Chapter twenty four
They had been there ten days when disaster struck.
Things started out pretty routinely that day. Early in the morning Willbrand led the water detail out of the fort. They made their way west and slightly up the slope. The young noble had gotten in the habit of varying his route and time slightly each day of these little excursions, just so as to remain unpredictable. He still wasn’t sure how smart the dog men were, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
They made it to the stream unchallenged, though Willbrand spotted a few of the dog beasts tailing along in the distance. This was hardly a surprise, for it happened almost every time they emerged from the outpost. Occasionally a howling barklike cry could be heard, sometimes near, sometimes farther away. Again this was nothing new. The dog men could be very vocal, especially during an attack. The howls changed often in pitch, and there were barks and yowls and some sounds he couldn’t even describe along with them. Though the other men dismissed the sounds as yammering Willbrand wasn’t so sure. It seemed to him their enemy used the sounds to communicate, and from the variety of sounds they made, in a quite sophisticated way. One more reason for him to suspect them of greater intelligence than they were given credit for.
Today the dog men seemed more vocal than usual and Willbrand rarely had to wait more than a minute or two before one of their mournful howls broke the silence. Willbrand didn’t know why they were making so much noise but it made him suspicious. He led the men toward the stream with great caution, being very careful to avoid any area of potential ambush, but nothing disturbed them.
The early morning chill still lingered in the air when they finally reached their destination. Willbrand looked up at the sun shining palely just above the mountaintops to the east. This early it didn’t provide much warmth, and Willbrand suspected it might not get much warmer. The days were getting noticeably shorter, the sun rising farther and farther to the south as summer waned. The harvest season was just about upon them. Back in Crotasia the leaves would be turning, the days cooler even than here. The farmers would be in the fields gathering their crops for the coming winter. His father would be sending out hunters to collect wood for the fires.
He sighed. There was no sense in thinking about Crotasia. His home city was a long way from here. It might as well be on another planet.
Sword in hand he walked over to a large boulder and climbed up upon it as the other men filled their waterskins. From this perch he gazed around them in all directions, alert to any sign that the dog beasts might be readying an attack. He would stay here until the other men had filled their skins. Only then would he go down to the stream to fill his own.
He saw no sign of the beasts nearby, but his brow furrowed when he turned toward the east. They came to this part of the stream because this was where it ran closest to the fort. They were to the west of the fort, and above it. From his perch on the boulder he could see the slopes below quite clearly, he could see the fort itself, the stockade fence, and the figures that now swarmed about the base of it.
“The fort is being attacked!” he exclaimed.
He saw the others lift their heads at this, but they were down by the water and the ground blocked their view.
“We have to go back!”
This roused them and they ran toward him. Not waiting he leapt down from the rock, then scrambled down the hill back toward the compound. The beast men were attacking the fort. This was the first time they had done something like this since the day he and Merigan had arrived. What had set them off? He didn’t know why they chose this moment, if there were any thought to it at all, but he didn’t fail to notice that they had attacked when he was away.
The dog men couldn’t climb. The stockade was too tall for them to get over. Nor did they have the capability to launch projectiles over it. As long as the stockade held those inside were safe. Nevertheless Willbrand was worried. He had no idea how long the stockade had been there, but he could tell from the way the wood was worn it had been there a long time, for years. Like everything else in the compound the fence was in disrepair. He had spotted the wood rotting along the base in some spots. He had even mentioned this to the Warden but, unlike the rest of the men, the Warden’s view of him seemed to be unchanged from when he had arrived and he could tell the man hadn’t taken his suggestion that they make repairs seriously. The bottom line was he couldn’t be certain the stockade would hold against a concerted attack and Merigan was in there.
He was well on his way back, had just come through the trees and could see the compound quite clearly when a cry behind him made him spin around.
He had run down the hill as fast as he could, trying to get back to the fort as quickly as possible. He was younger than the three men he was with, and though they were stronger from working in the mines all this time he outclassed them in stamina, not to mention the fact that their waterskins had been filled while his empty. As a result he had left them far behind him. When he turned to look behind only one of them was even in view, and that man was being set upon by four of the dog beasts.
With a curse he ran back up the slope toward the man, who had dropped his waterskin and was wielding an axe, trying to fend them off. None of the men with Willbrand were selected for their skill in combat. They had only come with him because it was their turn and they hadn’t been able to trade it away.
