Chronicles of Arborell, Copyright Wayne Densley 2008 All Rights Reserved
Two days had passed since Mallen and Gremorgan had left the killing fields of the Surgis'Ka and the pace set by the Hresh had proven relentless. Without falter or respite the warband had maintained its path westwards, enduring storms and driving rain as it pressed on across the open grasslands.
Since leaving the battleground Mallen had kept focused to the trail left by the running creatures, and he had seen no sign of any lessening of their pace. He was a Metalsmith but he had surprised even himself with the keen edge that his old tracking skills had returned to him. In this endeavour tracking the Hordim had been left to the young Kalborean. Gremorgan had ceded that responsibility to his younger companion, and had instead kept a close watch on the surrounding terrain as they had moved into the west. Following the Hresh had not proven an easy task however. Although the running Hresh had taken no opportunity to cover their tracks the weather had conspired to do everything in its power to obliterate them for the Hordim. Rain had beset the plains and under its constant barrage the sign left by their quarry had become indistinct. On more than one occasion the trail had been lost and it was only skill, and a small amount of luck, that had brought them back to it.
Through veils of drizzle and mist the two had continued their pursuit, keeping to the sodden remains of the trails left by the Hordim. Without knowing how far ahead the Hresh warband might have travelled Mallen could not stop, or rest until he had some further, clear sign that his brother was alive. It was a mission that consumed his thoughts and energy.
Their determined pursuit had left no mystery as to the objective of the Hordim. Since leaving the carnage of the battleground the Hresh had made directly towards the dark line of forest that grew inexorably before them. Within the rain-soaked world that had been theirs for these past days it had been the one constant, and always it had spread before them, until now it could be recognised as the first vestiges of a thick treeline.
The Hordim had not stopped for rest, and as the suns set dimly on the second day of their chase Mallen and Gremorgan had no choice but to break their pursuit and take sleep. It was the LoreMaster who brought them to a halt.
"That is enough Master Cael. I fear the injury I sustained during the Treachersa requires further tending. We must rest and then rejoin the chase at first light."
Mallen agreed, his legs felt as if they were made of stone, his clothes and equipment sodden and heavy. He knew that he also could go no further.
"What is it that spurs them on so?" he gasped as he bent to the ground, his breath laboured by the exertion.
Gremorgan looked into the west and pulled his packs from his shoulders. "They are making for a remnant of the Old Forest known as the Meshaal. I believe it is in their minds that if they can reach the sanctuary of its deep timbers that they shall find an easy path northwards to the Black Hills. Their haste is understandable. There has been a great battle and they do not wish their part in it to be uncovered. In truth there is little chance that anyone will discover that these Hresh are fleeing the battle, but with news of it spreading through Kalborea there will be many scouts on patrol. The forest ahead provides them with an opportunity to rest and then pass unnoticed to the north."
Mallen saw a glimmer of opportunity in the Dwarvendim's words. "Do you think they shall take the time to rest and remain hidden in the forests?"
Gremorgan nodded and reached into his tunic pocket. "The Hresh are potent warriors but they are not indefatigable. Remember Master Cael, the exertions of their journey began long before the attack on Callenfrey. It must have taken weeks of hard travel to make it to the forest that bordered your home, and they have been on the run ever since. They have been on the move far longer than any man could sustain, and it did surprise me that they did not take the time to recover their strength within the domain of the Hra'gora. The Forest of Meshaal is their next best opportunity. If they do then we should be able to catch them up."
For Mallen it was a slight hope at the end of a long day, and he relaxed in the knowledge that they might not be running a losing race after all. With that hope in mind he turned his attention to the practical necessities of life in the wilds. Food and shelter from the incessant misting drizzle were his first priorities, a need for sleep his next concern, but it was a concern that required a suitable shelter if they were to get any rest at all. Looking about in the gathering dusk he could see nothing, however it was Gremorgan who provided the answer. From his pockets the Dwarvendim pulled the small Dirge-compass that had found them cover from the Treachersa, and with the night growing about them looked into its strange incandescent face. It did not take long for the device to spy out a ruin to the south-west. Gremorgan seemed quite amused by what he had found.
"It would seem my young friend, that we will be the guests of the Hordim this night. And I believe we will be thankful for their thoughtfulness."
Mallen did not understand what Gremorgan meant but he shouldered his pack and followed the huge man into the gloom. It took less than a half hour to find the object of Gremorgan's search, and at first it appeared that they had discovered nothing more than a nondescript bulge in the earth.
"What is this we have found?" Mallen asked.
Gremorgan answered as he searched its perimeter. He was looking for something.
"In the languages of the Hordim this is known as a tpesh. It is nothing more than a stone hut, shaped as a high dome, but so old that the high grasses of the plain have grown over its surface and returned it to obscurity. In times long before the advent of Men in this world these shelters were common property, sanctuaries that any Oera'dim could use when confronted by the ravages of weather or beast. Without the Dirge-compass we might have passed dozens of these and not even known they were here."
While Gremorgan talked Mallen had to stand back for a moment and think on what the LoreMaster was saying. He had played on these innocuous mounds as a child, and had seen them upon all his travels along the eastern coasts of Kalborea. Never once had he considered them anything other than a peculiarity of the terrain, and as he watched his friend stooping upon the southern side of the mound he found himself undertaking a strangely unnerving shift in his understanding of his world.
"Bothers you, doesn't it?" Gremorgan opined as he tugged at a long section of grass.
Mallen could not help but agree. "I spent some of the happiest times of my youth playing upon mounds such as these. I had no idea that they were Hordim-made. In truth it leaves me somewhat perplexed. I cannot count the number of times such a shelter could have saved myself, and my brother, from the long cold nights of our travels."
Gremorgan nodded and returned to his task of removing earth from the base of the tpesh.
"It is a truth Master Cael that our brethren have chosen to forget the history of these lands, and disregard the ruination we have brought to the works of our great enemy. For tonight however, we shall return this crumbling shelter to its original purpose and with its resurrection seek a respite from the rain."
With that the Dwarvendim pulled aside a wide mat of vegetation and earth and found what he was looking for. It was an entrance, a dark hole in the side of the dome that beckoned as an escape from the relentless rain.
Gremorgan disappeared inside first, and then called for Mallen to follow. What he found was unexpected. The inside of the tpesh was completely dark, its walls matted with the tendrils of grass roots and crumbling from centuries of neglect, but beyond the narrow entranceway the tpesh opened into a space some six metres in diameter and a full metre below ground level. At its highest point the domed roof extended some two and a half metres above the stone floor, its entire circumference bordered by narrow platforms that he could only assume where provided for sleeping or the stowage of equipment. At the centre of the structure was a shallow fire pit, and it was here that Gremorgan busied himself with the task of coaxing a small fire to life. After the blanketing rains that they had been forced to endure the shelter was a welcome relief, one that Mallen had only wished he had known about in his younger days. It was dark and smelled of decay and wet earth but its stone floor was dry, and that was good enough for him.
