It was just past midday, so we had several hours of daylight left. We had no supplies to take with us, just our weapons. Although I did still carry a flint sparker and a tiny flask of oil in my belt. It was always wise to have the means to start a fire if you have to, especially when the temperature drops well below freezing. And of course, I had my knives tucked in my boots. Other than that, the only thing I carried was my sword.
Reinhardt went to check on the wounded miners once more to make sure they were still in stable condition, and then he was ready to go as well. He carried his longsword, strapped to his back, and methodically tied his ponytail behind his head with a strip of cloth.
Gaea walked up to me, her arms crossed over her chest. I gave her a smile and slid my sword into its scabbard with a click. I wasn't stupid, I knew that this was a risky mission. But I wasn't going to worry about my safety, and I didn't want Gaea to do so either.
"Be careful," she said in a quiet voice. "I don't know what else to say."
"We'll be fine," I promised. "We're just going for a little peek, no big deal. We'll be back before too long."
"Make sure you do come back," Gaea said. "Remember, you promised to tell me the truth about your background. I'm going to hold you to that."
"I'll tell you when I get back."
She looked over her shoulder, to see if anyone was watching us. No one was, so she cautiously reached out and put her hand on my arm. It could feel her hand shaking. "I'll be waiting for you to get back. Don't do anything dangerous. Good luck."
I gave her hand a supportive squeeze and then hurried off to join with Reinhardt, who was waiting for me at the edge of the mining compound. He said nothing as we headed into the trees, going off in the general direction of the tracks.
There was a mess of footprints and scattered tracks in the snow, heading north for the most part. As far as we could determine, the attackers had come to Raven Rock from almost directly north, but when they left, they traveled to the north-west, and had split into two parties when they left, although we didn't know why. There were only regular footprints, no horse tracks, so we knew they had no horses. It was unlikely that they would ride horses through the snow-covered forest anyway, but ruling it out made it more likely that the attackers were within reasonably close walking distance. They had attacked Raven Rock in the evening, so their base camp must have been somewhat close by, or else they'd have needed to travel in the middle of the night to get back, which was not likely for a multitude of reasons.
"Just how close are you and Gaea, exactly?" Reinhardt asked me out of nowhere.
I laughed shortly and decided to just be honest with him. "We're just friends, but I'm afraid she wishes we were more than that."
He nodded knowingly. "I heard a rumor that she liked women more than men, but I didn't want to ask her. It doesn't really matter, I guess. I was just curious."
"Why is that? Do you have a crush on me too?"
"Hardly. I like my women a little more … traditional."
The two separate trails of retreating tracks converged near a low valley with a frozen stream winding its way through. They headed almost directly north after that, heading up into the mountains. Reinhardt and I made our way carefully along the trail, looking for clues or anything that might give us an edge. But it was impossible to tell exactly how many men there were, although our estimate of fifty seemed like a good guess, given the number of footprints.
"You know," I said conversationally. "It really seems like a strange coincidence that you just happened to arrive in Raven Rock right after the attack."
"Is that so?" Reinhardt asked lightly.
"Yeah. And then you really didn't want to follow their trail back to wherever they came from. You wanted to wait for more Legion soldiers to arrive."
"And your point is?"
"Well," I said, "it wouldn't be unreasonable for someone to think that maybe you were working with the people who attacked Raven Rock. You might have wanted the Legion to come there to draw them into a trap."
"Really? It wouldn't be unreasonable to think that?"
"Not at all."
"Are you trying to hint that you think I'm a traitor?"
"Of course not," I said. "If I thought that, I would have tried to kill you by now."
"Well, that's a relief," he muttered sarcastically.
"In fact, I think the exact opposite is true," I said. "I think that you're secretly working for the Imperial Legion, and have been since the beginning. How close am I?"
"Pretty close," Reinhardt admitted. "I suppose there's no use in keeping it a secret from you, is there? Was it the fact that the Nords don't trust me? Is that what gave me away?"
"That's part of it. I knew you had to be working for somebody. The Imperial Legion was the most obvious choice. You've been reporting to Cavorian, haven't you?"
"Now how did you figure that out?"
"He seemed to know too much about the situation here on Solstheim," I explained. "I just had a huge feeling that someone was feeding him information, and that someone had to be you."
"Sounds like you made a lucky guess," he said.
I shrugged. "Well, that makes two of us. You figured out who I really was, and that was a lucky guess. Now we're even."
