Shadows wrapped like shrouds around the trunks of the looming trees, suffusing every crevice with darkness. The last embers of daylight glowed beyond the edge of the mountain. Having abandoned the dead stag, the Knight’s empty stomach ached with hunger. Somewhere to the west a wolf’s lonely cry echoed through the forest and Aveline hoped the distant predator would give both her murders meaning.
On her back, Aveline felt the young girl, Faolan, shift. No matter how meager, any movement was reassuring. With the silver spear clenched between her tired arms, the Knight had walked the forest path for more than an hour with the unconscious girl carried behind her. The sigil had done its wicked work to repair the Knight, but still she felt on the verge of collapse herself. Uncertain of the terrain, Aveline hoped she was walking in the right direction; toward the nearest town and hopefully, the girl’s home.
When she stirred again, a low groan accompanied Faolan’s feeble movement. The Knight looked back over her shoulder. An ashen face, sullen with half-closed eyes, stared at the ground. She’d never had a talent for conversation, but Aveline attempted her most amiable tone.
“Good morning. Or, rather, good evening.” The Knight grinned.
When Faolan had fallen beside the evaporating, crystalline corpse of their abyssal enemy, the Knight had feared the worst. No amount of shaking, threats, or pleas would wake the brave girl. Exposed to the mountain cold and bleeding heavily, the situation was dire. Aveline tore a strip of the warrior’s mud-caked cloak and tied it tight around her companion’s red soaked torso. She had collected the silver spear, hoisted the girl onto her back, and made haste toward the path she’d abandoned.
Even now, Faolan offered no response; not even the disgruntled growl with which Aveline had become so familiar during their brief encounter. The Knight was prepared for energetic protest, but the unexpected silence took her by surprise. She cleared her throat and gave conversation another awkward try. After a long pause, she spoke again.
“Are we on the right path?” The Knight kept walking. One, two, three steps later Aveline asked, “Home?”
Faolan nodded without a word. Finally, she spoke in an accusatory monotone. “What’s left of it.”
Aveline considered this, then started. “You know, I’m not—“
“I know. Mother told me about the Knight Aveline – worshiped you since you led your army up the mountain…” Faolan trailed off, seemingly caught up in a memory. Her voice was weak and quiet, but steady. “Everyone thought you dead. But your wound, your youth… The demon said you bear a sigil. If you’re not a witch, then how?”
Aveline sighed and considered her strange tale. “It’s a long story; one I’m not sure I’m ready to share. You'll just have to trust me, I suppose.” Faolan snorted by way of response. Aveline looked ahead and said nothing for a long time, thinking about the time that had passed since last she walked in Valerius. Most everyone she had ever known was old or dead. The Knight’s heart grew heavy and cold beneath her sturdy armor. It was still too much to comprehend. She tried to change the subject. “About ‘Selene…’”
“Long story,” Faolan muttered sarcastically, a combative edge creeping into her harried voice. She shifted back, as if to dismount and escape the Knight’s care. A bolt of agony and an uncharacteristic cry of pain immobilized the young warrior. A crowd of previously silent ravens suddenly erupted in shock and took wing. Wincing, she admitted, “Hurts more than I expected.”
Aveline stopped below the creaking tree limbs and grinned. “With your injuries, I doubt you can walk.” She adjusted her grip on the spear and rebalanced the weight of the small girl on her back. As the sun set in the east, the cold would only intensify. With any luck, conversation would keep Faolan conscious and alive long enough to find help. Aveline remembered how the healers would speak with genuine interest to even the most irreparably wounded. "Words are life," they would intone, as if the sentiment should be self-evident.
Aveline continued. “You must have tracked that fiend a long way. I wouldn’t mind a story to pass the time, what with all of this work I’m doing.”
Faolan closed her tired eyes, breathing as shallowly as possible to avoid putting pressure on her ribs. The Knight kept walking. It was more than a dozen plodding paces before Faolan spoke. “In spring I was a daughter. By fall, an orphan." Here, she paused for a long time, then said, "My mother never said ‘no’ to anyone. A guardian’s responsible for the people. Those people, they loved her. Thought the world of her. When Ixiel rose and darkness spread, she fought to protect everyone she could. Built the walls stronger, trained the willing. She was fierce and skilled and taught me everything she knew, as her father'd done for her; said I’d one day pick up where they left off.” Faolan sniffed and wiped at her nose. Aveline need not look back to know tears were welling in the girl’s eyes.