Quickly the Dwarvendim brought his fire into existence and within minutes it was warm enough within the stone hut to begin the slow process of drying clothes and putting together a meal. Gremorgan seemed well pleased with himself.
"You know Mallen, it has been many years since I have spent time within one of these shelters. It may not look like much but there are few places in Arborell that provide safer respite from the tempests of our world. Can you imagine the number of Hordim that must have spent long nights within these walls, watching through the entrance as a storm tore up the ground about them. I can only wonder at what they might have said, or thought as they did so."
Mallen did not answer. He found it difficult to concede that the Hordim could be anything other than the ruthless creatures that had taken his brother and destroyed his home. But he had seen things on his journey to recover Tomas that had left him wondering about all the things he had thought certain about his world. He knew in his heart that he was not the same man who had left Callenfrey, and no matter what his prejudices he knew also that the Hordim he had been tracking were not mindless monsters. To a certain point he found himself wishing that they were. A ruthless enemy was so much more dangerous when possessed with cunning and determination.
Deep in thought Mallen became lost in memories of what had happened to him since leaving Callenfrey, and it was with no small surprise that he found himself being handed a bowl of steaming stew. Gremorgan had been busy, the rich smell of the meal bringing him back to the immediate concerns of their journey. In the light of the flickering fire Mallen searched his pack for a piece of his remaining Nahla bread. There was little enough of it left and although the Dwarvendim had said nothing Mallen knew that the additional food brought by Gremorgan would be running low as well. If they were to remain in pursuit the Hresh they would need to hunt, and Mallen did not relish the delays that would entail.
In the flickering light of their fire the two men ate in silence and then set to the task of re-bandaging Gremorgan's shoulder wound. The powders he had used to seal the torn flesh had done their work well, but new bandages were needed to keep the straps of his heavy shoulder packs from reopening the wounds. In the comfort of the tpesh it was a job quickly completed. Outside the weather grew more ominous. Beyond the heavy blanket of overcast another storm had grown in the north-west, and even as Mallen rolled out his bedding and organised his equipment for the morning he could hear the rising wind, and the first rumbles of an advancing stormfront. Within the tpesh however, he was warm and dry, and with the blustering gales as a backdrop fell into sleep.
It was in the hour before dawn that Mallen felt the large hand of Gremorgan shaking him awake. The tpesh was completely dark, their small fire no more than smouldering ash within the fire pit, but through the entrance he could see the first signs of light brightening the horizon. Gremorgan did not let him speak. Instead he placed his finger to his lips and then whispered into the young Kalborean's ear.
"It is time to awaken Master Cael, but before we can begin breakfast I must show you something, and it will require absolute quiet to do so."
Mallen rubbed the sleep from his eyes and pulled his legs from his bedding. Gremorgan was already on his way to the entrance to the tpesh and motioned for Mallen to follow. Intrigued he pulled on his boots and made also for the narrow opening.
"What is it?" he whispered.
Gremorgan placed his finger to his lips with a greater urgency and pointed out onto the grasslands beyond. In the blue-tinged twilight of the early morning it took a moment for Mallen to see what the Dwarvendim was pointing at. Against the dim horizon there was something different about the landscape. It was an indistinct undulation in the otherwise flat ground of the plain that seemed as out of place as the tpesh itself. He was sure that it had not been there upon their arrival at the shelter the evening before. As Mallen focused more carefully upon the strange form he became more accustomed to the gloom, and it was only then that he could see the vague shadow was moving slightly. It was not an unnoticed moulding in the terrain, it was a beast of some type, and it was massive.
Again Mallen turned to Gremorgan and whispered the same question. "What is it?"
The Dwarvendim moved to Mallen's side and answered him.
"Such a beast has many names Master Cael. In the language of the Elder Tongue the creature you see is an orn'qirion. In all the dialects of the Hordim the creature is known as a gael'qirion, or Windhammer. To us it is a Dragon, and I can tell you for a fact Master Cael that there are few men who will ever be this close to one and live to tell about it."
Mallen pulled away from the entrance and took up a position out of sight of the beast.
"A Dragon? Such creatures have only been encountered in the great mountains of the far west and north. By what circumstances could there be one this far to the east?"
Gremorgan scratched at his face and motioned for Mallen to return to the narrow entrance. He would not answer until the Kalborean was close.
"This Dragon is fully matured and a beast of its size requires a huge amount of food to survive. I can only think that with the onset of the cooler season that the serpent's normal food, the Sempaca and Yunta herds of the west, have moved out of its hunting range. To be here it must have been drawn by the carnage of the battle, and has decided that the journey is worth the easy feast that it might find there."
As Gremorgan spoke Mallen saw the first identifiable movement of the creature. Silhouetted against the horizon the Dragon raised its head and sniffed at the air. In the gathering light Mallen could clearly see the extension of its long neck, and the definition of a line of sharp scaled ridges that ran down its back. He could not yet see its wings, but there was little doubt that the creature was huge. From within the low rush of a growing wind he could hear the beast breathing, each of its breathes a powerful expulsion of air that sounded to Mallen almost identical to a blacksmith's bellows.
It was the head of the Dragon however, that left the young Kalborean cold. Two long horns extended back from its head, a counter-balance to a skull heavy with razor-sharp teeth, and a set of protruding incisors that looked as if each was a metre long. He tried to gauge the length of the beast but most of it still resided out of his view. From the entrance of the tpesh there was little of the beast that could be seen and he was not game enough to try and get a better look. Somewhere out in the darkness he could hear it sniffing the air once again.
"What is it doing Gremorgan?" Mallen asked, the first hint of real fear edging his voice.
The LoreMaster pulled his companion back from the entrance and found a position against the far wall of the shelter.
"Our friend out there knows we are somewhere in the vicinity. He can smell us, but he cannot find us. It is believed that serpents such as these sense their prey by body heat, and it is not for nothing that the Hordim built their shelters in stone. For the beast the plains appear as an unbroken sea of grass, and this shelter nothing but a bump in its wide expanse. We can be thankful that the enemy knew what they were doing in building these tpesh. Otherwise I fear that we might have been the beast's morning meal and had little say on the manner of our demise."
Gremorgan did not speak for a short time and then turned again to Mallen. "To encounter a Dragon on the ground is an uncommon thing, and I can only believe that it has been forced to ground because of the weather; probably in the storm last night. If we are lucky the weather will improve and the Dragon will return to flight. It will be best that we do nothing until it has moved on."
Mallen could not agree more. Together the two men sat in the cold confines of the tpesh and waited for the Dragon to continue its journey into the east. There was little that they could do but sit in the dark and listen to the creature as it moved upon the grasslands outside. Within the tpesh Gremorgan remained quiet, his countenance immobile and patient. Mallen however, felt every passing minute keenly for he knew that every minute lost was one that allowed their quarry to move further from their reach. It was a delay that weighed heavily upon him.
