Hanging by a Thread
Shivering uncontrollably in the shredding wind, Drevin observed a small cave entrance on the mountain side, partially hidden by the spruces and junipers growing in front of it. The reason why he hesitated appeared in front of him on the muddy ground, fresh tracks leading toward the same cave he had been looking at. Knowing, however, that he did not have much time before he would freeze to death, Drevin approached the cave cautiously. The poignards appeared in his hands as he sneaked through the covering bushes. There was no time to go look elsewhere, he would either get rid of whatever dwelled in this cave or he would die - and Drevin was not ready to die - not yet.
A bloodcurdling roar echoed from the back of the cave as soon as he stepped inside. The cave floor led down in a gentle slope before ending to a roomy den, where a young black bear was staring at him, standing menacingly on its back paws. Stretching his enormous body all the way to the ceiling, the beast roared again, and the echo amplified it into a rumbling thunder. The sight was most impressive, but Drevin had no time to stop thinking about the majestic beauty of it, instead he charged in, growling like an animal himself. The bear was ready for a battle, for there was no way for it to escape, and in all truth it was unlikely it would have done that in any case. Winter was coming, and this cave was probably the best place to hibernate within a fifty mile radius. Bears wandered far during their search for a den, and this bear had found almost a perfect one. It would defend it with its life.
Drevin, tired, cold and wounded, felt sudden adrenaline rush in his veins as he stormed in. The pain faded and his heavy legs felt light once more, but realizing his own condition, he knew that this battle had to come to a quick conclusion or it would be the end of him.
A heavy paw hurtled toward his head. Drevin dodged to the side, but the bear was as agile as the former assassin; the claws drew a deep cut above his ear. He could not feel the pain immediately, but the sudden flow of warmness on the skin of his neck revealed enough about the seriousness of this new injury. He could not afford to take much more. As he dodged the hit, he sank one of the blades deep into the bear's back, hoping to puncture something more than just a muscle. The beast roared angrily and tried to close its large jaws on Drevin's leg to hold him in place, but this time he was too fast. Leaping away, Drevin landed behind the bear and used all his strength to hit the beast with both poignards. He had caused two more bleeding wounds, but they did not seem to slow the bear down at all, and the next attack came too fast for him to do anything about it.
The bear twirled around easily before Drevin could get out from striking distance and the strong paw came down like a hammer and smashed him to the ground. He rolled around just to see the bear standing above him, ready to tear his throat open, but the poignards were still firmly in his hands. Through his entire life he had been taught not to drop his weapons, and now those lessons paid off. As the bear stomped down with its front paws in order to squash Drevin's head, the blades were there to serve the beast their deadly welcome. Pushing both blades through the bear's throat, Drevin rolled away to save himself from being crushed by the falling carcass. The wheezing last breath of the beast was almost covered by a disgusting gurgle coming from its lungs as blood was filling them fast. The bear's eyes glazed as Drevin struggled to free his weapons that were left partially under the falling animal.
Once he had successfully retrieved his poignards, he did not waste any time but began to skin the animal immediately. As the adrenaline rush slowly passed, he began to feel weaker and weaker. All the new wounds on top of the old ones that had opened during the fight would take a long time to heal, and he needed food for the time he would have to spend in the cave. The large bear carcass was a good source, but once he would have all the meat cut off, there was still the task of dragging the remains outside, preferably far from the entrance to keep all the scavengers away from his hideout. He saved the skin, for there was nothing as warm as a bear hide during the freezing winter nights.
When Drevin had finally piled up all the meat and folded the fur, he stuffed the bear's stomach with all the remaining waste like intestines, viscerals and the head. Then he dragged the stomach outside into the drizzle and carried it as far from the entrance as he was able to walk without passing out. Once far enough from the entrance, Drevin dropped the gory garbage into middle of the spruce thickets about half a mile down from the den. Then he crawled back to the cave, shivering from unnatural coldness. The weakness could have been caused by the loss of blood, but he knew that the excruciating chill was a result of increasing fever, and the conditions were everything but ideal to be struggling with infection.
