The man was marked for death by a Darkling that sat at his shoulder with a venomous look no other could see. It regarded him with eyes of campfire embers as Lon sat atop the cliff, looking out across the rolling ocean, wondering his worth. As he watched the moon reflect upon the rough waters, the winged beast stood just in the corner of his vision, moving when he turned to try and catch it out. The hour was late and Lon was tired, but tonight he felt uneasy. The Darkling had woken Lon with clawed hands wrapped around his throat, squeezing the life from him as it sat upon his chest with a sharp grin of a hundred daggers.
Shuddering, Lon turned and went back to the campfire where Windred sat, staring into the flames. “The Darkling is restless tonight,” Lon said.
Windred looked up at Lon, his eyes gazing behind. “Yes, I have sensed it growing near. What is it you seek tonight, Darkling?”
The Darkling hissed in Lon’s ear. "Keep that old fool away from us!"
Lon ignored it and crouched by the fire, warming his hands upon it. The good mood that had filled him that day had soured with the rising of the Darkling. For days the creature had been silent and Lon had wondered if the curse had finally been lifted. How wrong to get his hopes up, he realised. Now the Darkling returned because it could smell death upon the horizon. And as Lon looked up from the flames, he saw the riders closing the distance between them. Windred saw them and stood. “They saw our fire,” he said, his voice edged with fear.
“That man back at the village recognised me; I should have killed him and fed his soul to the Darkling.”
"Just like the old days!" The Darkling laughed.
“That is not what I taught you, my friend. But it seems your old life has caught up with you, as often things do.” Windred went to the horses.
“Leave them!” Lon snapped. “They will easily out ride us, for those horses are old. Set them free.” He looked down the hillside towards the woods. “We can make it to the woods and lose them on foot.”
Windred hesitated. “That is a pygmy wood, Lon; only a fool would enter.”
Lon smiled. “Then we should be safe.” He ran down the hill towards the forest. Windred followed after releasing the horses into the wild. They neighed and ran to freedom and the riders changed direction to go after them. Watching them go, Lon wished them well: they had been good companions over the years and he would miss them.
They sped down towards the forest. The wind rushed through their hair and the sky let loose with heavy rain that hit them in their faces with unrelenting fury. The riders charged away from the horses and bore down upon the two of them again. But the distraction had given them valuable time. The riders shouted commands and without looking back, Lon knew they were forming a semi circle to cut their escape. Suddenly Lon felt like the old days of being hunted when he was the wolf.
Windred called out to him, “The pygmies will not take kind to strangers in their forest.”
There was no other choice, and they both knew it. There was a good chance the hunters would follow no further and risk the anger of the Pygmies who guarded their sacred forest with ferocity. The first of the arrows whistled through the air, narrowly missing. They reached the cover of the forest, but it was a black night, as the clouds had swooped to cover the moon. The riders were close and they held their flaming torches high. More arrows flew through the air. Windred dived through bushes, pushing himself through the tightly packed trees and Lon followed. Horses trampled through the bushes after them. The dogs barked and panted, eating away at the night in front of them, sniffing down their prey.
Cursing himself, Lon realised he had lost sight of Windred and he dived on through the dark forest alone. Like a blind man, he stumbled and bit back the rage of being hunted like an animal. The hunters risked entering a Pygmy forest; such was their determination to destroy him. They had thought they had travelled far enough and kept quiet over the years to avoid this day. Windred himself had warned him that one day he would have to face his crimes.
“But I am a different person than in those distant days of blood,” he had argued one day. “It was the Darkling who pushed me to evil.”
Windred looked at him with sadness. “Aye, but did you have to listen to it? How many criminals will blame a Darkling for their ill deeds?”
“But you know it is true!”
“I am not the man who judges you.”
If they caught him, he would suffer a painful death. Lon would take as many down as he thought plenty before dying in battle. Then he would fight the Darkling on his back, finally face it down and take it screaming to the Dark World. Lon tripped on a fallen tree and went spiralling down into the damp earth, the air forced from his lungs. A dog was upon him and teeth sunk into his leg. He spun around and grabbed the snarling dog by the throat. With both hands he pulled it away from his leg. Blood sprayed up around him.