Fortunately the man, Calder by name, had at least a rudimentary skill with his weapon and managed to fend off the beasts until Willbrand came charging back, whereupon the creatures suddenly broke and raced away. Willbrand ran up to his companion only to watch helplessly as the beasts ran off into the woods. Blood seeped from a wound in Calder’s arm, but he was alive, at least, yet still Willbrand felt fear in his heart.
“The others…” he began.
Calder turned and looked back the way they had come. There was no sign of their companions.
“Back there,” he said.
Willbrand looked back toward the fort, knowing he had to choose between going back to search for the others or continue on to help at the fort, but to his surprise he saw the beasts had scattered. The fort was suddenly clear.
He looked around, slowly. There was no trace of the beasts nearby now, nor could he hear any howls or cries anymore. The woods had gone silent and the beasts had vanished as if they had never been there.
A sickening sensation began to sink into Willbrand’s stomach as he looked down to see that Calder’s waterskin had been torn open, the water leaking out onto the ground beneath.
“It was a trap…” he said slowly.
Without another word he turned and ran back the way they had come, afraid of what he would find, suspecting that he already knew.
He didn’t get very far up the slope before his fears were confirmed. The two other men lay near a cluster of trees, dead. Their waterskins lay beside them, or what was left of them. They had been torn to shreds.
Grim faced, Willbrand made his way back to the fort, Calder following behind. Two men were dead, and Willbrand suspected there would be hell to pay when he got back. He wasn’t wrong.
The Warden was waiting inside when he entered.
“Where are the others?” he questioned when he saw there were only two of them.
“They’re dead,” Willbrand replied. “The beasts killed them.”
The man glared at him.
“Dead? Where were you? You were supposed to protect them.”
Willbrand hesitated for a moment, but there was no getting around it. He had abandoned the men he had been sent to protect, he couldn't hide from that fact.
“I saw the fort being attacked,” he replied. “I came back to help. The others… the others couldn’t keep up. They were killed by the beasts before I could go back to help them. It was a trap.”
“What?” the Warden questioned.
“It was a trap!” Willbrand said with more force. “These… dog men knew exactly what they were doing. They knew we were going up to get water. We do it every day. They knew I could see the fort from up there; they knew I’d see the attack and come back to help. They didn’t just kill the men; they shredded the waterskins as well. It’s a standard military tactic to cut off the enemy from their supplies. They did this deliberately. They planned it! This isn’t the work of some stupid beast. These things are intelligent. They’re smart, maybe as smart as you or I!”
For a moment it seemed the Warden didn’t know how to respond to this. Then he leaned forward, his face flushing red.
“Don’t be a fool!” he snarled. “These beasts are just that, beasts! Two men died that you were supposed to protect. Don’t try to lighten the blame on yourself by giving us some absurd story about how these creatures are intelligent. They’re smart you say, maybe as smart as you but that’s not saying much at all now it is? Not only did you let two men die but you lost both their waterskins as well and we have nothing to replace them with. How are we supposed to get water now? Huh?”
The Warden didn’t give him much time to think about it.
“I’ll tell you how,” he snapped. “You’ll have to haul it in the skin we have left, and take as many trips as necessary. And don’t expect me to risk any of the other men to go with you! And don’t think you’ll get out of working in the mine by taking all day to bring water. You’ll haul ore for as long as it takes to get everything up to the surface, even if it takes you half the night!”
And that would be a hardship indeed, if the Warden followed through on it, but Willbrand wasn’t thinking about that right now. They still didn’t understand. There was something more important going on here.
“Don’t you get it?” he questioned, and though he didn’t realize it, raising his voice to match that of the Warden’s. “These things are intelligent. Their attacks against us aren’t random; they are used to gauge our strength, to find our weakness and to strike at them. We’re not fighting against some stupid monsters, we’re fighting a war!”
And suddenly the place went silent as a tomb. For a moment the Warden said nothing at all, too shocked that Willbrand, or anyone for that matter, would raise their voice to him. His face turned redder than ever, and he clenched his fists and suddenly Willbrand thought the man was going to strike him. Willbrand still had his sword and the man in front of him was unarmed, no matter how formidable he might appear. Perhaps because of the weapon, or perhaps he knew that Willbrand was still useful, or perhaps for some other reason altogether, the Warden’s hands fell to his sides.
He finally found his voice.
