The man had his back turned to her. A thin leather cord held his fine white hair in a blunted tail. He was thin, evident even through the layers of ragged wool clothes and his coarse brown cloak. His shoulders slumped inward, but at one time, he would’ve been a tall man, taller than her.
Her arms were full with soaked clothes and blankets. She cursed herself. She’d left her sword in the tent.
“Do not fear,” he said, in a weary voice. “Nothing to fear, not from me.”
He half-turned. Her jaw clenched at the vicious gnarled scars on his face, over both his eyes. The eyelids were puckered and seemed unable to close fully. Under them, the eyes were milky white.
She hugged the wet bundle to her body, scanning the nearby trees for signs of accomplices. But the trees were winter bare and as scraggly gray as the man before her.
Nevertheless, she knew better than to let down her guard. She edged toward her tent.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Nevan,” he said. “And you are the masked wolf.”
“How do you know that?”
“The river has swift currents,” he replied, his voice gravelly and deep. “I knew you’d be this way. Please, allow me to hold your things before you freeze. It is the least I can do for the hero of Gorggrey.”
Charily, she shuffled forward and dumped the wet blanket and clothes into his arms. If nothing else, it would keep him from drawing a weapon. Slowly, she reached into her pack, drew out the wadded linen there, and wrapped her chest; watching him all the while. But he made no move to attack.
The brat flicked his tail, snuffling the ground for food—relaxed.
“I cannot see,” Nevan remarked. “If that is what you’re wondering.”
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“You know,” he replied, gravely. “You’ve met the same foe.”
“Yes,” she said.
The bandage around her arm was soaked through, and heavy. She studied Nevan’s face as she finished dressing. His beard was more gray than white, thin and sparse, as though it was growing reluctantly. His nose was straight as his jaw. that he was not as old as his diminished body and moon-white hair suggested. He had the look of a greenman, carved from the starved, gnarled silver trees that clustered behind him.
“They treated it with goldenseal salve,” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I suppose.”
“They used too much marigold,” he said.
“You’re a healer?” she asked as she broke down her tent, one-handed it was not the easiest job, but she managed.
She had some use of her right hand, but the bone was injured and caused her pain anytime she forgot and tried to do too much.
“Not as such,” he said, “but we all must find a use for ourselves or walk into the water until it fills our lungs.”
His voice grew more robust as they spoke, as though the timidity had only been to keep from startling her.
“These things will never dry in this damp chill,” he said. “Come back. We’ll re-bandage your arm.”
She tensed. “How did you know it was my arm?”
“You handed me these with your left arm. But you are obviously right-handed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How can you tell that?”
“Because it’s taking you twice as long to dress and break down that tent as it should.”
She tightened the knots around the tent roll. “Come back with you where?”
“I have a small place, in the woods.”
With her sword on her hip, she felt much more confident. “You live alone?”
His lips turned pale. “Yes.”
“Is that safe?”
“Everything they wanted, they already took,” he said with bitter edge.
She hefted the tent roll and secured it to Flegel. She made two trips for her armor and a third for her pack.
“You shouldn’t burden a palfrey with such heavy gear. You should have a second horse, a rouncey.”
“Two horses? I can barely manage the one.” She reached for the sodden bundle in his arms, it must have frozen to his clothes by now. “I’ll take those—”
“No need,” he said and started deeper in the woods. “If don’t clean that now, it’ll fester and then who will give me my vengeance? I’ll let you murder and rob me if you go on to slaughter ten more Ulic. That would be a worthy sacrifice for this useless old carcass.”
She stood, watching him disappear into the trees. Flegel tugged on his lead. It was not worth the risk, following a stranger into the woods—even a blind one. It was everything every fairy story was crafted to warn children against.
Flegel pawed the ground impatiently and gave a more determined tug.
“If he’s sorcerer, who ends up eating us, or a lure into a den of thieves and bandits, I’ll make you into horse stew if I survive,” she told the brat.
Flegel’s limpid brown eye gazed at her a long moment before tossing his head and ripping his lead away from her.
Without waiting for her permission, he tailed the old man into the trees.
Hand on her sword, Conlan entered the forest.