The village of Marrack’s Crossing was aptly named. It amounted to little more than a gathering of houses at the meeting of two roads: a large trade road that led southeast from Dargon to Narragan and a smaller road that crossed it. Cael regarded the village from a hill he had just ascended. It sat nestled in the small valley between his hill and another, beside a large pond. This was his first glimpse of the place where he was supposed to meet his companions. He was surprised at how tiny the village seemed. It wasn’t really that much smaller than his own hometown of Heahun, he reflected. After having spent the past three fortnights as a member of Dargon’s Town Guard, Cael found himself using Dargon — the large port city that served as the duchy’s capital — for comparison.
It was as a member of Dargon’s Town Guard that Cael found himself at Marrack’s Crossing. As part of his training, he had to take a tour with Dargon’s forest patrol: the men and women who watched the back roads of the duchy for threats to Dargon’s travelers. Knowing he would have to make the rotation eventually, Cael had volunteered, hoping to complete his time before Dargon’s hard winter settled in during Nober. Now, looking at the gray clouds clinging to the peaks of the Darst Range, the mountains that stood to the east, Cael wondered if he shouldn’t have tried his luck and hoped his turn wouldn’t come until the spring. There was nothing for it now, he decided as he pulled his heavy wool cloak tighter around his shoulders and began his descent toward the village.
Up close, Marrack’s Crossing proved to be even less impressive than it had from a distance. The larger road was heavily rutted by wagon wheels, which made for uneven footing even when the ground was hard. It was no doubt worse when the spring rains gathered in the valley, allowing those deep ruts to form. The crossing road was little more than a footpath. One branch led toward the Darst Range, to the southeast. The other rambled past some hilly farmland until it disappeared into dense forest. In the middle of the village stood a traveler’s inn that was so small Cael had mistaken it for a house from the distance. Looking at it, Cael hoped the patrol he was meeting would be on time. Then he caught himself and laughed. He had become too used to the comforts of a large city.
Still, it was with some relief that he spotted a small group clad in the same blue and gray uniform that he wore. It was similar to the uniform of Dargon’s Town Guard, but with a heavy travel cloak and a stiff leather vest. One, a young woman who was short and slender, stood talking to an earnest-looking couple from the village. The other two, a tall, rangy man who held an unstrung bow loosely in one hand, and a woman who was broad across the hips and shoulders, had noticed Cael’s approach and were exchanging comments.
The woman held Cael’s attention. Clearly, she was the sergeant, Jenna, that he’d be reporting to. From the way she stood, it was evident that her bulk was more muscle than fat. She was solid and, Cael saw as he moved closer, weathered, as if she had spent long years patrolling the back roads of Dargon duchy. She looked at least ten years senior to the young woman who was off chatting with the locals. As Cael approached, she looked him up and down, nodded once as if pleased with her appraisal, and held out a hand.
“You’d be Cael, then?”
Cael grasped her wrist and felt her strong hand close around his own. “Straight. That would be me.”
“This here’s Westerly,” she said, releasing Cael’s wrist and pointing to the man beside her. The two men clasped wrists and nodded a greeting. Cael saw over Westerly’s shoulder that the younger woman had finished her conversation and was moving to join them. He turned back to the older woman.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, sergeant. I’m looking forward to serving in your patrol.”
The woman smiled in response, but it was a half-grin of amusement rather than a smile of pleasure. She glanced at Westerly and they both smiled as if at some secret joke.
Before Cael could ask what was so amusing, the young woman approached, glanced at the other two guards and then turned to him. “Straight. Cael, is it? Good to have you with us. I’m Jenna, your sergeant. I see you’ve already met Westerly and Maylis.”
At this, the older woman snorted, and Westerly emitted a short laugh before biting his lip. The young woman glared at them.
Cael nodded, beginning to understand the joke. “Straight, I was born in a small village, but not that small a village.” Looking at the two who were desperately trying not to laugh, he said, “I know all about having a little fun with the new guy, but if you want to try to tell me this skinny young girl is the sergeant, you can at least try to do it with a straight face.” He started to match their grins, only to notice that theirs were fading. In fact, by the time he finished speaking, both of their mouths stood agape, and Westerly was shaking his head. He turned to the younger woman, who was now glaring at him.
“Despite my age and my size, I am the sergeant. Is that going to be okay with you, Cael, or would you rather wait until a patrol comes by that’s led by someone a little larger and older?”
Cael felt his cheeks begin to flush. “N-no, I –”
“Good. How do you feel after your journey? Tired, are you?”
In fact, Cael was fairly tired. He had been afoot since leaving a small caravan at Fennell Keep. It had taken the southern road to Narragan, while he had needed to follow the eastern road that had taken him here. He had been walking for bells before arriving at Marrack’s Crossing. However, he shook his head, uncertain how to respond to the young sergeant.
“Straight,” she said with a nod. “We’ve got leagues to cover before nightfall.”
“Leagues?” asked Westerly. “I thought we were going to stay here tonight, Jenna.”
“I was hoping for a warm bed tonight myself, Wes, but those folks have some family arriving that are way overdue. We need to check it out. I want you to hear their story for yourselves, ask your own questions.”
Jenna led them over to the two villagers. “Straight,” she said. “I want you to tell them what you told me, and answer any questions they have. That will help us find your missing kin.”
Cael looked to the man, who was round faced with wisps of reddish-brown hair clinging to his scalp, but the man just wrung a piece of cloth in his hands while his lower lip trembled. The woman spoke up instead. “You’ll have to forgive my husband, but it’s been a difficult few sennights for him. His people are from Arvalia, an’ his sister — we just received word that she died. Lung fever, it was. Her husband never come back from the Beinison War, an’ that leaves only his brother, Nevin, to look out for her two children, Kala and little Dory. Only Nevin’s a merchant, an’ he travels about half the year. A trade caravan is no place for a child to grow up, so he’s bringing them to stay with us. Only they was due two days ago.” She choked back a sob, clearly fighting to remain composed. Her husband slipped an arm around her and nodded.
