The riders paused at the top of a ridge. They looked through the blowing snow at the valley below, staring as if uncertain whether or not they should descend the slippery slope. "I don't like this place," Winsonn remarked. "It feels evil."
"Aye," Harnn replied, "evil it is; ‘tis the home of Wittikka, the snow hunter. But we have no other choice. We either cross the valley or Martenn's soldiers will be upon us in a matter of hours."
Winsonn turned in his saddle and looked to the rear. "Aye, and it is a sure thing they will show us no mercy if they do catch us." He turned forward and saw that Harnn had already started his descent into the valley. He urged his mount forward. His eyes darted around, sweeping the trees and the snow-covered incline. Wittikka, he thought, is not something that I want to meet, his stomach churned. He spurred his horse, closing with Harnn.
The fugitives urged their horses onward, down the slope. Each time the animals bounded, plowing their way through the deep snow drifts, they almost threw the riders from their saddles. Winsonn urged his mount forward, reluctant to be separated from Harnn. He was not the fighter his cousin was and preferred to avoid violence. He was adept at talking his way out of any tight spot in which he found himself. In fact his strength was as a gatherer of information. He believed his information was the reason Harnn and his band of mercenaries had remained free as long as they had. Left to his own devices Harnn would have been imprisoned and executed long ago. Winsonn had always known which guard to bribe, which maiden could be swayed, and what skeletons were buried deep in what closet. However, he conceded, at times a strong sword-wielding arm was equally important . . and this was in all probability one of those times.
He pushed his horse next to Harnn's and asked the question that had been plaguing him: "How long will it take to cross the valley?"
"The rest of this day and most of tomorrow."
The winds gushed, blanketing them with snow. It seemed an ominous sign to Winsonn. "Perhaps we should ride through the night?"
"In this weather? If we did that we would kill these animals. No, we will camp for the night in the timber. Ere this night is over, our very lives may depend upon these horses."
"Could we circle this accursed place? Surely, Martenn's troops cannot follow us through this snow. It’s filling our tracks in minutes."
Harnn smiled through chapped, cracked lips: "That would add days to our journey. Dragnarr awaits us in Acacia . . ."
"Bah, let the dwarf wait! I sometimes think you value his friendship more than you do our blood-ties."
Harnn cast a stern look at Winsonn. "Sometimes I do. Now stop your incessant whining. We travel the valley."
They rode downward into the whirling blizzard. They reached the bottom of the slope and the wind had blown much of the snow against the hills making going a little easier. The wind gusted and Winsonn felt as if he would never again feel the comforting warmth of a fire or the tranquility of a bed. He wrapped his cloak tighter and urged his horse to follow Harnn.
They left the open space of the valley floor and entered into the forests that covered the slopes of the mountains that surrounded the flat plain. Once inside the trees the riding became more difficult because of the mounds of deep snow. The trees offered little respite from the storm and soon rider and horse alike were coated white by the snow that wind gusts sent falling from the heavily laden boughs of trees. Winsonn was more miserable than ever as melting snow began to find its way through his outer garments. He felt the cold of a small stream of water running down his back. He called to Harnn, “We need shelter else we will die from exposure to these ungodly elements!”
Harnn turned in his saddle and for the first time realized how much his miserable cousin resembled a snowman. “Aye,” he agreed. “We need to find a sheltering pine.’
It took twenty minutes for Harnn to find what he sought. “There!” He pointed at a huge pine, its boughs bent to the ground by the weight of the snow that covered them. “We will find shelter there.”
Winsonn looked at the tree and doubted it. To him it looked like every other tree in the forest, just bigger. He decided not to make a fuss about it until he could prove Harnn wrong. Harnn, after all, was the outdoors-man of the partnership. He should know what was and what was not a source of shelter.
Harnn dismounted beside the huge tree and pulled one of the boughs aside, motioning for Winsonn to ride inside. Still doubtful Winsonn ducked his head and rode through the opening. Once inside he was happily surprised. The bending of the massive boughs created a perfect shelter, big enough for both men and their mounts. Winsonn quickly dismounted and stood on the soft cushion of pine needles that covered the ground. He pulled his mount around the tree and picketed it. He stepped aside and made room for Harnn to lead his horse in. “We will build our fire and camp on the other side,” he said. .
