Eyes of the Blind – Preview

Chapter One

The Sixfold Path

Tormjere walked reluctantly up the trail that wound its way alongside the creek, his thoughts as turbulent as the water rushing past him as it tumbled down the mountain. His pace was slow and deliberate, but not because of the slippery footing. He’d been travelling this path for his entire life — all fourteen summers of it — and his feet knew every rock and root.

He paused to take a deep breath of the damp, fragrant air. Morning sunlight filtered through the falling leaves to warm his face and paint the forest in colors, but even those pleasant sensations did little to improve his mood.

With a sigh he continued, following the trail until it drew close to the water’s edge. His younger brother, Eljorn, was there in the middle of the creek, eyes closed, as solid and unmoving as the mossy boulder he sat on.

Tormjere came to a stop on the muddy bank and crossed his arms, suddenly angry. Hair as dark and wild as his eyes perfectly framed the scowl on his face.

Eljorn opened one eye and glanced towards the shore.

“Put away the frown, brother,” he called over the rush of the water. “This day is too nice for unhappiness!”

“You’re going to spend the rest of your life meditating in a cave somewhere and this is what you do with your last day of freedom?”

Without waiting for an answer, Tormjere stepped smoothly across the wet stones and climbed up beside him. It wasn’t a large rock, and they sat shoulder to shoulder.

Eljorn smiled. “I did feed the dogs this morning.”

“It was your turn anyway.”

Their family owned the only kennel in the valley, or “cove” as it was called by those who lived there, and both siblings had helped with the business since an early age.

“Speaking of which, where’s Blackwolf?” Eljorn asked.

“He managed to get into what was to be tonight’s supper and Father locked him up for a while,” Tormjere said, chuckling at the thought of the sometimes-troublesome dog stealing their food.

Eljorn laughed with him.

They sat quietly for a moment, watching the red and gold leaves floating past. A passerby might have been hard-pressed to tell them apart were it not that Eljorn’s hair was pulled back neatly while his brother’s fell as it would about his shoulders. Both were thinly built but sturdy, with well-tanned muscles used to long days of work. Although Tormjere was older by over a year, they were often mistaken for twins by those who didn’t know them, and occasionally by those who did.

“What will you do for fun?” Tormjere asked.

“I’m sure something will present itself.”

“Doubt it. They’ll make you cut your hair, you know.”

“Only if I’m accepted,” Eljorn laughed. “It will not be missed.”

Tormjere sighed. “What will you miss?”

Eljorn watched the leaves slowly falling through the air, and his smile faded into a thoughtful expression. “This,” he said, “and Mother and Father, and the dogs, and you.” He looked up the creek, absently following its path through the trees. “But I want to do this — it just feels right.”

Tormjere stared at a rock, fighting against the lump in his throat. He put a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. No words were needed, and he didn’t have them anyway.

“We should head back,” he said after a moment. “They were spotted coming down the pass, so it won’t be long now.” He rose and crossed the rocks to the shore where he stopped, waiting expectantly.

Eljorn followed with reluctance, pausing at the water’s edge to take one last look at the creek.

As they set off down the trail towards home, Tormjere wondered if his brother would ever see this place again.

* * *

The Enrik family cottage was nestled in a clearing at the south end of Kenzing village, affording them plenty of room for a large garden in addition to the kennels and dog runs. Just beyond the dead-hedge fence the ground sloped up sharply, beginning its steep climb up the side of Mount Kenzing, the tallest of the peaks that ringed the valley.

The wooden house was composed of two large rooms, one on either side of a double fireplace made of rounded stones. A covered porch ran the length of both long sides — an unusual luxury that their grandfather had included for his wife many years before. Smoke from the chimney rose steadily into the cloudless blue sky.

“That much smoke this early means Mother’s fixing a big meal,” Eljorn said.

“Your last good one for a while, I bet,” Tormjere said, still hoping to change his brother’s mind somehow.

Eljorn gave an indifferent shrug, but Tormjere knew he’d miss their mother’s cooking.