Jenna spoke. “Straight. Who has a question? Cael, how about you?”
Surprised that she would look to him after he had insulted her, Cael glanced down. He noticed in passing that the piece of cloth the man had been wringing was, in fact, a cap. Thinking of his own travels on the roads of Dargon, he asked, “How do you know they are missing? Travel is sometimes difficult. Losing two days between here and Arvalia isn’t unlikely.”
“True, sir,” said the woman, “but Nevin was bringin’ them on his own caravan. He sent a man ahead on horseback to make some arrangements in Dargon. That man stopped here to let us know Nevin was less than a day’s travel from Marrack’s Crossing. That was three days ago.” She actually did sob then, just once. Then she looked away, wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and turned back to face the guards.
“What do you know about the caravan?” asked Westerly. “Any idea how big it was or how many guards Nevin traveled with?”
The woman shook her head. “I think he had three wagons the last time he come through, an’ there’s always a few armed men with him, but I never really counted.”
Maylis cleared her throat. “Can you tell us what the children looked like?”
“Oh, aye,” said the woman, “though we haven’t seen them since we took the trip down shortly after little Dory was born. He has hair like my husband here, only more of it. He’d be eight now. Kala’s older, thirteen, and she has the prettiest straight blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Oh, the poor little things …” She turned and buried her head in her husband’s shoulder and he wrapped his arm more tightly about her.
Jenna nodded to the three guards. “Let’s get moving.” She turned back to the couple and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “We’ll do our best to find them.”
They set off down the east road, at a pace that made Cael’s calves ache. Jenna led the way, small and determined. Westerly seemed to have no trouble keeping up, but his lanky frame seemed built for covering long distances. Maylis plodded along behind them at a solid clip, and soon dropped back to walk next to Cael.
She looked concerned. “Are you all right, Cael?”
“I’m keeping up. Jenna sets quite a pace though. Does the forest patrol always move this quickly?”
Maylis gave a tight-lipped smile. “No, but there may be lives in danger. We move quickly for that. But I wasn’t asking about the pace.”
“Oh,” Cael said, feeling his cheeks begin to redden again. “That. I did make a terrific first impression with my new sergeant, didn’t I?”
This evoked a short chuckle from Maylis. “Don’t be too concerned about it. Most people underestimate Jenna. I think she’s come to expect it. She’s probably already forgotten about it.”
A shout from Jenna drew their attention. She stood facing them. From the distance, Cael realized he and Maylis had fallen farther behind. “I’m glad you two have enough energy to enjoy a chat,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll have enough left to stand your watch tonight. Maylis, you’ll take the first watch. Cael, you’re on midwatch.” She turned and continued on.
“Then again, maybe not,” Maylis said with a shrug, and then rushed ahead to close the distance to Jenna and Westerly.
Cael followed, wondering if he would ever recover from his misstep with Jenna. He’d learned from the other Town Guards in Dargon who had done a tour with the forest patrol that the patrol stood watch at night in three shifts when they slept in the open. The first was right after supper, which meant staying up while the others went to sleep, but you could sleep through the rest of the night. Likewise, the last watch allowed for some solid sleep before having to get up early. The worst was the midwatch, with only two or three bells worth of sleep to either side. Cael knew everyone had to take a turn at it, but he also knew the midwatch was often given as punishment. He spent the rest of the day trudging silently behind the others, wondering how he was going to keep the same pace the next day without a full night’s rest.
Evening came quicker than Cael expected. Jenna sent him for firewood and she and Maylis prepared camp; Westerly strung his bow and went in search of dinner. After a few menes, Cael returned with one armload of damp wood and went in search of more, thinking that it would be a cold supper and an even colder night if he couldn’t find something a bit drier. His second armload was, if anything, wetter than the first, but by the time he returned with it, Maylis already had a small fire going. Cael dumped the wood near it, and began brushing away the leaves and bark that clung to his clothing. Westerly returned with a few small birds, so they had a little meat to roast over the fire and enjoy with their bread and cheese. Little was said over supper; everyone seemed too tired to carry on a conversation. After he ate, Cael tried to find a comfortable spot near their small fire and settled down with his heavy cloak wrapped around him, and his head resting on his small pack.
What seemed like only menes later, Maylis was shaking him awake. He could tell by the dim light from Nochturon — the moon was waning past its last quarter — that several bells had passed. He sat up, and shook his head to clear the fog of sleep, then stood and made his way to the bushes to relieve himself. When he returned, he was surprised to find Jenna sitting up by the fire, checking the edge of her weapon by the firelight. She, like Cael, carried a short sword favored by many of Dargon’s Town Guard. She glanced up at him for a moment as he joined her by the fire, but then returned her gaze to her weapon. She took out a small stone and worked on a few spots along the blade. Cael sat in silence, watching her as she worked.
After several long menes, she looked up again. “If there’s any danger, it’ll be coming from out there, Cael.” She gestured with her weapon into the darkness.
“Straight, I — sorry,” Cael muttered as he turned his gaze in the direction Jenna had pointed.
“It’s best,” she said, “to stand your watch away from the fire, unless it’s too cold. That way your eyes will adjust to the darkness and you’ll be better able to see someone approaching. It’s also better to stand your watch on your feet. You’ll be less likely to fall asleep.”
Cael nodded, and rose, taking a spot some distance from the fire, and peering out into the darkness, intently aware Jenna was behind him, watching him.
After a few moments, she spoke again. “Cael?”
He almost turned back, but caught himself. If he looked back at her, his eyes would have to adjust to the gloom all over again. “Yes?”
“Are you able to stand this watch? Don’t try to impress me. I need an honest answer. I will be a lot less impressed if I find out you dozed off and left us all in danger than I will if you tell me now that you’re too tired.”
Cael thought before answering. He would have liked nothing more than to sleep through the night, but he knew his duty. “I can do it.”
“Good man. I have the next watch. If you start to feel like you can’t keep your eyes open, you wake me early. Otherwise, wake me in about three bells. Straight?”
