Enemies, friends, suspicions rise

The answer in the future lies.

...

Night had fallen over the warm, still countryside. A soft summer breeze whispered its silent melody through the meadow grasses, continuing on over the gently sloping hills until it reached the gathering of small golden lights scattered by the dark border of the Valewood Forest. There its gentle presence was overwhelmed by the music and laughter of a night time festival.

Ferrian looked down from the hilltop at the little village and sighed. The summer breeze found his short blond hair and rustled it affectionately, like a father might do to a son. Starlight glinted in his strange silver eyes and the chirping of crickets and the songs of the night birds mingled with the jaunty nearby music. But the beauty of the night was lost on Ferrian.

Just another night, he thought. Just another town. Shifting his small pack to his left shoulder, he began to make his way wearily towards the golden lights.

The festival was well under way by the time Ferrian entered the town. Streamers and brightly coloured decorations lined balconies and footpaths, and cheerful violinists played in the background, somehow managing to make themselves heard above the chatter of voices and laughter and clatter of wagon wheels. Crowds of people milled around in the streets, and the occasional rowdy cheer announced that the taverns certainly hadn't gone unnoticed. Ferrian jostled his way through the crowd, the heat from the lamps making an already warm night stifling. But Ferrian didn't mind the heat. Whereas other people were sweating and irritable, cursing and complaining, Ferrian welcomed it. I would rather have the heat any day than that accursed cold...

Ferrian swallowed nervously and tried to block the thought from his mind. No, I'm not going to think about that any more, he told himself, and concentrated instead on reaching the nearest tavern.

It wasn't easy. Beggars grabbed his arms every few feet, seeking a few spare coins for another glass of ale, and merchants shoved all manner of goods in his face, including a few dubious items that Ferrian couldn't identify and didn't think he wanted to.

The tide of the crowd finally pushed him up to the door of a large tavern called the Bramble Barn, and Ferrian decided this was as good a place as any to stop for the night. Besides, the dodgy merchants were still elbowing their way towards him, waving their gaudy trinkets. Ferrian went inside quickly.

It was even hotter inside than on the crowded streets, if that were possible. Inside his cloak, Ferrian was sweating profusely, but he dared not take it off lest someone recognise him. The tavern was crammed to the last seat with celebrating revellers, and smelled strongly of sweat, ale and smoke. No one even turned around when he entered.

Ferrian walked quickly over to the bar, where the barman greeted him. "Good Summersday, friend!" he said.

Ferrian stared. He was quite young for a barman, and although his tone was cheerful and he was grinning, there was something vaguely ill-disposed about his small peering pale eyes. He was dressed in gaudy festival garb, the colours clashing so violently that Ferrian was almost blinded by the parries. He tugged his hood down a little lower, scraped his fringe over his eyes and tried to avoid the barman's unnerving gaze. "Uh, isn't it nighttime?" he muttered.

"Ha!" the barman said. It was more of a statement than an actual laugh; Ferrian thought it sounded rather sarcastic. He was disliking this barman more and more by the second. "Care for a drink?" the strange, thin man inquired.

Ferrian nodded, placing two triangular jade coins in a neat stack on the counter. "And a room for the night, too, if that's possible," he added, worrying as he rummaged in his money pouch if he had enough coinage to spare.

The barman swept the javens away, at the same time shaking his head. He flourished his hand at the packed room. "No accommodation left to spare, friend," he informed the boy, still with that odd grin. "The taverns are popular at this time of year."

Ferrian sighed and stuffed his money pouch back in the pocket of his worn pants. "Never mind then."

"Where do you hail from, young friend?" the barman asked as he filled a glass tankard from a keg.

"Not here," Ferrian replied. He wasn't in a conversational mood, and the way the barman kept calling him 'friend' was starting to annoy him. He watched the man carefully from beneath his fringe. Something bothered Ferrian about him, but he wasn't sure what it was.

His drink materialised in front of him and Ferrian grabbed it and made at once for the door.

"Hoi!" the barman called.

Ferrian stopped in the middle of the crowd, but didn't turn around. His heart was beating very fast.

