It was a constant tapping sound that roused Will from
his deep, untroubled sleep. He had no clear idea at what point he first became aware of it. It seemed to slide unobtrusively into his sleeping mind, magnified and amplified inside his subconscious, until it crossed over into the conscious world and he realized he was awake, and wondering what it might be.
Tap-tap-tap-tap . . . It was still there, but not as loud now that he was awake and aware of other sounds in the small cabin.
From the corner, behind a small curtain of sacking that gave her a modicum of privacy, he could hear Evanlyn's even breathing. Obviously, the tapping hadn't woken her. There was a muted crackle from the heaped coals in the fireplace at the end of the room and, as he became more fully awake, he heard them settle with a slight rustling sound.
Tap-tap-tap . . .
It seemed to come from nearby. He stretched and yawned, sitting up on the rough couch he'd fashioned from wood and canvas. He shook his head to clear it and, for a moment, the sound was obscured. Then it was back once more and he realized it was coming from outside the window. The oiled cloth panes were translucent-they would admit the gray light of the pre-dawn, but he couldn't see anything more than a blur through them. Will knelt on the couch and unlatched the frame, pushing it up and craning his head through the opening to study the small porch of the cabin.
A gust of chill entered the room and he heard Evanlyn stir as it eddied around, causing the sacking curtain to billow inward and the embers in the fireplace to glow more fiercely, until a small tongue of yellow flame was released from them.
Somewhere in the trees, a bird was greeting the first light of a new day, and the tapping sound was obscured once more.
Then he had it. It was water, dripping from the end of a long icicle that depended from the porch roof and falling onto an upturned bucket that had been left on the edge of the porch.
Tap-tap-tap . . . tap-tap-tap.
Will frowned to himself. There was something significant in this, he knew, but his mind, still fuddled with sleep, couldn't quite grasp what it was. He stood, still stretching, and shivered slightly as he left the last warmth of his blanket and made his way to the door.
Hoping not to wake Evanlyn, he eased the latch upward and slowly opened the door, holding it up so that the sagging leather hinges wouldn't allow the bottom edge to scrape the floor of the cabin.
Closing the door behind him, he stepped out onto the rough boards of the porch, feeling them strike icy cold against his bare feet. He moved to the spot where the water dripped endlessly onto the bucket, realizing as he went that other icicles hanging from the roof were also dripping water. He hadn't seen this before. He was sure they usually didn't do this.
He glanced out at the trees, where the first rays of the sun were beginning to filter through.
In the forest, there was a slithering thump as a load of snow finally slid clear of the pine branches that had supported it for months and fell in a heap to the ground below.
And it was then that Will realized the significance of the endless tap-tap-tap that had woken him.
Behind him, he heard the door creak and he turned to see Evanlyn, her hair wildly tousled, her blanket wrapped tight around her against the cold.
"What is it?" she asked him. "Is something wrong?"
He hesitated a second, glancing at the growing puddle of water beside the bucket.
"It's the thaw," he said finally.
After their meager breakfast, Will and Evanlyn sat in the early morning sun as it streamed across the porch. Neither of them had wanted to discuss the significance of Will's earlier discovery, although they had since found more signs of the thaw.
Small patches of soaked brown grass were showing through the snow cover on the ground surrounding the cabin, and the sound of wet snow sliding from the trees to hit the ground was becoming increasingly common.
The snow was still thick on the ground and in the trees, of course. But the signs were there that the thaw had begun and that, inexorably, it would continue.
"I suppose we'll have to think about moving on," Will said, finally voicing the thought that had been in both their minds.
"You're not strong enough yet," Evanlyn told him. It had been barely three weeks since he had thrown off the mind-numbing effects of the warmweed given to him as a yard slave in Ragnak's Lodge. Will had been weakened by inadequate food and clothing and a regimen of punishing physical work before they had made their escape. Since then, their meager diet in the cabin had been enough to sustain life, but not to restore his strength or endurance. They had lived on the cornmeal and flour that had been stored in the cabin, along with a small stock of vegetables and the stringy meat from whatever game Evanlyn and he had been able to snare.
There was little enough of that in winter, and what game they had managed to catch had been in poor condition itself, providing little in the way of nourishment.
Will shrugged. "I'll manage," he said simply. "I'll have to."
And that, of course, was the heart of the problem. They both knew that once the snow in the high passes had melted, hunters would again begin to visit the high country where they found themselves. Already, Evanlyn had seen one such-the mysterious rider in the forest on the day when Will's senses had returned to him. Fortunately, since that day, there had been no further sign of him. But it was a warning. Others would come, and before they did, Will and Evanlyn would have to be long gone, heading down the far side of the mountain passes and across the border into Teutlandt.
Evanlyn shook her head doubtfully. For a moment, she said nothing. Then she realized that Will was right. Once the thaw was well and truly under way, they would have to leave whether she felt he was strong enough to travel or not.
"Anyway," she said at last, "we have a few weeks yet. The thaw's only just started, and who knows? We may even get another cold snap."
It was possible, she thought. Perhaps not probable, but at least it was possible. Will nodded agreement.
