The huntsman stood at the edge of the road.
His eyes grasped the shell of the city in the distance. That place once held great attractions for his men. Crossroads stood silent –just as his scouts had said.
Wilhelm blinked, wondering if he had come here on a fool’s whim.
He ought to have gone to the Wolfram estate. His wife was there with their unborn child. And there was the young girl, Elanore. On a day such as today, he of all people ought to be to see her married.
But he had no room for mirth and celebration.
For months a sense of ill-ease had dogged at him. While he had sheltered inside Lord Wolfram’s castle, he had been able to ignore it and the monstrous horrors that winter had unleashed upon the land.
But when his guild left the castle, the feeling had slowly returned. Each night and day in the woods he felt as if it was watching and waiting. As if it knew something he did not.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps the wood had seen the truth of what had happened to the residents of the tavern. Perhaps it knew who or what had dismembered its inhabitants.
He could still see it — that image of body parts strewn all about the floors and furniture. Nor could he forget that smell of blood and spirits, mingling sweetly inside the ruined pub. The scent of death was not unlike this stench that drifted upwind towards his men.
Beside him, the guildsmen tensed as they gazed upon Crossroads. None were particularly morbid enough to want to wade into such a pit. But these men were like him who did not believe their acquaintances at the inn had killed one another. They needed to see and confirm that there was no pattern to be found between these killings.
Overhead, black specks circled in the sky. The carrion birds would swoop down but then immediately withdraw back to their position in the air.
In spite of the warning sign they offered, Wilhelm took a step forward on that hill.
A sharp wind scraped against him. Wilhelm stopped his descent and raised his hand to his eyes. His mind began to play tricks upon him. In that wind he heard a faint cry of warning– words that almost sounded like “No.”
He was not the only one who heard the sound. The guild men raised their swords and were poised to fight.
But then there was a break in the wind.
“Ah you have sensed me.” A face appeared before them — suspended in mid-air. The swords were raised even higher. But the face laughed. “I mean you no harm. Nor will those blades do anything against me!”
The hunters stared at the creature.
“How is this possible?” Wilhelm stared in disbelief at this goblin of a being. “What are you?”
“I am the East Wind,” came the polite voice. “There was a time when you all knew me. Ah–” the being paused. “And then of course that happened. I was gone for a long time and when I came back out of my imprisonment, you all had been scattered to the corners of this world. For years we have watched your kind as you explored this land. But it was sad. None of you could hear us or our warnings.” The wind nodded vigorously to itself. “You see, many could not see past the veil– the thing which keeps the hidden unseen.”
“You mean magic.”
“Magic is not what kept things hidden. But it was one of the hidden things. And yet now you have seen it, yes?”
Wilhelm shot a look at his men, who were shifting about uncomfortably. “Stone lions. Strange changing forms of people who we thought were men. Strange lights and fires. Bizarre monsters. I would say yes.”
The wind sighed patiently. “Not all of those things are magic. But they are a sign that the line between the unseen and seen is quickly breaking down. As is the fact that you see me. These are not all bad things. However, with the good comes the bad. Things are lost. That town is among the lost.”
Wilhelm stared at this ephemeral face. “You mean no one is left in the town.”
“None who would have called this home. My friends and I have explored every nook and cranny. Those who outlived the winter and its perils of cold and hunger and the Unthings… they were killed in a vicious manner. Their murderers drenched themselves in their blood. Any my poor friends cannot rid themselves of the smell.”
As the small winds circled around his pack of men,Wilhelm tried not to gag. Instead, he waved them away. “Even so, we must go. We want to know if what killed them was the same as what killed our townspeople.”
The wind sighed. It was a long breath of someone who wanted his disappointment to be known. “Then I must not interfere.”
Indeed, the winds did not bother them anymore as Wilhelm and his small band of men took the road down the hill and approached the first town gate. They covered their faces against the sickening odor and stared at the gate, left open and unattended.
Wilhelm did not need to tell them to follow. His eyes sought out each of the towers where a guard normally stood. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he advanced with his drawn sword in hand.
They walked past the second barrier, also open. And then their feet stopped.
His men cursed as pieces of bones ricocheted off their boots. Their lips curled as they walked in earth that was still damp with the blood and flesh of those who had been ripped apart.
They walked all but five minutes before Wilhelm found his voice. And it was thick with dread and fear as he ordered his men to quickly retreat. They did so and did not stop for a break until they were far out of sight of the cursed town.
His men took to the task of wiping their boots against the ground over and over. While Wilhelm watched them, the wind reappeared and hovered in front of his face. “I told you, did I not?”
Wilhelm nodded. “The murderers… are alive?”
“The scent goes south, yes.”
“And you let them go? They have killed many.”
“It is not my way to interfere to that degree. To chase them will be your decision, human. But be aware they are not like you. You are dealing with something extraordinary. ”
Wilhelm shrugged. He tried to sound unimpressed. And yet, he knew he sounded hoarse as he tried to answer this strange creature. “Like what?”
The wind paused before it offered one last whispered piece of information. “Those who wish very much to be human.”
* * *
Elisa knew her tales well enough to understand to be cautious around the North wind. Unlike his brothers, this god of winds was not known to be friendly towards other creatures.
Nor was she particularly keen to find herself accidentally frozen to death. She maintained a respectable distance from her visitor. With Conn securely in hand, she curtsied. “Well met, North Wind. What news do you bring?”
North did not respond immediately. Instead she felt a cool rush of air around her skirts as his minions circled about.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Conn’s golden locks ruffle in the wind. It would appear that North’s attention had fallen upon the young unicorn.
“An unexpected presence.” North appeared to incline his head slightly out of deference to the creature. “We had no word that such an esteemed guest would also be here. Something as important as this should have been made known to us.”
The queen’s men bristled at such an impertinent and possibly idiotic statement. Such news could endanger the child and the queen.
Elisa, however, offered the wind god a cool stare. “And now you know. But how this child came here will take some time to tell. I remind you that you came with a missive. What is this news?”
He blinked at her, unfazed by her haughty tone of voice or imperial bearing. Instead he nodded. “I come with a final message from the true Queen of Fairies.”