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Light seeped through the interwoven branches above, a morning song upon them. Snow had fallen the night before, covering the sparse bushes and underbrush with a thin blanket of white. The crisp chill of winter hung in the air, rushing the small denizens of the wood to fill their stores with nuts and berries to sustain them through the following months.
The sound of snow crunching underfoot sent off into their nearby homes those animals not hibernating. The morning song became suddenly quiet.
"This is by far the greatest of forests," a deep voice proclaimed, a trail of frosty breath following each word. The footfalls became louder as a man and boy made their way through the woods of Darleman.
"Have you seen many?" the boy asked with wonder.
Daroth tousled his son's curly hair, his weathered hands much the same hue as the chestnut locks. "A man needn't see the whole of the world to know when he's found its best."
Daroth chuckled and pulled his son closer to avoid the snow of an overhanging branch. A look of confusion crossed the boy's face, but Daroth was too intent on their surroundings to notice.
A large man by any standard, heavily muscled and weathered by years in the arms of the wild, Daroth stood well over twice the height of his son. Barr may have taken after his natural father, someone Daroth assumed to be slight of frame or sickly, but the trapper was determined to have Barr follow in his own footsteps. His son was young and would grow heartier with each year.
Daroth surveyed the forest with ice-blue eyes both confident and full of pride. He set down one of the traps he was carrying over his shoulders and studied the area with a practiced eye. He fingered the smooth edge of the trap with a thumb. The iron jaw, just back from the smith, had cost him two gold, but the quality stamp of guild work was a guarantee of money well spent.
"We'll set this one over here."
He knelt in the snow and placed the trap close to a tree with its bark scratched in spots, the marks of a fox den. Daroth pulled a brenyn leaf from the bush next to him and chewed the bitter juice from its stem, watching from the corner of his eye Barr do the same. He secured the trap near the narrow opening at the base of the tree, driving a heavy iron spike through the hold chain and into the frozen ground.
Shaking the snow from his furs, Daroth stood back and chewed his leaf in silence. He grew warm with pride as he watched Barr follow suit, mimicking him as best he could. The boy had a serious cast to his face as he slipped mail gloves over his leather ones.
Just like I'd shown him, Daroth thought. He's my boy, through and through.
Barr pulled wide the teeth of the trap until the sharp click of the lock falling in place could be heard. Covering it over with snow and leaves, he laid a cautious but expert pat to his work.
Daroth nodded his approval and was even more pleased to see Barr return the mail gloves to his belt with the care and respect due the tools of their trade.
"You'll make a fine trapper, yet," he said as congratulations. He pulled Barr to his feet and began walking farther into the trees, scanning the shadowy floors and snow-topped brush with the renewed youth he gained from his son. Everything was new to Barr, and it made Daroth feel young again to see through his eyes.
Barr tugged at his father's sleeve, looking as if something troubled him. "Why do we...kill them?"
The trapper stopped and stretched a bit, tired bones disagreeing with an active mind. He recalled asking a similar question of his own father. He'd only been a month or so teaching Barr to trap, so the question was not altogether a surprise.
"It's easier to take their hides that way," he answered honestly then gave a playful wink. The mirth faded from the lines around his eyes as he added, "And they're easier to eat that way, too. Foxes and hares don't shed their furs like some of the animals up north. Besides, their bones bring us a few extra coins now and then -" Daroth smiled again as he began walking - "and you can never have too much money."
The fact that Daroth hunted for food said much for the price of his furs. Though he caught a good number of foxes, the big man knew that times would grow tough without larger prey. If only Hearn would put a deer in his path. He could sell its antlers and feed off the meat for a week, have its skin made into new boots for Barr. Daroth put the thought aside and concentrated on his work. If all else fails, he thought, I can take up with my brother and ruin my eyes as a scribe.
It wasn't a very encouraging thought.
As was part of the daily routine, the two then went to see if any of the other traps had been sprung. Daroth could feel his boy's excitement, since he'd set his own trap without any help just the day before. Allowing Barr to choose the placing of the trap, as well as set the heavy maw, showed confidence in his abilities. Daroth knew how hard Barr worked to please him, to gain his father's approval. After all, Daroth had done the same when he was just a boy. He could see his own father's warm smile after a successful catch and the nod that seemed to say, You did well today, but it's no less than I expected. It outweighed any other reward he could think of.