Ignoring the hot pain in his right leg, he twisted the dog’s head and heard the bone snap. The dog twitched, then became still in his arms. Throwing the carcass away, he got to his feet and limped on through the trees. He dived down a slope, ran on towards a clearing with high grass. Another dog gave a bark at his heel and he drew his sword, sweeping it down in a quick arc and cleaving it in the head. It yelped before falling into a deathly silence. The grass was head high and he pushed on, drowning in a sea of green. The shouts of the guards were falling behind as the horses struggled through the forest. His plan was working, but he was on his own, the only man he considered a friend gone.
"He’s dead just like you will be soon," the Darkling whispered in his ear.
Lon slowed to a walk as he realised he had escaped. The grass became thicker and he pressed on, cutting a path with his sword. The pain in his leg was like fire and he cursed under his breath. Not a single man had died by his hand tonight, he thought with despair. At least ten should have fallen, but all he had killed were two dogs. Then he realised he was sinking quickly back into his old ways and the Darkling laughed. Windred had helped change his path, yet how easy it was to stray.
At last the grass thinned and he was back in the forest, moving through the trees with the rain beating down through the thick canopy of leaves. Thunder rumbled and the forest was lit by the white flash and revealed a gnarly old tree with a strange symbol carved into the trunk. Pausing to study it, he ran his fingers over the jagged illustration. It was a Pygmy mark, a warning that this was a sacred place. There were more symbols on other trees and Lon listened to the night for the screeching pygmies. There was only the sound of the patter of rain upon leaves. Behind lay death at the hands of men, ahead was death at the claws of beasts. All the time he deliberated, the more his leg bled and shot fire like pain through his entire body.
The thunder lit the forest again and he spied a great tree, free from symbols. He limped over to it and jumped up. With a great forearm of muscle, he caught one branch and hauled himself up. Determined to get higher, Lon worked his way up until he found a thick branch high above the green forest roof. He stretched out on it, his back resting against the body of the tree. The Darkling settled below, just out of sight. Lon could feel it staring at him.
“One day you and I shall fight, Darkling,” he whispered.
"Why can’t you just die and let me have what’s left? I shall crush these pathetic mortals you run from!"
“You need me,” Lon spat. “Only my back is strong enough to carry one such as you.”
Somehow the dogs had lost his trail and he thanked the Gods for his good fortune. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he ripped a strip of his tunic and wrapped it around the wound. The cut was not as deep as he feared and the blood had slowed. Just like the old days, he relaxed, ready for a long night and the hope of the men giving up the chase. The rain soaking him and the threat of Pygmies in his mind, Lon struggled on the edge of sleep, wondering if the Darkling would take the chance to dance upon his soul.
Lon had been eight when the elder had grabbed hold of him, his fingers digging into Lon’s shoulder like claws. The Elder’s eyes were white and useless, but he stared at Lon through a straggle of white hair. “You have an evil shadow, boy!” he spat at him with foul breath.
Lon had tried to pull away, but the old man kept a firm grip. “Let me go!” Lon shouted.
“Beware the Darkling; it moves when you sleep and feeds from your most dread dreams.”
Lon managed to free himself from the old man’s grip, but stood firm. “What does it want?”
The old man grunted. “It will feed upon suffering and death. One day you will have to face it.”
Lon smiled. “Then it will die by my sword!” He ran away from the old man, but the Darkling laughed in his ear.
"You are mine" It hissed.
Perhaps he was, Lon had wondered many times. Now he was thirty years old and had grown accustomed to the Darkling, though he resisted the temptation to name it.
“You are right not to give it a name,” Windred had told him when they first spoke of the Darkling. “To give something a name is to give it power. Let it be nameless and ignored!”
No one else could hear or see it, but people spoke of Lon’s shadow. As a child it had overwhelmed him, pushed him to violence until at fifteen he was banished from the village and the elder had pointed an accusing finger at him as he went, shouting, “It will destroy you one day!”
When Windred found him, Lon had carved out a reputation for himself across the land, killing and stealing, showing no mercy. Such a reputation had put a sizeable bounty upon his head. When he walked into a tavern with his stolen gold, voices became hushed and people avoided his gaze. They called him Night Wolf for that was when he would hunt, side by side with the wolves.
Lon remembered fondly when he was saved by the old man with the strange tattoo upon his face. It had been a hot day and a hunting party drew close. Exhausted from running the entire day, he thought he would fight his last and had taken shelter in ancient ruins within the hills. The old man was kneeling in the centre of the ruins, his sword dug into the ground, his head resting against the hilt. Expecting the Darkling to whisper death into his ear and urge him to kill, Lon drew his sword and crept towards the centre of the ruins.
