The day had dawned clear and cold with only a hint of mist clinging to the ground. Shivering, Thaelin drew the folds of his cloak tighter around his body, his breath coming out in faint plumes as he bent to examine the mud for any deep impressions, boot prints or otherwise. None. He scowled and straightened, eyes scanning the trees. They did not give away any of their dark secrets. Would that the trees were on his side, he thought sullenly.
His horse whickered in his ear and danced in place with a nervous energy. He patted her neck. "There, now," he muttered. "Calm down, calm down. Quiet. Now there's a good girl. It's the stink of those greenskins, isn't it?"
They had gotten a report from the local peasants complaining of a group of bloody orcs passing through this way led by no other than that thrice-damned Grom Hellscream. That is, if the accounts were to be trusted at all. Burning red eyes, they had said when asked for proof. He snorted at the memory. As if those were uncommon among the green brutes. Now, there was the one with the blue eyes, the one that had caused all this trouble by taking Durnholde Keep and freeing all the orcs from the internment camps. What was his name again? Oh, yes: Thrall. Slave. Despicable name.
"Damn him to hell, damn them all to hell," he said and swung up into the saddle, motioning to the men behind to follow. "And damn the dogs too," he added. The hounds had been of no use at all, losing the trail after the river-crossing. Even the kennelmaster's prized bitch had not been able to find anything, though they had tracked upriver for a mile, downriver for half that distance. "Come on, lads—we aren't going to find anything here. May as well meet up with the others."
"Maybe they came out further upriver?" asked one of his men, spurring his horse on to match Thaelin's quick pace. Behind them, the dogs whined in frustration.
Thaelin gave the man—no, scarcely a man, more like a boy—a look of contempt. "Here, let me teach you something, boy. You see this river?" He gestured at the frothing waters. "Now, look to the middle. Does it look to you like any sane man would go upstream or could even stay in the water for even half a mile?"
Common sense was on his side. The current ran too fast and too strong in the center, the bottom too deep in most places, and it was too icy cold besides. Only a madman or a rabid beast would dare venture into the water. The boy for his part shied away from the sight of the raging river. "N-no."
"Good. And before you ask, downstream winds back the way those greenskins came."
"Oh." The boy's tone revealed that he had just been thinking about asking a question along that line. But then—and, by the Light, this boy was persistent—he said: "But maybe—"
Thaelin wheeled his horse around to glare at the lad, who quailed beneath his gaze. "Dammit, boy, stop and think before you open that mouth of yours! If the orcs had come out on this side of the river, we'd have found them already—them or their tracks. The brutes likely doubled back and retraced their steps. Never even set foot on this damned bank." He spat. "I'm willing to bet that Kurt's group'll have found the trail by now," and just as the words left Thaelin's mouth, a horn blast pierced the forest's tranquil peace.
"There, you see? We've got 'em, boys!" he called back to his party, urging them to hasten. He swung his mare around and kicked her into action.
Ahead, he heard the yapping of the hunting dogs that Kurt had taken with him, and his heart gave a leap of joy. They would be back in the barracks soon enough, with food to eat and a fire to sit by and a bed, however hard, to sleep on and maybe a little bit of mulled wine. The place where they had forded the river came into view, and he nudged his mare onwards. She reluctantly stepped into the chilly water. The river came to the tops of his boots. On the opposite bank, he saw Kurt himself waiting with his party, mouth set in a grim line.
"Too many of the bloody beasts judging by the tracks. At least a small platoon. We don't have enough men to take them all," Kurt said when Thaelin pulled up alongside him, dripping wet. "Turns out the villagers didn't see them all, maybe spotted only a small scouting force."
Thaelin swore. "We'll have to go back for reinforcements then." And how long would that take? The day did not seem to promise any rain, but they could not take no chances with the trail already running cold. He saw only one solution: "My party and I'll stay here to keep tracking. Take yours back. We'll make a trail easy for you to follow."
Kurt nodded, his face disconsolate. "Best we can do. I'll leave some of my boys here. Blow the horn if you're in need of any help, and we'll come running if we're still nearby. Good luck."
"And you," Thaelin said, hand touching the simple hunting horn that dangled off his waist.
Kurt forced a smile, but did not respond, instead motioning four men forwards. In a low voice, he informed them of the situation before departing, his figure and those of his remaining men vanishing through the trees.