“Straight.” He glanced skyward, taking note of the stars’ positions. Like many who were from small towns without bell towers, he was adept at telling the passage of time by the position of sun, moon, and stars. Behind him, Cael heard Jenna shifting around, likely settling back to sleep. He began a slow circle that would take him around the perimeter of the camp, always directing his eyes away from the fire.
“And Cael?” Jenna’s voice called out again.
“Thank you for taking the midwatch. We’ve been short-handed for about a sennight. Baren, our fourth, turned his ankle, and we had to leave him at an inn to rest it.”
“I — oh, I thought …”
“That I was punishing you for calling me a ‘skinny young girl’? That was part of it, but I was probably going to ask you to take the midwatch anyway. Don’t worry, Westerly will have it tomorrow. And Baren will get more than his share after a few sennights spent in a cozy inn with his feet up!”
“But won’t he be heading back to Dargon?”
“What? No, Baren’s not on rotation. He’s forest patrol like Maylis and me. You were actually supposed to be Westerly’s replacement, but I had to ask him to stay on while Baren recovered.”
“Was he disappointed?”
“Not really. He’s taken pretty well to it. You saw how good a shot he is with a bow, and he’s a very good tracker. His talents were being wasted back in the city. Goodnight, Cael.”
Cael thought he had heard a trace of contempt in her voice when Jenna said “city”, but he decided to let her sleep rather than ask about it. Once he had been away from the fire and on his feet for a while, Cael found it easier than he had expected to stay awake. His watch passed without incident, and he made sure a good three bells passed before waking Jenna. Then he curled back up by the fire and immediately fell asleep.
Daylight came too early, and with it the smell of … eggs? Cael sat up to see Maylis huddled by the fire. She glanced over at him.
“Ah, there you are. Thought I was going to have to give you a kick. Westerly got up early and found a late nest. There’s not much, but it’s better than just dried meat and cheese.”
It was, and Cael ate heartily. Soon after, they cleared the camp, doused the fire, and were on their way. As they pressed on through the morning, they drew closer to the Darst Range. The road grew hillier, and the forest more dense. They walked slower than the day before, and occasionally stopped to listen. Westerly checked the ground for tracks from time to time, as well. Once, as he stood after close examination from the ground, Cael heard him mutter, “Shouldn’t be long.”
“What’s that?” Cael asked.
“Shouldn’t be long,” the tall man repeated. “The rider who came to Marrack’s Crossing said they were less than a day from there, on this road. So, it shouldn’t be long until we see some sign of them.”
“Good point,” said Jenna, as she scanned the woods. “Let’s have bows at the ready. Westerly, you’re point. Cael, you keep an eye out to the left. Maylis, right. Let’s go.”
They continued that way, walking in silence, until they heard the unmistakable cawing of crows. “Carrion birds are never a good sign,” Westerly muttered.
The cawing was to their left, but Jenna kept them on the road as the sound of the birds drew closer. Then Cael saw something through the trees; it looked like the top of a small wooden building, with something odd protruding from the two corners he could see. It took him a moment to realize those somethings were wheels, viewed on end. “Wagon!” he hissed. “It’s overturned.”
“Straight,” said Jenna, her voice low. “I see it. Good eyes, Cael. String your bows and stay together everyone. With the crows being so calm, it should be safe, but best not to take chances.”
Cael unslung his bow and strung it, while the others did the same. He noticed that Jenna and Maylis carried small bows like his. Westerly’s bow was much larger. Clearly, the tall man had trained as an archer in his youth; Cael doubted that he could even draw it.
“I don’t think we’ll be bringing back good news,” Maylis said, as she drew an arrow from her quiver. Her voice was tight.
“There,” said Westerly. “Up ahead there’s a side trail.” He pointed to a small, somewhat overgrown track that led off the main road toward where Cael had seen the wagon. They followed it toward a small clearing, alert for any danger. Before long, Cael could see the lower part of his overturned wagon. It looked like a pile of trade goods — bolts of bright cloth, shattered pottery, and various sized casks and boxes — had spilled out of it. He spied three other wagons as well. As they drew closer, he detected the foul odor of meat left in the sun too long. The crows began to caw more angrily and some took a few reluctant hops away from their approach. Cael could see why the crows would not want to leave. Someone had left them a feast.
Cael could tell from the unhitched wagons and the remains of a large campfire that the attack had come at night. The circle of bodies around the burned out fire told him it had come quickly, as well. Whatever had attacked these people had been brutal. The bodies were torn open, with big chunks of flesh missing. Cael looked closely at one tattered and bloody throat hoping to determine what sort of animal had attacked the camp, when a glimpse of the face above the wound caused him to pull back with a gasp of recognition. He took a closer look at the dead man’s face, and knew where he had seen it before. It was a younger version of the man they had spoken to at Marrack’s Crossing. The corpse had the same reddish-brown hair, only more of it, and with less gray.
“I’ve found Nevin,” he called to his companions. “He’s here by the fire with five — no, four others.” He corrected himself when he realized one of the bodies had been ripped in half.
“Good job, Cael,” said Jenna, who was examining one of the wagons that had not been overturned. “See if you can find any clue about who or what attacked these people.” She raised her voice loud enough for the other two to hear. “Any sign of the children?”
“No,” said Westerly from where stood at the perimeter of the clearing, looking down at another body.
“Maybe they hid somewhere during the attack,” said Maylis from some distance away. “Should we call for them?”
“Not yet,” said Jenna. “We need more information before we go shouting names into the woods.”
Cael saw a heavy cloth purse at Nevin’s belt, and bent down to untie it. He heard the unmistakable clink of coins from inside as he did. Once it was free he looked inside, and was surprised at what he saw. There were a few copper and brass coins, but it was mostly silver Rounds along with two gold Marks. A fortune! He tucked it into his belt and continued looking.