The Knight tried to interrupt. “I’m sorry to have—“
The young warrior shook her head. “Stop. If I pass beyond the veil, she’d never forgive me not sharing our tale with her hero.” Faolan took a moment to recompose herself and continued, this time stronger and in the defiant tone Aveline knew, as if fueled by a bitter rage. “A strange woman appeared at the gate, begging for sanctuary. Threw her life upon my mother’s mercy, claimed she could help. Anyone with someone to protect was desperate for allies, for power. Beasts at our door and the witch knew things. She got food and shelter in exchange for knowledge, and for a time, things went well. But my mother was betrayed – kindness repaid with murder at Ixiel’s word. My mother survived long enough to protect me, but the witch laughed and disappeared. If only I’d been—”
"—Stronger?" This time, Aveline interrupted her injured charge. The Knight thought of the soul trap and the void; her frustration and despair. She knew too well the dangers of such thoughts and the impenetrable walls they could quickly erect. Aveline stopped walking and then spoke in the strong tone Roland had always used when she was at her most disheartened. “Your mother sounds like an excellent guardian. She obviously taught you well. I would have been honored to meet such a formidable warrior.”
Faolan wiped water from her eyes, unwilling to cry in front of the Knight. Aveline walked on. “The cowards she loved abandoned the guardianship, thought Selene and her kin marked by Ixiel. I guess we were. In less than a year, they forgot my mother’s example, her sacrifice. None would step forward to serve, so come veil and void, I took the job and here we are.” The girl tried to chuckle, but her pained breath caught in her throat.
“And where is here?” Aveline's heart broke with every of Faolan's words. She felt responsible, like she should say something more chivalrous and noble, but the words would not come. On her back, she could feel Faolan start to shiver as the last light was consumed by the horizon and knew her injured companion could not survive long in the dropping temperature.
Between chattering teeth, Faolan muttered, “Beyond this bend.”
The pair stepped out of the desolate forest onto a stony precipice. Below them, the flat expanse of a plateau stretched between two tall mountains, dotted here and there with patches of dead grass and trees. On the edge of the plateau, a square of wind-worn stone walls had been built around a small gray village. The corner closest to the Knight appeared destroyed, the rubble fresh and dusty. Around the walls, a handful of ragged farms were barren in the last days of autumn. A few goats grazed on meager vegetation, but most were huddled together for warmth in simple wooden shelters.
Past the village, a modest quarry had been carved into the opposite mountain and provided the materials for the town. More than two dozen low structures filled the space inside the walls and among them, small flames of candle light were igniting in response to the coming dark. Thatched roofs covered most of the homes, and out of a few, plumes of smoke rose to the gloomy twilight sky. At the center of the village, a foreboding obelisk – identical to the one destroyed earlier – stood isolated. Far taller than any other structure, it seemed to watch over the hamlet with a threatening air.
As Aveline looked at the place beneath them, tiny flecks of white began to fall before her eyes. A blast of uninhibited wind tore across the space, pelting the weary travelers with flurrying snowflakes. The sunset's ephemeral aura vanished and night descended in earnest. The black blanket of the overcast sky blocked out all starlight and covered the mountain in deepening darkness.
Faolan tapped on the Knight’s shoulder. “Welcome to Stone. Put me down. Won’t be carried like a child among those here.”
Aveline dropped the girl to the ground. Faolan landed with a small, muffled cry. Doubled over with hands on her knees, she took a short breath and then stood as straight as possible. The girl gripped her side tightly as she flipped her long, rust-colored braid of hair over her shoulder. On her back, the large silver shield glimmered through smears of dirt and mud, faintly reflecting what little light penetrated the clouds.
Aveline held out the silver spear, aware now of how much it meant to the girl. “Your mother’s?”
Faolan nodded, took the beautiful weapon, and leaned on it. After some seconds, she muttered, “Thank you.”
The Knight smiled and stretched her arms, the etched plate on her shoulders clattering. Her own weapon, the long sword, Durendal, hanged at her side. She touched it and thought again of Roland and the things every person carried from people long past.
Without explanation, Aveline removed her warm blue cloak and wrapped it around Faolan. Aveline held the brash young warrior's shoulders, looked at her face, and explained. "My mother's."
Faolan blushed, but did not protest. Beads of cold sweat dotted her pale forehead. The Knight grinned again and hoped her eyes did not betray her own sadness. Side by side, she and the Guardian started down a set of precarious steps carved into the mountain, toward the cold village of Stone.