In the hour after sunsrise Mallen heard the first welcome signs of the Dragon's departure. Against the rush of the wind Mallen could hear a great movement only a short distance from their shelter. Both men looked at each other as the creature rose to its feet and Mallen did not need to see the Dragon to feel the tremors of its footfalls as it made ready to depart. Within their shelter the Kalborean waited, in his mind the hope that the beast would not accidentally step on the tpesh and crush them all. What came however, was a piercing screech and three deep, snorting bellows that swept across the plain outside and echoed painfully within the stone confines of the shelter. It was only then that the Dragon rose into the air and head eastwards. Quickly Mallen moved back to the entrance and for a moment saw the blurred shadow of wings pass over the tpesh. Before he could get into a better position the Dragon was gone.
It was then that Gremorgan pulled Mallen from the entrance and back into the darkness of the tpesh.
"Have you not heard the old proverbs on the dangers of too much curiosity? The Dragon may be gone but we will not be able to move on until we can be sure that it is well on its way. From altitude the beast can see for many leagues and it knows it has missed something here. It may be best that we take this opportunity to eat and make sure our gear is fit for travel. I have the feeling that it is going to be a long day."
For a short time the men ate and then worked upon their weapons and clothing. All the work that should have been completed in the early hours of the morning remained to be done. The remaining clothes from their packs had to be aired, their weapons properly oiled and inspected. It was tedious, time-consuming work, but it was essential to their ability to continue their pursuit. They could only spend so much time on such activities however, and with the sky clearing Gremorgan indicated it was time to make for the trail once again. The Kalborean did not require any urging to leave the confines of their shelter.
Carefully Mallen crawled out of the tpesh and straightened his back. The sky had indeed changed for the best, the persistent clouds of the past days having passed southwards. In the bright light of day he was ready to return to the chase. To his consternation he found Gremorgan was not.
Instead the LoreMaster made for where the Dragon had spent the night and Mallen followed, curious as to his intent. What they found was a wide area of grasses flattened by the weight of the beast and a series of deep scours in the ground where it had dragged its claws in the darkness.
"See here," Gremorgan declared as he pointed at the gouges in the earth. "This Dragon was indeed a monster. It must have been eighty metres in length at least, with a wingspan just as great. One can only wonder at how old it must be."
Mallen was impressed with the beast's size but he was impatient to return to the trail.
"This is all very well Gremorgan, but we should return to our journey. Is it not proper that we leave here?"
Gremorgan smiled and took the Gatheringstone from his pocket. It was not idle curiosity that had brought him to where he now stood.
"We will return shortly Master Cael, but first I believe we should see what this beast has seen in the past days. From its lofty vantage we may find clues that will help us greatly."
The Dwarvendim motioned for Mallen to stand beside him and once again the air about the two men became charged with energy. As had happened as they stood before the carnage of the battle of the Surgis'Ka the chants of the LoreMaster brought a thickening mist, and out of those vapours came memories and images that flooded into the mind of the young Kalborean. These memories were very different from the frustration and violence of the battle however, and they held a terrifying power that gripped Mallen's thoughts as if they were held in a vice.
Out of the mists came images and emotions, primal instincts that raged within Mallen's thoughts. Within a heartbeat he was the Dragon, gliding high over the vast mountain ranges of the western world, searching out prey, delivering a quick lethal end to any creature unlucky enough to fall within its gaze. Mallen found himself descending swiftly into the brooding malevolence of a predator on the hunt, feeling keenly the freedom of a creature with no concerns but the acquisition of its next kill. And it was within that base motivation that he felt the hunger growing within him. From somewhere unseen there came the hint of death on the air, and a relentless pull to feed that sent the beast winging eastwards from its mountain home. Quickly the great plains of the west were speeding away beneath its great wings and always the beast searched the ground, looking for that next morsel that might satiate a growing hunger.
It was as Mallen fell deeper into the thoughts of the beast that he began to sense a strange compulsion within the animal. It was driven by hunger and the need to survive, but there was something else there as well, an overwhelming need that fought constantly with the Dragon's animal instincts. As first he could not determine what it was, but then a new roil of images made sense of the internal battle the serpent was fighting. This beast was no simple creature. It had a hunger that needed to be satisfied, and an overwhelming compulsion to find and acquire gold. For Mallen it seemed that he must be reading the beast's memories incorrectly as he could not see how such a monstrous creature might be drawn to such a strange obsession. But as quickly as he found these memories he was once again swept up in the power of the beast's emotions as a torrent of new memories arose through the mists.
It was within these images that Mallen saw the encroaching weather and a thick blanket of cloud that smothered the ground, turning the land beneath the Dragon's flight into a moving panorama of grey mists and towering white-capped stormclouds. Between these clouds the Dragon kept up its advance, the smell of death growing all the more powerful as it dodged the storms, but soon enough it could go no further. Its first landfall came upon the far side of the forests of Meshaal, however it could not linger there. Hunger now grew in its consciousness like a physical stab in its side and soon enough it rose again to head eastwards. With a break in the clouds the information looked for by Gremorgan came into their knowledge. Between lines of advancing cloud the Dragon spied a line of creatures running for the edges of the forest. Immediately it turned towards them but lost their indistinct forms as the weather once again closed in, forcing the beast more to the south, and eventually to ground only a short distance from their small shelter.
In the Dragon's mind Mallen could sense the presence of something close, but there was confusion and frustration. It could find nothing yet it could smell the odours of ash and sweat, sure signs of a meal close at hand. The last memories of the beast was the overpowering smell of death on the wind and the nagging ache of its hunger. Then the memories faded and were gone.
"We have been fortunate Master Cael." The LoreMaster said as he pocketed his device and pointed into the west.
"The Dragon spied our quarry entering the forest no less than a day ago. It would seem that they were not as far ahead of us as we had thought. The trail should still be fresh."
Mallen took in what the Dwarvendim said but he was still trying to clear the Dragon's memories from his mind. He was not sure he could ever get used to the insight Gremorgan's Gatheringstone could provide. The experience had left him with questions though, and one thing in particular he needed to ask.
"Gremorgan, within the memories of the beast I found a strange compulsion for gold. It was like a drug to the creature and I cannot fathom its need for it."
"Aye, it is a strange thing and no doubt the answer will seem stranger." The Dwarvendim paused for a moment as he considered his reply and then turned back towards the tpesh.
"It may seem surprising but nobody really knows if Dragons are products of the natural world, or created beings like the Hordim, manufactured by the Ancients to be used as weapons of war against their enemies. What is known is that regardless of their origin the Trell did try to bend them to their will, their intention to change the course of a war that was going very badly for them indeed. The mythologies of the Hordim tell clearly of the disasters that ensued from rampaging Dragons destroying friend and foe alike, but the Trell were nothing if not persistent, and in their madness found a way to control the creatures and turn them to their own purposes."
