The way was steep and hard and the night at full strength, but downward still the two travelers flew. Their dark cloaks snapped wildly in their wake; their hearts aflame and their pace at haste. Gnarled shrubs tore at their cloaks and skin, and stones pounded their travel-worn feet, but such things were not enough to thwart them, for a fate far worse than sore soles and scraped cheeks tracked them even now.
As they descended from the crest of the hills above, a great ghostly mist came quickly to enshroud them. It was not long before their eyes could scarcely see their own outstretched arms. They entered an eerie land – of that they were sure. Only vile thorn bushes and knobby old stumps lived here. Soon their pace slowed to a clumsy jog, and then to a stumble. The mist thickened still.
A woman's voice – nay, a girl's – and it rang with alien purity through the woven brush.
"Traemor, I'm scared!"
"Fear not, my princess. I am here."
The man's voice cut like flame through the darkness, and it was not long until their hands were joined. They tried to walk onward, but they might as well have shut their eyes. For the moon had gone into hiding, and the damp cloud that now enveloped them was all they could see.
"From whence came this nasty fog?" Traemor wondered aloud, vexed. "It will be a wonder if we're able to make our way much farther down…"
Quickly the mist began to shade not only his vision, but also his mind.
"Wait!" his princess exclaimed, sensing his growing worries. "I had almost forgotten…earlier tonight, before we left our lodgings…that odd looking woman – the one you said you did not trust – she gifted me something. It was a whistle of some kind, small and silver. I tried not to take it but she insisted, and we needed haste. But now…"
Her fragile voice faded again into the dead forest that surrounded them.
"Yes child. What is it? Pray, speak."
"I have it here – in my satchel. Let's see…ah! There it is! Traemor…the woman, she told me that I must take her gift. She said…"
"She said what at first I thought a riddle. She said 'When eyes go dark, ears grow bright, and see where eyes see naught at night.'"
Traemor was silent for an instant.
"An enchantress then, as I guessed. Well, I suppose we must hope she meant us goodwill. And you're right, I did not trust her then…and I am given to doubt even now. But I will yield to your decision, my princess."
He could feel her hesitation.
"Dear child." His tone was grave but gentle. "In times of such peril we can trust in one thing only…what do you know to be true in your heart?"
Her delicate hand trembled in his, and he knew it was not only because of the cold.
"I believe she meant us aide," she said at last. "I could see it in her eyes, though now her memory is clouded to me. Traemor…I'm very cold…"
At that the young girl slid gently into the big man's powerful arms, asleep. Or, as was more likely, enchanted.
"This is no ordinary mist," Traemor said to himself. "By Regan's Lamp, this is no ordinary mist. Something evil sets its will against us. I have no choice."
At that he bent down, still holding young Enneth on his shoulder, and retrieved the whistle she had dropped on fainting. And then it was that darkness also crept into his eyes, and for an instant he too almost fell to ground enchanted. But while his limbs went numb and his mind was clouded, his will remained strong. He was able to raise the small silver whistle to his lips and with what would have been his last conscious breath, blow.
The noise he heard was not what he expected, for it came not from the whistle, but from something else – perhaps the mist itself. A high-pitched shrieking he heard, though it wasn't terribly loud, and the dark shadow that sought to take his mind relented, and he regained all use of his arms and legs. Enneth stirred lightly in his grasp and awoke.
"Traemor!" she exclaimed at first sight of his bearded face, still in his arms. "But we are still here in the mist! But how…?"
"You were enchanted, Enni. There is no time to discuss it now. Your whistle works! Bless that dear witch from the lodge! I judged her wrongly indeed. Would that I might toast her health in the halls of my fathers!
"Here child, climb onto my back and take hold. You are still groggy and I have my strength. There, that's it. Now hold tight! We shall make it through this dark place yet!"
And so they fled from that place as if they had been given new life – which was very likely indeed. Young Enneth held fast to Traemor's wide neck as he bounded down the rocky path with the small silver whistle planted firmly in his lips. He blew it as he ran, and throughout their time in that murky place they always herd the same evil shrieking, and the mist that had been so thick before now parted as waves cleave upon a great rock.
As Enni rode upon Traemor's back, she turned her head to look behind them. There she saw the mist still opened in the wake of their passing, though further on it filled in with ghostly finality. And as terrible as the mist was, it did not make her blood run so cold as what she saw at the hilltops from whence they had come – the faint glimmer of torches. Their pursuers were close!
