The Shock of Night:The Darkwater Saga 01By: Patrick W. Carr
Elwin stopped at the edge of the forest, his eyes scanning the trees for any movement that might presage an attack, though the man at his right, Robin, would surely be doing the same and better than he. Still, no one living stood in a better position to appreciate their danger. Within the shadowed canopy of twisted black-leaved trees nothing stirred. No bird called its summer cry, no squirrel foraged the floor, no fox hunted.
Elwin almost touched the sliver of metal tucked away in his cloak, stopping just short of brushing the shiny yellow fragment of aurium, afraid to confirm its impossible existence.
“A blacksmith,” he muttered.
Robin turned from his inspection of the cursed forest to give him a questioning look. “Eldest?”
For a moment he considered brushing aside the invitation to explain, but Robin’s insight had proven valuable before, despite his youth. “The dead man back there was a blacksmith. Soot marked the scars of old burns on his hands, and his clothes still held the smell of fire and quenching oil.” Elwin tapped his cloak pocket where the shard of metal rested, the man’s death sentence had he not already been dead. “That still doesn’t explain how he managed to survive as long as he did.”
Robin nodded. “How does a blacksmith come to be in possession of aurium?”
Elwin nodded and then shook his head. “How does anyone come to possess the forbidden metal?”
They continued riding north, their horses ascending out of the fertile valley stretching east and west that marked the border between Owmead and the northernmost kingdom on the continent, Collum. The question lay between them, unanswered, like the death of a patriarch no one dared mention, but they’d left the torn and mauled body of the blacksmith behind as a warning, according to the law of the kingdoms that bordered the Darkwater Forest.
They kept to the edge of the forest as the landscape grew rockier, defying the efforts of those who farmed it. After another mile, Robin pointed. “There. Another one,” he said in a tone of voice like the crushing of rock.
The mound of torn and matted fur, buzzing with flies in the sun, brought a surge of bile to Elwin’s throat, and he looked away to bring his stomach under control. “Check it,” he ordered in a voice that sounded hollow and strangely far away.
Tying a strip of cloth across his mouth and nose, Robin dismounted. The flies shifted at his approach—and for a moment Elwin’s guard wore a dark halo—but no other carrion eaters defiled the carcass. The body of the sentinel, larger than a wolf by half and more heavily muscled as well, had been left untouched this close to the forest. The sentinels sparked fear even in death.
Elwin nodded to himself—animals were wise in such things. He saw Robin’s chest rise and fall in a sigh even before he turned from the body.
“Like the others,” Robin said. “It bled to death. There are cuts all over it.” He stooped to pull the lips back from the muzzle, its triangular shape a testimony to the power in the jaws. “Clean. Whoever killed it managed to do so without taking any injuries.”
“Any sign of the pup?” Elwin asked.
Robin surveyed the landscape for a moment, then pointed to a smaller mound some twenty paces away. “There.”
With a mental wrench that rose almost to the level of physical pain, Elwin abandoned another hope. Fantasies and delusions would no longer help them. “Could you do such a thing, Robin?”
To anyone else the question might have been an accusation. That Robin had never left his side since becoming his protector cast the query in a different light. His guard cocked his head, his eyes growing distant, and Elwin knew he fought the beast at his feet within his mind, playing stroke and parry before answering. “Yes,” he said finally. “But not alone.”
“Are you saying there is someone out there better than you?” Elwin asked.
Thankfully, his guard shook his head, leaving him one of his few remaining hopes. “No. Some of the wounds on the sentinel are on the back flanks and legs. I would think three or four men attacked it. I do not think any one of them to be my equal.”
He caught the slight emphasis on think and tried to keep the surprise from his face, but Robin had only paused.