"They could not remove the natural aggression of the beasts as that would make them useless as weapons of war. Instead they planted in the minds of their Dragons an addiction to gold in all its forms. The Dragons could not find the metal for themselves and therefore became reliant on the Trell to feed their new addiction. With this compulsion in place they found the beasts under their command compliant, but in their haste they had made a fatal error. Like all addictions the need for gold had to be met, and there came a time when there was not enough of the metal in all the realms of the Ancients to support the Dragons' desire for it. Before they could use their new weapons to any advantage the Trell found themselves under siege, and were forced to destroy them all."
"As would prove to be the case the ancient Trell were not as thorough as they were persistent. A number of the Dragons escaped and even to this day that compulsion for gold lingers. But the dabblings of the Trell have also led to some very unusual side-effects that have had consequences even in the nations of Men today."
Mallen looked at his companion and waited for him to explain. Gremorgan seemed to be enjoying the interest of his captive audience.
"What the Trell did not realise was that by instilling the compulsion for gold into their Dragons they had inadvertently tied the life-cycle and attributes of the metal to the creature as well. Dragons do not die naturally. Accident and misfortune may bring them down, but they do not age beyond maturity and in theory can live as long as the world itself. You will find that the Trell never gave much thought to the longevity of their creations and it has been a lack of foresight that has meant that these winged creatures are still a part of our world even now."
Gremorgan picked up his packs and began placing them carefully about his shoulders. As he did so he looked out into the west, his eyes searching the plains ahead for any sign of trouble.
"Do you know Mallen that a Dragon can sustain itself indefinitely if the need requires it with nothing more than the gold within its nest and small amounts of burnt wood? How this is so I cannot say, but I do know that a Dragon forced to do so can be driven mad by the hunger pangs it must endure. It seems reasonable to assume that a beast in such a state would need to be avoided at all costs."
"And what of the consequences to the Four Nations? How has this experimentation affected us?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan smiled and took a single silver coin out of his tunic pocket. "Have you ever wondered why it is that our coinage is all silver; that we do not adorn ourselves, or make ornamentation from the precious gold that can be found in abundance throughout Arborell? I will tell you that it is because to do so would make one a target of every Dragon within range. It is said that a Dragon can sense an ounce of gold at more than one hundred leagues. Not a happy prospect for anyone carrying coin on the road eh?"
Mallen could see the logic of it. The Dragon he had shared memories with had been nothing less than a force of nature, unstoppable and absolutely determined to have what it most desired. He could not say why but an image flooded his mind of a family in their home, running for their lives as a Dragon tore the roof and walls apart in its attempt to make its own a small piece of gold jewelry. As quickly as it came the image dissolved into nothing and he found himself having to catch up with Gremorgan. The Dwarvendim had already covered more than fifty metres from the tpesh and Mallen hurried after him.
"It is to the Forest of Meshaal that we must now go Mallen." Gremorgan declared as the Kalborean made his side. "The Dragon's memories are clear and if we are lucky the Hresh will spend time within the forest before moving on. I can think of no better place to recover your brother than in the confines of the forest. The advantages the Hresh wish to find within the gloom of the trees will help us just as well. But we must hurry. We have spent enough time in the company of Dragons."
The remainder of the morning passed quickly. From the tpesh the two companions tracked to the north-west until they intersected with the trail of the Hordim once again, and then followed the tracks westwards. As they expected the trail did not veer from its westerly advance. The Hresh were making directly for the forest ahead, and judging by the depth of the footfalls they were doing it at the run.
With Gremorgan at his shoulder Mallen kept to the trail, following the sign left by the Hordim as they ran towards the dark line of trees. After the heavy rain of the night most of the tracks were indistinct, but Mallen had enough to follow to keep a brisk pace. He could feel his brother somewhere in the forests ahead and it pushed him forward all the faster. At midday he came to a sudden stop. The tracks had changed. Amongst the more indistinct footprints of the Hresh he could now see the clear impressions of two much larger creatures.
"Gremorgan!" he called to the Dwarvendim, but he found him standing about twenty metres to the right of the trail. He was also looking at the wet earth. When he heard Mallen's call he waved for him to come over.
"What have you found?" Mallen asked as he reached the Dwarvendim's position. Gremorgan pointed to the ground and there lay clear impressions of the same bootprints. As well however, Mallen could see a clear track leading from the north and then its intersection with the Hresh. Gremorgan did not look happy.
"These are Jotun Master Cael. It looks like they travelled from the north until they found the trail of the Hresh and then have begun to follow them as well. It would seem that the Hresh have more pursuing them now than just two men of the Four Nations."
Mallen bent and checked the depth of the prints and the state of the ground. Judging by the lengths of the strides he guessed the Jotun must be at least three to four metres tall.
"These Jotun have found the trail only in the last few hours, and they have set off after the warband without delay. Do you think they were sent by the Jotun of the West to retrieve the Warband's prisoners?"
Gremorgan looked out towards the forests and shook his head. "These cannot be Jotun of the West. Within the tribal hierarchy of their peoples they are outcasts, unable to travel except within their own far western domains. It has always been my thought that the Hresh would have to deliver their prisoners directly to their co-conspirators and it remains so. I believe these Jotun are a much more dangerous adversary; assassins sent by the Mutan themselves to find the Hresh and test their loyalty to the Clavern'sigh."
"What will they do when they catch them?" asked Mallen.
"I am afraid," replied Gremorgan, "that the actions of the Hresh have shown clearly to these assassins that they hold no fealty to the commands of the Mutan. When they find them they will kill them all, and then for good measure kill all their prisoners as well. They will leave nothing alive to give witness to any disloyalty to their masters."
Mallen stood aghast. "Then we must stop them. Find some way to bring them down."
The LoreMaster shook his head. "I will tell you truthfully Master Cael that it is very difficult to overestimate the power of the Jotun, even if they number but two. Believe me when I say that it is well within their capability to kill all of the Hresh, and make quick work of the task as well. This new twist requires unfortunately, that we trust in the cunning and intelligence of the crue leader that commands the Denmar Hresh. He has shown remarkable ability, and we can only hope that he has a plan for such a contingency as this."
"What must we do then?" asked Mallen. "Do we just follow the tracks and hope that everything just works itself out?"
Gremorgan could see his companion's anxiety but he had nothing better to offer. "It grieves me to say it but we have no other course of action. Providence has given us all that we have needed on this journey so far. I can see no reason to think that we shall be forsaken now."
With that Gremorgan turned back to the trail and called for Mallen to follow. The Kalborean knew he had no choice. The pursuit had just become all the more dangerous and they could do nothing more than keep to the chase. With Gremorgan keeping a keen eye on the land ahead Mallen took once again to the trail, his only consolation that the Jotun made no effort to conceal their tracks. It was indeed going to be a long day.
Mid-afternoon found the two men no more than a league from the edges of the Forest of Meshaal. Against the western horizon it was a thick line of dark woodland that extended as far as the eye could see to the north and south. The tracks had not deviated, and Mallen had found no sign of any of the Warband or Jotun breaking away from that heading. The Jotun were fast however, their strides immensely long as they chased down the running Hresh. In his mind Mallen could not see how they might counter this new threat. Gremorgan had told him a lot about the nature of the Hordim, and especially of the Hresh and Jotun. These were creatures created with intelligence and power, every bit as dangerous as the campfire stories he had heard as a boy. He did not relish the idea of being caught up in the tangled web that was proving to be the politics of the Horde. In the end however, it was a concern that quickly found its own solution.