As they approached the house, the pair of dogs sprawled on the front porch perked up and began wagging. Dogs had long been employed by many families in the Kingdom. Though aggressive animals were favored in the eastern lands, the Enrik family bred dogs for the more practical purposes of herding and guarding. Both brothers were busy greeting the animals when frantic barking erupted from behind the house. They looked at each other and smiled, knowing exactly who was making such a fuss.

Tormjere shook his head. “I’d better go settle him down before Father throws something at him again.”

For the past four years, Tormjere and his dog and been almost inseparable. The animal, almost solid black with only a patch of white on the stomach, had proven too noisy and untrainable to be sold, so Tormjere had been permitted to keep him as a pet. Their father had taken to calling him “that little black wolf” for all the trouble he caused as a pup. There may have been some truth there, for the dog had a decidedly wild streak in him compared with his litter-mates. As he’d grown, Tormjere had shortened it to “Blackwolf,” and the name stuck. Despite being one of the strongest dogs they had ever bred, he was at the same time one of the most lovable. His father had often complained that were a thief to ever enter their home, the dog might lick the intruder to death, but he certainly wouldn’t defend them.

None of this mattered to Tormjere, of course, who loved his dog as much as any member of the family. Today, however, he gave the animal a disapproving look as he entered the pen.

“It’s your own fault, you know,” Tormjere said, scratching him behind the ears. “You have your food, and you’re not to be eating ours.”

Blackwolf just wagged happily and rolled over so his belly could be rubbed.

“Enough,” Tormjere said with a laugh. “I’ll be back for you later, but you’re stuck here for now.”

Tormjere entered the house as his mother was pulling the last pot off the fire. He found the table fully set, and, as his brother had predicted, there was a great deal of food. A roast steamed in its own juices alongside potatoes, greens, and freshly baked bread. It was a feast they usually had only a few times a year and never for mid-meal, because the meat was expensive. It was, however, Eljorn’s favorite, and their mother wanted his last meal at their house to be a good one.

* * *

That afternoon, the village was abuzz with excitement. Every other year the Toushin monks would visit villages and towns throughout the Kingdom, searching for new applicants. The Brotherhood was highly respected for their charity and fairness, and it was considered an honor if a family member was accepted into their ranks. While anyone could offer themselves for service, only a few would be judged worthy of their high standards.

The procession arrived with the customary trappings of ceremony, preceded by pounding drums and flags in their traditional browns and yellows. Their journey would have begun weeks earlier with only a handful of monks. Now, having already visited a score of villages and towns, they had collected several dozen new applicants, or dimnants as they were known. By the time they had completed their journey there would often be more than fifty boys in tow. Of those who offered themselves, many would not make it through the long walk back to the monastery, and fewer still would remain after the demands of the first year. Followers of Toush led a difficult life.

Bystanders handed food and water to those marching past, for the monks carried little with them and relied largely on the generosity of each village for sustenance. The young dimnants were particularly thankful. For most, this was the farthest they had ever been from home.

There was much cheering and even some dancing, but Tormjere didn’t feel the excitement that he had in the past. He kicked at the dirt as he waited with his family in the town commons. He wished Blackwolf was there too, but his father hadn’t allowed it, fearing the dog wouldn’t behave well in the large crowd. He was right, of course. Blackwolf hated crowds as much as his owner, but it didn’t make Tormjere any happier.

For him, the approaching thud of the drums echoed the rising feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. As the procession reached the common field the drums stopped, and an older monk dressed in yellow and orange walked slowly towards the center. Unlike larger towns, Kenzing had no official speaking platform. The monk, however, walked with purpose towards a particular patch of earth as if it had been placed there for just such an occasion.

“Is that the Mantrin?” Tormjere asked his brother. He at least knew what the head of the Brotherhood was called, even if he didn’t know what such a person would look like.

“No,” Eljorn said, “the Mantrin would be in red and gold, but he never walks the Journey of Entry. He has too many other responsibilities.” He studied the man as he passed. “The orange means he’s one of the Suman. They report directly to the Mantrin.”

As the Suman monk turned to face them from his chosen place, the crowd fell silent. “Those who walk in the footsteps of Toush bring a question to the Kingdom of Actondel,” he said in a loud, clear voice. “May we speak?”

