Chapter 7 Scene 5

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 27 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Devon had nearly given up hope of finding Fronek before morning when he smelled wood smoke. It drifted to him through the still night air from somewhere to the northwest, but was faint. So its source was either a fair distance away, or small. Like the campfire of a lone traveler.

He searched in vain for signs of light. But if it was nearby, the firelight was obscured by the hills, rocky outcroppings, and scattered trees so common in the abandoned homesteads north of Guardian Village. He briefly considered following the smoke to its source directly. But he had been following Fronek’s sporadic trail from the clearing where Dirk had left him for hours. The trail had been clear enough by daylight. It had become almost impossible to follow by starlight. If he left it now and the smoke was not Fronek’s campfire, he might be unable to pick up the trail again before sunrise. It wasn’t worth the risk.

With some misgivings, he continued to follow Fronek’s trail. It was slow, painstaking work by the light of his small candle lantern, but Devon was persistent. The moon would rise soon, making the search through the abandoned lands marginally easier.

He shivered involuntarily. It was not the first night he had spent alone outside. And the Barriers were as dangerous for the unwary in broad daylight as in the darkest hours of the night. But these empty farms were particularly forlorn. Most of the structures had been burnt down after the plague ran its course. It was the easiest and safest way to lay the victims who had died within their homes to rest. Some of the foundations remained, overgrown and choked with rubble like the empty sockets of rotted teeth.

A cloud of misery and suffering hung over the entire place. And although some of the best orchard farmland in the region was here, the area remained abandoned nearly a decade after the plague had passed.

Devon had come with Mabel to visit his family’s graves several times as a child. She had insisted on burial for them rather than burning the homestead, so there were actual graves to visit. That was more than most survivors could say. But he had stopped visiting when the nightmares started several ‘turns after the Plague, and had not returned since.

Few others would venture into the empty farms. It wasn’t forbidden, so much as avoided. The main path into the mountains skirted them entirely. Sometimes the caravans would bring a tourist who asked to see the “haunted homesteads.” Out of respect for the dead, they were all turned away.

But Fronek had left the main path just north of where he met Lorn and Dirk, entering the homesteads from the southeast. Devon followed his trail as it wandered throughout the abandoned plots, as though he was searching for something. Devon stood still as he repressed a second involuntary shiver. What could a mercenary like Fronek be searching for in a place like this?

Then he shook himself into motion again. He would have to ask Fronek that question when he caught up with him. If he caught up with him, Devon amended silently, increasing his pace until he risked losing the trail entirely.

Moments later, he nearly did just that, as Fronek’s footsteps crossed an outcropping of stone and disappeared. He walked in a widening spiral around the patch of bare stone, but found no tracks leaving the outcropping. Devon slowly retraced his steps back to the last tracks he had found. He dropped to his knees, inspecting the dislodged earth minutely in the flickering light of his candle lantern.

He blew a fallen leaf out of the depression with a gentle puff of breath. Wait, what was this he saw under the fallen leaf? After running his fingers over the imprint, he let out a low groan of frustration.

There were two indentations in the single track. Fronek had reached this outcropping and then doubled back on his own trail. “So. You know you’re being followed, and now you’re hiding your tracks.”

Devon sat back on his haunches, his mouth set in a grim line. In some ways, this would make things easier. Fronek would be moving more slowly as he doubled back. And Devon could move more quickly along the backtrail until he found Fronek’s exit trail. With some luck, he could close the gap between them.

He jumped to his feet and sped along the back trail. He alternated from one side of the double tracks to the other, searching for the side spur Fronek must have made. When the moon rose, Devon stopped as he crossed the back trail again. He dropped to his knees, and saw that the track here was a single print again. Walking nearly bent over to the ground, he turned around and followed the trail until he returned to the area of the doubled tracks.

There wasn’t a spur trail. Fronek had backtracked to this point and stopped. “All right. So where did you go from here? No footsteps forward, back, or to either side. That only leaves…” The hairs on Devon’s neck stood up as he slowly raised his eyes… to the limb that arched overhead just out of reach from a large oak tree near the trail. “No… you couldn’t have… could you?”

Standing on tip toe, he extended his candle lantern up as high as he could reach. Were those recent score marks in the rough bark, or was he imagining things? He searched the ground beneath the limb, following it back to the trunk. There! A sliver of fresh bark. Devon picked it up, noting the rough edge where it had broken loose from the limb overhead. It could have come from a wild animal as easily as Fronek, but it was all Devon had to go on.

He spiraled out from the trunk until he found what he sought. Devon found a pair of heavy tracks separated by a broken branch and knew he had located Fronek’s landing. He looked back at the oak limbs overhead and the tree behind him, letting out a low whistle. More than sixty strides separated him from the original trail. That would have put off a less determined tracker. Devon shook his head in admiration.

“Crafty. Now if I can only catch up.” He turned to the new trail and followed it several strides before faltering. It was now heading in the direction of the fire Devon had smelled early. But that wasn’t what slowed his pace. In the growing moonlight, Devon was beginning to recognize the landmarks he passed. With a sinking sensation, he realized that the mercenary’s path had been anything but random.

Fronek was leading Devon home.

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