"There's always that," he said.
The silence fell over them once more like a blanket. Abruptly, Evanlyn stood, dusting off her breeches. "I'll go and check the snares," she said, and when Will began to rise to accompany her, she stopped him.
"You stay here," she said gently. "From now on, you're going to have to conserve your strength as much as possible."
Will hesitated, then nodded. He recognized that she was right.
She collected the hessian sack they used as a game bag and slung it over her shoulder. Then, with a small smile in his direction, the girl headed off into the trees.
Feeling useless and dispirited, Will slowly began to gather up the wooden platters they had used for their meal. All he was good for, he thought bitterly, was washing up.
The snare line had moved farther and farther from the cabin over the past three weeks. As small animals, rabbits, squirrels and the occasional snow hare had fallen prey to the snares that Will had built, the other animals in that area had become wary. As a consequence, they had been compelled to move the snares into new locations every few days-each one a little farther away from the cabin than the one before.
Evanlyn estimated that she had a good forty minutes' walking on the narrow uphill track before she would reach the first snare. Of course, if she'd been able to move straight to it, the walk would have been considerably shorter. But the track wound and wandered through the trees, more than doubling the distance she had to cover.
The signs of the thaw were all around her, now that she was aware of it. The snow no longer squeaked dryly underfoot as she walked. It was heavier, wetter and her steps sank deeply into it. The leather of her boots was already soaked from contact with the melting snow. The last time she had walked this way, she reflected, the snow had simply coated her boots as a fine, dry powder.
She also began to notice more activity among the wildlife in the area. Birds flitted through the trees in greater numbers than she'd previously seen, and she startled a rabbit on the track, sending it scurrying back into the protection of a snow-covered thicket of blackberries.
At least, she thought, all this extra activity might increase the chances of finding some worthwhile game in the snares.
Evanlyn saw the discreet sign that Will had cut into the bark of a pine and turned off the track to find the spot where she and Will had laid the first of the snares. She recalled how gratefully she had greeted his recovery from the warmweed drug. Her own survival skills were negligible and Will had provided welcome expertise in devising and setting snares to supplement their diet. It was all part of his Ranger training under Halt, he had told her.
She remembered how, when he had mentioned the older Ranger's name, his eyes had misted for a few moments and his voice had choked slightly. Not for the first time, the two young people had felt very, very far from home.
As she pushed her way through the snow-laden bushes, becoming wetter and wetter in the process, she felt a surge of pleasure. The first snare in the line held the body of a small ground-foraging bird. They had caught a few of these previously and the bird's flesh made excellent eating. About the size of a small chicken, it had carelessly poked its neck through the wire noose of the snare, then become entangled. Evanlyn smiled grimly as she thought how once she might have objected to the cruelty of the bird's death. Now, all she felt was a sense of satisfaction as she realized that they would eat well today.
Amazing how an empty belly could change your perspective, she thought, removing the noose from the bird's neck and stuffing the small carcass in her makeshift game bag. She reset the snare, sprinkling a few seeds of corn on the ground beyond it, then rose to her feet, frowning in annoyance as she realized that the melting snow had left two wet patches on her knees as she'd crouched.
Evanlyn sensed, rather than heard, the movement in the trees behind her and began to turn.
Before she could move, she felt an iron grip around her throat, and as she gasped in fright, a fur-gloved hand, smelling vilely of smoke, sweat and dirt, clapped over her mouth and nose, cutting off her cry for help.
The two riders emerged from the trees and into a clear
meadow. Down here in the foothills of Teutlandt, the coming spring was more apparent than in the high mountains that reared ahead of them. The meadow grasses were already showing green and there were only isolated patches of snow, in spots that usually remained shaded for the greater part of the day.
A casual onlooker might have been interested to notice the horses that followed behind the two mounted men. They might even have mistaken the men, at a distance, for traders who were hoping to take advantage of the first opportunity to cross through the mountain passes into Skandia, and so benefit from the high prices that the season's first trade goods would enjoy.
But a closer inspection would have shown that these men were not traders. They were armed warriors. The smaller of the two, a bearded man clad in a strange gray and green dappled cloak that seemed to shift and waver as he moved, had a longbow slung over his shoulders and a quiver of arrows at his saddle bow.
His companion was a larger, younger man. He wore a simple brown cloak, but the early spring sunshine glinted off the chain mail armor at his neck and arms, and the scabbard of a long sword showed under the hem of the cloak. Completing the picture, a round buckler was slung over his back, emblazoned with a slightly crude effigy of an oakleaf.
Their horses were as mismatched as the men themselves. The younger man sat astride a tall bay-long-legged, with powerful haunches and shoulders, it was the epitome of a battlehorse. A second battlehorse, this one a black, trotted behind him on a lead rope. His companion's mount was considerably smaller, a shaggy barrel-chested horse, more a pony really. But it was sturdy, and had a look of endurance to it. Another horse, similar to the first, trotted behind, lightly laden with the bare essentials for camping and traveling. There was no lead rein on this horse. It followed obediently and willingly.
