Miriel had been running for slightly more than an hour. In that time she had covered around nine miles from the cabin in the high pasture, down to the stream path, through the valley and the pine woods, up across the crest of Axe Ridge, and back along the old deer trail.
She was tiring now, heartbeat rising, lungs battling to supply oxygen to her weary muscles. But still she pushed on, determined to reach the cabin before the sun climbed to noon high.
The slope was slippery from last night’s rain and she stumbled twice, the leather knife-scabbard at her waist digging into her bare thigh. A touch of anger spurred her on. Without the long hunting knife and the throwing-blade strapped to her left wrist she could have made better time. But Father’s word was law, and Miriel did not leave the cabin until her weapons were in place.
‘There is no one here but us,’ she had argued, not for the first time.
‘Expect the best – prepare for the worst,’ was all he said.
And so she ran with the heavy scabbard slapping against her thigh, the hilt of the throwing-blade chaF ng the skin of her forearm.
Coming to a bend in the trail she leapt the fallen log, landing lightly and cutting left towards the last rise, her long legs increasing their pace, her bare feet digging into the soft earth. Her slim calves were burning, her lungs hot. But she was exultant, for the sun was at least twenty minutes from noon high and she was but three from the cabin.
A shadow moved to her left – talons and teeth flashing towards her. Instantly Miriel threw herself forward, hitting the ground on her right side and rolling to her feet. The lioness, confused at having missed her victim with the first leap, crouched down, ears flat to her skull, tawny eyes focusing on the tall young woman.
Miriel’s mind was racing. Action and reaction. Take control!
Her hunting knife slid into her hand and she shouted at the top of her voice. The lioness, shocked by the sound, backed away. Miriel’s throat was dry, her heart hammering, but her hand was steady on the blade. She shouted once more and jumped towards the beast. Unnerved by the suddenness of the move the creature slunk back several more paces. Miriel licked her lips. It should have run by now. Fear rose, but she swallowed it down.
Fear is like fire in your belly. Controlled, it warms you and keeps you alive. Unleashed, it burns and destroys you.
Her hazel eyes remained locked to the tawny gaze of the lioness and she noted the beast’s ragged condition, the deep angry scar to its right foreleg. No longer fast it could not catch the swift deer, and it was starving. It would not – could not – back away from this fight.
Miriel thought of everything Father had told her about lions: Ignore the head – the bone is too thick for an arrow to penetrate. Send your shaft in behind the front leg, up and into the lung. But he had said nothing about F ghting such a beast when armed with but a knife.
The sun slid from behind an autumn cloud and light shone from the knife-blade. Instantly Miriel angled the blade, directing the gleam into the eyes of the lioness. The great head twisted, the eyes blinking against the harsh glare. Miriel shouted again.
But instead of fleeing the lioness suddenly charged, leaping high towards the girl.
For an instant only Miriel froze. Then the knife swept up. A black crossbow bolt punched into the creature’s neck, just behind the ear, a second slicing into its side. The weight of the lioness struck Miriel, hurling her back, but the hunting knife plunged into the beast’s belly.
Miriel lay very still, the lioness upon her, its breath foul upon her face. But the talons did not rake her, nor the fangs close upon her. With a coughing grunt the lioness died. Miriel closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and eased herself from beneath the body. Her legs felt weak and she sat upon the trail, her hands trembling.
A tall man, carrying a small double crossbow of black metal, emerged from the undergrowth and crouched down beside her. ‘You did well,’ he said, his voice deep.
She looked up into his dark eyes and forced a smile. ‘It would have killed me.’
‘Perhaps,’ he agreed. ‘But your blade reached its heart.’
Exhaustion flowed over her like a warm blanket and she lay back, breathing slowly and deeply. Once she would have sensed the lioness long before any danger threatened, but that Talent was lost to her now, as her mother and her sister were lost to her. Danyal killed in an accident five years ago, and Krylla wed and moved away last summer. Pushing such thoughts from her mind she sat up. ‘You know,’ she whispered, ‘I was really tired when I came to the last rise. I was breathing hard, and my limbs felt as if they were made of lead. But when the lioness leapt, all my weariness vanished.’ She gazed up at her father.
He smiled and nodded. ‘I have experienced that many times. Strength can always be found in the heart of a fighter – and such a heart will rarely let you down.’
She glanced at the dead lioness. ‘Never shoot for the head – that’s what you told me,’ she said, tapping the first bolt jutting from the creature’s neck.
He shrugged and grinned. ‘I missed.’
‘That’s not very comforting. I thought you were perfect.’
‘I’m getting old. Are you cut?’
‘I don’t think so . . .’ Swiftly she checked her arms and legs, as wounds from a lion’s claws or fangs often became poisonous.
‘No. I was very lucky.’
‘Yes, you were,’ he agreed. ‘But you made your luck by doing everything right. I’m proud of you.’
‘Why were you here?’
‘You needed me,’ he answered. Rising smoothly to his feet he reached out, drawing her upright. ‘Now skin the beast and quarter it. There’s nothing quite like lion meat.’
