Water soaked her through as the mist began to dissipate, froze her to the bone. Silhouettes blocked out in uniform shades of grey began to show through the whiteness. Slowly the trees gained their knots and gnarls, and the post not far in front of her gained hair and eyes.
Copper and suspect shared a moment free of any comprehension: both rubbing their arms for warmth, both staring, expecting greenery.
Then the hoarfrost over Cordula’s brain gave way. She saw his helm over curling brown hair; the feline aspect to his face, cheekbones broad, eyes set wide; a thatch of beard along his jaw; and his standard-issue armour, the crest on the clasp of his cloak scratched away, where tapered gouges met in the middle like a brass snowflake.
Her stone-cold muscles turned her instinctive charge into a stiff-legged stumble. Blundering through ankle-deep water, her teeth chattering so hard she couldn’t force open her jaw to yell, she saw reality sink in through the man’s eyes, and his flight reflex flare up.
Only he was bloody cold too, and his leap took him directly into the half-sunken remains of an old stage carriage. He sprawled backward over it, a swirl of cloak and legs, and splashed down on the far side.
‘Un’er’est!’ she forced out as she slogged after him, but he was having none of it. He rolled up and staggered forward, limping like the cold had rendered him a cripple.
‘Come off it!’ She had her jaw obeying orders now, just about. ‘Making fools of th’both of us!’
Over half-sunken logs and through sucking mud they went, the worst ever chase she’d had the poor luck to be a part of, their arms flung wide to make up the balance their knocking knees couldn’t manage.
The toe of her boot caught on a root. Cordula sprawled forward into the bog, grit sloshing down inside her breastplate. Her target stumbled onto solid ground up ahead, slid on wet grass. Staggering, almost falling, he ran on up to the crest of the ridge, the tips of the trees jagged at his back, and leapt.
Down, into the Blackwald.
The mud sucked off her gauntlet as Cordula struggled to right herself. She lurched forward, fell back to her knees, and finally reached solid ground, then the precipice. Her pause was fleeting. Undergrowth choked the ground beneath the trees: there was no calculating her footing, she could only trust in luck and her own dogged balance. Sighting him not far away, hobbling beneath twisted boughs, she leapt.
Her heels snapped saplings and sank into loam. With a grunt she turned her forward topple into a roll and bounded up. Oh, he was slowing, hurt, maybe, while she was only wet, wet and narked that she’d had to do this at all. She saw him duck beneath a hollow mound of roots, and barged on in pursuit.
Pain blazed in the back of her skull – once, twice, thrice. Cordula staggered, and the trees’ spider-leg branches spun all around and webbed her up in darkness.