In the cold crack of winter, the lions came down from the mountains. Nightstalkers, the farmers called them: huge, sleek, black prowlers that hunted at night. They carried off sheep, goats, chickens and, very occasionally, children. Before the War they had been a rare nuisance, a useful source of tales to keep youngsters in their beds at night and frighten them into good behavior. But the King’s brother Synedd, in his ceaseless grasping for the throne, had seen their potential in warfare and had trained them to hunt in packs. The females mainly hunted for food; this had always been the case. But Synedd bred males for his own use, created blood-lust in them and taught them to hunt for sport. He had used them to supplement his army of traitors, making up in beasts what he lacked in soldiers.
After Synedd’s defeat, the nightstalkers were scattered. Most of them had been killed in battle, but a few survived, returning to their lone ways in the mountains. The Rangers diligently studied the lions’ habits; in the score of years following the War they became renowned for their prowess at tracking and killing them.
So it was Faldur’s duty, as captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Vallen, to hunt down the nightstalker that had been plaguing the farms around Glenhym Castle. It was not a duty he cherished, however, especially on Midwinter’s Eve. It was a hard thing to pass up the all-night celebration and go out into the snow in search of a wretched monster that would just as soon eat him as whatever livestock it was stalking. But, the sooner it was done the sooner he could join the dancing in the Great Hall. He only hoped it didn’t take all night.
Faldur took Harth with him out to the farm where the nightstalker had last been seen, along with two other Rangers who volunteered for the job in the hopes of landing at Glenhym later. Harth was a tall, quiet Lieutenant - capable, strong, cool-headed - with the typical red-blond coloring and blue eyes of the Hanorja. Faldur himself was leaner, darker and more compact. His men called him “the cat” because of his green eyes and rigid self-control. He didn’t mind the nickname; in a way, it was a mark of respect. He supposed, too, that after a while one took on the characteristics of one’s prey, learning to listen and watch the shadows as if one’s life depended on it. Often, it did.
They found the farm easily enough, perched on a ridge of the foothills, about three miles from the castle. The neat little house sat near the big stone barn, its garden tucked under a thick blanket of snow. There had been only a light dusting of the white stuff today, so the tracks were still faintly visible in the lantern-light as the farmer showed them to the two Rangers.
“Came up here,” said the farmer, who was just a little older than Faldur himself, with a mass of curly red hair, broad shoulders, and a dense smattering of freckles across his cold-chapped cheeks. “Couldn’t get in the barn; I had it shut up tight. But the dories were screaming and kicking the stalls. Smart buggers; they may have frightened it away. But it will be back for the sheep, I’m sure of it. Good thing I’d brought them into the barn. Don’t usually, but it was that cold last night.”
Faldur nodded. Dories were sturdy, sensitive creatures – part pony, part mountain goat – the preferred mounts of the Hanorja. He could imagine them beating a thunderous tattoo to scare the predator away. His own dory, Strider, had once kicked a nightstalker right between the eyes when cornered, stunning the beast long enough for Faldur to kill it. That had been a young female, though, and this was most definitely a male. A large one.
The tracks circled the barn, and then struck up the ridge into the woods. Faldur said, “You’d better go inside, and keep your doors and shutters bolted. Are you going out tonight?”
“We were planning to go to my wife’s brother’s house, but weren’t sure if it was safe.”
“I wouldn’t advise it, not until we kill it.”
The farmer nodded, a worried look on his face. “This isn’t the first this winter. I’ve heard they are coming down around Crikhaven too. Do you think they are breeding? They don’t usually come down until the new year.”
“It’s possible. But we had an early start to winter, too.” Faldur clapped the other haman on the shoulder (male Hanorja are called hamen, and their women, hawen), and smiled one of his rare smiles. “We’ll get it in time for us all to go to our parties tonight. It’s too cold to linger out here in the dark!”
“Well, there’s food and drink inside for you when you’re through. I’m much obliged.” With that, the farmer turned and trudged away, the light of the lantern bobbing ahead of him and then disappearing around the corner of the barn.
“Harth, you and Brilward take the southern side. We’ll go north. Stay in sight; follow the tracks, signal if you need help. Keep an arrow strung.”
The Rangers nodded and split up, following on either side of the nightstalker’s tracks, keeping a stone’s throw between the two pairs of partners. Harth and Faldur’s partner, Romer, both had their bows ready. Faldur could shoot game, but he preferred a sword for this kind of work.
