Rolf crouched against the snow-covered bramble; his hands pressed under his arms. The weather had cleared after dumping a foot of snow in the highlands. Those old men may know all about history and religion, he thought, but nothing about living outdoors. He warned them that a cold snap often followed snow this time of year. It had, making cross-country travel all the more difficult.
Columba advised Jordanes not to rush straight to Burg Altz. His weakened condition and lack of supporters would jeopardize his life as well as his return to power. Jordanes was so exhausted that Columba insisted he rest. Jordanes slept most of that day and all night but recovered very slowly from his ordeal. He woke late the next morning—still tired and very hungry.
When one night turned to two, Rolf concerned himself with replenishing his supply of food. He set noose snares along likely small animal runs. The first was empty that morning. The second held a still-struggling hare, which now hung from Rolf’s belt. The third snare was gone. Judging from the way its anchoring bush was jerked apart, the thin noose had tangled a larger animal’s leg instead of a squirrel or rabbit’s neck. He kept several more snares coiled in his pouch, one of which he secured to the same bush, but set the loop farther under the shrubbery and double knotted the anchor.
He hadn’t wanted to send Blackie home, but Rolf knew the shepherds needed the dog more. Blackie balked at Rolf’s first command but bounded away toward Willardhof when Rolf repeated the order. He’d have reached home before the dark that night. Rolf hoped his mother wouldn’t take Blackie’s return as a sign something bad had befallen him. He should have thought of that sooner. Mother worried over the smallest things.
Rolf crept down the hill from where he’d re-set the snares on the chance something would happen by in the early light. Dawn and dusk were foraging times for his intended prey, and for those who preyed on them. His snares were too fragile to trap a fox, but he’d caught a ferret once. Rabbits and hares had more meat. Rolf waited with a hunter’s patience. Patience, unfortunately, did not keep his fingers and toes warm. He dared not move, lest he alert the animals, but he knew he needed to refresh the fire because neither of the men tended it. Both seemed unfamiliar with caring for themselves.
Lord Jordanes would naturally expect others to tend his needs. Rolf wondered how he survived his trip from wherever he’d been imprisoned. That he had not been treated well was obvious. With the meager diet Rolf’s mother had packed and the game from his snares, the baron looked healthier than when he first thrust his sword at Rolf. Looking back, Rolf suspected he could have held his own against the lord’s long sword with just his staff.
Columba was a bigger puzzle. Despite his rustic garb, he looked more like a wealthy abbot than the humble holy brothers Rolf knew. How had he come this far from anywhere? And how did he know so much about the baron? And Rolf?
Enough. Rolf stamped his feet, blew on his numb fingers and started back toward camp. The first snare was empty as was the second. Rolf left the snares in place as they would leave in this direction after they broke their fast. They must move today.
A rabbit struggled in the third snare. Rolf dispatched it with a rap of his staff. He had the animals gutted, skinned and roasting spread on forked twigs over the rebuilt fire before the men roused.
Jordanes was too thin and weak for living in the wild. Assuming Columba convinced him not to just walk into Burg Altz, they needed to find someplace for the baron to recover. He wasn’t ready to face the day, let alone dragons. Columba ate meagerly but seemed not to suffer much from the cold. His many layers of homespun habit must have been warmer than they looked.
“We must press toward Burg Altz today,” Jordanes said before he even unwrapped from Rolf’s cloak. “Time is wasting. My family is at risk every day I tarry.”
Rolf knew the risk to the baron’s family had probably ended—along with their lives—years ago. He glanced at Columba but said nothing.
“Have you had any contact with them or anyone else at Burg Altz since you were released?” Columba asked.
“No. You know so much, do you know anything of them?”
“Not directly. As you can imagine, our access to the inside of Burg Altz is restricted.”
“Why?” Rolf asked. “You seem to know things about Baron Jordanes and me that we don’t know.”
Columba frowned. “Let’s say it’s a spiritual issue.”
Rolf remained unconvinced. The monastic seemed to know everything. For him to admit limitations didn’t ring true. His mother had taught Rolf to trust the church and everything connected with it, but as the future Willard he must be more discerning.
“Don’t you know anything about my family?” Jordanes asked.
“They have not been seen outside of the castle since the Dragon arrived. Nor have any of your retainers. All the principal staff seems new. And the Dragon is recruiting more soldiers than required by his levy. I don’t want to pronounce a doom, but the circumstances don’t appear hopeful.” Columba looked genuinely sad.
