The wind had settled down in the hours following the fight, allowing for a clear view of the stars that dotted the northern horizon. Just barely, one would be able to tell that there was a constant hue from the north, where the sun shone longer. Sigi’s attention stayed towards it, watching as the fires had died out over time. The men were exhausted, and not as battle-weary as other compatriots he had rode with before. It was just as well, he thought. The days ahead would become long, and the fight within them longer.
The smell of the burnt corpses had begun permeating the air, now that the wind had come to a standstill. Sigi sat against a tree, his sword semi-rested against the ground in its sheath as he contemplated the next several moves in this game he had become wrapped in. Thoughts of what lay north besieged his mind as he thought out the coming moves. As his eyes scanned, he stopped for a moment, his gaze becoming concentrated on one particular part of the horizon. He squinted, his black eyes seemingly unaffected by the darkness surrounding him. He stood up suddenly, walking over quietly to Thom, kneeling before him and shaking him lightly.
“Eggfwaza…” Thom incoherently spoke, before opening his eyes and seeing only a dark figure standing above him ominously. For a moment Thom panicked, but then slowed down.
“Glad you’re so stoic all the time Sigi,” Thom said quietly. “I would have just sliced off your leg if you were anything else.”
“I’m riding out to investigate something,” Sigi returned quietly, making sure not to speak too loud to wake the others. “Take the men the rest of the way towards the keep tomorrow.”
Anyone with normal eyes could have seen Thom wanting to protest, hesitate, and then continue.
“If you’re going, I’m going,” Thom said, sitting up and rustling his stuff, as if to wake the others. In their light sleep, others began to sit up as well. Anyone could see the irritation in Sigi’s body language.
“What’s going on?” Hroth asked, some of the others chiming in.
“Sigi is riding off. We’re following him,” Thom said, looking to Sigi. “Aren’t we, Sigi?”
Sigi saw that it was not a conversation he’d win. He stood himself upright. “Find your horses. I’ve spotted something that I want to look at briefly before we continue south.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” Telmar protested, angrily packing his things in the slight ember glow of a nearby fire. “How are we supposed to see whatever it is you’re looking for?”
“If I am right,” Sigi explained, “we will all be able to see it.” He mounted his horse. The others began taking the example to heart, but keeping quiet. Some fumbled about while others just simply followed other large shadows. Hesitation was in the air, but Sigi was determined to look at what he had seen. After a few moments, they began trodding off, Sigi taking the lead and the horses following each other with instinctual intent.
The veil of night did nothing to ease the fears of the men, not knowing if there was something awaiting them in the bushes. They could barely see to the next horse, much less anything off the path that Sigi had taken them on. They moved on briskly however, the cold enveloping their veins as they moved outside of the warmth of their blankets that they had been stolen away from. Thom was regretting wearing his breastplate as the metal conducted the cold that enveloped it. The only visible figure unaffected by it, was Sigi who rode up front, the hooded cloak and sword only visible to those who were concentrating enough.
Thom eventually found width in the path to ride up next to Relman. “What do you make of it, twig?”
Relman looked at Thom, clearly trying to contain his shivering. “I’m not sure, really. I have no idea what is driving Sigi like this. I just… I can’t pin him, you understand?”
“Yeah, I get your words,” Thom replied, the sound of his voice hindered by the gritting of his teeth. “I don’t think any of us are able to tell what he’ll do next. Ya think it be on purpose?”
Relman’s thoughts distracted him from the cold gust, if only briefly. “I couldn’t say for certain one way or another.” Thom nodded once before falling back into file as the path narrowed. Relman kept his eye on the man in front of him, matching his pace. His thin frame did little to fight the cold as he shivered on occasion, attempting to control the shaking wracking his body in this night. He looked down, breathing into his leather gloves that gripped the reins, to only have his attention drawn back up. As he looked forward, he looked to his right slightly, and saw a feint glow on the horizon. His eyes squinted, as if it would help anything, and a tree line began blocking the glow. His eyes turned back to the man in front passively as he began thinking about what they were marching towards. As he looked around him, Relman saw an inclined hill. As he looked forward again, he saw Sigi cutting a trail up it, finding a way to begin ascending to get to the top of the hill.