‘I don’t think I want to eat it,’ she said. ‘I think I’d like to forget about it.’
‘Never forget,’ he admonished her. ‘This was a victory. And you are stronger for it. I’ll see you later.’ Retrieving his bolts the tall man cleaned them of blood, returning them to the leather quiver at his side.
‘You’re going to the waterfall?’ she asked him softly.
‘For a little while,’ he answered, his voice distant. He turned back to her. ‘You think I spend too much time there?’
‘No,’ she told him sadly. ‘It’s not the time you sit there. Nor the effort you put into tending the grave. It’s you. She’s been . . . gone . . . now for five years. You should start living again. You need . . . more than this.’
He nodded, but she knew she had not reached him. He smiled and laid his hand on her shoulder. ‘One day you’ll find a love and then we can talk on equal terms. I do not mean that to sound patronising. You are bright and intelligent. You have courage and wit. But sometimes it is like trying to describe colours to a blind man. Love, as I hope you will find, has great power. Even death cannot destroy it. And I still love her.’ Leaning forward he drew her towards him, kissing her brow. ‘Now skin that beast. And I’ll see you at dusk.’
She watched him walk away, a tall man moving with grace and care, his black and silver hair drawn back into a tightly tied ponytail, his crossbow hanging from his belt.
And then he was gone – vanished into the shadows.
* * *
The waterfall was narrow, no more than six feet wide, flowing over white boulders in a glittering cascade to a leaf-shaped bowl thirty feet across and forty-five long. At its most southern point a second fall occurred, the stream surging on to join the river two miles south. Golden leaves swirled on the surface of the water, and with each breath of breeze more spiralled down from the trees.
Around the pool grew many flowers, most of them planted by the man who now knelt by the graveside. He glanced up at the sky. The sun was losing its power now, the cold winds of autumn flowing over the mountains. Waylander sighed. A time of dying. He gazed at the golden leaves floating on the water and remembered sitting here with Danyal and the children, on another autumn day ten lifetimes ago.
Krylla was sitting with her tiny feet in the water, Miriel swimming among the leaves. ‘They are like the souls of the departed,’ Danyal had told Krylla. ‘Floating on the sea of life towards a place of rest.’
He sighed again and returned his attention to the flower-garlanded mound beneath which lay all he had lived for.
‘Miriel fought a lion today,’ he said. ‘She stood and did not panic. You would have been proud of her.’ Laying his ebony-handled crossbow to one side he idly dead-headed the geraniums growing by the headstone, removing the faded, dry red blooms. The season was late and it was unlikely they would flower again. Soon he would need to pull them, shaking dry the roots and hanging them in the cabin, ready for planting in the spring.
‘But she is still too slow,’ he added. ‘She does not act with instinct, but with remembered learning. Not like Krylla.’ He chuckled. ‘You remember how the village boys used to gather around her? She knew how to handle them, the tilt of the head, the sultry smile. She took that from you.’
Reaching out he touched the cold, rectangular marble headstone, his index finger tracing the carved lines.
Danyal, wife of Dakeyras,
the pebble in the moonlight
The grave was shaded by elms and beech, and there were roses growing close by, huge yellow blooms F lling the air with sweet fragrance. He had bought them in Kasyra, seven bushes. Three had died as he journeyed back, but the remainder flourished in the rich clay soil.
‘I’m going to have to take her to the city soon,’ he said. ‘She’s eighteen now, and she needs to learn. I’ll find a husband for her.’ He sighed. ‘It means leaving you for a while. I’m not looking forward to that.’
The silence grew, even the wind in the leaves dying down. His dark eyes were distant, his memories solemn. Smoothly he rose and, taking up the clay bowl beside the headstone, he moved to the pool, filled the bowl and began to water the roses. Yesterday’s rain had been little more than a shower and the roses liked to drink deep.
Kreeg crouched low in the bushes, his crossbow loaded. How easy, he thought, unable to suppress a smile.
Find Waylander and kill him. He had to admid that the prospect of such a hunt had frightened him. After all, Waylander the Slayer was no mean opponent. When his family were slain by raiders, he roamed the land until he had hunted down every one of the killers. Waylander was a legend among the Guild, a capable swordsman, but a brilliant knife-fighter and a crossbowman without peer. More than this he was said to possess mystical abilities, always sensing when danger was near.
Kreeg sighted the crossbow at the tall man’s back. Mystical abilities? Pah. In one heartbeat he would be dead.
The man at the graveside picked up a clay bowl and moved towards the pool. Kreeg shifted his aim, but his intended victim crouched down, filling the bowl. Kreeg lowered his bow a fraction, slowly letting out his held breath. Waylander was sideon now, and a sure killing shot would have to be to the head. What was he doing with the water? Kreeg watched the tall man kneel by the roses, tipping the bowl and splashing the contents around the roots. He’ll go back to the grave, thought Kreeg. And once there I’ll take him.