It was a formal request. Anyone who wanted to address such an assembly was expected to first gain permission of the local lord. In a city that might be a governor or steward, or possibly a baron or duke if the occasion warranted, but Kenzing wasn’t large enough for a position of such importance. Since the village had no officially appointed steward, such formalities fell to the commander of the garrison, as the most senior representative of the crown.

Sir Warron, sword-sworn knight in service to the king and captain of his forces, had occupied that position for as long as Tormjere could remember. Warron had known the monks were coming, of course, and he was already present. With his salt-and-pepper hair, broad shoulders, and firm jaw, the military man would have stood out from the crowd of commoners even without the green-and-gold tabard of the King’s Army draped over his chain hauberk.

“All those who bring peace may speak, and be welcome,” he replied with the corresponding formality. Though his hand rested easily on a well-worn sword, his tone was friendly, and its good nature was mirrored in his eyes. While the knight saw to the safety and security of the village and dealt harshly with troublemakers, he was a good-natured man and generally well-liked by the populace.

“We come in the name of Toush, the Great Thinker,” the monk began. “He who sits in contemplation, guiding the choices that we make as we walk our path through life. There are many paths which may be chosen, each with their own trials and rewards. Some are easy and may be trod without care. Others are difficult and should be travelled with caution. Toush, recognizing that knowledge of what lies ahead makes the chosen path easier to walk, established the Six Pillars of Service, and vowed to walk his own path six times over so that he might learn fully from each.”

The monk continued his speech extoling the altruism and rewards of a monastic life, but Tormjere stopped listening. After all, he’d heard most of it from his brother at least a hundred times. Those who committed themselves would be trained in the ways of the monks. After years of contemplation and study, they would be sent out to be of service to those most in need, wherever they could be found. It was the Second Pillar, or was it Third? Tormjere couldn’t remember the particulars, and it didn’t make sense to him anyway.

His eyes wandered through the crowd, wondering who else was going to join this time. Eljorn had wanted to join two years ago but hadn’t been old enough, but it was a choice that Tormjere could never see himself making. He admired the followers of Toush as much as anyone, yet he never understood what would make someone commit themselves so completely to helping others succeed.

He turned his attention to the robed monks at both the head and tail of the procession. They were all relatively young, and mostly in brown. He recalled that the colors changed as they progressed in rank, but the details escaped him. Each of the monks wore the slightly bemused expression that was the hallmark of the Brotherhood. Tormjere wondered if Eljorn would look like that when he was finished with his training.

Beside him, their father, Byron, wiped at his eyes, reacting to something moving the monk had said. His parents were happy for Eljorn, and rightfully so, but Tormjere felt as if he was attending a funerary, not a celebration.

The speech was winding down, so he returned his attention once more to the Suman.

“All those who would devote their lives to Toush and join us in our eternal quest along the Sixfold Path, please come forward,” the monk finished.

Eljorn turned and gave their mother a quick hug, while their father administered a hearty slap on the back. Tormjere had thought he’d have something typically witty to say, but there was only a lump in his throat that allowed no words to pass. Eljorn’s eyes met his, and he knew they were thinking the same thing. Each put their hands on the other’s shoulders. Then Eljorn was walking out to stand with the dimnants. Three other boys from the village also stepped forward, as did another from one of the outlying farms.

The monk was speaking again, but Tormjere hardly noticed. His brother had just walked away from their family towards something different. He thought about everything that they had done together over the years — growing up in the village, raising dogs, arguing, playing, exploring — and realized that it was all as gone as last year’s snow.

Chapter Two

Visitors in the Woods

Tormjere stood with his bare feet in the edge of the creek, absently skipping stones across a smooth section of the flowing water. He normally found the sounds of running water relaxing, but today it offered little comfort. Even Blackwolf, splashing about happily and trying to catch who-knew-what beneath the surface, failed to put a smile on his face.

Nearly a full cycle of the moon had passed since Eljorn had left, and Tormjere’s life had changed in ways both obvious and subtle. He had more to do with the dogs, of course, and additional chores around the house, but, in truth, it wasn’t the amount of work that was the problem.

