Ceri shuffled her pack from one shoulder to the other, though ultimately wrapped the straps around both.
It’s been a while, they should be close. Ceriwyn huffed, light vapour flowing from her mouth. She pulled her bag in front of her, reached in and pulled out a piece of salted, dried meat.
“I think the last time I actually ate was when we were at the Mother Tree,” she muttered, sucking on one end of the strip. Cormac hopped onto her knee, cocking his head to the side in silent question.
“Ravens eat meat, do they?” Ceriwyn ripped a small piece of hers and granted him the meat.
Ravens eat anything we can sink our talons into. A small twinkle shone in his beady eyes, even human flesh suits us just fine.
“That’s comforting.” Ceri tore off another chunk and chewed it, mulling over the possibilities of escaping the hunters eventually. Her mind kept wandering to the burly man. Wulfrik.
Ceriwyn finished off the jerky, when suddenly she could hear them. Thundering sounds of footfalls and underbrush crashing under their heavy boots.
At first she felt a tingling sensation, as if her hands and neck were on fire, for a man had blundered into her warning circle. Cormac had flown away and watched from above, curious as to what would happen. Then Ceri remembered her vision and crouched lower to the earth; her leg muscles became coiled and tense like a copper spring and just as ready to pounce.
Charging headlong, the first warrior found himself atop the slope. As if hot on a shadow’s tail. The man panted heavily; giving away his position almost immediately. And Ceriwyn soon realised her own warm breath would reveal her as well, if he was looking.
She peered through the dead leaves of the shrub she hid behind and saw it was the man she had healed. Wulfrik was his name. Dozens of oaks and pines marked him, though they were quick to move out of Wulfrik’s way.
Much more frightening awake than unconscious, his eyebrows furrowed in furious concentration. What feathery tattoos she could spot stood out stark against the whitewashed forest. Although it didn’t look like he was searching for her.
Once again, Ceriwyn was wary as her hands tingled and burned.
Suddenly, the dæmon’s beat disappeared, leaving nothing for Wulfrik to follow. His heated glare scanned his surroundings. His eyes darted wildly for a trace. Yet all he noticed was that Reuben was absent.
Siará’s remaining daylight burned through overcast skies. Upon crisp white snow made the forest floor aglow. But all for naught. For Wulfrik saw nothing. He heard nothing and smelt nothing. Everstill, he could feel the dæmon’s presence. Lurking; just out of sight. And then the clouds darkened again.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a streak. It’s black-hooded shape rushing past Wulfrik.
It whipped by again. So near to his side he felt it brush against him.
Thrice more it disappeared and reappeared, nearly too fast to glimpse.
“Come out, you devil,” Wulfrik dared.
The response was a rough and throaty chuckle, echoing throughout the weald. Though its source was well behind Wulfrik. He smiled and sheathed his sword. Slowly he looked over his shoulder.
Expecting his foe to move, he flashed like lightning for his bow. He pulled the bowstring back and fired fore; directly at the villain. It went right through. The dæmon stood uninjured. I may as well have shot a cloud.
Frowning, Wulfrik reached for yet another arrow from his quiver when the dæmon surged forth without warning. Silently. And not a footprint in it’s wake.
Its stride took Wulfrik by surprise, leaving him with no time to attack with his sword. And it shoved Wulfrik backward with ease, before evaporating into a mist as thick as venom and as black as ink. Wulfrik jumped back up without hesitation, flailing Harvest about and waiting for the dæmon to return. From left to right he swung, turning on his heel in every direction. He did so for over a minute. But it never did come back.
Finally taking a moment to catch his breath, Wulfrik breathed in a sweet aroma. A fragrance familiar. Lavender, linden, lacewood… “And moonoak. The girl…” She’s here.
Leg after leg, Reuben pushed on through the dense snow. His breathing was heavy; he struggled to latch onto the gossamer air. He cursed Wulfrik for soaring off before him. But doing so disrupted his breathing pattern, almost forcing him to stop. The dæmon must have wanted to tire out the Brothers in another of its games.
Reuben, unlike his brother, was unaccustomed to frigid climates. The Heart-Eater has been exposed to the arctic temperatures of Roktar for all of his life. This is mere child's play to him.
Even after settling in Roktar, Reuben could never adapt to the extreme weather. He could feel his bones calcifying, the cartilage in his joints freezing. The ligaments in Reuben's knees scraped against each other, making Reuben wince with each step.
