The wind ducked low beneath the trees, stirring up invisible clouds of powdery snow that had managed to fall even here. It howled, but not fiercely; the wind’s droning was the lonely, quiet moan of some damned soul, forever haunting the forest in solitude. But that lonely vigil was broken as a footstep trudged to the edge of the treeline; the man who owned the foot paused for only a second, before venturing another into the boundary of the trees. The world held its breath at this, as even the wind paused its melancholy hum to see what this visitor wanted. When he who began it finally broke the silence with another footstep, the world carried on.
Moments became minutes became hours as the groans of the wind and trees faded into the anonymous silence of sounds he wasn’t listening for, and the man finally paused at a small game trail. It was better than no trail at all, he reasoned, and stepped on that path. The trudge of his heels digging into the dirt and freshly fallen snow both broke and became the monotonous drudgery about him; there was a weight to this silence, the loneliness was burdensome. But his was not a path for lively company, if any company at all; like the trail he followed now, silence was much preferred while treading it. The wind around him toyed with the loose edges of his clothing, the gentle tugging of a lover teasing him back to her company.
He shrugged her advances off, and the wind picked up in reply; a harsh, fickle mistress the winter was, but he wasn’t about to succumb to the cold. Despite dressing quite plainly, he was indeed warm; the thick wool of his shirt and pants made him look a bit fluffier than he was, and the thick leather of his vest and various pads of armor added volume where there might not have been otherwise, but he was quite comfortable. Or if he wasn’t, he didn’t show it in the least. He trudged on with the two companions he knew so well; the sword strapped to his waist, and the silence that hung around his neck like a half-tied noose. The newest addition to his party, this bitter cold, was ignored, at least for the moment; he had more important issues to settle than shivering.
His thoughts were interrupted as the trail became solid, meeting a larger dirt road at a sudden intersection, and he paused again as he looked in either direction. After a silent moment of consideration, he turned to his left; after all, going left had never failed him before. The crunch of collapsing snow beneath his feet soon became the clunk of hardened leather on packed dirt, and already his thoughts of isolation from the icy forest seemed a world away. He collected himself as he began his walk; one was like to come across others on such a road, and perhaps he could gather insight to what sort of work he could find on this side of the Wall. But not looking like a beast, himself; the dirt he was coated in, his hair a knotty tangled mess atop his head, a fresh, bleeding scratch under his eye… No, he was certainly not in the right sorts to entertain. He could wipe away the blood and dirt, and even try to unknot his hair a bit, but on this road there wasn’t much he could do about his appearance. Hopefully the meager changes would suffice until he found a town, one with an inn of some sort.
As his thought ended, his ears picked up on the clopping of hooves on the same dirt he trod, only a few meters past what he was capable of actually seeing due to the snow. His instant reflex was to reach for his sword, but the casual pace of the falling hooves stayed his hand; this was no ambush, simply a trader or the like, heading in the same direction he was. As the horse and wagon behind it caught up to him, he ventured a glance at the man seated in the back. The driver was older than he, and noticeably so; the scraggly beard on his chin was a light grayish color, and the wrinkles on his forehead almost seemed to wrap around his entire face. The man had obviously been watching him curiously, but averted his gaze a moment after eye contact was made. With a sigh, he turned back to face the road and began walking.
After another moment of ponderous silence, as the horse plodded along beside him, he asked the man without looking at him; “Know how far to the nearest town or settlement?” The man glanced back at him, and he met the man’s wavering gaze with a cool, stoic one of his own.
“Aye,” the wagon-rider intoned slowly, nodding his head at the same pace his horse traipsed down the road. “T’aint but a mealtime’s ride. Walkin’, though, might not get nowheres ‘fore sundown…” The man upon the wagon sighed, as if struggling with some heavy indecision, before finally looking back to the stranger and sighing again. “Well, I can’t rightly say I feel comfortable with leavin’ a man out here in the dark. Crawl on in the back there, an’ we’ll get you inna town quick enough. Jus’ don’t make me regret this kindness, aye?”
He gave a quick nod, walking to the rear of the wagon and climbing on in a fluid, practiced motion. He leaned against the front corner, glancing at the man. The wagon was empty, and he was curious as to its previous contents, but had no desire to upset his already unsteady host. “Aye,” he replied simply, nodding and turning to face the woods he’d just emerged from. What troubles plagued this land, that travelers were so openly suspicious and fearful of strangers? “Thankye,” he added quietly, an afterthought that drifted off in a foggy cloud of warm air. The only audible response was a grunt from the man up front, who stared at the road ahead. He returned his gaze to the forest, and sighed.
“So yer from the other side o’ the Wall?” The wagon driver’s voice was so sudden and dark compared to the subtle groan of background noise, he almost jumped at it; almost, but he held himself, knowing too sudden a movement might provoke the man to retract his kind offer.
“Aye. Is it so painfully obvious?” While he didn’t care too much about appearing as an outsider, if this man’s suspicion was any indication, strangers weren’t the most welcome kind on these lands. Perhaps traveling through them would be easier if he could blend in?
“Indeed, and lucky fer ya as well. At least if ya came from the Other Side, you can’t be one o’ those damned… Things.”
Well. That suddenly made this land quite a bit more… Interesting. “What are these ‘damned things,’ exactly?” He asked the wagon driver, turning to face him now and speaking up a bit. His tone was firm and unmoving; he wasn’t going to let this drop, and he made sure the driver knew it. “What are they, what do they look like? What do they do?”
