Winterblade, by Albert Nothlit

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Winterblade

Cover art ©2012 by Roberto Zúñiga

Chapter One

The warrior was panting, badly wounded, and enemies were coming at him from all sides. He gripped the heavy battle mace tighter, shifted his footing and grimaced at the searing pain in his side. If he was going to die, he would at least take one more man down with him. He promised himself that. Drake’s mace would yet taste the blood of a final enemy.

Drake blinked away the sweat that dripped down his forehead and his matted hair, stinging his eyes. He was tense, waiting for the enemies he knew were coming. He had only a few seconds to look around and get his bearings. How had he gotten here? He had been forced to back off against the very edge of a cliff, with a deadly drop to the jagged rocks below as his only option for a quicker death. He looked down briefly but had no time to consider jumping. Men were coming out of the trees now, calling his attention back as they closed in on him with weapons held ready. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to stop the involuntary tremors running up his arms from the exhaustion of battle. He tried to take a couple of deep breaths to still the burning in his lungs. His mind was reeling. He felt lightheaded from the lack of blood from his open wounds, and even shivered slightly. Then Drake saw the deadly glint of sunlight on the enemies’ blades as they approached and forced himself to focus. He took half a step back instinctively. He needed more space to fight. His foot felt the edge of the abyss behind him, however, and he knew the time for his last stand had come. His muscles tensed for the final charge.

He hefted the long spiked mace as if it weighed nothing and readied it, eyeing the closest of his attackers, a burly, overconfident man—and he suddenly rushed forward with all the mad strength his last adrenalin rush gave his body. The man saw him coming, even tried to lift his blade and cover the blow, but Drake’s strength was too great. He closed the distance between them in a second and brought his mace down in a terrible, killing arc that broke the sharp blade that had been raise to parry the attack. The mace then crashed into the shoulder of the man and shattered bone and flesh with such force that Drake’s victim was forced down into the ground and hit it with a sharp crack as his legs gave way. He was dead in an instant. Drake yanked his mace out in a splatter of warm blood, looked at the incoming wave of enemies, and hollered his defiance.

The other men stopped for an instant, reevaluating Drake’s deadliness. Behind the wall of tall trees that was the forest, the greater part of the battle raged. Drake could see smoke climbing above the canopy of tall pines from many places and hear the distant sounds of fighting. There were shouts of victorious men, and screams of men in agony. The air rang with the faint clash of metal on metal and even the distant, muffled crash of a felled tree as it hit the ground. Above them all hung the cloudy sky, and the sun, tinged with red, hidden by clouds that were not only water, but also clouds of ash.

The mountain rose above them all, far away and yet so close, so menacing in its rage. It rumbled its terrible fury even as the fight surged all around the battlefield, and Drake could see the jet-black clouds of ash and smoke surrounding the glowing, red-hot cone of the awakened mountain. The ground shook with small, warning tremors, and the mountain seemed to be on the verge of roaring out its name.

The first arrow whizzed by before Drake could react and struck him in the arm holding the mace, an expert shot that went right between the chinks of his armor and sank into the flesh up to the bone. He cried out in pain and dropped the mace, ducking as another deadly arrow flashed past and got lost in the abyss behind him. He tried to evade the next one, but the new projectile slammed against his lower abdomen too soon, making him stagger and punching clean through the leather and into his flesh. Drake doubled over in pain, his vision blurring; the arrows were poisoned, and fast-acting. He hadn’t even seen the archers in the trees. He began to feel his strength ebb away, and one of his arms was now useless. He fumbled with his good arm and managed to grab the mace with his other hand, but he had to take another step back as the men closed in, confident of their victory now, blades held high. Another arrow grazed his cheek and drew blood, but despite the clammy weariness threading its way through his body Drake lifted his good arm with the mace high, not giving up, not yet. His legs were shaking now, threatening to fail him. But he could take out one more. At least one more. He could see his enemies clearly: the other men had death written in their grins as they got within striking distance. They knew he couldn’t escape, and were confident of their kill. Drake didn’t have to wait long before one of them stepped forward and attacked.

Drake felt the bite of the blade against his good arm as he tried a useless parry, but at that instant the mountain truly roared. The earth shook with incredible force in a mad shudder, and everyone was thrown off balance as the volcano raged its fury, its glowing cone half-hidden beneath a heavy blanket of coal-black clouds that suddenly crackled with purple lightning.

The sun was completely hidden by a dark ash cloud riding on the cold, swift wind, and then the very ground beneath the fighters broke apart.

Drake cried out involuntarily as he was thrown off backwards by the sudden heaving of the earth, and he went down, falling into the abyss along with a piece of the cliff he had been standing on. The man he had been fighting fell with him, slashing wildly with his blade, but Drake reacted by instinct. He pulled the man to him even as they both fell and forced both the man’s arms down, knocking the blade from his grasp. Drake grinned, gathered the last of his superhuman strength, and crushed the man’s spine in a fatal bear hug. Then the mountain roared again, and both of them slammed into the ground with bone-cracking force.

Drake didn’t lose consciousness with the impact, but he wished he had. A second after hitting the ground he tried to roll away but pain streaked through his body like the lighting flashing above. He could see the sky from here, still faintly hear the distant sounds of battle, and feel the fierce wind as it picked up speed and became a chilling gale. He tried to move, but his body wouldn’t respond. Instead he made himself calm down and tried only to breathe. He could see the shaft of an arrow poking out of his chest, and wondered how it had gotten there. His head swam, and he tried to fight it, to keep breathing, but a few breaths later his grip on consciousness faltered and he finally blacked out.

He woke up again, confused. He saw the ghostly outline of the sun overhead, obscured by the heavy clouds, and saw almost no time at all had passed. As he tried to sit up again, the earth rumbled and shook once more, the gut-wrenching motion followed closely by the thunder booming off the clouds all around him. Rocks began to fall around Drake in the aftershock, and one smashed against his leg. He cried out in pain but could do nothing except hope the earthquake would be over soon, hope the men still above him on the cliff would assume he was dead and give up the chase. He stayed as still as possible, powerless to do anything else, and watched the wrath of the mountain unfold.

The very top of its cone still glowed with a dull red light that could be seen even through the heavy clouds encircling the mountaintop. Something began to fall from the sky around Drake as the earthquake ended and the earth settled down, and at first he thought it was snow. Then he got a closer look at the grey flakes, and saw volcanic ash. Lightning flashed with violence over the mountain some more as the fierce eruption ran its course, but eventually the wind died down bringing with it only silence. Drake stayed still for as long as he could stand it. Then tried sitting up again.

He nearly blacked out from the pain, but he managed to get up. He wavered unsteadily on his feet, his head swimming, and saw the pool of red that had stained the rocks beneath him. He was surprised to see so much blood. He would probably bleed to death very soon, he saw, faster than he could heal.

He couldn’t stay there and try to staunch the bleeding. He had to find cover, needed to get away from the cliff wall and those archers with their deadly aim and their poison. He was easy prey there. He had to get moving.

With a last glance at the mangled and broken thing that had been the last man he fought, Drake began to limp away through the falling ash, under the reddish light of the nearly-obscured sun. He could hear more thunder coming from his right, where the mountain towered over him, and he could hear deeper, more threatening rumbles coming from within the earth itself that spoke of more tremors to come soon. The air smelled like brimstone, and

Drake left a faint trail of blood behind him with every step. He had to keep moving. He went into a thicket of trees, and began to lean on their trunks for support to push himself along. Just a little bit further. Just over that log, and then he could rest. Just a couple more steps.

When he heard the cry, far behind him, he hardened his heart in defeat.

They were coming. They could follow his trail if they wanted to. They could even bring dogs. Drake tried to go faster, but now his armor was weighing him down. He had to take it off. Drake found some strength where he thought he had none and managed to pull off his armor where he could. He yanked off his greaves, shrugged off the shoulder plates. He pulled off the gauntlet that hadn’t been struck by an arrow and even managed to tear off the chest plates around the still-protruding arrow shaft, but not the leather underneath. He left everything where it fell, and half-ran forward, feeling lighter but still hopelessly slow.

He hurried through the trees, stumbling, almost falling twice but managing to pick himself up. The trees began to thin after a while and the ground began to slope down, full of cracks and fallen boulders that the earthquake had dislodged, each one treacherous and reaching out to trip him. A false twilight had fallen as the ash and clouds covered the sun completely and Drake couldn’t see where he was going anymore. Everything was shadows, shapes, and the mad dash of escaping. He felt like he couldn’t breathe anymore, but the urgent, gasping sounds he could hear were still his own. His legs kept dragging him along, but he knew his strength was coming to an end.

When he crashed into another man just as he was jumping over a fallen log,

Drake couldn’t even react in time. He plowed straight into him and they both went down with a heavy thump.

The pain from the fall racked Drake’s body, and he realized the arrow shaft in his chest had just been pushed deeper in. He fought a wave of nausea and fought to stay conscious, looking around. The other man was just now rolling onto his side, grimacing with pain too. Drake saw dark red stains on his clothes, almost black in the fading twilight.

He also saw the other man had no armor, no weapon other than a silver-gleaming sword… and by this he knew he was one of the others. The enemy. With a surge of desperation-laced adrenalin, Drake managed to stand up to face the threat.

Drake and the other warrior rose almost at the same time, and Drake’s hand twitched to grab a war mace that wasn’t at his belt anymore. The other man saw the motion and grabbed the hilt of his sword. They looked at each other for a long moment, sizing the other one up. Drake knew he should at least try to take this last enemy down, to figure out a plan, but then he looked into the other man’s eyes—and time stopped.

Drake saw every detail of that young and determined-looking face in the timeless heartbeats that followed. He saw the strong jaw, which showed the tension gathering as the man prepared to fight him. He saw his handsome features, chiseled in sweat-beaded marble. The straight nose and short, fair hair framing his face. But most of all Drake saw the man’s eyes. They were deep, but almost luminous in their intensity, and as he looked into them he found he couldn’t look away.

He had to make a move before the enemy warrior got him, though. This was war. He would go down fighting.

Drake gathered what strength he had left, made a fist and charged. His sledgehammer punch sailed through the air, but it was slow—it missed, completely, and Drake knew he was about to die the second the warrior decided to swing his sword.

Except he didn’t. The momentum of Drake’s punch carried him off to the side, making him trip. He went down on his knees, hard.

Drake looked up expecting to see a blade flash downwards to cleave his neck in two. Instead he saw how the warrior merely looked at him, directly into his eyes. He saw fear there, tiredness, anger. And then the unthinkable happened.

He saw how the man unhanded his sword, slowly, never keeping his eyes off him. He sheathed it and let go of the hilt. They looked at each other with that same intense, probing look for another long moment, and then by a tacit agreement relaxed their stance.

It took every ounce of Drake’s determination to stand up and then lurch forward to take another step, and he only managed it with the other man’s help, who reached quickly forward and steadied him. His head spun, but Drake forced himself not to give in to the nausea, and tried to focus on something else instead. Vaguely, he registered that he was nearly a head taller than the other man. He also saw the man favor one side heavily whenever he tried to move. Drake swallowed, looked ahead and tried to get his bearings, fighting to keep his head clear, but he couldn’t think straight. Night had fallen by then—or was it the ash covering the sun? When had the other man come closer, why was he helping him limp along? All Drake could see was the deep red glow above and to the right, where the mountain was still raging. He tried to take a step in a direction away from the battlefield, motioning for the other guy to follow—and felt both his legs give way as the last of his strength left him. He was unconscious so fast he didn’t even feel it when his body hit the ground.

Chapter Two

When Drake awoke the light was dull and gray, just like the sky. It was raining ash outside, soft grey and black flakes that fell to the ground and stayed there for a little while before being swept away by the wind. His head felt heavy and he discovered he barely had the strength to turn it slightly when he tried to look around. He was in some sort of cave. A dark domed ceiling stretched out over his head and went back into the darkness of the depths beyond. Jagged stalactites hung from the cave ceiling, and from somewhere behind him he could hear the drip, drip of water falling. Drake shivered.

There was a fire near him, but it had almost gone out and the wind coming from the mouth of the cave was cold. From far off, he heard more ominous rumbling noises that told him the mountain was still raging. He had no way to know how much time had passed.

He tried to sit up, but his body exploded in pain. It was so bad he cried out, and surrendered to the wave of weakness that swept past him and rendered him helpless. He didn’t try to move again. Instead he took stock of his surroundings, noticing the empty bedroll on the other side of the fire, the fact that someone had draped a bearskin cloak over him, and the emptiness of the cave. He was alone, but he hadn’t been alone for long. Drake closed his eyes, trying to remember what had happened. The earthquake came back to him, and the hits from the arrows. He could feel where each had struck him even now: a dull, burning sensation in his chest, his right arm and lower abdomen. His mouth felt dry, and he realized he was incredibly thirsty.

How had he lived through all that? He had been sure he was about to die; he had only been postponing the inevitable by trying to find a place to hide.

And the man… it came back to him now, too. He had stumbled into him at the very end, one of the enemy warriors: he must have carried him here.

Even taken the arrows out. Why hadn’t the man killed him, or left him to die? Drake had to close his eyes. It was hard to think, and his head throbbed with every heartbeat.

Outside, the sky rumbled a more threatening note in answer to the mountain’s tremors, and suddenly it was raining. The raindrops plopped down heavily at first, raising a lot of dust and ash, but it was soon raining so hard that the ash began to be washed away in the downpour. More thunder followed, and a few flashes of lightning, and from time to time the deep growl of the mountain itself. Drake felt himself beginning to drift off. He wanted to crawl out of the cave and drink some water from the falling rain, but he just couldn’t find the strength to move. Soon his mind began to drift, and he thought he saw a figure approaching the cave mouth as he fell back asleep.

“Here, drink this,” a deep voice said.

Drake grunted.

“Come on, you need to eat something,” the voice insisted.

“Uh…” Drake opened his eyes and winced at the bright light of the fire. He had a brain-splitting headache and his tongue felt as if it were made of cotton. Then he saw the man sitting next to him, holding a bowl in one of his hands. It was full of some kind of steaming liquid.

“It’s meat broth,” the man said. “Come on.”