Jordanes stood. “Then I must get there immediately. How far it is from here?”
Columba looked at the sky, then into the shadows. “I’d say twenty or thirty miles. On foot in this snow, it could take us several days.”
“Surely only two,” Jordanes said.
“You, my dear baron, will have the greatest struggle. Deep snow tires one quickly. You are not fit for this exertion.” Columba raised his hand to forestall Jordanes protest. “Which, I agree, is all the more reason to start immediately. Are the rabbits ready, Rolf?”
“Close enough. I set snares along the trail I broke this morning. I assume it goes in the right direction. You start along that, and I’ll close camp and catch up.” As he spoke, Rolf pulled one of the staked rabbits from the fire. He handed it to Jordanes. He offered the second to the monastic and was surprised when Columba took it.
“Stay on the trail I’ve broken,” Rolf said, “so you don’t trip on my snares.”
Columba pulled his cowl over his head and helped Jordanes wrap in Rolf’s cloak. At Columba’s suggestion, Rolf gave Jordanes his staff. The men trudged out of camp.
“Protect your eyes,” Rolf called after them. “This bright snow will blind you, if you don’t.” Though a thin overcast of clouds persisted, the glare off the snow was brilliant.
He made short work of killing the fire and sweeping out the ashes. He replaced the pine boughs atop the wood pile. The site was available to any traveler, but he wanted to leave it ready for Willardhof shepherds using the lambing station. Rolf collected his empty snares as he hurried after the men. Even though his capuche covered his head and shoulders, he was quickly chilled without his cloak.
When he caught the men, Columba passed him more than half of the second rabbit. “Delicious.”
“Thank you,” Rolf said and finished eating the scrawny animal.
Rolf was lost. Sure, if he backtracked north, he’d eventually find familiar markings. But he saw nothing he knew among the stone stacks and evergreens they’d wandered among since the sun was highest. Were it not for Sol, he’d have no confidence the old monk led them south. It seemed that half the adventure stories he’d heard involved someone lost in a great wood. This outing felt less like a mission and more like a punishment with every step he took.
The wind rose after noon, blowing white waves across their path. The snow against the earth melted, making slippery footing underneath. Rolf’s toes were soon wet, then cold. He walked as close behind Jordanes as he could with his hands jammed under his arms and his head retracted into his hood. Columba passed him a length of homespun cloth, the same dark brown as his habit. Rolf mumbled his thanks and wrapped it around his face.
Columba altered their route to take advantage of the shelter of eroded sandstone columns, but the wind pursued them. When they stopped to rest, Columba produced a leather flask of water from his voluminous habit. They drained it.
Just then Rolf was more concerned that his fingers and toes were numb. He had kept his head down and stumbled in Jordanes’s footsteps. When the old baron stopped, Rolf bumped into him. Jordanes fell forward with a curse. Columba helped him up. Rolf looked around. Stone stacks stood closer around them, some surrounded by evergreens. He looked back the way they’d come. Nothing looked familiar. With no trumpet sound or herald’s proclamation, Rolf had set foot beyond all that was familiar and loved. His adventure had truly begun.
Without a word Columba moved onward.
Dusk came early. Rolf was so disoriented that he wasn’t sure which direction they staggered. The snow blew about them as they trudged into a hollow in one of the larger stone stacks.
“This will be a good site to camp,” Columba said as he stamped his feet free from their burden of snow.
“How far … have we gone?” Jordanes leaned against the stone. His breath rattled as he exhaled clouds of fog.
“Perhaps fifteen miles,” Columba said.
“Then we must continue.” Jordanes straightened. “We can’t stop with so little progress.”
“We must stop. It’s dark. You are exhausted, and we’ll need time to clear the area and start a fire. It’ll grow colder now that the sun is down.”
Jordanes looked as if he would continue arguing. Instead he shuffled to a nearby oak’s trunk and blew great clouds of foggy breath as he slid to the ground.
“Baron, if any of your family survived until this morning, they are probably still alive,” Columba said. “Don’t borrow tomorrow’s sorrow. You have enough burden today.”
“Platitudes do not ease my fear.”
“Then trust in Him who will not fail you,” Columba said. “And accept whatever comes from Him as a gift.”
“Yes, of course.” Jordanes didn’t sound convinced.
