Through the dark of the forest a carriage came, rocking and swaying on its axles: the driver could almost hear the thud of the horses' hearts over the thud of their hooves as they raced for their lives. He knew they could not last much longer, especially against the faster steeds of their pursuers, and he felt his own heart beat a little faster.
Behind the carriage, rapidly gaining were six riders, dressed in the shadows, urging their own horses faster. They knew they were nearing the kill and then - letting out a whoop of triumph - one managed to reach the carriage and momentarily balancing on his horse, he leapt across the divide. Clinging on, he hung there for a long moment and then began to scramble up onto the roof. Another, his knees giving him balance, drew back his bow string, aimed and fired.
The driver could feel the riders behind him, yet knew he could not give up. He concentrated on the driving, the fast, regular beat of the horses' hooves on the track. He heard a cry and then a thump (hear the thud of the hooves) and his hackles rising he had to force himself not to look back. To his right, out of the corner of his eye, one of the riders was drawing a bow. He drew in his breath and saw an arrow wing straight into the steaming flank of the foremost horse. From motion to chaos in a breath. The horse reared, screaming in the harness, pouring blood from her right side; and the other horses, still trying desperately to escape, to gallop on, crashed to the floor in a tumble of confusion. All the driver could hear was screaming, the death cry of an animal. And as he half stood, shocked into stiffness by the sound, he began to feel pain in his right side. He looked down, his eyes half closed, afraid of what he would see. His breath shuddered as he saw, protruding from his side, an arrow.
The riders dismounted and approached the carriage. One went to the horses and untethered them - two were dead, one from the arrow and one whose heart, taxed by the mad dash through the forest, had finally given in from terror and exhaustion. The rider shook his head and guided the other two free, and away from the carriage where they stood steaming and fretting.
The bandits had had a lean winter. Tension in the region made merchants wary, that meant that there was less traffic on the road; fewer goods being traded; less booty to steal. They'd hardly been able to believe their luck when the carriage had been seen travelling through the wood unprotected and had not thought twice about attacking it.
They all dismounted, and their leader - who was dressed no different, nor better armoured, but was still undoubtedly their leader - approached the carriage door, wary in case of guards inside, hidden by the gloom. Flanked by two others, the leader took hold of the door and yanked. All was silent. Inside was dark and quite still. The leader muttered to his men and one approached with a torch. Together with his leader he lit the inside of the carriage and looked inside.
'There's nothing inside...' The leader growled, turning aside in disgust. Stalking off, he aimed a kick at the prone body of the driver, but the man was dead and it hardly expressed his anger.
'No...' The man with the torch peered forward into the gloom, ' There is something.'
The child in the carriage would not talk or even make a sound, however much the bandits tried. She was a strange looking creature to the men: her skin was pale as the snow; her hair, long and silky, fell down her back in pale silver-golden tresses and her eyes... her eyes were large and blue like a summer sky. Beautiful, but her silence was unnerving. The carriage was completely empty apart from the child: there was not even a chest with spare clothes and she wore no jewellry: some of the men wanted to kill her and leave, but others - the torch bearer among them - wanted to spare her. The leader was not sure: he was loathe to kill a child, but his stomach was empty like his men's and, while the two dead horses would feed them for a while, the winter was a cold one and still had too long too run.
The men gathered together to decide. It was nearing dawn but the night was still cold and the warmth generated by the attack was wearing off and their drying sweat was chilling them further.
"I'll take her." The torch bearer said finally, his eyes barely leaving the girl. The leader shook his head.
"We can't lose you, Will." Will sighed,
"You're going to have to. I've had enough. I'm cold and I'm usually hungry and I'm lonely. We're so desparate that we're robbing empty carriages and thinking of killing kiddies. I thought life'd be easier, bein' free, but it ain't and I've had enough. I'm taking the girl and I'm going back home." There was silence, tension tangible like frost in the cold dawn air. Slowly, the leader nodded.
"I understand. You can go". He stood and shivered and offered his hand to Will, who took it firmly, pulled himself up, let go and then stood brushing off the clumps of thawing snow clinging to his damp breeches.
