The morning sun came too soon, and the fire had failed to keep the chill from Kehr's bones. He pushed his thick bearskin cloak aside and rose, stretching his full eight feet of scar and muscle. Over the years, Kehr had adopted the practice common in the Skovos Isles of removing hair from both face and head with a sharp blade. The custom made sense in those warm summer lands, had made him seem less an outsider. But here the cold wind felt foreign on his naked skin. It had taken only a few weeks under these winter skies for Kehr to yearn for the untamed beard and long tresses of his youth. He ran rough fingers over the stubble on his jaw and wondered if Tehra would recognize him.
Thoughts of his mistress still brought a sick pang that burrowed through his chest. It wasn't sorrow or guilt or pining—not entirely. It was the pain of a mistake swaddled in calloused tissue and regret, a mistake that could never be changed, could only be wrapped more tightly in an effort to numb the hurt or at least distance it. Kehr shook his head.
The journey back would be a long one. The Gulf of Westmarch lay beyond the Kohl Mountains to the south, and from there Kehr knew that he would be able to find passage around the peninsula on a trading barge. Merchants were always willing to hire muscle to watch after their cargo so they could visit the brothels along their route. Kehr spoke the trading languages of Therat, Lut Gholein, and the islands; he could easily convince a potential employer that, in spite of his size, he was not one of those wild primitives from the Dreadlands but a more civilized breed of sellsword. After that, it should be easy sailing down past Westmarch and Kingsport, then to Philios. And there... well, there she awaited his return. There were rolling hills and light music; there were wine and meat and laughter and warm, slender arms. There he could forget duty and the cold, grinding sense of regret.
Why had he come here? To find his people? To beg their pardon? Well, they had found him. Or at least Faen had.
Kicking dirt over the smoldering remains of his fire, Kehr tried to push the memory of last night from his mind and focus on the coming trek. The peaks ahead were formidable, but they were forested, inhabited, alive—a welcome change from the dead... a welcome change after the past few weeks. Kehr's hand went to his chest.
He was not betraying anyone this time, he told himself. He was not shirking his duty, for those who marked such things were gone. He was leaving an empty land that no longer held claim to him. Kehr had hoped to make amends, to find some way to end this gnawing guilt. Instead he had found echoing silence and a cold new dimension of disgrace that twisted in his gut with each visit from Faen. The same thought sounded over and over in his head: he was not betraying anybody now. Not this time.
Beyond the next rise, Kehr knew he would come across the winding hunter's track that he had followed two months ago on his journey here. Then it would be a simple case of joining larger trails that crisscrossed up the north face of the Kohl until he reached the Iron Path.
The Iron Path. It was an ancient road, the crumbling vestige of a lost empire that had stretched from the deserts of Aranoch to the Frozen Sea. Paved with broad rust-hued blocks of ferrous shale, the Iron Path ran wide and true from the frosty reaches of Ivgorod, across the spine of the Kohl Mountains, and down to the western foothills of Khanduras. Once a vital thoroughfare for trade and imperial troops, it made passage through the tall, serrated mountains a matter of weeks instead of months. Best of all, the path fell into disuse long centuries ago. It was now largely abandoned and forgotten; northern kings, chiefs, and warlords had few dealings with their neighbors in these chaotic times. The destruction of Arreat had wrought fear into the hearts of the surrounding nations, and most chose to close their gates, strengthen their walls, and let the world grow savage at their borders.
This meant that the path would be empty of travelers and bandits. Although Kehr could handle both, he preferred to walk in solitude. Lifting his massive greatsword, Scorn, across his shoulders, he turned and strode toward the waiting hills.
Ten days of hard travel passed. Ten sunsets, ten more visits from his sister. One of her arms had been chewed off by scavengers, and her skull was now bare, yellowing bone. But it was still Faen. Still her voice. Still her condemnation. He wondered if he would ever grow accustomed to the revulsion, to the horror of her presence. He wondered if he should.
Kehr worried that Faen might follow him across the Twin Seas, that she might pursue him clear to Philios. There was an idea in the back of his mind, one that fought to be heard: what if he struck her down? What if he drove his mighty blade through her, rendered that trembling frame into a pile of splintered bone and spoiled flesh? Would it free her from this torment? Would it free him?
Kehr pulled the bearskin tight around his shoulders. No. He could not do this to Faen, to his sister. He had earned her words, earned her hate. He was worthy of these stripes.
Shaking the darkness from his head, the large man took solace in his long strides and the earth pulling past his feet. Whether it was from his need to leave these lands or his desire to return to a more welcome clime, he was traveling this leg of the journey at an impressive pace. The Iron Path was just ahead, and he knew that his gait would grow quicker once he reached that even paving. Soon this would all be forgotten. Soon this would be behind him, and maybe Faen would remain here in the frigid bleakness, where the dead belonged.
Kehr sighed, tried to turn his thoughts toward wine, sunlight, and the measured sound of waves against sand. His stomach growled. He had eaten the last of his dried meat two days ago, and game was scarcer than Kehr had hoped. His focus had been on leaving this land, on leaving his fallen home with as great a speed as he could muster. Some effort, he realized, must be made in finding food.
In five breaths, his reverie was cut off by a scream... then screams. They were coming from the road ahead, just through a copse of the hardy scrub oak that rimmed the Iron Path at these lower altitudes. Kehr crouched low and stepped away from the trail he had been following, circling around the trees to get a better vantage.
They were refugees; that much was obvious. Men, women, children—dozens of thin, unwashed peasants in threadbare clothing, carrying their few belongings in baskets, in satchels, even wrapped in blankets. Like Kehr, the refugees had assumed that the road would be vacant. Unlike him, however, they traveled heedlessly. They had formed a straggling line along the path with no thought of prowling beasts, bandits, or worse. And there were many things worse than bandits in the surrounding mountains.
Kehr smelled them before they came into view, and his stomach turned. Khazra. Shaggy, misshapen fiends twisted into a perverse crossing of man and goat. Often traveling in packs, khazra were broad and muscular, their long arms corded with tangled sinew that slid and bunched beneath a coarse, filthy pelt. The goatmen's legs bent backward at a bestial angle and ended in cloven black hooves. Khazra shoulders were a gathering of taut animal brawn, tortured veins culminating in the jutting, nightmare head of a large goat buck with inky slit eyes and curling horns. Kehr had faced these beasts before—several times in his southern wanderings—and the memories tasted of bile. Khazra bore tangible, reeking witness to the vile work of demons in men.
Kehr spied a pair of the goatmen moving along the road with hungry intent as the refugees scattered, screaming. Already, a score of bodies lay strewn across the path, frail clumps marked in red. More khazra slunk from corpse to corpse, stripping the dead of their meager rags. Kehr felt his unease building into anger, but he swallowed it. This was not his fight. Not his duty. It would only slow his journey, and there was little he could do at this point. He owed nothing to these peasants, these fools who had traveled on an open road without weapons. Kehr had no vigil here.
He was about to turn and circle back around when he saw the woodcutter. Dressed in homespun brown, his pack of tinder littering the worn pavement, the man had attracted the attention of the fiends. He stood alone with his simple axe held high as they surrounded him, laughing with those mewling, fleshy voices. The goatmen were armed with rough pikes and spears, and they alternated jabbing at the poor man whenever his back was to them. He was spotted with blood in a dozen places. The other refugees took the opportunity to escape into the nearby trees, abandoning the woodcutter to what promised to be a long and agonizing death. He spun to counter a vicious thrust, and Kehr saw what he carried in his other arm. It was a child.