Drake opened his mouth a bit, and the man eased the bowl next to his lips. He drank the thick, savory broth; slowly at first, then a bit more quickly as he felt the welcome warmth spreading down his throat and into his belly.

“Take it easy,” the man said. “There’s plenty more if you want.”

Drake tried to nod, and instantly regretted it. His head pounded even harder.

“Thanks,” he managed to say between gulps. He drank all the hot broth as quickly as he could.

The man put the bowl away. Outside it was night, and the rain was still falling down in a loud and never-stopping cascade. It was colder than earlier, but the fire was warm. Drake felt better now that he had eaten something.

He fought the urge to fall back asleep and tried to stay awake.

“I finally found some antidote vials,” the man said. Drake tried to focus but his face was a blur; only his bright, warm eyes registered in Drake’s mind.

“The poison in the arrows is what’s keeping you from healing. You should begin to feel better soon.”

Drake’s eyes closed. He heard the man stand up quietly, trying not to make noise to disturb him. Drake opened his eyes a crack and said hoarsely, “I’m Drake.”

The man turned around and smiled. “Alec.”

#

It was early morning when Drake finally awoke again. He blinked in the faint light of the graying sky—and realized most of the pain was gone.

He couldn’t believe it at first. Gingerly, he sat up in the cave, trying not to make a lot of noise and wincing slightly when a stab of pain in his chest reminded him he was not yet fully healed. He felt stronger, though, and he sat up all the way with ease. He raised his right arm so he could see where the arrow had pierced it, and saw to his great satisfaction that the wound was already closed. A faint scar remained, and the arm felt slightly stiff, but he was well on his way to full recovery. A grin crossed his face.

Drake felt movement to his left, back where the other man had been sleeping, and saw Alec was already awake, sitting with his back against the wall of the cave. He was looking at him silently, half-hidden by the shadows.

Drake’s first instinct was to tense up for a fight; he had never been this close to an enemy warrior before. He could tell by the way Alec was sitting that he, too, was ready to spring if Drake so much as hinted an attack. A deadly-looking silver sword was lying at Alec’s feet within easy reaching distance.

He didn’t look like he wanted to use it, though, and Drake forced himself to relax just a bit. He didn’t want to do anything stupid.

“Why did you help me?” Drake asked, his voice hoarse. He realized he was still thirsty.

Alec just looked at him, sizing him up. He seemed to come to a conclusion about him then, and he picked up his sword slowly and put it away.

“You could have just left me there,” Drake pressed. “Or finished me off.”

Alec met his eyes, and nodded slowly. “Yes, I suppose I could have.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

Alec thought about it. Then he shrugged. “I don’t know.”

He sounded sincere, and Drake wanted to believe him. He was alive, after all—he would give him the benefit of the doubt at least.

Slowly, Drake got up to test his balance, and was pleased to see he was able to do it. He still felt a bit weak, but nothing like last night. He cracked his knuckles. It was good to be alive.

He turned around to look at Alec, and realized for the first time that Alec’s left arm was set in an improvised sling that had been dyed maroon with dried blood stains. The arm had been set with a couple of straight branches so it wouldn’t move, but the wound looked bad.

Alec caught his eye. “Broken arm,” he said. “One of yours threw me off a tree.”

“Is it bad?” Drake asked.

“No; it was a clean break. It should heal well. I can even move the arm a bit if I have to. And I made the sling yesterday while I was waiting the rain out.”

Suddenly Drake realized something. He was much stronger already, nearly healed, and the other guy had a broken arm—a complete disadvantage.
“I could kill you now,” he said, almost to himself. But he was looking at Alec as he said it.

Alec stiffened. “Yes.”

Drake stood motionless for a second, confused. Normally the bloodlust would have already kicked in with an enemy warrior this close. But it hadn’t come; not now or the day before, he wasn’t feeling it at all. All he got was a strange but not unpleasant sensation when he looked at Alec, like a little kick in the pit of his stomach. And Alec had spared him during the fight, when he had missed that last desperate punch. Drake shook his head, trying to shake the confusing thoughts away.

“I won’t kill you,” Drake admitted, and as the words left his mouth he could hear the truth in them.

“Why not?” Alec asked. “It’s what Hunters do.”

“Yes,” Drake agreed. “But this time I won’t.”

He sat down heavily on the opposite end of the cave, so the remains of the fire were between them. Drake tried to make sense of his feelings but didn’t succeed. The silence stretched out and neither of them spoke, each of them lost in thought, until Alec spoke at last.

“The day I brought you here I thought about leaving you, and rejoining the battle.”

Drake didn’t say anything, but his eyes acknowledged Alec’s words.

“Even with my broken arm I thought I could make it back. I went as far as the edge of the forest, but when I got there I saw no one. No discarded weapons, no corpses even. Only the signs of the battle remained.”

Drake nodded slowly. “Then that means we lost.”

He had known it even before he had been surrounded at the edge of that cliff. His men were all dead, and the enemy was too strong. Alec’s words only confirmed his suspicions.

Alec nodded too. “The battle was fierce. I saw many men go down even as we descended upon your forces. That armor you wear is a powerful thing.”

Drake shifted his position slightly. The pain of the arrow wounds was a sharp jab in his middle and his chest. “Apparently not powerful enough.”

They felt silent again, each lost in his memories of the battle. Drake remembered the first charge, and then the warriors rushing forward as one, mad with bloodlust and eager to tear the enemy warriors to shreds. The song of the blades as they clashed filled his ears, and the shouts of men: shouts of anger, roars of triumph, and screams of agony all became one in his ears, a dissonant song that could only be heard in the thick of battle. But that had been at the beginning. Then the tide of battle had shifted.

“You look even stronger up close,” Alec said eventually. “I had never seen one of you this close. You look so massive… yet you move very fast.”

Drake flexed his arms unconsciously. “I snapped the spine of the last man to come after me,” he said. “Using only my arms.”

Alec nodded knowingly. “The Hunter who threw me off the tree used brute force to bring it down. And it was a grown pine, thick in the trunk. But when he leaned on it and pushed it gave way with a crack, and suddenly I was falling.”

Drake grinned, thinking whether he could have torn down a tree. He had never done it, but now he would have to try it sometime.

“You must be very fast with that blade,” he said instead. He showed Alec his left arm: there was a long raised scar on his forearm, running from the crook of his elbow all the way up to his wrist. “This was done by one of your warriors when he swung his sword at me. I never even saw the blade coming. If the ground had not shaken at that moment to throw us both off the cliff, I would have lost the arm.”

Alec nodded. “But you didn’t. You survived. When we do get in range of an enemy, he usually doesn’t live to tell it.”

“I have been in many fights,” Drake explained. “I have learned your weaknesses, as well as your strengths.”

“You fought Guardians before?” Alec said.

Drake nodded. “At the ancient ruins, once. And once again in the mountain wastes.”

“Our two greatest defeats.”

“Yes. Days of glory for me, and my men.”

“This was my first real battle,” Alec admitted. “I think… I think I panicked when I saw my arm was broken. I should have kept on fighting, but all I could think of was to run away. And then you showed up out of nowhere, knocking me down; I thought I was dead for sure. I should have reacted. I should have ki—”

He stopped.

“You should have killed me,” Drake finished for him. “I would have done it, if I had been in your place.”

“You can kill me now,” Alec reminded him. “I wouldn’t be able to stop you.”

Drake shook his head and made a decision that went against everything he had been taught. “I will not kill you. I owe you my life.”

“That has never stopped your kind before. They don’t understand compassion, or fairness. Only blood. You say you owe me your life, yet it’s your nature to want to finish me off.”

Drake thought about it. “It’s true,” he said finally, “of most of us. But to me, a debt matters. I said I would not kill you. I will keep my word.”

“That is something I never thought I would hear from a Hunter.”

Drake grinned. “Nor are you likely to hear again.”

Outside the day was growing lighter, and Drake stared thoughtfully at the trees he could see from the mouth of the cave. Finally, he stood up. He was feeling restless.

“Your people will come this way in a few days,” he told Alec. “They will want to check for survivors, and kill any stragglers to secure their victory. The defeat we suffered was too great. I cannot expect help or reinforcements to come, and I am cut off from our base camp by your forces.”

“What will you do?” Alec asked.

Drake shrugged. “I have nothing to return to. Our homes are most likely gone by now, our camp nothing but ashes. I will not run, if that is what you were thinking. I will stand my ground. I will stay here, and kill as many as I can when they come for me.”

“You will die, then.”

“Yes. But I will die fighting.”

Silence followed Drake’s statement. Eventually he heard Alec getting closer, and soon both of them were standing at the mouth of the cave, looking out in the cold morning wind. For some reason he could not explain, he did not mind Alec standing so close. It was almost reassuring, in a way.

“What now?” Alec asked at last. “What’s the plan?”

Drake’s stomach rumbled. “There’s no plan. But now, we eat.”

They left the cave together, and Drake marveled at the change last night’s furious rain had worked on the landscape. The ash was all but gone, the only remnants collected in patches of dirty, congealed mud around some rocks and the trunks of some trees. He could not see any gray on the branches of the deep green pine trees that grew on the slopes of the hill they stood on, though, and the air smelled clean. Drake looked briefly back to see where their cave was. The cave itself was set on a rocky ridge of the terrain, with a good view of the surrounding landscape. A sheer rock wall rose above it. He turned back and examined his surroundings. It was hard to see very far out in any direction from the mouth of the cave; the trees grew too thickly and were too tall. It was all a maze of trunks and branches everywhere he looked.

Drake could see the mountain, too, off to the left between the trees. It was smoking, but not very much anymore. A long plume of grey ash stretched out like a cloud from the scorched peak, carried away by the wind in another direction. No ash lingered in the sky nearby, and the terrible dark clouds of the day of the battle were gone. The sky was a clear, sharp blue; the air was cold but crisp. Drake breathed in deeply, enjoying the scenery, just happy to be alive.

“We should hunt a deer,” he said as he went into the trees. He was hungry enough to eat one by himself.

“We won’t find any,” Alec answered. He walked by his side, barely making a sound as he moved. “The battle and the mountain scared the herds away. I tried to find some game yesterday while you were resting, but couldn’t find anything. All I did was get wet. I practically stumbled on a rabbit on the way back, but that was it. Our best chance at hunting now is something small, like another rabbit.”

Drake nodded. “We should find a stream then. After all that ash, animals will have to go there to get a drink of clean water.”

“I know of a small river nearby. It’s where I have been getting our water. It’s not too far away.”

“Lead the way.”

#

They followed a game trail down the slope of the hill, and Drake soon saw the river ahead. As they got nearer to the water, both of them began to walk more slowly, making as little noise as possible. They didn’t want to disturb any animals that might be nearby, and their stealth was soon rewarded.
“There,” Alec whispered, pointing at a spot up the riverbank. Drake looked, but he could see nothing at first. He squinted, and saw a tiny speck of brown by the water.

“What’s that?” he asked softly. It was too far away for him to see.

“Porcupine,” Alec said. “I think. This should be an easy kill.”

They edged forward, a bit more quickly now that they knew it was a porcupine they were after. The small animals were practically helpless, and their quills did little to protect them from a blade or even a thrown rock.

Drake signaled Alec to move over to the left, and he headed to the right, closer to the river. He picked up a smooth rock as he edged forward and saw Alec draw his blade. Drake had to smile. The poor porcupine wouldn’t stand a chance.

He was almost within range when there was a sudden loud splash behind him, by the river, and Drake whirled around. He didn’t see anything but the ripples in the water and the sleek shape of a fish swimming quickly upstream. Salmon.

“Damn it!” Alec yelled. The porcupine had heard the splash and was waddling away, spooked. Drake hurled his stone at him anyway but the animal was too far ahead. The stone fell short and the porcupine was soon lost in the undergrowth.

“Bad luck,” Drake said when Alec caught up to him. “But it gave me an idea.”

“What?” Alec asked.

“There are salmon in the river. I just saw one go by, the one that jumped out.”

“Really? I thought it was too late in the season for salmon.”

“Look for yourself,” Drake said, motioning to the swiftly moving waters of the river. Another dark shape could be seen swimming upstream, and it was soon lost in the deeper waters near the middle of the river.

“How will we catch one?” Alec asked. “We don’t have a harpoon with us.”

“You have that sword.”

“Oh, no. I am not using it to catch fish. The sword is far too valuable to just throw it in the water and lose it.”

Drake grinned. “I can catch salmon with my bare hands.”

“How? Grabbing for them like a bear?”

“You just have to be quick enough.”

“Really. Then show me, Drake.”

“Watch and learn.”

Drake sat down on a flat, sun-warmed rock near the river and took off his boots. Then he stuck a foot in the water to test it—it was cold. Shrugging, he stripped naked. He didn’t want to get any of his clothes wet if he could help it. He pulled off his pants, shirt and his heavy iron belt, the only thing he had somehow kept from his armor. He took off his underclothes last and stashed them with the rest. Once his clothes were on a pile in the ground, he stretched, smiling at how the scars of the arrow wounds hurt even less now.

The sun felt good on his skin. It was still a couple of hours short of noon but the sunlight was warm.

He felt Alec’s gaze on him and turned to look at the other man. He saw Alec’s eyes move up and down his body, lingering near his middle section. When Alec saw Drake looking, though, he quickly looked away.

“What?” Drake asked.

“I was just thinking it’s amazing,” he answered, looking out at the river.

“Huh?”

“The way you heal,” Alec explained.

Alec turned back to look at him at pointed at his lower abdomen, where the arrow had struck, a little to the right and below his belly button. The circular wound could be seen clearly, bordered by the dark, short hair that ran up to Drake’s belly button. Even the scab had fallen off, and all that was left of the wound was a pale pink patch of new skin.

#

Alec got closer to Drake as he spoke. “I knew your people healed fast, but I never thought it would be like this. Especially not after the poisoned arrows. After I gave you the antidote, I could practically see the wounds closing. It was incredible.”

“Normally I do heal fast. But when we met I was almost dead,” Drake said. “And I would have died if you hadn’t found that antidote. The poison had something in it that prevented me from healing normally. I could feel it.”

