The wind had died.
Dash waited. The frigid bite of the air still brought tears to his eyes as he scanned the road below. The reconstruction of Darkmoor had been tedious, slowed by continuous snows and rain, as the winter proved a fickle one. If slippery ice wasn't making footing treacherous for those workmen attempting to rebuild the walls around the western portion of the city, then knee-deep mud stalled wagons carrying needed supplies.
Now it was icy again, but at least Dash was thankful there was currently no snow. The sky was clear, the late afternoon sun hinting at warmth that wasn't really there. Dash knew it was his mood as much as the weather, but this particular winter seemed to have lasted longer than any in his young life.
The sounds of the city carried through the still, icy air as the day wound down. With luck the new gate would be finished before sunset, and an extra modicum of security would be added to the sum of things that needed to be done yesterday.
Dash was tired, fatigued beyond anything he could remember in his twenty years of life. Part of it was from the seemingly endless list of things that needed attention, and
the rest was from worry; his brother Jimmy was overdue.
Jimmy was acting the part of exploring officer, a scout behind enemy lines. Prince Patrick of Krondor had decided to move hard and fast against a threat of Keshian expansion into the southern flank of the Kingdom in the spring. That meant that the retaking of lands lost during the invasion the previous summer would be left to OwenGreylock, Knight-Marshal of Krondor, and Erik von Darkmoor, Knight-Captain of the Crimson Eagles, an elite mobile force of handpicked men.
Which had meant the Prince needed information on what the invaders were doing between Darkmoor and Krondor. And Jimmy had volunteered to go see what was going on.
He was now three days overdue.
Dash had come to the edge of the patrolled area, a series of burned-out walls that marked the western edge of the foulbourgh of Darkmoor. The Prince's army in the city insured that there was little danger within a day's ride of the city, but these partial walls and piles of tumbled masonry provided ample cover for ambush and had been refuge to more than one band of scavengers or outlaws.
Dash scanned the horizon, watching for his brother. The sounds of the winter woodlands below were few and infrequent. An occasional rustle as snow fell from tree branches, or the crack of ice some miles away as the thaw began. A bird call or the rustle of some animal in the brush. Sound carried for miles in the winter cold.
Then Dash heard something. A faint sound, coming from far away. It wasn't the sound of hooves striking hard dirt and rock Dash had hoped to hear. Rather it was the rolling crunch of ice underfoot. And whoever made the sound was coming toward him with a methodical step, even and unhurried.
Dash flexed his gloved fingers and slowly pulled his sword from his scabbard. If the previous conflict had taught him nothing else, it was to always be ready. There were no safe positions outside the fortress that was the city of Darkmoor.
In the distance he detected motion, and he focused on it. A single figure trudged along the road. He was moving at a plodding walk, and as Dash watched, he hurried to a slow trot. Dash knew he was walking one hundred paces, then trotting one hundred paces, a practice drilled into Dash and his brother by their arms teachers as boys. For a man without a mount it could cover almost as much distance as a horse could in a day, more over the course of weeks.
Dash watched. The figure resolved itself into a man wrapped in a heavy grey cloak; clothing designed to make it difficult to see the wearer from any distance in the gloom of winter. Only on the bright days when the sky was clear would the wearer be easy to spot.
As the man on foot came closer, Dash saw he was without a hat, but had his head covered in a thick cloth, a scarf or torn remnant of another piece of clothing. He carried a sword at his side, and his hands were clad in mismatching gloves. His boots were filthy with mud and ice.
The crunching of snow under his tread became louder by the moment, until he stood before Dash. He stopped and looked up, and at last he said, "You're in my way."
Dash moved his mount aside and swung the horse's head around toward Darkmoor. He put his sword away, urged the animal forward and walked beside the man on foot. "Lose your horse?" he asked.
Jimmy, Dash's brother, hiked his thumb over his shoulder. "Back there."
"That was pretty careless," said the younger brother. "That was an expensive horse."
Jimmy said, "I know. But I didn't feel like carrying him. He was dead."
"Pity. That was a really good horse."
"You don't miss him nearly as much as I do," said Jimmy.
"Would you like a ride?" asked Dash.
Jimmy stopped, turned, and regarded his brother. Neither son of Lord Arutha, Duke of Krondor, resembled the other. James looked like his grandmother, slight, blond, and possessing features that could only be called finely drawn, with sapphire eyes. Dash looked like his grandfather, with tight curls of light brown hair, dark eyes, and a mocking expression. In nature, they were as alike as twins. "About time you offered," said Jimmy, reaching up to take Dash's hand.