A little secret the Hunter had not shared with anyone for the last ten years was that he quite liked snow and the winter time. Cool weather kept him awake and alert, even though it was often hard to withstand, while everything turned white and soothing. Even noises dulled. A watchful peace descended every year and sometimes he even found a chance to enjoy it.
This, alas, was not one of those moments.
He huffed, pulling the girl’s body down from his sled. She was heavier than he expected, she must hide a lot of muscle even under that lean look. And as Spirits would have it, she was still asleep. Not stunned, as the trails of dried tears tracing her cheeks showed, she must have awakened at some point, but had quickly fallen back into slumber. They were both weary.
Though he did manage to find a river that had yet to completely freeze over and thus washed off most of the Eerie’s black ichor, he still smelled like charred flesh.
And as the continuous moaning and singing signaled, they were alone no more. He had pulled in at a crossroad, beneath a long-abandoned bridge that it had must been connecting two highways, not unlike the one he had found those iron prospectors’ corpses at. A bit ominous, but the iron contained through the pylons would allow for some further degree of protection.
First things first, though, he placed the girl against the nearest pylon, tying her to the protruding metal beams, securing her arms and legs. She had sharp teeth, but even if she managed to gnaw through common rope, he had all the time to see it. For the night, he’d use metal clasps. This way she’d also not injure herself if she twisted and turned in her sleep.
It was just the logical thing to do.
And with her foot in that condition, she wasn’t going far.
Her skin was now swollen, a dark grey and taut on the side of her foot.
He was, after all, in no haste to help her.
So he left her like that and went to ready their further defenses. Not far from the bridge, the rivulets of marching Fae, with their dissonant songs and chants passed around, like water dividing when it comes against a huge boulder in a river. Yet, some of the tallest and largest among that dark procession turned their glassy eyes at him, and between the horns spreading from their heads he saw pale flames burn, corpse-light torches that sent wavering shadows even in the middle of the day. They did not slow down for him, minding for the time being their own business. But his skin ached with the awareness that he had performed his blood offer nine days prior, back when he had expected he’d only need a three or four to find the girl and bring her home.
And they were on the run from another group of Venators, or probably something even worse. Sleeping was going to be a fun affair.
And yet: once again, he reminded himself to face a problem at a time.
Using his knife he cut the side of his hand and proceeded to trace a large circle at about twelve paces distance from the sled and the girl, making a drop fall for every step. When he came back, the river of Fae did not look at him anymore, not even occasionally. A further lay of protection, at least for the time being. They’d have to move for the night, though… and that meant either cut through the old road that went from abandoned town to abandoned town, or try to follow the trail.
“What a mess…” he commented, scratching his chin. His right eye still ached, and his body had seen too much spellcasting in the last few days for it to be unaffected. He needed sleep, bread, a lot of meat, and a prayer or two. And if he got lucky, maybe even a nice girl to tend to his other needs. Not that the forest was known for that type of merchandise to pop up, not to mention this late in the year.
So he only had to wait a little for the Tide so subside, maybe get a quick rest while the girl also slept. Not much, an hour, at most. This way maybe he’d be able to drive for the next ten hours and not fall asleep at the reins.
He sat down besides the sled, threw a blanket over his body and tossed a look at the girl. She was still asleep, still peaceful, and still tied up.
He shut his eyes for a few moments, but no matter what, the far-off chanting and the thought he shouldn’t be wasting time like that now, especially not in such a place, kept him from getting any rest.
How infuriating. His mind knew he was supposed to sleep a little in order to feel better, his body knew as much, and yet the two failed to work together. Not the first time it had happened. She used to be so understanding in moments like these. Her words would be so soothing.
Yet another bad habit. He was supposed to let go, wasn’t he? One day he’d throw it all in the trash, he decided right then and there: he’d get rid of all their old stuff, the clothing, the books, the notes, the vials of holy water he still kept in his cottage just outside Belacqua… everything.
He had to stop living in the past, and this job, this final job was just for that: to stop gnawing on his own heart and face the future.
Give her some peace.
He wasn’t happy about forcing Elissa into it, but she had to obey an order by her superior. If Verna had promised him, she must know it wouldn’t hurt her.
He was sure.
But, yes, he decided he’d just live in the future. He’d… go somewhere. Maybe leave Belacqua and the wild for a while. He used to dream about sailing on the Bittersea, maybe reach the southern shores of the country. They said that the Queen of Thorns’ graps was a little lighter on the south-east, far away from Trinacria and the dark heart of the forest. He’d have to sail for a week or so, but it would be nice. He could see himself, finally free, looking up at the stars and feeling… feeling…
… feeling something.