It grew too much for Reuben, however. And Wulfrik was already leagues ahead. He had to stop and gather himself. He shook his legs out and took a few heavy gulps. At last, a warm rush of blood surged through him.
After his respite, Reuben cursed the trees. He stopped abruptly however, when he noticed the interlaced branches spanning past his field of vision. A wall. He turned around, and another wall stood in front of him. A wall quite thick of thorns. Reuben assumed it was made by the dæmon to keep the Brothers from ceasing pursuit.
Reuben snickered, “You can play by yourself, whatever you are." He unsheathed Præmos and slid his finger against the side of the blade. “Should be sharp enough."
Reuben spaced his legs apart and rose Præmos over his shoulder. After another deep breath, Præmos sliced through the branches, creating a sliver large enough for Reuben to charge through.
Ha! Ardent laughter screeched within Reuben's head. Followed shortly by a voice that didn’t belong to him. Do you really think you can escape me so easily?
Reuben collapsed to one knee, “Get out of my head!"
As Reuben tried standing up, the branches began to regenerate. In a matter of moments, it seemed like there was no hole to begin with.
“You son of a—"
Such Austantan nobility should learn to watch his tongue.
“Where are you leading us?"
Do you really want to know?
Fear began to creep up Reuben's spine. However, he concealed whatever dread he felt and spat it back, “Do you think that I would surrender so quickly?"
If I did, then you would make quite an unappealing toy. You should be thankful that I have chosen to play with you for so long. Or perhaps, I should be the one thanking you and your brother for entertaining me thus far. Watching the life drain from his face was such a treat!
“Enough! My brother will never fall to the likes of you."
He almost did. But by my gracious… Never mind. You will see soon enough. I suggest you return to your brother, Masterson.
In an instant, the shivers in Reuben's back dissipated. Before he continued, Reuben pondered the dæmon's words. Muttering them aloud into the frigid winds. “But by my gracious..."
That was when the Judge of Moravi finally understood… The witch, the maiden, and the dæmon, like the great Moravi, were one and the same.
With rage and urgency, Reuben picked up speed again. Mounds of snow crunching underfoot. Branches hacked and slashed by his steel as he carved a way through those that thwarted his path.
Finally, the second one. Quite strenuously, this little brother— who by himself was big, but seemed like a normal man compared to the mass that was Wulfrik— pushed on uphill, fighting through the tangled limbs of a pair of spruces. Reuben huffed as he came up next to Wulfrik. But a few feet away.
With his ginger hair slicked back from all his running, they look absolutely nothing alike. How are they brothers?
Puffs of steam flowed from his nostrils, as he caught his breath.
Ceri read their lips from afar.
“Where is it?” Reuben muttered warily. “The dæmon? where did it go?”
Wulfrik sighed, “Gone… But come now, Reuben. Never mind the dæmon. Though, stay quiet. We don’t want to scare her off. Do you smell that? In the air? These damn trees are masking her scent, but if you pay close attention, this one smells of wildflowers.”
Reuben gave Wulfrik a puzzled look. “What one?”
“The girl, Reuben. Go on… You must smell the lacewood and the moonoak?”
At last Reuben sniffed, detecting the same scent. “Is that…” but his voice trailed off. He’d smelled the pot pourri before. He’d heard himself, and Wulfrik say those same words before. The same words. The same pitch and intonation. Everything. Wulfrik glanced over, his eyes as wide as Reuben’s. He’d heard it too. And so had she. From a dream.
“No,” argued Wulfrik, who was quick to block his brother’s path.
“Step aside, Wulf.”
“No, wait Reuben, you can’t!”
“No? Tell me. Why is that? Because only you can charge into battle!? Because you think you cannot die!? Or do you have a death wish?”
“Don’t you see? It’s like the dream! This moment! Like yours, like mine—”
The dream? Ceriwyn wondered.
“Precisely. Like the dream. This hunt will end here and now! The witch is no more than a few metres away!”
“It’s not the witch!” growled Wulfrik. “It’s the girl!”