Using the last remains of his strength, Drevin gathered some twigs and branches from outside and made a small fire in the cave. While he was still able to move, he also paid a visit to the nearby pond he had seen while dragging the bear stomach down the slope. It seemed like the pond was created by a small spring, which guaranteed fresh and clean water. After filling his flagon, he used every little bag and pouch he could find to reserve more water for himself. It was not much, but he knew he was going to need every drop he could get in the next few days if his fever continued to rise.
Back in the cave, Drevin attempted to clean his wounds as well as he could to prevent them from getting any worse, but the position of most of them was difficult, which made it very hard for him to reach everywhere. Green and yellow pus oozed out from the deep wound on his back, which was most likely the reason for his fever. Morhan's blade had punctured so deep that Merwyn had not been able to clean it entirely, which left a large part of the cleaning process for Drevin's own body. He could not see his back, but he did see the bandage, soaked with rotten fluids. With a disgusted wince, he threw the bandage into the fire, and made the hard decision to leave all infected wounds exposed to air, which could potentially help them to recover. Drevin had no way to clean them properly, which concerned him more than the assassins that were looking for him. He could be facing a slow and painful death in the mountains - alone and forgotten.
After quietly crawling inside his traveling cloak, he pulled the bear fur on top of his legs and lower torso. As it was still fresh, the fur smelled terrible, but it offered amazing protection against the cold, and at this point he was not really in a position to complain about anything that improved his chances to survive.
* * *
Snowflakes floated in the brisk air, twirling wildly as they danced around in the wind. The ground was frozen, and ready for the first blizzard to come and cover it beneath a soft, white blanket that would cease all life for months.
Morhan wrapped his cloak tighter while observing the white mountain side, but like so many times before, he could not see anything unusual. The experienced assassin had not forgotten, or forgiven himself for what had happened in the tiny cottage a month earlier. His target had escaped, and in what condition! Badly wounded, exhausted and weak, and still he had slipped through his fingers. Terrigan had not said a word, but he had seen the silent mockery in his eyes. How he wanted to dig out those eyes and feed them to him, but he knew the Hooded One would not accept that. Terrigan was one of Grimnir's favorites, just like he was, and usually there was no open conflicts allowed between such people. The kind of talent he and Terrigan, as different as they may have been, represented, was too valuable to be wasted in an internal power struggle.
Morhan was sure his prey was in no condition to travel very far, which meant he had either died or found a place to recover. Knowing his former protege very well, Morhan was willing to place his bets on the latter option. There were numerous caves and crevices in these mountains. If he had found a proper source of food and water, there was practically no limit on how long he could stay hidden. But that was not a reason for Morhan to give up his search. No, he would continue until he found Drevin and made sure he was dead. Only then he could return to Iskadron and give his report to the Hooded One.
The shadows were getting longer as the afternoon slowly turned to evening, but it would be hours before Morhan returned back to town. Sometimes he used the cottage as where Drevin had stayed as a base camp to have more time scouting, but every once in a while he had to visit Lokhan for more supplies. Camping outside was not a good idea when there were alternatives available, for the beasts like black bears, wolves and saberfang cats were a constant threat even for a man who was completely awake and alert.
The Burning Candle Inn was changed into their new headquarters, which did not raise too much suspicion as people moved constantly in these troubled times to seek better places to live. The grass always seemed greener on the other side of the fence, so even moving up to the next town often spawned false hope that helped people to continue their miserable lives. They brought Old Ned from the Black Crow to host their new place, which removed all doubts from the hearts of the people. Many of them still remembered the time when Old Ned ran the most successful inn in Lokhan until the southern trade route suddenly dried a few years ago. They were happy to see him working again, thinking Ned had bought the establishment from Gerrick. Even the city guards visited Burning Candle now, drinking mead together with the Grey Cloaks, which gave these amateurs a whole new status in town. Old Ned worked hard to spread rumors that it was actually the Grey Cloaks who gave him the money to buy Gerrick's place, which turned the brigands from scum to honored benefactors.