The tracks wound up along the ridge, then suddenly plunged down into the neck of a thickly overgrown ravine. Faldur didn’t like the look of it. He motioned for Harth and Brilward to circle around to the other side and see where the tracks came out, while he and Romer guarded the spot where the lion had gone in. They did so, their gray-green cloaks fading into the gloom. Faldur stared down into the dark bushes, trying to discern the darker outline of a nightstalker, or the reflective gleam of feline eyes.
A soft hooting sound caused his head to jerk up. It was Harth, indicating that they had found the tracks. Faldur and Romer were moving around the neck of the ravine to join them, when Faldur saw a black shape leaping up behind the other two.
He yelled, signaling them to jump left. They just barely dived out of the way, and Harth loosed an arrow which lodged in the beast’s shoulder as it overshot them. It turned to attack again, spitting now with pain and fury. Faldur dashed forward with his blade as the lion pounced on Harth, who was reaching for his next arrow. Before he could get there, however, Romer had landed a shot in the nightstalker’s temple and it fell dead on the snow. Harth’s legs were trapped under the lion’s body, and Brilward moved to assist him.
Then Faldur heard a rustling noise from close by in the ravine. He could just see out of the corner of his eye that a second nightstalker was emerging from the bushes at the bottom. He heard Brilward shout, “There are two of them!” as he turned to face the lion, thinking that this was too close, that unless he timed it just right and was able to use the lion’s own weight to impale it on his blade, he was dead. Then, just as the lion pounced, he heard the snick of a bowstring, and an arrow whizzed past his nose, landing in the nightstalker’s chest. Harth had shot it from the ground while his legs were still pinned. Faldur felt the spray of hot blood on his face and the sting of claws raking his arm, then the sharp cold of snow as he went down with the lion on top of him.
Romer strung another arrow and stood ready, turning and searching for another nightstalker, but none appeared. Only when he was sure it was safe did he free Faldur from the beast’s carcass and haul him to his feet.
“They were hunting together!” cried Romer.
“Two males,” Faldur agreed, as Harth and Brilward joined them. They all knew what that meant. The nightstalkers were hunting in teams again. Their numbers had increased, and they were hungry.
* * *
“That was a brilliant shot,” said Faldur to Harth later. “I thought my luck had run out.” They had cleaned themselves up at the farmhouse, and were riding to Glenhym Castle. It was only eight o’clock but seemed much later; the moon was full and floated above the trees. The four Rangers had been plied with hot cider and chicken pie, so their stomachs were warm despite the cold that numbed their toes.
“Not yet,” said Harth, referring to Faldur’s luck. “Not while I’m here.”
Faldur’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t smile. He should have realized that the ravine was a trap. The second lion must have entered at another point and made its way down under cover of the bushes. He should have known, but how could he? He’d never seen a nightstalker lay such a cunning trap before. How were they learning this, and why now? But perhaps he was reading too much into it. Perhaps it was just an accident that one was hidden and the other returning just as they arrived. They were only beasts, after all. He just thanked Heaven that Harth was there.
The sound of music drifted towards them as they climbed the hill to the Castle. It was a square, towering fortress-in-residence that had housed Lord Tarnbel’s family for twelve generations. He was a Delfenward, appointed by the King to manage and protect all of the wardlands around Glenhym – lands owned by the citizenry, but ruled by the Delfenward under the King’s authority. The gates stood open tonight, as they usually did, to allow traffic to and from the village of Glenhym Proper. The traffic had clearly been heavy, for the sounds of many voices spilled out through the windows along with long streams of light on the snow. The groom greeted the Rangers warmly as they dismounted, and took their dories. They strode up the wide steps to the entrance. Despite what had just happened, or perhaps because of it, Faldur was seized with a fierce desire to hold someone pretty and dance until dawn. Marenya. He wanted to see Marenya.
In the Hall, a well-stoked fire blazed in the great fireplace, the musicians sweated and bobbed over their instruments, and a gaily milling crowd of all ages and descriptions danced and talked and ate and laughed. Lord Tarnbel spied the Rangers and made his way across the room to clasp their wrists and welcome them. The Delfenward was a tall, stern haman with a sharp nose and even sharper turquoise-colored eyes. He drew the Captain aside and listened intently as Faldur told him what had happened.
“Well done. I’d like to talk to you tomorrow, but for now, enjoy yourself.” He clapped Faldur on the shoulder. “It’s excellent to see you.”
“Faldur!” cried a hearty voice. “You’re never on patrol tonight?” A blond, handsome face attached to a set of very broad shoulders moved through the crowd. It was Melbrinor himself, the King’s eldest son, his cheeks dimpling deeply as he stretched out his hand to his friend. Melbrinor, known to his friends as simply Mel, possessed not only the unusual height and magical ability of the line of the kings, but an irrepressible charm that made hawen worship him and hamen shake their heads with disbelieving envy. Only those closest to him knew how heavy the burdens were that he carried, and how deep his commitment was to his people.