Alec nodded, now just a couple steps away. He was still looking at the wounds with interest. “Our scientists designed the nanodrones we used for that. All our weapons were coated with a thin film of them before the battle started. They figured it would cripple your forces very quickly.”

Drake nodded, remembering how the members of his squad had dropped like flies when the battle was joined. It hadn’t seemed normal to him, and now he knew why. “Looks like they were right.”

“You fought it, though,” Alec said. He gestured toward Drake’s arm. “I saw Hunters fall after just one arrow, and you had been hit by three and were still walking. I have never seen anything like it. Can I…?”

“Sure.”

Drake held still and Alec touched the wound very carefully. His touch was warm, and he was near enough that Drake caught his scent. He smelled like pine needles after a rain.

“It looks good,” Alec pronounced. “But the one that had me worried was the chest wound. I still don’t know how the arrow shaft didn’t puncture a lung when it came in. It went clean through you, but now it’s almost fully healed.”
He reached out to touch Drake’s hairy chest. Drake tried to stand still again, but when Alec’s fingertips brushed his pecs he felt himself beginning to stiffen with arousal and turned hurriedly away, bumping Alec back in the process.

“Got to catch the salmon,” he said gruffly, and waded straight into the river. The icy water took care of his racing pulse, and he welcomed the feel of the river surging around his legs as he waded in up to his waist.

“Can I help?” Alec asked, standing awkwardly by the river’s edge.

“Build a fire if you can,” Drake said, his eyes on the water. “I don’t want to have to wait until we get back to the cave to eat. Or to get dry.”

“Very well.”

Drake stood perfectly still, both hands hovering a hairsbreadth over the surface of the water. He saw some smaller fish swimming to his left, in the deeper waters of the river, but the current was too strong there and the waters too deep for him to stand. As it was, with only his legs submerged in the cold water, his teeth were already beginning to chatter.

He heard the sounds of Alec building a fire and even smelled the wafting smoke before he caught his first glimpse of a salmon. It was swimming alone upriver, which confirmed Alec’s comment that it was too late in the season for them, but one was enough. Slowly, ever so slowly, Drake inched to deeper waters so he would be right in the salmon’s path.

The numbing water was up past his bellybutton when Drake stopped. He controlled his shivering with an effort of will and tensed every muscle. He had seen bears do this often enough, and the salmon looked tired. It couldn’t be that hard.

The fish swam until it was an arm’s length away, and then it started to go around Drake, toward his right and the shallower waters of the shore. That was what Drake had been waiting for. His hands shot down in an explosive motion and he plunged his arms into the water on either side of the fish. He felt its cold scales with his hands, and in the same powerful motion brought his arms back up again along with water, a strand of algae, and the suddenly flailing fish.

“Yes!” Alec cried when he saw the silver-and-red shape flying in the air. He rushed forward to the very edge of the water, but the fish landed short.
Drake saw that, and lunged for the shallower water. The salmon was trying to right itself, but Drake plowed into it along with a small wave of water, and knocked it further away onto the smooth white rocks of the riverside. The splash he made was gigantic.

“Hey!” Alec protested when the icy water fell all over him and he was drenched from the waist down in an instant. Even so, he had his sword in hand and skewered the salmon in a single agile motion before it could flip-flop back into the water, and the fish stopped struggling. It was over as quickly as it had begun.

“Nice one,” Drake said appreciatively, walking out of the water, although the salmon he had caught was on the small side. “Did you get the fire started?”
Alec nodded in the direction of the fire he had built a few steps away. It was not big, but it would do. He had even set a stick over the flames, supported by two forked branches, to roast the fish on. “Over there.”

He handed Drake the dead fish. Drake took it and headed for the fire. Alec sheathed his sword and walked to the river.

“Where are you going?” Drake asked as he laid the fish aside. He got his pants from the pile and put them on, then rummaged around the pockets until he found his short knife.

“I’m all wet now, thanks to you. Might as well try and get a fish myself. A single salmon will not be enough for the two of us anyway. It’s too small.”
Alec took his left arm out of the sling first, carefully, and put the sling on a rock. Then he started to take his sword belt off and dropped it nearby as well using only one hand.

“Okay,” Drake said. “I’ll gut this fish and get it started.”

Alec nodded, his back to Drake. He was facing the water and trying to see if any salmon were nearby while he undressed. Drake began to gut the fish with absentminded motions, feeling the warmth of the growing fire on his back. His eyes were on Alec all the time.

Alec had spiky, chestnut-colored hair, the sides buzzed short and blending into a darker shade by his ears, where the shadow of his just-growing beard began. His face was briefly hidden when he slipped his shirt out over his head, and then he tossed the shirt away in the pile, exposing his lean but powerful-looking back. Drake saw most muscles etched clearly against the well-tanned skin: Alec was strong and lithe, and he had the body of a runner. He wore a pendant of some kind around his neck, a long, serrated tooth of some animal that rested between his well-defined pecs. When he turned around briefly to look at the fire and at him, Drake got another look at those intelligent dark green eyes, the sharp-looking jaw, and the shadow of a beard on Alec’s face. They looked at each other for a second, then Alec looked away. He took off his already-wet pants with his good hand and his underclothes went next. He arranged everything on a neat pile by a rock and started out into the river, sword in hand.

Drake was done cleaning his fish, and he set it over the fire to roast. The savory smell of cooking fish hit his nostrils almost immediately, and he was glad Alec was going to try and get another fish. He was so hungry he could finish one by himself. Especially a small salmon like the one he was cooking.

Drake looked back at Alec, who was poised to strike standing deep in the water. He kept his wounded arm out of the freezing cold and held his long, thin sword ready, pointing at an angle into the river, not moving a muscle. Only his eyes followed the motions of the water and the small fish that swam by.

Suddenly Alec struck. It was a fluid motion of lightning-fast strength that barely made a splash as his sword entered the water, then took in out in a corkscrew, and hurled a big fish back out over the river in a wide, calculated arc that brought it sailing right onto Drake’s feet. Drake looked at the flip-flopping, badly wounded salmon, and then back at Alec, impressed.

“I thought you said you didn’t want to use your sword to fish,” he called loudly.

Alec was wading out of the river, grinning. “You were so slow catching yours that I had to show you how it’s done.”

Drake shook his head. “That was a coincidence. Beginner’s luck. There is no way you could have tossed that fish that way on purpose.”

“Right,” Alec said. “You keep telling yourself that.”

Drake grinned, then caught himself. What was he doing? This was an enemy he was befriending. It wasn’t right. There was war between them, and there had been for as long as anyone could remember. To actually speak to a Guardian, to refrain from killing him on sight, was unthinkable. It was… it should be bothering him more, but for some reason it didn’t. Nor did it feel wrong.

Drake grabbed the struggling fish and began to gut it with a vengeance. He was confused and he didn’t like it. But he did like being with Alec. He looked up, caught the other man’s eye, and Alec smiled. Drake felt that sensation again, that little kick in his gut and a flash of warmth. He had to smile back.

“You cook those fish while I dry my clothes,” Alec said. He walked over to the wide, flat rock by the riverside and sat down carefully. He reached for his shirt and stretched it out so the sun would dry it. Then he did the same with his pants and finally lay down on the rock himself, stretching out so the sun would dry him more quickly. He was shivering a little from the cold water but the warm sunlight soon took care of that.

Drake tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help it. He was glad he had put his pants back on, so his arousal wouldn’t show. He tried to focus on cleaning the fish quickly instead, and by the time the second salmon was roasting along with the first one he could stand up again without tenting his pants.

He walked casually to where Alec was lying down, one arm crossed over his eyes, basking in the sun. He was stark naked but for the splint around his arm, and Drake’s eyes swept slowly over the beautiful young man, from his spiky fair hair, all wet now from the river, down to the inviting cleft right below his Adam’s apple, past his hard and well-defined abs and down to the inviting penis resting between his balls, nestled in a patch of fair and curly pubic hair. A single vein ran up its shaft, standing in sharp relief in the sunlight. Drake swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. It wasn’t until he saw Alec’s arm moving slightly that he realized Alec had been looking at him all the time he had been staring. Drake felt his face go red.

Alec grinned. “Those fish done yet?”

“Uh… no. No, they’re still cooking.”

“Why don’t you lie down?” Alec said, edging to the left so Drake would have some space.

Drake hesitated for just a split second. “Okay, sure.”

He stretched out on the sun-warmed rock next to Alec and sighed. “Nice.”

“Yes,” Alec agreed. “Particularly after the icy river water. I usually don’t mind the cold, but I didn’t want my splint to get all wet.”

Drake turned his head to the right to look at Alec and crossed his good arm behind his head. “How is your arm?”

“Better, I think. I heal at normal speed though, so it will be a few weeks before I can use it again. As long as I don’t move it too much, it will be fine. When we get back I plan on setting it properly, with a proper cast. That should allow me to walk fast or even run without jarring it, and it will keep the bones lined up.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Drake couldn’t think of anything else to say, so they just lay there in silence, listening to the river nearby, and smelling the tantalizing aroma of roasted salmon. Drake kept an eye on the smoke from time to time and checked it wouldn’t rise too high and give their position away. The sunlight felt warm on his skin, and since he was still a little weak from before, Drake began to feel sleepy. Without really meaning to, he closed his eyes.

“Drake!”

He woke up immediately; saw the sun had moved. An hour, almost, or more. What?

“Drake!” Alec whispered again.

Drake sat up, saw Alec standing by the remains of the fire, wearing all his clothes again. He had his sword in hand, his back to him, and at first Drake was confused.

Then he saw the pack of wolves come out of the trees.

They were only three, but the beasts were big; grey-and-white coats, powerful shoulders, and menacing jaws bared as they advanced on Alec and the fish. Drake could count the ribs on each of them and saw they were nearly starved out. That explained why they were even thinking on taking out the man so they could get to the fish. As they padded forward on silent, wide paws, they fanned out so two would approach Alec from the sides and one from right in front.

Drake scrambled onto his feet, but his sudden motion snapped the tension in the pack. With a snarl, all three charged.

Drake was too far away to help. He was still getting up when he saw the lead wolf leap towards Alec, jaws slavering and growling like hell itself. He was going for the throat. The other two wolves surrounded Alec in a heartbeat, and both made lunges at his legs with those razor-sharp teeth.

What happened next was almost too fast for Drake to follow. In a single, whip-like motion, Alec dropped into a fighting stance and struck the lead wolf with his sword so fast that the animal didn’t even cry out before it thumped to the ground with its throat slit. Alec whirled, jumped away from the other two, and dropped to a low crouch. The big male wolf on his right snarled and attacked, jaws snapping. Alec hit him with the flat of his sword and landed a solid hit on the wolf’s skull with such force that Drake held bone crack. Then Alec rolled to the side, keeping his wounded arm clear off the ground, and missed the flash of deadly teeth from the third wolf by barely an instant.

Alec crouched again, holding his sword out across his chest with his arms ready, and stayed unmoving, his eyes slits, his muscles tense and ready to spring. Seeing him move was like watching a lynx stalking its prey. He was liquid, deadly grace.

The second wolf tried another lunge, but it was stunned from the earlier hit and his jump was slow. Alec whipped his sword around to meet it and the air cracked from the force and speed with which he did it. He hit the wolf again with the flat of his blade, and the animal fell down screaming, twitching in the ground, and suddenly there was a choking sound, and the wolf lay still.

That left only one.

The last wolf was the oldest of the pack, and it was wary. It kept its distance from Alec, and began circling him, somehow knowing that Alec was injured and wanting to get behind him. Alec tried to turn around to face the wolf, but he moved his wounded arm by mistake and he winced. At that instant, the wolf attacked.

It was beautiful. The wolf raced around and jumped at Alec from behind his back, a blur of grey fur and a ferocious growl. Alec didn’t turn around and Drake was sure he would get bitten—but at the last second, when the wolf was still in midair, Alec stood up and simultaneously whirled around in a full circle driving an air-splitting slash with his sword. When the blade cut the wolf, the animal howled with sudden shock and pain, and the force of the impact hurled it to the side with the sword driven right through its midsection. It had been nearly cut in half.

The wolf whimpered a final time when it fell, then it twitched and lay still. Alec yanked his sword from its bloody fur and wiped it on his pants.
Drake raced to where the other man was standing.

“Alec! That—are you—” he didn’t even know what to say.

When Alec raised his eyes from his kills to look at him, it was like seeing a different person. He had a hard, determined glare that made even Drake want to back off instinctively. This was the face of the warrior he was seeing, the hard-set eyes of a deadly fighter. With the bloody sword in hand and the dead wolves all around him, Drake was suddenly grateful he didn’t have to fight Alec, and glad he had not tried to attack him at all back in the cave.

Drake was strong, much stronger than Alec, but Alec’s speed was blinding and his skill with that sword was unreal. If it came to it, Drake was not sure who would win out in a fight. He suspected it would be very bloody, and very close.

Then Alec smiled, celebrating his kills, and his face was transformed into the heart-melting grin Drake knew. He reached a hand to Drake’s shoulder to steady himself, and Drake welcomed the warm touch.

“Ha!” he yelled. “I win, you filthy bastards!”

Drake clapped him on the shoulder. “That was a fine display. I can see why you were made warrior.”

Alec grinned even wider. “Coming from you, that’s something indeed. But it wasn’t such a big deal. The wolves were half-starved. Desperate. They were reckless and it made the fight much easier.”

Drake shook his head. “No. You won it fairly. You have great skill with your sword.”

They looked at each other awkwardly for a second. Alec made as if to move closer, then thought better of it and walked away instead, securing his left arm back into the sling. “Are you hungry now? Because after having to fight so hard for our fish, I’m starving.”

They ate the fish by the river, and Drake had never had a better meal in his life. Sharing it with Alec made it even better, and he was surprised to feel that the wary reticence he’d still had around Alec had completely disappeared. He smiled to himself between mouthfuls when he realized that he trusted the other warrior. He had a new respect for him now that he had seen him fight, and it made him feel good. He did not owe his life to some weakling; he owed it to the kindness of a deadly, capable man.

“That was really good,” Alec said, tossing the last of the fish bones into the river when they were done eating.

“Yes,” Drake agreed. “The meal after a fight always tastes best.”