"They have not lost our trail as we'd hoped," the girl gasped. And though Traemor heard her, he did not need to look, for he had known all along that their way would be hard and fraught with peril, and that their enemy would not be easily defeated. But he had made a promise to his king – his master, and Enneth's father – that he would harbor her to a safer realm where war and famine ruled not, and beautiful things dared to exist.
The great warrior knew their enemy pursued them now with renewed intensity, for the Great Huntress had revealed her lighted face, and likely their path. And no doubt their enemy also thought them trapped, for they made their way down toward the vast and icy Lake of Graves, a dreary and cursed place long rumored to be the keeping ground of an ancient wickedness.
On and on Traemor and Enneth fled, further down the vast stony slopes to the water below. They had gone a long while without anything to eat, and as she trembled with fright and frost, young Enni wished for a warm blanket and a hot meal, and the company of Rufus, her trusty hound. For though she knew her father, the King, trusted Traemor with his life, she knew him not so well. And she missed the tickle of Rufus's fur upon her nose.
As they traveled, the species of shrubs beside of the path changed from highland brush to wetland reeds. They were very near the water's edge now. Enneth grew even colder and could see her breath escape her mouth in fleeting puffs of vapor. The mist remained all around them, and they could tell that its origin was the lake itself.
Traemor relaxed as they came up to the soft land bordering the lake and allowed Enni to dismount. Her boots squished into the marshy soil, and at once she grew even colder. Oh, how she wished for a fire and some hot cocoa! She tried stomping her feet in order to stay warm, but quickly Traemor stopped her.
"Quiet, child," he seemed to whisper. "This is a wicked place. We would do well not to raise more notice than needed."
For a time they walked around the water's edge, hand in hand, with Traemor trying to keep to the old worn path. Doing so proved a difficult task in the dark of night, though their enchanted whistle kept the mist from enveloping them.
"Do we seek something in particular?" asked Enneth.
"You have your father's keen eye," Traemor said with a smile. "We do indeed, though I am reluctant to tell you exactly what."
Even though her heart was brave, young Enneth found no comfort in his words.
"He says the same thing sometimes," she replied. "He says it's a family trait. But I've found that I can handle the truth better than my own imagination."
At that the great warrior laughed a deep, hearty laugh.
"I suppose I have heard stories of your imaginings from Betham, the poor old soul. You used to get her so worked up with some of your tales…she wouldn't be able to sleep for days!"
Traemor chuckled again, momentarily lost in the seas of memory. After a time his mood grew much more somber, and it was apparent that he had rejoined the present.
"Well…" he thought for an instant, measuring his words. "I will tell you the truth then, my Princess, so that your imagination will rest at ease, if indeed there is any to be found in our plight."
He looked down at her, and she at him, and he was impressed at the valiance of her gaze.
"We seek someone – not something – who, by what I've heard, is not the most pleasant creature around."
Her curiosity only fed her fear, but she could not resist asking questions.
"A dark sorcerer then?"
"No, not exactly." He paused to blow upon the whistle again. "From the accounts I've heard, he is not a sorcerer at all."
"Then why do you fear him so? I shan't believe any man might give you such pause."
"Ah, but just because he is not sorcerer does not mean he is a man."
He looked down at her, somewhat amused by her courage. He had begun to fully regain his wind now after dashing for so long with the girl on his back, and the vapor of his breath left him in long, powerful bursts. He could tell she was afraid, and that talking seemed to ease her fear.
"As I said – he is not a sorcerer nor a man, for indeed I would not fear a man, or even most sorcerers, since I find few of them to be as powerful as they would wish." He smiled wryly at her. "And as you have perceived, I am given to fear the one we seek. I fear him because, by all accounts I've been given…he is a ghoul."
A shudder ran down Enni's spine as he said the word, for she remembered tales of ghouls roaming her father's halls when she was younger, though she never ventured to investigate.
"Why do we seek a ghoul!?" She clutched his hand much tighter now.
"Well, we do not seek just any ghoul. Mind you, I would never seek any ghoul without good reason. But if we are to escape our pursuers, we need desperately to find him. He can take us across the lake and out of this wretched place."