"Be sure to bring that tankard back when you've finished with it, friend! No fobbing it off to the purse-pinchers outside the door!"

Ferrian sagged a little in relief. He raised the glass in acknowledgement and continued to the door. In his haste to leave he ran straight into a burly man coming in and spilled his drink all over them both.

Thankfully, the man was already quite plastered and merely boomed with laughter, causing those sitting nearby to join in. As Ferrian scurried away, he heard the man's companions urging him to slurp the spillage up off the floor. He didn't look back to see if he took up the offer or not, instead preoccupied with finding a nice shadowy quiet place to sit and drink and think...

A cool black alley presented itself as though in answer to his wish. He slipped eagerly into its embrace.

A few paces later, he emerged onto a narrow street. There was nobody to be seen back here and no streetlamps, the only light came from the glow of the coloured lanterns on the main street filtered through gaps in the buildings. Ferrian could make out looming dark shapes beyond the first row of houses on the opposite side of the road that he guessed must be trees. A park, he thought. Looking left and right, he crossed the road quickly and disappeared into the shadows.

Had he thought to look behind him at that moment, he would have glimpsed a dark shape briefly silhouetted at the end of the alley.

The park was pleasant enough, although the grass was dry; but there was a large pond in the centre, and this was where Ferrian decided to sit. Sipping his drink, Ferrian stared into the calm, mirrored waters, into his own silver eyes, and saw there reflected sadness, weariness.

There he saw the familiar cold, merciless ghost that would not let him be.

His curse.

...

He had been running ever since he was a child. Running away from everything- his past, his present, but mostly his own looming, inevitable future. It wasn't that he was a coward, or perhaps he was, he thought gloomily. After all, what difference did it make? The outcome would be the same, whether he was brave or frightened or a fool, because he could not escape himself.

He ran because he had no other choice.

His earliest memory was of living with a gypsy caravan. He didn't know who his parents were, or if they had ever been with the caravan at all. There always seemed to be someone different taking care of him. He smiled thinly as he remembered the colourful silks and beads they wore, reminding him curiously of the barman in the tavern. He remembered the scent of spices and the musky perfume the women always seemed to wear.

He remembered travelling a lot- he always seemed to be travelling, even in those early days- a different place nearly every day. But he hadn't minded then. The gypsies had been kind to him, bringing him up like he was their own child.

But he wasn't their child. He knew it instinctively, even though the gypsies never told him outright that this was so. But they visited many towns and Ferrian met other children who had parents, and so he began to wonder why he didn't have any of his own, why he called all the adults of his makeshift family by their first names and not mother or father. He began to wonder who his parents were, and then why they did not live with the caravan and whether or not they were still alive.

He had tried to talk about it with the gypsies, but they refused to talk about his real family. It had puzzled him then and it puzzled him now. Every time he had asked about them they somehow managed to slide the conversation onto a different topic. He had been very young then and eventually had simply given up, accepting that he was not supposed to know, hoping they might tell him one day when he was older. But there was one strange, elderly woman in the caravan, with black, straggling hair that made him think of rats' tails, that treated him differently than the others.

Oh, she was nice enough to him and took care of him, but every now and then he caught her looking at him out of the corner of his eye, and he was certain she knew a secret, something no one else in the caravan was aware of. But then one day something happened to change his life forever, and he finally realised why the old woman had been so suspicious of him.

It had been a fine spring day. The gypsies were on their way to Sel Varence, the capital city of Daroria, to trade silk and spices. The journey was a long one, and only half way finished when the caravan came upon the Barlakk Mountains.

There was only one known pass through the Barlakk Mountains. It consisted of a long, wide wooden bridge spanning a deep river canyon, and was known as Merinriver Break. Normally the Break would be easily crossed, but this year the winter had been unusually harsh and the weight of snow on the mountain tops had caused a huge avalanche, which had crashed down the cliffs and smashed the bridge to pieces. Work to rebuild the bridge was already well under way by the time the caravan got there, but repairs would not be finished for at least a month, likely longer.