On more than one occasion, he’d turned to ask Eljorn for help or make some witty observation, only to realize that his brother was no longer there. It often left him frustrated or angry, or both. The house, the dogs, the woods, their friends — nothing he did could mask his brother’s absence. It was always there, lurking in the back of his mind. They had talked of leaving the cove many times, but Tormjere had always assumed that as the oldest he’d be the first to go. Yet here he remained, doing… nothing.

He threw another stone and watched it skip across the water before clattering to a stop against a wall of piled stones, remnants of the brothers’ last attempt at building a dam. Trying to block the flow of water in the creek — a task as hopeless as it was enjoyable — had been a favorite activity for as long as they had played in this spot. Invariably, heavy rains would come, and the swollen creek would destroy half of what they had created, but that was part the entertainment. Or at least it had been.

Blackwolf’s ears perked up as faint laughter echoed up the footpath that ran alongside the creek. As the voices drew closer, they dropped to a whisper. From the amount of noise that could still be heard, it sounded as if three or four people were now trying to sneak up on him. He sighed. Blackwolf stood frozen, staring intently at where they would appear. When the dog tensed, he knew they had arrived.

“I can hear you,” he said without turning.

“Oh, good, there you are,” Morgan said, trying to cover for the fact he’d been detected so easily. He stepped out from behind the bushes, as if he’d meant to be found, followed by Amber and William.

Amber gave Tormjere one of her little smiles that made the freckles on her cheeks stand out. William, of course, just glared at him in the same superior manner that he always did.

“We’re going to the farm for some apples,” Morgan said with a grin, hooking his fingers in the overly-wide belt he was so proud of. “Want to come?”

Tormjere raised an eyebrow. “Seems like the mill road would be a faster choice.” He knew why they were coming this way, of course: it would allow them to sneak the apples from the back of the orchard without being seen.

“It would indeed,” Morgan said as he stroked his hairless chin with mock seriousness. “But I’m sure that Master Alwain is most busy preparing for the harvest, and we wouldn’t want to interrupt him, would we? Thought you might like to come along.”

Tormjere would have been thankful for the invitation, had he not known that it had little to do with friendship. From where they stood, there were only three forks in the trail to get them to the back of the orchard without being seen. Morgan might be able to find the right farm this time, but he couldn’t get them past the Alwain’s dogs undetected — Tormjere had trained them too well.

“Maybe later.”

William smirked. “Told ya he wouldn’t go.”

Morgan frowned, clearly disappointed. “You got anything better to do?”

“Just not really in the mood for it.”

“You’re getting boring, but suit yourself,” Morgan said. “More for us, then.” He stepped past Tormjere and continued up the path with purpose.

“Should’ve sent you off to be a monk and left Eljorn here,” William sneered, following the larger boy.

Amber hung back, waiting until the boys were out of earshot. “He’s just mad because we’ll get lost again. Don’t let him get to you.”

Tormjere unclenched his jaw and looked away, suddenly aware that their words had affected him more than he thought.

Amber brushed a strand of curly red hair from her face. “Sure you don’t want to come?” she asked awkwardly.

“No, I’m fine.” He tossed another stone into the water.

She started up the trail, then stopped and took a half step back towards him, looking like she wanted to say something more.

“Come on, Amber!” Morgan called.

The girl glanced in the direction they had gone, then back at Tormjere. She gave him an understanding smile before turning and hurrying into the woods.

Blackwolf took several eager bounds after her, then stopped when he realized Tormjere hadn’t moved. The dog whined as he watched her go.

Tormjere stood staring at the water. He was certain that he’d just missed something important, but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Now he was annoyed with himself, which served to dampen his mood even further. He tossed a final stone in disgust before retrieving his boots and heading in the opposite direction, towards home.

* * *

Missing out on fresh apples wasn’t the only reason Tormjere regretted not going with them. The next several days saw steady rains and heavy clouds that blocked the sun, and the temperature dropped steadily. In typical fall fashion, it made life cold, wet, and dark, and generally unenjoyable for everyone.

