"Master, more slowly go! I pray you, less haste!"
Ranulf reined in impatiently under the frost-rimed trees, brushing his red hair back from his forehead. The cold was growing more intense as they plunged ever deeper into the forest. His squire's hissing speech was slurred as the cold slowed all his bodily functions.
"We'll make camp as soon as we find a place that gives us any shelter. That I promise." His voice was brusk but not unkind. The lizard man had served him well in his wanderings, becoming at last a fellow soldier rather than a servant. "Whip that scaly beast of yours. This is no place to become separated from one another."
Hissath darted an apprehensive glance at the trees that hemmed them in. They had been following a dim trail for most of the day, wending deeper into the unknown under leaden skies. Somewhere behind them the sun was doubtless setting, the azure sky arching warm and clear over trees and grass green with spring. Here in this dismal forest was only an unending winter. Soon now would come darkness and with it a deeper cold. He longed for the grateful warmth of the tropical swamps where he had been hatched...
"Come on, move it!" Ranulf snapped as he once more fell behind. "I see a clearing up ahead."
Hissath prodded his mount forward. As long as the beast kept moving the cold didn't bother it too much, but the chill of morning would make it balky and hard to get started.
The clearing was small, but it was sheltered by tall trees. There was frost-killed grass enough for their mounts and dead branches to feed a fire. A ring of blackened stones showed that at some long-forgotten time other travellers had passed this way, and Ranulf lost no time putting it to use. By the time Hissath had climbed down from his saddle pad a fire was blazing merrily.
"Hot food and drink will put some new life into you," Ranulf chuckled. "No, stay by the fire and warm your scaly backside. I'll play squire tonight. Save yourself for the morrow. We'll need all our strength and cunning if the witch told us true."
Hissath nodded his head, basking in the fire's warmth as Ranulf prepared a hearty meal. They had travelled far together, these two, fighting for any noble whose gold could pay for their swords. There had been good times, and times that were lean but seldom had they known peace and quiet for very long. As they wandered they had heard tales of a forest where unending winter guarded a fabulous treasure. As they travelled farther east the tales grew more detailed, more common. The Winter Forest was a tale to frighten children, then a well-known story, and at last a matter of common knowledge. This morning they had reached its edge. Even there the sun had seemed shrunken and pale, the wind biting with a hint of frost that belied the ripening of spring into summer.
"What do ye here?"
The challenge had caught them unawares. Riding with the morning sun in their eyes they hadn't noticed the flimsy hut that huddled at the edge of the dread forest. The door hung crooked from wooden hinges, pushed aside now by a filthy crone.
"We are but lone travellers, Mother," Ranulf answered her good-naturedly. "Surely you don't live here all alone."
"Aye, all by my lonesome in this foul place." She made as though to brush a tear from her withered cheek, but her old eyes were bright and crafty. "None linger here for long. Few indeed are they who come this way at all, riding or walking under the warm sun. None at all come from the forest of Grod."
"Is that its name? It looks uncommon cold and drear. How far does it stretch? Farther than a man may ride in a day? A week?"
"You may ride into it the rest of your life, but that does not make it far," she cackled rustily. "Nay, I do not know. None have passed through it in my memory. It is said that once there were fair cities and fields beyond where caravans came and went to trade. Now it is the forest of Grod. He does not let men pass through his land."
"Who is this Grod? Does he have many stout men that he can bar all the trails?" Ranulf's hand dropped to the pommel of his sword, and his lips curled in an eager grin.
"No men," she mumbled, and they had to lean close to hear. "No men. He needs them not. The cold of winter, the snows and storms he commands to guard his land and his treasure. The white wolves and snow leopards prowl but he has little need of them. He is mighty, a troll from the frozen lands and he has brought his winter with him. Turn back! You cannot prevail against his strength and his spells."
"Treasure, you say?" Ranulf's eyes lit up as his interest was kindled. They had heard rumors, but nothing of substance. It had also been long enough since they were last employed that their purses were nearly flat. "What treasure is this?"
"No great hoard. The pickings of travellers, a merchant or two from when first he came. Go back, and live. Or go around. You are strong and brave, Ranulf and Hissath, but here is a force that is greater than the two of you."
"You know our names?" Hissath asked, already flinching from the chill wind. "How is this?"
"Ahh, lads, I have a few small powers." Incredibly, she simpered, peering coyly out from behind a lock of straggly hair. "I've not always been just a poor witch woman, sitting here on the edge of the Winter Forest where the cold shivers my bones. Go then! Seek Grod. Perhaps you shall pass him by unseen, and you shall live. I shall be here at the edge of the forest on your return, if ever you do pass this way again."
They had ridden on, not looking back at the cackling witch. Far behind them they had left summer. They rode through fall and on into winter...
"Look, Master! Eyes!" Hissath started up from a half-doze, peering into the darkness that ringed the small clearing.
Ranulf threw another branch onto the fire. "I see them. I could feel that we were watched and followed as we rode. They've been creeping closer ever since we stopped, waiting for the fire to die down. I have gathered a plentiful supply of wood, and we'll take turns keeping it going through the night."
Long before morning Hissath shook Ranulf awake. The trees were bending and groaning before a rising wind that blew streamers of sparks from their fire.
"Saddle and ride!" Ranulf commanded, listening to an approaching moan of wind. "This is no natural storm. If we stay here we shall surely be swept away to our deaths. Try to stay close."
They rode wildly into the night, neither knowing nor caring where the storm took them. On all sides trees crashed and fell, or were torn bodily from the frozen ground. Swirling snow obscured what little they might have seen in the frequent lightning flashes, but they glimpsed other creatures moving with them through the night. Once Hissath fended off a great white wolf with his booted foot but the beast only rolled a terrified eye at him and faded back into the stormy darkness.
"Hold, hold now," Ranulf called as the wind slacked off. By some chance they had stayed together through the storm. "It fast grows light. Let us rest our mounts before we push onward."
They had come far, fleeing the storm and in this part of the forest it was winter indeed. Great drifts of snow lay among tree trunks split and blasted by the cold. The trees themselves looked gray and dead, as though unending cold had frozen the very life out of them. As it grew lighter the wind died to nothing, leaving a silence so intense that it could have been felt. The cold pressed down upon them, a palpable weight as though the leaden sky itself rested on their shoulders.
"This is no natural cold," Hissath ventured, fumbling in his pouch. "Mayhap one spell may be countered by another."
Ranulf had often chided his squire for his interest in minor spells, holding them unworthy of a seasoned warrior's concern but this time he only watched with hopeful interest. Hissath brought out an amulet, a smooth disk of rosy crystal. He chanted softly in some strange language, peering around at the wintry landscape through the crystal. Ranulf could sense the strain as two dissimilar magics clashed. The air about them warmed, cooled, warmed again until they were enclosed in a bubble of temperate air.
"This is better, yes?" Hissath hung the amulet about his neck where it flickered and glowed like a distant flame. "See, the bauble dims when we face that way. It may well be that there the center of Grod's magic dwells."
"Then let's go that way. Will your magic hold when we draw near to the forest's center?"
"It is to be hoped. If not, then we shall quickly die."