XII


Ardis was lost. She had been devoured by the darkling forest, and the slender shadows tormented her at every turn. The moon's light offered her no sanctuary as she ventured through the night. Its rays were sparse and weak, and the tangled limbs of the towering trees blocked it from her sight. The wind hissed ominously through the woods, as if warning the acolyte to turn and flee for her life.

Fear would not get the better of her. She would not run. Ardis had a duty: a journey that needed to be taken. The goddess had chosen her to retrieve what was taken from her. Fear would not dissuade her. Each step through the Winterwood brought her closer to Vahn, and that thought alone was enough to banish her troubles.

And so she went on. She scoured through the clearings and the underbrush for any sign of the beaten trail. She had been following it for quite some time before it disappeared from her sight. She had brought no torches to light her way, for she knew that the light would attract the attention of distant predators. It was a struggle to keep from panicking when she had first realized that she was lost. Her father had always forbid her from going anywhere near the edge of the Winterwood, and her knowledge of the terrain was vague and lacking. She knew that the Iron Road that led to the White Fields and Illthain lied to the far west, and so she used the moss on the stones and trees to keep in the right direction.

But still, she was lost. There was a time when the moss was not present on the rocks and trees. She was forced to stumble around in the dark searching for a landmark to find her bearings. The moon was hidden behind both branches and clouds, and there was no sign of nearby hunting trails or paths.

Through it all, Ardis Casterlyn remained hopeful. She had packed enough food and water to see her through several days in the forest if it deemed necessary. Asvoria had given her a bag filled with lemon tarts, salted pork, venison, and sourdough bread before she set out.

"Try not to eat them all in one night," the widow had told her when she stopped by to say her goodbyes. Asvoria was reluctant to allow Ardis to leave Windrun so carelessly, but Ardis had told her of her prophetic dream. The goddess still loved Vahn, and the widow knew that Ardis would see him returned home safely.

Before she had left to plunge into the wood Ardis had spent much of her time scrounging through the village for the tools she would need to survive the harsh journey. She had managed to find an old map of Irel within her father's study and she had taken a bundle of cloth and bandages from Morgana's quarters. The map was torn and crude, but it showed roads and trails that spanned across the small island. It would be of some use.

She had quarreled with herself for quite some time before heading to Rolf's shack and retrieving his hunting bow and quiver filled with ten arrows. She knew that he no longer had any use for it, and he would have wanted her to take it with her on her journey. She had promised to the goddess that she would return the items to the shack when she returned.

Ardis had never used a bow before. She had watched Rolf and her father tighten the strings and send arrows into practice targets, but she had never asked to try herself. She was expected to be elegant and civilized like her lady mother before her, and Morgana scolded her when she tried to do anything unusual for a maiden of Shaela. Still, the bow helped her feel safer. She felt that as long as she held on to the yew bow, she would be protected from the monstrosities that dwelled within the Winterwood.

Ardis knew what lied amidst the shadows and the trees. Her wet-nurse used to tell her tales of lost boys who were devoured by grisly threshers and foolish men who found themselves snared within a direspider's web. Those were the stories that would keep her up at night, and she had promised herself that she would never enter the black abyss.

Yet here she was. She was scared; any maiden would be. She watched her feet as they carried her through the underbrush. Every small snap and crunch caused her heart to skip a beat. Sweat covered her hands and her brow, and she thought of removing her cloak despite the bitter cold. She felt more alone than she ever had before.

"Love and honor," she said in a soft voice as she rounded a twisted tree. The words comforted her soul. She knew the goddess was watching over her. If she was to be attacked by an unseen foe, Shaela would send the Bleshounds and the White Falcons and all the rest to save her.

Ardis grimaced and grunted as she climbed over an overturned tree. Moist moss covered the rotting wood, and she squealed as a worm squirmed onto her finger. Ardis cried out and flailed about as she struggled to get the creature off of her skin, and she fell down onto the forest floor in a heap. A moment passed and she was on her feet again, her hands wrapped around the bag and the bow as she ran away.

She came to a small clearing where milky light broke free from the grey to illuminate the emerald grass. She fell to her knees and ate a small meal of water and tarts as she regained her strength. She was weary and tired, but she knew she could not sleep. If she slept within the Winterwood she would not wake again.

Ardis could scarcely see the moon as it hung above her. The night was dark and there were no stars. The clouds of a rising storm ruled the night. She wondered if her father had ever looked up at the stars when he was hunting within the woods. She wondered if he had ever felt afraid and alone as well.