The leader grasped both of Will's arms with his hands and pulled the man to him and they hugged, hard and long.
"I shall miss you..."
The road home was not an easy one for Will. Often he regretted taking the child as she would tire easily on the rough paths they took as they walked North and West, further into the foothills of the mountains, and Will would have to take her on his shoulders and trudge through the snowscape with her weight on his tired legs. They ate infrequently, whenever Will could find food or kill it, and Will's stomach hurt with it, and the cold. It was a bitter Winter. The wind blew steadily from the North in sharp gusts of cold and cut though the thin cloth of Will's jerkin and breeches. Snow fell night after night and yet each morning the sun would rise, its pale rays shining off the snow to blind him and melting the snow enough that it turned icy by the end of day. Will and the girl slept together at night, their bodies giving each other meagre protection against the cold and as he lay there, staring up at the stars in the night sky, he would wonder whether he had done the right thing. But then the child would shift slightly, the hair falling from her face, her eyelids twitching slightly as she dreamt and Will would imagine her dead, as cold as the land about him, and it would give him the strength to face the next day.
The girl did not complain. She said nothing at all. She made no sound at all.
Together Will and the girl crossed the mountains and arrived, exhausted, in Will's home village just before Christmas. As they stood watching the hamlet from a vantage point in the hills above, the sun was setting, its bloated scarlet rays lighting up the horizon and below them people milled about, moving from cottage to cottage, chopping firewood, children playing in the snow. People, children by the size of the prints left behind, had obviously been up on the ridge recently too, but had returned to the village for evening and Will stood awhile remembing his own childhood when he had stood in the same place. But then he had looked to the mountains, away from the village, and dreamed only of leaving and adventure. And now he was returning.
Eventually, Will shook his head to focus on reality and slowly and carefully guided the girl down the hill into the village. It was a long descent, hindered by the snow and ice and by the time they were nearing the village the bells of the church were ringing for the service. Will waited until all the villagers were inside before taking the girl's hand in his and taking the last few steps of his journey. Silently, he slipped into the back of the church, into the gloom, away from the light of the candles and surveyed the scene.
Most people were there he expected. Old Cecil, his grandfather's friend, who had told Will and his friends stories on dark Winter nights; Marie-Dominique, who was reputed to have been a witch; Claud-Alain, the smith's father, were all absent, and Will assumed that death had taken them; there were some new arrivals, bawling in their mothers' arms, but the whole scene was reassuring: the families together, the priest reeling of his Latin from memory, his sister son, Thomas, the altar boy staring into infinity and scratching his backside. Will smiled and the child, still holding his hand, was silent, her solemn face unchanged.
As the service neared the end Will and the child left the church and slipped back into the shadows as the parishioners trooped out, chatting as they crunched through the snow. Noone noticed them, until, as his parents left the church he stepped foward and stood in the moonlight. His mother saw him first and rushed to him, embracing him and kissing him hard on his frozen cheeks. Neither could say anything for a while until Will's father broke the silence, a faint smile on his face,
"Welcome home, boy." Will looked up and his mother broke her grip and turned and taking his hand began to draw him to his home, his father walking ahead, his body hunched up against the cold.
The first few weeks were curious for Will, being home after such a time, but he weathered them as he could. As he'd expected, there were those that bore an air of 'I told you so' and those you seemed genuinely sad that he had had to return, but for the most part the people of the village had others things on their mind than prodigal sons.
If they paid little mind to Will they seemed anxious to consciously avoid mentioning the girl. She still wouldn't speak and the superstitious would discreetly cross themselves when she crossed their paths. Even Will's parents were uneasy and often, while the four were sitting together to keep warm during the long, cold evenings, conversation would cease and an uncomfortable silence hang in the air, as if his parents wanted to ask him who she was but seemed unable to frame the question. He offered no answers.