While things seemed brighter for some people, they surely remained gloomy for the others. Each day that passed by without results was one day closer to a failure, for it became more and more likely that Drevin was either dead or fully recovered from his injuries, and in both cases Morhan would lose the feeling of satisfaction for a completed task. He needed to feel warm blood on his hands, needed to hear the victim's last sigh and look into the eyes as life faded away from them, and the skin turned pale. But if he could not get any results before the spring, he would have to begin making calculations which way he might have gone. And of course that still did not rule out the option that he lay dead somewhere in the mountains.
”I will find you, Drevin,” he whispered quietly to the wind as he disappeared into the whirling snow that was slowly escalating into a blizzard. It seemed like the land would receive a snow cover before the morning, which was just another frustrating obstacle in the assassin's way to find his prey.
* * *
Strange, distressing dreams. Piercing chill that painfully penetrated every muscle and bone. Horrid hallucinations that made the cave walls change shape and the deep shadows dance wildly around him. All symptoms of a high fever that he knew very well, and yet they were all so real, so frightening. He shivered so strongly that his teeth rattled uncontrollably, then after a while, he was sweating so immensely it seemed as if he was going to melt on the cave floor.
Drevin was seriously ill. The inflamed wounds were about to kill him, he realized that during the short moments of clarity he had amidst the whirling lunacy. Drinking as much as he could, Drevin lay still under the covers for days, hoping that eventually the sickness would loosen up its tight grip, giving him the chance to do what he needed to do. But as it was, there was nothing else he could do at the moment but wait, for he was too weak to even stand. After trying a few times, he learned that it was utterly useless and doomed to fail. The nauseating dizziness was too much for him to bear. Besides, where could he go anyway? He was trapped in the mountains, surrounded by the endless dunes of snow. It was his fortune that so many trees happened to grow around the immediate vicinity of the cave, providing plenty of food for the fire, which was one of the key elements of his survival, for otherwise he would have died already.
After suffering for five long days, Drevin was considering the option to end his own life, which, at that point, would have been a true blessing. He was coughing painfully, and his breathing was getting considerably harder. In case the disease had spread to his lungs, the battle for his life would be short. Furious maybe, but without a doubt, very short.
It certainly seemed as if the situation was hopeless, but just when he was leaning toward the comfortable option of a suicide instead of the suffocating death lurking ahead of him, something changed. The deep quiver had lessened, and his mind seemed to push the surrounding fog away, momentarily at least. The fever must have reached the trough of a wave, which gave him a brief moment to breathe before it would rush up again, delving him into the icy depths once more. Drevin spent that short amount of given time by trying to eat something and drink as much as he could. It was not much, not more than a small strip of bear meat he had cooked on the fire before he had become too weak, and water he had stored from the pond. Also, he tried to clean his wounds the best he could, and while he was doing that, he noticed something encouraging; the wound on his back had stopped oozing pus. A dry scab was forming around it, a clear sign of healing. A tired smile appeared on his weary face, perhaps he would make it through after all. Staring into the small fire he had built on the floor during the first day, amazed by how he had actually managed to keep it alive while slumbering in his restless dream, Drevin supported his head with his arm and allowed his thoughts to wander back to the days when he and Belith had first arrived to Lokhan. Those had been happy times with fresh hope of a new beginning, times without worries or fear. He had been so sure that the threat of Purple Lotus was permanently far behind them - how utterly wrong that sounded now when everything was lost. The scorching flame of vengeance was burning in his heart once again. But before he could proceed, he needed to rest and recover fully from his dire injuries that had nearly taken his life.
At some point, in the middle of his thoughts, his exhausted body had simply shut down, and his mind descended into peaceful, reviving sleep. This time there were no nightmares, no hallucinations, just healthy, deep sleep.
When Drevin woke several hours later, he felt like a new man. Still weak and weary from the lack of food and the severity of his inflammation, but free from fever and pain. He stood up carefully to make sure he would not lose his balance, wrapped his thick cloak around him, and staggered toward the entrance, where the enormous pile of bear meat was stacked up neatly under a thick cover of snow.
