Chapter One: A Strange Traveler

Winters in Dree were blustery cold events. They always brought bouts of frozen snow over the plains - to where we lived, in the valley of the Dead Mountains - the massive clouds hit the mountains. The longest range known to the world was the Dead Mountains, spanning across Dree, Jelk, and Faru, and the only way across for miles was plagued by greater evils than the other mountain ranges combined, it was so named Devil's Pass.

Glassy black mountains rose in steep craggy shards, looking almost like the points of swords, piercing the sky. Most travelers didn't risk crossing here, preferring to ride down ten miles through cracked ground and steep valley slopes to the next pass, Rivers Way. Named because of the river that follows the path until it flows into a huge water fall off the side of the mountain.

In Dree it was not uncommon to have great storms that would trap us inside our house for weeks on end. Sometimes the snow fell over the mountains instead, but when it did hit us, it hit hard.

That's also why we were surprised when after one of those mountain snows a young figure came stumbling down Devil's Pass Road. In this weather only truly mad would take the crossing here. It was a suicide run.

That is why it was also a surprise when we found out that the young man had traveled on foot. Surely with all the snow that had fallen through those mountains he would have frozen to death long before he reached here! Especially for someone who had traveled alone. He had a haunted look about him, that boy, as though the terrors streaking though that dead forest was not the worst that he had seen, and he expected to see far worse still.

Some stared at him with curiosity, wanting to hear his story, but most stared with disgust written plainly across their features, though I didn't know why.

"Burn him! Burn him!" I heard the building crowd scream, their voices rising frantically "For he is obviously one of dark magic!"

"Hush would you!" I shouted into the fray, being the daughter of the King I held more sway than all of these men combined. "The poor man is probably scared witless! What madness has gotten to your heads? Where is your hospitality? This man obviously went to great lengths to reach here!" The din grew quiet and there were some murmurs of agreement. I turned to the man, watching while he sunk onto a stone pillar, gripping his head.

"I have come from across the Dead Mountains," he began, rather gravely, "I have fled a town that is under siege from the Halian government, we were attacked at night and they burned our town to the ground. I got away, but only just, I don't know how many of the others managed to get away." I looked down at him, his hair black and cut short, his eyes, though downcast, were a deep grass green. There was nothing that particularly stood out about this man, other than the fact that he had made it all the way here from Sharru via Devil's Pass.

A hush had fallen through the town square as everyone thought over the man's story. I wouldn't put it past the Halian bastards to attack an unsuspecting village, most likely for nothing other than pleasure. Their king was a hard, ruthless man, he ruled with a steel grip, nothing slipped past him. He trained his men from age ten to fight, to hunt, and to trap us.

I was interested in what else this man had to say, but that was not my decision, that kind of decision would have to come from the King himself, my father, and oh, I did not envy the person whom I would send to wake him. Waking father from his sleep was never a good idea, and with me being so respected he normally sent me out on night missions.

Most fathers, and men for that matter, would balk at sending a woman into a fight, or off to interrogate the fellows who dared disobey him, or who were thought by their neighbors to be spies, and then interrogating the neighbors themselves for they might be directing the attention to others so that they would not be suspected. My father thought that sending a woman out to do what men normally did got him more information, so I was sent.

"Raul, go wake father, and tell him to make himself presentable," he grumbled but did what I asked, the man that was sitting on the stone pillar gave me a weird look. "What is your name?" I asked quietly.

"Ajax," he murmured, "and what is yours fine lady?"

"Annabelle!" my father boomed, "what is the meaning of this? Why have you woken me this night? Haven't I told you never to do so?" I stared harder at the man in front of me, something seemed, odd, about his appearance.

"I tried to warn her your majesty! I told her..." began Raul.

"Do not blame this on my daughter!" father cut him off.

"Of course your majesty," Raul bowed and moved back into the crowd, now Ajax was looking at my father with something that reminded me of awe. He looked back and forth between me and my father for a moment.

"Beg your pardon, sir, but you and your daughter look almost nothing alike!" and it was true, my father had light brown hair and hazel eyes while I had golden red hair that fell half-way down my back in ringlets and my eyes were a deep blue. The only thing that we shared was our height, he was taller than an average man and he had passed that on to me, I was taller than many of the girls in our town. Father looked taken aback.

"Of course," he said, "she takes after her beautiful mother, and who might you be?"

"Father, this is Ajax, he has traveled across Devil's Pass with a story. He says that the Halians came and burned down his village, though he managed to escape, but he doesn't know if any others happened to do the same. Ajax, this is my father, King of Dree," Ajax stood and bowed to him but father waved him off.

"I'll have none of that boy! Sit, sit, you look quite drawn from your journey," he turned to me, "and he traveled with no companions? On foot?"

"Yes, and through the storm that just dropped snow throughout the mountains," a murmur of disbelief swept through the crowd around me but father waved his hand at them, telling them to silence.

"You must have gone through quite an ordeal, getting here, you say your name is Ajax?" Ajax nodded at this, "how old are you lad? What town do you come from? Did you have any family?"

"I am nineteen come this next moon, my town name is, or was, Imperial. My family was long dead before this fire, my little sister died of a rare disease that the Shelarrians brought over when they were exploring our lands. My parents went of the outbreak five years ago, or did the mountains hold that on our side of the continent?"

"No, it crossed over, we lost Queen Rea to it," Ajax nodded his head solemnly. "So there were no other survivors?" father asked.

"None that I could see, at least, none that chose Devil's Pass. Some may have gone over to one of the neighboring villages, though I don't see why they would take them in. If Halians burn down your village you are as well as cursed." father nodded. Ajax gave my father an odd look.

"Then why, my lord, are you bringing me in?"

"Now, I never said that I was taking you. I'm bringing you in for a questioning, nothing more unless I find reason to believe your story. Then I might think about requesting whatever you have come to request." Ajax nodded solemnly. Father waved me over to him. "I expect you to get everything out of him, I don't care what it takes, I don't care if he doesn't want to talk about it, you get me his information and you get it to me before tonight. Am I understood?"

"Yes father, I understand, when do I have to start?" he gave me a look that said Annabelle, must you ask such a stupid question?

"Now." he turned and walked back up the street, muttering something about going back sleep. I turned to look at Ajax, this was going to be a long day.