The Men ran on, following the trail as they raced towards the forests. It was Gremorgan who pulled them to a halt.
"Master Cael," he whispered. "Do you see the disturbance in the ground ahead?"
Mallen had been focused on the trail and when he looked up he could see clearly what looked like spear shafts protruding from the plain some forty metres ahead. The Kalborean nodded to his companion and knelt down in the grasses. Gremorgan did not look happy.
"I think my friend that we had better keep our weapons handy. This smells too much like an ambush."
Mallen nodded again and peered through the grass at the oddly placed spears. "How should we approach this? There could be Hresh all through the grasses."
Gremorgan scratched at his shoulder wound and considered the lay of the land. A wind had grown quickly from the north and there was the smell of blood on the air. "It seems to me that we may have arrived too late for the party. If the Hresh are lurking in the grass they would have been all over us by now, and we would be in no doubt of their existence. The fact that they haven't gives me pause to consider another possibility."
"And what might that be?" asked Mallen.
"That the ambush was not meant for us. Keep close to my left shoulder Mallen, and keep your eyes on everything at our back."
With that the Dwarvendim took a firm grip on his axe and slowly stood. Mallen followed, drawing his sword as Gremorgan moved carefully towards the standing spears. With a gusting breeze swirling the grass about them they crept forward, all senses alert to any sign that danger may lay in wait for them. No attack came, but what they found gave both men cause to take a backward step.
In a wide area of flattened grasses lay the mutilated bodies of two Jotun and four Hresh. The Jotun lay as ragged giants on the ground, their bodies pierced and bloodied by six cavalry lances. Mallen had never seen a Jotun before and he could not help but hesitate at the size of the creatures. Each of the Jotun were at least half as tall again as Gremorgan, and twice the size of himself. Clad in dark battle-armour they lay in pools of blood, their ochre skin emblazoned with tattoos, their heads shaved except for a single tail of platted white hair that reached for a metre at their backs. Close by each body lay a huge warhammer, with hafts longer than Mallen's entire body and fitted with ornately carved metal heads. Even in death they seemed indomitable but dead they were, and somehow the Hresh had killed them.
About the Jotun were strewn the crushed forms of four of the warband, and all showed the signs of a brutal struggle. Amongst the carnage lay weapons and equipment, but there was a story to be told here and Mallen could see it clearly laid out in the patterns of tracks and torn grasses.
"What do you see here Master Cael?" asked Gremorgan. He could see that Mallen had quickly overcome his horror of the scene and had begun to draw together a picture of what had happened.
Mallen walked about the small battleground and talked as he went. "The two Jotun were running from our direction. Two of the Hresh were hiding in the grass on either side of the tracks left by the Warband. They must have had the spears in hand waiting for these giants to bear down upon them. At the run the Jotun could not have been keeping a close eye on the surrounding terrain and the Hresh took advantage of that, pulling their spears up from the grasses and allowing the first Jotun to run onto them. Impaled, that creature fell dead, but the second was slightly behind and brought his weapon down onto the nearest Hresh here." He pointed to the crushed body of the Hresh at the edge of the battleground.
"The other Hresh tried to defend itself with its scimitar as it retreated to the centre of the grasses where it was killed as well. It was only then that the other Hresh sprang from the surrounding grasses with their spears and drove the Jotun to the ground. Judging by the state of the body it looks like they had to strike it more than a dozen times before it fell. Two more Hresh were killed in that fight and the remainder then fell back towards the west, leaving these remains here."
Gremorgan nodded his head and began searching the bags of the Jotun. From one of the giants he took a collection of paper-wrapped parcels and placed them in his own backpack. Then he pulled the nearest Jotun onto its back revealing a blood-soaked tunic and breastplate.
"These Jotun are no ordinary assassins. See these markings on their battle-armour, the three silver tear-drops that emblazon their left breastplates? These are Jotun of the Mutan's personal guard. To be out here in the wilds of an enemy's territory makes me wonder on the importance of their mission."
For a moment the Dwarvendim regarded the scene then turned again to Mallen.
"Do you notice anything that strikes you as particularly out of place here?"
Mallen scanned the area of flattened, torn grasses and shrugged his shoulders. "It is what it is Gremorgan. I can see nothing that should not be here."
The LoreMaster walked to the nearest Jotun and pulled one of the spears from its body.
"There is more to this story Master Cael than that which we see displayed within this grisly scene. The Jotun are dead and we can argue that this has lessened the difficulty of our quest. But there are questions here that make me think carefully on the nature of the Hresh we pursue."
Gremorgan pointed at the Jotun and continued. "We know how the Jotun died, but we do not know for certain why they were here. At first I thought they were assassins intent on doing the bidding of their masters, but these creatures were not assassins. If anything they were more likely messengers, sent to ascertain the success or otherwise of the Warband's mission. We can conjecture that they were killed purely because the Denmar Hresh cannot afford any witnesses to what they are doing. What we see here tells us much about what has happened. It is this however, that tells me most about what we are to face in the future."
The Dwarvendim balanced the spear in his hand and looked at Mallen questioningly. "Do you recognise it?"
Mallen looked at the bloodied weapon and shook his head. It was familiar to him but he could not place it. Gremorgan did not wait for his companion to answer.
"It is a cavalry lance Mallen, razor-sharp, and fitted with an extended haft that allows a long reach when on horseback. We saw hundreds of them scattered over the battlefield at the Surgis'Ka, and in his cunning the commander of the Warband we are pursuing deemed it important to take a number with him. You see, the only weapon that has proven effective against the power and reach of a Jotun's warhammer is the lance. A Hresh needing to defend itself against a Jotun with a hammer is completely outmatched if it must rely on its scimitar alone. The ambush we have stumbled upon had been planned and executed with a ruthless efficiency. The Jotun did not stand a chance and we must learn from what we see here."
For a moment Gremorgan was silent, his thoughts lost to the winds as he considered the dead Hordim. When he spoke again it was with a softer edge to his voice.
"This Hresh plans for every contingency, his warriors absolutely obedient to his orders. If we are to recover your brother we will have to match his wit with a surprise or two of our own. Something perhaps that he could not make provision for. For now however, we must return to our task. Keep to the trail Mallen. I will maintain a closer eye on our surrounds. We do not wish to suffer the same fate as these Jotun."
With that he tapped Mallen on the shoulder and pointed into the west. The Kalborean immediately returned to the tracks and their pursuit of the warband began again in earnest.