“Shut up ya damn fool!” he shouted. “I told ya I won’t stand for any more of that nonsense. They’re just stupid beasts, got it? Those men died because of you, no one else. So don’t go upsetting the men with any more cockamamie stories. As punishment for leaving those men to die they’ll be no rations for you tonight. And half rations the rest of the week. And if I hear you’re spreading any more stories about those beasts it’ll be more of the same for ya! Ya understand?”
The two of them stood there glaring at one another. Willbrand saw he hadn’t gotten through to the man, probably hadn’t gotten through to any of them, but was that really any surprise? Had he really expected any of them to listen?
The dog beasts were intelligent, much more intelligent than even he had given them credit for. He had suspected this, yet still he had underestimated them and two men had died. The Warden was right about one thing, it had been his fault. He for one would not underestimate them again, but would that be enough when no one else would listen to him? The men in the compound were outnumbered, deep in enemy territory with no chance of reinforcement or ressuply for weeks. The fort was ill build and in disrepair. How much longer could they survive here?
Willbrand lowered his gaze, his anger fading away. No matter what he told them they wouldn’t listen to him anyway. There was no point in saying anything at all.
The Warden, seemingly appeased by Willbrand’s backing down, turned and walked away.
Willbrand lifted his gaze again and saw the other men looking at him warily. Then without a word they turned and walked away as well, returning to their normal routine. Eventually only Merigan stood beside him.
“They don’t understand,” Willbrand said slowly. “If they don’t change their tactics, they are all going to die.”
Merigan did not reply to this at first, just stood there silently beside him, looking around.
“If they are intelligent,” she finally said slowly, “perhaps they can be reasoned with.”
Willbrand made no reply to that. The truth was, it was a thought that had not occurred to him. The sounds they had made were calls, he was certain of that now. They were coordinating their attack; scouts letting the others know when he had reached the stream. And if they could communicate with each other, then who was to say they couldn’t communicate with him?
He would just have to observe them more, given the opportunity but he doubted anything would come of that. He didn’t know their language and they didn’t know his. If all went well, he and Merigan would only be here another week and a half, hardly time to learn whatever language they might have.
How long had they been fighting each other, he had to wonder. How many years had the dog men and the miners been killing one another? If they weren’t mindless beasts, then he had to assume they wouldn’t just kill for no reason at all. What had started all this?
Those were questions he might find out by asking the others. Then again maybe no one here knew. These men were only tied to this place until their time was served, then they could leave. Perhaps no one here now knew how it all began. The Warden might know, but even if he did, there was no guarantee he would tell Willbrand anything. And Willbrand certainly wasn’t anxious to have any more discussions with the man. Not right now, anyway.
Even if he did find a way to communicate who was to say the dog men would listen to him either. How many of the beasts had been killed by the miners? Would they even be interested in negotiating or would they by this time be only interested in the death of the miners, of any human?
Who knew? It was all a little too much to even consider. He would keep his eyes open; he would continue to study them. If the chance came to attempt communication perhaps he would try. Right now though, they were still the enemy, and looking more formidable than ever. He had spent quite a bit of time on military training as a Crotasian cadet. As a noble he would have been expected to lead in war and his tutors had emphasized military teaching. If they kept going the way they were the dog men would just pick them off slowly, or if their numbers were great enough, launch an all out assault. Perhaps that would come when he and Merigan were here or perhaps after, but he was certain of its inevitability. In order to be successful here, in order to at least stave off that day, a drastic change in tactics was necessary. Willbrand had an idea of what he wanted to do, but he couldn’t do it alone, and he couldn’t do it without telling the others, telling the Warden. He would need men and he would need the Warden’s approval for that. After what had happened, after their little confrontation, was there any chance in hell the Warden would agree?
He would find out soon enough.
He waited two days. Two miserable days so that the Warden, and yes, he as well, could cool down a bit. The whole time he spent working his fingers to the bone. Merigan managed to stitch up Calder’s waterskin, enough to make it usable again. She also found two old buckets in the back of the kitchen and scrubbed them out so they could be used to haul water. Though bulky and not as efficient as the waterskins they were useful enough so that only one trip to the stream had to be made. Thus Willbrand didn’t have to work any later hours in the mine than usual. This was a good thing, for the half rations the Warden had imposed would have been a hardship indeed with all that extra labor, even if Merigan did not hold all that closely to the Warden’s half ration demand.
Deeming that the time was right, or as right as it would even be, Willbrand approached the Warden right after breakfast as the others prepared to enter the mine.
There didn’t seem much to be much point in beating around the bush.
“I’d like to take some men out on a raid,” he stated.