But the Darkling was silent.
The old man looked up and stared ahead. “You do not have to fear me, boy,” he had said. “I knew you would come.”
Lon paused, his sword raised above his head and ready to cleave the old man’s skull. “How could you know that?”
The old man got to his feet and turned, looking at Lon with kind eyes beneath the black ink of the swirling pattern over his face. “The Gods have told me of your path. Are you not the one who walks with a Darkling, the Night Wolf?”
The words sent a shiver through him. Lowering his sword, Lon asked,”What do you know of such things?”
The old man approached him, his hand offered out in friendship. “I know that you are in need of help. The villagers have been running you down all day. The wolf has run out of hiding places.” He nodded across to the nearest stone where two white horses grazed upon grass. “Can you ride?”
“Aye, I can ride. But why would you help me? Do you not know who I am?”
The old man smiled. “They speak your name in fear around here. You are someone who seeks redemption and an end to the Darkling at your shoulder. I am Windred.” He bowed slightly.
Lon spat. “Those had better be fast horses, old man.”
So they had ridden together that night, down from the ruins and into the valley, leaving the guards far behind. They rode all night and into the morning, away from the hunters and to freedom. The Darkling had protested, wanting to go back and kill those who hunted. Over the years, they travelled the land from the Shadow Mountains to the desert lands and beyond to the great sea before returning. In the entire time, Windred had never questioned or judged him, but had never explained anything about himself. But Lon had learned much from the old man as they travelled. At first he had frowned when Windred had shown mercy to the weak, helping those who had fallen to misfortune. Over time Lon had found satisfaction in this and slowly the old man won him over. Life had been good and the hushed voices of tavern folk was no more. The Darkling had weakened as he denied it death and violence.
When Lon woke from a light doze, morning sun broke the trees and blinded him. Leg on fire with pain, Lon straightened up against the tree. A thin mist reached up as though he were above the clouds. Stretching, he climbed down. The forest floor was damp and soft and his boots sank into the ground. It was silent and peaceful with only the sound of bird song, and he carefully made his way through the trees, unsure where he was going. His eyes snapped around the trees as he limped on, noticing more Pygmy symbols. The forest floor began to slope upwards and the trees became denser. After a short while, a bead of sweat formed on Lon’s brow. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and was forced to sit up against a tree, wheezing. The pain in his leg became a dull throb and he checked the wound which had crusted over with dried blood mixed with mud. The sound of running water was close. A short walk later he came to a river snaking through the forest, too wide to cross.
Scooping up a handful of water, Lon drank. When he had quenched his thirst, he washed his wound in the cold water. It numbed the pain instantly and he rested by the bank for a few moments, his head clearing. Refreshed, Lon followed the river in the direction he guessed was north. As he continued on, the mist left and the sun warmed.
A dart shot by his ear and Lon dived to the floor, drawing his sword as he did so. Another dart stuck in the tree behind, narrowly missing his neck. A third dart flew at him and he slashed it from the air with his sword and backed around the tree for cover. Ropes fell from the trees and the grey skinned pygmies climbed down. Five of them stood surrounding Lon, no more than four feet in height, little men with pointed teeth and claws. Sharp horns poked from the top of their curly black hair that fell in knots down to their spindly legs. With a screech they advanced, their tails whipping out. Two more jumped from the bushes, blow pipes moving to their lips to let loose another attack.
With lightning speed, Lon ran at the closest two, sword raised. He beheaded them in a great gush of black blood. He dived to the left as one of the Pygmies raised a spear and he spun round to thrust the sword through its stomach. Still impaled on his sword, he swung the pygmy round into the other, sending it flying. Another pygmy felt Lon’s fist straight in its face and it dropped to the floor with a whimper. Lon pulled his sword free and wiped it on the ground, catching a glimpse of the Darkling in the corner of his eye. It was thrilled to see so much death.
I would drink their blood and eat their flesh, it whispered. Lon turned around and it vanished.
Sometimes, Lon thought, the Darkling wasn’t too different from him. The Pygmies would regroup and come in greater numbers, so he had to move fast. In the distance, he heard the dogs and beyond them the sound of men hunting. For what seemed like hours he ran on, resting at intervals. He snapped some bushes and trampled the soil, then carefully back tracked and continued north, his feet making as little contact with the ground as possible. The forest began to thin and before long he was back out in the open. The land before him was a windswept heath with no cover. The sky had turned grey and a bitter rain fell. He sped on across the heath towards some rocky hills in the distance. If he could make the hills, he had a chance.