Horace craned his neck up at the tallest of the mountains towering above them. His eyes squinted slightly in the glare of the snow that still lay thickly on the mountain's upper half and now reflected the light of the sun.
"You mean to tell me we're going over that?" he asked, his eyes widening.
Halt looked sidelong at him, with the barest suggestion of a smile. Horace, however, intent on studying the massive mountain formations facing them, failed to see it.
"Not over," said the Ranger. "Through."
Horace frowned thoughtfully at that. "Is there a tunnel of some kind?"
"A pass," Halt told him. "A narrow defile that twists and winds through the lower reaches of the mountains and brings us into Skandia itself."
Horace digested that piece of information for a moment or two. Then Halt saw his shoulders rise to an intake of breath and knew that the movement presaged yet another question. He closed his eyes, remembering a time that seemed years ago when he was alone and when life was not an endless series of questions.
Then he admitted to himself that, strangely, he preferred things the way they were now. However, he must have made some unintentional noise as he awaited the question, for he noticed that Horace had sealed his lips firmly and determinedly. Obviously, Horace had sensed the reaction and had decided that he would not bother Halt with another question. Not yet, anyway.
Which left Halt in a strange quandary. Because now that the question was unasked, he couldn't help wondering what it would have been. All of a sudden, there was a nagging sense of incompletion about the morning. He tried to ignore the feeling but it would not be pushed aside. And for once, Horace seemed to have conquered his almost irresistible need to ask the question that had occurred to him.
Halt waited a minute or two but there was no sound except for the jingling of harness and the creaking of leather from their saddles. Finally, the former Ranger could bear it no longer.
The question seemed to explode out of him, with a greater degree of violence than he had intended. Taken by surprise, Horace's bay shied in fright and danced several paces sideways.
Horace turned an aggrieved look on his mentor as he calmed the horse and brought it back under control.
"What?" he asked Halt, and the smaller man made a gesture of exasperation.
"That's what I want to know," he said irritably. "What
Horace peered at him. The look was all too obviously the sort of look that you give to someone who seems to have taken leave of his senses. It did little to improve Halt's rapidly rising temper.
"What?" said Horace, now totally puzzled.
"Don't keep parroting at me!" Halt fumed. "Stop repeating what I say! I asked you 'what,' so don't ask me 'what' back, understand?"
Horace considered the question for a second or two, then, in his deliberate way, he replied: "No."
Halt took a deep breath, his eyebrows contracted into a deep V, and beneath them his eyes sparked with anger. But before he could speak, Horace forestalled him.
"What 'what' are you asking me?" he said. Then, thinking how to make his question clearer, he added, "Or to put it another way, why are you asking 'what'?"
Controlling himself with enormous restraint, and making no secret of the fact, Halt said, very precisely: "You were about to ask a question."
Horace frowned. "I was?"
Halt nodded. "You were. I saw you take a breath to ask it."
"I see," said Horace. "And what was it about?"
For just a second or two, Halt was speechless. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then finally found the strength to speak.
"That is what I was asking you," he said. "When I said 'what,' I was asking you what you were about to ask me."
"I wasn't about to ask you 'what,' " Horace replied, and Halt glared at him suspiciously. It occurred to him that Horace could be indulging himself in a gigantic leg pull, that he was secretly laughing at Halt. This, Halt could have told him, was not a good career move. Rangers were not people who took kindly to being laughed at. He studied the boy's open face and guileless blue eyes and decided that his suspicion was ill-founded.
"Then what, if I may use that word once more, were you about to ask me?"
Horace drew breath once more, then hesitated. "I forget," he said. "What were we talking about?"
"Never mind," Halt muttered, and nudged Abelard into a canter for a few strides to draw ahead of his companion.
Sometimes the Ranger could be confusing, and Horace thought it best to forget the whole conversation. Yet, as happens so often, the moment he stopped trying to consciously remember the thought that had prompted his question, it popped back into his mind again.
"Are there many passes?" he called to Halt.
The Ranger twisted in his saddle to look back at him. "What?" he asked.
Horace wisely chose to ignore the fact that they were heading for dangerous territory with that word again. He gestured to the mountains frowning down upon them.
"Through the mountains. Are there many passes into Skandia through the mountains?"
Halt checked Abelard's stride momentarily, allowing the bay to catch up with them, then resumed his pace.
"Three or four," he said.
"Then don't the Skandians guard them?" Horace asked. It seemed logical to him that they would.
"Of course they do," Halt replied. "The mountains form their principal line of defense."
"So how did you plan for us to get past them?"
The Ranger hesitated. It was a question that had been taxing his mind since they had taken the road from Chateau Montsombre. If he were by himself, he would have no trouble slipping past unseen. With Horace in company, and riding a big, spirited battlehorse, it might be a more difficult matter. He had a few ideas but had yet to settle on any one of them.
"I'll think of something," he temporized, and Horace nodded wisely, satisfied that Halt would indeed think of something. In Horace's world, that was what Rangers did best, and the best thing a warrior apprentice could do was let the Ranger get on with thinking while a warrior took care of walloping anyone who needed to be walloped along the way. He settled back in his saddle, contented with his lot in life.