The gypsies were forced to stop and consider their options. They could either backtrack, taking the long way southwest to Skywater where the Barlakks dwindled into more easily passable hills, or they could wait here for the bridge to be rebuilt. After much discussion, it was finally decided that they would wait.

As far as Ferrian was concerned, it turned out to be the worst decision they could have made.

The bridge workers shared their supplies with the gypsies, so the caravan had plenty of food. But after a week or so the weather began to turn foul. Ominous looking clouds rolled in over the mountain peaks, blotting out the sunshine, and the temperature dropped with a suddenness that was startling. Workers and gypsies alike cursed the cold rain that fell in sheets and slowed progress of the bridge. Everyone assumed it was just bad luck that the weather should turn nasty now of all times, and fully expected to see the sun again within a week.

Unfortunately, their predictions came to nothing, as substanceless and devoid of hope as the mist that cloaked the canyon. The sun sank ever deeper into a quagmire of dark clouds, and every day seemed colder than the last. Then it began to snow. Work on the bridge slowed even further and finally stopped altogether. The workers huddled freezing in their tents, and the gypsies in their caravans, while the snow fell more and more heavily around them. With nothing else to do, they had plenty of time to think and to talk, and fear and suspicions arose as they dwelt on why they were having such bad luck. One of the women was a fortune-teller, and one night cast her coloured stones into a bowl, and came back to them shaking and wide-eyed, telling them a curse was amongst them: that this bad luck was no act of nature.

Sorcery! Fear quickly turned to anger as they turned accusatory eyes on their companions.

It was that very night that the mysterious old woman with the black hair, known to Ferrian as Meriya, came to him as he lay huddled in a blanket in the back of one of the caravans. He was cold, certainly, but for some reason the others seemed to be suffering more than him. It was as if he was used to these freezing conditions- but that was impossible, because the gypsies mainly stayed in the warmer climates. He had been lying awake, puzzling over this, when Meriya entered quietly.

"Ferrian, are you awake?" her grating voice whispered, barely audible above the howling of the wind outside. Ferrian looked up with bright, silvery eyes at the old, craggy figure, heavily cloaked and hooded, and opened his mouth to reply.

Instantly, Meriya clamped a strong, cold hand over his mouth and yanked him to his feet, cutting off his voice. "Just shut up and do as I say," she whispered harshly in his ear, and jerked him roughly to the door of the caravan.

Snatching his winter cloak from a hook on the wall, she ordered him to put it on. Ferrian did as he was told, too confused and frightened to argue. He waited in silence as Meriya lit a lantern, then she bustled him out of the caravan and into the freezing black night.

It seemed to Ferrian that they walked for hours in the blinding blizzard. He trudged slowly along through the deep snow, freezing and frightened, Meriya giving him a push every now and then to keep him moving. Sometimes he stumbled and fell, and when he did she cursed and hauled him to his feet so roughly that he thought she would yank his arm right out of its socket. His fingers and toes felt numb, and the wind hurled stinging ice into his face. He quickly lost all sense of direction in the whirling blackness, and all he could do was let Meriya lead him blindly on into the storm. She seemed to be angry with him, and Ferrian wondered miserably if he was being punished, though he couldn't for the life of him think what he'd done to deserve this.

Finally, they stopped, and Meriya grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him around to face her. The wind howled deafeningly around them, almost drowning out her words. The lantern swung crazily on the belt at her side, the flame almost flickering out. "Ferrian!" she yelled above the storm. "You must stay here! Do not try to follow me back!"

Ferrian could hardly see her face through the darkness and whirling snow. Tears came into his eyes. "Am I being punished? Did I do something wrong?" he yelled back.

The old woman's voice wavered, the harsh lines on her face softened and her eyes turned down in sadness. "No, boy, you haven't done anything wrong. But you can never return, do you understand me? You've brought the Winter on us all, and if you don't leave now, we'll all die!"

Ferrian yelled into the storm, the tears crystallising instantly into ice on his face. "But I don't understand!"