Near the fire, he saw some heavy prints. They seemed larger than could be made by any of the people who had been by the fire. There might be a large guard or drover or what was left of him, somewhere in the camp, though. Cael decided to leave the track interpretation to Westerly, though, and went to investigate one of the upright wagons. He came to one with a heavy tarp tied down over it. Peeking under the tarp, he saw goods similar to what had spilled out of the overturned wagon, all undisturbed. Another wagon held several barrels tied in place in the front, but the back held bundles of clothing, blankets, cookware, and food: obviously the caravan’s traveling supplies. A look through the bundles revealed some undersized clothing.
A call from Jenna interrupted him. “Gather up! Let’s see what we have.”
Cael, Westerly, and Maylis all joined her by the fire. Everyone looked somber.
“First,” she said, “any sign of the children?”
Everyone stood silent, as if afraid to speak. Finally, Cael broke the silence. “I found some clothing, in that wagon. Looked to be the right size.”
“Tracks,” said Westerly. “Around the camp. Not going anywhere, and never running.” He shrugged. “There is a trampled spot over there. Their tracks could be lost in it.”
Maylis just shook her head.
“Straight,” said Jenna, with a nod. “What else? Who or what did this?”
“Animal,” said Maylis. “Maybe a bear? I don’t know. It seems too savage for a bear. The horses …”
“What about the horses?” Jenna demanded.
“Torn open. Pieces bitten out of them.”
“Same with the people by the fire,” Cael said. “Something tore into them. Ate them. One was torn in half. Had to be some kind of animal.”
“Unless the local bears have started using weapons,” said Westerly, “I have to disagree. I found this.” He held up what looked like part of a sword: hilt, guard, and about two hands length of blade, broken in a jagged line at the end. The blade looked strangely dull. “Found the rest buried in the chest of a man over there. Punched straight through a hard leather hauberk.”
“Bandits with trained animals, then? Big attack dogs?” Maylis suggested.
“Can’t be,” said Cael.
“Why are you so sure?” Jenna asked.
“Nothing’s taken. All of the wagons are full. And why would bandits kill the horses? They’re valuable.”
“Maybe they only took what they could carry?” Jenna suggested. “What if they stick to the mountain trails, where horses would have trouble?”
Cael pulled out the pouch he had found. “They didn’t look very hard, then. This was tied to Nevin’s belt. There’s gold in it.” He paused to let that sink in. “You could give up life as a bandit with what’s in here.”
Jenna nodded, then turned to Westerly. “What else can you tell me about that weapon? It looks strange.”
“It is strange,” he replied. “I don’t think it’s metal.”
“Not metal?” asked Cael.
Westerly tossed it to him. “See for yourself. I think it’s stone.”
Cael caught it and looked closely at it. It did seem to be made of stone, but with a sharper edge than he ever thought stone could hold. “Stone … the Doravin!”
“The what?” Jenna asked.
“The Doravin. Strangers in Dargon. They’re repairing the causeway. Supposed to be master stoneworkers. Their tools are all stone, and there’s even stone in their clothing. Many people are suspicious of them. I’ve never heard of them going this far from Dargon before, though.”
“Hm,” said Jenna. “Well, that’s one theory. Ever heard of them using trained animals, Cael?”
He shook his head.
“Straight. Well, everyone was bitten to death, even the horses, except for the one man Westerly found.”
“No, sorry,” said Westerly. “There were three others over there, all killed by sharp weapons. There was just the one weapon left behind. All four looked to be guards.”
Jenna nodded. “So, the Doravin, or whoever, attacked the guards, but then set animals on the rest of the camp? I can believe that. But what about the horses? Why set their animals on them?”
“To keep them quiet?” suggested Maylis.
The smaller woman turned to her. “To keep them quiet, they set savage animals to attack them? I don’t think I believe that. Let’s take a closer look at these horses.”
They followed to where the dead horses lay. Jenna bent over one, and looked, then motioned Westerly to join her. “What do you think?”
He bent down and looked. “I don’t think this bite killed this horse.” He took hold of the horse’s muzzle and lifted its head. “Its neck is broken. It’s more like something killed it, and then took a bite.”
Cael moved to join them, looking over the bodies of the horses. “They aren’t nearly as torn apart as the people by the fire.”
Jenna stood up. “This isn’t getting us closer to finding those missing children. They’re not here, and the only tracks leaving are over there, Wes?”
The tall man nodded. “Big footprints, maybe five or six sets.”
“No animal prints?”
Westerly gave her a lopsided grin. “I’m not sure I’d say that.”
Jenna scowled. “What do you mean?”
Westerly pointed down at the trampled area. “Well, look at these prints.”
Cael moved to join them, looking at the ground, which was trampled by heavy prints. “I saw some prints like this near the fire. They’re just heavy boots, aren’t they?”
“Look closer,” said the other man.
Cael bent to examine the tracks more closely. They all looked the same. A large print, like what a big man in boots would make. He looked for differences, to see if he could tell how many attackers there were. One print had marks near the front: four indentations, evenly spaced. Some sort of raised feature on the sole? He looked for others. They were there, as well, and on the opposite boot. He looked to either side. The same features appeared on the other tracks as well. The same person, making multiple trips? Many men with the same markings on their boots. Or, could it be …?
He looked up to see Westerly and Jenna looking down at him. “They almost look like …” Cael paused, not wanting his idea to be laughed at.
Westerly finished his thought for him, though. “Claws. Four on each foot.” He pointed toward the back of one print. “And look here. This rounding could be from a boot heel that’s worn away, but they’re all like that. Whatever did this was barefoot. And big.”
Cael put his own foot down next to one of the prints. It was larger than the sole of his boot. “Very big,” he said with a nod. He looked at Jenna. “What do we do?”
The sergeant looked in the direction of the tracks and then at Westerly. “How many?”
“I’d say five.”
She nodded. “Hm. I don’t like that. Still, we need follow them. There are more of them than us, but they don’t know we’ll be following. And I don’t think they have bows. They’ve probably taken the missing children, who may still be alive. More importantly, though, we need to see what did this.”
Cael opened his mouth to object, but Westerly and Maylis were both nodding in agreement, so he stayed silent. He was by no means a coward, but following creatures that large into the wilderness when they were outnumbered just didn’t seem wise.