In the dimming light of the afternoon Mallen and Gremorgan ran along the narrow trail left by the fleeing Hresh. No longer were the tracks of the Hordim spread upon the plain, instead the warband had tightened its formation, running in a single file that left a clearly defined line of trampled ground. For Mallen it was a simple task to follow, one that did not require skill or knowledge to maintain. And with the tracks so evident he began to find his mind wandering as he ran, his thoughts concentrating on what they might do if they found Tomas alive. Gremorgan's words had stayed with him, and left him wondering what they could actually do to rescue his brother. The twists and turns taken by the Denmar Hresh in their efforts to achieve their goal had so far left himself and Gremorgan as little more than bystanders. For all their efforts they had been unable to do anything but pursue them, and in that pursuit discover the violent aftermath of their determination to succeed. Not for the first time on his journey did Mallen fear that he might not meet the challenge of his quest. He was thankful though, for the companionship of the LoreMaster. Mallen knew that it was only with the Dwarvendim had he had any chance at all of finding his brother.
The rest of the afternoon slipped away, the chase a test of endurance as the great forest loomed before them. As they drew closer Mallen began to see the first indications of the scale of the woodland that would soon confront them. There was no easy transition from grassland to forest, no scattered copses of trees that would herald the forest to come. Ahead there was only a sharp division between the light of the plain and the trees themselves. The forest of Meshaal was a deep, brooding wall of branch and leaf that dissolved within its own shadows into an encompassing gloom of dark timber and thick undergrowth. It appeared neither beckoning nor safe. Everything about it shouted danger.
Such was Mallen's thoughts as he raced towards the forest, his mind a turmoil of competing questions and doubts. It was Gremorgan who pulled him to a halt and pointed at the tracks ahead.
"Look Mallen. What do you make of this?"
For a moment the Kalborean could not see what Gremorgan was pointing at. Ahead lay the tracks of the Hordim, their impressions stamped into the wet grassland. It was only as he looked at the nearest bootprint with more focus that he saw a second print, vague but discernible, within the larger. It was human.
Mallen's heart jumped in his chest. Quickly he knelt beside the track and tested it more closely. It had been pressed into the other track no more than a few hours after the larger Hordim print and judging by its condition, certainly after the rains of the previous night. Gremorgan asked the question that now consumed his companion's thoughts.
"Is it Tomas' print?"
Mallen shook his head. "I cannot tell. The size is right but I need to find the left boot to be sure."
Mallen knew what he must look for, a mark distinct upon all the boots and shoes worn by the Cael brothers. It was an unusual mark left by the bellows they used to heat the fires of their metalshop, and all their footwear had suffered the same damage. If he could find an impression of a left boot he would be sure.
"Look along the trail for a left-hand print. If one can be found I will know that this is indeed Tomas."
Gremorgan nodded and set to the task. Some forty metres back along the trail he found what they were looking for. Mallen ran to his side and fell onto his knees. Sure enough it was an impression of a left boot and across its heel was a clearly defined wear mark. In the shock of its recognition he remained speechless until he regained his feet. There were more questions here than he had answers for.
"How can this be? How is it that my brother should be free upon the plains and following the Hordim? Has he not the brains to get away and save himself?"
Anger grew within the Kalborean, but it was not an anger born of malice. His brother was free of his captivity but had not availed himself of that freedom. For some reason he was doing the exact opposite of what sense would dictate. It was so much like him.
"Do not be too harsh on your brother Mallen. I fear that he is as stubborn, and determined, as yourself. By some act of Providence he has been able to free himself of captivity, and for his own reasons has chosen to follow the Warband instead of saving himself. I am sure that you know the reason why."
Mallen looked at Gremorgan and nodded. "Shemwe. It can be the only reason. Madame Sandofel told me that he had gone in search of her daughter and I am aware of the depths of his feelings for her." Mallen laughed and pointed back down the trail towards the east.
"I thought our day had become more complicated when we found the Jotun tracks. Now we must deal with a brother who is bent on testing the limits of his luck. Well, it would seem that we must rejoice in his good fortune, and hope that it does not end before we can find him."
Gremorgan balanced the weight of his packs on his shoulders and looked towards the forest. In the light of the late afternoon the sky overhead was a deep blue, but clouds were starting to move in from the north once again. The Dwarvendim breathed deeply, his lungs feeling the chill that the northerly wind was bringing with it. There was the smell of another storm in the air and it was time they moved on.
"I believe we should start again." he said as he pulled his belt tight. "It will be good if we can make the trees by nightfall. Within their shadows we will find shelter from the worst of the coming storm."
Mallen looked to the north and then moved off, following the trail as it made for the trees ahead. Now he had far more to think about, and he had the clear sign that his brother was alive, somewhere within the embrace of the forest before them. In the failing light it made him run all the quicker.
It is said in the lands of the NomDruse that a hunter must always be sure of one thing; that he is in fact the hunter and not the prey. It was an old truism that had stuck in Mallen's mind as a young boy and was now one that seemed more than relevant. The two men had made the edges of the forest by nightfall, and in the gloom of a clouding night had been forced to resort to their nightglasses to find their way within the deepening forest. The trees themselves were enormous and in their shadows Mallen could swear that he felt angered eyes upon them as they ran. Too frequently he found himself drawn from his concentration by a swift movement in the vegetation about him only to find nothing there. Although he could give no proof to the idea that something was following them, he felt the attention of a brooding entity settling upon them both. It was a feeling that grew more insistent as they made their way deeper into the forest.
With the Dwarvendim's nightglasses it soon came to pass that Mallen found he could no longer follow the trail. The glasses did not have the acuity needed to search and identity the rapidly diminishing sign of their quarry. Bootprints and other evidence of the Hordim's passing grew quickly indistinct within the thick undergrowth. The wet ground of the plains had disappeared, replaced beneath the canopy by thin animal trails bordered by tangled undergrowth, and a hard-packed earth that gave few clues as to the passing of the Hresh. Upon the firmer ground the trail of the Hordim faltered and then dissipated. With all sign of the warband gone Mallen came to a halt but Gremorgan did not stop.
"Come Mallen. We have relied on your skills for some time, but now it is necessary that we make use of the knowledge I have of our quarry."
Gremorgan said nothing more, but took the lead instead and somehow made his way quickly between the ever-increasing girths of the giant trees that crowded in around them. With Gremorgan intent on the trail, Mallen took up the role of look-out, scanning the trees for any sign of danger, trying to make sense of the curious ruddy tinge that the glasses gave to everything about him. There could be no doubt however, that it was a forest Mallen had seen before.
All about him trees reached upwards, vast trunks that spread high overhead into a thick canopy that blocked any sign of the sky above. In all his travels along the seaboard of Kalborea he had never seen such huge trees, but they were familiar to him nonetheless. Here were the trees upon which the Caer'nar'dorum had been fashioned. About him grew a vast living cathedral of trunk and bough that sat as solidly here as it had in the extraordinary magic of its subterranean reflection. As within the Hall of Whispers the wind blew here, slowly flowing through the canopy, rustling the upper reaches of the trees, and sending a constant rain of broken leaf and twig into the thick undergrowth below. It was a place as quiet, and yet as energetic as the Hall, and like the Hall it had its own imminent dangers. Around him Mallen could sense whispers and movement, and in the darkness felt the gaze of something watching them intently.
