Relman woke up refreshed the next morning, having recovered from the exhaustion night prior. Though light snow was on the ground, the clouds were still thick above the trees. Between that and the treeline itself, it was considerably warm. Relman looked around; he seemed to be the first awake, though the others were snoring. He looked over to where Sigi had sat himself the night prior, and saw him looking north. The next thing he noticed was that there was no snow around him, as if he had displaced his own heat to keep it from landing.
Relman sat up, looking about the camp and into the woods to see if there were any telltale signs of visitors during the night, but there were none. As he looked to the other side of the clearing, he saw one of the men walking about, probably on third watch. Relman gathered his cloak around him, standing up fully and looking about. The only thing that announced its presence was the slight wind in the trees. He saw Sigi turn his head to Relman, and Relman nodded at him, finally mustering the courage to approach him.
Relman came over, still holding his cloak in a makeshift fashion around his shoulders. “Are we going to continue north today?”
Sigi stood up, slinging his sword across his back. “We’re gonna head west. The clan lands are very narrow between the north and the south, but they spread east and west fairly well. It will also give Skelder a chance to catch up to us more quickly.”
Relman nodded, adding, “Or find if he was killed faster.” He looked down at that a moment before turning his attention to the west end of the clearing. His eye caught Sigi looking at him.
“If he died, he did so in our defense,” Sigi reminded Relman. “I’m not counting him as dead until we find his corpse.” Sigi started walking towards his horse, opening the packs to begin preparing for the next leg of the journey. Relman took the queue and went back to his camp to do so. As he came to it, Telmar was also sitting up, looking at him. Relman began putting things in his satchel and grabbing his short sword.
“He shouldn’t have split the scouts,” Telmar said under his breath to Relman. “They might both be back with us right now if he hadn’t.” Relman shot a look at Telmar as he continued. “I don’t like him. I feel like he’s trying to undermine something.”
Relman snapped his head back around from packing. “What, like your pride?” Relman lowered his voice again as others started to wake. “Your Lord, Rothgard, appointed him to this. You treat him as the Lord himself.”
Telmar sneered at Relman, speaking more quietly. “The old man doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore. We probably lost that trade up north due to his incompetence.”
Relman wanted sincerely to put him in his place, but knew he had neither the strength or the wherewithal to do so. Telmar seemed to know this, and Relman felt like that was the only reason Telmar was talking to him. Regardless, he felt the surge of anger towards him. Relman had faithfully served Rothgard for years, and felt him more competent than Telmar by any stretch. The only reason he advised for Telmar to come along was because he knew his combat prowess was nearly unrivaled among most of the men here.
“Watch your tongue,” Relman warned as he hastily put his pack together and headed towards his horse. Thom looked at Relman as he stormed past him, causing him to wake up.
“Oh,” Thom yawned loudly, passively waking the rest of the camp. “It’s about that time, isn’t it?” Hergar looked at Thom.
“Careful, Thom. Nearby clansmen might mistake you for a bear with the sounds you’re making,” Hergar jabbed. A few of the men chuckled as they continued putting their things together, and getting their horses. The fire was put out completely and the men finished packing the horses. Sigi finally mounted up after surveying them, and proceeded west. The others fell in behind as they made their way through the clearing. As they left, Telmar rode past Relman, eyeing him before moving up in the line.
The horse hooves crunched in the snow and their frame moved shrubs aside as they plotted a course through the wider woods. It had been half a day since they had seen a true treeline that led into an opening. As the men talked, they ascended some hills and came back down another hill to follow a small creek as they headed further west. The weight of Skelder was on all their minds.
The snow picked up again, with the wind occasionally whipping it around past the travelers. They were all covered in their hooded cloaks, trodding at a careful pace as their horses lumbered forward. A hill came up on their right as they followed the creek, and in instinctual reactions, the men kept their ears towards the hill, in case something waited for them. It had become clear that there was something out in these lands clearly greater than them. They needed to move first if they were going to be ambushed.
“It’d make more sense for them to just take up camp wherever they conquer,” Thom said quietly. “Why take everything with them?” Relman was right behind him. He was looking up the hill on the side as he replied.
“I had been thinking that too. With that many men, you could easily establish a forward position,” Relman contemplated. “Why take everything?”
The question lingered in the air a moment like snow before everyone stopped their horses. Up ahead, they could hear a horse trodding further down the creek. Everyone’s eyes shot to Sigi who pointed at the bank to their left that wasn’t steep, and then pointed down. Everyone immediately moved their horses off the creek, and dismounted, drawing swords. Sigi did the same. Everyone’s eyes looked to his sword again before looking down the creek, which took a bend around the right.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the one approaching would have heard their horses too. But changing the position allowed an element of surprise. They waited, tensing as they held their swords, to find Skelder coming around the bend. Sigi looked at him, and Skelder took only a split second to find him amongst those lined on the creek. They would have easily pushed him into the side of the hill if he were an enemy. The weary men all sheathed their swords.
“What did you find?” Sigi asked, looking at Skelder. Skelder took a moment to reply, obviously still in a type of shock.