In fact, despite her silence the girl did have her uses. The house had become run down in the time he had been away: both Will and his brother had left the village and his parents were becoming too old to keep up effective maintenance, so Will set about patching up the walls and roof, chopping wood and generally helping his father, the two working alongside each other in silence. The girl would help his mother, collecting kindling from the nearby forest, preparing food, tidying away the collective mess of four people living in such a confined space. She never played with the other children, and though Will encouraged her to do so, she didn't seem interested and when she was not with his mother or watching him work, she would slip to the church and sit, silent and unmoving, at the back, sometimes watching the priest as he prepared for mass, and othertimes just staring at the altar and the images.
The winter worsened and the weather seemed to become more bitter, if anything. It became difficult to leave the house for any longer than it took to run, stumbling to the church or to the nearby houses, and even then the wind would make faces red raw and fingers so numb that the pain would seem unbearable. The sun did not come out now, not even pale shafts of sunlight in the mornings and all anyone could see were the dark menace of the clouds of the snowstorms, moving towards them from the encircling mountains.
Will's mother became sick. Will had noticed since on his return that she seemed older, more tired than she used to, but the unrelenting grey of the weather seemed to translate into a cold grey of the spirit. Noone seemed to have any hope that Winter might end and he never heard laughter or even raised voices, as if the snows were damping the voices of the people to a whisper.
One night, in early February, the snows stopped for a while and Will, tired of being confined to the small building with his father, his ailing mother and a silent child, walked out. The air was cold but the stars were out and the wind had stopped so everything was still. All Will could hear was the crunch of his feet in the snow, the soft rasp of his breath as he laboured up the slope of the hill and the occasional phump as clumps of snow fell from the eaves of the trees or the houses of the village. At the top of the slope he turned towards the woods and pausing only to look briefly out to the mountains, he went beneath the eaves and into the darkness.
Within the wood all was silent, and Will walked awhile before finding the oak tree: he remembered it from his childhood as he and his brother had played together in its branches or had imagined it like an ancient giant, ready to scoop them up in its gnarled arms, the shadows terrifying and thrilling at the same time. But it was a long time ago and his brother long gone: he sank into a crouch at the base of the tree and remembering, tried to forget.
A figure in white moves through the wood, making no sound with graceful, economical movements. It stops by the tree where Will is asleep, looks down for a lingering moment, and then is gone.
Will woke with a headache, his back and legs frozen by the snow and the rest of his body little better. Without opening his eyes, he felt something: a movement in the air, a faint scent, and opening his eyes a crack saw before him a white figure looked down at him. He remained motionless and closed his eyes again for a pause: when he opened them again she was gone. She left no tracks. Quickly he got up, brushed himself down and jogged back to the village as quickly as he could, uneasy about the vision. As he approached his house, he slowed up, his heart pounding with fear. His suspicions seemed right: as he rounded the corner he saw his father standing motionless outside, his face to the skies. He said nothing as Will entered to see his mother lying on her pallet bed, her face blank and her skin white with death.
Will's mother was not the last to die that winter. Will's uncle, friends, neighbours, all seemed to succumb to a combination of the cold and the greyness. The priest attempted to raise their communal spirits but without avail as if people had given up on God, and they continued to sicken.
Eventually the snows seemed finished and a thaw came to the village, and along with the thaw came a visitor, their first since before Michaelmas. He was dressed well but not overdressed, in sensible warm wool robes and a midnight blue mantle, and rode on a tired, bored looking horse. He called himself Martin and he took one of the empty huts as his own and tried to bring healing to the village. But healing did not come, despite Martin's efforts, and the sickness grew worse, not better, with the thaw. He worked hard, though, and Will watched him, fear growing in his stomach, a numbness enveloping him too, except occasionally. Sometimes, while he took a break from work, and stood and watched Martin, talking to one of the more elderly villagers, or clasping his head in his hands leaving the homes of another of the dead, he would see something in Martin's movements: the way he cocked his head to listen, the way he played with the hem of his gown when he was sitting, how he scrunched his nose when asked a question, and for some reason, he thawed a little and hope was kept alive.
When he wasn't working, Will would often walk within the woods, looking maybe for the vision he had seen the night his mother had died, looking for something, looking for answers. Often he would wander back to the oak tree and think of his childhood, of the village, of the child. Of the stranger Martin.