Finally, the weather broke. With no chores until the afternoon, Tormjere left home just as the first rays of sunlight shone into the valley. There was a dusting of snow on the peaks to the north, and he wanted to visit Watchman’s Overlook again before the rains turned to snow here as well. The morning air was clear and crisp. With Blackwolf in tow, he headed south up the mountain. The normally boisterous animal followed with only an occasional panted breath to mark his presence. Perhaps owing to his heritage, the dog was always quiet and alert in the woods. It suited Tormjere perfectly.

The forest was still waking up. The few remaining birds chirped as they searched for food, and the occasional small animal rustled the underbrush. Patches of mist clung to the sides of the mountain, and the pleasant smell of damp earth and leaves filled the cold air. Tormjere shivered, but it was a long climb and he knew he’d be warm enough once he got moving. His feet knew the way, and he quickly settled into a comfortable pace.

The path wound steadily upwards alongside one of the valley’s many creeks until it joined the road from the village at a point perhaps halfway up the mountain. The road itself was old, and rarely travelled. Now little more than a footpath, the remaining cobblestones were slippery from water and leaves. Tormjere followed it only briefly before turning west along a game trail. He’d set snares two days ago during a break in the weather and wanted to check them on the way up. It would be rockier and steeper than the old road, but they’d also be less likely to meet anyone else.

After a time, they came to the first pair of loop snares, set where several rabbit runs crossed the trail. One was empty, which wasn’t unexpected this late in the year. The other had clearly been tripped, but nothing remained except for a few tufts of fur. Tormjere suspected that one of the local foxes had made off with his rabbit, and he cursed the rain that had kept him away. After a pause to let Blackwolf sniff the area, they continued on their way.

It was a good distance to the third trap, which he’d placed slightly off the trail between a rock and fallen tree that made a natural funnel. Here he’d constructed a more complicated snare with some rope and a sapling bent over for tension, hoping to catch one of the large hares that lived higher up. Mountain hares could grow to the size of a small pig, and catching one would feed the family for days. It was Tormjere’s first such snare, as he’d only recently learned the technique from one of the trappers in town. He’d been quite pleased with himself when he managed to set it on only the third attempt.

He found this trap empty as well. The bait — a carrot from his mother’s garden — was still in place, and the area around it appeared undisturbed. Kneeling to check the tension, he realized that something was out of sorts. He’d been meticulous in following the trapper’s instructions, and mentally reviewed each step in the snare’s construction. As he checked the toggle stick, he found that it was pointed in the opposite direction than he thought he’d placed it. He was certain that the sharpened end had pointed towards the right, since he was right-handed and usually trimmed that end of whatever he was cutting.

He could think of no suitable explanation, short of some forest spirit playing games with him. Such a thing was not unheard of. He stood and looked around, but saw none of the tell-tale shimmers they left when flitting about. They rarely came out in the cold anyway, and he decided that he must have placed it that way by mistake.

They continued up the steepening trail, but the oddness of his discovery kept bringing him out of his daydreams.

Out of habit, he kept himself as quiet as his surroundings so as not to disturb any animals, a task made easier by the damp ground. It was peaceful this morning, with nothing but his own muffled footsteps to break the silence. He’d always been proud of how silent he could be. Once, he’d even managed to sneak up on some of the soldiers, though he’d gotten in quite a bit of trouble when he was found out. Today his only real concern was surprising a bear, but with Blackwolf at his side that was unlikely.

They were approaching the ridgeline, close to where the path rejoined the road above them, and nearly in sight of the Overlook, when Tormjere froze, gripped by a sudden, almost physical sense of wrongness ahead. Blackwolf came to an abrupt stop beside him, the dog’s ears and tail stiff as he sniffed the air.

Tormjere held his breath as a prickly sensation ran up his spine. His gaze darted back and forth, trying to find the source of the inexplicable feeling. Something was out of place, waiting ahead of them.

His sharp eyes followed the barely visible game trail from where they stood, up to where it rejoined the old road, then along the ridge before settling on a large pine perhaps forty paces away. He could neither see nor hear anything unusual, but every time his gaze swept that tree, the sensation returned — like running his hand along a smooth branch and finding a knot in the wood. It was an unsettling feeling he’d never experienced before, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. Whatever it was didn’t seem threatening, but he felt uneasy enough to reconsider going any further. Had his brother been with him, however, he would have kept walking without a second thought.