Rolf’s fingers were so cold that he couldn’t break the wood he gathered. The partly melted snow had refrozen to the sticks. Knocking the wood against the stone tower freed most of the ice, but Rolf needed kindling to start a fire. Columba borrowed Rolf’s knife and feathered several sticks. Placed together over a pile of drier pine needles, they caught fire readily from his flint and fire starter. He built the fire against a depression in a stone stack. The three of them sat with their backs to the wind as the fire smoked and popped, but gradually heated them.
Rolf looked into his pouch, hoping to find enough left for one more meal. His fingers searched the pouch’s corners in vain. They could hardly eat the ground oats. “We’ve eaten all I had except these oats.”
“And we’re grateful for your hospitality,” Columba said. “As much as we need more food, I don’t think you should try to place your snares yet. Rest a bit. Then try for something. If we had a bow, we might seek larger game. I’ve seen deer signs.”
“Yes, there are deer here,” Jordanes said in a hoarse whisper. “A good population. Well, there were.”
“I have a sling,” Rolf said. “Normally I’m a good shot, but I wouldn’t hit anything with my fingers so cold.”
“No matter,” said Columba. “Seeing how both of you struggled, I altered my track today. If we push hard, we should reach the refuge of a hermit tomorrow night. He can shelter us even if he has little in the way of creature comforts. He may also know more about the situation inside Burg Altz.”
“How far from Altz is he?”
“Five or six miles. The most direct route may not be passable. We are near the source of the Altz River. There are ravines and broken ground ahead.”
“Yes, I know of it,” Jordanes said. “A wrong turn can waste hours.”
“We’re above the worst of it,” reported Columba. “We should have no trouble finding our way to his hermitage.”
Rolf must have dozed. When he returned to consciousness a bed of coals underlay the fire. He warmed his hands, then separated and untangled his snare strings. “I don’t know this area,” he said. “I may not be able to find the rabbit runs. We’ve probably scared anything away from here. Have to go farther out. Is there water near here?”
Both men pointed toward the west. “We found a spring just over there,” Columba said. “It may feed the Altz. It should be a good site for your snares.”
Rolf stumbled into the night. He paused to let his eyes adjust, but the dark remained deep. He tried to remember the phase of the moon but couldn’t. Finally he followed the men’s tracks to and from the spring. By getting on his knees, Rolf could see the sheltered places under the brush. Between the dark and the snow, he couldn’t make out animal runs, but he set the snares around the spring. His numb fingers and the stiff string prevented doing a good job.
Blackie would have suffered in this weather. Rolf missed his dog but was glad he sent him home.
When Rolf returned from setting his traps, both men were asleep, each leaning against the rocks on opposite sides of the fire. Rolf first thought to snuggle near the portly brother as being the more likely to be warm, but then he looked at Jordanes. The baron still looked like some beggar. Had it not been for Columba’s mission to intercept him, Rolf doubted he would have believed the man was a baron—sword or no. Rolf put a few more short sticks, apparently sectioned by the baron’s sword, onto the fire then positioned himself behind the baron’s feet. Though his front was warm, his back felt the chill.
He woke. It was dark and still. The fire had burned down to a bed of still glowing coals. Jordanes hadn’t moved, but Columba was gone. Strange. Rolf thought he would have awoken had either man moved. He was considering adding a branch to the fire when Columba returned. He moved quietly for one so large.
“I believe at least one of your snares has been successful,” the big man whispered. “I heard the jerking of underbrush near the spring. Check them now since you’re awake. If your catch is as small as those yesterday, I suggest we give all of it to the baron.”
“Yes, his need is greatest.”
“Bless you, boy.”
“Who are you really?” Rolf asked.
“What do you mean?” Columba looked straight into Rolf’s eyes. His pale eyes seemed to glow with an inner light.
“Nothing about you is right. You’re too good, too smart, and you’re hardly eating. Trudging through this snow is hard work. How can you be the strongest of us? I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“You’ve led a sheltered life.” Columba smiled.
“See? That’s it right there. How do you know what kind of life I’ve led?”
“It’s obvious. You’ve never left the locale of your home, yet when you are sent on an important mission—important to your family—you’re sent as fully equipped as your mother and father could make you. You rushed to my aid without counting the risk of a stripling youth facing down three armed men. You ordered them off your land as if you expected to be obeyed. You attach yourself to the party of two strangers, one of whom may be on a death mission. You are a wonder, boy.”