The sparkle in Barr's dark eyes reminded Daroth of the day he set his own first trap, a cold day in the upper reaches of Astor...in a time when a man's only concern was earning his keep.
Damn turners! he inwardly cursed. They've brought a plague on us all with their bloody magic.
Daroth was pulled from his thoughts by a small hand at his sleeve. Barr's excitement would allow no time for thoughts of what's befallen a world he's yet to see. Daroth sighed. He could only hope of protecting his son from that world.
There was a time when the two of them lived within the city, when Barr had friends and could run in the streets of Alixhir without a second thought for safety. It was when the visions came on his son that Daroth decided to move them away, to a cabin at the edge of the forest and outside the city walls.
"If the Guardians think or even hear you're touched," Daroth warned him time and again, "they'll come for you...for us. Nothing will stop them, and those you call friend will point the way."
It made no difference Daroth had never even seen one of those dark hunters. He'd known those who had.
It was hard for his son to believe that the pictures he saw in his mind could hurt anyone, but mention of the Guardians was enough to grip his heart with fear. It was said that some were knights in gilded armor, while others wore only the long robes of a Justiciar. All of them, however, served the same purpose: protect the innocent and destroy all turners. Wielding a magic of their own, the Guardians could hunt a man across any terrain and would never cease their chase once the scent was made. They were fanatical in devotion and swift in their task.
"Fight them, Barr," Daroth would plead. "Push the pictures out of your mind, resist them with all your heart! You must keep control of yourself, be the man I know you are. You don't have the furie, Barr, you're not touched with it. They can sense those who are..."
Daroth knew Barr fought the visions as best he could. Only rarely did they crowd the boy's mind, in the dreams of deep slumber, and he would wake in a sweat, trembling and crying for his father. Hard work helped Barr keep his mind clear. It was on days like this that both could be at ease and become absorbed in the task at hand.
Daroth shook himself from his thoughts and moved them through an invisible labyrinth with the map of his memory to guide him. From side to side, rock to fallen limb, the two moved throughout the quiet forest with little to tell of their passing.
Stepping over a hollow log, Daroth sensed his son trip on an outstretched branch before he heard the creak of old and rotten wood. A seasoned woodsman, he reacted in an instant, catching Barr in one hand and steadying him until he could get his feet on solid ground. Seeing him all right, if but a little pale, Daroth continued leading on until the hillock he sought came into sight. Red feathers, held fast to a totem by strips of green and black cloth, marked the hill as his own. He rarely saw other trappers in the area, but Daroth followed the rules of custom.
Barr gasped in excitement. Daroth could tell he'd been waiting for this moment to see if his trap had caught anything. It was a good spot for rabbit, though, and he'd done a fine job of covering the trap. Daroth felt the thrill of suspense run down his own spine and hoped his son wouldn't be disappointed.
The piercing cry of a wounded animal made his eyes go wide. Wolf, he thought. Of all the things we could've caught. The thought trailed off in his mind as concern for Barr took hold. They weren't in any danger, but he might have to cut the thing's throat if it was wounded too badly. He wanted to spare Barr such a gruesome sight, thinking it too soon for such a terrible lesson.
Daroth cleared his throat and dropped the leaf he'd been chewing. "That's the cry of a wolf if ever I heard one. Why don't you sit here for a bit and wait while I go ahead and check the trap. I'll call you in a few minutes."
There was no room for dispute in Daroth's voice, and he nodded as Barr did what he was told without so much as a question. He swiftly moved ahead and loosened his dagger in its sheath. He wanted to end this and return to Barr without any delay. The sooner Barr could reset the trap, the sooner he could catch something worthwhile.
Wolves, on the other hand, were nothing but trouble, and their odorous hides were worth less than the time it took to skin them. With foul-tasting meat and a vicious mien, the things were hardly worth a crust of bread, let alone a few coins. Most wolves died before they could be set free or were at the least too weakened to cry out. The loss of blood left little strength, so Daroth reasoned this one a fresh catch.
He moved with the grace of a feline, a fluid progression both deft and unheard. When he was within bowshot, the pain-filled growling grew louder. Passing beyond a copse of thin birch, Daroth saw the fallen creature come into view.