Meriya had taken her hands from his shoulders and was turning to leave. She pulled her cloak more tightly around her frail body and unhitched the lantern from her belt. Calling back to Ferrian one last time before she left, she said: "I'm sorry boy, it's not your fault..."

Then she turned and was gone, leaving him alone in the snow and pitch darkness.

...

Ferrian remembered that night vividly. He recalled staring after Meriya for a long time after she'd gone. Then, despite her warning not to, he'd followed her. It made no difference in any case. He'd been totally lost. He couldn't see anything but pitch blackness, and the only sound he could hear was the mournful wail of the wind.

Why didn't I die that night? he thought with a mix of longing and frustration that the gods had been so cruel as to force him to live out his fate. Somehow, he managed to keep walking, even when he could no longer feel his feet or the sting of ice on his skin, even when his thoughts had retreated into a hazy fog. He barely remembered what he experienced out there in the darkness. His first distinct memory was of opening his eyes to find himself staring at a wall of ice, clear and blue like the sky was trapped inside.

He had turned around, stiffly, snow falling off him in heaps, to see the sun had found a chink in the clouds and was spilling long, fragile streamers into the valley.

There was a chasm right in front of him, snowflakes drifting serenely into its unimaginable depths. He would have shivered or gasped, or wondered why he had not fallen to his death in the darkness, but he was too numb and dazed to do any of those things. He had wandered far up into the mountains where the canyon narrowed into a cleft, and the great soaring waterfall that fed the Merinriver had turned to crystal.

It took him a whole day to find his way back to the gypsy encampment, but thankfully the weather improved a little as he walked. When he arrived at the Break, however, he found it deserted, the bridge still unfinished and the gypsies and workers gone.

There were fresh tracks and the snow was churned up and muddy. Bits and pieces of things were lying around: personal belongings, litter, construction materials. Two tents were still standing. A package of dried fruit was spilled open on the ground near one of them, apparently dropped and forgotten. The camp looked as though it had been packed up and evacuated in great haste.

Ferrian ate the fruit and sat in the snow until a Sirinese merchant family, travelling to the Coastlands and unaware of the impassable bridge, took pity on him and gave him a ride in their fancy wagon back to the Outlands.

He shook his head at the memories. That was ten years ago. Back then, he'd had no idea what Meriya meant when she said You've brought the Winter on us all, but now he knew only too well. She'd known all along, that was why she had always been so suspicious of him. It wasn't because she didn't like him.

It was because she'd been afraid of him.

It had taken Ferrian years to fully understand why the gypsies, the only family he had ever known, had abandoned him; but the truth was that if he stayed in one place too long, the Winter would come.

At first, he had tried to ignore it, thinking it might play itself out, hoping he was deluded in assuming that the weather could change simply because of his presence. But the 'Winter', as old Meriya had referred to it, never went away. It simply became progressively worse until he was afraid that it might take someone's life. He had seen elderly women and young children rugged up and coughing because of it. He had seen roofs torn off houses in the violent storms that his curse created. Eventually, he was forced to admit (to himself only, he dared not speak of this with anyone else) that he was the cause, and the only way he could stop this from happening was to keep travelling, to leave each town or each place before the weather got too bad.

Thus, he'd been wandering from town to town ever since.

He hunched his knees up to his chest as though for protection from his ravaging secret. Some people already suspected him, of this he was certain. He'd stayed a little too long in some places, and a few canny observers had noticed that the bad weather had started when a stranger had arrived and gone when he left. He winced as he remembered a particularly nasty experience when he'd arrived at one village, only to be run out of town by the enraged villagers and accused of being an 'Evil Spirit'. Rumours spread fast around these country villages, and his silver eyes made him conspicuous.

Ferrian plucked a dandelion from the ground where he sat, and tossed it idly into the still pond. He watched it float gently on the dark waters, against a background of reflected stars. I'm sick of it, he thought. I'm sick and tired of the running, of the fear. He felt so alone. Making friends was impossible- every time he tried he was forced to leave suddenly, unable to explain to them why. More than once he'd wondered how this could have happened to him.

