The northern forest of Astrasia went on forever.
Owen knew the maps almost as well as Charlie had done, but a full night on an unknown path with no sense of direction proved that maps were one thing, and the land quite another. The forest was alive with the howls of distant wolf packs, and some not so distant.
The mystery of his brother’s final moments plagued Owen’s mind as he trudged southwards for hours on end. Death had never felt more threatening, and he knew a good part of his life had been ripped out of him. All future matters of hope and joy were poisoned by what he had witnessed, and what he had been instructed to do.
“You must be the one to spread the word. The wendigos have returned.”
Owen thought of Dave’s final words repeatedly as the night went on. He knew he had to defeat the forest and give purpose to his brother’s death.
“Could I have fought harder? Why was I so weak to the cold?” Owen wondered, trying to make sense of it all. He sensed his mind now played tricks on him. At one point in the night, he thought he could smell the scent of smoke as it disappeared into the night sky, but it was only a hallucination. When morning arrived, his face was sunken and haunted, his mind cold and empty.
Owen battled through a tall wall of thorn bushes and suddenly found himself at the edge of the forest. He looked out onto a muddy road he had walked before. The watcher’s road was just beyond Northend, which Owen could vaguely make out in the distance. The cold had made his vision hazy and weak. West of the road were hills of heather covered in snow, with tall watchtowers amongst the bushes. To the east the land turned into mountains, cold grey giants with jagged headlands and snow on their shoulders. When the wind blew from the north, large plumes of ice and snow flew from high peaks onto sharply dipping rocks. Parts of the mountains were hidden by the clouds.
Owen turned around and looked at what he had escaped. The forest of pine and evergreen was older, darker and more dangerous than any man of the south had ever seen. You could see it for miles off, a deep green line across the northern horizon, stretching away to the east and west before vanishing in the distance, vast and unbroken. This truly was the end of Astrasia, where no man was supposed to go. Owen knew he was lucky to be alive.
He stepped onto the watcher’s road and made the final descent back to base camp, where he’d arrive at the fiery gates of Northend. The sun was trying to break through the clouds and Owen loved it when sunlight slapped him in the face. He kept his head down and focused on every step. When he decided to look up, he lifted his eyes to the one-hundred-foot outer wall of granite that bordered Northend. It was bright and crystalline in the sunlight. In his time at Northend, he had come to hate this wall which kept the glorious sights of northern Astrasia out of view. Now Owen had a new affection towards it, for it gave him safety and security. Centuries of wind-blown dirt had pocked and scoured it, and it often seemed pale grey like the colour of an overcast sky, but when the sun caught it on a day like today, it shone, alive with luxuriant deep orange, grey and blue light.
Owen walked east a little and arrived at the fiery gates, a tall wooden structure made up of heavy pine logs, held together by thick strips of metal. Large, blazing torches arched over the gate like a rainbow. Beyond it, past the wide moat Owen could see the crenelated inner wall of granite. Guard towers and over thirty watch turrets dominated his view. He could make out two guards dressed in grey at the narrow tunnel that stretched halfway around Northend. The older and taller of the two was a recently promoted commander called Garen Bree. He was a highly honoured servant of the realm, but only payed respect and attention to those in high command. Owen waved his hands in the air and watched his fellow watchers cross the stone bridge. Over their heads flapped the banners bearing the crest of Northend; a brown stag racing across a field of snow.
“I am a watcher of Astrasia,” Owen managed to say.
Garen gave Owen a bewildered stare as he failed to recognize him. “Piss off boy! Head back down south where you belong.”
“I need to see Lord Stronghold,” pleaded Owen, falling to his knees.
Garen turned to his young companion and whispered a few words. “Where is your commander?” he eventually asked.
“Dead,” Owen replied softly, before fainting face first onto the dry snow.
Garen turned to his companion. “Will, find Lord Stronghold and ask him about last night’s missions,” he said, fetching the keys that opened the fiery gates. “I’ll take this one to the infirmary.”
Will raced through the dark tunnel and began dashing through drifts of old snow. He was quickly stopped in his tracks when a passing watcher grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him back.
“Where you off to? Why aren't you at your post?” asked Commander Edmund Dane, second in command at Northend, under Lord Stronghold. He was a fierce looking man, with long, messy black hair and a large scar across his face that stretched down to his neck.
“To see Lord Stronghold,” replied Will at once. “A lost man has turned up at the gates demanding to speak to him.”