Ardis knew that her father would be furious with her. If he had known that she planned on leaving to chase after an outcast bastard he would have locked her away and swallowed the key. He was protective of her more than anything, and he would be cross with the world until the day she returned to him.

"You are the flame that keeps me warm, my child," he had told her several winters ago, when she was bedridden with fever. He had sat by her side for days on end, her hand placed in his as he kissed her brow. "Do not leave me. Do not let the fire grow dim."

She would never forget his words. She knew that her fire would burn brighter than all the others, for the goddess had chosen her for great things. Her flame burned with love and honor, and so she strived to keep it pure.

When she was confident she could press on again she went off in search of moss. The moss would show her the way back to the trail and out of the accursed forest.

Despite the fear and the danger, there was a part of Ardis that was relived to be free of Windrun. She had spent her winters locked within her father's study, reading and examining the old tomes and books that adorned his shelves and desk. She had loved learning about ancient queens and priestesses, and the flora and fauna of the world beyond the roads of Windrun. The realm was open to her now: it was a book that offered new knowledge and enlightenment within each page. Ardis intended to finish the book before her final day.

Ardis stopped. There was a queer sound below the howling wind, and she swallowed her unease and gripped the bow tighter. She could see very little. The sound was soft and constant, and she struggled to pinpoint its origins. Ardis crept through a thick of brambles and over a small crest. She lifted a hand to retrieve an arrow from the quiver. She fumbled with the slender shaft and it fell to the dirt. She sneered in frustration as she grabbed the arrow again and placed it along the bowstring.

She stood and drew back the bow. Her fingers began to hurt as she struggled to keep the string steady. She moved on again; each step leading her closer to the strange noise. A few paces ahead of her were a cluster of boulders that jutted up from the dirt and sat amidst a small clearing.

The strange sound was growing louder as Ardis approached the boulders. It was the low breaths of a slumbering creature; an unseen animal sleeping within the shadows of the rocks. Ardis swallowed her fear, lifted the bow, and stepped into the moonlight to confront the creature.

There, nestled between the dark rocks and encased in a heavy fur cloak, was Sindri. His black hair was covered in mud and leaves, and he was cradling the iron sword Oathkeeper in his arms. His head rested on a bag that was propped up against the boulder.

Ardis could only stare at the slumbering boy. She wanted to scream in frustration. She wanted to wake her brother and scold him until dawn. She wanted to drag him by his feet and take him back to Windrun and to father. But she didn't. Ardis smiled and sat beside the small boy. She brushed the hair from his face and kissed him on the brow. She knew all along that he would follow her. He was too foolhardy to resist leaving Windrun and joining her on a grand adventure. He missed Vahn as much as she did.

Sindri coughed softly and turned on his side. Ardis smiled as his eyes slowly opened. He looked up at her for a long moment, as if wondering if he was still dreaming. "Ardis?"

"I'm here," she said as she caressed his cheek.

He yawned and wiped the weariness from his eyes. "I knew I'd find you."

"I'm the one who found you," she replied. "I could hear your loud snoring from a league away."

"I didn't mean to fall asleep," Sindri said as he opened his bag and shoved his arm inside. "I meant to find you first." He smiled wide and retrieved a small cloth from the bag. Ardis crossed her arms as he unfolded the cloth. Inside were several small cubes of salted pork, and Sindri quickly stuffed his mouth with handfuls of meat.

"I told you not to come after me," Ardis said as she watched him eat. "I told you it was too dangerous."

"Piss on that!" Sindri exclaimed through mouthfuls of pork.

"Sindri!" Ardis shouted, taken aback. The small boy merely laughed and threw a square of meat at her. She swatted it away and the meat disappeared within the tall grass.

There was a loud shriek from the treetops as a dark bird spread its wings and swooped low towards them. Ardis instinctively reached for the bow as the bird flapped furiously at the wind and plunged its beak into the grass. Moments later it shrieked again and lifted its head, revealing the cube of pork that was gripped in its beak. With a flick of its beak the meat fell down into its gullet and was lost.

"Tastes bad!" the bird squawked as it trotted about in circles, as if chasing its own tail. "Tasted bad!"

"You brought that pesky liarbird with you?" Ardis asked her brother in disbelief. Sindri scrambled to his feet and ran towards Split-eye, laughing all the way. The liarbird took flight, grabbed onto the boy's tunic, and sat perched atop his shoulder.

"He would've died if I left him behind," Sindri said. "No one takes care of him but me."

