maple wand from the top of the crate. She gave it a few flicks with her wrist, then moved over to the unconscious hunter. “I believe he’s napped long enough. There will not be many more hours of good daylight left. Before this day is out, Rokar will answer for his alliances.” A dim blue glow began to spread over Billy-Bob’s body as Elsa incanted ancient words of restoration.
At the mention of using snow balls as weapons Mahkus let out a little giggle. Edan surely noticed that Mahkus had slowed his tinkering to listen more in depth. When Edan had finished Mahkus spoke. “This story cute…” Mahkus paused and looked at Edan, “More there is too it I think.”
At the site of Elsa performing her restorative magics Mahkus gets visibly uneasy and scoots away. Without removing his eyes from Elsa, Mahkus said, “Continue.”
Propping himself against the tree, Edan slowly raised to his feet. Elsa had successfully revived Billy-Bob, peered to Mahkus and decided to approach Edan. Edan lifted his arms to his sides and smiled. “Hit me.” Elsa made a puzzled look and worked the wands magic. He peered over Elsa to Mahkus, who looked eager to hear the rest.
“Very keen mind, Markus. There is more. And I will gladly tell it.” Edan looked to the sky, noting the direction of the wind and estimating the location of the Sun through the thick clouds. “Perhaps tonight when we stop to rest. Thanks to Elsa, and you, we can muster the will to carry on a bit further.”
Edan waited for the rest of them to gather their things, ready themselves and prepared to move further down the trail towards the captured noblewoman.