Maybe that's exactly what I am after all, he thought. An evil spirit. Despair settled around his shoulders like a cloak, and try as he might, he could not shake it off.

He rested his head on his updrawn knees. All his life seemed scarred with misery and fear, apart from those distant days before the madness, when he'd lived with the gypsies and played with their children, oblivious of his curse. Would he ever find happiness like that again?

It would be so easy, he thought in the silence of his head, to just slip beneath those dark waters. Then no one would ever have to see me or fear me again...

A strong hand grabbed Ferrian's shoulder, almost causing him to fall into the pond prematurely. He jumped to his feet, knocking away the hand, his own reaching for his knife.

"Whoa! Hold on there kid, I mean you no harm!" The stranger stepped back hastily, both hands raised to show he was unarmed. Ferrian put his knife away hesitantly. The stranger lowered his hands.

"Sorry about that, my boy. Didn't mean to scare you." He held out his hand in greeting. "The name's Trice. Commander Grisket Trice of the Freeroamers."

Ferrian stared at the hand warily. Freeroamers? He knew of them, of course. The Freeroamers were a small but dedicated group of law enforcers who patrolled the small towns and hamlets of the Outlands, places the King had deemed too insignificant for his precious officers of the City Watch.

Ferrian glanced off into the humid darkness, and his hands felt sticky with sweat. There was no one else around. The two of them were alone in the park.

The heavy ball of fear in his stomach started to swing with greater momentum. He had feared for a long time that the rumours of the Winter would eventually reach the Freeroamers. Had they finally found him out?

"Young lad like yourself shouldn't be hanging around back here at this hour," Commander Trice warned. "Especially by yourself."

He could not read anything in the other's eyes that would indicate he had discovered Ferrian's secret. Ferrian had to force himself not to swallow. He turned away and slumped back down on the grass. "I can look after myself," he muttered.

Commander Trice grunted. "If you say so." He walked over and settled himself beside Ferrian on the grass. "Mind if I join you?" he asked.

Ferrian glanced sidelong at the Commander and noticed that he, too, had brought a glass of beer with him. For some reason that evoked a prickly, disturbing feeling in Ferrian's spine.

He could not make out the details well in the gloom, but Trice appeared to be middle-aged, of average height and broad-shouldered. The way he held himself also suggested he was very fit and no doubt an experienced fighter. He wore the recognisable Freeroamer uniform: black with a cobalt left sleeve, accompanied by a sleek pointed hat with a long gold and black striped feather leaping from the band.

Trice sipped his beer and chatted casually, about the weather and other, more inconsequential things. Ferrian sat in silence, only half-listening. It was getting late, but the sounds of the festival drifting from the town centre were as animated as ever. Ferrian was tired from his journey, but the night was still stiflingly hot and he didn't think he'd be able to sleep tonight anyway.

He remembered the dark thoughts that had clouded his mind just before Trice had interrupted him. The realisation chilled him to the bone, but his opinion hadn't changed, nevertheless.

The Commander eventually lapsed into silence. The two of them sat staring at the glassy reflections before them for awhile.

At last Commander Trice pushed himself to his feet and brushed the grass from his clothes. "Well, time to be off," he sighed. He nodded to Ferrian. "Nice meeting you, kid." He started to turn away, then paused and gave the boy a long, considering look.

"Watch yourself," he repeated. "A lot of no-good types around these parts, especially the Bladeshifters, said to be headed this way, due to arrive within a week or so. Just so happens that's why I'm in town, if you were wondering." He gestured into the moonlit night. "Got Freeroamers scouting about, but I decided to come here myself to arrest their leader in person." He chuckled darkly to himself. "Should be an interesting confrontation."

He glanced back at Ferrian, his expression turning grim. "But it could be an unpleasant one, so if you plan on sticking around Meadrun, boy, try to keep out of the way, if you can."

Ferrian nodded. "Thanks for the warning, sir."

Grisket smiled and touched the point of his hat. "Don't mention it, that's my job."

Then he turned and disappeared silently into the shadows of the trees.