At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was,
a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear!
An eagle soared, high in the hard, clear sky.
The traveler, dusty, battered from the road, drew his eyes from it, pulled himself up and over a low, rough wall, and stood motionless for a moment, scanning the scene with keen eyes. The rugged snowcapped mountains fenced in the castle, protecting it and enclosing it as it reared on the crest of its own height, the domed tower of its keep mirroring the lesser dome of the prison tower nearby. Iron rocks like claws clung to the bases of its sheer grey walls. Not the first time he’d seen it—a day earlier he’d caught his first glimpse, at dusk, from a promontory he’d climbed a mile west. Built as if by sorcery in this impossible terrain, at one with the rocks and crags it joined forces with.
He’d arrived at his goal—at last. After twelve weary months on the journey. And such a long journey—the ways deep and the weather sharp.
Crouching, just in case, and keeping still as he instinctively checked his weapons, the traveler kept watching. Any sign of movement. Any.
Not a soul on the battlements. Scuds of snow twisting in a cutting wind. But no sign of a man. The place seemed deserted. As he’d expected from what he’d read of it. But life had taught him that it was always best to make sure. He stayed still.
Not a sound but the wind. Then—something. A scraping? To his left ahead of him, a handful of pebbles skittered down a bare incline. He tensed, rose slightly, head up between ducked shoulders. Then the arrow whacked into his right shoulder, through the body armor there.
He staggered a little, grimacing in pain as his hand went to the arrow, raising his head, looking hard at the skein of a rise in the rocks—a small precipice, maybe twenty feet high—which rose before the front of the castle and served as a natural outer bailey. On its ridge there now appeared a man in a dull red tunic with grey outer garments and armor. He bore the insignia of a captain. His bare head was close-shaven, and a scar seared his face, across from right down to left. He opened his mouth in an expression that was part snarl, part smile of triumph, showing stunted and uneven teeth, brown like the tombstones in an unkempt graveyard.
The traveler pulled at the arrow’s shaft. Though the barbed head snagged on the armor, it had only penetrated the metal, and the point had scarcely penetrated his flesh. He snapped it off the shaft and threw it aside. As he did so he saw a hundred and more armed men, similarly dressed, halberds and swords ready, line up along the crest on either side of the shaven-headed captain. Helmets with nose guards hid their faces, but the black eagle crests on their tunics told the traveler who they were, and he knew what he could expect from them if they took him.
Was he getting old, to have fallen into a trap so simple? But he’d taken every precaution.
And it hadn’t succeeded yet.
He stepped back, ready for them as they poured down to the rugged platform of ground he stood on, fanning out to surround him, keeping the length of their halberds between themselves and their prey. He could sense that despite their numbers, they feared him. His reputation was known, and they were right to be wary.
He gauged the halberd heads. Double-type: axe and pike.
He flexed his arms and from his wrists his two lean, grey, deadly hidden-blades sprang. Bracing himself, he deflected the first blow, sensing that it had been hesitant—did they want to try to take him alive? Then they started digging at him from all sides with their weapons, trying to bring him to his knees.
He whirled, and with two clean movements sliced through the hafts of the nearest halberds, seizing the head of one as it flew through the air, before it could fall to earth; and taking the stump of its haft in his fist, he buried the axeblade in the chest of its former owner.
They closed in on him then, and he was just in time to stoop low as a rush of air signaled the passage of a swung pike as it sickled over him, missing his bent back by an inch. He swung round savagely and with his left-hand hidden-blade hacked deep into the legs of the attacker who’d stood behind him. With a howl, the man went down.
The traveler seized the fallen halberd, which a moment earlier had almost ended him, and swiveled it round in the air, slicing the hands off another of his assailants. The hands arched through the air, the fingers curled as if beseeching mercy, a plume of blood like a red rainbow curve trailing behind them.
That stopped them for a moment, but these men had seen worse sights than that, and the traveler had only a second’s respite before they were closing again. He swung the halberd again and left its blade deep in the neck of a man who, an instant before, had been moving in for the kill. The traveler let go of its pole and retracted his hidden-blades in one action in order to free his hands to seize a sergeant wielding a broadsword, whom he threw bodily into a knot of his troops, seizing his sword from him. He hefted its weight, feeling his biceps tense as he took a double grip and raised it just in time to cleave the helmet of another halberdier, this time coming from his rear left quarter, hoping to blindside him.
The sword was good. Better for this job than the light scimitar at his side, acquired on his journey. And the hidden-blades for close work. They had never let him down.
More men were streaming down from the castle. How many would it take to overpower this lone man? They crowded him, but he whirled and jumped to confuse them, seeking freedom from their press by hurling himself over the back of one man, finding his feet, bracing himself, deflecting a sword’s blow with the hard metal bracer on his left wrist, and turning to drive his own sword into that attacker’s side.
But then—a momentarily lull. Why? The traveler paused, getting his breath. There was a time when he would not have needed to get his breath. He looked up. Still fenced in by the troops in grey chain mail.
But among them, the traveler suddenly saw another man.
Another man. Walking between them. Unobserved, calm. A young man in white. Clad as the traveler was, otherwise, and wearing the same cowl over his head, the hood peaked, as his was, to a sharp point at the front, like an eagle’s beak. The traveler’s lips parted in wonder. All seemed silent. All seemed at rest, except for the young man in white, walking. Steadily, calmly, undismayed.
The young man seemed to walk among the fighting like a man would walk through a field of corn—as if it did not touch or affect him at all. Was that the same buckle fastening his gear, the same as the one the traveler wore? With the same insignia? The insignia that had been branded on the traveler’s consciousness and his life for over thirty years—just as surely as, long ago, his ring finger had been branded?