Great, I had to bring that up, didn’t I?

He’d avoided thinking of Eljorn for the entire morning and had been enjoying himself for a change. Now his good mood fled faster than a startled deer. His brother had always come with him to the Overlook this time of year to admire the changing leaves and dream of adventure and fame. But not anymore. Eljorn had left to follow his dream, while Tormjere remained where he’d always been.

He frowned at that, still rooted in the same spot but now thoroughly in a bad mood. It wasn’t even worth going to the Overlook any more — it would be a further reminder of what he no longer had.

He considered turning back, but they had made good time up the steep side of the mountain, and his legs demanded a rest. Having lost any desire to go either forwards or backwards, he slid behind a cluster of ferns and sat, glaring at the suspicious tree as if daring it to be anything other than what it appeared.

Blackwolf lay down against him, happy for the break. Tormjere appreciated the warmth. The sun was low in the sky this time of year and hadn’t yet reached the northern face of the mountain where they sat. Now that they’d stopped moving, he could feel the chill in the air creeping back in. Unbidden, an image of Eljorn sitting uncomfortably on a floor in a monastery appeared in his head. He grinned at the thought, wondering if his brother could ever replace his favorite rock. He shook his head and sighed.

What was he going to do without Eljorn? He should be doing something, really. It did no good to keep moping about, because nothing was going to change. But what could he do? Other than caring for dogs, he had no skills, and he certainly didn’t want to walk around in a robe worshiping something all day. Maybe he just needed more time for things to sort themselves out, and some opportunity would present itself.

He felt a softer, tingling sensation, similar to the first, but this time coming from over his shoulder. His head snapped around, but again there was nothing out of place. He watched suspiciously, listening as much as looking, before finally returning his attention to the odd tree. The longer he waited for it to cease being strange, the less concerned he became. It wasn’t as if it was going to sprout legs and chase after him. Trappers told stories about things like that happening, but he never believed them. Somewhere close by, a goose honked, but he couldn’t see it.

So many odd things today. All he’d wanted was a quiet walk to get away from everything — the “friends” that had more fun with Eljorn, his mother’s worried looks, all of it — if only for part of the day. The woods should have been normal, and these strange feelings didn’t help his mood in the slightest. He put his back against one of the many rocks jutting from the ground and stared at the tree, stubbornly determined to continue doing nothing until something became of it.

Eventually, Blackwolf began to fidget, and Tormjere worried that he might give away their position. He snorted dismissively at the thought. Give it away to who, exactly? It was hard to be mad at the dog, though. Blackwolf had probably never sat still for this long in his entire life. Tormjere took some food from a pouch on his belt and slipped it to the dog, who quieted again after the treat.

Tormjere looked up. The questionable tree hadn’t changed, but the sun now shone directly where they sat, making it uncomfortably warm. Bored of sitting, he started to rise when Blackwolf’s ears perked up and turned in the direction of the road. Tormjere returned to his seat, listening. A moment later he heard heavy footfalls and the muffled clink of metal. It had to be soldiers from the village making their rounds. They visited the Overlook once each day as part of their duties, although today they were earlier than usual. He crouched lower and placed a hand on Blackwolf to keep the dog still.

The road followed along the ridge no more than ten paces from where he sat, and Tormjere had a clear view of the three men who walked past. He was surprised to see that Sir Warron was one of them. Tormjere had passed the patrols often enough over the years and never once seen the knight with any of them.

The men walked past the suspect tree without pausing and disappeared towards the Overlook. Tormjere thought of going to meet them, for the captain sometimes made time for the town boys, but instead he remained hidden, wondering why he felt the need to be so cautious today.

It wasn’t long before Sir Warron and his men returned, heading back down the road at a rapid pace. Their footfalls faded into the distance, and the normal sounds of the forest returned. Tormjere frowned. They had passed the odd tree twice now but had given no indication that anything was amiss. So what was it about that tree that still seemed so out of place?

“You are persistent, aren’t you?” came a soft, slightly amused voice from close behind.

Tormjere almost jumped out of his skin. He scrambled up and drew his small knife. Blackwolf spun to face the sound, growling with his hackles raised. Little more than arm’s length away stood a stranger, dressed in the dirty and well-worn garb of a woodsman.