For a time they fell silent as they walked. Traemor blew the whistle every now and again, and always made sure their path was true. Enneth was still scared, though she did not wish to speak anymore. Talk of ghouls and frightening things was more than enough to stay her tongue for a good long while.
Keeping to the path continued to be difficult in the dark, and their anxieties were raised further by thoughts of being overtaken by the wretches that hunted them. Vile men they were – a special company sent by Enni's mother to retrieve her daughter in flight from her native war-torn land. They would be warriors all, and perhaps sorcerers and witches, and even beasts of an unpleasant sort. It would definitely be best, Traemor thought, if they could be avoided altogether. But the mist ran thick and the night dark, and progress was slow.
Finally the old path left the tall reeds of the lake and spilled into a large clearing that was bordered on one side by shady water. Traemor hoped they had arrived, for even now he heard the echoes of their pursuers as they entered the mist. He did not doubt they would make it through.
Cautiously he walked with Enneth around the outline of the clearing, not yet daring to fully expose them and leave the cover of the reeds. His raven eyes were keen to the darkness now more than before, and he studied their situation with all the skill and knowledge he had gained during his time as Captain of the Guard. But as they crept along, something even he could not foresee took place. With no warning, a great pillar of fire exploded from the center of the clearing and doused all its surroundings with brilliant light. Traemor and Enneth shielded their faces from its heat, and in an instant almost as quick as it was come, the fire reduced itself to a lapping flame not even as tall as Enni's waist before it was extinguished completely.
Enneth clung to Traemor's arm and trembled, though she was now a good deal warmer than before. The great warrior watched for an instant more to see that all wonders were ended, and turned to address his young charge.
"That was exciting, eh?"
The young girl managed a smile.
"The worst is almost over now, child. There is but one more thing to do. And I ask that you would wait over here at the far end of the clearing for now. I have an important task at hand."
"Where will you go?" Her voice quivered.
"Not far…only to the water's edge. But in light of past surprises," he said motioning at the flame, "I would prefer it if you would stand here and do naught but blow your whistle from time to time. It will only be for a few moments. I swear it on my life."
Reluctantly, she nodded.
"Thank you," he said, and stood. "I shan't be long."
And so the big warrior strode away from fair Enneth towards the murky darkness of the Lake of Graves. He watched the small flame intently as he walked, never getting too close for fear of another explosion. As he passed, he saw that it burned not from wood, but from a hole in the ground, and surmised that it must also be an enchanted flame.
"It would appear that such things are commonplace in this forsaken land," he thought to himself. "All the more reason to hasten!"
Soon Traemor reached the meeting place of land and water. The very sight of such gloomy darkness made the hairs on his neck stand in fear. He thought he could see dim, shadowy figures moving beneath the surface of the water, though it was likely his eyes played him for a fool. The great ghostly mist rose from the lake's surface like steam from a cup of broth, but still Enni's enchanted whistle kept it at distance.
Quickly – since he did not wish to waste any more time than needed – Traemor pulled from his satchel an old ripped piece of cloth. Carefully and delicately he pealed the worn material back from the object contained within – a single coin. The small piece was not particularly beautiful, and in fact seemed very old. On its face were strange engravings in a language the great warrior knew not, though he had been instructed in the words' memorization. It was an old, cryptic line of verse – undoubtedly a spell of some kind – and he spoke it with all the skill he had been taught. Such things were not easy for him since he was a warrior and not a sorcerer, but he had been well trained in these particular words, and spoke them all accordingly. When he finished, he retreated away from the water's edge to the middle of the clearing and waited, though he knew not for what.
Moments passed and nothing happened. The mist rose steadily from the surface of the dark lake while reeds danced in the chilling breeze. No frogs croaked, nor insects buzzed. Indeed it was doubtful any lived in such a cursed land.
The great warrior looked up at the Fair One's face, but again she veiled herself in black cloud, and again the land fell into darkness – a bad omen. He turned his gaze back upon the hillside they had just descended. In the darkness the pale mist muted their enemy's torches, though onward they continued.
"Traemor, look!" Enni cried, and with a glance he saw her pointing towards the water's edge.