“You would know,” Alec said, leaning back and looking at Drake with a smile. “Those battles you said you fought in, they must have been something.”

Drake nodded. “I remember the first time I went into battle. I was so eager to kill something that I practically jumped ahead before we were ordered to charge. The rush of speed, the thrill of barely dodging a sword blade—it was incredible.”

“Did you have any close calls?” Alec asked.

“Once. We were attacking uphill and didn’t see the ambush until it was too late. There were suddenly enemies on all sides, too far away from us to attack and pelting us with arrows and even rocks. I saw two men go down as I charged the nearest bowman, but I didn’t stop—I ran faster. I felt the arrows clattering against my armor and when I got to the bowman I grabbed him, broke his neck, then used him as a shield. The enemy cornered me then and focused their fire on me all the same time, but the dead man was cover enough. I got all of the bowmen, one at a time, inching closer with my human shield. The last one I grabbed by the leg as he was running away to escape, and hurled him downhill to his death. I took out five Guardians singlehandedly that day before our reinforcements came in. That was the day I was made commander, and the day I got this Brand.”

He showed Alec his right arm, the part that was uninjured. Five claw-like marks had been Branded onto his skin, then treated so the burns would heal with a black coloration like a tattoo.

Alec took Drake’s arm in his hands and passed his fingers over the Brand, feeling the sharp relief of the scars. “Wow,” he said. “Five kills. No wonder you look so intimidating.”

“What?”

Alec pointed at Drake. “Come on, haven’t you seen yourself in a mirror? Built like a mountain like you are, with that mean frown you get when you’re thinking… I wouldn’t want to imagine you in armor, charging me with a hammer.”

“A mace,” Drake said. “I use a spiked mace.”

Alec grinned. “Ouch. Like I said, thankfully I don’t have to fight you.”

“I agree,” Drake said sincerely. An awkward silence followed.

“Um… should we get going?” Alec asked finally.

“Let’s stay here for a while longer. We don’t have anything else to do.”

“Okay, sure. Just no more fishing.”

They were content to lie in silence for a long while. Drake enjoyed the warmth of the sun and felt pleasantly relaxed. He knew Alec was lying nearby, and the thought was comforting. Drake had never before let his guard down with such ease, or to such a degree, and it was liberating. He felt as if he could set aside a nagging worry at the back of his mind that he hadn’t even known was there. Without meaning to, he smiled. He couldn’t help it.

“Do you think they found it?” Alec asked him some time later.

“What?”

“The Winterblade. Do you think they found it?”

Drake shrugged. “All I know is my side didn’t find it, not before you Guardians were all over us.”

“At the war council they told us only a Hunter can find its hiding place,” Alec commented.

“That’s what the legends say, but who knows? We did look, though. We combed the southern part of the forest thoroughly and found nothing. We were just about to extend our search to these parts when the battle began.”

“We were just in time, then. I’m glad the Hunters didn’t find it. If they had…”

“The battle would have been a different story,” Drake finished for him. “With the most powerful weapon ever forged on our side, even Guardian technology wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“We would have been slaughtered,” Alec said, his voice low. “Every one of us. And the cities of men would have followed.”

“Yes,” Drake said, not even bothering to deny it. “The Hunters would have seen the world burned down, and bathed in blood.”

“Other Guardians will probably be looking for it now that the Hunters have finally lost,” Alec said. “They will be searching the entire area, looking for energy spikes or any sign that points to the resting place of the Winterblade.”

“And they will be searching for Hunter stragglers to kill them, too,” Drake added.

Alec’s voice sounded worried. “What if they come here, Drake? What if they find us?”

Us. The use of the pronoun was not lost on Drake.

“We can deal with that when it happens.”

Alec was silent for a bit, thinking over what they had just said. Finally he said, “I don’t know if it would be any better if Guardians found it.”

“The Winterblade?” Drake asked.

“Yes. I mean, they would use it for good, but it would be good as Guardians understand it.”

“And what is that?”

“No tolerance for evil in any shape. They would eradicate every single Hunter still alive. It would be genocide.”

Drake thought about that. His entire kind, gone from the world. He couldn’t really visualize it.

“Hunters survived the Winterblade once,” he said. “Or at least that’s how the legend goes. That’s why we sealed it away so only we could find it. If we survived it once, we can do it again.”

“Maybe,” Alec said. He didn’t sound very convinced. “But now we also have technology on our side.”

“It’s not our problem anymore, Alec. At least not for now. You shouldn’t worry about things you can’t change.”

Alec sighed. “Yes. I suppose you’re right.”

They lapsed back into silence, but now Drake was no longer feeling peaceful and content. Alec had reminded him of the gulf that stretched between them, just because of who they were, of which side they had fought on. It reminded Drake that the peace he had found here would be very short-lived.

And at the end there would surely be battle.

They got back to the cave by sundown. Drake was walking a little behind Alec, trying to sort out his emotions. He didn’t know what to do about them, or even know how he was really feeling. The threat of the enemy warriors he knew were coming soon just made everything more complicated. He had lost too much time to run away from them now, even if he had wanted to, and he knew he didn’t want to run away from the fight like a coward. He had said as much to Alec—there was nothing to go back to, his men were all dead and the war was probably lost for good. The Winterblade’s fate didn’t concern him. But what would he do when the other Guardians came? Would he have to kill them as Alec watched? Would Alec even let him do that, or would he side with them? Alec might be forced to attack him too, even if he didn’t want to. Then Drake might have to turn on him.

He really hoped it would not come to that.

Drake kicked a rock. Why was everything so complicated all of a sudden?
His mind was still a jumble of confused thoughts when they lay down for the night on opposite ends of a small fire. It wasn’t cold out, and the fire made it balmy inside the cave. Drake knew Alec was awake, and that he probably wanted to talk to him, but he didn’t encourage it. There were many things going on inside his head. He kept turning over all the alternatives in his mind, from leaving now and making a run for it to staying and fighting like he’d planned, but all the roads led nowhere; he was a dead man no matter how he played it. Eventually, after hours of staring at the flickering flames without really seeing them, Drake realized he was very tired. He sighed, and decided to leave the problem for later. Then he surrendered to sleep.

#

Drake woke up at first light the following day, and as soon as he stepped outside the cave to relieve himself in some bushes, he realized that he felt physically great. No trace of the wounds from the battle remained on his skin other than faint scars and, on his chest, a patch of pink where no hair had grown yet. Other than that, he felt as strong as he had before the battle. He had a sudden, random urge to punch something but he held himself in check.

When he returned to the cave, he saw Alec was still sleeping. Drake wondered how Alec had managed to do everything they had done yesterday with a broken arm, and nodded to himself, recognizing the other man’s strength. It was best if he left him alone to rest, though. He looked like he needed it.

Drake got thirsty, and he realized he was very hungry too. He decided to try and find the small river they had visited the day before and he set out on his way.

He followed the way as well as he remembered, but after a while the trees began to look all alike, especially after he reached the bottom of the hill and began wandering around the tall trunks of the pine trees. He was in no hurry, though, and he kept walking in what he thought was the right direction while enjoying the walk.

The day was clear and bright again, and although it was colder than the day before, walking kept Drake reasonably warm. Overhead, above the tips of the pines, he could see patches of early morning sky and a couple of small, white clouds. Birds were singing in the branches, unseen, and once Drake saw a fox darting away into the underbrush when he came too close. Here and there a tree had fallen or stood at a strange angle, constant reminders of the terrible wrath of the mountain just a few days ago. Drake saw two fallen pines lying side by side before he realized that he hadn’t passed any of them yesterday, and knew he had strayed from the way to the river.

He knew it was in a generally eastern direction, however, and he kept walking towards the rising sun. Soon he saw the terrain was sloping up slightly and the tree cover became denser. Many fallen pinecones littered the ground and crunched softly under his heavy steps. After a while of walking uphill, Drake began to hear the sound of water running. It sounded louder than the river should be, but he headed towards the source of the sound anyway. He was getting hungrier and hoped to be able to snatch another salmon from the river. He had not seen a single rabbit or other small animal to kill in his entire walk other than the fox, and his stomach was rumbling.

He walked around two particularly thick pine trunks that stood very close together and came suddenly to a clearing in the conifer forest. The sound of the water was much louder—and now he saw why.

He had come to the river all right, but he had ended up much higher up in its course than before. To his right the river snaked along the clearing, glittering with reflected sunlight as it got lost around a far-off bend. He could not see where they had fished the day before and guessed he was a good long distance away from where he should have come out if he had paid attention, but it turned out to be very good luck that he had gotten slightly lost. He had just come across a waterfall.

That was what the loud sound was coming from: the falling water, splashing and foaming a little before continuing its way downriver. Getting closer, Drake saw that the waterfall was a very new feature of the landscape. The earthquake had torn the formerly gently sloping hillside to his left, and jabbed a part of it upwards in a sharp, cliff-like wall in miniature. Fallen boulders littered the riverside and some had fallen in the water itself during the upheaval. The waterfall was not very tall, maybe twice as tall as Drake was, but it was enough to cause the loud noise and to disrupt the flow of the river.

The terrain feature had another interesting consequence: the salmon that had been trying to get upstream had found their way to their spawning point suddenly blocked. Most of them couldn’t jump the waterfall even if they tried, and their instinct would not allow them to turn around and head back downstream. That meant that there were nearly a dozen large fish swimming around in circles near the waterfall, completely helpless and ready for the taking.

Drake grinned. He hadn’t expected it to be so easy. He stripped quickly and jumped into the river before he could think twice about the freezing water. The cold hit him like a fist and some water got in his nose, but soon he was swimming all the way to the center of the river. He didn’t bother about being stealthy; the fish were swimming away from him, but they simply had nowhere to go.

He herded a few of the salmon toward the shallower waters of the river, trying to stop his teeth from chattering. He got ready, and when one of the fish made a sudden jump out of the water, trying to leap over him, Drake made a grab for it but lost it. The fish were slippery. It was just a matter of time, though, and he spooked them enough for another salmon to try the same leaping trick. This time he was prepared. He managed to grab the writhing fish briefly and knock it backwards. It went flying and landed on the ground, too far away for it to get back into the water. It was easier than the day before, even. Time to eat.

He had laid the dead fish aside and had dressed again when he first heard the noise. He was about to start gutting and cleaning the salmon, but he heard it nonetheless, a sharp crack like a dry twig snapping, even over the noise of the waterfall nearby. It had come from the forest.

Drake put the big fish down and stood up quietly. He remembered the wolves from the day before, and kept the knife he had been using ready in his hand. Then he edged forward into the forest, his ears alert.

Once inside the forest gloom, it was easier to listen for strange sounds since he was further away from the waterfall. Soon enough, he heard a faint rustling as of shuffling steps, further uphill. He followed the sound, and picked up the pace when he heard a sharp clank of metal on metal. He had thought it was an animal stalking around, but now he knew it was a man hiding from him. He kept going uphill, almost running, and soon saw a shape ahead, dodging through the trees.

“Hey!” he yelled, as the figure ahead reached the top of the small hill. A pine tree had fallen nearby creating a hole in the canopy, and sunlight fell on the man as he crossed the clearing. Drake saw the glint of metal armor and the massive bulk of a strong Hunter. His heart beat faster in surprise. “Stop!”
The man looked back at him, saw him coming fast, and tried to run away.

Drake put in a fresh burst of speed and began to close the distance very quickly. The other man was burdened by his armor, and it was slowing him down. When Drake saw his quarry try to vault over the fallen pine and trip, he knew he had him.

Drake sprinted the last few steps to the fallen pine and stopped just short of it. The man turned around on the ground on the other side of the trunk, his armor all muddy from the fall, and tried to wrench a war axe out of his belt but it was stuck. Then he noticed Drake was a Hunter, and his struggling stopped.

“Easy,” Drake said, putting his knife away. “I’m on your side.”

The other man hesitated, then nodded jerkily and stopped trying to get his war axe out of his belt. As he stood up, Drake saw this man was older than him. He was also filthy, and his beard was stained red in places with what had to be dried blood. The smell of him was awful.

Drake jerked his head toward his side of the tree. “Come here. Tell me your name, and any news you have of the battlefront.”

The other man hesitated just a little bit, but then obeyed Drake’s authoritative command. As he rounded the fallen tree, Drake saw the broken shaft of a silver arrow sticking out from behind the man’s left shoulder. The metal plates underneath the shaft were stained with dried blood, and fresh blood was still pouring from the wound a little at a time. The man left small splatters of blood everywhere he went.

“Your name,” Drake repeated.

“I am Brand,” he said. “I fight… I fought under Commander Jorn.”

His accent was strange; he must have come from far away to join the search for the Winterblade. Drake saw Brand give him an appraising glance, trying to gauge whether he was a threat. Drake did the same. Even with a warrior of his own kind, Drake made sure to stay on his guard. What Alec had said about them being bloodthirsty brutes was true in many cases. You could never be too careful.

When Brand saw Drake’s Commander scar tattooed on his arm, he nearly jumped out of his armor.

“You’re a Commander!”

“My name is Drake.”

“Commander Drake? You… you led the first charge at the foot of the mountain!”

“Yes. I also know Jorn’s men were kept as reserve, and now you say you are one of them. You should have seen more of the battle than I did. Tell me where we stand.”

Brand looked down, fingering his axe unconsciously. “It was slaughter. After the forces were joined, it was chaos. Everybody was fighting on all sides, but very soon it became clear we had lost. Men were dying everywhere, and the arrows and blades kept coming… Commander Jorn ordered us forward when he saw our main force was all but gone. He told us to rush into the fray and die with honor.”

Something about the way he said it made Drake suspicious.

“What happened then?”

“That is when they let the mountain loose on us. The tremors, the roar… everything was confusion, and the earth began to shake, and before I knew it the fight had moved on, and I had fallen into the river. My armor weighed me down and carried me downstream but I managed to swim back ashore.

By the time I made it, though, everybody else was gone.”

Drake nodded. The way the man had described the fight made sense, but Drake knew this river would be even shallower upstream, at the battlefield. A warrior in armor might be hindered by the water, but not carried off. The man was lying. He was obviously a deserter.

