“This is one of my stations,” Cassian spoke in a hushed whisper and his caution made Breanna anxious. “‘Tis an Elven Ranger post. The border guard ought to be on duty, there ought to be a watcher, if not a few riders hereabouts.”
Keeping to a low squat the pair ascended a zig-zagging path through the defences up the steep hill. It had rained recently, but theirs were the first footsteps in the thin drying mud on the path. Wooden stakes, sharpened to a point, rose at an angle out of the ground in long lines; a charge on the back of even the strongest of beasts would be lethal for both mount and rider.
As they approached the swinging gates of the fort Cassian turned and glanced back to her. His face was both reassuring and fearful. Without uttering a sound he said ‘you do not have to come with me,’ while he begged, ‘please, don’t let me go alone.’
She nodded, not daring to utter her reply aloud and even the sound of their gentle footfalls in the soft mud appeared enough to arouse an attacker’s awareness. Apprehensively, they moved towards the gates and Breanna slowly drew her long Fenner blade from the sheath on her belt. She had yet to use the blade given to her by the Monarch of the Fenwater Marshes and hoped today would not be the day she first drew blood.
She wondered what they would find within.
A nest of webspinners? A horde of howlers? A hungry Dragon waiting for its next soul?
Holding their breath, the pair peered around the gate.
The fort was still.
A small open yard, bare but for a few puddles and the gentle smell of wet earth in the morning. In the centre, a narrow wooden tower stood as if dead. Its black windows and open door gaping, the banner of the Green Dragon of Meadowvale flapped in the breeze.
Around the edge of the yard was a wall reinforced with a few feet of solid packed hard earth. On top of this was a high narrow walkway for a patrol to look out across the hunting grounds. But there were no Rangers to patrol.
Breanna and Cassian exchanged a look of curiosity and trepidation as they slowly entered the gates.
Cassian’s bow was ready, it pointed in each direction in quick succession as they ensured the courtyard was clear of a hidden onslaught.
He gasped. And Breanna turned to look.
A dark red deer wounded but alive, nudged at the body of a second while an Elven rider lay beside it, bloodied, misshapen, and still.
Cassian dashed over and Breanna followed. She kept her knife at the ready watching for the killers who could be upon them any second.
“Pax?” Cassian fell to his knees, his bow dropped to the ground.
But even as Breanna’s heart swelled in empathy for her friend’s loss, she feared that she was suddenly the only one capable of defending them.
Cassian clutched the fallen ranger’s hand, rocking back and forth, tears spilling freely down his cheeks. Breanna backed away. She had no words to comfort him and the scene brought back too many memories. Memories of her own village after the Forest Drake’s attack. Memories of her fallen friends and kin. Memories she couldn’t afford to let in. Not now.
She needed to check the rest of the fort. She had to make sure the killers had gone. The viewing platform was empty, the stable deserted, but the empty black eyes of the tower windows stared back at her menacingly.
Part of her wanted to stay and comfort her friend. To hold him and tell him she was sorry, and she was there for him. But those windows would not let her.
Breanna readied the blade in her hand, turned, and headed to the tower.
‘I am a hunter,’ she told herself, ‘I am a hunter looking for prey. That’s all. This is nothing I haven’t done before. I’m just seeking a kill.’ She didn’t allow herself to dwell on the fact that she had never made a kill. This was not the time for self-doubt, this was a time to protect herself and her friend.
She hurried across the courtyard and crept along the tower wall. Nudging towards the entrance she peered into the gaping hole where the door should have been and into the blackness.
She searched for movement. For shadows dancing in the dark.
Someone had smashed barrels and crates open, clay pots lay discarded, and pools of liquid were drying out leaving stains on the earthen floor. The Elves’ supplies had been raided. This was not the work of a dragon, nor a webspinner. But she held her breath, dangers unknown were often more fearsome.
Silently, toe first, she entered the guard tower. She checked that the room was clear then made for the wooden ladder leading up to the next floor.
As she ascended, she choked out a gasp.
Someone had ransacked the room.
They had stripped a dozen beds leaving bare wooden frames. Leathers and woollen blankets lay ripped, torn, and scattered. Arrows lay broken, and they had cracked wooden dragon icon in two.
But it was the sight of another ranger that caught her heart in her throat. His tunic and long red hair were bloodstained. They had dumped the body against the wall and above him were symbols scrawled upon the white plaster. In blood.
She jumped in fright as she heard footsteps on the ladder behind her. She turned to see Cassian ascending into the room. As soon as his red eyes fixed on the body, the blood drained from his face.
He swayed slightly and his knuckles tightened on the rail of the ladder. Breanna rushed to help him the last few steps into the room and he stood next to her staring at the blood scrawled on the wall.
“Do you know what those symbols mean?” she asked.
He nodded. “Those are Druid lines,” he choked out in response, his pale face had turned a shade of green, “they simply say: ‘no more’.”
The rest of the fort was deserted.
Cassian was certain that there ought to have been at least half a dozen more Elves on duty and not one of them was likely to abandon their post. But there was no trace of his friends. It appeared to Breanna that the Druids had attacked, raided the supplies, killed the inhabitants, and left. She wanted to give Cassian hope but there was none that she could see.
Such slaughter… for a few barrels of ale and some crates of grain.
It was futile to linger but Cassian wanted to stay and bury his friends.
Breanna didn’t argue. “We should tell the others,” she whispered, a hand on his arm.
He nodded mutely, and they descended the winding slope out of the fort in silence. As they rounded the path at the base of the mound, they could just about make out their little boat in the distance. Mim was shouting, they could hear her voice on the wind.
Another time, Mim’s rage might have amused Breanna, but now it seemed misplaced and self-centred. Did the Dwarf not know that people everywhere were dying? Did she not wish to pay them the respect they deserve?
But as soon as the thought entered her head she immediately saw how foolish it was.
Mim wasn’t angry at them: The boat was under attack.