The wind whipped up the hill that they climbed, assaulting the backs of the men who were already exhausted from the fighting, much less from the cold. The early stages of exhaustion were setting in on many of those who remained, their minds either racing with thought or simply empty. Sigi stopped, much to the chagrin of the men, and dismounted, before clearly looking back at the other men.
“I need a few up on the hill with me, the rest will stay to watch the horses,” Sigi commanded. He waited patiently before Thom stepped forward, and Hroth behind him. It was becoming apparent who was willing to push forward and take action among the men, and they were the ones surviving the most. Sigi looked back at the incline, and began working a switchback up the hill in the dark, the two others following him with grunts as they moved up the hill. Before long, they came up the backside of the hill and began to approach the front where they initially took to it. As they approached its lip, they all looked forward. Thom, Hroth and even Sigi stood in amazement at what they were looking towards.
Far off, it had become apparent what the Goron had been doing with the structures. Though details were not visible to any of the men, they saw a bigger town had been constructed. Despite the cold weather, it was as if everything were powered by brimstone. The orange hue allowed them to easily assess what appeared to be a decently sized fortification, perhaps three days ride out over the terrain– slower with a large contingent. It was clear to them that, despite the distance, there were many men moving amongst the fiery glow.
“They took everything and… redid it, to fit them,” Thom summarized.
“That is absurd,” Hroth retorted as the wind wrapped around his words. “Why would they not just use their own traveling camps… unless…”
Sigi nodded. “Repurpose everything to build fortifications from the structures you’ve ransacked. Take them back and build as you go. It’d then be their choice to rebuild smaller villages, or to rebuild a bigger fortification.” He gestured towards the transformed war city far ahead of them. They stared at it for a few more seconds.
Hroth spoke up again. “If this is just one, and there is more to raze further north, then we may be facing something much larger.” He waited a moment. “We need to get back to the keep.”
“Aye,” Thom agreed, starting to move back down the hill at a frenzied pace. Hroth and Sigi began to follow behind them, eventually meeting up with the men halfway down. Thom began mounting up on his horse, the other men looking for answers.
“Wait,” Sigi said as the other men started to mount. He gestured for them to come over, and in the dark, it was clear enough they needed to be nearby. They all stood in front of Sigi, waiting patiently.
“The face of our enemy has changed,” Sigi started. “They’re using the structures they come across, tearing them down and reusing everything to build something else. What it is, we cannot see. But there is no doubt that there are bigger structures further north if they have managed to curse the land there. I am not concerned about their tactics regarding buildings. What I am concerned about is how organized they’ve become.
“The Goron we fought earlier, fought the way we expected. Little tactic, little regard for anything except the attack. This doesn’t match what we’re seeing for how they raze and replant entire villages and glens like small trees. We need to figure out how they’re being driven, and to what end.”
“What if someone else works with them?” one of the men spoke up against the wind. They looked at each other, considering this possibility. It weighed on Sigi’s shoulders as well.
“I must concede this point,” Sigi acknowledged. “But it is important that we get back to the keep and warn Lord Rothgard, so that we may prepare an army to help combat them, and eventually, drive them back. I need each of you to be at your best while we head towards the keep. It should not take us long, but we need to move quickly. This news rests on our shoulders; it is imperative that we deliver it to save the southern kingdoms.”
With this, the men verbalized their agreement, and Sigi headed for his horse. The rest did the same, falling into line as they descended down the hill, and back onto the path they had taken. They rode at a moderate pace despite the darkness, their determination fueling their speed and combating any fears of what might have waited in the darkness. They rode on further, eventually greeted by glints of light coming off the southeastern horizon. It warmed the men to see it, even though the cold grip of night was still atop of them. Their determination fueled them relentlessly, memories of buildings built with their bare hands, raising crops in fields, and defending the very land they returned to. This was their territory, and they’d be damned if something else was going to get a hold of it.
Thom breathed a sigh of relief as they joined onto a more familiar road that would lead them down to the keep within a few hours time. He looked behind at the men tailing him to find their faces showing the same. Relman looked at Thom, his eyes giving thanks to whatever guided their path as they started to move at a faster pace. They followed Sigi, whose hood refused to come off, the darkness wanting to cling to him the tightest as the sun began to rise and shimmer through the snow-laden trees. The snow had fallen a bit harder here, and sprayed up from the horses as they made their path through it. They began a descent down a hill, and before long, the path paralleled a crest, overlooking the valley, and bits of buildings, which belonged to Rothgard Keep. Sigi stopped to allow a rest before continuing the last moments to the valley.