Thaelin took aside the most senior of the four left behind. "The trail?"
"This way, sir," the man said, and led the way off upstream.
They rode for the better part of a half-hour over fallen leaves and pine needles with nothing but the chattering of the river and their own breathing to break the silence. The birds were oddly muted, and the rest of the forest sounds as well, Thaelin noted, but he passed it off as the result of their intrusion—and the orcs'.
"We're getting close," announced one of Kurt's men, but his voice was almost enveloped by a sudden baying from the dogs. Pulling against their leashes, the hounds set up such a racket that Thaelin was sure the greenskins could hear them a league away. So much for a quiet tracking. But he saw at once what had set the dogs off.
The smooth bank mud was disturbed and littered with deep boot prints where the orcs had left the river—and it seemed as if Kurt had been generous with his estimate. A small platoon would not have created so much of a mess to Thaelin's eye, and his estimate was closer to that of thirty-five or forty grunts. He felt his brows knit together. Hopefully, Kurt would bring enough men. Hellscream alone may take five men to confine, and that was without worrying about the rest of the orcs.
He jerked his head in the direction of the kennelmaster, who was trying so hard to keep the dogs back that the strain was showing up in his face, and gave a curt nod. The man let go at once.
Immediately, the dogs tore off through the woods, barking and howling, some even nipping at each other as they ran. "After them!" Thaelin shouted, and dug his heels into his mare's side.
They followed the hounds at a hard gallop through the woods, branches and twigs whipping at their faces. Boughs and limbs swung low to unhorse him, but Thaelin was a wily horseman, having ridden since he was six, and evaded the malevolent obstacles. By the sound of those behind him, however, not all were as skilled as he. At one point, he heard a sickening crunch and a piteous groan that told him all he needed to know, and he reined in his mare, waving to the others to continue on.
Dismounting, he held out a hand to the man—the boy again, he saw—who was nursing his head. Thaelin was mildly surprised to see that he was still alive, much less conscious. "Up!" he barked, seizing the forearm and pulling him to his feet. He looked around, saw that the boy's horse had galloped away riderless, and frowned. He would have to ride with him then—but they would fall behind due to the added weight. It might be better just to send the boy back on foot.
A chill crept over him as he stood there with the boy leaning on his arm, but he shrugged it off. "You feel up to walking?" Thaelin asked gruffly.
"Y-y-yes, sir," the boy said, swaying a little on his feet as Thaelin backed away to let him have some room.
"Good. Head back and wait for the others on the riverbank." He pulled himself back into his mare's saddle. It was growing colder, icy fingers reaching beneath his clothes to bite his skin. But that made no sense at all. It was getting closer to midday and the sun would be rising soon. Shouldn't it be warming by all rights?
"S-sir," the boy said, staggering forward and interrupting his thoughts. He grabbed a fistful of Thaelin's clothes and clung on with a vice-like grip. "D-d-don't leave me here. P-please. It's c-cold."
Thaelin gave him a hard glare. "I have no time to waste. Get going!"
But the boy did not—only gave him a wordless and terror-stricken look. The cold was intensifying, Thaelin realized as his black gloves caked over with frost. He glanced up and saw that the river had frozen over somehow, its surface covered by a glaze of crystalline ice. His breath came out in clearly visible clouds. Despite himself, he shuddered. What was this: some type of sorcery?
"S-sir," the boy said, teeth chattering. He had let go of Thaelin's arm and seemed positively blue from the cold. Thaelin gave him a brusque nod, startled enough by the strange weather to modify his decision.
"Very well, you can ride with me."
But the boy only gave a strangled sort of yelp before taking off through the trees like a frightened rabbit.
Thaelin, confused, sat still for a moment before turning his mare around when something slammed into him, knocking him off his horse. He heard the animal neigh in panic and pounding hoof beats told him that she had fled.
The impact had bruised his shoulder and jarred his teeth, filling his mouth with the earthy taste of dirt and ice. Swearing, he rolled to the side, and smelled a sickly odor permeating the air. Like rot. Picking himself up, he went for the hilt of his sword.
The sword fell from numb fingers. He stepped back, tripped, fell. Scrambling backwards as fast as he could, he opened his mouth to scream, but the sound froze in his throat.
And one thing more before the dark.
Bright, blue fire.