“Westerly, you take point,” Jenna said. “Cael and Maylis, you’re flanking. I want to you keep an arrow to the string, and keep your eyes open.”
Cael did as he was ordered and took the left flank. Westerly began following the tracks, moving quickly. They followed the tracks for several bells, seeing nothing more dangerous than birds, tree rats, and a solitary deer. The creatures, whatever they were, had left the campsite along the same route they had come; the same large tracks went in both directions, although sometimes the back trail wandered away for a while. As they continued, heading east toward the Darst Range, the ground grew rougher and more uneven. It was well into the afternoon before Westerly drew up short, standing at the apex formed where two trees had fallen in different directions.
“‘Ware!” the tall man hissed.
Cael immediately spun to his left, scanning beside and behind them for danger, suddenly wondering if his small bow would be any use against a creature as large as the ones they were following.
“What is it, Wes?” asked Jenna.
“The tracks just stopped, and there’s no back trail here. They might have doubled back.”
“Straight,” she said. “Cael, Maylis, see anything?”
As he tried to peer through the foliage, Cael imagined eyes watching from the underground, fierce creatures ready to charge, but he saw nothing. “No,” he replied. Maylis reported the same.
Jenna stood beside him, looking back along their trail. She called over her shoulder to Westerly. “Could they have climbed over those tree trunks? Maybe the tracks continue on the other side.”
“Or maybe one of the fallen trees is obscuring the trail?” Cael asked, suddenly imagining a monster large enough to push over a tree to hide its tracks.
“Good thought,” said Westerly, “but the tracks stop well short of the trees. I’m going to take a look on the other side.”
“Not alone, you’re not,” said Jenna. “If they did double back and set an ambush, they could be waiting for us to split up to look for the trail. Come on, you two.”
They explored the area around the two trees. Westerly led them through the two massive root balls. Cael could see that both trees had fallen away from a small hill. There were no tracks to be seen there, though, or anywhere along the two trunks.
Westerly shook his head. “Either they suddenly decided to start hiding their trail, or this is a false one, but I’m having trouble believing they did either one.”
“Why?” asked Jenna.
“If they were going to hide their trail, they should have started much earlier than this, like back at the camp.”
“Unless they just figured out we were following them,” said Cael.
“No,” said Jenna, with a gesture toward the surrounding brush. “If they knew we were here, I think they would have attacked by now. I doubt five of anything that big are going to flee from the four of us. They certainly had no qualms about attacking the caravan when they were outnumbered.” She turned back to Westerly. “Why not a false trail?”
“To do that, they would have had to back down their own tracks here, and then done the same thing at a back trail. The last time we saw a back trail was a while ago. I think I would have noticed if they had been walking backwards in their own footprints for that long.”
“Can you look again and see if you missed anything?”
Westerly’s mouth drew into a half-smile. “Maybe, if we hadn’t walked all over them. Still, I suppose the false trail is our best option. We should retrace our steps.” He looked to Jenna, who nodded.
The trip back down their trail was slower. Several times Cael felt his shoulders bunching as he tensed for a sudden onslaught, but none came. Westerly bent to the ground frequently, looking for any signs the creatures had doubled back. There were none.
Soon the shadows grew too long, and Jenna called for a halt. They lit no fire that evening, and dined sparingly on dried meat and cheese. As it grew darker, they huddled together for warmth. Jenna said they would stand watch in pairs. Cael and Maylis had first watch.
Cael sat, with Maylis at his back, staring into the darkness. The nocturnal animals of the forest began to move around them. To Cael, the rustle of every branch was the threat of an impending attack. When a twig snapped nearby, he almost screamed. Whatever had made the sound moved on, though, leaving Cael to his imagination. He pictured enormous creatures, twice the height of a man with broad shoulder and arms larger than human legs, surrounding them and creeping closer, ready to burst forth and tear him and his companions to pieces.
A sound returned his thoughts to reality. It was a scream, distant and high-pitched. Cael looked over his shoulder and exchanged a glance with Maylis. Then they were waking the other two.
Jenna woke first, and shook her head as if to clear it. Then the scream sounded again, and she was instantly awake. She gave Westerly a sharp elbow, which had much better results at waking the man than Maylis had by shaking his shoulder. She looked at Cael.
“It just started a moment ago,” he said. “That way.”
“Straight,” she said, rising. Then they heard the scream again, longer this time. “Let’s move. Fast, and quiet.”
They started in the direction of the screaming just as it ended. The silence was more horrible than the screams; they had stopped too abruptly, which spoke of violence. Cael moved as quietly as he could through the underbrush. His way was lit only by traces of moonlight that filtered through the thick canopy of branches above him. It would have been complete darkness in the summer months when leaves still covered the branches, but it was a mixed blessing; those leaves now crunched underfoot, slowing his progress and hiding branches that could trip him, or worse, snap and alert the enemy.
As Cael made his way through the trees — too slow, too loud! — he heard just the sound he had been fearing. A loud crack sounded ahead of him. He froze, and heard the others do likewise. One, he could not tell who in the darkness, was beside him, and the other two close behind him. The sound had come from the enemy, then. He heard another crack. Without the sounds of his own movements to mask them, other noises began to emerge.
As a boy, Cael had once witnessed a noble’s hunting party take down a boar. After claiming the head for a prize, the lord had rewarded his dogs by allowing them to feast on the carcass. That was the sound that now came through the trees: growling, rending of meat, and the occasional crack of bone. “They’re feeding,” he whispered, and felt his stomach fall away as he realized what the meal consisted of. He felt rage building within him.
A hand closed on his forearm, and he turned to see Jenna’s face, close to his. “Straight,” she whispered, “and if you go charging on ahead, they will be feeding on you next. On all of us.”
Cael opened his mouth to object, but the words died on his lips as he saw Westerly past Jenna’s shoulder, gazing levelly at him. Jenna hadn’t restrained Westerly or Maylis, just him. He nodded to her. “So, what do we do?”
“We try to take them by surprise. Westerly, you take the left flank. Cael, you’re on the right. Go!”