“We can’t all be lazy bastards. I had some things to attend to.”
“Things?” Mel raised his eyebrows knowingly.
“Two of them.”
A flicker of concern crossed Mel’s face, but he didn’t want to alarm the room so he kept his tone light. “Then you need a drink!”
“A large one,” said Faldur, as his friend steered him towards the ale, adding casually, “I didn’t think you’d be out this way tonight.” Glenhym was six days’ ride from Tor Aden, the capital. Faldur guessed, however, that it was Tarnbel’s daughter Pelwyn who had inspired the Prince to ride so far. Midwinter was the one night of the year in which it was not only seemly, but expected, to stay up until dawn making merry.
“I’ve asked and she’s consented,” said Mel in an undertone. He spoke so that only Faldur could hear, but couldn’t stop the smile from bursting on his face.
Faldur was not surprised at the news. “I’m very happy for you! Poor Pelwyn; she’s the one who needs a drink. Does she have any idea what she’s getting into?”
“I hope not, not until after the wedding anyway.” Mel was only half-joking. Hawen fell at his feet like wilting lilies, but those in whom he expressed more than a passing interest usually fled from the responsibility of becoming the future Queen. “Tarnbel will make the announcement tonight. I’m glad you didn’t miss it.”
“I almost did,” said Faldur grimly.
Just then the music ended, and the dancers came up to the tables seeking refreshment. Mel and Faldur raised their mugs over the heads of the guests and edged out of the way. They spied Pelwyn and her cousin Marenya standing by one of the windows, talking animatedly while they took deep gulps of cool air. The two hawen made a pleasing pair: Pelwyn with her cornsilk-colored hair, heart-shaped face and the family’s signature turquoise eyes, and Marenya, not as waiflike, but slim and capable, with long-fingered hands, a slightly crooked smile, and quizzical eyebrows in a smooth, oval face. Her eyes were the color of the evening sky, and her hair the reddish-bronze of autumn leaves.
Faldur approached her and was rewarded by her smile of delight. He clasped her wrist in greeting, then clasped Pelwyn’s as well, saying, “I wish both of you every happiness.”
“Thank you, Captain!” she cried. “I only hope that one day you can be as happy.” Faldur bowed, choosing not to take the hint. He had determined long ago never to leave a widow behind; all he wanted tonight was to dance.
So when the musicians took up their instruments again, he took Marenya’s hand and led her into the center of the room. The couples formed a grid that covered the entire floor. Like everything else the Hanorja did, their dancing was both spirited and complex; unlike anything else they did, it seemed a kind of barely-controlled madness, though in fact the movements were carefully prescribed. The whirling, weaving couples moved through every position on the floor and back again in breathless time. They touched nothing but each other’s hands, losing and reclaiming each other as they changed partners over and over again.
Marenya was not a natural dancer, though her confidence had grown through the years. Faldur loved the tiny furrow in her brow as she concentrated, and her bursts of laughter when she made a mistake. Soon they found their mutual rhythm and lost all sense of time and place, knowing nothing but the music and each other and the vibrations of their feet as they pounded on the floor. Her face was flushed, her lips smiling, her long hair tumbling out of its combs. After several unsuccessful attempts to pin it up again, she let it fly loose around her shoulders. For once, he let his thoughts fly loose as well. Marenya was all grown up and she was beautiful, and her eyes sought only him.
At last, unbelievably, it was midnight. Wine was handed round, and Lord Tarnbel brought Melbrinor and Pelwyn forward for a toast, joining their hands and standing them in front of the assembly.
“Tonight the Prince has asked for my daughter’s hand in marriage!” There was a burst of cheering that threatened to split the beams of the ancient roof. Tarnbel motioned for quiet, and eventually got it. “I could not have parted with her to a lesser haman, but I dare not refuse to part with her to this one.” Laughter. “I only wish her mother were here to see this day. She has always been the princess of our house, and so it is only fitting that she should one day be our Queen.” He raised his glass. “To Lady Pelwyn and Prince Melbrinor!”
“Lady Pelwyn and Prince Melbrinor!” The guests all drank to the couple, and the cheering began again, along with a number of impromptu toasts, most of which had to do with the number of their offspring. Pelwyn was remarkably calm, glancing at Mel with a touching devotion. To Faldur’s surprise, the Prince was looking a bit nonplussed, and there was a flush rising from his neck. Well, hack down the Hedgewood, he thought. Mel has finally met his match.