“Maybe, but you haven’t answered my question.”
“Telling you would only confuse things.”
“Tell me anyway.” Rolf cocked his head toward his shoulder.
Columba nodded. “How do I put this? Would you believe I was your—no, his guardian angel?”
“Guardian angel? Are you?” Rolf wasn’t sure what he wanted the answer to be, but that wasn’t it.
“No, but anything else I tell you will sound equally bizarre.”
“What is it you’re not saying?”
“Right.” Columba smiled his self-satisfied smile. “Baron Jordanes is a good, but not particularly exceptional man. Like so many of his class, he was called several times during his adult life to participate in the wars of his liege lords, despite his total disinterest in the cause or outcome of such wars. He’s risked his life for men who cared not a whit whether their followers lived or died.”
“But that’s the way it is, isn’t it? I mean, my father says we have to support our lords, they have to protect us.”
“Yes, though your father gives more—both service and produce—than he receives in turn. Be that as it may, Baron Jordanes was captured, as he said. Normally, nobles are exchanged or ransomed at the end of the fighting. But Jordanes seems to have been forgotten—perhaps intentionally. He was shuffled from one hold to another. He’s been away from home almost six years. His prolonged absence created an opening into which stepped a very ambitious and dangerous being.”
“Exactly. What you know about dragons?”
“My father says there’s nothing good about dragons. They’re evil through and through.”
“Close enough,” Columba said.
“But there’s not really a dragon at Burg Altz, is there? Just a man named Konrad, who calls himself Dragon and lords it over a bunch of fools, like my brother.”
“If it were so simple, someone like me would not be involved.”
“More of you are in on this?”
“We are at work across the world.”
“Doing what?” Rolf squinted his eye. He still had a sense that Columba was hiding more than he revealed.
“We do the will of our Master. He commands; we obey. Much like your feudal societies.”
“Much more than that.” Columba smiled. “The point is we do not normally involve ourselves in politics. We do involve ourselves in the life and welfare of the people. This self-styled Dragon is an evil beyond the experience—perhaps beyond the imagination—of people like you and Baron Jordanes. He is very evil and very dangerous. He has violated the bounds set by … by his liege lord, who has proven unwilling or unable to curb him.” Columba leaned closer. “I, personally, think unwilling. He’s happy for the confusion, even if it’s partly at his expense. Do you understand?”
“Sure. Some folks like to start a fight even if they know they’ll lose. They just can’t stand peace and quiet.”
“Close enough. I was sent to oust the Dragon and restore the barony of Altz to its rightful possessor, so that another of his kind doesn’t move in.”
“Another new baron?”
“No. We don’t care what man seats in Burg Altz. We are concerned that this ‘Dragon’ not be replaced by another of his kind.”
“Aren’t Konrad and the dragon one and the same?”
“Hardly,” said the monk. “The Konrad is just a man; the Dragon is something much more evil. You would call him a demon.”
“Like in the Bible?”
“Yes, but probably not as your village priest has described him. Demons are spiritual, not physical beings. They are very powerful, but very different than men. Even evil men.”
Rolf couldn’t sort that. “Can’t you and all your brothers just go in there like the Teutonic Knights and root him—them out of there?”
“We don’t work like that.” Columba’s smile looked sad. “At least, not usually.”
“Why not?” Rolf didn’t understand any of this.
“It’s not our … style. It’s not how our Master has chosen to work in the world. The Dragon’s master is not bound by such principles. And the Dragon, apparently, is not even bound by his own master.”
“Aren’t there enough of you to take Burg Altz?”
“It’s not a question of numbers or even of power. If we move against the Dragon with our full power and numbers—fully visible—it would rock your culture to its core. Our master forbids it.”
“Then what are you, some sort of secret society like the Templars or the thieves’ guild?”
“Not at all.” Columba chuckled. “It’s just that our actions, if too open, would create a tension that would be unbearable for you.”
Rolf raised his empty hands. “Tension? The only tension I feel is wondering about you. You talk in circles. I don’t know any more than I did before.”
“You know a great deal more.” Columba smiled his complacent smile. “You just don’t understand it.”
The lad dropped his hands. Obviously, Columba wasn’t going to be any more informative, but Rolf was bound to Jordanes and Columba seemed part of his party.
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