Ardis picked up Oathkeeper and wiped the dirt from its hilt. "And isn't this Vahn's sword?"

"Aye."

"Where did you find it?" she asked. The sword was heavy and sharp and it felt awkward in her hands.

"I found it lying on the shoreline a few days ago," Sindri said as he quickly took the sword from her. He held it close to his chest. "I've been keeping it safe. I want to give it back to him. I'm sure he misses it."

"That is not a toy, Sindri," she scolded. "You could hurt yourself with it."

"I know that," he replied. "I'll be careful with it."

"No he won't!" Split-eye squawked. "No he won't!"

"Be quiet," Sindri said to the bird.

"You will be the death of me, Sindri Casterlyn," she said as she shook her head. She stood and began to collect her things.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"I hope you enjoyed your little escapade through the Winterwood because I'm taking you back to the village."

"No!" Sindri shouted in defiance. "Why?"

"Because you can't come with me," she answered. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I let anything happen to you."

"But I'll be fine!" he said. "I can take care of myself!"

Ardis shook her head. "I don't want to risk it. I'm going to take you back to father and mother and you will stay there until I return. You will not leave Windrun again."

"But I want to go with you!" Sindri shouted. "Vahn is my friend too!"

"I know, Sindri," Ardis said as she knelt before him. "I know. Being apart from you will be the hardest thing I've ever done, but I must do it." She pulled him towards her and held him tight. "Please, just do as I say."

When she finally let him go he crossed his arms and frowned deeply. "Fine."

Ardis smiled and kissed him on the brow. "I love you, little brother. You know that." He nodded, and she grabbed his bag and handed to him. "Now come. Hopefully we can reach the village again before daybreak."

Sindri was silent and somber as Ardis hefted her wool bag and placed the quiver across her chest. She grabbed her bow and handed Oathkeeper. "Be careful with it," she told him as he took the sword.

"Do you know which way to go?" Sindri asked her as she led him into the trees.

"No," she confessed as she looked around. "But I'll know soon enough."

"Lost!" Split-eye shrieked as he fluffed his feathers. "Lost! Lost!"

She ignored the liarbird. She took out the old map, examined it, growled in frustration, and shoved it in her bag again. She trudged onwards, through the wet leaves and the shivering cold. She could hear Sindri's small footsteps as he followed behind her.

They were quiet as they moved through the darkness. The trees seemed to stretch to the ends of the realm, and the night wore on. Ardis feared that the night would never end. It reminded her of Morgana's scary stories; stories of a time when the sun did not shine for more than two hundred years. It was a time when thousands were killed by plague and famine, and dead men walked the lands to prey upon the living.

Ardis released a held-in breath and wrapped her cloak tighter around her chest. She was too old to be scared by old stories and myths. If her mind lingered on the tales for much longer, then she would begin to see dead men stalking from within the shadows around her.

"It's too cold," Sindri said, causing Ardis's to gasp in surprise.

She turned to him and frowned, heart racing. "If you had stayed at home like you were supposed to then you'd be sleeping by a warm hearth."

Sindri grumbled under his breath. "Where are you going to go after you leave the Winterwood? How will you find Vahn?"

"I'm going to follow the White Fields until I reach Illthain," she told him. "Then I'll find a boat to take me away from here."

"And go where?"

She hesitated before answering him. She hadn't thought that far in advance. She had no idea where the Arundels had taken Vahn. "I don't know."

"Well I could help you take a ship," Sindri said as he grabbed Oathkeeper and swung it through the air. "I could stab the captain in the heart and we could sail across the ocean with a ship and a crew! They'd call me Sindri the Swashbuckler and I'd be the scourge of the Aruthain!" he laughed and jabbed at unseen foes.

"Or I could lock you inside your room when we reach Windrun," Ardis said. "That would be the only way to keep you from making a fool of yourself."

"Piss on that!" Sindri said as he ran past her.

"Stop saying that!" Ardis exclaimed as she went after him.

Sindri laughed and he raced through the brambles and the brush. Oathkeeper's blade slid along the dirt as he ran, and his cloak seemed to fuse with the black night.

"Sindri!" Ardis said as she struggled to keep up. She was not as nimble as the small boy. She knew that if she didn't get him to stop soon then she would lose him. She followed him under shattered trees and over eroding logs. He weaved swiftly through the trees and the underbrush, laughing as he went. Split-eye squawked and flapped his wings.

"Sindri!" she said again through rasping breaths. To her surprise he stopped when he came to a crooked tree, and he became as still as stone. Ardis went to his side to see what was wrong, and a chill slid through her body when she saw his face. His cheeks were pale and his eyes were wide as he stared off and into the night. She followed his gaze and held her breath.