“Easy lad!” The man put up his hands to show he was holding no weapons, though a large hunting knife hung from his waist and a bow was strapped across his back. He was well built, with several days’ beard on his face, and had a casual air about him.

Tormjere relaxed. He lowered his own knife but didn’t return it to its sheath.

“You startled me,” he said, resting a hand on Blackwolf to keep him close.

The dog fell silent but remained distrustful.

“I had hoped you’d be on your way, but it’s apparent that you aren’t going anywhere soon. Why are you here?”

Tormjere frowned at him. “This is my valley,” he said, somewhat defensively. Then he added, with all the bravado he could muster, “And I haven’t seen you before, so why are you here?”

The man chuckled. “In truth ‘tis the King’s valley, and we are all here at his pleasure.”

The man didn’t seem like a brigand, but Tormjere had already worked out a likely escape route down the mountain, if it came to that.

“So you work for the King, do you?”

“I do.” The man glanced down at Blackwolf. “And shall I assume that you’re one of the Enrik boys?”

The question surprised Tormjere. He nodded slowly.

“Sir Warron made mention of you,” the man said. “Your dogs are known to us.”

“Us?”

“I am Loren, of the King’s Rangers.” He gave a slight bow. “And you are?”

“Tormjere.”

“Well, Tormjere, now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries, might you be so kind as to put away your weapon?” He maintained a friendly tone, but it wasn’t really a question.

Tormjere blushed and sheathed his knife. If the man was indeed one of the fabled Rangers, the small blade wouldn’t have helped in the least.

“Thank you,” Loren said. “Now, to business. You weren’t just daydreaming behind that bush half the morning. You were watching something. What was it?”

Tormjere hesitated, but he couldn’t think of any reason not to answer, save that it would undoubtedly seem foolish.

“There’s something odd about one of the trees.”

“An odd tree?” The question wasn’t mocking, but curious. Loren motioned up the trail. “Show me.”

Seeing little alternative, Tormjere turned up the trail and patted his hip. Blackwolf obeyed the command and trotted close beside. Loren fell in behind the pair. Tormjere remained uneasy about the man, but he felt in no immediate danger.

With all the excitement, the odd tree no longer looked or felt any different than it should, but Tormjere led them straight towards it anyway. Finding nothing unusual at the base, he looked up. Two eyes stared back down at him from within the branches.

Loren laughed.

“Ceris, you are found.”

The man hidden in the tree swore a sharp oath and nimbly descended. “Bah, must have seen me go up.” His weathered face frowned at Tormjere as he landed smoothly.

“Did you?” Loren asked Tormjere.

“No.” Tormjere shook his head. “I haven’t been here that long.”

Loren again looked amused. “I found you nearly an hour ago. Seems a long time to look at a tree.”

“I was thinking,” Tormjere said, not interested in discussing what his thoughts had been about. Something in Loren’s words made him pause, however.

“Was that your goose call, then? When you found me?”

Loren’s eyebrows shot up, and Ceris guffawed.

“That’s an impressive catch, boy,” Loren said. “What gave it away?”

“We haven’t seen a goose for many days now, and they usually leave the valley through the pass.” He waved his hand towards the east, where the ridgeline was considerably lower than where they stood. “Plus, as close as it sounded, I should have heard it go by. Geese are large birds, and you can always hear their wings flap when they’re near.”

Loren looked impressed. “And what else out of place did you notice this morning?” He shared a quick look with Ceris. “Think of everything.”

No one had ever shown any interest in his skills, and though he did his best to hide it, he was flustered by the sudden attention.

“Well, Sir Warron never comes up here, plus the patrol was earlier than usual.”

Loren nodded again, which Tormjere took as permission to continue.

“The woods seem a little quieter than normal — nothing specific really. And…” He trailed off, not sure if he should mention it or not.

“Go on,” Loren prompted.

“It may sound silly, but something was wrong with my snare.” Tormjere gestured back down the mountain.

“Here, now!” Ceris protested. “I put that back like it was.”

“It was different,” Tormjere said. “I knew it!”