“What’s his name?” asked Edmund. “Did he tell you his name?”
“He fainted before Commander Garen could ask,” said Will.
Edmund murmured to himself before sending Will on his way.
After meandered his way out the tunnel, Will entered one of the many courtyards of Northend. Much of it was used for baking and cooking, but stalls and tables dedicated to weapons training were scattered around the muddy land. The most popular area was the armoury, located at the base of the north tower.
This was the heart of Northend and the rightful place for its leader to be found. Will climbed the steps to Lord Strongholds hut which overlooked the courtyard on hefty wooden stilts. He reached the landing and could hear snow swirling through the castle gates, and the courtyard was all chaos and noise. When he approached the arching wooden door of the hut, he took a breath and knocked firmly. There was no response, so he knocked again and slowly opened the door.
Lord Baynard Stronghold lay in his warm bed that early morning. He was a short, gruff old man and high tempered with a loud and commanding voice. His head was bald, but his beard was long with growing streaks of grey. He tilted his head on his pillow and looked at Will standing in the doorway.
“Lord Stronghold,” he heard.
“Will, what are you playing at?” roared Baynard, lifting his body out of bed.
“I’m sorry Lord Stronghold,” replied Will, stepping into the hut and escaping the cold. “There’s someone at the gates. He claims his commander is dead.”
Baynard’s eyes darted from side to side as he flung on his cloak and hopped into his black boots.
“Where is he now?” asked Baynard, rising.
“Commander Garen has taken him to the infirmary,” answered Will. “He is sick from the cold.”
“When did he arrive?” asked Baynard, devouring a loaf of bread.
“Just now,” replied Will, who was looking worried, and understandably so.
Will Harring, a young, but talented navigator was still in his first year serving as a watcher of Astrasia. Unlike most of his friends, he volunteered to serve and protect the realm. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, blue-eyed and graceful. His skill with sword was weak, but his confidence and ability with words and figures was unmatched in Northend. Nobody within the tall granite walls of base camp read as well as he did, nor did they write as proficiently. Will’s father’s success as a banker in the south awarded him a good and rare education, and for that he was grateful. Every watcher of Astrasia was trained to obey orders for even the most unconscionable acts, but Will wasn’t like that. He had a gentleness about him that didn’t go unnoticed.
“Come,” said Baynard, picking up an unlocked brown book from his bedside table. “Let’s find out who this is.”
Will followed Baynard down to the courtyard and through a wrought, iron gate into a compound of cottages with warm lights behind thick, red curtains. Chimneys were blowing thick black smoke into the morning sky. They turned west and entered a long and narrow corridor with arched doors facing each other. Every room had a bed and cupboard of medical supplies that ranged from plant herbs, to a variety of potions and remedies. This was the infirmary and its conditions were as sanitized as Northend could offer.
“Lady Sarah!” Baynard called out.
An old woman appeared from the nearest room. She wore a white apron; clean slippers and her hair was wrapped up into a tight bun.
“He’s just arrived,” said Lady Sarah, who knew what this was all about. “My goodness is this one bad. I’ve not seen anything like it Baynard.”
Lady Sarah was in her fortieth year as head of the infirmary. She had arrived at Northend in the very same winter as Baynard; and knew better than anybody what the cruel weather conditions of northern Astrasia could do to the body.
Will thought it odd that Lady Sarah referred to Lord Stronghold by his first name, but that always seemed to be the case with old friends of the north.
“Have you identified him yet?” asked Baynard, walking at Lady Sarah’s side down the long corridor. Will followed closely behind and listened.
“No, I can’t say I recognized him,” said Lady Sarah, opening the last door on the left. “He’s young Baynard, very young.”
Baynard and Will entered the dingy, bright room. Cool air streamed through a cracked window above a wrought iron bed. The revolting smell of rotting flesh forced Baynard and Will covered their mouths.
“It’s quite bad,” said Lady Sarah, tightening the straps of her apron. “Who is he Baynard?”
Baynard looked down at the bed and saw Owen lying there unconscious. He paused for a moment and his eyes shifting from side to side as the magnitude of regret overwhelmed him.
“This is Owen Kane, bright young lad,” Baynard replied.
Baynard had trained Owen himself to map the woods of the north, but this was not the Owen he remembered. The flesh had all gone from him. His skin stretched tight over bones like twigs. Under the heavy blankets, his arms were bloody and grey. His fingers were frostbitten in ways that made Baynard sick. There was no doubt that death had a firm grasp on Owen. Yet under his icy ribs, his chest rose and fell with each shallow breath.
