Constin Sal Tamind wiped sweat from his brow using the back of his hand. He gave thought to cutting his hair that sat just inches above his shoulders. Over the last several hot days, he’d had such thoughts.
He ran his hand through his sweaty, gray hair, wishing for a breeze. Shaking his head, he thought back to when his hair had been black with it graying on the sides. Now, he was certain there wasn’t a black hair on his head. Over the last few years, he had blamed the premature graying on the time when Olesa had been in the custody of the elves.
His look grew distant. Constin missed Draikin and his heart still longed and ached for Vilight. It always would. Most days it ate at him that he had never told her he loved her.
The people he traveled with now had stopped off the side of the road, leading them south. Constin looked toward them. His gray hair made him appear at least fifteen years older than he was. It had been confirmed when the two newest members of the group had told him he was in great shape for a fifty-year-old.
A small smile came to him. Even if he wasn’t fifty years old, he was the oldest member of the group. The closest to him in age was a man named Ruon.
Ruon was a tall, thin man, bald by choice, with a hawk-like nose and beady brown eyes. According to Ruon, he knew the area better than anyone. Constin still wasn’t certain about that. The man’s narrow, pinched face seemed to sink in on itself every time he sucked on the end of his polished, red pipe. Constin was surprised the man’s clothes weren’t stained with smoke. Ruon reeked of it, even after bathing. Just thinking about the smell made Constin curl his lips in disgust.
Ruon, wearing his customary red shirt and pants, sat in the driver’s seat of the carriage carrying their supplies. Sitting behind him was his younger brother, H’laf. Upon hiring Ruon, Constin had learned the two went everywhere together, sharing a strong brotherly bond.
The younger brother had the same nose, but that was the only similarity the two shared. H’laf still had his hair, which was blonde and curly. His eyes were blue and his skin was paler. The man’s round face and hefty build helped make him look the polar opposite of his brother. Constin had a feeling H’laf didn’t enjoy the smell of his brother’s pipe either. He often found the man wrinkling his nose.
Nebran Grayle was the man who’d been traveling with them for the longest. He was a former guard for the city, Birt. He had witnessed everything during the fight. The young man was barely twenty with short, brownish-blonde hair. His deep blue eyes lingered on everything as if analyzing it. Being a guard had toned his body. The sword he wore hung easily from his hip.
Nebran’s usual attire was a drab, gray shirt with a chainmail shirt over it and black pants. He usually walked behind the group to ensure nothing surprised them. The young man swore they were being followed. There was never evidence of it though. They had been traveling together for over a year now without incident.
Constin’s gaze moved to his daughter. She insisted on walking in front. Sometimes, she scouted the road ahead. Olesa Tamind was the smallest and fastest of the group. Scout was a natural position for her, but it was one Constin didn’t want her to have. There were times he lost sight of her. Each time he did, his heart raced and he’d scan the area frantically for her. Usually, she’d appear behind them.
Over the last year, every time he looked at his daughter, he sighed. At the age of ten, her once long, blonde hair was now short and black. She had dyed her hair about a month after the death of her werewolf protector and a woman who’d been like her mother. Olesa had also taken to wearing leather armor, dyed black as well. She had never said anything, having taken the deaths of Vilight and Draikin stoically. Despite this, Constin knew this look of hers was a way of showing she mourned their loss, even if she couldn’t admit it to him or herself.
Constin smiled as he remembered when the others had first met her. Since her small frame lacked womanly curves, all but Nebran, had thought her a boy. He remembered how indignant she had been.
Her appearance didn’t worry him as much as the bow. It seemed to never leave her side. Whereas the bow was small enough for her to use with ease, it was still powerful enough to pin a man to a tree. Every day she never had to use it in such a way made him grateful. The girl also wore two quivers, one hung off her hip and the other across her back.
Ruon and H’laf once remarked they had never seen her use any of the ten arrows on her back. It wasn’t until that day did Constin realize how closely they watched his daughter. After that, he watched the two more carefully.
When they had asked her directly about the arrows, Olesa refused to give them an answer. Constin shrugged when they turned to him for answers. He knew those ten arrows were what was left from the arrows that had killed Draikin. They didn’t need to know it.
“I know I ask every day,” Ruon said, “but are you ever going to find me something to track?” He asked loud enough so everyone could hear, pulling Constin from his thoughts. “Or at least tell me what I’m supposed to be tracking?”