"Run away like a coward," the Darkling sneered.
As the rain grew heavy, Lon pressed on, determined to make for the hills. As forked lightning split the sky, he was at the foot of the hills. The ground beneath hardened and boulders provided a good shelter against the harsh wind and rain. Then against a low rock, he saw a figure. Without thought, he drew his sword, kept low and moved in for a silent kill. Raising his sword about to strike, the figure turned and looked at him.
“Windred!” Lon replaced his sword and crouched down next to the old man. He grabbed his shoulder and noticed how pale he appeared. ‘By the Gods, you’re alive!’
Windred smiled weakly and looked down, Lon following his gaze to a shaft of metal sticking from his left leg. Windred’s breathing was laboured and he took hold of Lon’s arm with a bloody hand. “I couldn’t pull it out,” he gasped.
Lon looked at the arrow. It was buried deep into the flesh. Pulling it out could cause a worse wound, but he had to take the risk.
“I’ve seen worse than this.” He ripped off his tunic and made a collection of bandages, laying them out on the rocks. He then put his hand around the cold steel of the arrow, looking up at Windred. “I will do it on the count of five.”
Windred nodded. “You can count that far, my friend?”
Lon smiled. “No.” On the number two Lon pushed Windred’s leg down with his left hand while his right hand pulled the arrow up and out, tearing the flesh and sending spurt of blood into the air. Windred yelled out in pain.
“By the Gods!” he cried, taking short breaths.
“You whine like a woman.”
“Son of a whore!” he cursed, but smiled warmly as Lon tied a piece of cloth tightly above the wound. The blood slowed to a trickle. It would need patching up, but he looked back across the heath and saw a line of riders burst through the forest. Quickly, he pulled Windred up and dragged him up the hill. Looking back, Lon saw the riders were at the foot of the hills and he lowered Windred down against a low boulder. They had the advantage as the hills were too rocky for the horses and they would have to dismount. The jutting rocks provided them shelter from arrows. The odds were not good, though, as the dogs were released. They came running, barking and snarling, up into the hills towards them.
As soon as the dogs were upon them, Lon swung his sword and took out three in one swipe. Windred stabbed at one and it went down with a yelp and lay twitching on the floor. One jumped at Lon and he grabbed it and threw it against a rock where it smashed in a bloody pulp. The bowmen raised their bows and took aim. Lon backed down behind the rocks with Windred.
“My friend,” Lon said, “I have to fight them.”
Windred grabbed his arm. “That is what the Darkling wants.”
Lon nodded slowly. The Darkling laughed and he bit his lip in anger. “They will kill us both, even though you are innocent.”
Windred smiled. “No one is really innocent, are they?” He closed his eyes and sighed. “You must do what you must.”
The soldiers advanced, their bows raised. The arrows whistled through the air, striking the rocks around them. Waiting for the last arrow, Lon prepared to charge before they had a chance to take aim again. The rain was hard. Like shards of glass it dug into their skin and the sky gave out a thunderous cry. Taking a deep breath, Lon stood and faced the army below with his sword held high as a mighty clap of thunder rocked the land. But the army had turned their backs and faced the forest where a great darkness spewed forth. It spread out into a line and the horses reared up and those on foot fell in behind the horsemen. The pygmy army advanced on them. There must have been hundreds, charging down across the heath at those who had trodden their sacred paths. The horsemen rode out to meet them first and the bowmen let loose their arrows. The dogs were released and sped on towards the pygmies. Both armies clashed in the middle of the heath beneath the dark sky and Lon and Windred watched as the bloody battle commenced. The two factions fought fiercely, merging into the one army.
The Pygmies slashed with their hooked swords and hacked down the first wave of attacking soldiers. The smell of blood was within the air. “We should leave now,” Lon said.
Helping Windred to his feet, they headed into the hills. Those who survived would struggle following on horses and they had a good head start. The Gods had favoured them today, but the blood flowed from Windred’s leg, a river of crimson spilling out behind them. He became weaker as they continued, but before they could rest, Lon knew they had to make some distance, further into the rocky hills.
By late afternoon as the sun began to sink, Lon and Windred came to the ancient ruins in the foot hills of Arath-Hol. A fire burned between them as they rested among the ruins where they had first met. Lon had managed to stitch Windred’s leg, and he rested against a pillar, eyes staring into the fire. But Lon saw how weak he had become, his face paler than he had ever seen.