“You’ll need to see this for yourself,” he finally replied. “There’s blood. Lots of it.”
The other men stood silent, looking at Skelder. Some of them broke gaze, sagging their shoulders as if the weight on them had increased. Sigi looked at Skelder with his black eyes for a few moments more before putting his sword back in his sheath and slinging it on his back. He then started to go to his horse.
“Let us go see what you found,” Sigi stated as he mounted. The other men finally took queue and did the same, falling in line behind Skelder, and they continued their trot up the creek.
“Why did it take you so long to get back to us?” Sigi asked Skelder.
“I do apologize if I caused unrest due to my absence,” Skelder began. “But I had to adjust how I moved for some time before I could double back to you. There was a time where I had to be still, and then… I couldn’t stop following what I saw, to ensure my eyes were not deceiving me.
“What I saw were cages of people being dragged behind lines of horses, and it was obvious some of them were getting caught underneath the ground and pulled as it went, as I saw streaks of blood coming out from beneath the cage sometimes. They were packed full of people, tribesmen from what I could see, and a few others that had wandered into their area.”
“Well, who was pulling them?” Thom asked anxiously, the question on the lips of all the other men. Skelder remained silent for a moment.
“They were pale, with warpaint on them. They easily overpowered any tribesmen who tried to fight them… I saw one take on two tribesmen with his bare hands, and easily put them down.”
“That sounds like Goron to me,” Thom thought as they moved out of the creek and up an incline, following Skelder.
“How far until we find this trail?” Sigi asked, trying to keep them focused at the issue on-hand. He looked around as the hill started to move them above some of the tree line.
“It’s gonna take us about a day to get there. But if you want your proof Sigi, you’ll have it.” The words were double edged for Sigi. While he was relieved they’d have proof, he was also concerned for the nature of the Goron, if this was indeed who Skelder had found. They hadn’t ever been so organized as to take entire villages, or take prisoners. As each answer was presented, ten more questions came into play.
As they moved silently up the hill, the snow began to come back down softly, sometimes being accented by the wind that moved up the hill. The hill leveled off into another treeline, but only briefly, as they came into another clearing that was small and blanketed in tallgrass that poked out above the fresh snow. Their broad horses carved a path in the snow, the sounds of the forest singing with the occasional breeze accenting their ears. The sounds fell on the deaf as their thoughts were burdened by what they initially found, and compounded by what Skelder had told them.
Eventually, they stopped to take a moment of rest and to eat a few items before continuing on. Telmar looked between them, resigning to his thoughts.
“If there are that many,” Telmar began, “we may need more than just an army. We’ll need an entire legion.”
“Some of the southern houses would be able to command at least ten thousand men a piece,” Thom began. “If we were able to muster them all, we might be able to defend ourselves, and then eventually push back against them.”
“At what cost, though?” Relman countered. “The small outlying villages will be decimated before they reach any of the keeps.”
The thought settled on them. Thom put his unfinished food away, and got back on his horse quickly. “Then every moment counts.” The men looked at him, and nodded, grunting their approval before doing the same. Sigi moved to his mount, looked at Skelder and nodded, and they moved forward. The determination suddenly had sunk in with them. With the weight that was on their shoulders, they realized they needed to use it to propel them forward instead of letting it slow them down. With the renewed vigor, the men galloped forward on their horses into the next tree line, keeping a steady pace as they carved a path through the forest.
Sigi looked at each of them quietly as they strode on, the renewed determination in their faces a slight relief for him. They had all come from those types of villages. It was seen in the stance and posture of a man, as to show where they came from. Those that had lived lives in a military order differed from those who lived leisurely in a city, differed from those who worked out in the open lands day to day to make a living. Sigi knew what kind of men he had at his side. And while their confidence translated into renewed hope, he knew he must wait to see if it translated into confident combat as well.
The sun was beginning to become a bit darker behind the clouds, and the snow attempted to let itself fall a few more times during the course of the day. In due time, Skelder led them to the crest of a hill, and dismounted. Each of the men dismounted as well, and they walked to the edge of the hill, overlooking a small valley that led off to a fjord in between two mountains. He pointed down into the valley.
“That’s where they were,” Skelder said with reluctance. The valley had been completely blanketed in snow, as if it had not been touched. Sigi looked around, and saw nothing contrasting against the pale snow. It hadn’t been touched since the last snowfall. But the blanket felt like a mask. As Sigi looked at the other men, he felt their hesitance about scouting down there. Determined, Sigi looked for an easy decline down. Following the crest of one hill, he pointed, and took the point of the line, leading the men down slowly into the valley.
The clouds stayed overcast, but the wind had stopped for the time being. When they came down to the foot of the hill, Sigi dismounted, tethering his horse to a tree, pulling the hood back from his head. Slowly, the other men began to as well.
“Skelder, Hroth,” he called quietly, not wanting his voice to carry across the snow. They looked at him as he pointed to other ends of the valley in elevated positions. “Keep an eye out and give us a signal if we have anyone return.” They nodded, splitting their separate ways and moving among the trees, soon disappearing behind the snow. Sigi turned his attention to the valley at hand, covered in the snow. As he looked, so did the other men. They looked reluctant to step forward. And with that, Sigi started walking.