The sounds of feeding had quieted during their whispered exchange. As Cael took his position to the right and began to creep forward, matching Jenna’s pace, he thought he heard conversation. It was no language he’d heard before, though, and the voices were harsh and guttural. Within a mene or so, even that faded, leaving them creeping forward in silence.
To Cael, it felt like bells before they reached the camp, or what was left of it. There was no sign of whatever had been feeding here. He smelled the remains of their meal before he saw it, and looked away quickly when he did. A glimpse of long blonde hair shining in the faint moonlight was enough for him. He focused on the rest of the camp. Huge clods of dirt and lay scattered about near a rough opening in the side of a small mound. Atop the mound was a familiar sight: two trees, recently fallen, with their roots exposed. “We’ve been here,” he whispered.
“Straight,” said Westerly. “This is where we lost the tracks. I stood on top of this hill. They must have been right underneath me!”
“And now we know something more about them,” said Jenna. “They’re nocturnal, burrowing underground during the day. When we lose their tracks again tomorrow, we will know right where they are.”
“Tomorrow?” asked Cael. “But –”
“Tomorrow,” Jenna interrupted. “They are bigger, there are more of them, and they can see better than you at night. You can’t save her,” she pointed to the remains behind her, “all you can do is avenge her, or die trying to. Which do you chose?”
“But the boy!”
“We can only hope they plan to do the same thing they did tonight, and eat before they break camp. If we can catch them sleeping, maybe we can save him.”
Cael glared at her, then nodded slowly and looked away. He knew she was right.
They made camp after burying the girl and waited for dawn. No one slept.
Morning brought sunlight, but no joy. Grim resolve was painted on all of their faces. Before beginning their hunt, Jenna insisted they inspect the cave, wanting to know how they had missed the opening the day before. She ordered Westerly and Cael to stand watch while she and Maylis took a look inside. Just as they were inspecting the entrance, Westerly climbed on top of the mound again, and fell with a cry as it collapsed beneath his weight. They dug him out quickly, and he emerged spitting dirt.
“I don’t understand,” he said, “it held my weight fine yesterday. I could have fallen in on top of them.”
Cael looked at the thickness of the remaining cave wall. It was only as wide as his hand, and consisted of nothing but dirt and roots. He looked at the fallen trees again. He thought again of the Doravin, and what he had seen the strange folk doing as they worked to rebuild Dargon’s causeway. “I think I know.”
They all turned to look at him, as he continued. “I think it’s magic. This is no cave in a hill. It’s a mound of dirt raised up from the ground. These two trees fell aside when it was formed. It was held up yesterday by the same magic that formed it. Now it’s no longer needed.”
Jenna looked back at the collapsed mound, and then on the ground by Cael’s feet. “That explains these clods of dirt and why we couldn’t find an entrance yesterday. There was none. It was sealed by the same magic. We’ve learned all we can here, I think. Let’s get moving.”
Their progress was much faster than the day before. With less fear of ambush, they were able to focus more on the tracks. The creatures were obviously not concerned about pursuit. They were still headed east, toward the looming Darst Range. Two or three bells before nightfall, Cael spotted a likely resting place for the creatures. A small, rounded hump was raised against the side of a large boulder that had slid most of the way down the side of a large hill. The boulder’s path down the hill was clear; several trees had been knocked down by its passing and a large gouge was evident in the hillside. Small plants and trees had begun to grow in the furrow.
Quickly circling the boulder and the earth mound, Westerly confirmed the tracks went no further. They had located their quarry.
Jenna eyed the boulder. “Now, there’s a bit of luck.”
“Straight,” said Cael, “now to dig them out, and –”
Jenna shook her head. “No. If we dig, they will hear us coming. And what will we dig with? Our hands? Our swords? That hill yesterday held all of Westerly’s weight. Even if we do get through, we’ll be exhausted and our blades will be blunted. I have something else in mind. We need to surprise them when they emerge. For now, gather firewood and lots of it. We’ll show these creatures that we have a little magic of our own.” She turned and started pulling fallen branches from the underbrush. Westerly and Maylis did as well.
Cael moved beside Maylis and helped her drag a large piece of wood closer to the mound. “Magic? What is she talking about?”
The heavyset woman gave him a small smile. “That would be me.”
“You can work magic?”
“A little. My uncle was our village magic worker. I have a touch of the gift, but not enough for him to ‘prentice me. I can mend broken pots and torn clothing, and draw fire from wet wood.” She snapped a twig from the limb they were dragging. “Dry wood like this? Well, I think I know what Jenna has in mind.”
They spent at least a bell gathering wood and making three piles near the earth mound. The boulder proved helpful in two ways. It blocked one side of the mound, letting them know from which side the creatures would emerge, and the trees it had toppled proved an excellent source of dry wood.
Maylis spent the remaining time before nightfall adjusting the piles of wood, occasionally moving a piece from one pile to the next. All the while she sang or whispered softly. As she did this, Jenna gave orders to Westerly and Cael, giving them each a location outside the ring formed by the piles of wood, and with enough cover so they should not be spotted as the creatures emerged. She told them to have two arrows ready, and to be prepared to move in with swords at her word. Cael selected his two best arrows, and inspected his sword and bow while Maylis worked on the firewood.
Shortly before sunset, Maylis took a small stick from each woodpile and took station in the arc formed by Cael, Westerly, and Jenna. She put the three sticks in a pile at her feet, whispered softly to the pile, and took cover herself.
The sun seemed to take forever to set, and twilight was interminable, but full darkness finally fell. Shortly afterwards, sounds began to emanate from the hill. Cael recognized the rough voices speaking an unknown tongue. The voices fell silent, and a single voice called out. It barked a few short syllables, and a hole burst open in the side of the hill, scattering clods of dirt. Cael heard one strike the ground near his hiding place and ducked.
When he looked up again, he could see a figure climbing out of the hole. With the faint moonlight, he could discern no features, but it was large and manlike. Another emerged, and then another. Cael heard the sounds of their rough speech, and then the whimpering of a child. He looked closer, and could see a small shape squirming in the grasp of another creature as it climbed out of the mound.