Harnn banked the fire and pulled his fur cloak tightly around his shoulders. He drank the hot tea and dreamed of warmer places and the softness of Martenn's wife. A smile crept across his face.
"What do you find so amusing?" Winsonn asked. "We almost froze to deat; risking life and limb. We have been cold and hungry, and could be dead any minute. Yet, you sit there grinning like a tree sloth."
"Winsonn, you try my patience. Look at the good side. This time tomorrow we'll be warm in Acacia, it has stopped snowing, and the cursed wind has died down..."
"Yes," Winsonn snapped "and the temperature has fallen so low if the fire goes out we'll be dead from exposure by morning."
Harnn tossed the cooled contents of his cup into the snow outside of their natural shelter. "Bah, I grow weary of your constant belly-aching."
"Well, we wouldn't be in this predicament if you could control yourself around women."
"Perhaps you're right, cousin. But when a woman throws herself at me . . ."
"Hah! Only a fool would cavort with the wife of the High Lord of Atlantia!"
"Then I'm a fool, a fool with fond memories of three wondrous nights. I'm weary of this conversation. I think I'll see if I can locate our pursuit." Harnn left the sanctity and warmth of the pine and stepped out into the freezing night.
Winsonn clutched his cloak tightly more to ward off the eerie howling of the frozen wind than for warmth. He shuddered and found himself wondering if it was just the cold making him shake like a leaf. He slid over to the opening through which Harnn has exited and stared into the snowy darkness, hoping to see Harnn's broad back. "It'd be just like him to go get himself killed; stranding me here all alone," he muttered.
Harnn stepped away from the dim light shining from the front of the pine and stood quietly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dark. He knew not having one of them on guard outside, away from the fire's light was a risk. But, the weather was so bad he believed the chances of the pursuing soldiers coming after them was remote. Like Winsonn and him, Baron Martenn's men were surely settled in, trying to ride out the storm.
As for the other danger in this place, well all the sentries in Presque Terra could not stop the Wittikka if it decided it wanted to appease its hunger for human flesh. Harnn believed there only being two of them worked in their favor. The Wittikka could smell human travelers, Harnn knew without doubt. However, he hoped the gruesome beast would be more attracted by the larger party—by the ten or twenty riders Martenn was leading. On the other hand, if the beast decided to snack on the few before feasting on the many . . .well, that was beyond Harnn's control. And Harnn took great pride in never worrying about anything he could not control. He turned toward the pine. "Winsonn!" he called trying to keep his voice so it could be heard in the lean-to but not very far outside the campsite.
Still no answer.
Harnn cursed under his breath and started toward the tree. Just before he pulled the horse blanket that hung over the entrance aside, Winsonn's head popped out. "What are you trying to do?" Winsonn was obviously agitated. "It's not enough that you bring us into this valley of the damned, but you have to stand out here caterwauling like a female musk-hog who's stuck in quick-mud!"
Harnn grabbed his cousin around the neck and pushed downward with his huge, ham-sized right hand, forcing Winsonn's flushed face into the cold of the snow. "I'll do more than that, if you don't stop trying my patience."
Winsonn, his nose, mouth and eyes filled with snow and ice crystals, began to flounder like a drowning cat. Harnn eased the pressure on his cousin's neck and squatted down beside him. "Now, as I was about to tell you, I am going to be gone for a while. I did not want you to worry about me and do something foolish; like go running off into the storm trying to save my hide. Okay?"
"Of course," Winsonn humbly replied. Only it was not okay with him. The last thing he wanted was to be left alone in this valley at night. However, he knew if he tried to explain that to Harnn all it would get him would be grief. He knew Harnn would retell the tale of this trip with great relish in every inn where they stayed. Winsonn did not look forward to the way he would be portrayed in the telling. He resigned himself to making the best of it and nodded his head trying to add emphasis to his words.
Harnn stood up. "Good. I want to back track and see if I can locate any pursuit. Maybe, if we luck is with us, they opted to turn back rather than enter this valley."
Winsonn wished they had done that very thing.