Before them lay a small grove. Moonlight illuminated the brown leaves that blanketed the dirt, and the sentinel trees were few and far between. A dead fawn was lying in the center of the grove amidst a pool of crimson blood, its ebon eyes staring off into the black void. Its spotted fur was brown and white and covered in dirt.

A creature Ardis had never seen before was standing above the carcass. It was black and bulbous and covered in thick hairs. Eight slender legs protruded from its segmented body and gripped the fawn's corpse with sharp claws. Eight eyes jutted forth from its head; each seeming to shine in the soft light. It ripped and tore at the fawn's flesh with visceral fangs. The beast was as large as a grown cow, and the sight of it caused Ardis's stomach to twist.

Ardis was frozen in place. Her heart was racing faster and faster with every passing moment. She slowly grabbed Sindri's hand and began to back away from the grove and the direspider. She did not take her eyes off of the feral beast as it continued to devour the fawn.

Sindri would not budge. Ardis yanked and pulled at his hand in an attempt to get him to move, but the boy would not give in. He grabbed Oathkeeper's hilt and wrenched it free from his belt.

"Sindri no," she said quickly, her voice a shrill whisper. She gave a hard pull, and Sindri yelped as he fell towards her. He landed face-first on the leaves, and Oathkeeper fell onto a mossy rock with a loud clang. The direspider hissed and its head turned quickly towards them. Its legs were a blur as it raced towards the two youths; its dark body weaving through the shadows.

"Run!" Ardis screamed as she grabbed Sindri and lifted him to his feet. She pulled him away as she tried to run, but he refused to follow. She looked back and found him struggling to reach Oathkeeper. "Leave it!"

Sindri grabbed the iron sword and followed his sister as she ran into the horde of trees and shadows. Ardis's chest heaved as she bounded through the brush, and she glanced back to make sure that Sindri was close behind. She could see the direspider as it moved around the trees and chased the small boy. Saliva dripped from its fangs and its eyes glinted with the light of bloodlust.

Ardis turned back and fell to her knees. She lifted the bow and placed an arrow on the string. She drew it back as Sindri ran past her, and with a loud twang the arrow shot away from her. It hissed as it pierced the air before plunging into the bark of a far off tree. The shot was clumsy and wide, and the direspider was unfazed by the failed attempt.

She had not time to try again. Ardis rose and turned and fled. She could hear the leaves crack and break as the beast came closer to her, and fatigue was beginning to take its toll. She was no natural runner, and she knew that soon she would have to stop to catch her breath.

The direspider let loose a horrid shriek as it lunged for the Velhiir girl. Ardis screamed in terror and fell to the ground. She grabbed her head with her hands as the beast careened over her, its legs flailing wildly in the air as it failed to grab her. The direspider wailed in agony as it slammed into a broken tree, and its bulbous body fell into a bush of thorns.

"Ardis!" Sindri shouted to her as she crawled away from the convulsing creature. Her face was covered in dirt and tears, and her brother quickly helped her to her feet. They ran off again as the direspider corrected itself and began to whirl about in search of them.

Ardis swallowed her fear and led Sindri over a small hill and away from the confused beast. As they climbed over the crest they were grabbed by the cloak and shoved to the ground. A steelclad hand covered Ardis's mouth and muffled her instinctive scream. She looked up to find Lorilyn kal'Galladis crouching above them, her face hardened and eyes burning with courage.

Lorilyn glanced down at the two youths and slowly let them go. They looked on in silence as she crept to the crest of the hill and drew her longsword. She did not move, and merely watched the direspider as it shuffled through the brush below them.

With a defiant shout Ragnos Castillion burst forth from the trees and lashed at the direspider with a shining sword. The beast squealed in agony as his blade cleaved through one of its legs. Black blood sprayed into the night and the beast cautiously skittered away from the warrior clad in steel.

Sindri gasped in awe as he watched Ragnos circle the beast. Lorilyn held him back with a single hand. "Stay here," she said to Ardis before standing and sliding down the hill. Ardis did as the shieldmaiden bid and held Sindri close. She prayed for the goddess to protect her saviors.

The direspider hissed and lunged at Lorilyn as she reached the bottom of the hill. The shieldmaiden dove to the side and rolled away the beast's fangs and claws. She recovered and jabbed at the direspider, causing it to rear up on its back legs and crawl away from her. It feared the steel she wielded in her hands, for it had already lost one limb to its sting.

