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*****


Quinsareth sat shivering by his campfire. Still aching from half-healed wounds, he had dozed off more than once. Sleep did not remain long as the trees of the Qurth, maybe a half-mile away, swayed in the wind with noises unlike anything he'd ever heard from a natural forest. He'd traveled through many lands and seen many forests, even those that thrived in the north around the Dalelands and the Moonsea.

Through them all, he'd slept comfortably in the warrior's rest, that half-sleep of soldiers and wanderers that broke at sounds of danger.

The Qurth, though, held a menace all its own, almost a sentience, and his weary mind could not abide letting down its guard for long. That same awareness had picked out the regular rhythm of horse's hooves plodding through the muddied grassland. Nonchalantly, he raised an arm across his knees, blocking the fire's light so his natural darkvision could focus on the approaching visitor. He saw a beautiful woman astride a dark stallion riding toward his camp. Her hands held the reins at an angle that suggested a simple traveler, but her stance in the saddle was straight and strong and her hips swayed with the steed in the manner of a practiced rider, possibly a warrior. As she came closer, he could see the curve of a long bow over her shoulder, confirming his guess. She stopped just outside the firelight and held up her right palm, a gesture denoting a lack of hostility in most civilized lands. Quin lowered his head as if tired and looked away from the low fire, shielding his eyes for the moment. "Well met, stranger," she said casually, though he detected a tension in her voice. "Well met," he replied. "Do I camp on owned land? If so, I shall move on with all due speed." "No, sir. These are free lands, such as they are of late. I merely hoped I might share the warmth of your camp. I have ridden all night and seek a moment of rest." Quin was surprised at her manner of speech, as he had been several times since entering the Border Kingdoms. Tales abounded of a land rife with war and bickering over land, with cutthroats and thieves around every bend in the road, but the formality of their language and use of the common tongue belied these wild rumors for the most part. "By all means, be welcome." In truth, Quin did not wish to entertain visitors, but he required information. He had suspicions about this woman warrior and her arrival out of the darkness on an empty road in troubled times. He felt sure there was more to her journey than casual travel. She dismounted gracefully, removing a well-worn pack from the saddle. Her mount lowered his head and began to graze on the hardy, wet grass, nosing the blades aside to reach the shallow puddles of water standing on the soaked ground. The woman wore armor, an archer's style guarding the bow arm but leaving the other free to draw arrows from the low-slung quiver he spied near her hip. He wondered bemusedly at himself a moment, taking stock of the situation. A beautiful woman wanders into my camp and I spend my time studying her weapons and armor, scrutinizing the cut of her jaw. He smiled at the thought. What a tragic life this is at times. Turning, she spread a small blanket and sat cross-legged across from him. "I am Elisandrya Loethe of Brookhollow. Forgive my rudeness for not saying so before." "You may call me Quin," he said at length. "I am from many places, truth be told." It occurred to Quin that he'd said that same phrase a thousand times or more in his travels. Almost by instinct, it had become a part of him to lie. He'd not uttered his true name to a soul in over seven years. He did not lament the fact, really, but he'd rarely considered his own comfort with the falsehood. As she warmed her hands, it seemed she struggled to see his face without appearing overly curious. He wondered at what she saw, imagining how he looked after the last few days. Though self-conscious about his eyes, he cared little about his outward appearances. Keeping his eyes hidden, he studied her back, wondering at that searching look in her eyes. What was she after?

"Well met, Quin. What brings you to these roads?" The question sounded casual, but again he sensed a searching tone in her voice, something beyond small talk. Another lie he'd grown attached to over the years was on the tip of his tongue, when a strange sound caught his attention. It stood out starkly from the wind and distant trees. Its familiarity froze his heart, and he snapped his head up, his muscles taught and ready to spring. His visitor, too, heard the noise and spun, but not before catching a glimpse of Quin's face. Her double-take at the sight of his eyes was more than telling. He had no more time to dwell on her intentions, and he focused on the darkness beyond the fire's light. The grazing horse grunted and whinnied loudly as the first arrow struck his shoulder, followed by several more, whooshing out of the darkness and the surreal morning mist. The horse jumped forward, but was hit again. Missiles buried themselves in his neck and chest, the well-aimed shots of a practiced bow hunter.

"Morningstar!" Elisandrya screamed in rage as she whirled to stand, her blade drawn in one quick pull. Morningstar fell heavily, thrashing in the mud before succumbing to the fatal wounds and releasing a shuddering final breath. Quin was on his feet but had not yet drawn Bedlam. Looking down, he realized the fire made them both open targets for whoever hid in the thick mist between them and the forest. Lacking the time to put it out, he yelled to his new acquaintance. "We must leave! We can't fight them here!" She hesitated, aware of the flame's betrayal but unable to draw her eyes away from the fallen horse. Quin took several long steps out of the light's range, waiting a few heartbeats to see if Elisandrya would join him. There was no time to mourn horses, and he wouldn't get killed awaiting an impromptu funeral. Finally, she turned away, and they sprinted into the dark as more arrows landed in the mud where they'd stood. The damp ground was like a sponge sucking at their boots and forcing them to push on harder. Quin veered toward the dark silhouette of a ruin he spotted, like so many he had seen in the past few tendays. "No," Elisandrya panted as they ran. "Go around it. We'll wait for them on the other side." "We need cover from those arrows! Inside those walls we stand a better chance." "Those are the ruins of Char they're cursed.

They are forbidden!" Quin contemplated her words and admitted inwardly that she might know more about the local landmarks. An eerie howling erupted from behind them, quickening their stride and erasing any doubt in Quin's mind. Cursed, haunted, or worse, the ruins were their only option. "Get over it," he growled and pushed on. Elisandrya matched his stride. His survival instinct shut out distrust of this stranger for the time being. He focused on reaching defensible ground, but he could not forget the look on her face when she'd witnessed his eyes. It was not the shock of something horrible that she'd registered. It was as if she'd expected to see them. As the ruins grew closer, Quin rested his hand on Bedlam's pommel and conjured the familiar game in his mind. He could not picture what stone those rusted gates might represent, and he considered the possibilities. An image of the Ghost came to mind-not for death, as many had played the piece, but worse: regret.


***** | Bloodwalk | CHAPTER TWELVE