Drake hated deserters. He hated cowards. He tried to keep his anger in check, but he couldn’t control the slight flash of his eyes when his hatred surged. Deserters were worse than enemies, worse than rats. All who received the armor made a vow of loyalty. They all knew the penalty for desertion was death.

The deserter saw the look in Drake’s eyes and he paled, knowing his lie had been exposed somehow. He stepped back fearfully and took out his war axe in a desperate, insolent gesture. Drake was suddenly aware that he had no armor himself, and only a small skinning knife in his hand.

“You can still die with honor, Brand of Jorn’s company,” Drake growled. “Put the weapon away.”

The deserter spat at Drake’s feet.

“I’ve been watching you, Commander Drake,” he said. The made the last word sound like an insult.

“Watching me?” Drake asked, unmoving, giving the impression that he either didn’t see or didn’t care about Brand’s evidently hostile display.

“You’re with that Guardian. The young one. I saw you yesterday, at the river. You didn’t see me. At first I thought you were going to make short work of him, but after the wolves attacked I got confused. Then I saw you help him.”

“I owe him my life,” Drake said, his voice flat.

Brand snorted. “They slaughtered our brave warriors like sheep. And you’re letting one live!”

“Brave warriors,” Drake said, smiling dangerously. “Like you?”
He had struck a nerve. The deserter twitched, and his face turned red with anger.

“What are you saying?”

“Only what is obvious, deserter.”

Brand’s eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not a deserter! It was a lost cause! We were doomed; you didn’t see, you were there in the thick of the fight, didn’t see how everyone was dying. They hit you once and you went down, and didn’t get up. We didn’t have a chance! And when they came at us from the sky, those silver weapons of them flashing—I had to run! I had to! There was no point in staying just to die!”

“No point other than honor,” Drake said.

“You’re still alive,” the deserter answered.

“Do not compare yourself to me,” Drake warned him. “You know my name now. You know of my fame, of how I have fought before. You know how many Guardians I have killed.”

Drake took a step forward to mark his words, and to his satisfaction the other man cowered back slightly, gripping his axe all the tighter.

“W…we can still make it right, though,” Brand said. “The forest is swarming with Guardians further north, and they’re getting closer every day, but if we take one of their own as hostage they might let us pass. We can get away then, we can go back to base camp and regroup. I tried to cross once, but they almost caught me. They are setting up a perimeter and combing the entire forest for the weapon, and for any survivors, enemies or not. They will not leave until they find the Winterblade. If we don’t run, they’ll be here very soon. But that one, the one you helped, he could be our way out. That’s why I came. I wanted to talk to you. It’s two against one now, we can take him. He’s hurt, I saw. We can take him and leave!”

Drake just looked at the man. He was surprised at how calm he was, even now that this deserter had confirmed what he had suspected all along: the Guardians were coming, and he was going to die. He realized he didn’t care, as long as he could go out fighting. But he owed Alec, and he was not going to betray him. The certainty of his conviction surprised even him. He would not betray Alec. Not even for his life.

The deserter, though, was another matter.

“Brand of Jorn’s company,” Drake began, “As Commander I mark you as a deserter to our cause and strip you of your rank, your armor and your life. You have shamed us all with your cowardice. Surrender your weapons, and die.”

Brand looked at Drake as if he had gone insane.

“What?”

“Surrender your weapons. Now.”

“But… you’re helping them! You’re the one who turned against us! You lying, turncloak son of a bitch! I’m going to take you out, then go after that pretty boy you’re so fond of!”

Without warning, Brand hefted his war axe and charged. Drake was ready for him.

With a sprint of mad energy, Brand raised the axe over his head and brought it down in front of Drake with all the explosive strength of his massive arms. Drake saw it coming. He side-stepped in a blur of movement and, turning, delivered a one-handed blow to the back of Brand’s neck with his own hand stretched out like a knife. The blow, added to Brand’s incredible momentum, made him lose his balance. The axe missed and sank deep into the ground, making Brand crash down in a clank of metal plates.

Drake was on him in an instant. He drew his knife and threw himself on top of the struggling deserter. He slashed at his throat, deep enough to cut the windpipe, and jumped back to his feet, knife still ready.

Brand was choking on his own blood as he brought his hand up to the wound. Blood spurted between his fingers when he tried to stand up, struggling with the weight of his armor. Drake waited, every muscle ready. He needed to wait for the right opportunity, and he only had one chance.

Brand took his hand away from the cut in his neck when he got back on his feet. The blood had stopped flowing. As Drake watched, the wound knitted itself closed, and the skin became whole again. Brand laughed.
“Is that all you have, Commander Drake? A light stab with a toy knife?”
Brand tried to yank his axe out of the ground, but the arm with the arrow shaft in it didn’t help him. He tugged again, and managed to shake it loose. Drake had been waiting for him to do it.

Drake rushed at him, knife in hand, and got inside the axe’s range before Brand could lift it and strike back. He stabbed Brand in the stomach, expertly driving the knife’s blade between two metal plates and past the leather, into his flesh. Brand grunted in pain, but held his ground. He kicked Drake savagely in the knee with one mailed foot, with such force that Drake heard the knee pop out of place. There was a sickening crunch, and his left leg was suddenly useless.

Brand jumped away from him, and Drake fell to the ground facedown and rolled away an instant later, coughing up dirt. His shattered knee hurt like hell. He missed the downward slash of Brand’s axe by no more than a finger’s breadth, and he kept rolling, giving his knee time to pop back into place. Brand yanked his axe out of the ground again and came for him, his breath steaming in front of him in the cold morning air.

“Is that it?” Brand taunted him. “Is that all you got, Commander?”

With a slight pop, Drake felt his knee slip back where it belonged. The pain in his leg died immediately and he knew he was ready for the counterattack.
Brand did not seem to notice and he charged again at the fallen man, lifting his axe over his head.

“I’ll chop your head off!” Brand roared, his heavy armor clanking like the chains of death itself.

But Drake knew the timings of his axe strokes by then. He jumped onto his feet so quickly he surprised Brand, but the axe was already coming down and he couldn’t stop the bone-shattering blow. But Drake did.

Drake drew back his right arm and then shot his fist forward with all the strength he had. His right fist slammed into Brand’s mailed chest, killing the other’s momentum and adding its force to the strength of the blow Brand was delivering. Drake felt the bones in his hand break with the impact of the sledgehammer punch as it crashed into the place just to the left of the deserter’s chest, but he also felt the armor plates sink deep into Brand’s pectoral muscles and knew the impact had gone straight to the man’s heart. He heard a rib crack.

When the punch slammed into his chest, Brand was so stunned he dropped the axe, both his arms still lifted over his head in the downward motion of the axe blow. His eyes glazed over as the punch stopped his heart for an instant, and then he shuddered as the beat started again. But in that second of stunned motionlessness, Drake caught the falling axe with his left hand, hefted it and then swung it himself in a murderous diagonal cut that caught Brand right on the base of the neck where he had no armor to protect him at all. The razor-sharp blade bit straight through flesh and bone, and came out clean on the other side spraying blood everywhere.

#

Drake felt the warm blood droplets as they fell on his arm, and saw Brand’s headless body fall to the ground like a sack. The head rolled away, down the hill. Then the beard got tangled in a bush and the head stayed there, its surprised eyes still open.

Drake sunk the axe down into the ground, balled his hands into fists, and roared. He felt the bones in his right hand pulling themselves back together, and by the time he was back to his fish all the pain was gone. He was filthy with blood and dirt, but he felt exultant. A kill always made him feel that way. He had chosen not to take the axe or the armor of his opponent, and leave everything as it was. The weapons of a deserter were said to be tainted and should not be used.

Instead he brought the fish back to the cave, still uncooked, and tossed it at Alec’s feet. Alec was already up, but he was startled by Drake’s sudden appearance and his bloodstained clothes.

“I brought lunch,” Drake said.

#

They ate the entire fish between the two of them. Drake wished something stronger than water to go with it, but he made do. Alec didn’t ask him about the fight, but he did offer to cook the fish in Drake’s place. Drake was glad he accepted the offer—Alec knew how to season the fish with some wild herbs he found and it tasted much better than anything Drake could have ever cooked on his own.

Afterwards, Drake watched as Alec set up the metal framework for his arm support structure. He used some of the strange alloy Guardians had discovered and set up the silver metal in complicated ways, with gears and springs and lattices, until his wounded arm was basically supported by a hollow robotic shell. It took him the better part of the day, but Drake watched with interest as the hours went by. He had never seen Guardian technology up close before.

“It’s ready,” Alec said finally. He stood up tentatively and tested the support by moving his arm from side to side. “Good thing I took that first-aid course during basic training.”

“That looks complicated,” Drake said.

“Not really. It’s like putting a puzzle together. The machine does most of the work, compensating and stabilizing the arm. I just had to assemble it. If I were at base camp the doctors would probably give me a shot of healing nanodrones to speed up the process, but since I’m here I’ll just have to make the best of what I found.”

Drake looked outside. It was late in the day already, an hour to twilight at most. “We need some more water. I should go get it and maybe go back to the waterfall for more food. Even if it’s fish again.”

“I’ll go with you,” Alec offered. “I’ll just take a pill for the pain and I’ll be good to go.”

Drake stood up. “Are you sure? You should probably rest that arm.”

Alec rolled his eyes. “I am not staying. I’ve been in this damn cave all day. I want to go out for a bit, and I’m curious about that waterfall you mentioned. I want to take a look.”

Drake shrugged. “Okay. Let’s get going.”

They left and headed straight for the waterfall. Now that he knew the way, Drake had a much easier time finding his way through the quiet, dark shadows of the forest. As they passed underneath tall pines and made their way through soft carpets of fallen pine needles, it seemed they were the only people alive in the world. No animals were around, no birds were chirping. It was just the trees swaying in the wind, and the two of them walking.

As they walked uphill, Alec stumbled on a slippery rock ahead of Drake.

“Ow!”

“Careful.”

“Thanks for the tip. Getting careless around these damn slippery rocks. Guess I underestimated how far it is to this waterfall of yours… and that pill for the pain I took is making me woozy.”

“Lean on me if you want. We’re almost there.”

Alec hesitated, then draped his good arm around Drake’s shoulders and leaned on him slightly as they walked. Drake slowed down so Alec wouldn’t have trouble keeping pace. Half-subconsciously, Drake slid his left arm around Alec’s waist and held him closer so he would be better supported.

They walked like that for a while. Drake was glad for the extra warmth in the chill of the evening, and refused to think about how right it felt to have Alec so close.

“Um… Drake?” Alec said suddenly. In the silence of the dark forest, his voice seemed louder somehow.

Drake stopped. “What?”

“I have to tell you something.”

He said it with a tone that made Drake wary. He let go of Alec and took a step back. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

Alec was looking everywhere but at him. Finally, he took a deep breath and met Drake’s eyes.

“I didn’t trust you,” Alec confessed.

Drake relaxed slightly. This was not what he’d expected to hear. “That’s okay. Yesterday I didn’t trust you, either. Now I do.”

That seemed to surprise Alec. “Really?”

“You’re a Guardian, Alec. I had a good feeling about you, but I had to keep reminding myself to keep my guard up all day, just in case.”

Alec nodded slowly. “But then… what changed? Why do you trust me now?”

Drake shrugged. “Lots of things. The fact that you dragged me to that cave and kept me alive. The way I saw you fight those wolves. Your voice, I guess. I get the feeling you don’t lie very often.”

That seemed the wrong thing to say. Drake saw Alec wince, and look away. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Drake tensed up. Was this a setup? Was Alec going to spring some trap on him? He strained his ears to catch the sound of enemies approaching, but there was nothing. He couldn’t see very far, but the there were no shapes hiding in the nearby trees.

“What do you mean?” Drake asked guardedly.

“I… I spied on you.” Alec admitted.

Drake blinked.

“What?”

“I spied on you. I didn’t trust you, and I put a small transmitter on your shirt. It’s in the collar, near the back so you wouldn’t find it. It only transmits audio, but it seemed a good idea when you were recovering. I thought I had to keep an eye on you.”

“There’s a bug on me?”

Alec nodded gravely. “Yes. And I’m sorry. But when you left this morning I had no way of knowing where you were going, whether you would betray me to some Hunters or what. I had to be prepared.”

Drake nodded too; it made perfect sense to him.

“Anyway,” Alec continued, “I heard everything you said this morning when you were at the waterfall. I acted surprised when you came back, but I know what happened there.”

Drake’s mind flashed back on his encounter with the deserter. “You listened to all that?”

“I did. And I want to apologize, Drake. I shouldn’t have doubted you. That other Hunter offered you a way out using me as a hostage, and it would have worked. You were two against one, like he said. When I heard that, I got ready to escape from the cave, to run away even with my arm in the old sling. But then you refused.”

“Yeah,” Drake said, imagining how his conversation with the deserter must have sounded like to Alec, listening in on it back in the cave. “I refused.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Alec asked him. “After a while I heard only the sounds of battle. Then nothing but you walking through the forest, and then you came back.”

“He was a coward,” Drake answered. “He deserved to die.”

“If he had been a Guardian, he would have been tried for desertion, probably imprisoned. But not killed.”

“Your ways are different from ours. For us, it’s honor or death.” Even if I am also a deserter, Drake thought. But he refused to consider that.

“I understand that now. And I wanted to say… I’m sorry I doubted you, Drake. You proved me wrong.”

Alec reached for Drake’s neck, and Drake didn’t draw away. He felt Alec grab the collar of his shirt and sweep his fingers around it until he found the transmitter. The two of them were very close. Then Alec yanked the bug away and stepped back. He threw the transmitter into the bushes.

“I trust you now, Drake,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that.”

Drake nodded. He turned back to the path and walked on, with Alec close by.

They walked in silence some more in the growing twilight. Soon the terrain began to slope down, and the sound of the waterfall could be heard. When they came out of the gloom under the trees and into the waterfall’s clearing, the sun was setting in the West, to their backs. The last golden rays were touching the tops of the pine trees in the forest. A slightly chilly wind was blowing, and the only sound was the constant din of the water falling on rocks, and the occasional splash of salmon as they jumped.

“Wow,” Alec said as they got nearer the river, “this place is beautiful.”

“Do you think so?” Drake asked.