Constin rolled his eyes, shaking his head. For what seemed like the thousandth time since they’d met the two brothers, he wished Draikin was here.
The former Elder Priest looked toward Ruon. He hadn’t told the brothers what they were looking for. He wasn’t about to either. That mistake had been made on the man tracking for them before Ruon.
The man had screamed at him, wild-eyed, calling him horrible names. He had even attempted to make the city guards of Exode come after him. He claimed he was endangering the life of a small child. Despite the guards not believing the man anyone would willingly track werewolves, they wouldn’t be returning any time soon. He couldn’t risk it. All it took was for one person to believe.
Constin stared at the road stretched out before them, trying to think of a suitable answer for the man. Not for the first time, he wondered if this quest of theirs was too dangerous for him to bring Olesa along. Just the thought of leaving her behind always made him laugh. Even had he wanted to, she wouldn’t have allowed it. She would have snuck away and joined them. This had been her idea. He liked to think of it as her calling.
“Helloooo,” Ruon called from the carriage. He leaned around it to stare at him.
Constin met the man’s beady, brown eyes, trying to make his annoyance known. It was more difficult after he heard his daughter.
“Idiot,” Olesa muttered, walking away.
“We’re traveling south,” Constin answered.
H’laf, the portly man, raised his brow and snorted. “You need a tracker to help find south for you?”
“Of course not.” Constin shook his head, sighing. “I’m not an idiot.” The priest looked at both of them. “I am well aware of the dangers out this way and thought having a person who could read tracks, and I mean all kinds of tracks, would be good to have around. That way we can go in the opposite direction when dangerous tracks show up.”
Constin knew the excuse was thin, but he hoped it would do for now. He hoped, at the very least, it would make them stop questioning things for a while.
“Well,” Ruon said, slowly, eyeing the former Elder Priest. “As I’m sure you know we’ve been officially in the Hunting Grounds for five days now.” The tall, thin man took a puff from his pipe and exhaled slowly. Smoke billowed everywhere. “This road we’re on is going to end soon. There will be a slight depression in the ground going all the way south to New Lorie, making it feel as if the road is still there. It won’t be and I assure you, it’ll be a little rougher going.”
“Yes, thank you,” Constin said.
They had purchased a map in Tange, the last city they had stopped in before turning south. Although he’d never admit it to those traveling with them, Constin worried about Olesa’s health. It was one of the many reasons he had decided to turn south. Even while being in the north where the temperatures dropped dangerously low once the sun set, she refused to wear anything more than her leather armor. She claimed the bulky winter clothes restricted her movement too much.
“It’d sure be nice to know what we’re tracking out here,” Ruon tried again, glancing over at Constin.
Constin looked at the man, taking in a deep breath. “I am paying you, correct?”
“As long as I’m paying you, what does it matter?”
Ruon ran a hand over his bald head. “I guess it doesn’t.”
The area fell into silence as the former Elder Priest and tracker stared at one another. Several times, Ruon started to speak but thought better of it.
“AHHH!” H’laf yelled out from where he was in the wagon just as Constin turned away.
A crash of whatever he’d been carrying followed. Constin spun about, a hand reaching for the sword he’d taken to wearing. Behind him, Nebran had unsheathed his longsword. He took several steps forward. Olesa rushed back toward them with an arrow drawn. Her eyes darted every-where, looking for the danger.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Owwwww!” The portly man limped out from behind the wagon. When he saw the others standing there, armed, a sheepish look spread across his face. “Sorry, I…” He looked back at the wagon. “I stubbed my foot on the wheel again.”
Olesa shook her head at the man. She caught her father’s eyes with an annoyed look. She put the arrow back into the quiver and replaced the bow over her shoulder. Shaking her head, she disappeared again.
“Damn fool,” Nebran muttered, slamming his sword back into its sheath.
Constin let out the breath he’d been holding as he waited for something to show itself. When they had started this journey, he hadn’t imagined how strained it’d make him feel. He worried about a creature, not necessarily a werewolf, coming upon them when they weren’t paying attention.
Their afternoon rest didn’t last long. Olesa had hurried back having seen a building in the distance to the south. As she watched them ready to leave, she shook her head several times. The wagon with their supplies forced them to move slower. It irritated her. She wanted to move with a swift quietness. It was needed out here.
Constin watched her, still amazed at how much she remembered of what Draikin had taught them. It had been a little more than three years ago.