Grunting, Thom took the next steps forward behind Sigi, fanning out a few feet from him. Telmar was next, and in a general motion, the men began to walk forward, picking their feet up out of the foot-deep snow with each step. The crunching snow broke the concentration of every man at each step, as if they were expecting something to accompany it.
The men occasionally looked at each other as they continued to follow Sigi’s steps, spread out. Hroth, now situated in a tree, watched as the men trod forward almost abreast to Sigi. Relman got stuck for a moment and nearly panicked before picking his foot up out of the snow and continuing. The rest of the men tensed at this, before taking a small breath and continuing forward. Suddenly, Sigi stopped, holding up his hand. The men froze in their tracks. Sigi was looking down, and eventually the rest of the men did too.
Where Sigi had stepped, the snow had begun to soak in red. It colored narrowly around the hole where Sigi had stepped, and the men grew rigid in their tracks, watching with near-horror at Sigi’s foot. After a moment, Sigi pulled his other foot out, and stepped forward, it too causing the tinge of red to form. He pulled his first foot out, a disgusting sucking noise from soaked mud emanating from the hole. Sigi took a few more steps before the snow began to stay white. He looked behind the other men, whose teeth were clenched. What disturbed them more, was that Sigi looked almost calm about the entire situation. He motioned for them to move forward, and with hesitancy, the men began walking again.
Skelder, watching from afar, had to break his concentration from the men who had made the grisly discovery before looking around to ensure nothing else was watching him. After scanning the valley for a few more moments, and the surrounding land, his eyes couldn’t help but rivet to the men below him. He had seen it the days prior, but he didn’t know if anything else had been laid in the snow for anyone following up. He had left as soon as he could. And as he thought about it, he stopped and watched in horror as Relman had red fill around the snow he had trod in.
Sigi looked back at Relman, who was clearly wincing. He gestured for him to move forward, but Relman shook his head.
“I can feel something beneath my boot!” he whined quietly, not wanting to move forward, and trying desperately to keep his voice down.
“Come on,” Thom said quietly through gritted teeth. “We need to keep moving, Twig.”
The other men started whispering frantically to him, motioning their arms forward and tensing. Relman let out a small whimper before attemping to step forward. He brought out the foot that had pooled in blood, and as he did, his toe latched onto something and pulled it forward. His eyes went wide but his foot kept coming forward to keep balance, and out of the hole he pulled a small arm out by the hand, severed from the rest of the body.
Relman immediately fell forward, panicking in the snow to shake it off his boot, and Thom and a few others came over to help him up while the snow in which he fell had begun to redden. Thom picked him up easily, Relman’s clothing partially damp from the snow and blood. Thom quieted him down by putting a hand over his mouth while Relman finally attempted to recompose himself.
The rest of the men looked at where Relman had landed, clearing away some of the snow to see what he had found. While there was only one severed limb which Relman had kicked up, there was no doubt that the ground was soaked in blood. The men stood around it, uneasy and some even looking sick. Sigi studied it for a moment, before pointing down at the ground. “There.”
The men followed his finger and saw another talisman pushed beneath the dirt. None of them dared touch it, but all of them stood at it for a moment before Sigi broke their concentration.
“We need to leave. Now,” Sigi commanded, as he made strides back towards the horses. He put his hand in the air and pointed towards them, signifying to Hroth and Skelder to meet them. They both saw it, and started making a beeline quietly towards the horses while the men themselves made it back and began mounting. Sigi waited for the scouts to rejoin them before leading them out and back down the path they had taken to get there. The tension was still amongst the men as they rode out, and as they rode Relman finally vomited to the side of his horse while galloping forward. Some of the men looked back, some still feeling queasy before looking forward. When they made it back to the creek, they began speeding up the pace, not allowing any time for break for several minutes before they finally slowed down at Sigi’s command. Minutes after that, they stopped, Sigi looking at each of the men.
They were clearly in disarray, some looking down at the ground, some at Sigi, all in disbelief. Telmar, still somewhat shaken, finally spoke up.
“We need to get back to the keep quickly. We shouldn’t stop tonight.”
Sigi shook his head. “We shouldn’t lose our way at night.”
“Lose our way? You guide us. You came to us in the middle of the night at the inn, with snow falling down,” Thom reminded.
“The moon was out,” Sigi countered.
“Take us back!” Relman stated resolutely, tense but his voice lowered. He looked at Sigi fiercely, and the world became deafeningly quiet as they looked at Sigi, who looked back with his black eyes.
A small, light bell was heard in the distance. Sigi looked around immediately, and the men looked also, some of the horses spooked.
It was distant, but they were barely audible in the silence.
“They’re following us,” Sigi warned. “We need to keep moving at a steady pace. We can’t seem like we’re trying to outrun them.” The otherwise gentle sound of a small bell haunted them, as it rang one more time. Sigi turned his horse, and began a modest trot while the men followed.
The Goron had found them.