“Why do we stop?” Thom asked. “We should keep going and notify our Lord.”
“I agree. I just wish for you all to take a look at this,” Sigi replied. “The next time we leave and come back, it may be under siege.”
The men all fell quiet, their gazes turning to the land set before them. Some smoke rose from chimneys expertly laid into the sides of small houses, and a few brave villagers leaving their warm homes to begin their tasks. Further still was a second cliff, which Sigi had switchbacked several nights prior to arrive at the keep. The men surveyed it quietly, letting the sight before them etch into their minds.
“What’s that?” Relman said, pointing just near the hill which hid the keep. Sigi and the other men looked to where he pointed, and they saw what appeared to be a few men in light colors, carrying banners with a sigil embroidered into them. They were unable to tell what the sigil was at such a shallow angle as the riders rode in, but the villagers didn’t seem to be in distress– though, several of them were outside the keep. One of them turned their horses around, which allowed a slight glimpse at the banner.
“The council is here?” Thom asked.
“They weren’t supposed to make rounds until the snows had passed,” Telmar noted. “They wouldn’t be here unless–”
“Unless something happened to Rothgard,” Skelder finished, taking his horse and turning it down the path to ride towards the keep. Several of the other men looked at Sigi with a sign of fear in their eyes. Sigi nodded to them, and they all took off after Skelder to find out what had happened. Sigi followed them in a galloped flight down the road.
As they came around the castle coming down the hill, they saw at least twenty representing the council outside of the keep, and it was apparent by the extra horses outside that there were more likely others within. They made their way down and around the front wall to go into the gates, where a few of the council’s soldiers stood outside. As they moved in, they saw a small carriage parked away with two horses in front of it. It had bars on the windows, and the door was heavily bolted shut from the outside.
Thom took his horse to the barn, and several of the other men arrived there, slaving the horses of the fallen behind them. The villagers looked on as they rode back into the keep, a few of them running to houses when they saw the horses without riders, likely to tell their loved ones of the news. They all stabled their horses, and Thom was the first to be greeted by his wife. All of the men gathered round.
“What happened?” Thom asked his wife, Gelyra. “Why is the council here?”
His wife stood there for a moment, looking at them. “While you were out, Rothgard died in his sleep. His room had become cold on one of the nights, and his body was not able to handle it while he rested.”
The men looked at each other, some with sorrow, others with anger, spare Sigi, who stood stoic.
“What night did this happen?” asked Relman, whose voice was clearly shaken by the news.
“The second night you were all gone. The caretenders went to wake him, and found he had already traveled on.”
The men stood around for a second, Hroth gripping a post as he lowered his head. Sigi examined each of them carefully; their actions here reaffirmed their loyalty. But the next words Sigi said quietly.
“It is likely,” Sigi offered, “that they’re here to take over the keep and his wealth and merge it into the council directly, as happens with Lords who have no heirs.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Thom sneered as he walked forward. But as he went to move past Sigi, Sigi planted a hand on his chest. Thom looked at Sigi with a scowl, which was returned by only a rational gaze. Thom looked at him a few moments before turning around and going back to his wife, spitting on the ground.
“We need to pay our respects before we do anything else,” Relman said solemnly.
“The Goron do not wait on the dead, Relman,” Telmar spouted off. “They will end up using the dead, and we will be a part of it if we do not hurry.”
The group, almost in unison, looked towards Sigi. He crossed one arm, placing a gloved finger to his chin while he contemplated.
“Let’s pay our respects,” Sigi said. “I’ll see to whomever is in charge here while you do.”
“You should pay your respects eventually,” Skelder said, looking at Sigi. “He trusted us with your command. That is no small item.”
“I will later,” Sigi acknowledged. “Let’s pay them, and then ensure we are rested. Our plight has just begun. We’ll meet here after the bonfire.”
The men looked at each other, shuffling off. Sigi began walking towards the keep itself, to see what was to be done.