To his left, he heard Maylis whisper again. He saw a small flash and the pile of sticks at her feet was suddenly burning brightly. Cael heard the creatures call out, and turned back to look at them just as the three piles of wood blazed to life. The sudden brightness stung Cael’s eyes and made it hard to see, but the affect on the creatures was remarkable.
They all howled in agony and covered their eyes. Cael drew his bow as he saw one of them drop the child to the ground. As he let fly, he got his first good look at the things. They stood taller than a man, covered in fur that looked reddish brown in the firelight. Their faces were inhuman, though, with jaws like a wolf or a bear. They were unclothed, save for straps that held weapons and small packs. Unsure of whether his first arrow hit, Cael drew and loosed his second and was rewarded with a louder howl of pain at it struck home, buried halfway to the fletching in one creature’s chest. As he reached for another shaft, he heard Jenna cry, “Take them!” and cast his bow aside, drawing his blade as he charged forward.
He followed Jenna between two of the blazing fires. With the fires now at his back, he could see the creatures more clearly, although they all still had their faces shielded from the firelight with one arm. Two had weapons drawn, one struggled to remove an arrow from its thigh, and a fourth was still trying to climb out of the hole. Cael and the others charged in, driving the monsters back. Cael struck one across the chest, feeling his weapon strike bone and glance off. The creature took another step back, blocking with its gray blade and striking out in return. Cael parried. It was a weak blow, with only the strength of the creature’s arm behind it, and yet Cael still felt the numbing power of it all the way to his shoulder. It was no wonder these things had taken the caravan so easily. They would need to finish this fight quickly while the creatures were still blind and confused.
No sooner had he thought that when he heard Maylis cry out. When Cael looked over, he saw one of the things, his own arrow protruding from its chest, drive her back with a blow from its sword, and then knock her over with a heavy kick. The monster barked in its strange language — it sounded like orders to Cael — and dashed through the opening. The others followed, staggering from their wounds, but escaping into the darkness. Cael cursed at the retreating forms, remembering he had left his bow where he’d waited in ambush.
“They got away,” he muttered.
“Not all of them,” said Westerly. Cael turned to see him standing over the one that had been trying to climb out of the hole. It still lay half in and half out, with its skull crushed.
Maylis groaned and sat up. “Sorry. Those things are tough. At least it didn’t knock me into one of the fires, eh?”
“It’s okay, Maylis,” said Jenna. “It may be just as well they ran. We might not have won that fight. We slew one of them, and hurt them badly. Others may succumb to their wounds. They will be moving slowly, and we should have an easy blood trail to follow. Best of all, I think we saved this boy.”
The child! Cael looked at Jenna, who was helping the boy to his feet. She cut straps that cruelly bound his arms. He looked dazed, but unharmed. He wrapped his arms around Jenna, who suddenly looked uncomfortable.
“I want to take a look at that thing. Cael, can you …?” She gestured helplessly.
“Straight,” Cael said, as he stepped forward and gently pried the boy away from her, crouching down to look at him. His hair was red, like his uncle’s, and his face was dirty and tear-stained. “Here now, you’re safe with us. Your name is Dory, right? You’re going to be okay now, Dory. We’ll get you to your aunt and uncle soon.”
The boy clung to him, and sobbed for a moment into Cael’s shoulder. Then he muttered something Cael couldn’t hear.
“What was that, Dory?”
“Dorian,” he said, pulling his head off Cael’s shoulder. “Dory is a baby name. Only my grandmother ever called me that.” His eyes, wet with tears, stared defiantly.
Cael almost laughed. “Dorian it is, then. Can you be brave for me, Dorian?”
Dorian nodded solemnly.
Cael proceeded to check the boy for injuries and clean him up. Dorian took this stoically.
Jenna and Westerly finished inspecting the creature, and looked inside the mound. “No sign of a fifth one,” Jenna said, “That’s a bit of luck. Wes, go get the bows. Maylis, how long will these fires last?”
“I think I can keep them going until morning, but not as bright.”
“Straight. We’ll spend the rest of the night here, and get moving in the morning. One sleeps, the rest watch.”
Howls of agony erupted from the night, but they were distant. Dorian cried out and clung to Cael for a moment, but quickly let go and stood straight, with his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. Cael grinned to himself, thinking the boy would do well in Jenna’s patrol; he could certainly follow orders.
“What’s that about, do you think?” Maylis looked up from tending one of the fires.
Westerly returned with the bows. “Pulling out the arrows, I’d say.”
“Sounds painful,” Cael said. Both men chuckled.
The howling went on for several menes, at times becoming more intense.
“It sounds like at least one of them is dying,” Jenna said.
“That, or they’re just not as brave as young Master Dorian,” Westerly said. That elicited another laugh. Even Jenna smiled. Dorian just raised his chin.
“Straight,” said Jenna, “enough joking. Cael, you’ll rest first. No objections!” She raised a finger when he opened his mouth.
“It’s not that I mind,” said Cael, “but I don’t see how I can sleep with all that –”
The howling stopped. The only sound was the crackle of the flames. They all stood silently for a moment.
“I think I liked the howling more than this,” Cael said. No on laughed.
“Sleep, Cael,” said Jenna. “The rest of us, eyes and ears open. I don’t see them attacking again with the fires going, but be ready.”
Cael sat with his back against the boulder. Dorian curled up next to him, and he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder to comfort him. Cael tried to sleep, but he couldn’t relax. He sat there listening to the hiss and pop of the fire, straining to hear any sound of movement. Eventually, his thoughts began to drift and he felt himself surrendering to sleep.
Maylis’ voice woke him. “What was that? I thought I heard …” Cael opened one eye to see the heavyset woman framed by the fire, peering past it into the woods. “Probably nothing, but –”
A harsh voice from beyond the fire cut her off. It was barking strange syllables. No, intoning them. There was a rhythm to the voice. Cael started to rise, only to be barraged by dirt and grit. It swirled around them, stinging their skin and blinding them. Cael covered his face with his cloak and drew his blade, ready for attack. As he rose, the buffeting ceased as the cloud of dirt seemed to condense into three swirling pillars.