"Don't leave without me." Harnn added with a smile. He knew that as scared as Winsonn was, he would do whatever was required to aid his family. Though he would much rather avoid a fight, Winsonn was, when angered, more than handy in a scrap. "I should be back in a couple of hours."
Harnn trudged through the snow for the better part of an hour, trying to locate his pursuers. Suddenly the hairs on his head seemed to stand up and instinct told him he, someone, or something, followed. For the next hour, he circled several times, hoping to surprise who, or what, was following him. Each time he found only his own tracks filling with drifting snow. Harnn had been carrying his broadsword in his hand, ready in the event he stumbled blindly into danger of some sort. But, for a reason he could not seem to fathom, he believed the sword was useless against whatever was stalking him.
The wind gusted, starting a miniature avalanche of snow falling from the trees. Harnn hunched his shoulders against the cold shower and then smelled a strange sweet, yet pungent odor riding on the wind. It was a peculiar scent, curiously attractive, yet at the same time as revolting as grave-rot. He had been on battlefields in the heat of the hottest summers when the smell of putrefied, bloating corpses made the very air ripe and heavy. Air so foul grown men, battle-hardened veterans all, vomited explosively with each breath, until they were so weakened all they could do was lay in their own filth. Yet, as obnoxious as that had been, it seemed pleasant when compared to the addictive odor now riding in the swirling frigid air of the wintry sky.
"So Wittikka," Harnn whispered, "you are more than a story to scare misbehaving children. Well, come as you may. You'll not find Harnn so easily scared."
Suddenly, from ahead of him, a loud noise broke through the snowy night, startling him. Harnn hastily looked around, seeking a place to hide. He spied an evergreen tree, its boughs bent to the ground with heavy snow. He ran, bounding over a downed tree and dove under the evergreen. He snaked his way inside the natural shelter, burrowed down into the snow and then lay on his stomach, peering out in the direction from which the sounds came. Harnn listened, certain his breathing and the hammering sounds of his heart would give away his hiding place. The sounds came again and Harnn recognized the sounds of horses and armed men. In seconds the stern, scowling visage of Baron Martenn came into sight not more than six cubits from his hiding place.
Martenn held up his arm and ten or more men reined their mounts to a halt around him. The air filled with the scent of nervous horses, their breath sending trails of vapor spurting from their nostrils. The animals were scared and it was all the mounted men could do to maintain their seats. "Damned horses are spooked," Martenn cursed.
"Aye, sire," an officer said. "Tis this accursed place they do not like. As long as I can remember, naught has come to good in this valley. It is dangerous enough to traverse in daylight; men have no business venturing here at night."
"I'll not hear any superstitious babble, Mikhail! I will have the mercenary's head if I must navigate the burning seas of Hell itself!"
"This place be not hell, Sire. Even in midsummer when the rest of the world swelters in heat this valley be snow-covered. I tell you it is an accursed place!"
Martenn cast the officer a dour look. "Accursed or not, we must stop. Have the men secure the horses tightly and make camp here. We'll leave at first light. Have the men gather any burnable material they might find—we need to get fires going."
Harnn lay in the safety of the natural tent. He prayed none of the soldiers would spy his haven and see the shelter it afforded from the weather. He tightened his grip on his sword and settled in for a long wait. I may as well get some sleep, he decided. He snuggled down inside the bulky furs he wore and gave thanks that the heavy snow on the evergreen created a white wall, insulating him from the storm. He stared out at the misery of Martenn and his men and dozed off with a smile.
Harnn leapt from sleep to full wakefulness. The same odor he had smelled earlier permeated the air, but he knew the smell was not what had awakened him. Rather it was the screams, snarls and howls ripping the night apart. He slid forward and looked through the boughs. Harnn could not believe what was happening...
Martenn and the remnants of his force were locked in fierce battle. The battle was not what caused Harnn to stare with awe; rather it was what Martenn and his men fought.
"The Wittikka," Harnn said in fearful reverence.
The beast was the most frightening thing he had ever beheld. It stood over 12 cubits tall and was covered in matted fur. Huge fangs protruded from its massive lipless mouth and blood and every time it snarled drool flew through the air looking like gigantic slugs. The sputum splashed against the trees, men and animals, filling the air with the odor Harnn had been smelling all night.