“Yes; it’s so secluded. Peaceful, too. Don’t you feel it?”

Drake shrugged and approached the river’s edge. He jumped over a pile of fallen rocks by the riverside to the place where he had put his things that morning. He was looking for salmon, and saw plenty swimming nearby. Alec tried to jump after him, too, but he tripped on something and lost his balance instead.

“Ow!” Alec yelled as he fell.

Drake turned at the sound and managed to grab Alec by the waist with both hands to keep him steady. He lifted Alec and put him down on the ground next to him as if he weighed nothing, surprised at how quickly he’d reacted.

He felt the warmth of Alec’s body on his hands and suddenly realized how right it felt to hold him. He didn’t take his hands off Alec’s waist, and Alec didn’t say anything to make him let go. They were so close that Drake could smell Alec’s scent clearly: pine needles, smoke, and sweat. Drake felt himself getting hard, holding Alec like that. He had been staring at the ground, but now slowly, ever so slowly, he looked up all the way to Alec’s face.

When he locked his gaze with Alec’s, he saw his wordless desire mirrored in the other man’s eyes. He saw the shadow of doubt there, the disarming innocence, the invitation full of lust. Drake couldn’t stand it anymore. He pulled Alec to him, embracing him completely. Then Drake kissed him.

It was a hungry kiss, intense, almost violent in its suddenness. Drake kissed Alec fiercely, holding him tight to his body, his left hand holding Alec’s head and grabbing a handful of his hair. He could feel the sandpaper-like roughness of Alec’s stubble as his lips strayed from Alec’s mouth and down to his neck, breathing hard, kissing him with all his pent-up desire. When his lips and then his tongue found Alec’s Adam’s apple, Alec threw his head back and moaned.

Drake drew back, then kissed Alec on the mouth again and soon their tongues found each other. Drake led Alec to a patch of soft grass by the riverside as they kissed, moving slowly, and when they got there he pushed the other man down gently. He supported him as he leaned back to lie down on the grass, never breaking the kiss.

When Alec was lying on his back with Drake on top of him, Drake felt the other man’s rock-hard erection through his pants. Drake slid his hand down Alec’s body under his shirt, feeling the velvet softness of his skin. His hand went down Alec’s chest, over his hard abs, and still further down until he found Alec’s cock. He ran his hand over it, and even through the fabric of Alec’s pants he could feel the big, hard member. He gave it a squeeze. Alec arched his back and moaned again.

Drake ripped open Alec’s shirt, and soon his tongue was caressing one of Alec’s nipples. With his left hand he touched the other one, pinched it lightly, twisted it as he did the same with his teeth on the other side. Alec shuddered in his arms, arched his body against Drake and mumbled soft words of pleasure. His eyes were closed, his breathing hard in his arousal. He caressed the rock-hard muscles on Drake’s back with his hands, and pulled the other man tight to him.

Panting with desire, Drake went down on Alec, his mouth kissing the

Guardian’s stomach, teasing the slight peach fuzz near Alec’s bellybutton and going further down still, roughly pulling Alec’s pants below his knees as he did so. He was careful not to hurt Alec’s wounded arm as he moved, but when he saw Alec’s cock right before him, hard and throbbing, he forgot caution and everything else. He took Alec’s cock in his hungry mouth and

Alec cried out with ecstasy and surprise when Drake took him in.

Drake used his tongue, his lips and even his teeth as Alec pumped in and out, slowly, his hands holding Drake’s head and pushing it down onto his cock. Drake relaxed his throat a little more with each thrust, letting Alec go deeper down every time, and soon he was taking Alec’s entire cock in his throat, in and back out, then all the way down again. He fought the urge to gag and was rewarded with Alec’s harder, deeper thrusts. The taste of Alec, his masculine smell; they all flooded Drake’s consciousness and made him even more aroused. They got into a dreamy, lust-filled rhythm that blocked out all but the motion and the sound of their breathing. They were together, and the entire world disappeared around them.

Alec got more and more worked up as he face-fucked Drake but eventually stopped suddenly, pulling out of Drake’s mouth. Drake knew Alec was close, and he stopped his efforts too. They both wanted to prolong the pleasure for as long as possible. Drake shrugged off his shirt, and took off his pants quickly. When Alec saw the thick, hard cock standing out between Drake’s legs, his eyes widened. Then he grinned and motioned for Drake to stand up.

Drake did, and Alec knelt in front of him. He took Drake’s cock in his good hand, and then immediately into his mouth. Drake felt the warmth that accompanied the touch of Alec’s tongue on the tip of his penis and around its head, and he sighed with pleasure. It was an incredible sensation.

Alec sucked him even longer than Drake had, and Drake enjoyed every second of it. When he felt himself getting close, though, he held Alec’s head back and stopped as Alec had. There was something else he wanted to do, and when he looked into Alec’s eyes he knew the other man wanted it, too. With an inviting smile, Alec lay down on his back, and spread his legs slowly. He grabbed Drake’s right hand and guided it to his mouth, and as Drake knelt over him he sucked on Drake’s index and middle fingers. Then he guided them down between his legs, amid the soft hair around his asshole.

Drake smiled, too. Then he pushed one finger in.

Alec moaned again and spread his legs wider. Drake pushed his finger inside him, fighting the brief resistance and moving in all the way up to the knuckle. He moved the finger slowly around in a brief circle, then pulled out almost all the way, and pushed back in. He kept doing that, and as he did he felt Alec loosening up to his touch, and soon pulled away to push inside with a second finger. Alec was tight, but he managed to get them both in by taking his time and lubing up with his spit. He pushed inside, slowly but firmly, and soon Alec was writhing with pleasure at his touch and whispering encouragement. Alec took both fingers in and back out with ease and was soon moving his hips up and down to meet Drake’s fingers, asking him softly to go deeper, to keep on fingering his ass. Drake grinned as he complied, fingering Alec’s hole for several minutes. Then he took his fingers out one last time. Alec was ready.

Drake leaned over him, and guided his cock until he felt Alec’s hole with the tip of his eager, rock-hard member. Alec looked right at him, slightly fearful yet eager, and nodded. Drake lubed up with spit and guided the base of his cock with his free hand. Then he pushed inside him.

He could see how Alec was gritting his teeth to keep from crying out, and the sight of it only made him harder. He felt resistance, but he was patient.

He pushed a little inside, backed off, then pushed again, letting Alec get used to him, going deeper inside him with every thrust. Very soon, Alec’s grimace of pain relaxed. He began to moan instead, his mouth slightly open. He lifted his hips inviting Drake to go in deeper, and Drake responded immediately. He pulled out of Alec one last time, paused for a second, and then penetrated him deep, his cock sliding inside all the way.

Alec cried out when Drake’s big cock impaled him completely, but now Drake was past caring. Feeling the tight warmth enveloping his cock drove him half-mad with pleasure and he began pounding Alec hard, his balls slapping against the other man’s ass with every thrust. Alec’s eyes were shut tight, and he kept crying out, begging, whether for Drake to stop or keep going he couldn’t tell. But he knew they were both one body right then, one flesh, sweating and moving and feeling together. Drake reached for Alec, bent to kiss him fiercely again while he was still inside him and Alec returned the kiss, holding him tight, wrapping his legs around Drake as he pumped again and again and again. Drake soon felt the tightness around his cock loosen up slightly, and Alec was now really begging for more. Drake gave it to him.

He pounded Alec like a madman. He thrust inside him hard, and fast, and the sound of Alec’s moans of pleasure filled his ears and drove him to a faster tempo, to go deeper, to fuck Alec like with the force of a sledgehammer. He felt himself getting close to an orgasm and he shifted his stance slightly so he could grab Alec’s cock in one hand. He began jacking Alec off in time with his thrusts, and the obvious wave of pleasure that it gave Alec drove Drake to the height of his own arousal. He pounded him, sweat dripping from his brow and running down his hairy chest as he fucked Alec with a force that bordered on violence. They were both lost in an ecstasy of lust and pleasure so intense that when Drake felt Alec reach his explosive orgasm he went over the edge immediately. Alec cried out as he spurted all over his own chest, the ropes of hot liquid falling everywhere as Drake fucked him. Drake saw it, cried out deep in his throat and pulled out at the last second, giving over to his own electric climax and exploding all over Alec’s body, his chest, and his face.

He fell on top of him, holding him close. His heart was pounding in his chest and he could feel Alec’s heart racing too. They held each other, panting, sweating, and didn’t let go. They stayed together right there on the grass while they cooled down, and Drake couldn’t think of a more perfect sensation that the body beneath him. When Alec kissed him lightly on the lips, he returned the kiss with tenderness, smiling. He could get lost in Alec’s eyes, die at that moment, and it wouldn’t matter.

“Wow,” was all Alec whispered.

Drake smiled. “Yeah. Wow.”

Some time later, after an eternity of closeness, they began to feel the cold bite of the wind.

“I should wash up,” Alec said grudgingly. “Though I don’t think the river’s any warmer than yesterday.”
Drake looked up at the sky: night had fallen already. It was cold, and the dark waters of the river had to be ten times colder. “I’ll go in if you go,” he offered.

“You first,” Alec teased.

“I don’t think so.”

“Oh, come on, Drake. It’s just cold water. It won’t bite.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s go in already.”

Alec waded into the water first, followed by Drake. Naked as they were, the water hit them with all the suddenness of winter cold.

“Oh man,” Alec complained when they were knee-deep. “Okay. Drake, I’ll go down first. Can’t get my arm wet. One… two… dammit. One… two… three!”

He washed as quickly as he could and came up, hair wet, and shivering.

Drake helped him back to the grass.

“I’ll b…b…build a f…f…fire,” Alec stammered.

“You better,” Drake said. “My turn.”

Drake waded back into the river, grimaced and plunged all the way in. The water was so cold it knocked his breath out, but he scrubbed quickly and jumped out a few seconds later. He was soaked, shivering, and he suddenly wanted a fire very, very much.

He came back to where Alec was starting a fire with his flint, striking sparks over some dried-up wood shavings. Drake went into the woods, naked and shivering, and gathered a pile of wood as fast as he could. When he got back to Alec, he already had a small flame going. Drake fed it small twigs, then larger branches. It seemed to take forever but they eventually got a roaring fire going.

Dry now, they lay down by the fire side by side. Alec draped his cloak over them both, and the heat of their own bodies added to the heat of the fire.

Soon they stopped shivering, but they still held each other tightly. Drake was lying on his back, his head resting on an improvised pillow of his own clothes. Alec lay next to him, his head resting on Drake’s chest. They lay like that for a long time, staring peacefully out into the night. A lot of stars had come out and they shone above them with what Drake felt was happiness.

“Look,” Alec said, pointing up at the sky. The moon had come out over the treetops, shining silver and ethereal over them.

“It’s beautiful,” Drake said.

Alec held him closer. “It is.”

They didn’t say anything else, but their closeness spoke for them. They watched the moonlight dance above them until their eyelids grew heavy.

The heat of the fire made them relaxed and content, and Alec was soon fast asleep. Drake heard Alec’s breathing slow, and he allowed his eyes to close too. He opened them again one last time and smiled faintly, trying to capture the moment in his mind forever. But he was falling asleep, and his last thought was of Alec lying in his arms.

#

The next morning dawned much colder, with the first hint of frost in the air. Drake opened his eyes slowly and saw Alec was still asleep resting on his left side, breathing peacefully next to him. It was warm under the heavy cloak that covered them both, and Drake felt incredibly relaxed and comfortable, even sleeping over the grass as he had. He felt tempted to just roll over on his other side and fall back asleep, but instead he inched closer to Alec and put his right arm around him as he slept. Alec moved slightly when he felt the touch, but didn’t wake up. Drake smiled.

He caressed Alec’s body with his hand, feeling the suppleness of the skin under his fingers, and also the hardness of the muscles underneath. Drake let his hand wander down Alec’s arm, then back up his stomach, and lingering on Alec’s pecs. He traced the contours of the warrior’s body, eyes closed, enjoying the sensation and the warmth. He was already hard again, and he shifted so his erection rested between Alec’s firm buttocks. He was getting all worked up, but he didn’t want to wake Alec up so he stopped. He peeked at Alec to see whether he had woken him up—and saw Alec looking at him, grinning.

“Hey,” he said, and yawned.

“Hey,” Drake answered. “Didn’t want to wake you up.”

Alec turned so he was lying on his back and stretched. “Too late for that,” he said.

He reached for Drake’s hand still resting on his chest and guided it down, under the cloak, all the way between his legs. Drake felt Alec’s rock-hard erection and his penis stiffened in response. He started stroking Alec slowly, his grip firm, and he did so he kissed him, long and deep.

They made love again under the cloak, but this time Drake took his time, enjoying every moment even more, his mad urgency of the night before turned into tender lust. When Alec reached his orgasm with a cry as Drake was still inside him, it felt to Drake as if the joy and the pleasure of the moment would never end. Then he reached his own climax, and he cried out so loudly that a couple of nearby birds were startled into flight.

“That was incredible,” Alec said when they were done, panting in each other’s arms.

“I know,” Drake agreed.

They said nothing for a while; they just rested side by side, listening to each other breathe. After a while Drake yawned hugely. His stomach made a rumbling noise.

Alec laughed. “Hungry?”

“Starving.”

“Me too. We should get something to eat.”

Drake glanced at the waterfall right as a fish leapt out. Alec followed his gaze.

“Oh, no way,” Alec protested. “Anything but fish. I’m sick of salmon.”

“You have a better idea?” Drake asked.

“I sure do. Roasted rabbit.”

“And how are we going to find a rabbit? I haven’t seen any around here. The battle and the mountain scared them away.”

“You leave that to me, Drake. You may be the stronger fighter, but I’m an expert tracker. I’ll get us breakfast in no time.”

“I hope you’re as good as you boast.”

Alec grinned. “I don’t usually lie.”

Drake nodded, and suddenly yanked the cloak away from them both. The cold hit them right away with its icy kiss of winter wind.

“Hey!” Alec yelled, scrambling for his clothes, “What’d you do that for?”

Drake only laughed. Then he put his clothes on quickly too, shivering and laughing.