The pillars settled on the fires.
Two of the fires were snuffed out completely. The third remained, guttering.
There was a loud animal growl from close by. One of the creatures leaped from the bushes and landed on Maylis, knocking her flat. In the flicking firelight, Cael could see that it had changed. It moved on all fours, and seemed misshapen. Strange lumps stood out from the fur. It was fast. Before any of them could move, it dipped its head and tore out Maylis’ throat.
“No!” yelled Westerly, releasing an arrow. It thudded into the creature, but it did not seem to feel the impact. Cael charged and slashed at it. He felt the blade bite, and saw that he had taken one of its eyes. Then he was flying backwards, his sword dropping from numbed fingers. He struck the boulder and landed, looking up to see Jenna engaging the beast. Behind it, he could see a second creature lurking. It, too, moved on all fours and had lumps protruding from it.
“Another!” he yelled. He frantically scanned for more movement, for other eyes glaring balefully in the firelight. “I don’t see any more!”
“Take the boy!” Jenna yelled as she ducked under a slashing claw. “Run!” Her blade struck sparks from one of the lumps; it looked like stone.
Cael scooped Dorian up in one arm. The boy clung to him. He hated to leave, but he was weaponless and could not feel his right arm. He’d be useless in a fight, but might have a chance to get away and warn others about these things. He turned and ran.
Behind him, he heard Jenna cry out. Westerly called her name, and then the creature bellowed in rage or pain. Cael ran as best as he could with one arm hanging limp and the boy held in the other. He staggered, ducking branches, as his legs and lungs began to burn. After a few moments, he no longer heard the sounds of fighting. All he could hear was his own labored breathing.
He considered slowing to catch his breath, but Dorian cried out. “It’s behind us!”
Cael picked up speed, not knowing how. He ran headlong, heedless of the tree limbs whipping his face and the roots grasping at his ankles. Even over his ragged gasps, he began to hear it, loping behind him, panting as it ran. It was getting closer.
“Dorian,” he managed to gasp, “can you run?”
“Yes,” said the boy. His voice was tight with fear.
Cael knew it was desperation. He was selling his life to give the boy a few moments’ head start. He was dead either way, though, so he might as well give the boy a chance, however slim. Maybe the creatures would be satisfied with him and the others and decide the boy wasn’t worth chasing. He let Dorian slip from his grasp, making sure he landed on his feet, even though it meant Cael went sprawling.
“Run!” he cried as he fell. He rolled, feeling something jam hard into his gut. He landed on hands and knees, facing backwards, finding himself staring into the eyes of his pursuer. The creature stalked closer, angling toward him, its eyes never leaving his. Cael’s hand went to the pain in his abdomen, wondering if he was badly injured. Face to face with this hideous beast, would he die from his fall?
His hand closed around something cold and hard. The stone weapon! It was still in his belt. He drew it and rose to one knee. The creature snarled. One of the lumps, embedded or emerging from below the thing’s left eye gave its head a lopsided look. It stopped and looked past Cael, in the direction Dorian had run.
“Hah!” Cael managed to gasp between heaving breaths. He needed its full attention on him if the boy was to escape. Reluctantly, the beast turned back to him. Still panting, Cael got to his feet, brandishing the broken weapon. It felt awkward in his left hand. With another snarl, it leaped, closing the distance between them. Cael dodged to one side, feeling a heavy blow as one claw raked his back, and spun him halfway around. He landed in a crouch and turned to face it, and then it was on him. He blocked a blow to his head with his right arm, still half-numb, and felt one of the bones in his forearm break. He lashed out with the sword. The blow was weak, but it drew blood, slicing a shallow cut across the thing’s ribs. Cael’s vision went gray from the sudden eruption of pain in his arm, but he shook his head to clear it. Cael slashed again with the sword and the creature struck at him again. The weapon struck one of the rocks embedded in its limb. Sparks flew, and the sword was knocked from his grip.
Weaponless, Cael prepared to die.
The creature howled in pain and spun, lashing at the air behind it, as if at some unseen attacker. As it turned, Cael saw the cause; an arrow was protruding from the creature’s flank. It turned once again to Cael, and lurched as another arrow struck it, then another. The beast’s head moved wildly about as it searched for its new attacker. It spied him just as Cael did; Westerly was crouched behind a tree, fitting another arrow to the string. Ignoring Cael, the creature bounded toward him. Westerly got off another arrow, but it glanced off one of the stones. He raised his bow to defend himself. The creature lashed out, breaking the weapon. Westerly retreated. As it followed, Jenna burst from hiding, her sword held high in a reverse grip. She buried the blade up to the hilt in the back of the creature’s neck. It spasmed once and collapsed.
Jenna sat back against a tree, cradling her left arm, which was torn open and bleeding. Cael dropped to his knees and one hand, fresh pain flaring in his other arm with the sudden movement. He watched, chest still heaving, as Westerly tended first to Jenna’s wound, binding it with strips of cloth. Then he crossed to Cael and examined him.
“That arm will need to be set.”
Cael nodded, wincing at the thought. “The boy,” he gasped. He tilted his head in the direction Dorian had run. “That way. Should be easy trail … for master tracker.”
“I’ll get him,” he said, and stalked off after Dorian.
Cael looked at Jenna, waiting for his breath to return. She, too, looked utterly spent. Her face was pale beneath a layer of mud and grime. She gazed back at him. They sat that way for several long moments. “Bait,” he said at last. “You used the boy and me to lure that thing away.”
Jenna didn’t flinch. “Straight. It was the best chance for one of us to survive and to get word back to the duke. Westerly and I could never have handled two of them at once. We barely survived the first one.”
“And if the third one had attacked?”
“Then we would have been dead either way.”
“It’s still out there, somewhere.”
She nodded. “Far from us, though, I think. It’s my guess that it set these two on us so it could escape.”
“Escape to where?”
“Home,” she said, “wherever home is. Maybe to warn his people about us.”