Winter slowly untangled herself from their embrace and rose, her small smile slowly blossoming as Sian turned her eyes back to the signs of Silvast’s passage.
‘I came across a curious sight when I reached the river before I crossed, a gryphon. It was sunning itself on the bank. This side.’ said Sian, noncommittally.
Winter frowned slightly, ‘Were children with it, two elven children?’
‘None, just a gryphon. Male, quite large and healthy. Though he was favouring his left wing, it was not tucked.’ Sian said, glancing back to Winter, ‘What of it?’
Winter looked at her, ‘He must have been concealing them, was he hanging the wing?’ Winter turned, letting one of her wings droop, ‘Like so?’
Sian nodded, ‘Two children and a gryphon? You said that the goddess showed four souls.’
‘I have only found evidence of three. Antrandis continued to where they arrived, he may have found something that points to a fourth.’ Winter tilted her face as she watched Sian slowly shake her head.
‘He found something, but he said it has no bearing on our actions at the moment.’ said Sian as she continued to walk, ‘We have another issue at hand.’
‘I saw them. Three or four score, led by a dire she-wolf. At their current pace, they will be riverside by evening.’
‘But, the children?’
Sian nodded, ‘Silvast first. Antrandis and I will head off the wolves before they get to them. I would prefer to approach the children and their guardian in calm conditions, not in the midst of a fight.’
Winter glanced at her, picking her steps as they walked along the path.
‘They are not normal. They may be children, but they are powerful, or at least they have the potential to be powerful. Their guardian, the gryphon, it is a summon. Its magical signature, I have seen it before, or one like it.’ she looked across at Sian, ‘It is old world. A dragon’s enchantment binds the guardian.’
Sian turned, meeting Winter’s eyes, ‘A dragon’s enchantment?’
‘Yes, it is peculiar, but unmistakable. One of those children carries a treasure.’
‘That gryphon is a creature of magic?’ asked Sian.
‘No, that gryphon is a creature bound by magic. Enhanced, strengthened.’ Winter shrugged lightly, ‘Sian, I am unfamiliar with the details of events in the old world. But, I can tell you how many souls I guided from the battlefield, each and every one.’ Winter gave a half-smile, ‘There is a greater chance that you may know of it, or have a better understanding of it.’
Sian nodded in agreement. Her eyes drawn to something ahead. She held out her hand low, her palm facing Winter, signalling for the valkyrie to wait. She moved ahead at a half-run until she reached the tightly scattered remains of what appeared to be a male deer. Sian crouched, her senses telling her that is was only a day old, the bones were still fresh, some still had the tattered remains of ligaments and cartilage. The mark of a blade.
‘Winter, this was hers.’ she looked up, ‘Yesterday similar time.’
Winter stood at Sian’s side, ‘At least she has eaten, but.’
Sian looked at her expectantly, ‘But?’
‘Raw, heart still pumping blood, raw?’
Sian nodded, a broad smile on her face, ‘Yes, the other part of me is salivating at the thought right now. A full grown buck, in its prime…A prize, worth throwing yourself down a cliff for.’
Winter gave her a deprecating look that Sian ignored.
‘It gave itself to her. She called to it, and it gave itself to her.’ observed Sian, glancing around the trail.
‘She didn’t have to hunt it?’
Sian stood, reading the tracks, ‘No, she drank its blood, then butchered it, eating as she went.’
Winter winced with the thought, almost picturing the sight.
‘She compelled it to give itself to her. And it did so, happily. There was no struggle.’ Sian said with a hint of envy in her voice. ‘It probably laid down for her too. All of her kind can do it, a natural skill.’
Sian followed Silvast’s footprints, stopping as they led her off the path toward the river. Without warning, the hair on the nape of her neck raised. She turned, sweeping the forest with her eyes.
‘I swear we are being watched, I can feel it.’ Sian’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed the forest, ‘I saw it in the corner of my eye, a shadow among the trees.’ she gave a final look before turning her attention back to Silvast’s tracks.