When they were dressed, Drake got the fire going again quickly while Alec had a look around the clearing. Alec stooped every few steps and looked around carefully, following something promising here and there. Drake didn’t see anything worth noting anywhere Alec stopped, but he had never been a very good game tracker. He depended more on his brute strength than on stealth when he wanted to kill something to eat.

There was a low rumble then, sudden and deep. Drake thought it was an earthquake at first, but then he realized he was hearing the rumble, not feeling it. He lifted his eyes to the mountain, outlined above the trees and covered in snow. The sound had come from there. So. The mountain was not completely at rest yet.

Eventually, Alec disappeared into the forest and Drake managed to get a good-sized fire going. He stacked a few more bits of firewood on it, then followed Alec, curious to see him track something down. For a while he didn’t see him, but then he felt movement just up ahead and saw him crouching with the stealth of a lynx, watching a pile of dirt that lay half-hidden underneath a thick root that poked out from the earth.

Drake approached as quietly as he could and knelt down next to where Alec was. Then they waited. He supposed they were supposed to be watching the pile of dirt, and he hoped it was the den of some kind of small animal. He was hungry.

Drake began to get bored and get cramps in his legs from crouching when he felt Alec’s posture change slightly. Drake froze. He didn’t see anything yet, but… there! A slight rustle of movement. Coming closer. Hop, and then another hop. Soon a brown rabbit was in full view, sniffing anxiously around the mouth of his den. His fur was becoming white in patches, Drake saw; changing to fit the coming winter snows. He wondered just how Alec was thinking of killing it.

The rabbit sniffed around some more, then finally decided it was safe and hopped towards its burrow. He was just getting in when Alec struck.

Drake couldn’t even see the blur of motion. Alec had hurled a rock so fast it looked as if he had used a sling, and the medium-sized pebble shot from his hand and straight for the rabbit’s head. There was a hollow bonk as the stone hit, and the rabbit dropped instantaneously. One of its hind legs twitched, then it lay still.

Drake was impressed.

“Breakfast!” Alec announced, casually walking over to his kill.

“Just how fast can you hurl a stone?” Drake asked him as he followed.

Alec grinned. “Fast enough.”

They walked back to their camp, but as they were coming out of the cover of the trees and into the clearing, Drake stopped in his tracks. His heart sank.

“What’s wrong?” Alec asked.

“Shit,” Drake said, realizing his mistake. “I must have put some green wood in there without noticing!”

A long plume of light grey smoke rose from the fire he had built, snaking up into the morning sky. It had been rising out of the fire for quite some time, judging from the height. Above the tree line, the wind quickly dispersed the smoke, but the damage had been done.

“I just lit a beacon that will bring every damn Guardian right here,” Drake said through gritted teeth. “Damn!”

He punched a nearby tree and left a mark when he took his fist away.

Alec dropped the dead rabbit as the realization hit him, too.

“Maybe they won’t come,” he said weakly.

“They are looking for survivors. From our side, or yours. I know that from the deserter I found yesterday.”

“That’s right,” Alec agreed reluctantly. “He said as much.”

“He said there are Guardian patrols combing the forest, and he must have been right because the bastard hadn’t been able to make it out of here on his own. They will come, and try to finish me off.”

“Then we need to go,” Alec said quickly. “Back to the cave; we hide and then we leave when night falls. And we go—”

“Alec.”

“Maybe away from the fight, deeper into the forest. They can’t check every tree. If we’re quick and move only by night, we can find a place to winter in, and—”

“Alec,” Drake interrupted, grabbing both the man’s shoulders, “it’s not going to work. You know as well as I do that we can’t outrun them. They’ll fly in and spot us in a second if we try to make a run for it. And if they see you helping me, they’ll kill you too.”

Alec shook his head. “No. If we’re not running, then I can talk to them. I can make them see you’re not like the others.”

Drake smiled sadly. “Alec, you know that’s not going to work. They won’t believe you. Not even you believed it, at first. There’s nothing to do.”

“No, that’s not true! There’s got to be something we can do.”

“I can’t run away and I cannot hide in here forever, Alec. This smoke signal is just making things quicker. I knew I was dead the moment my warriors lost the battle. I didn’t even know why I survived, at first.”

Alec tried to pull away and start moving. “No. We can still make it. We get away from this fire and run for the cave! Come on!”

Drake didn’t let go of him and Alec stopped struggling after a while. “Alec, I want to say something. These past two days with you have been amazing. I never knew I could feel like this about someone until I met you. I guess I was so happy that I chose to forget it had to end, eventually. But I want you to know that—”

“Stop!” Alec said, angry now. “Stop talking like that. You’re not dead yet, and you won’t be if I can help it. Let them come. Between the two of us we can take them all down.”

He drew his sword, the silver blade shining in the sunlight. Drake took a step back, snarling out of unconscious reflex. Then he caught himself.

“Alec.”

“Come on! Let’s get ready,” Alec said, walking over to the fire. “We have time to sharpen a stick and make you a spear. We can harden it in the fire so you have a weapon. Where did you kill the deserter? Was it near here? You can get his weapons too, they’re probably still there. Did he have any armor on that you can use?”

Drake let Alec fuss around the fire and approached slowly, his eyes on the sky. He knew the Guardians were on their way by now; they couldn’t have missed the smoke.

“Hey,” he said gently.

“Do you think this stick is long enough? Or should I shave a branch of a tree? I can use my sword to sharpen it.”

“Alec, listen to me.”

“Where did you kill that warrior? You should go back and get his gear while I work on this.”

“Stop!” he boomed at last.

Alec stopped, his sword in one hand, a long branch in the other. They stared at each other, and Drake’s gaze was hard.

“Drop that,” Drake said.

Alec clenched his jaw, hesitated just a moment, and then hurled the branch away. Drake got closer to him, so they were standing right in front of the other.

Alec swallowed. “I’m not letting them kill you,” he said defiantly. His eyes were too bright, his voice slightly unsteady.

“I am a dead man,” Drake said. “You know that, Alec.”

“No. I’m not losing you right after I found you. Not after dreaming of someone like you for so long. They are not going to kill you.”

“I didn’t say anything about letting them kill me,” Drake said.

Alec blinked, confused. A faint dash of hope crossed his features. “What?”

Drake put a hand on Alec’s shoulder. “You should do it. If death has to come from anyone, I would have it be from you.”

Alec’s eyes opened wider when he understood. He looked at his sword, then back at Drake. He shook his head forcefully. “No. Not me. Don’t ask me that.”

“Listen to me.”

“No. There’s got to be some other way! Why me? I could never—”

“Alec, if you don’t do it yourself, they will suspect. They will ask you how you survived so long with me still around. They will wonder you had time to fix your arm like you did; then they will find the dead deserter and ask about that too. You won’t be able to lie your way out of it. Not with me still alive when they come.”

“But—”

“Listen to me, Alec,” Drake said anxiously, drawing Alec to him. Their faces were almost touching. “You have to do it or we both die. It’s the only chance you have, and I am not going to let you die for nothing. Understand?”

Alec only shook his head.

“No,” he whispered.

Drake looked up and saw two specks of black coming closer, flying just above the treetops and coming fast.

“They are coming,” he said, backing off. “I will rush at you out of the woods and attack. Pretend you didn’t know I was there; you were just signaling for help. Then do what you have to do.”

Drake backed away, looking at Alec. Alec was still shaking his head, his sword limp at his side. Tears started rolling down his cheeks as he kept mouthing, no.

Drake hid in the trees until he heard the sound of the Guardians arriving at the clearing and preparing to land. Then he breathed slowly a couple times to calm himself, timing it so he would come out just before the approaching Guardians were on the ground to help Alec.

And then he attacked.

With an animal roar, he plowed out of the trees, fists raised, and ran straight for Alec. His mind registered every detail. The Guardians, two of them, just now landing on the wrong side of the river. Alec’s sword not even raised in defense. And his eyes, pleading. A tear rolling down the cheek he had kissed only this morning.

Drake didn’t hesitate. He didn’t stop. He charged straight into Alec and crashed into him shoulder first.

Alec went flying. He hadn’t even braced himself for the impact and the enormous force behind Drake’s charge sent him wheeling through the air so fast that he didn’t even have time to cry out. He was airborne for less than a second, then crashed back down by the riverside with a hard crunch. Alec cried out in pain when his wounded arm hit a rock. Drake felt something wrench inside him at the sound, but he didn’t stop. He walked slowly to where Alec lay, fists ready.

Alec was just standing up when Drake caught up to him. Alec’s pleading eyes hurt more than any wound Drake had every felt, but he didn’t allow himself a moment’s hesitation. He swung his fist in a vicious arc with all the strength in his massive muscles and caught Alec on the jaw.

Alec tried to twist away, but even as fast as he was, he couldn’t avoid the fist entirely. Drake felt it connect, and roared again as Alec’s head was thrown back. Alec staggered backwards, then fell near the water. He tried to stand up, but the punch had left him stunned. He spat out a tooth, and a trickle of blood began to flow from the corner of his smashed lip.

Drake approached to finish him but saw a blur of something and was forced to duck. A silver arrow whizzed by right where his head had been. As he crouched, Drake saw a silver-bearded Guardian notch another arrow from across the river. Even at that range, Drake knew he could not avoid another shot. He had no cover, and those arrows had to be poisoned. He rolled away from the river, got up again, heart pounding. He was done for.
“Stop!” Alec yelled, struggling up to his feet. Drake halted. So did the other two.

“Alec!” a younger Guardian called out. “Are you all right?”

Alec wiped the blood from his chin with his good hand, slowly. In it he still held his sword. His eyes were hard, then. Determined. As he raised his sword and shifted to a fighting stance, Drake felt a surge of relief tainted slightly with fear. Alec was finally ready to go all the way. He could see it in his eyes.

“This beast is mine,” Alec said loudly, his voice menacing. “His cowardly ambush has failed, and he has no armor. Let him come. Do not interfere!”

Drake saw the younger Guardian make as if to cross the river despite Alec’s words, ready to help, but the silver-bearded Guardian stopped him with a gesture. The elder fighter nodded slowly, approving of Alec’s choice, and put his own bow away. Drake allowed himself a last grin. Guardians were so predictable in battle.

Drake yelled out his challenge with all the power in his lungs. “Die, Guardian filth!”

He rushed headfirst into Alec’s deadly, razor-sharp sword.

Alec avoided his punch easily this time, moving aside with liquid grace. As Drake swung around for a kick at Alec’s right leg, Alec struck with his sword and drew a shallow red gash on Drake’s back. Alec jumped away almost instantly, keeping himself out of range.

“Aarrrgh!” Drake cried out, and stumbled onto one knee. The wound was a line of fire in his back.

Drake got up right away and held his ground, letting Alec come to him instead. When Alec approached, Drake waited for the deadly downward stroke of the blade he knew was coming, and dodged aside with an agility born of years of fighting Guardians. He knew their fight patterns. He knew when and where to strike.

He also knew he had no chance of winning, not unarmored, not without any weapons at all.

As the blade cut the air just to Drake’s left, he delivered a back-handed blow to Alec’s shoulder that sent him staggering. He almost dropped his sword, and Drake used the chance to pounce on him—but he was still jumping when Alec brought his sword around in an arc and cut a straight line down the front of Drake’s shirt. Blood welled up from the wound in his chest almost immediately and he only barely managed to stop the pounce that would have impaled him on the blade by rolling to the side.

Drake half-crashed to the ground but then jumped back up, panting, bleeding, hurting everywhere. He saw Alec was hardly winded at all, and his sword was all red from his blood. Bizarrely, the sight filled him with pride. Alec had what it took to take him down, broken arm or not.

Drake grabbed a rock from the riverbed and hurled it at Alec. He dodged it lazily, and closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye. Alec made a feint diagonal slash with the sword, and Drake bought it. He twisted aside to avoid it and was off balance when the true horizontal slash came his way.

The blade found its mark, and sunk deep into Drake’s side, shattering a rib with the force of the blow.

“Yes!” the younger Guardian yelled across the river.

Drake bent over from the pain, and Alec hesitated when he saw how badly he had wounded him. That was the opportunity Drake had been waiting for. He grabbed Alec’s sword arm with one hand, and his wounded arm with the other.

“Got you,” he whispered, as his eyes glowed bright with malice.

“Look out, Alec!” the younger Guardian yelled.

Alec’s eyes widened with fear a split second before Drake let loose the electrical shock.

It was Drake’s signature weapon, an implant he had grafted onto his hands years ago. It was the secret of his power and the most deadly of all the weapons at his disposal. He delivered an electrical charge like a taser would, but channeled it so that it coursed through his hands and into the body of whatever victim had been stupid enough to let itself be grabbed by Drake while he himself remained unaffected. And this time, the victim was Alec.

The sudden shock of electricity slammed into Alec’s cells and shredded many of them apart in a burst of agony. He cried out, dropped his sword, and began to shake uncontrollably as the current kept flowing, kept shredding a path through his body, kept coming closer to killing him by stopping his heart. But Drake could control the amount of electricity he attacked a target with. He could cause only pain, or fibrillate a heart so it would fail, or burn an opponent right down to cinders. This time he only caused pain. He needed it to look real.

He let go of Alec when he couldn’t stand hurting him anymore, hating himself for the look of pain in Alec’s eyes. He heard the Guardians on the other side of the river shouting, and heard splashing on the water as one of them jumped in to help. Drake pushed Alec away from him roughly, then made a show of picking up a large stone on the riverside to bash Alec’s head in. As he did so, he saw Alec reach for his sword and fighting the lingering, crippling pain of the electrical shock. Drake raised the rock over his head as Alec crouched on the ground, sword ready.

Their eyes locked one last time. Alec’s eyes misted with tears as Drake gave an almost imperceptible nod, and half a smile. Then Drake hurled the rock straight at Alec, but Alec was too fast, as Drake knew he would be.

Alec sprang up to his feet and slashed upwards with his blade, a terrible one-handed strike that caught Drake at the base of the neck and bit deeper, cleaving through his throat, his spine, and lodging in the middle of his neck.

Alec yanked his blade out and blood spurted everywhere. Drake’s body fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, his eyes glazing over in their shocked surprise. His blood began pooling around his body. Alec looked away.