Reuben rolled his eyes, refusing to back down. “Listen to me,” and he placed his gloved hands on Wulfrik’s shoulders as his voice began to shake, “They are one and the same. The girl, the witch, the dæmon… are the same fucked up creature, trying to take advantage of us! And for the last few days now, it has toyed with us, it has tried to kill us and it has poisoned your mind, Wulfrik! First it wanted you to think there were two different creatures! Now it wants you to think there are three!”
For no reason at all, Ceri suddenly whispered to herself, “Some beasts walk on all fours, some touch the ground with two. And some move so gracefully near the ground their feet and hands never do.”
She covered her lips immediately after, unsure as to why she said what she said. It was a phrase she had never spoken before, yet one that seemed so… familiar.
No sooner had she said this, Ceri saw a shadow out of the corner of her eye. It was accompanied by a rather frightening sound emanating from the forest. Not quite a rustle, but a long and loud rattle which echoed throughout, followed by a hiss and what sounded like a sharp gasp or one drawn-out breath. A last, dying breath.
But she knew better than to look. Slowly, she checked her pack one last time, making sure it was secure against her and wouldn't fall off in an ensuing chase.
At last the Brothers’ muttering stopped, and the younger brother even pointed. Ceriwyn knew they had finally spotted her.
Reuben, unsure of if his Brother was heeding the warning, tried shaking him awake, “Can't you see!? He is toying with our heads. That poison was never meant to kill you. It was merely a hallucinogen. The maiden you sense is no maiden, but the dæmon luring you to insanity, before he finishes you off when he no longer finds you entertaining enough!"
“Wulfrik!" screamed Reuben, indignantly rattling his Brother. But he was catatonic.
Reuben chuffed, “Wait, he says." He lowered his voice and his eyes narrowed. Pointing to the steam of a breath a few yards away, “Wait... Over there. You see?” Be it maiden, witch, or dæmon, it would be dead soon enough. “We need to strike now!"
Wulfrik didn’t respond. His brother’s words didn’t even register when Reuben tried to jolt Wulfrik back awake.
What you hunt and what hunts you, are not one and the same…
That phrase, thought Wulfrik. It came from my dream… Wulfrik remembered something. Words spoken by his old master. Words which differed from his brother’s. As the information came back to him, he had become disoriented.
He saw Reuben’s lips move and his brows curl, but couldn’t understand what he was saying. Then cautiously he arched his back and pointed soundlessly to brume in the distance.
What you hunt and what hunts you, are not one and the same…
The younger brother drew his sword. To which Wulfrik protested halfheartedly, “Reuben…”
Barely paying attention, Reuben walked past him. He crouched low to the ground, mindful only of his footing. He stepped towards her just once until suddenly she was off like an arrow. Yet Ceri’s footfalls were heavy on the snowy ground; and her pacing faster and faster, only led the warrior on. On towards her aroma of lacewood and moonoak.
What you hunt and what hunts you are not one and the same… are not one and the same… are not one and the same… not one and the same… not one and the same…
Open your eyes… An alert Wulfrik quietly gasped, “Ceriwyn!”
Whatever it was, it was running away.
Reuben had cleared the field but slowed when he saw the trees begin to move once again. It was another wall building. Then to his right, a frenetic charge.
Before he could be led into another trap, Reuben stopped moving and turned to face the new pair of footsteps. Moving at breakneck speed, Wulfrik came careening into the fray. In a serpentine manner; weaving in between trees and branches. Though he took a different route from Reuben, likely in an attempt to intercept the girl. Nearly a hundred yards away, Wulfrik made a wide circle around the prey. Reuben prayed that he finally came to his senses, but was prepared to strike if Wulfrik decided to turn against him.
Not long after could Reuben begin to make out a silhouette. A woman who reeked of wildflowers, with short brown hair.
Was this the ‘Ceriwyn’ that Wulfrik saw? Or the dæmon, come again to beguile us Brothers?
As Reuben approached the woman, the trees began to lash out towards him. Nimble as he was, Reuben sliced through, only for them to divide and attack again. Reuben looked out to where Wulfrik had been. In such a short amount of time, Wulfrik was almost parallel to the maiden. However he too was being hindered by the woods of Pytham.
The girl. Ceriwyn.
Thus far he had anticipated the direction she was taking. She was headed northward. Left around one tree, and right to dodge another; hurrying through the forest. Wulfrik soon caught a glimpse of her running past when suddenly she changed course— East.