Not a stone's throw out into the lake, darkness was brewing. Young Enni ran from where she stood to Traemor's side and hung to his arm. Their eyes were fixed upon a certain patch of water that seemed darker than the rest, though at the same time it seemed aglow. In its vicinity the lake bubbled and churned, and began sending waves of moderate size to the shore where they stood. The water before them grew restless with foam and spray as if the sky above sought to sink itself into the icy depths. Again the two were startled by the great pillar of flame, which at that very moment erupted in brilliant light. A great freezing wind blew in from the lake and set the reeds to dancing like the heathens of old. Enni clutched like mad to Traemor's arm as he sought to shelter her from both the fire's heat and the wind's frost. And it was then, when all things were reeling in commotion and confusion and bedlam that a small newborn babe was tossed from the swell onto the soft, grassy shore.
After his initial bewilderment, Traemor's instinct was to run and harbor the child in safety, but such a desire proved unnecessary, for as the infant lay upon the shore with arms and legs writhing, he grew.
From a wiggling babe he grew to plump toddler in naught but the span of a few breaths. Traemor and Enneth both thought their eyes under a strange and mischievous spell, for never before in the tales or songs of old had they heard of such a thing. But still the child grew, now to a boy who arose from the ground and stood before them. Naked he was, and with each passing moment his bones lengthened and his muscles thickened. His hair grew in a tangle of dark, wavy locks, which in turn drooped from his head as vine from an oak. A sturdy lad he soon became, a young man of deep-set eyes and stern jaw. Dark hair sprang from his breast and loins, and a dark beard arose to cover his face. Truly he gained the look of a mighty hero. But no sooner had the man achieved such utter magnificence than it began to decline. Silver streaked through his locks and beard, and a physique that once took the form of shaped rock softened. A look of despair now came to rest upon his brow as once proud shoulders began to sink, once powerful legs began to twitch, and the skin of his face slowly wrinkled and sagged. Hunched over he became, and the gray of his beard spilt upon the ground at his feet. Soon his body was back upon the grass of the shore, his legs no longer able to bear him. His lips quivered as he seemed to try and speak to the travelers, but no sooner had he done so than his eyes rolled back into his head and his body twitched with the pangs of death, and he lay motionless. For an instant the bitter lake wind danced through his snow colored hair as it had done in the reeds, but only a moment later his body released itself to dust, and all that remained was a small pile of brown dirt blowing away in the breeze.
The great fire pillar exploded again, and again the travelers were forced to shield their faces. When the flame had subsided and they were able to look anew, all evidence of what had just come to pass was no more.
"Great Regan's Lamp, if I live a thousand years I'll never understand what I just witnessed," Traemor muttered to himself.
Enneth was now quite terrified. She had clutched Traemor's arm hard enough to bend steel as they watched the mystery unfold, and still her senses were heightened. Perhaps that was why she noticed the curious way in which the water stirred before her companion did.
Slowly a small pocket of the lake's surface churned and swelled anew not far from the shoreline, only this time it seemed to young Enni that there must be something approaching them from underneath. Traemor also took warning of this new devilry.
"Stay near to me, child," he whispered. "I believe he comes."
Though Enneth wondered of whom Traemor was speaking, she said nothing, for fear and cold had stayed her tongue, and her only desire was to leave this wild place. It was then that he arose from the chilling depths of the Lake of Graves.
He was not fully a man, though his form bore resemblance to one. A dark cloak he wore, and though he came from the lake, he was not wet. Lightly he stood upon its now calm surface only a small distance from the shore. A great gnarled beard hung from within his dark hood, and one of his hands gripped a great twisted staff.
Traemor stared at him intently, knowing that this was a power the likes of which he had not met in some time. Most sorcerers knew only minor enchantments, but this was something so much more. He hoped he had done right in bringing his princess here.
It was at that moment that young Enneth released herself from Traemor's grip and took a few steps towards the water's edge.
"My child!" Traemor exclaimed. "Take care…we are in the presence of great devilry. Stay at my side, please."
If she heard him she did not show it, but instead strode onward toward the lake and away from her protector.
"Enni, stay yourself!"
She would not respond, so the great warrior leapt after her in a powerful burst. He reached her quickly and, putting his large hands on her shoulders, he restrained her from moving any farther. It was then that she spoke.
At first he did not comprehend, for the voice that seemed to come from young Enni's throat did not sound like her. In his mind he questioned whether she had even spoken at all – until she spoke again. Presently there was no mistaking that the spoken word had, at the least, passed through Enneth, even if its origins were elsewhere.