After that, we didn't talk much. The farther we went, the more careful we became. We walked a bit slower, scanned our surroundings a bit more thoroughly, and made as little noise as possible. Both of us were very capable of moving almost silently in the snow, since it muffled our footsteps anyway, so we made no noise at all as we made our way north.
We began skipping back and forth across the tracks, moving from tree to tree, keeping our ears trained for any sound at all. Reinhardt went in front, and I followed him like a shadow, the two of us moving in unison through the trees, able to communicate our intentions without speaking. Any Nord with battle training knew how to sneak through the forest, even when there was a foot of snow on the ground, and the two of us crept along silently and swiftly, at times skipping along the top of the snow and barely marking it.
We followed the tracks but no longer walked along them, having moved farther back into the trees, plotting a parallel course. We fully expected that our quarry would be watching their own trail through the forest, expecting any intruders to follow their trail directly. So we stayed about a hundred feet to the side of their trail, rushing from tree to tree, making no noise and leaving as little evidence behind as possible. I had not utilized such skills for a very long time, but they came to be naturally and the feeling was exhilarating.
At one point, we broke through a grove of trees and found an opening, giving us a wide view of the sky. Reinhardt stopped, looked back at me, and simply pointed upward, moving his finger in a circle. I looked up and knew what he meant. In the distance, there was a sheen of gray sweeping across the sky farther to the north. It was a storm on the way, and I had a feeling it was going to be a big one. I could almost make out the storm clouds descending over the mountains.
This could be good or bad news. A blizzard could make it harder for us to travel, but it would also prevent our enemies from following or tracking us. It might also provide cover that would allow us to get closer. But regardless, we had to move fast.
We doubled our efforts, running from one tree to the other, keeping the trial in sight, and I could feel that we were getting close. We'd been on the move for almost three hours now, and the gradual increase in elevation was now obvious, as I could see the lower ridges of mountains not far up ahead. Far to our right, I could make out slanting rock faces coming up out of the ground. If our enemies were making camp, they would do it in this general vicinity, at the base of the mountains.
But I could also tell it was getting late. If we wanted to make it back to Raven Rock before dark, we would have to turn back soon. And now it was starting to snow, just a calm drifting of snow, but it was going to get worse. The sky was turning gray, and I could almost sense the impending blizzard coming down on us.
The forest opened up into a wide clearing just ahead, and Reinhardt motioned for me to stop as we crouched down behind a thick fir tree. I leaned out and looked across the clearing, seeing that the trail of footprints went straight through the clearing to the other side. But it was a perfect spot for an ambush.
And then I spotted someone sitting up in a tree on the other side of the clearing. He was tucked against the trunk, wearing a leather jacket the same faded brown color as the tree, casually smoking a pipe. He was positioned in such a way that he could see clearly across the entire clearing very easily, so anyone coming along the trail would be spotted immediately. He probably had a horn or a bell or some other way to sound an alert. Since Reinhardt and I had approached the clearing from far to the side of the trail, he did not spot us, and probably could not see us at all from our current position.
Reinhardt seemed to consider moving forward or heading back. The snow was falling more insistently now, getting heavier each passing minute. And it probably would be dark before we made it back already, so staying even longer was not advisable. And the man in the tree pretty much proved that their hideout was in this general area.
Reinhardt looked at me and made a simple gesture in the direction of the clearing, and I nodded in agreement. We would go around the entire clearing, avoiding the scout completely, in order to get closer to their hideout. We needed to see exactly what we were up against.
Going the long way around was not difficult, but it took more time. We skirted the edge of the clearing, skipping from tree to tree, keeping an eye out for more men on guard, but it seemed there was only one. We snuck past him with no problems and continued further into the trees, until we came up against a steep incline off to our left.
When we heard muffled voices up ahead, we got down and crept forward on our hands and knees, crawling through the snow. A thick, snow-covered log blocked our path, so we stopped there and carefully peeked out from behind it.
Another clearing was up ahead, at the base of a steep rock formation that stretched back for a ways and then swerved to the right, creating a dead end of sorts. The rock face flattened out about sixty feet up and then rose again to form the base of the nearest mountain. And at the base of this mountain was our destination.
There were about fifteen men standing around or milling about, all of them dressed in leathers and wolf-skin cloaks and jackets. Some of them had their hoods down, revealing faces that were certainly not Nord, although that hardly surprised us. There were a few campsites in place, with some benches and low tables, but no campfires were burning. We could also see some stacked crates and a few wagons.
We had found their hideout.