For some hours Gremorgan led them both deeper into the Forest of Meshaal. The path he took was a series of interconnecting trails forced through the dense undergrowth, that led them roughly north of west into what the LoreMaster called the Old Forest. By the time they came to rest Mallen could not contain a growing feeling of malice that hung upon the air. It was so oppressive he could almost smell it.
"Gremorgan," he whispered, "I tell you truthfully that I feel eyes upon us here. Can you not sense the affront that our presence causes?"
The LoreMaster took off his nightglasses and smelled the air. It was heavy with a miasma of humus and damp earth.
"It has been some time since Men have come this way. It is a fact that the trees do not suffer trespassers happily Master Cael, but do not fear malice here. If we tread lightly, and move with care, they will leave us alone."
Gremorgan stood for a few more moments. In the darkness Mallen could see that he had not put his nightglasses back on. As he waited the LoreMaster scanned the forest about him. He was looking for something.
"What are you looking for." Mallen whispered in the gloom.
The Dwarvendim pointed towards the west and answered in the same low voice. "See the glow beyond the trees ahead? If we are to find the Hresh that is where we must go."
Gremorgan moved off quickly with Mallen at his back. The Kalborean could barely see a light, almost as dim as moonlight filtered by a heavy mist. It looked like it was only a short distance ahead, but distances within a forest can be deceiving, and it took almost an hour before Gremorgan stopped and took refuge behind the moss-covered trunk of one of the huge trees.
"It is here Master Cael," he said as a whisper, "that we must be most careful."
In the absolute darkness of the forest there was only the barest of lights ahead, but Mallen could see now that its source was close, maybe fifty metres ahead at most. At such a distance he could also here voices.
"What have you brought us to Gremorgan? Tell me quickly so that I might prepare."
The Dwarvendim looked at Mallen and nodded his head. "Not one for surprises are we, eh? Still, this will surprise you nonetheless. The light ahead comes from what the Elder Tongue would call a Taal; a shrine that the Hresh must visit if they are to have safe passage through the forest. It was my hope that we might find the Hresh here and it would seem that my hopes were valid."
Mallen felt his heart begin to race at the mention of the Hresh only a short distance ahead.
"If this is so then we should try and get closer." As he spoke he began to move forward but Gremorgan pulled him back.
"It is very important Master Cael that we do not disturb the Hresh whilst they are at the Taal. Trust me that it would not be a wise action."
Mallen threw off the LoreMaster's heavy grip and faced him. "Why is it so important? Surely this would be the best time to get closer, whilst they are involved in their ritual."
In the darkness Gremorgan's voice became more insistent. "It is not the Hresh I am concerned about. The Hordim can be tracked to the warband without any need for us to move closer just yet. They are our best hope of finding the main body of warriors. It is who they speak with that provides a reason for caution."
The Kalborean slipped back into the gloom of the trees and took cover once again. "What is it that gives you cause for such trepidation?"
Gremorgan found a comfortable crook in one of the many roots that arched out of the ground and sat himself down in front of Mallen.
"At this moment the Hresh who survived the ambush of the Jotun are asking for a safe passage through the forest. The light you see ahead of us comes from a Being known as a Caer'dahl. It is a guardian Mallen, a servant of one of the Three Powers that hold dominion over Arborell. It is not malevolent, but if it senses our presence it will tell the Hordim, for it has much more in common with them than with us."
Mallen looked around the tree and into the dull glow that had grown brighter as they had talked.
"What is their mutual connection? I can only assume that the Caer'dahl is a magical creature and the Hordim are not."
The LoreMaster took a piece of Nahla bread from his pack and settled himself. He did not seem to want to go anywhere in a hurry.
"What you assume Master Cael is incorrect. It is true that the Caer'dahl are entities born of EarthMagic, but do not be too quick to discount the Hordim as anything less. You have seen many things on your quest so far, not the least of which being the Shan'duil itself. In the history of our occupation of these lands only a handful of Men have ever seen the River of Life, and you should be mindful of that privilege. But Mallen, when you surveyed the vastness of the River did you not wonder as to its purpose?"
Mallen shrugged his shoulders. These were questions beyond his understanding of the world and he could not see what it might have to do with his question.
Gremorgan took the Kalborean's silence as his cue to continue.
"You ask about the Caer'dahl and their connection with the Hordim. It is a very long story Master Cael, but it is one you should hear at least a part of before we return to our quest. There is a chance that it will prove useful to you."
"There was once a time when the Shan'duil alone maintained dominion over Arborell. It is, and will always be, the First Power of the world, the arbiter of all things, and the lifeforce from which everything grows and prospers. In the early Ages of the world however, it was a force primal in its motivations and without consciousness, a vast binding flow of EarthMagic that maintained the balance of the world. It did not think nor contemplate its existence. It just was."
"It came to pass however, that in the endless millennia before Men arrived in the world another Power came into being in the form of a vast tree of white wood known as the Silvan Tree. Unlike the Shan'duil it was born of high intelligence, and as its sole purpose took dominion of all the Forests of Arborell. In the world that it created it was Master of the Trees. In all things that related to the forests it was absolute."
"It was the Silvan Tree that created the ancient beings known as the Trell, and it was the Trell who destroyed their creator. In an act of treachery the Silvan Tree was torn down and taken into the far western mountains where it was thrown, piece by piece, into a great abyss. It was their intent to remove their creator from all memory, to cover the vile act of their treachery and take dominion of the world for themselves. Unknown to the Trell, it was in the depths of this abyss that the remains of the Silvan Tree came into contact with the Shan'duil."
"Within the dark confines of the abyss the Silvan Tree began to recover itself, and as it grew it became one with the Shan'duil, taking on a new form and spreading its consciousness throughout the River of Life. Although separate the Silvan Tree and the River became a single force. It was at this time that the two Powers created the Hra'gora and the Caer'dahl. The Hra'gora to maintain dominion over Earth and Stone, the Caer'dahl to shepherd the needs of Air and Water. They are the Servants and Guardians of the world, and do the bidding of their creators without equivocation."
Mallen moved upon his makeshift seat and whispered, "But what has this to do with the Caer'dahl and the Hordim?"
Gremorgan put up a finger and continued. "Patience Master Cael, I'm getting to it."
"It further came to pass that the Trell had need to create a warrior army. It was not in their nature to fight, and when confronted with the onset of a war that they had no wish to wage themselves, took the knowledge they had been given of EarthMagic and created the Hresh. It is a fact that to give their creatures life they used pieces of the Silvan Tree itself. It is a fact that every Hordim that walks the world today has a spark of life within them that is directly connected to the Shan'duil. It is that connection that binds the Hordim and the servants of the Powers in a common bond. It is why we must wait here. While the Caer'dahl resides upon the Taal there is every chance that we will be discovered. For the moment we must exercise patience."