Forcing himself not to cry, he walked to the river’s edge. The Guardians had come, and they were looking at him with apprehension, but also with respect.

“Well done, Alec,” the silver-bearded Guardian said. “But you know those monsters must be fully beheaded lest they heal. You should finish the deed.”

Alec shook his head. “There is no need. My blade was poisoned, and the nanodrones will prevent any healing. The monster is dead.”

The silver-bearded Guardian nodded slowly. “Very well. What of the search, then? Have you detected any sign of the Winterblade?”

“No,” Alec said with conviction. The lie came with surprising ease. “I scoured the entire area with great care before the Hunter attacked me. It took me two days. I detected no energy spikes, nor did I see any of the landmarks outlined in the ancient texts. It will not be necessary to search this area again.”

“In that case, we are done here,” the elder Guardian said. “You have gone beyond the call of duty, Alec, and I commend you for it. We had thought you lost in the battle. Come, we must take you home. It is a wonder you survived this long on your own. The war council awaits, and any knowledge you may have of our opponents will be appreciated as we plan our final assault on their home base.”

“As you say, Captain,” Alec said. He wiped his blade on his pants, and couldn’t suppress a soft sob as he saw the bright red blood on the silver, gleaming metal.

“Alec!” the younger Guardian said, catching up to him while the Captain went on ahead. Michael, Alec had to remind himself. The young Guardian’s name was Michael. “That fight was incredible! I thought you were dead for sure when he grabbed you!”

“I know,” Alec said, remembering Drake’s terrible eyes at that instant, and shuddering. “I thought I was dead, too.”

“But you survived!” Michael pressed. “And you killed him… they say he’s a Commander of their force, we’ve been looking for him for days when we heard he was alive. I heard he once killed five Guardians single-handedly, but you killed him with only your sword! And that arm—is it broken?”

“Yes, but the robotic support is working fine.” Alec’s voice was dull. It took every ounce of self-control he possessed not to look back at where Drake was lying in a pool of blood. Alec walked mechanically. He did not see where he was going.

“Wow,” Michael said. “You’re sure to get a hero’s ceremony when we get back. Maybe even a command of your own! Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Yes,” Alec said, numb. “It would sure be great.”

#

It was five weeks before Alec could slip away from the main forward camp, unseen in the middle of the night. He took very few things with him: his sword, his first-aid kit set, his bow and quiver, some food. His medal he left in his bunker, along with the ornately wrought dagger with which he had been presented at the ceremony of promotion. It marked him as a sub-Captain and a war hero, but he didn’t want it. He was never coming back.

As he slipped out, Alec kept wrestling with the hope that Drake was okay and also with the worry in case he wasn’t. It had taken much cunning and a great deal of storytelling to convince the Guardians that the part of the forest Drake was hiding in had been completely covered by Alec’s own patrolling, with no sign of the Winterblade. He couldn’t let any more Guardians go near the cave, and he stuck to his story of having been patrolling the area on his own before Drake sprang on him. He also assured them the area had been clean of any Hunters other than Drake and the one deserter Drake had killed; since he was a hero, everyone believed Alec’s words. The forest on that side was not searched again. That, at least, gave Drake a chance—if he was still alive.

The war council had taken a long time to decide to move on, and Alec had been forced to attend all the meetings due to his new rank as sub-Captain. This was the first night he had to himself, and he was going to seize the opportunity to get away before another meeting was called. The Guardians had been constantly meeting since they received reports of cities being attacked near and far every day, and nobody knew how that was possible.

The main Hunter force had been obliterated in the battle of the mountain, and the few surviving warriors had been hunted down and executed. Nobody knew what to do, or who was attacking the cities. Was it more Hunters, previously unknown? Or if not, what was this new threat?

There was also the matter of the secrecy the Circle of Three exercised at the end of every meeting, summoning this or that Captain for a private audience. Everybody knew it was because of some matter concerning the search for the mighty Winterblade of legend, but everybody pretended not to notice how fruitless each secret conversation was. The weapon just would not be found. It eluded them, and it appeared to mean to stay hidden.

Alec shook his head, clearing his thoughts. That was none of his business anymore. He was leaving for good, and the only thing in his mind was Drake.

His arm was healed already and as good as new, so Alec moved swiftly and silently through the files of tents where other Guardians slept oblivious to the fleeting shadow he was. Soon he reached the camp’s perimeter, and vaulted over the spikes with ease. Then he was out.

He walked softly on the new snow, trying to make no sound. They could still catch him here.

“Hey, Alec.”

Alec froze immediately. He hadn’t seen the other Guardian lounging against the wooden palisade. Now it was too late to pretend he not was going out and obviously escaping. Grimly, Alec readied himself for battle, turning around as slowly and calmly as he could.

“Hello, Michael.”

The other Guardian nodded in greeting and walked up to Alec furtively. First Alec thought Michael was going to attack, that he guessed correctly that Alec meant to leave for good, but the other Guardian didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, he spoke to him confidentially, voice low.

“I knew they were still sending people out to look for it. I knew it!”

“What?” Alec blurted. His eyes darted everywhere, but there were no other Guardians in sight. If needed, Alec could just knock Michael out and leave. It would be noisy, though.

“Oh, right,” Michael said, winking. “It’s a top-secret mission and you can’t discuss it with anyone. The Circle must have sworn you to secrecy or something like that. Maybe they gave you some special device to locate the energy signature? I’ve heard the scientists just finished building one.”

Alec didn’t say anything. He was so agitated that he didn’t understand anything Michael was saying. He briefly considered the fact that Michael was drunk, but he seemed to be perfectly sober.

“They asked me two nights ago, you know,” Michael confided. “I told them I’d scoured the area like they ordered me to. Then they got a little impatient, and they asked me more specifically. They wanted to know if I’d read any energy spikes in the region, the usual, but they revealed some other details about the Winterblade’s location. Turns out it might not be in this forest after all. They hinted that the legends that point here may refer to something else when they say the path to the Winterblade hides in this forest. They are doubting their interpretation now; it’s been weeks of searching and still nothing. Then they asked me yet again if I was positive all the Hunters in the area were dead.”

“They asked me that, too,” Alec said absently, his mind racing. He needed to leave, now.

“Then you know the Circle fears the Hunters have already found it. They are getting really impatient. That’s where you’re going, right? They’re sending you out to try and find the Winterblade on your own. A special mission to cover up for the fact that they have failed miserably thus far.”

“The…”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me anything if you swore not to divulge the details. The Circle is desperate to get it, or at least to prevent the Hunters from getting it, and I can understand why. A weapon that powerful would mean that even the ragtag group of Hunters that are left could fight us again, and probably win. After all, they say only a Hunter can find the thing. I wonder if it’s true.”

“You’re right,” Alec said.

“About the weapon?”

“About the oath,” Alec said quickly. “I’m sorry, Michael. I have to go. I can’t tell you where I’m going, and please don’t tell anyone you saw me leave.”
Michael winked again. “Not a problem. I never saw you.”

“Thank you,” Alec said, feeling guilty at the lie. Before Drake, he had never lied to another Guardian before, and it still stung.

But Drake was far more important than that. Leaving Michael by the camp’s perimeter, Alec began to run. His mind quickly dismissed Michael’s wild theories and instead Alec wondered, for the millionth time, whether Drake was okay. He replayed the fight against him in his mind. Had his sword cut too deep? He knew Drake could heal quickly, but he also knew he had almost cut his head off. He felt sick, disgusted with himself. Maybe he had cut too deep, maybe Hunters could only heal from flesh wounds, not a severed spine. Maybe he was already dead, killed by Alec’s own hand.

The thought chilled him to the bone, but he kept on going. There was no going back now.

It began to snow as Alec ran through the trees, so he draped his cloak around him tighter and picked up the pace. Trees rushed past him, and he leapt over rocks and roots he could only barely see under the pale light of the moon overhead. The world was shadows and icy stillness. Alec was the only thing that moved in all that crouching maze of darkness.

Soon he began to breathe more heavily, but he didn’t stop. They might have realized he was gone by then. They might come for him, and try him for desertion. He couldn’t let that happen before he reached the waterfall again.

He had to find out for sure.

He ran for hours, his pace the tireless stride of the wolf. The moon climbed over the heavens, then began to dip back down. The sky began to gray with dawn, and still Alec ran. When he heard the waterfall, at long last, the light snow of earlier had begun to fall more thickly, making a pristine white carpet by the river, untouched by any tracks.

Alec crossed the river by leaping on the slippery, half-frozen stones at the mouth of the waterfall and finally landed on the other side drenched in sweat. Panting, his breath misting around him in the pale light of incoming dawn, he looked around.

“Drake?” he called, softly at first. He was afraid. He couldn’t see the body, but that didn’t mean anything. There were wolves in these woods.

He walked around, but saw nothing. He called for Drake a couple more times but he heard no answering voice, even though he strained his ears to hear Drake’s deep voice echoing off the trees somewhere. Shivering, and sick with worry and diminishing hope, he turned towards the cave. If Drake wasn’t there either, then he was dead for sure. Or gone, tired of waiting for

Alec to show up. Alec’s gut twisted at either thought.

He trudged through the forest, walking through a thick carpet of pine needles. No snow had fallen here since the trees were catching it all on their upper branches, and Alec followed the way to the cave with a rapidly beating heart, his eyes looking everywhere for signs that Drake had passed this same way recently. The light around him got brighter so gradually he did not even notice it until he came out of the trees at the bottom of the hill he had been crossing, and saw dawn had arrived. As he started up the hill that led to the cave, he listened for the faintest sound, looked for the most minute sign of a broken branch or the trace of a footprint in his path. There was nothing.

The cold was getting to him, drenched in sweat as he was, but Alec barely paid attention to it. He was completely focused; dreading, hoping, and when he saw the clearing at the mouth of the cave, his heart leapt in his chest. He approached slowly, hoping against hope, paralyzed with fear, sick with worry. The mouth of the cave was dark. As he got closer he saw no footprints, no signs of a fire at all. When he was standing right at the mouth of the cave looking in, all he saw was darkness. He didn’t even need to go in. Nobody had been inside that cave for many weeks.

Alec dropped to his knees. Disappointment and grief were leaden weights dragging him down.

“Drake!” he cried, his voice echoing back to him over the treetops, the indifferent rocks of the cave. “DRAKE!”

No one answered. He knelt there, crying silently, berating himself. He had killed him. He was sure of it. He had gone too far and hurt him too badly, even without any poison in the blade. Drake was dead. And it was his fault.
Alec smashed his fist against the ground, then again, and again, and he let out a wordless howl of grief with all the strength left his exhausted, shivering body. He hung his head and knelt there, silent, shaking with sorrow. His mind was a blur of nothing.

The first falling rock he almost didn’t see. It was small and it bounced down the stone face of the hill above the cave. Then another one came in, and another one, much bigger. Alec jumped up, startled. The bigger rock landed near his foot with a crash.

“Sorry!” Drake’s voice yelled from above. “Watch out for the rocks!”

Alec looked up, surprised, uncomprehending, and then his face lit up like the sun with a smile when he saw Drake climbing down the sheer rock face, stumbling down the rocks and knocking showers of small pebbles everywhere. Drake ended up sliding down the last stretch of the wall, and he landed just to the right of the cave mouth with a heavy thump.

“Sorry,” Drake said again, dusting himself off. “I heard your voice and I had to get here as soon as I could. There’s an easier route down on the northern face of the hill, but this way is much faster and I couldn’t wait.”

Alec couldn’t find words to say. He was beaming, and before he knew it he was running straight into Drake’s arms, laughing, and then Drake was hugging him, holding him tight.

Alec looked up into Drake’s eyes and saw the happiness mirrored there, and the deep, unconditional love. They kissed, and Alec felt happier than he ever had in his life.

“There’s no need to cry, Alec,” Drake said, wiping away one of Alec’s tears with a gentle hand. “I found a nice shelter where we can stay until the Guardians move away. Then we can leave and find someplace they won’t bother us, far away from here. Just the two of us. Sounds good?”
Alec smiled, and nodded. “Yes. It sounds really good.”

Alec hugged Drake fiercely, breathing in his wonderful scent of smoke and sweat and man. The strong arms that hugged him right back were shelter, and safety, and happiness.

“There’s just one more thing,” Drake said, drawing slightly away. The tone of his voice changed. “I found something in the new cave. Or… well, I think it found me. A piece of the wall at the very back of the cave just broke off when I touched it. Then this thing behind it started glowing. I took it out, kept it with me. I think it’s… well, have a look.”

Drake took something out of his belt: a flat slab, a little wider than his hand, wrapped in a piece of cloth. He gave it to Alec carefully, as if whatever was inside could break at any moment.

Alec unwrapped the bundle. Inside was a tablet made of a dull, black metal, very old and worn, with an inscription etched on its surface. Below the inscription, there was a map. The map was surprisingly detailed, and there was a slightly glowing mark near its lower edge in the shape of a tiny war axe.

Alec read the faded, rune-like words.

Here lies the path to the Winterblade
Follow, and surrender your mind

Alec looked back at Drake, his eyes wide. “Drake, this is—”

“A map. The only map to the Winterblade. The one only a Hunter could find.”

“I can’t believe it,” Alec said, with awe in his voice. “I honestly thought it was just a legend.”

“It isn’t. And now we are the only ones who know how to find it.”

“But should we even try and find it, Drake? Such power… wouldn’t it be better if we just left it alone?”

“And live in hiding the rest of our lives, fearing every day that the Guardians might find us, or other Hunters? Now that you came back to me, they’d kill you right along with me, Alec, and I’m not going to let that happen, not ever,” Drake said, his voice firm. “Alec, if we find the Winterblade, nobody will bother us ever again. Hunter or Guardian, they’ll leave us alone. No more hiding. We’ll be together, living without fear.”

“Together,” Alec repeated softly.

“With this blade in hand, I will protect you,” Drake said. “I swear it. I love you, Alec.”

Alec melted at the sight of the powerful warrior smiling at him with such tenderness. In his heart, he knew he was right. The map had come to Drake for a reason. “Let’s do it,” he said, no trace of doubt in his voice. “Together.”
Drake kissed him, smiling. “I knew you’d say yes. Let’s go!”

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