* * *
After the toast, Faldur and Marenya discovered that they were hungry, and by the time they had eaten, they no longer felt like dancing, though the music continued. Faldur found that the thing he wanted most was to sit in a corner and smoke, so he did, taking out his pipe and the little bag of pipecherry leaves he always carried. Marenya sat by him in companionable silence. She didn’t mind the smoke; she had told him once that it reminded her of her father. He didn’t tell her that her father was the one who had introduced him to it, when Faldur first took his oath with the Rangers.
The musicians finally put down their instruments and staggered off to bed. The guests joked and talked, settling on the floor when all the benches were filled. Some time later the Prince and Pelwyn disappeared through a side door, although Faldur noticed that Erinor, Marenya’s mother, trailed discreetly after them. He smiled and glanced at Marenya to see if she had noticed. She was falling asleep, hunched in an uncomfortable position against the wall.
Reaching out, he drew her to his side so that she could rest her head on his shoulder.
“I’m so tired!” she murmured. “But I don’t want to fall asleep. I don’t want to miss the sunrise.” It was tradition to stay awake all night on Midwinter’s Eve, and see the sun reappear after the longest night of the year.
“I’ll wake you,” he said.
The room was dim; both the fire and the conversation were dying. He held her, listening to her breathing as she fell asleep, and when her head began to droop he eased it onto his lap. She looked so young - so untouched. He dozed a little but didn’t sleep, always alert in a corner of his mind. This was partly due to habit, and partly because he didn’t want to dream about the nightstalker. He was afraid he might cry out and startle her, and didn’t want to explain. As well, he had promised to wake her.
At last the first pink light began to seep across the sky. The guests stretched and stirred, moving outside in little groups. He shook Marenya gently.
“Is it morning?” She sat up and blinked, trying not to look astonished at finding herself with her head in his lap.
“Yes. Everyone’s gone outside.”
They walked out into the cold stillness of the garden, and up the steps to the wall. She shivered, and he wrapped his arms around her, for they had forgotten to bring their cloaks. Below them lay the patchwork of fields and farms that composed Tarnbel’s wardlands, bounded on the east by the gleaming ribbon of the Silverbark River and on the west by the sentinal peaks of the Dagger Mountains. Everything was sparkling with snow and a pinkish golden light, clean and new and perfect like the first morning ever dawned.
Something stirred in Faldur that he hadn’t felt in ages. It had been so long, so very long, since he’d known anything but the company of his men, the cramped, smoky barracks, bad food, worse weather, constant watchfulness, and danger, that he had nearly forgotten what he was fighting for. As well, he couldn't help thinking that if things had been just a little different, if Harth's aim had been even slightly off, he wouldn't be standing there at all.
Marenya was in his arms, soft, warm and still a little drowsy. They were standing behind everyone else; no one was looking at them. He bent his head down to hers and kissed her, their breath mingling in the frosty air. She froze at first in surprise, then responded with a sweetness that made his head spin.
When the kiss ended, her deep blue eyes gazed up at him with wonder, and the same devotion he had seen in Pelwyn’s face when she looked at Mel.
All at once, Faldur realized what he had done... and cursed himself.
* * *
Faldur sat in the corner of Strider’s stall with his head in his hands. Firn Highcliff’s daughter. He had been romancing Firn Highcliff’s daughter.
Faldur would never forget when they brought Firn’s body into the post, wrapped in his Ranger’s cloak, the blood seeping through the fabric. They told him not to look, but Firn had been like a second father to the young recruit. Faldur needed to see exactly what the nightstalker had done to him. It wasn't pleasant, but the older haman looked peaceful and his face was mostly untouched. For that, at least, Faldur was grateful. It meant that Erinor could say good-bye to him.
Marenya hadn’t cried at the funeral. She was just a slender whip of a lass then, no longer a child but not yet a hawin. She had stood silently beside her mother, watching the proceedings with solemn eyes. Erinor withstood bravely until the end, but broke into sobs as her husband was placed in the ground, pressing her hands against her mouth as if she could somehow hold the sounds in. Marenya’s young face had twisted in anguish as she tried to comfort her mother, and at the same time fully grasp what was happening. Her father had died saving someone else’s child, and left his own family fatherless.
It was then, at that moment, that Faldur had sworn never to leave anyone behind. Faldur was a Ranger until he died, but he wouldn’t be a father or a husband. He wouldn’t put anyone through that for his sake.
Especially not Marenya.