Chapter One

 

          The last of winter’s snow had fallen on the mountain city of Brúnn. Its gentle powder wrapped a soft blanket over rooftops and cobbled streets, and for five long months it isolated the city amongst the mountains. Once the pass through the Hardingr and Haeringr ranges had filled with snow, all passage through Brúnn stopped. The spring trades were still a month away, and the only signs of life were smoke trails, wafting from grey chimney peaks high into the air. It was bitterly cold, the mountain winds sinking sharp teeth through the fur coats of two sentry guards aloft in their watchtower.

          “There it is again,” the elder guard said. He braced himself against the stone, feeling little warmth from the fire pit burning at his back, concerned more for what lay hidden within the encroaching mists far beyond the great Western Wall. He peered through his scope, searching the low hanging cloud hampering the road leading toward the Hardingr Pass, but lost sight as the winds shifted once again.

          “I can’t see a thing,” his junior responded. He passed the scope.

          “Take a look. Your eyes might be keener than mine. What ever it is, it’s bigger than any man, yet no beast would range from the mountains so close to the city. Have the guards let any through the gate this morning?”

          His junior raised the scope to his eye. “No. None have left the city, and all were accounted for before last night’s sunfall.”

          He cursed, his breath a white puff beyond his frozen beard.

          “We’ve had no word that the guides have cleared the pass. What ever approaches does so at great peril.”

          He glanced south beyond the slow rolling mist, to the towering ranges of the Hardingr Mountains. Brooding clouds covered them in shadow, for the morning sun was yet to pierce their cold embrace. Still heavily laden with snow, harsh winds whipped across their peaks. Feeling a chill down his spine, the old guard pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders, and concentrated on the road ahead.

          “I see them,” came a startled voice beside him. He snatched the scope from his junior’s hand, raising it again to his eye. Tracking along the pass road, he caught sight of a lone horse, its huge black frame just a bleak shadow within the mist. It was breathing heavily.

          “It’s one of the rangers’ beasts,” he said, catching glimpses of the shaggy pelt covering its giant torso. He shifted the scope, searching through the mist.

          “Something’s wrong. There’s no one else in sight.”

          Instinctively, he moved his hand high above, lightly gripping an alarm chord set beneath a large iron bell. If rung, hundreds of guards would rush to the western wall ready to protect the inner city gate. Staring back at the horse, he almost clanged the bell clear across the city as two heavily cloaked figures suddenly burst forward, breaching the swirling mist. Neither of their faces were visible. They just stood still, staring down the long road to the city gate.

          “That’s impossible,” the young guard said. “There’s still too much snow for the trade route to be open. Even a ranger wouldn’t dare cross all the way from Hastunnd.”

          A shaft of sunlight speared through the clouds, finally pushing back the mist that had so cunningly concealed the approaching figures. Revealed at last, the two lone souls marched upon the city gates, dressed heavily in thick silvery furs. Following them was the ranger’s horse, drawing a light wagon behind them.

          “They don’t look like traders,” the old guard noted, “and rangers never travel in pairs. That wagon looks like a light hauler, but it’s not laden down with goods. If they’re travellers, it’s mighty early to be trying to cross the Oystkrakr.”

          He referred to the great crack that split Brúnn in two, its towering cliffs sheltering the mighty Oysteinn River that spanned the two mountain ranges. He let out a whistle to the guards below, stationed at the great gate. He signalled two fingers, then flipped his wrist and motioned with the same fingers that the travellers were walking. As the guards begrudgingly tore themselves away from their fire pit and moved to look through the gate latches, his young colleague took the scope from his hand.

          “Look at the size of those hoods. You can’t see anything of their faces. It’s a wonder they can see where they’re going at all.”

          He grunted in agreement. “It’s a miracle they managed to find their way through the Pass without the use of our guides, though where did they get that horse?”

          As his nerves calmed, he felt the morning sun finally cleave through the clouds and flood the city below. Its warm light washed away the cold clutches of winter. It crept silently over Brúnn’s rooftops, dipping into snow-covered lanes and courtyards. The town hall sparkled as the new dawn sun glistened off its peak. The great towers of the university pierced the sky, and blue shadowy shafts stretched from chimneys and archways as the sunlight mixed with smoke from the kitchens. Soon Brúnn would wake, and the spring months would become a hive of activity, with traders traversing the Haeringr heading north to Burdynn and beyond, or following the Hardingr south toward the capital city of Hastunnd.

          His attention refocused as the great gate creaked open. Confronted by the guards, the two cloaked figures stepped through. One guard lazily walked up to the cart to casually inspect it, steering well clear of the ranger’s horse, while another questioned the two newcomers.

          “They must be trying to work out how those two got through,” his junior said, still eyeing the new arrivals through the scope. “They keep pointing back to the pass and to the cart. These travellers must important. I’ve never seen the front guards be so accommodating.”

          He grunted, watching the guard pointing toward the city, giving directions and smiling, nodding to the point where it was almost a polite bow. The hooded figure hardly moved. Once the guards’ inspection was complete, the two strangers conferred closely, then both turned to the main guard, and slid back their thick, furred hoods.

          A sharp intake of breath, followed by a small moan of pleasure from his junior made him snatch the scope and place it to his eye, before he felt his own legs falter by what he saw. Instead of two hardened men as he had presumed, two striking women stood glowing in the morning light. To the left was revealed a head of ethereal blonde hair, long and wrapped sensuously around a slender neck and shoulder line. The wind gently brushed the few escaping wisps of hair against her face, which she softly drew back with delicate fingers. He couldn’t help but imagine those fingers were his own, tenderly touching her soft, pure skin. Her eyes were cold shallows of blue, a mixture of the water and ice surrounding her, and she bore them down upon the uncertain guard.

          A few feet in front, and looking intently along the road ahead, stood the second. Her hair was also long but in contrast to her companion, hers was perfectly straight, and as black as night’s reflection on still water. Set free of the encompassing hood, she let her hair blow wildly in the wind. Untamed, it whipped her face and stung in the air. Her eyes were stern and keen, her mere presence instilling a desire to kneel before her. She was raw beauty.

          His world stopped as he peered through the scope, his breath halting until his lungs began to burn. He was fixated with her, but in his heart the old guard knew he would never be nearer to her than he was now. For the longest moment he could only stare, his mouth agape, until she cruelly broke the spell by pulling over her hood, once again becoming shrouded in secrecy.

          As her concealment became complete, the world around him dimmed. He did not feel the gathering chill as the winds again began to howl. His legs lost all strength, and inside he ached for her to be brought back into his world. Yet somehow he knew she would only be part of his life for this fleeting moment. She was the most glorious woman he’d ever been blessed to see, and his heart grew heavy as he watched her move slowly toward the city, where they were both soon swallowed within the snow covered, cobbled streets of Brúnn.