Pathfinder: Reign of Winter
An Ulfen druid, plus snow leopard
The blessing of Erastil were plentiful and obvious as Roslana Cooper rode toward Kalsgaard with her brother and her father. The horses had been well-trained and would fetch top prices at the market, perhaps even enough to allow her father to expand the family’s farm. As her brother reached marrying age, expanding the farm would help to guarantee that he was able to support a wife and a family of his own. Lana smiled when she imagined her brother married. He may not know it yet, but Ari Mitchell, Lana’s best friend, had been hoping for years to join the family. Lana hoped so as well and happily observed the burgeoning romance between two of her favorite people. Ari’s family raised horses as well, but did not appear to have Old Deadeye’s favor the way the Coopers did. Their stock, while adequate, was not as strong and powerful, nor as well-trained as her father’s.
The city had provided all the intrigue and excitement Lana could have imagined, including their fathers’ insistence that Lana and Ari be accompanied by guards during all of their exploits around town. The Cooper horses brought prices even better than her father imagined and Lana was accompanying him to the temple of Abadar to deposit their season’s earnings when their guards led them instead to an alleyway and turned on them. “But I’m paying you,” her father cried out as the first of the guards turned bandits sliced his purse.
“Yes, but Mitchell pays better,” one chuckled as slid his blade into her father’s back. Lana gasped in horror and sought to fight until her father called out. “Run, warn your brother,” her father called out, as he thrust his own dagger at one of the attackers. Lana could tell from the black blood flowing from his wound that her father was as good as dead already. So, she ran, but not fast enough to miss the leader saying, “It’s too late. Ari already poisoned his ale.”
Lana ran blindly through the streets until she was in a bustling intersection, then taking a second to get her bearings, she ran for the inn. She made it to the doorway and was almost inside when she saw Ari, standing near Baxter, her favorite horse. Ari was cooing at the grey stallion. “Now, that your mistress is dead, you’ll be a fine horse for me, won’t you? The slavers will take Yuri and I’ll be rid of my fiancé as well. It is a good night.”
Fearing for her own life, Lana clubbed her false friend with her bow, cracking the weapon on the girl’s skull. Then, she grabbed Baxter’s reins and rode away, leaving with just the clothes on her back. Lana rode toward home as fast as she could, but finally gave way to exhaustion, taking herself and Baxter far from the road so that they could rest. She found a shallow cave and hid herself and the horse inside. Offering up a prayer to Erastil, begging for her own safety and for safe passage to for her father’s soul, Lana rolled her cloak into a pillow and cried herself to sleep, vowing with her last waking breath to free Yuri.
She awoke the next morning to a soft mewling. In the light of the morning, she could see deeper into the cave’s depths and felt a sudden rush of terror as she saw the leopard lying there, its back to her. With a quick prayer of thanks that it hadn’t chosen to eat her or Baxter in the night, Lana grabbed the horse’s halter and pulled it toward the cave mouth. A petite roar stopped her in her tracks. She fumbled with her bow to defend herself. She cried in frustration as she remembered the bow was broken and backed away. As she did, she looked more closely at the leopard on its side. The leopard was not moving, but the heap of cubs behind it was alternate mewling and nudging their mother’s body, trying to wake the big cat. The largest of the cubs stood with his front paws on a rock near his mother’s head and roared again, the sound less frightening now that she knew it was a cub.
Stepping between her horse and the cubs, Lana walked slowly closer to the cubs, sending most of them darting behind rocks for cover. Only the largest remained, eyeing her warily as she knelt and verified what she thought to be true. The mother was dead, likely poisoned. As Lana wept gently for the cubs that had lost their mother and for the loss of her entire family, her own mother having died when she was a child, the spotted leopard with startling blue eyes crept closer, finally nudging her hand to scratch his ears.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you little guy?” she said, stroking his soft fur. “Well, let’s see if we can’t find you and your family something to eat. I’ll be right back.”
Later, she would swear the cat nodded, before mewling something to his brethren and walking away to join them. Lana walked to the cave mouth and then surveyed the surrounding countryside, looking for a spot that would be good hunting to feed the young leopards. To her surprise, a doe limped from the forest, followed by a proud stag. The doe’s brown eyes were full of pain and Lana again swore she saw the stag nod before bounding away. Unable to heal the doe’s injury, she approached the injured animal gently, praying that Erastil would give the doe peace. The deer laid at her feet and Lana whispered soothing words to it as she quickly ended its suffering. Then, thanking Erastil for providing, she dragged the doe back to the leopard cubs. She built a small fire to share in their breakfast and then watched as the cubs finished their meal. Once the fire was doused, she approached the playful cubs one last time, to say goodbye. This time they all clamored for her attention and she rubbed all their ears and full tummies before turning to leave. As she turned, the largest one roared again and trotted behind her. At the cave mouth, he stopped one last time to roar goodbye to his family. Then he stood at her side as she mounted the horse and he followed her away.