“Only because it was dark,” Ceris said defensively.

“What was different about it?” Loren asked, studying him carefully again.

“The toggle stick was backwards.”

Ceris made an exasperated noise and turned to Loren. “I’m going to sweep before we go — before this one figures out anything else.”

“Why would he reset it?” Tormjere asked, as Ceris stumped up the trail, muttering under his breath.

Loren gave Tormjere a hard look that made him feel uncomfortable, then waved the question aside.

“It’s good practice to always leave things exactly as you found them,” Loren said. “All Rangers are taught this.”

“I thought I was just imagining things.”

“Indeed,” Loren replied, “but you’ve noticed many things today that most would not.”

Tormjere was pleased that he’d impressed the man, but he was getting tired of the questions, and wanted to get on with his day. He glanced up the trail, wondering how best to leave without being rude.

Loren noticed the look. “Were you headed to the Overlook?”

Tormjere hesitated before nodding; there wasn’t anywhere else up here to go.

“Come,” Loren said. “I’ll walk with you.”

Tormjere wasn’t the least bit happy about that, but felt trapped by the offer. He had no idea why Loren was so interested in him right now, but his quiet, solitary morning was not at all going as he had planned.

They walked over the last hump of the ridge and into a rocky area clear of trees. Tormjere continued across the clearing towards a round stone platform without walls, the only remnant of an ancient tower that had once stood watch over the lands below.

Ceris was kneeling nearby, and as Tormjere passed the Ranger, he saw a patch of earth that might have recently had markings on it. He gave no indication that he’d noticed, and climbed the few worn steps and stood atop the crumbling fortification. The cold wind that constantly blew across the ridge cut through his clothes, but Tormjere welcomed the chill.

Loren held back to have a hushed conversation with Ceris, then returned to stand beside Tormjere. Blackwolf had decided that Ceris was worthy of attention and followed excitedly, with his tail wagging, as the man checked various spots on the ground. The attention clearly annoyed the woodsman but made Loren grin.

Tormjere turned his gaze out to the spectacular view. From here, the rounded peaks of the Aldantan mountain range turned more west than south, and the rocky outcropping upon which they stood provided a view to the horizon in almost every direction. Many leaves were already on the ground, but the season’s colors remained like a quilt laid across the hills. His eyes followed the Merallin River as it ran down the foothills and through forests to the plains beyond. According to tales, it flowed all the way past the King’s city of the same name and into the ocean, where large ships sailed. Many a childhood fantasy had seen the brothers following the river’s sparkling waters to riches and glory.

Loren engaged him in idle conversation about the family business. Tormjere answered politely, as he might speak with a potential customer, but judged he was being kept away from something, and his answers lacked the enthusiasm he usually showed when talking about his dogs. To the southwest, a line of storm clouds hugged the horizon, and he knew that they would have more rain by the next day.

“It has been most interesting to meet you, Tormjere Enrik,” Loren said, “but now we must be away.”

Ceris was already heading down the mountain away from the cove, but Loren stepped close to Tormjere and lowered his voice.

“Best not to mention our meeting to anyone, not your friends, parents, Sir Warron — anyone.” The look Loren gave him was serious, not threatening, and Tormjere knew it must be important but couldn’t imagine why.

He met the Ranger’s eyes and nodded.

With a quick smile, Loren turned and followed his companion into the woods. Tormjere watched him depart, impressed at how easily they disappeared into the trees.

Blackwolf returned to his side and licked at his hand, demanding attention. Tormjere knelt and stroked the dog’s back, looking around the clearing. Had he not just seen the two men, he’d never have known they had been here.

The sun was now past its midpoint, and Tormjere knew he’d be late getting home. He stood and took one last look across the mountains before heading back down the same path he had used earlier.

He came to where he’d sat while watching the tree, and stopped to study it with a newly critical eye. He was familiar with reading the usual signs in the woods — like knowing an animal by its paw prints — but had never studied people in the same way. Looking at the spot now it was easy to tell that a person and small animal had been there, although he could find no trace of where Loren had crept up on him. For fun, he quickly disguised the area before hurrying down the trail, with Blackwolf trotting close behind.

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