Only Martenn and four of his men survived from the original party; it was evident to Harnn they were losing ground to the raging monster. Martenn swung his broadsword with both hands, scoring hits several times, taking huge gouges out of the beast's legs and lower body. The awesome wounds did nothing to slow the Wittikka, instead they spurred it to greater heights of rage. Martenn's footing went out from beneath him and he fell helpless in the bloody snow.
Mikhail saw his lord down and jumped between the creature and Martenn. He swung his sword, slicing deeply into the Wittikka's side, forcing yet another shriek of rage from the beast. The blade stuck, lodged between two ribs. Mikhail, not wanting to be left unarmed, refused to relinquish his grip on the sword and fought to wrench the blade free.
The monster stared at Mikhail with the most terrifying eyes Harnn had ever imagined, let alone seen. The eyes were similar to those of an owl, only larger, and the pupils, which seemed to be floating in pools of blood, bounced crazily,
Mikhail, yelling for Martenn to escape, continued to struggle valiantly in his Lord's defense. He lost traction, sliding in the treacherous mixture of snow, blood, and gore that covered the ground. The Wittikka roared, grabbed Mikhail by the head, lifted him and swung the soldier about. Mikhail, bellowing in pain, was impaled on a broken, jagged limb of a huge leafless Maple.
Harnn could remain a spectator no longer and, throwing caution to the wind, burst out of the sheltering evergreen with a bloodcurdling war cry. He showed no hesitation as he flung himself into the fray. He ran at the Wittikka from the back and brought his sword around in a savage arc, severing the monster's left hamstring.
The beast, howling in surprise, turned to face the new danger. It slashed at the dodging mercenary with its wickedly sharp claws, trying to tear its attacker into shreds.
Harnn turned and brought his sword up, blocking the beast's slashing right arm and severed its hand. Black blood gushed from the wound and the stench, much like open sewage during a heat wave, permeated the air. The horrible odor physically forced Harnn backward, away from its taint.
The Wittikka roared in surprise and pain. It cast a malevolent look at Harnn. It saw an enemy poised to strike again. The Wittikka, still howling in rage and pain, bolted into the trees and disappeared into the snowy night.
The beleaguered survivors of the attack stood in the chill, their raspy breaths sending spirals of vapor into the night. They said nothing as they slowly turned in circles, wary eyes on the darkness surrounding them. Where would the next attack come from, they all wondered. The body heat, fleeing the cadavers of the dead, covered the ground in an eerie fog and heightened their tension.
Harnn found himself staring into the eyes of the man who wanted his head on a pike. "Baron," Harnn said, holding his hand out to help him up.
The nobleman lifted himself to one knee and grasped the proffered hand. "Harnn."
Once on his feet Martenn put aside his hatred to look after what remained of his men. "Larsonn, get some of the others and pull Mikhail down." He pointed at his second in command, dangling like a stiff scarecrow three or four cubits off the ground.
Two of the survivors rushed to remove the skewered body from the tree while the rest remained in defensive positions. Martenn turned to face his sworn enemy. "I owe you a debt of honor..."
"You owe me nothing, Martenn. I could not let anyone fall prey to such a demon."
"Then I declare a truce. I will allow you to leave this valley. But, if you ever again set one foot in my realm I will have your head. Do I make myself clear on that?"
"Aye." Harnn turned and walked several steps into the trees. He turned back to Martenn, "Baron, if I may offer some advice?"
"Do I have any choice in the matter?"
"None. Perhaps if you paid as much attention to the Baroness as you do to your men and your conquests you and I would not be enemies today."
"Why you insolent…"
"Aye, I am that. But if she was my woman I would pay more attention to her."
Harnn turned and disappeared into the falling snow. He heard Martenn give his men orders to begin the retreat from the valley.
x x x
I enjoy the Harnn stories and I was glad when Harnn’s companion didn’t get eaten by the Wittikka. I was afraid we’d be subjected to this pun: Winsonn tastes good like a sidekick should. No. Please. Put down the rocks. Post your comments to the BBS, instead. -GM