Ragnos ran towards the direspider and whipped his sword through the air. The creature evaded his stroke and lurched forward. It grabbed onto his chestplate with five legs and sent him to the ground in a shower of dirt and leaves. Ragnos shouted and swung wildly with his blade as the direspider snapped at his head with slimy fangs and scratched his armor with ebon claws. It managed to pierce his shoulder guard and send a claw deep into Ragnos's exposed shoulder, and the warrior cried out in dismay as blood seeped from the wound.

The shieldmaiden appeared by her comrade's side and tackled the direspider to the ground. She screamed and snarled as she bludgeoned the beast with both sword and fist. Dark blood splattered across her face and armor as she battled the horrid creature.

The direspider overpowered the shieldmaiden and struck her across the face with a swift leg. She fell to the ground, and the direspider scurried away from her and Ragnos. Its body dragged across the dirt, and blood continued to fall from its numerous injuries.

With a sudden shout Sindri broke free from Ardis's embrace and slid down the hill. Oathkeeper fell from his hands as he tumbled over leaves and dirt. The direspider spun around to face the falling boy, and it raced towards him with incredible speed.

"Sindri!" Ardis screamed until her voice was hoarse. She crawled to the crest but did not dare follow after her brother.

Lorilyn and Ragnos cried out in horror as they ran for the boy; swords dripping blood and aglow in the moon's light. The direspider reached the boy before they did, and Sindri let out a blood-curdling scream as the direspider set upon him. It clawed and bit and jabbed and slashed, and Ardis was forced to watch it all.

An eternity seemed to pass before the two warriors reached the boy and the direspider. Ragnos's sword fell through the night and plunged into the beast's abdomen, releasing a haze of blood. The direspider shrieked and tried to crawl away, but its time was at an end. Lorilyn kal'Galladis appeared by its side, and with a shrill shout she swung down with her longsword and cleaved the beast in two. Organs and entrails fell from the creature as its body fragments convulsed weakly before falling still.

When she was certain that the direspider was dead Ardis raced down the hill and cradled her brother in her arms. Her vision had become blurred by her own tears and her heart throbbed with pain and dread. His eyes were closed and his skin was pale. Cuts and bruises covered his arms and neck, and his cloak and tunic were torn in several places. Warm blood, both black and red, covered his chest, and Ardis could see two gaping holes in his neck where the beast had bit him.

She wailed in sorrow and looked to the shieldmaiden as she came to kneel by her side. Lorilyn's face was shrouded with uncertainty and she removed her gauntlet and placed a hand on Sindri's brow.

"Please help him . . ." Ardis said through sobs as she gazed at the shieldmaiden. "Please . . ."

Lorilyn removed her hand and lowered her head. "He's been bitten," she said, her voice soft and solemn. "The venom . . . I'm sorry, my lady."

"But he can be saved," Ardis said. She embraced Sindri and continued to weep. He couldn't die, not here, not now. He couldn't die. "He can be saved!"

The shieldmaiden stood and walked to the direspider's body. She screamed in anger and swung her sword into the beast's carcass; her sword cutting through flesh and blood over and over again.

Ragnos walked to her side, an arm placed over his shoulder to stop his wound from bleeding. Rivulets of crimson fell from both his armor and his mail. He placed a hand on the shieldmaiden's shoulder, and she allowed her sword to fall to the dirt.

Ardis turned from them and placed her head on Sindri's chest. His heart was still beating; a weak, slow rhythm that kept him within the realm of the living. She could not bear the thought of losing her only brother.

Ardis stood and ran to Ragnos's side. "Help him," she said as she grabbed his arms tightly. "Don't let my brother die!"

Ragnos looked away from her. His eyes were sullen and filled with grief, and they scared Ardis more than the direspider ever could. They were gateways that revealed the truth within Ragnos's soul. She could easily see that he had lost all hope.

"Alive!" Split-eye shrieked as he swooped down from the branches and stood on Sindri's chest. The liarbird peered at Ardis with dark, soulless eyes. "Alive! Alive!"

The liarbird prodded Sindri's cheek with its beak. The boy looked as though he was merely sleeping, his mind immersed within a vivid dream. She expected him to open his eyes and yawn like he had done countless times before.

Ardis cast the hopeful thoughts from her mind. Sindri was not hiding within the comfort of a dream. He was trapped within a terrible nightmare, and Ardis knew that in time he would be thrust into the abyss.

She knew that it was a nightmare he may never wake from.