“Put some more wood on the fire, my friend,’ Windred said. “It is colder than a witch’s bed.”
Lon smiled, prodding the fire with a stick. “Aye, and not as warm as that whore’s bed, but there is no more firewood in these hills, Win.” The Darkling had slunk away from him, as it would always when they camped down in Arath-Hol.
Perhaps, he thought, it was something to do with the runes carved upon the pillars, for this had once been the land of the witches.
“Will they ever stop hunting me?” Lon mused aloud.
Windred sat up, wincing in pain. “If you live long enough, live a good life. There is something you should know about me, Lon.”
Lon stared into the flames. “You talk as though you are dying.”
Windred coughed and a trickle of blood ran from his mouth that he wiped quickly away. “We both know I am, for the arrow was laced with poison. But do not look at me like that. We must all die eventually and I am old; I do not fear it, for death and I have been long friends.” His face creased with sadness, Windred held his hand out to Lon. “You never did wonder how I found you.”
Lon grabbed Windred’s hand, feeling how weak his grip was. “What do you mean?”
Windred sighed, his eyes drifting inward as he recalled distant days. “Many years ago, I too had a Darkling as you do. Only I allowed the Darkling to take control, for I was too weak to resist the power it offered. I killed many and cared not for what crime I committed. It was an old witch living in the wilds that exorcised me of this Darkling. Realising the thing was consuming me, I begged her to take this curse from me and she did. The hair of a new born upon the first day of winter was required, so the Darkling would pass to another.”
“I was born upon the first day of winter.”
Windred coughed and wheezed. “I did not care how the witch would do it. But when I was finally free, I saw the wrongness of my action. For years I hid myself in the deepest of woods until they eventually stopped hunting me; but I had to find redemption somehow, make it right.”
Through clenched teeth, Lon asked, “Is that why you came looking for me?”
Windred nodded. “They spoke of a child in the hill tribes with a shadow born on the first day of winter. It did not take me long to track you. In a way, we are joined by the beast.”
There was too much for Lon to take in. Confused, he pulled away from Windred and hung his head. Anger bubbled inside and he clenched his fist. For years he had been tormented because his one true friend had cursed him as a child. “Where can I find this witch who saved you?”
“She is long dead, as are most of the witches in this land. Lon, there is only one way to defeat such a thing and I wished I had realised this all those years ago. It feeds upon suffering and death. Do not feed it such things and it will eventually grow weak. Have you not noticed how over these years it has grown weak?”
Lon sighed. “How can I avoid death, now my feet are upon that path?”
Windred remained silent. He looked over at the old man, and saw his face was still, his eyes wide and looking up into the night sky.
That night he built a funeral pyre for Windred and watched him burn. Taking his sword, Lon looked at it, the cold steel reflecting warm fire into his eyes. And as he studied the bright surface, a figure appeared in the surface, someone reflected from behind. The figure stepped in close, a sword rising.
Lon spun round and thrust the sword into the man’s stomach and fell down to him, blood spilling onto the ground as he rattled out his last breath. Pushing him from his sword, he backed away as three others moved from the darkness and into the light of the funeral pyre. Backing from the ruins, Lon watched them as they drew swords and closed in on him. So some had escaped, Lon realised, his heart racing. The Darking came up behind him and urged him on.
If you wish to live, then give yourself to me like the old days. We shall bathe in their blood!
Lon tensed as the men charged him. Raising his sword, Lon rushed to meet them, screaming out with bloodcurdling fury. The first man he cut down, jumping over his body to get to the second. Slashing his sword up, he parried a death strike, knocking the man off balance. As Lon stepped past him, he stabbed the man through the back, pulling the blade out in a spray of blood. The final man backed away, his eyes wide in terror. Before he could react, Lon swung his sword out and beheaded him with one strike.
The man’s head rolled away into the night and Lon watched it, the sound of laughter from behind. And as the man’s head came to rest in a bloody pool, Lon realised that the man had not been looking at him in terror, but at something behind Lon.
“No more death!” Lon shouted, casting his sword aside.
The Darkling chuckled. "We shall see," it whispered.
Lon turned away and headed into the night, fearful that others would come. Before he left, he stopped and looked back at his sword that rested in the long grass. His heart heavy with regret, he picked it up and sheathed it, ignoring the laughter from the Darkling at his shoulder. There was no use in fighting it, Lon concluded.
He had been marked for death a long time ago.