Wading through the light snow, Drevin collected some wood before returning inside. Shuddering and sweating from the effort, he placed the meat and the wood next to his dwindling fire. Then he began to feed the flames with a collection of thinner twigs to make it grow. Once there was enough, he created a simple rack where he was able to hang the meat. It would take a while before the frozen chunk of meat was fully cooked, so in the meanwhile, he consumed all the rest of his previous storage. There was not much left, but it was enough to help him wait until the larger chunk was ready. Watching at the crackling flames while waiting, he fell asleep again, and he did not wake up before the delicious smell of the roasted meat filled the cave, and was simply too much to be resisted.
Drevin was recovering fast, and when the dim light of the morning began to rise, he was already cleaning and sharpening his finely forged poignards, then he repeated the same task with his knives. Going through the routines had a calming effect on him, helping him to gather his thoughts and plan ahead. He had faced death for the second time during this grievous game he was drawn in, and he did not feel like trusting the odds in an unavoidable third encounter. He needed to focus on what had to be done.
In a week, Drevin was fully back on his feet. The scabs would fall off in time, leaving scars to remind him about this struggle. He felt good physically, having almost completely regained his mobility. A slight clumsiness still lingered in the limbs, but it would be shaken off as soon as he would get back into his own element, sneaking in the shadows like a ghost. He took a walk outside every day to strenghten his body. If he wanted to confront his enemies and have a chance to pull it off, every single muscle from head to toe had to be in shape.
Now that he was finally getting better, he also considered the option of leaving and disappearing completely from Lokhan, slipping away like dust in the wind without witnesses. He could get far away, and with some luck, he could do it without leaving any traceable tracks behind, so Morhan and Terrigan would have nothing to follow. They would have to return with empty hands and feel the wrath of the Hooded One on their skin for the utterly failed mission.
Tempting, almost too tempting it was, but Drevin could never follow such a plan and live with himself afterwards. It would have been like desecrating the memory of his love for Belith, staining her grace for all eternity. He had to stay, and he had to make those dogs pay for what they had done. He was not going to rest before everything was said and done for good.
At twilight, when the shadows began to grow and the grey light fades into pitch-black darkness, he left the cave and headed back to the town. The snow made traveling slow, but Drevin was prepared for this. He waded through the dunes until he made it into the forest where walking became easier as most of the snow was piled on tree branches.
Several hours later, he reached the wooden fence that surrounded the entire city. The darkness helped him to avoid the city guards as he climbed over and jumped down to a shady alley between the wall and a sturdy house built of stone. Because of his long absence, Drevin had regained his advantage of no one being aware of his presence. He was not going to keep it for long though, for he had a burning urge to find out what had happened to Merwyn and her father. The fact that Morhan knew the way to the cottage was an obvious sign that something was terribly wrong, but as he approached the Burning Candle Inn, he was stunned by the view in front of it. People were coming and going in larger and smaller groups, and most of them seemed cheerful and pleased, which apparently was because of the service they were either going to get or had just enjoyed.
Drevin was breathing easier, and was in fact about to enter the inn himself, but something caught his ear that sent alarm bells off loudly in the back of his head. A passing group of slightly drunken laborers were talking, clearly content of the inn's menu.
”That Old Ned is just genius. I'll never get tired of his tasty wedges,” the man praised loudly, smacking his mouth to put more weight on his words.
Instead of walking in, Drevin continued smoothly to the side until he was out of sight, then he slipped to the side alley where the familiar kitchen door was located. What he had heard did not sound right at all. Who was this Old Ned? The name sounded awfully familiar, and after digging through the muddy waters of his mind, Drevin faintly remembered the old innkeeper from the Black Crow Inn. This sudden memory raised whole new questions in his mind, very unsettling, even daunting questions. Why had this man moved from the distant, ruined inn to the Burning Candle? Where were Merwyn and Gerrick? Questions that required answers immediately, and Drevin was determined to dig them out.