Winter looked at her, ‘An animal looking to scavenge the bones of Silvast’s meal?’
Sian took a few steps, her eyes still on the forest, ‘It did not feel so.’ she looked back to Winter, ‘But, possibly. Either way, we do not have the time for chasing shadows.’
Winter followed as Sian brushed past, casting a cursory look over her shoulder to see a fox dart out from the trees to the remains. She smiled and shook her head slightly as she watched Sian’s back ahead of her.
The women emerged from the forest, the sun sitting high and midday was met. Sian and Winter stood at the bank of the river. The water rushing by less than a short stone’s throw away. Sian shook her head, a smile growing on her face in recognition. She ran slowly out onto the gravelly shale, stopping and crouching not far from the water’s edge.
‘You were right, Winter! Two children.’
Winter walked over, ‘Is this where you saw the gryphon?’
Sian nodded, pointing to the far side and the visible gouges leading down the bank to the river.
Winter nodded, ‘Close.’
‘Quite.’ replied Sian as they shared a look and chuckle.
Winter followed the deep paw prints for a short distance, ‘After your cross-river encounter, he took them and ran,’ she frowned, ‘Sian, he refuses to fly with them, or glide. Even his running is controlled.’
‘They have never flown with him before. I would bet that one of the children has only recently become his master.’ Sian said, studying the ground nearby, ‘A wolf was here, not long after they left, it is not our concern.’
Winter walked back over to Sian, ‘Silvast?’
Sian met her eyes, ‘She followed the river, downstream.’
Winter nodded, distractedly. She looked up into the mountains, at the peaks that were already blanketed in snow. Sian smiled and watched her as she looked at the mountainous horizon. Winter’s wings twitched slightly. With the sudden relief after their discussion, the allure of the sky and flight was strong. Winter absently lifted a foot and tapped her toe on the ground. She loosed her wings, letting them relax, allowing the slight breeze to ruffle through her feathers. Apart from her purposeful flight to Scarosant and back five years earlier in the dead of winter and her early morning stress-filled flight today. She hadn’t experienced the true pleasure of flight outside the city of Meliandra since before her grounding and punishment, just after the arrival of the new gods. At that moment the light river breeze tickled her senses, both Antrandis and Sian had torn down her misgivings, and after five years of solitude, she was free. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the voice was calm inside, filled with expectation, but calm.
She heard Sian’s voice, soft and coming from beside her, ‘Winter, if you would like to.’ Sian’s hand took her own, ‘Go.’
Winter looked to Sian, her steel meeting emerald, ‘Go?’
‘Winter, you are looking at the sky with deep longing. I am only following foot prints, disturbed stones and broken sticks. Fly.’
‘But, we are…’ Winter’s voice was stilled as she caught Sian’s expression.
‘If anything happens, I will signal you.’ encouraged Sian.
‘Are you…’ asked Winter, her voice trailing off as Sian nodded.
‘I am sure, now go. You have been cooped up for far too long.’ Sian squeezed her hand, smiling at her, ‘Go.’
Winter nodded, not needing to be told again. She walked off a few steps, and unfurled her expansive wings, letting them stretch out above and behind her. Her midnight, steel grey and snow white plumage impressive as she cycled her wing’s movement, beating the air, creating short buffets and gusts. With a smile and a quick jump from her powerful legs, she was airborne, her wings dragging at the air, rapidly propelling her upward and over the trees. For the first time in what was an eternity, she took enjoyment from the exhilaration of flight.
On the ground, Sian watched with a smile as Winter took to the air shading her eyes while observing her rapid ascent. After a few moments of keeping track of Winter’s movements she looked back at the ground, returning to where she saw the lone paw prints of the wolf. Somehow, it concerned her. The track exited the tree line, moved directly to where the gryphon had laid, concealing the children and then returned to the forest without following anything else. Once entering the forest, within a few yards the wolf’s trail was gone. Sian glared at the last paw print, if there were no pressing matters at hand she would have accepted the challenge, if only to satiate her own curiosity.