Traemor stood still and silent fearing he had led his princess to her end, and his also, for it was obvious to him that she was no longer herself.
He knelt to the ground behind her, all the while continuing to hold her shoulders in a firm but delicate manner. He did not wish to look upon her face, for he feared what he might see there. But she was his charge and their situation his doing, and if anything could be done to save her, he would do it. Slowly he turned her around to face him.
She was not so hideously disfigured as would have reckoned, and instead retained quite the same look as before – save one difference. Her eyes had become dark like the shady water of the lake itself. Great drops of murky water escaped them like tears, though to the sky they fled instead of the grass below. But Enni did not seem to cry. Her demeanor was clam, in truth, and she seemed to breathe easier now than she had in quite some time. Traemor's heart was darkened upon seeing her, for he now knew that she was subject to sinister enchantment. He stood to gaze upon the hooded figure still standing on the surface of the lake.
"Release her, devil!" he shouted, full of wrath. "She is not yours to take!"
The figure did not stir, save for the swaying of his beard in the wind. Enneth spoke again, and for the first time he understood what she said.
Her lips did not form the word though it came from her mouth, and it left her in the form of a serpent's hiss. At last Traemor thought he understood. She was His messenger for the time being. She would be herself again soon enough.
Traemor pulled the coin from which he had memorized the lines of verse from his satchel. Again it gleamed faintly with the light of the moon.
"This will suffice, I hope," the warrior said to the form of his princess. He placed the small coin in the palm of her hand; on its face the Huntress gleamed through passing clouds. Enneth did not look upon it, but instead turned and walked towards the hooded figure, who still lingered as a stone statue upon the surface of the lake. When finally she reached the shore, she did not slow, but instead stepped outward into the shady water.
To this point Traemor had been quite sure that Enneth would be safe in the end, though now he shuddered with fright. It was a difficult thing to watch his princess walk straight into the Lake of Graves.
Curiously though, she did not sink, but instead strode upon the gloomy darkness with the weight of a leaf in the breeze. Traemor was relieved at the sight, even though it filled him with quiet horror.
The princess soon reached the hooded figure and offered him the coin. On touching his hand, it shone like a small star and sent forth brilliant rays of blue light until he clasped it in firm grip. Traemor remained silently at the water's edge, straining to see through passing clouds of mist. He feared for his princess, feared that he had done her wrongly and delivered her into evil hands. But as he watched with squinting eyes, planks of wood arose from the water surrounding both Enni and the figure. Quickly the great warrior saw that these were not mere planks, but the sides of an old, decrepit vessel. Within the span of a few breaths, a craft of bones and wood had risen from the lake underneath to hold both Enni and the Boatman.
"By The Sisters, she is safe!" Traemor muttered, and began to laugh softly. Hope rose in his heart as the thought of his plan coming to pass filled him with satisfaction. He had succeeded! He had kept the King's daughter safe, like he had pledged, and now he would steal her away to places unknown, far away from her wicked mother's evil clutches.
It was then, as the great warrior gazed with merriment upon his princess and the ghoul known only as the Boatman, when nearly all memory of the great horde pursuing them was buried deep within him, that his enemies exploded onto the clearing floor.
At that very instant, the Huntress showed herself through a break in the clouds, and as he turned his head in surprise, he glimpsed a gleaming spear on course to destroy him. In a motion too quick for words, he caught the spear in flight and, spinning, released it again toward a rushing enemy. The pointed end was savagely buried in his chest, and the force of Traemor's cast sent his foe flailing lifelessly into the reeds.
At least two-dozen enemies of various dress and armor poured onto the soft meadow. Most had their weapons drawn already, and all rushed at Traemor with the speed and energy of a toppling boulder. They seemed unfazed by the skill with which he had killed their compatriot.
A great wooly horse from the north there was also, and on its back rode three – one guiding the beast and two with spears raised in murderous intent. But straight across the field they charged, and as the beast sought to leap what appeared to be a small hole in the ground, the pillar of flame exploded. Instantly they were devoured in a brilliant column of fire. The great beast reeled in desperation, knocking its riders to the ground where they lay motionless, their bodies engulfed in lapping flames. The enormous horse also took only a few more painful steps before collapsing in a smoldering heap.