Baynard handed Will the book from his bedside cabinet and said, “Check the archives from last night. I want to know who was on Owen’s mission.”
Will took the book and placed it flat on the table. The archive of Northend was a book every watchers life depended on. Its pages detailed the names of every watcher, when they were out on missions, and more importantly, when they returned. It also contained information on food stocks, weapons inventory, and the number of whisky barrels that remained in the deep cellar.
Will removed the unlocked chain and opened the book about halfway through. This wasn’t his first interaction with the archive. He ran his finger down the page and read the entries from the night before.
“Scouting mission left at nine o’clock last night, Lord Stronghold. It was assisted by brothers Dave and Owen Kane. The mission was led by…”
Will paused and found himself unable to read the words that followed. Baynard turned his eyes away from Owen and looked at Will. He could see the young watcher’s cheeks were red from the cold, and his face filled with remorse.
“Who led the mission?” Baynard asked.
“Commander Charlie Davis,” Will answered, before closing the book shut.
Everyone, even Will, who was as young and inexperienced as they came knew that Lord Stronghold and Commander Charlie Davis had been close friends since their efforts in the war.
“Charlie,” Baynard said. “Nobody’s seen him about this morning?”
“Not that I know of,” replied Lady Sarah, who knew this was hard for Baynard to swallow. “He may return later today you never know. It’s strange for someone who knows the terrain as well as Charlie does not to turn up, but it has happened in the past.”
Baynard could feed the tears rolling down his cheek. He was the Lord of Northend and was supposed to show wisdom, bravery, and above all, strength. He no longer cared.
“Has Owen been fed?” Baynard asked.
“I’ve poured warm honey and water down his throat,” replied Lady Sarah, lifting Owen’s head further up his pillow. “I added herbs to battle the cold, but that’s all I could give him.”
“Very well,” said Baynard, wiping his cheeks clean. “Owen is your priority now Lady Sarah, I trust you know that. Are you hopeful?”
Lady Sarah nodded.
“He needs to be up and talking as soon as possible. I want to know what went on in those damned woods last night,” said Baynard, who took a glance out the window before turning to Will. “Tell the cook to bring me some meat from the kitchen to my study. Then send for Commander Garen and Edmund. I wish to speak with them both.”
Will disappeared down the corridor and into the busy courtyard.
Baynard arrived at his chambers shortly after and found a hot, cheerful meal laid out on his table. His private study was a warm, cosy room complete with leather furniture and an ample fireplace in the corner. On the walls were shelves of previous archives over the years, and large maps of Astrasia’s cities, villages, forests and coasts. Beside Bayard’s desk were his weapons which rested on wooden hooks. There were daggers, spears, arrows and shields, but the most valuable of all was Stormrazor, sword of the north. It was a good half a foot longer than a standard steel longsword, tapered to thrust and slash. There were three fullers incised into the blade to reduce weight, and the grip was made with fine, black leather. It had belonged to every previous lord of Northend and was forged with the finest and most precious Astrasian steel, galadium.
Garen and Edmund sat at the end of Baynard’s desk, talking in low, hushed voices. They had already begun eating and watched Baynard sit down at his desk and fill his plate with bacon.
“I see you’ve helped yourselves,” said Baynard, glaring at Garen. “What did Owen tell you at the gates?”
Garen peered at him with an expression of sorrow. “That his commander is dead.”
Baynard sighed and put his plate down. “It was Charlie who went out with him last night.”
Baynard saw Garen’s face drop and the magnitude of loss swept over them both.
“You know as well as I do, the archives never lie,” said Baynard.
“The boy doesn’t know what he saw. Our Charlie would never let the forest take him,” Edmund said with a lazy smile.
There was very little that Edmund took seriously. Both Baynard and Garen knew that about him, and they forgave him.
Garen spoke up. “Will the boy die?”
“I’ve just been to the infirmary,” Baynard announced. “Lady Sarah believes she can help him, before the gods claim his life.”
Baynard ripped off a chunk of brown bread.
Edmund was studying him wearily. “You’re not taking this seriously, are you?”
Baynard shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “We get travellers begging for their lives beyond the fiery gates every month or so, and normally I wouldn’t care, but this is different. This time, it was one of our own.”
He took a sip of beer and a shared a glance with Garen who shuddered.
“What do you think this is all about?” Garen asked. “I spoke to Charlie right before he left. This was only scouting mission, nothing more. A simple task.”