She strode back out to the river bank and followed Silvast’s trail. Quickly glancing up she could just make out Winter’s wings before returning to scrutinising Silvast’s prints.
‘Antrandis, where are you, my love?’ she said out loud and to herself as she broke into a jog, deciding to remain in her wilderelf form in the possibility she was being observed.
A few hundred yards later, she started rounding the bend in the river. She smirked to herself as she immediately noticed Antrandis leaning against a trunk of a fallen tree.
‘How long have you been waiting?’ she called out as she slowed to a walk.
Antrandis nodded as he considered the question. ‘Not long, those wolves you came across. They are moving slow and have fanned out over the valley, searching. I had to take care with my approach.’
She shook her head, a smile on her face.
‘Where is our elusive Valkyrie?’ he asked with a smile.
She looked up, ‘Flying. It is just you and me for now.’
He nodded, ‘Obviously, you made progress?’
Sian looked at him as he fell in step with her, ‘You did not listen?’
‘Sometimes I prefer to hear the recollection rather than listening in on the event itself. Besides, I expected you wanted your privacy when talking to Winter, considering your past.’
Sian smiled, nodding in thanks, ‘She is ours now. As before, I will not have her at arm’s length. When she realised how we came to be as we are, her mood changed dramatically.’ she gave Antrandis a concerned look, ‘She was not aware, Antrandis. She has been torturing herself. If you can tonight, please, call upon Lumos. Discuss this with her. Have her,’ Sian stopped suddenly, giving him a suspicious look, ‘Which one? Silvan?’
Antrandis tipped his head, ‘Yes, Silvan. Truthfully, I do not believe even I would be able to gain an audience with Lumos tonight.’
‘But you,’ Sian started.
‘I am, but something beyond us is afoot for Silvan, the most elusive of the three to be showing herself so brazenly. Both the temples of Lumos and Auryl have been sealed to outsiders. There must be a direct convening of the two. In the meantime, Silvan’s word and actions is a culmination of the three’s collective will.’
Sian walked beside him, in thought, ‘She must have had a reason to approach you.’
Antrandis nodded, ‘We spoke. If what she alluded to is correct, speaking to Lumos may not be the solution to Winter’s problem. The voice that Winter spoke of, or even who tethers her to this world… Silvan told me to trust my suspicions, to follow my instinct.’
Sian looked at him, ‘For the goddess to say it directly. It has to do with then, the time before Winter earned the ire of Lumos? I can feel your thoughts on it.’
He nodded slowly, ‘That I feel is only one part. I have a concern there is something else at play here. Something that has been concealed, even from Winter herself. From before.’
‘Before I first met her, in my past life?’ asked Sian, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.
‘Yes. Before then. Maybe as far back as when she first became bound to her previous master.’
Sian stared at him, her steps slowing, ‘The Host? I can see that possibility. He had a strange bearing.’
Antrandis glanced at her, ‘The stories you told me of before, the writings in the library of Scarosant. The Valkyrie were strict and precise, without emotion. I read into the encounters with the order, the Host directed them like a surgical instrument. When I read the passages, I could not picture it.’
Sian slowly nodded, ‘Under Lumos’s command, they live, they are allowed individuality.’
‘They are not treated as tools.’ he said, echoing Winter’s sentiments from earlier in the day.
Sian looked at him, silently agreeing with his observation.
‘Did the goddess mention anything of Silvast?’ Sain asked after a moment of silence.
‘Nothing of consequence, except that she approves of the outcome of our actions.’
Sian shook her head slowly, ‘At least that is encouraging. What of the children?’
‘She finds their arrival interesting, a curiosity.’
She looked at him, with one eyebrow raised.
‘I believe her words were, how the children shape destiny will depend on our actions. Regardless of their survival, plans of fate and destiny will not go astray.’
‘Plain language, please.’ said Sian.
Antrandis smiled, ‘Recover them before they fall into the wrong hands.’
‘That we can do.’ remarked Sian as she shook her head.