Looking to his left, Wulfrik saw that he had overtaken Reuben in their little race, though not by much. He still darted on, determined to make the kill. Ending their hunt at last. And one way or another, he would find a way to impale her. Even without his lance. So Wulfrik picked up speed. As though he were a gale-force wind.
She nimbly slid over and under fallen trees, only glancing behind her once to be certain they followed her. It was the bigger brother taking up the lead. Adrenaline pumped through her legs; her heart raced. She evened out her air. Two steps in, two steps out. Ceriwyn’s pack bounced against her back, making it difficult to keep her balance. Crushing of snow and twigs seemed to echo in her wake.
Ceri could almost feel their breath on her neck. Or was that just the stars?
She couldn't tell, nor take time to stop and check. Tree whipped past her, as if reaching out for her. The trees played their part well. Their thick, sharp limbs shot out like cannon. Their trunks grew fatter and stepped closer into Wulfrik’s path. Though they hindered Reuben and Ceriwyn just the same. Like the bars of a cage.
As if the woods are a prison. A trap.
Wulfrik growled loudly for all to hear. As if to inspire fear into the forest; as if to demand its obedience. It would have made her tremble. He slashed violently at the timbers; rending them to bark and woodchips. He sawed one in half in a single blow, and kicked another so hard it came unrooted. One small sapling was turned into sawdust. Had he the proper room to swing his scythe, what damage he could have done.
After a moment, it seemed his snarl was so effective that the thicket parted and made a path. And a path for his brother too. Eventually, he was hot on her tail, and Reuben just two steps behind.
Reuben focused back on the woman; the trees were after her as well. Most likely another one of the dæmon's schemes. Naturally. Feign innocence until it tears me and Wulfrik apart. Reuben would not let that happen.
His roar so effective, Wulf had surpassed him. Parting the thicket and creating a path. Thus they were a few metres from the woman now, and gaining on her. Despite her agility. Any other bounty hunter would have lost distance much quicker. Still, Reuben was afraid he may tire before she did.
However, perhaps it was fear driving him forward. Or determination leading him on. Adrenaline pumped through his veins faster than ever. He wanted only to see the dæmon, that witch, slain, and his Brother’s mind returned to good health.
Wulfrik looked behind him and saw a hunger in the Executioner’s eyes. The fires of Obitulem burning bright. He channelled those flames somehow, like there were coals under his heels.
Ceriwyn on the other hand was nimble. So sprightly, so quick! It seemed no wonder to Wulfrik that she could stay ahead of them. If he were a heavy mallet slamming into the trees, then she was a dart flying through them. Swiftly soaring in between; under those which had fallen, and in bounds over their distended unruly roots. Even with the satchel on her back, she outmanoeuvred both brothers. And at her current pace, it was a question now, thought Wulfrik, who will tire first? Who will win this race? He feared it would be Reuben.
Out of nowhere, a raven streaked past in a clearing ahead of Ceriwyn. It cawed at her and she reacted. Poorly.
Let them catch you girl! Cormac yelled.
Ceri slowed slightly, taking a peek back at her trail; for the slightest of instances, looked toward her pursuers. It was a critical error that cost her not just distance between the brothers, but her footing as well. As her eyes were turned, her shin collided with a hidden tree stump. There was a solid snap causing her to cry out and fall. Ceriwyn skidded about yard, stopping hard against another, living, tree.
There was no doubt she was injured. Though whether or not she had broken or fractured any bones she couldn’t immediately discern. Her vision fuzzed around the edges, the pain in her leg shooting up to her head.
Soon two figures would appear over her. Though she could have sworn there were three.
Wulfrik was within arm's reach, and in a split second, seemingly tackled the woman to the ground. Reuben was still behind but he readied Præmos to deliver a lethal blow. A punishing blow. Like a hammer to anvil. The witch would be dead, here and now.
Reuben lifted his blade, ready for Wulfrik to roll out of the way. But he never did. Instead, the painted man had braced himself in the snow, so that he was leaning halfway over the witch’s sleeping form. He’d closed his eyes, and muttered the first verse of his chant. Then he rose swiftly and deflected the blow; betraying the contract, as Reuben was scared that he would.
The swords crashed. Metal against metal. Reuben would have struck with enough force to kill a giant. As such, the edge of his blade slid to the crossguard of Wulfrik’s. With such power and ferocity, it made sparks ignite.