It was by far larger than any other he'd seen, standing twice as many hands higher than the usual eight or nine, and it had a coat of midnight black with tremendous muscles rippling beneath. Its huge teeth were sharp and blood-stained, and they tore at the trap with unrelenting fervor. The iron teeth were deeply embedded into the creature's right foreleg, and a small pool of dark blood formed over the leaves and snow that once concealed the trap.
Daroth knew getting too close to the giant wolf would be foolhardy, but he grew angry at what the thing was doing to his trap. Its teeth were tearing long gashes in the metal, and powerful jaw muscles were bending the trap's teeth and delicate locking clasp.
"Damned beast!" he growled, much like an animal himself, and drew the long hunting knife from his waist. "That trap is worth ten of your scraggly hides!"
With grim determination, Daroth strode forward to finish what the metal teeth had begun.
The wolf, in a blind rage, had tried everything to free itself. It'd gone so far as to try gnawing its own leg off but soon set to working the trap with its powerful jaws instead. At the sight of the trapper, however, the animal became calm and watched the man with its face set in a curious, almost thoughtful, manner. It seemed to expect, even waited for, the trapper to set it free.
Seeing the wolf calmed, Daroth breathed a little easier, but the damage to his trap still weighed heavily on his thoughts. He took a deep breath and let it out with controlled slowness. Sheathing the blade, he looked for something to set the thing free. Every wolf he'd ever let loose had simply limped away. He didn't expect any different from this one, regardless of its unusual size.
Using a heavy branch as a lever, Daroth loosened the trap.
Immediately pulling its leg free, the creature scrambled a few steps away. While it slowly licked its wound, Daroth put away his knife and bent to inspect the tool of his livelihood. Prices swam in his head as he estimated how much it would cost to repair the trap. At least another three silver, he grumbled, running his thumb over the deep gashes and bent teeth. It was then that he noticed the wolf watching him.
Standing with its wounded leg in the air, the beast growled through broken and bloodied teeth. Hair bristled all along its neck like ebony needles, and a glimmer of hatred passed through its coal-black eyes. As Daroth looked on, the wounded leg began to faintly glow with a dull green aura. Within heartbeats the horrid gash was closed, the bones and muscle beneath it fully mended. The wolf tested its leg, found it satisfactory and turned up the ends of its mouth in an inhuman grimace.
It was apparent the ungrateful thing planned to attack, something Daroth hadn't considered but knew he could handle. His skill as a bladesman was commendable, having lived by it for many years, but the life of a mercenary was not an option a caring father could consider. Daroth unsheathed his hunting knife once more and stood ready to defend.
The wolf attacked quickly, springing forward with its jaws open wide, and both of them struck simultaneously.
Long, sharp teeth entered Daroth's leg like the iron jaws of his trap. His dagger fell again and again, each strike aimed at the sinewy throat, but no harm came to the beast. The blade simply slid off its hide as if deflected by armor, and the edges of his knife dulled until the metal was useless.
Daroth howled in pain and dropped it in disgust. If the blade couldn't pierce its hide, then he'd bludgeon the thing to death. He pulled the staff-like branch to him and drew it far over head.
The wolf let go its hold and quickly jumped away. Daroth collapsed with the effort of his swing and held his leg close as a fiery pain blurred his vision. Only the sheer will to survive and a nearby boy kept him from falling into blackness.
The wolf circled its prey. Doesn't feel very nice, does it?
Breath came to Daroth in shuddering gasps, as the creature moved closer to his throat. Its breath was hot, rancid with coppery blood. Daroth thought he was going mad, the voice in his head taunting and prodding as it enjoyed his pain.
Unwilling to give it the satisfaction, the grizzled trapper forced himself to stand. Pain shot up his leg, but he ignored the throbbing ache, sure he was somehow poisoned. His grip tightened on the sturdy branch, and he threw all his effort into one mighty swing. Had the wolf been where it was supposed to, its head would have surely been crushed.
Unfortunately, the massive black shape avoided the blow and leapt straight into Daroth's chest. He fell backward and slammed the back of his head against a jagged rock. The fall itself should have killed him, but something fought to keep him conscious. He could feel the presence of another in his mind. It toyed with him like a fox pawing its food, letting him know that he'd lost control. It wanted him to know, at the very last, just how truly helpless he was. Then came the laughter, deep in his mind, that foretold his coming doom.
The wolf moved in, and all went white for Daroth.