So much in life depended on luck. When the kill order came to the Guild, Kreeg had been out of money and living off a whore in Kasyra, the gold he had earned from killing the Ventrian merchant long since vanished in the gambling dens of the city’s south side. Now Kreeg blessed the bad luck that had dogged him in Kasyra. For all life, he knew, was a circle. And it was in Kasyra that he had heard of the hermit in the mountains, the tall widower with the shy daughter. He thought of the message from the Guild.
Seek out a man named Dakeyras. He has a wife Danyal and a daughter Miriel. The man has black and silver hair, dark eyes, and is tall, close to fifty years of age. He will be carrying a small double crossbow of ebony and bronze. Kill him and bring the crossbow to Drenan as proof of success. Move with care. The man is Waylander. Ten thousand in gold is waiting.
In Kasyra Kreeg had despaired of earning such a fabulous sum. Then – blessed be the gods – he had told the whore of the hunt.
‘There’s a man with a daughter called Miriel who lives in the mountains to the north,’ she said. ‘I’ve not seen him, but I met his daughters years ago at the Priests’ School. We learned our letters there.’
‘Do you remember the mother’s name?’
‘I think it was something like Daneel . . . Donalia . . .’
‘Danyal?’ he whispered, sitting up in bed, the sheet falling from his lean, scarred body.
‘That’s it,’ she said.
Kreeg’s mouth had gone dry, his heart palpitating. Ten thousand! But Waylander? What chance would Kreeg have against such an enemy?
For almost a week he toured Kasyra, asking about the mountain man. Fat Sheras the miller saw him about twice a year, and remembered the small crossbow.
‘He’s very quiet,’ said Sheras, ‘but I wouldn’t like to see his bad side, if you take my meaning. Hard man. Cold eyes. He used to be almost friendly, but then his wife died – five . . . six years ago. Horse fell, rolled on her. There were two daughters, twins. Good-looking girls. One married a boy from the south and moved away. The other is still with him. Shy child. Too thin for my taste.’
Goldin the tavern-keeper, a thin-faced refugee from the Gothir lands, also remembered him. ‘When the wife was killed he came here for a while and drank his sorrows away. He didn’t say much. One night he just collapsed and I left him lying outside the door. His daughters came and helped him home. They were around twelve then. The city elders were talking of removing them from his care. In the end he paid for places at the Priests’ School and they lived there for almost three years.’
Kreeg was uplifted by Goldin’s tale. If the great Waylander had taken to drinking heavily then he was no longer to be feared. But his hopes evaporated as the tavern-keeper continued.
‘He’s never been popular. Keeps to himself too much,’ said Goldin. ‘But he killed a rogue bear last year, and that pleased people. The bear slaughtered a young farmer and his family. Dakeyras hunted it down. Amazing! He used a small crossbow. Taric saw it – the bear charged him and he just stood there, then, right at the last moment, as the bear reared up before him he put two bolts up through its open mouth and into the brain. Taric says he’s never seen the like. Cold as ice.’
Kreeg found Taric, a slim blond hostler, working at the Earl’s stables.
‘We tracked the beast for three days,’ he said, sitting back on a bale of hay and drinking deeply from the leather-bound flask of brandy Kreeg offered him. ‘Never saw him break sweat – and he’s not a young man. And when the bear reared up he just levelled the bow and loosed. Incredible! There’s no fear in the man.’
‘Why were you with him?’
Taric smiled. ‘I was trying to pay court to Miriel, but I got nowhere. Shy, you know. I gave up in the end. And he’s a strange one. Not sure I’d want him for a father-in-law. Spends most of his time by his wife’s grave.’
Kreeg’s spirits had soared anew. This was what he had been hoping for. Hunting a man through a forest was chancy at best. Knowing his victim’s habits made the task slightly less hazardous, but to find there was one place the victim always visited . . . that was a gift from the gods. And a graveside at that. Waylander’s mind would be occupied, full of sorrow, perhaps, and fond memories.
So it had proved. Kreeg, following Taric’s directions, had located the waterfall soon after dawn this morning, and found a hiding place which overlooked the headstone. Now all that was left was the killing shot. Kreeg’s gaze flickered to the ebony crossbow, still lying on the grass beside the grave.
Ten thousand in gold! He licked his thin lips carefully and wiped his sweating palm on the leaf-green tunic he wore.
The tall man walked back to the pool, collecting more water, then crossed to the furthest rose bushes, crouching once more by the roots. Kreeg switched his gaze to the headstone. Forty feet away. At that distance the barbed bolt would punch through Waylander’s back, ripping through the lungs and exiting through the chest. Even if he missed the heart his victim would die within minutes, choking on his own blood.
Kreeg was anxious for the kill to be over and his eyes sought out the tall man. He was not in sight.
Kreeg blinked. The clearing was empty.
‘You missed your chance,’ came a cold voice.
Kreeg swung, trying to bring the crossbow to bear. He had one glimpse of his victim, arm raised, something shining in his hand. The arm swept down. It was as if a bolt of pure sunlight had exploded within Kreeg’s skull. There was no pain, no other sensation. He felt the crossbow slipping from his hands, and the world spinning.
His last thought was about luck. It had not changed at all.