“Well, I guess we’re going to have to name you something, my friend,” she said smiling. “Kfira Gur Corwin, my heart’s friend, welcome. But that name’s a mouthful, so I’m going to call you Fear.”
Having the leopard cub along for the journey slowed Lana’s breakneck pace home and it was dusk, two days after the attack on her father when she approached the farm. To her dismay, the Mitchells’ carriage sat near the corral and Liev, her father’s head trainer, was arguing loudly with Ari’s father. Lana left her horse in a nearby pasture and crept closer to hear the conversation.
“And, I’m saying there’s no way Mr. Cooper sold you the farm and all its stock. Especially not for this price,” Liev argued.
“The documents are all legal, signed by the magistrate in Daggermark. You can either work for me or vacate the premises by sunrise,” her neighbor answered.
“And, where are the Coopers? I though Yuri and Ari were to wed next spring, and Lana…” Liev looked as confused as Lana had been when her family was attacked.
“My daughter had no desire to wed a horse farmer. I assure you whatever you thought was between her and Yuri was not. Yuri, well, he may have misunderstood. He was heartbroken when she turned him down and I believe he persuaded his father and sister to sell the farm and move on.”
Liev didn’t look particularly convinced, but he had a wife and child to think about. “Well, then, will my wages be changing?” he asked.
“Yes, Cooper was paying you far too much. No wonder he wasn’t making any money here,” Mitchell replied. He named a sum so paltry that Lana was insulted for Liev, but with an infant son and wife to provide for, he had little choice. The big man hung his head in defeat.
Not long afterward, Mr. Mitchell and his family, including the traitorous Ari, settled into the house for the night. Still moving as quietly as she could and taking advantage of all the years she had lived on the farm, Lana sneaked to the caretaker’s house behind the stable. She knocked lightly and Liev’s wife Mandy answered the door. Mandy had obviously been crying, but grabbed Lana and pulled her inside then quickly shut the door.
“Lana! You’re okay, are your father and brother with you?”
The pain shown in her eyes and Lana wiped away fresh tears. “He had my father killed in Kalsgaard. I think they may have sold Yuri into slavery.”
Liev shook with anger and began looking for a weapon. Lana laid her hand on his shoulder and told him to stop. “They hired assassins to kill my family. What would they do to yours?” she asked.
He glanced at his wife and son. “We can’t stay here, but we only have one horse. It would take weeks to get to my brother’s house,” he said.
“How soon can you be ready to go? Between Baxter and your mare, they can get you safely to your brother’s house. Then, you can either breed them, or sell Baxter to help you stay afloat,” Lana tried not to let her pain at the thought of selling Baxter show in her voice.
Liev knew how much the horse meant to her, but after a quick glance at his family knew taking it was the right thing to do. “But you love that horse,” he began in half-hearted protest.
“I do,” she acknowledged. “But if I am on him, I am an easier target for those who would kill me. I beat Ari up pretty well when I fled after they killed father.” She couldn’t keep the pain out of her voice as she spoke. “I’m the only one who can contend their right to this land, so I’m sure they’ll be hunting me. I’ll hide better without a horse.”
She knew everything was she said was true, but that didn’t ease the pain in losing her horse, her last tie to her family.
Liev hugged her tight. “You know the way to my brother’s, right?” When Lana nodded, he continued. “Then, when you are ready for him, or for one of the colts he has sired, find us there and Baxter or his son will be yours again.”
Lana thanked him and then enjoyed the hot meal with Liev and Mandy. She helped them pack their vital belongings and then led them back to where Fear and Baxter waited. Liev jumped at the sight of the snow leopard cub, but then smiled when Lana knelt to pet the beast.
“Ah, Old Deadeye still favors you, then,” he said with a sad smile.
Lana nodded. “I’ll not tell you where I’m going, in case they try to find a priest to make you tell them, but I hope to see you again, my friend. If you hear of me, it won’t be as Roslana Cooper; I am abandoning that name tonight, until my father is avenged.”
Turning to the horse, she continued, “Baxter, old buddy, Liev needs you to ride strong through the night. I know you’re tired, but a warm stall and fresh oats await you when you arrive at his brother’s house. I’ll miss you.” She nuzzled the horse one last time and then, walked away before Liev could see the tears streaming down her face.
“Be safe, until Deadeye brings us together again,” she called out, not looking back.
Knowing her only hope in retrieving her family’s property and avenging her father lay in being stronger and wealthier than the Mitchell clan, she decided she must first earn some gold and grow stronger in the ways of Old Deadeye. The law would be on her side if she could prove they enslaved Yuri and killed her father, but the lord was likely to demand that she be strong enough to hold what was hers. Lana decided when she was returned, neither Ari nor her father would stand between her and blood vengeance for her family.
The decision made, she found shelter and stuck to the wilderness as she and Fear headed south. There they would find the strength to right the wrongs committed against them.