This new development did much to slow the onward rushing of the horde. Many stopped in their tracks, undoubtedly horrified at the loss of their greatest weapon so quickly.
Traemor was thankful for this moment to think and collect his wits. To this point he had acted on instinct alone, and the charging beast would most likely had run him down had he not been so fortunate. But now, his mind was ready for battle.
In one powerful motion, the great warrior pulled his sword from its sheath and planted it in the ground at his front. He did this so that he could also brandish his favorite weapon, one of his own invention that he called simply "the halo." It was a flat, circular halo of sharpened steel that was attached to a strand of silken rope, which was of the lightest and strongest quality.
With a flick of his wrist Traemor began to twirl the halo over his head. He could tell his enemies were not sure of his intent with this weapon, and they eyed him with much fear and hatred. One man who wore a dark blue cloak, a black stringy beard, and many golden bracelets, sent forth a terrible babbling of gibberish. Traemor quickly understood that this man sought to enchant him, and so he spun the halo fiercely and hurled it toward his foe. Its steely edges caught him on the throat before he could release one more breath. With a graceful tug and twirl, Traemor brought the halo back to him and continued to spin it above his head. The man had fallen quickly to his knees, and now tightly clutched his neck as dark blood oozed through his fingers. He soon tumbled over and moved no more.
Traemor could now see much fear and desperation in the eyes of his enemies, for they had likely thought victory would come swiftly and easily. No more wizards sought to speak enchantments for fear of his spinning weapon. But the infantrymen who made up the majority of the horde moved crisply and efficiently to encircle him, save at his back where he bordered the water's edge.
His enemies eyed him greedily – he could tell every one of them wanted to be his end. But he stood calmly twirling his halo, daring them to approach within its range.
It was Enneth who shrieked. Undoubtedly she had awoken from her enchantment to wonder why she was already on the boat and he was not. And it would not help matters that she was sitting only a reach away from the ghoulish Boatman himself. But her exclamation had been enough to make Traemor turn his head slightly, and with that his enemies rushed in.
His cloak snapped in the wind as he twirled and spun, sending the halo around on a grand pattern of flight and catching many of his enemies in mid-stride. Some were stung on their bellies so that their gut was spilled out into their hands; others were caught on the neck so that their heads were severed from their bodies. Some lost legs and collapsed, others arms and fled away shrieking. But there were many, and soon Traemor dropped his halo and yanked his sword from its place in the ground.
Those who remained engaged him with much ferocity. He fought them off as best he could, slashing madly but precisely at any exposed flesh, using his cloak to divert and confuse them. He skewered one in the throat with the point of his sword, which for a breath was stuck. The man's crumbling weight pulled the sword from Traemor's hands and he was left with not but his long wrist plates for self-defense. A large muscular warrior soon barreled into him with the full force of his strength and sent them both to ground. As they scuffled, Traemor pulled a dagger from the man's belt and buried it in the back of his skull. It too became stuck.
As he lay on the ground, still another warrior sought to pin him to the meadow floor. But Traemor deflected his blow with the help of his wrist plate. The sword crashed into the soft soil at his side. Swiftly, Traemor grabbed the man's arm, pulled him fro and delivered a crushing forehead blow to the man's nose. Blood exploded from his face, and he fell backwards, reeling. With unlikely quickness Enneth's keeper rolled away and grabbed the fallen man's deserted sword.
In a breath he had raised to his feet, weapon in hand. There were only a handful of warriors left, and they encircled him fearfully, unsure of what to do. One or two more sorcerers stood several paces away next to the burning corpse of the horse.
A warrior charged him. Traemor spun from his slashing blade and hewed the man's head from his shoulders as he passed. His body crashed violently to the ground, and soon the grass was soaked in his blood.
As Traemor regained his stance, an arrow shot by one of the coward wizards deflected from his breastplate and lodged itself at the height of his right arm. He roared in pain as the wounded arm went numb and hung limply at his side. The remainder of his attackers charged.
He caught one of them and, once more, they both went to ground. The warrior struggled to gain killing position on top of Traemor, but just as he raised his dagger, Traemor dealt him a crushing blow, breaking his jaw. Again his attacker fell away. The others, however, stood over him with their swords death-ready.
The valiant warrior watched as the Great Huntress again veiled her face in dark cloud. He was alone now.