"And what of the Third Power you spoke of. What is its purpose?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan smiled and shook his head. "The Third Power is quite another story. One that can be explored at another time. Suffice to say that we have talked of the servants of the Shan'duil and Silvan Tree. We can only hope that we do not cross the path of the servants of the Third."
Mallen moved to ask another question but was stopped by the LoreMaster. In the west the light had dissipated and Gremorgan moved off quickly, gesturing for Mallen to follow.
"If we are to keep up with the Hresh we will need to move quickly. The Hordim are expert at moving through woodlands undetected and it will be best for us if we have a fresh trail to follow."
Mallen could sense that something had been left unsaid, something important, but he followed Gremorgan as he made for the direction of the Taal. Whatever the nature of the Third Power he knew he would have it from the LoreMaster soon enough.
The Taal stood in a small clearing only a short distance from where the two men had taken cover. In the dark of an overcast sky, and under the close canopy of the forest, Mallen had followed behind the Dwarvendim as the huge man found his way between the enormous trees. It was only a short distance but it took time, and when both men emerged into the clearing there was little sign of the Hordim or the Caer'dahl. The Taal however, remained as it must have for millenia. Situated in the centre of a wide clearing it rose before the two men, an edifice wrapped in darkness that brought Mallen to an abrupt halt.
In structure it was a tall stepped pyramid of finely cut stone, no more than twelve metres on each side, made up of three levels capped by a wide platform. At each corner of the pyramid stood the silent form of a hooded figure, facing out from the shrine in a stance of contemplation. Mallen recognised each as representations of the Hra'gora, but it was what stood upon the uppermost level that took the Kalborean's attention completely.
On the summit of the pyramid rose a carved representation of a tree, probably ten metres in height, whose limbs spread in a tangled weave of leaf-less boughs as an oak might in the cold season. Against the overcast sky it reached upwards, long fingers spreading out from its trunk as it grasped towards the overcast sky.
The pyramid, statues and tree were all cut from the same black, glass-like obsidian, and in the impenetrable gloom of the forest it ebbed with a strange red glimmer that seemed to emanate from deep within. For a time Mallen stared at the carved image of the tree and slowly came to see that it was not simply a statue. Against its dull background of moving cloud and swaying trees he could see the smallest of movements in its limbs. Somehow the obsidian tree was moving. Like the trees of the Caer'nar'dorum it also had a life of its own, and no doubt a purpose that only the Dwarvendim could uncover. He turned to ask Gremorgan on what it meant, but the LoreMaster was already at work searching the ground surrounding the shrine.
"What are you looking for?" he asked as he made for the Dwarvendim's side.
"It is part of the ritual that the Hresh must supplicate themselves on the side of the shrine facing the direction they wish to travel. It is part of their pact with the Caer'dahl that they cannot deviate from that path once permission is given. We need only find where they have knelt and we will know exactly where they are going."
Gremorgan made for the northern edge of the Taal and found what he was looking for. Against the wet ground were two sets of marks, made by two creatures on their knees.
"See Mallen, two Hresh made away from the ambush of the Jotun and now seek to move into the north. It is clear now that six warriors were left in rearguard to kill the Jotun and that is important to know. It means the Warband is now only sixty strong, and if we can keep up the pace our two survivors will no doubt lead us straight to the main crue. I fear Master Cael that there will be little sleep for us tonight."
Mallen nodded and Gremorgan made no further utterance. From the Taal a clear trail extended northwards, running deep into the forest and then out of sight. Upon the trail Mallen could see the imprints of heavy boots and he immediately renewed the chase. With Gremorgan again at his shoulder the Kalborean returned to the hunt.
In the early hours of the night the two men moved through the forest and as they did so the weather began to worsen. From the trees above the first hint of a strengthening wind quickly grew into a thrashing gale that whipped the upper levels of the forest with each bluster. Showers of leaf, twig and insect life rained down upon them as they ran, but there was nothing that would keep Mallen from his brother. Without thought of rest or food he followed the tracks left by the Hresh, cutting along animal trails and forcing his way through thick undergrowth as he traced the thin line of evidence that led northwards.
It was in this manner that the two men maintained their pursuit of the Hresh. In the remaining hours of the night they were dark forms silently negotiating the forest, their passing nothing more than the flicker of shadows quietly moving through the trees. As stormclouds grew above them they ran, and as the first sign of rain fell through the canopy above they did not falter. In the half-light of an overcast dawn it was the sight of the Hresh ahead that brought them to a halt.
Gremorgan grabbed at Mallen's shoulder and pointed forward into a small clearing that opened through the trees ahead. Upon the open ground lay the bodies of the Hresh. They were dead.
"This is not what I expected." whispered Gremorgan between deep breaths. "When given passage no Hordim will attack another whilst they are within the forest. This must have been done by human hand."
Mallen moved closer to the boundaries of the clearing and in the feeble light could make out that both Hordim had had their throats cut.
"I cannot make sense of it either Gremorgan. This was done with a small blade, and with great skill. What should we do?"
Gremorgan moved closer and then strode out into the clearing. "Whoever has done this has moved on, and we have lost our best lead as to where the Warband is heading. Let us make what we can of this disaster."
Carefully he searched the bodies and then surveyed the ground surrounding them. Sure enough there were bootprints in the wet ground and they were not Hordim.
"Look," Gremorgan exclaimed as he pointed at two clear sets of prints that lead off to the northern edge of the clearing. "It would seem that your brother has had a part in this attack, and that he has found a friend. One I think we may have seen before."
Mallen made for the prints and stood next to the Dwarvendim. In the growing light he could see clearly the identifiable bootprints of Tomas pressed into the damp soil. Beside them were a much smaller set of prints, and for their size they were most likely those of a young woman. Memories of the young girl that had tracked them to the edges of the Isirien River came back to him, but it did not seem possible.
"Surely such a young girl could not have dispatched these warriors with such efficiency?"
Gremorgan shrugged his shoulders and searched the edges of the clearing for any signs of danger. "I tell you truthfully Mallen, I do not know what to make of it. The girl we saw at the Isirien demonstrated remarkable skill at remaining undetected, but it would surprise me greatly that she could have done this alone. I can tell you that we would have been hard-pressed to achieve such a quick kill. And now it would seem that we are left with these bodies, and only the footprints of their killers to wonder on."
The Kalborean knelt beside the bodies of the Hordim and thought on what it meant to their quest. If these were indeed the Hresh they had been pursuing Mallen knew that Tomas must be no more than a few minutes ahead of them, somewhere in the trees to the north. He had no doubt on what he needed to do.
"Gremorgan," he said urgently. "Tomas must only be a short distance ahead. We must find him quickly."
The Dwarvendim nodded and settled his packs on his shoulders. "There is only one path that we can now take. It would seem that to recover your brother we need only follow his trail. Let us not delay another moment."
Mallen rose from the side of the dead Hordim and began to run. In the space of a few heartbeats both men raced into the gloom of the forest, their forms merging quickly with the deep shadows. Somewhere ahead was Tomas, and Mallen would not stop until he had him safe.
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