Baynard reached for his bacon, which crunched when he bit into it. “I know, and this is Charlie we’re speaking of. He knows these parts better than I do.”
“The weather was bad yesterday,” Garen reminded them. “It awakens all matters of darkness in these forests.”
“The cold was cruel last night, I remember,” Baynard agreed. “Either that claimed Charlie’s life, or something else did.”
An eerie silence filled the room and all three continued to eat their breakfast.
“What of Owen’s brother, Dave?” Edmund eventually asked.
“He was also on the mission,” Baynard said. Then he frowned. “He has yet to return. All we can do now is wait for Owen to wake. If the gods stop their pursuit, I’ll be very interested to hear what he has to say.”
Baynard filled his mouth with meat and bread. He took a swallow of strong beer to wash it all down, as the uncertainty of the situation looped around his mind.
Owen woke up more than a day later and Baynard and the commanders of Northend were called to his side by Lady Sarah at once.
Fifteen men and a nurse surrounded Owen in his bed as if he were a warm campfire. His eyes were open, and he stared solely at the ceiling. The wind was rising, and he could hear its loud whistles.
Baynard was the only one that spoke, but he did so calmly, giving time to every word. “Owen,” he began, sitting at the end of the bedstead. “What happened to you?”
Owen swallowed and spoke in a frail, hushed voice. “You must be the one to spread the word. The word, the word, the word,” he stammered.
It was clear to everyone, especially the ones who knew Owen, that he had become a damaged man.
“What word? Who told you to spread the word?” Baynard continued. “Was it commander Charlie? Was it your brother, Dave?”
Owen directed his eyes to Baynard and began screaming at the top of his lungs. His arms were flailing from side to side, and Lady Sarah and Commander Edmund were forced to restrain him.
“Where is commander Charlie?” said Baynard, standing up.
“Dead!” shouted Owen, tears streaming from his eyes.
Lady Sarah opened a shelf with flasks and beakers of different shapes and sizes. She uncapped a small one containing a thin, golden liquid and forced a few drops down Owen’s mouth. Within seconds the redness in his face subsided and his muscles became relaxed. An unexplainable feeling on concentration grew under him.
“Tell us what happened,” said Baynard. “Tell us everything.”
“We were lost,” Owen began, pointing to a loaf of bread another nurse had brought to the infirmary.
Everyone watched Owen devour the loaf whole. He then started on a warm mug of beer and drank it all in one go. It was a few minutes before he started to talk again.
“We went uphill,” Owen continued quietly. “There was a lost village, abandoned. Neither of us knew of it from the maps, and Charlie expressed his concern.”
“Concern?” said Edmund who was standing beside Owen.
“Of bone fever,” Owen answered.
The glance that passed between Baynard and Lady Sarah lasted no more than a second, but Owen did not miss it.
“Wendigos,” said Baynard. “But wendigos haven’t been seen in these parts for three decades at least.”
“They’ve returned,” Owen said, before coughing heavily. “They cut commander Charlies body to pieces. Dave fought off the pack as I escaped.”
“How many were there?” asked Baynard.
“Twenty or so,” replied Owen, scratching the base of his neck. His eyes were starting to well again. “They made the air feel so much colder than it was.”
Then, Owen felt his chest tighten into a knot like a cramp. His throat was agony and the undigested food was ejected from his stomach. Very quickly pus started to flood through his eyes as he began drooling blood. There was nothing anyone could do. Lady Sarah rushed for a knife to clear Owen’s throat, but it was too late. Within seconds, he was dead.
Baynard stepped back and turned to Lady Sarah, who began examining Owen’s lifeless body. She lifted the covers to expose his leg, and everyone saw. The skin was grey and rotting away. Fragile bits of bone had broken through his flesh, which was quickly turning black.
“He’s caught bone fever!” Lady Sarah announced. “Out, all of you!”
Every nurse, knight and commander in the room covered their mouths and left the infirmary immediately.
“Lady Sarah,” said Baynard, who was the last to leave. “Burn the body right away.”
Lady Sarah nodded and locked the door shut. Baynard left the infirmary and stepped out into the cool, brisk courtyard. He turned to Will, who was awaiting further orders. “Write up the plans for a funeral. Grant the Dave, Owen and Charlie with honours of bravery and send word to their families,” he said. “Then prepare the horses in the stable. I must travel south to Highcrest. I will not have the king read about the return of the wendigos in a letter. I must tell him myself.”