The driver shuddered at the questions, avoiding the man’s eyes as he looked off into the woods. “Ta speak of ‘em is ta invite an attack,” he whispered, shaking his head. “‘S not safe. Not here. Maybe… When we get back,” he said quietly, frowning at the man. “You’re gonna wait until then. I’ll tell ya everythin’ ya want to know… When it’s safe.”
As if the man’s words struck some magical paranoid chord in his mind, every branch in the wind suddenly became an arm reaching out for him; the slightest movement of a shadow was a sneak attack. Paranoia set him on edge, but it was the same paranoia that’d kept him alive this long… He just hoped that, whatever it was endangering them, it would wait until he knew what it was they were fighting.
But, of course, hopes are fragile and often misplaced. This one especially so, as the rickety old wagon the man was driving suddenly hit a hole and gave out; the wheel fell off the side and rolled into the ditch, the axle snapped beneath him. He felt it roll to the side, and made an attempt to regain his balance. His battle against gravity failed, however, and he only managed to just barely roll away from being stuck under the wreckage of the wagon. It was totaled, but aside from a few minor bumps and scratches, the only two people actually involved were perfectly fine. That didn’t seem to help the old man’s mood, however.
“Oh, no.” His wizened eyes glanced to the horizon, narrowing as they saw the brilliant orb descending; nightfall was soon to be upon them, and they were still nowhere near the town. “We’re going to die.” The certainty of the statement struck him in the middle of the forehead, a percussion mallet striking a singing drum. He felt it resonate through his body, and waited for his mind to wrap around that idea.
He denied it outright.
“Can you fix it?” He asked the man, kneeling beside the wreck and pushing up. The horse seemed okay, if a bit antsy, but the wagon was quite inoperable; the axel and broken off in the wheel, and that was on the edges of the forest… which was infinitely more sinister with the rising shadows, eyes watching from every patch of darkness. The old man followed suit, observing the mangled wood with the calm, complacent eyes of one who has accepted his fate.
“Aye, but not before sunset. My boy- that sword at your waist. Do ye use it well?” He asked, raising an eyebrow at him. “Tain’t a sword this side of the Wall that can harm these beasts… Might be a fool’s dream, but here’s to hoping one from the Other Side can, eh?” He gave a wheeze at that, beginning to set up repair.
He and the old man pushed the broken wagon against a boulder protruding from the ditch, which stood nearly chest height; the wheel was set underneath, and the old wagon driver set to work on repairing the mess. The stranger took a seat on a tree stump a few feet away, and unsheathed the sword. It was rather ordinary, almost artlessly utilitarian; the whitish silver blade lacked any distinguishing marks, and the only thing on the hilt save the treated leather grip was a single rune carved into where the blade was set into it. Two overlapping crescent moons with a single line through the thick of them both, an X in the middle.
Certainly a noteworthy mark, only ever carried by a particular few; this was the brand of Markus Canne, the first Hunter. While the Hunters were rather secretive about their doings; so much so that the legends of them had them performing feats as menial as becoming vassals to lesser lords, all the way to single-handedly slaying dragons and rescuing entire cities; they became a highly organized group outside of one single common goal; the eradication of monsters and other unholy demon spawn of sorts. The brand was needed to properly be called a Hunter, though many carried around fake sigils in order to claim various stories; and the Hunters let them. Why stop them, when it only fed the legends told about their own? This particular mark, however, was truth; the wielder of this sword was, in fact, a Hunter.
He laid the blade down in his lap, and reached into the bag at his waist opposite the sheath; from it he removed a whetstone, and went to the busywork of sharpening his sword. He glanced over at the old man; the calm acceptance of his apparently imminent death had begun to wear thin, and he watched as those wrinkled eyes widened at the pace of the setting sun. It would do no good to distract these things if this man was incapable of working. He’d have to calm him down… Not something he was particularly fond of doing.
“What’s your name?” He asked, dragging the whetstone along the edge of his blade. The man paused at his work only for a moment, and glanced at him with a look that asked, ‘does it really matter, anymore?’ He held the whetstone at the end of his blade, meeting that gaze without moving. The man quickly got the point, and sighed.
“Garrus. My name is Garrus,” he sighed, pushing the wheel back into place with a grunt. “What… About you?”
He glanced up from his sword for a moment, allowing a smile to flash across his face as he looked up. There were various scar lines that ran across it, now visible in the direct light of him facing the setting sun; three lines ran down his left cheek, a particularly vicious knot rested on a spot on his chin, and the other cheek almost appeared to consist of cracked glass. These were faint, of course; lines easily detectable to the discerning eye, but just as easily overlooked by the careless one. He hefted his sword in one hand as he stood, pocketing the whetstone as he stepped closer and knelt by Garrus, who now stood in the ditch.
“My name is of little importance,” he said quietly, moving the sword closer to the man’s face and turning it to reveal the mark. The man’s eyes widened as he reached for the sword, enraptured by the glow in the rapidly dimming light. “What truly matters, Garrus, is who I am. Understand?”
“Y-yes, m’lord,” he said quietly, giving a bow and returning to his work quickly. Hunters weren’t the kind to partake too often in socializing, and Garrus suddenly seemed to realize that he might actually survive the night; not to mention, to be a Hunter was to be a legend. He paused for only a moment more, to ask, “But, m’lord… What would you have me call you?”
“Call me what I am,” he said quietly, gripping his sword with white knuckles as the sun fell below the horizon, the last light fell from the sky. “Call me… The Hunter.”