He was sure he’d feel relief. Knowing he finally paid his debt to Lenora.
For the time being, he could still enjoy her old notes. Just a little bit. He had done for so long…
He licked his lips. After all, he’d sell the girl in a few days. And if he had promised himself to throw away…no, burn! Burning was a much better solution. Yes, he’d burn her old notes and her old diaries as a final note on her passing, a celebration. She would finally be free. So, he’d burn them.
Hence: it made sense for him to read them all back-to-back, starting now.
He rummaged through the lockers in the deepest parts of his sled, picking out her oldest diaries. Some of these even came back her time as a Novice, but he wasn’t interested in reading endless drivel on how queasy young Verna made her feel.
He opened one marked with the start of her first year as the town’s Vestal. She wasn’t yet an Augur, but she had already caught his eye. He opened a page close to the first third of the book.
I have seen him again. That man is annoying! He comes at every sermon, at every blessing, and I know without need for Sight that he’s the last person in need of such services in the whole town! I wish he’d just went on some journey far away, and he did not bother me again! I’m going to pray to be left alone from now on. Maybe I can ask Verna to give me a hand…
He let out a chuckle. Nowadays it felt bittersweet to read her intimate thoughts like that, and he remembered the first time she had revealed how at first she felt nothing but annoyance at his presence, how she turned all red with embarrassment – just a stroke of good luck he had been too stubborn (or too lovestruck) to read any of those signs, back then.
Something caught his eye.
A lonely figure stood amidst the walking procession.
It was the Fae with its face twisted back on his shoulders, the same that had tried to scare him a few days before.
But this time it was not just looking at him. It was grinning, and its mouth looked like a sickle filled with needles.
Ah, if it isn’t the very thread of faith that makes us meet again, trespasser.
He came back to his reading. It couldn’t harm him nor the girl and thanks to his protective circle couldn’t even touch him with a ten-paces-long stick.
Do you feel safe? Do you think your spells and your blood and your tricks will protect you for long?
“I seem to be doing fine,” he huffed. A glance at the girl. Still asleep. He’d probably have to get her something to eat. What did Verna put on her plate?
And yet you hold the poisoned needle with your own hands. Aren’t those interesting diaries?
That made him stop. He stood up, closing the notebook and facing the Fae, still grinning.
“None of your business.” He picked up his rifle. “Now, I’d like to read in peace.”
I’m sure she’s going to be touched.
Something cold gripped his stomach.
It must be bluffing. One of those Fae tricks.
He had killed her again just a few months before, she couldn’t…
This year’s Tide is truly awe-inspiring… Hunter. I’m sure she who waits at the other end of that thread is going to be delighted you kept her in your thoughts for so long.
He trained the rifle at the Fae.
The coward let out a cruel laugh and disappeared amidst the throng.
He gnawed on his lip. Just when he thought he had a little time…
It must be a lie.
She wasn’t supposed to wake up again for the entirety of winter! He had made sure she’d stay dead for a while now!
But the words of the Fae sizzled in his heart, burning it with red-hot doubt and cool fear.
And he took a decision.
Putting everything back together, he untied the girl and put her back on the sled.
“Uhhh?” She mumbled. Her eyelids fluttered.
Spirits, of course, of all moments, she was picking now to wake up!
He did not have time. He tied her back, gagged her even as she woke up, trying to bite down on his fingers.
“This is not the time, little lady,” he replied, jumping on the sled, revving up the motor and leaving the relative safety of the bridge behind, ignoring her protests.
From time to time, he kept looking back.
As if he expected a familiar, gaunt face to look back on him, upside down, its mouth opened in a mute scream, its charred eyes accusatory.
But there was nothing there – yet – just the grey trees throbbing with their coat of red sap, as it spread to cover their needles and speak new life into the winter forest, just the endless procession of Fae, just snowflakes and shining white clouds.
And nothing else.
Pic by mordent
Author’s Note: I think this was yet another of those hard chapters. it started out really slow but I think it picked up pace as I went and it turned out pretty chunky overall. I hope you liked it, as I want to show the Hunter’s memories bit by bit. Together with the whole deal about the Sere Rite and the subject of this mysterious ritual. I hope the story manages to keep you company and give you some pleasant, intriguing moments each day. Also this is the first time the update number is different from the day of the month (hey, why did you think I started in February? Easy Mode!), so I’ll probably get much more confused from now on. All in all thank you for reading. See you tomorrow.