Kirsa and Arlon

Kirsa lifted her head into the thin, winter air and stood still to listen over the wide expanse of snow and low brush, brittle with the season's leafless hibernation. One breath, and then a second, unfolded in silvery plumes around her face as she focussed waiting for a seam to come in the perfect silence. It rolled over the ice-fettered moorland in the cold, clear bay of a single hunting horn, bell-like with the voice that only Arlon's instrument could produce.

She smiled to herself, indulging in the sudden closeness of the memory of warm meat, the rangy company of the dogs in the keep, wine, Arlon's hand at her shoulder and his friends piling in in pairs from the long campaign. Letting that private smile warm her cheeks a moment, she straightened to hear the snow muffled hoof beats that signaled the retainers that had gone before him, un-announced. Shaking a little stiffness from her body, she broke from her place and finally crested the hill she'd come up to listen for him, but a mark on the canvas of snow stopped her in her tracks before she cantered down the gentle slope on the other side.

It was a wide arc of black-red, edges alternating between knife-like and indistinct on the whiteness. The two retainers, each riding one of the pair of swifter greys that moved ghostly in their stable full of robust war-horses the color of coal and coffee, were pulling up around the stain, a dozen or so yards from where she came on foot. In the center of the ichor lay a man, his eyes and mouth both open - blind and silent - toward the sky, his arms splayed carelessly away from his body, and a long gash crossing his arched chest.

One of the two men dropped from his saddle and, looking up, pronounced the stranger certainly dead. There was a long moment of the other man not knowing quite what to do until Kirsa joined them and flung her hand back toward the manor which wasn't far from where they were.

"Take him inside so we can at least afford him the hospitality of a proper burial. It may be the only chance we have to ward away whatever did this to him."

The warm anticipation of her husband's return was crippled by the chill that man's dead face put in her. It had been, she thought, too quiet when she'd gone out that morning to wait for him. Ever since Arlon was a boy, he'd taken time and pleasure to teach her how to listen for the beasts of all seasons; how to know their voices and movements, even in darkness or the uncanny invisibility of a wild animal. This morning, there had been none.

Furthermore, there were neither tracks nor a trail of withered blood-spatter leading to the fallen man. Arlon's retainers exchanged a look before taking his ankles and feet to drag him back toward their keep.

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