For the rest of the day, they traveled south and came upon the structures about an hour before dark. The buildings appeared to be the ruins of an old fort. The low light of dusk made the parts still standing cast strange shadows. As they drew nearer, they saw not much of the fort was intact.
The wall surrounding the fort was untouched at its southwestern corner. It spanned twenty feet along the south and ten feet along the west. At one time, the crumbling wall appeared to have been about twenty feet tall. Now, in most places, Constin could easily see over the wall. Such places saddened him.
There was a ring of fallen and broken stone, about six feet wide, circling the rest of the fort. The main structure looked as if it had been square and squat. It appeared as if it had been two hundred feet on each side, but only one story tall. Only the outer walls of the main structure still remained. However, the roof had caved in at the middle. Near the partial wall was a stable surprisingly mostly intact.
Ruon and Nebran unhooked the horses from the cart and tended to them in the stable. H’laf started to prepare their evening meal. The man took pride in the spices he used to make warmish porridge have a different taste each night. Constin didn’t care what the man put into the porridge. The simple fact was it was still porridge. No matter what the man did to it, it still tasted like it.
The former Elder Priest glanced over at the three for a moment before looking down at his map. There wasn’t a speck on it to suggest something was here. The map showed the location of many ruins. It even listed the names of them when they had been more. But nothing showed him this crumbling fort should even be here.
“Don’t think on it too long, priest,” Ruon stated. The tall, bald man stood only about ten feet away. He had read the confusion and concern strewn across Constin’s face as he studied the map. “A place like this is usually too small for any mapmaker to make note of it, even if it’s a good place to stop and rest.”
At first, Constin said nothing. His eyes stayed focused on the map. He met Ruon’s eyes.
“Do you think anyone remembers the name of this place?” He felt as if he should add it to the map. “A place, even as small as a fort, shouldn’t be forgotten so easily.”
Ruon smirked at him, scrunching his face together. “You brainy types have to put a name to everything.” The tracker squatted down and picked up a rock about the size of his head. Sucking on his pipe stem, he exhaled smoke. “You see this rock, here? The thinking types, like you, could tell me the name of it. Where it came from. And, why it was good to build a wall with it. Ya know what?” He was still smirking. “The wall still fell down. So why would I care what it’s called or where it came from? Sometimes, it’s just better to let things be.” The tracker let the rock roll from his hand and fall back to the dirt.
Constin stared at the man’s back for a few moments, frowning. “Some things shouldn’t be forgotten.”
The tracker shrugged.
Night fell over them. The stars and moon shone with brilliance. A few clouds passed over them, but otherwise, the sky was clear. The only noises around the ruined fort were from the crickets. Since entering the Hunting Grounds, the only thing they’d heard at night were crickets. It seemed as if even the animals had abandoned this part of the world. They, too, were terrified of the predators here.
A chill ran down the length of Constin’s spine.
After relieving himself for the night, he returned to the camp they’d set up just to the other side of the former stable. H’laf lay on his bedroll, snoring. Ruon was next to him, also snoring, though a pipe hung between his lips. Nebran sat a few feet from them, leaning against a wall. The soldier seemed to prefer to sleep sitting up. As Constin looked at him, he realized the man wasn’t asleep yet.
Constin scanned the area. “Where is she?” The soldier grinned and jabbed his thumb straight up. Looking up at the top of the wall, Constin rolled his eyes at his daughter’s small silhouette. His gaze returned to Nebran. “You should get some rest, friend. I’ll be on the first watch.”
The soldier nodded.
He glanced up at the wall again. Although traveling had given him decent endurance, climbing wasn’t something he’d done much of, nor did we want to. It took him a while of slipping and struggling for him to make it to the top of the wall. By the time he sat next to his daughter, his breath was heavy and he wiped sweat from his brow.
She glanced at him and gave a soft smile. “It’s peaceful up here.” She stared across the land that had once been home to thousands of people.
Blood still pounded in Constin’s ears. If something were to come up on them, he didn’t think he’d hear it.
“Yes it is.”
He gave his daughter a concerned look. She ignored it as she stared out across the land.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Constin put his arm around his daughter’s thin shoulders. She leaned against his chest, taking in a deep breath. After a while, they realized they were both staring at the moon. Constin let out a long, sad sigh.
“Three days until the full moon,” Olesa said, looking to her father.
Constin smiled down at her. He saw the pain in her bright green eyes. He gave her shoulders a squeeze before returning his gaze to the moon.
“I love you,” he whispered into the top of her head.