Three weeks after Martin arrived in the village, Will's father died. Martin and Will tended him to the end, mopping his sweating brow, wrapping him in blankets as he shivered, holding him as he coughed. As it neared midnight, the old man gave out a long wracking cough, looking up at Will and Martin, whispered "Son" on his breath, closed his eyes and died. As they knelt over his wasted body, Martin bowed his head and Will began to cough, long and hard. The child, who had sat watching as the old man had died, stood, and silently left the hut.
Martin stood up to leave, and Will stood with him.
"Thank you. We couldn't have coped without you." He coughed, and his body doubled up with pain.
"But I haven't helped... He died. They all died." Tears welled in Martin's eyes. "I wasn't able to do anything. Despite it all.." Will smiled faintly.
"I don't think you realise how much you've helped." Will placed his hand on Martin's shoulder and together, the two men walked out of the cottage. The little girl was waiting outside. Along with her mistress. The woman flicked her right hand and Martin felt Will collapse next to him with a little gasp, his hand slipping away from his shoulder. Martin knelt down to his side and gently closed Will's eyes. He stood and faced the woman.
"Do not interfere in the affairs of the mundanes..."
"...And so bring harm upon your sodales. I am aware of the Code, sodalis." The woman raised her head and looked hard at Martin. For a moment there was deadlock and then Martin flinched, his eyes unlocking from hers and staring at the ground. The woman was impressive, and intentionally so - and reeked of magic - Martin guessed she had changed her, or his, appearance for the occasion. She was tall - taller than he -- and slender, with a pale, almost perfect face, delicate features, mist grey eyes and hair, silky and white gold, falling loose all down her back. She was dressed in unbulky, unblemished white - kirtle, surcoat and mantle - but did not seem to feel the chill. Martin shivered.
"You have broken that Code, Sodalis" Martin whispered.
"...And so bring harm upon your sodales." She repeated, her voice soft, "Please, magus, tell me how I have done that? These..." She paused and looked slowly around the hamlet, "These peasants stole my apprentice, killed or rode off with my horses and killed one of my best men. Is that not bringing harm on me, magus? Was I not justified?" Her eyes narrowed with anger and Martin glared at her arrogance.
"But to kill them? To kill them all? That's so harsh. Was it really necessary?" The woman sneered at him. "And a little foolish? People will wonder. Anger will be aimed at us. Surely our Tribunal has enough troubles as it is without you exacerbating them. How dare you be so arrogant?" Martin was almost unable to stop himself, feeling the anger build within him. The woman looked on impassively, her eyebrows merely arching slightly.
"Why such concern, magus? Why do you worry your little head over such trivial people, these peasants, these mundanes? What is one more village, even to other mundanes? How many other villages perish in cold and disease? This isn't the first and won't be the last, and not by magical intervention for the most part. Noone will care. There will be noone left to blame the Order, noone to bring harm on my sodales, not even upon you."
"I could" Martin replied and the woman laughed briefly, a huff of cold humour.
"But you are part of the problem then. Forget them. Forget their brief lives, brought a little shorter by their own foolishness. They are nothing to us. Nothing to you. Nothing at all." She took the child's hand in her own, and the child smiled. "We have wasted enough time on these mundanes, sodalis. Forget them. I shall." She took a slim gold ring from a chain around her neck, placed it on the child's finger, smiled and they were gone.
Martin stood by a newly filled in grave in the churchyard, he back slick with sweat from the exertion. He hadn't laboured like that for years now and his youth as a healthy peasant farmer's son had given way to a middle age of little exercise and over- eating.
"Will. You always wanted to see the world, and I only wanted to stay at home. A peculiar Gift I have that seems to choose those who least want it, or those least suitable to bear it." He reached inside his robe and brought out a pendant: silver metal bearing on one side the sign of his house, the other that of the Order. Steadily he recited a few words of Latin and clenching his hand tight the pendant turned to dust. He opened his hand and the dust rose and scattered on the wind.
"I shall not forget, brother."