The Warden glared at him in his usual manner.
“What do you mean, a raid?” he questioned after a moment.
“A raid on the dog men,” Willbrand replied. “I want to take some men out and attack them.”
The Warden stared, and Willbrand prepared himself for the coming verbal assault.
He didn’t have long to wait.
“So you think that killing two of my men wasn’t enough? We are safe here inside the stockade. The less we go out, the less risk there is. And you come here and say to me, you want to go attack the enemy, you want me to let men leave the compound to go running around looking for the dog men. Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
Willbrand didn’t think that responding in the affirmative would be all that conducive to continued conversation.
“How many years have you been fighting these things?” Willbrand asked.
“What kind of question is that?”
“How long?” Willbrand repeated.
“It’s no concern of yours.”
Willbrand forced himself not to sigh.
“All these years you’ve been protecting the mine. You set guards in the fort, send men out for food and water, and defend them whenever they are attacked. Always defending. Always reacting instead of acting. When you don’t take the initiative you give it to the enemy, and when the enemy has the initiative they dictate the terms of the battle. All these years you’ve been letting the dog men dictate when and where you fight. That’s the tactics of a loser.”
The permanent frown that seemed etched on the Warden’s face just seemed to get deeper. Willbrand plunged on before the man could interrupt.
“We need to take the battle to them. We need to seize the initiative, do something unexpected. All the years you’ve been fighting here you’ve never attacked. Hit them hard, hit them fast, take them by surprise, do some serious damage to them for once, and retreat back here to safety before they can respond. If we strike well enough, they will be licking their wounds for a very long time.”
“I’ve noticed that most of the dog men always seem to come from the north, up the slopes. I think they’ve got a lair up there somewhere. Given the amount of them, probably more than one. If we can find it, if we can take them by surprise, we may be able to do some real damage to them.”
Willbrand was finished. He had said his piece, trying to get it all out before the Warden got started with all his objections. Now he stood there waiting to hear exactly how stupid his idea was.
To his surprise the Warden didn’t launch into a tirade about what an idiotic idea it was. Didn’t say anything at all for quite some time in fact, just sat there staring at Willbrand, his arms folded across his chest. The scowl remained on his face, but Willbrand knew that meant nothing. That was the way his face always looked.
“How many men would you need?” the man asked finally.
“About a dozen,” Willbrand said, cringing inwardly. Half the men leaving the fort at one time when no more than four or five had ever gone out before. He was surprised the Warden hadn’t already rejected the plan, and Willbrand didn’t think there was a chance in hell of the Warden agreeing to send so many but that was what he thought he needed.
“I’ll give you six,” he Warden stated.
“Eight,” Willbrand countered.
The Warden growled.
“Eight then,” was what he said.
To tell the truth, it was actually more than Willbrand had hoped for. In fact, that the man would agree at all was more than he had hoped for. Willbrand thought of the Warden as a pig headed scoundrel who would sell his own mother to the devil if he saw any profit in it. The young noble still thought the man would sell his own mother to the devil but perhaps he wasn’t quite as pig headed as Willbrand had thought.
Then again, perhaps it shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise. The Warden didn't give Willbrand much credit, but he had seen that the boy could fight. And the Warden was all for anything that would kill the dog beasts.
“Eight men,” the Warden repeated. “Bring them back alive, and bring me the heads of those dog scum. If you don’t, if this goes wrong for any reason, they’ll be hell to pay.”
Here he stopped and stared hard at Willbrand.
“I’ll be holding you personally responsible,” he finished.
The message was clear. The mission had to succeed. Failure would not be tolerated. For a moment it was Willbrands turn to hesitate. He hadn’t entertained the thought of failure. He was right, he was sure of it. Even so, it was still risky. Things could go wrong, a lot of things. The dog men outnumbered them; there was no doubt of that. The only reason they hadn’t been overwhelmed already was because of the safety of the fort. The Warden obviously expected him to come back with all the men, but taking the battle to the enemy, leaving the safety of the fort to attack a foe of superior numbers, and with a force of only eight men, well, even with the advantage of surprise it was very likely some of them would not return.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he had bitten off more than he could chew. Even so, though Willbrand did not realize it, he had come a long way in the month since he had left Crotasia. He had grown quite a bit in that time. He had had responsibilities at home. After all, he had been the Captain of the Crotasia cadets. Yet he had always deferred to those in authority. Before he had left he would never have pressed his case to such an imposing authority figure as the Warden, even if he knew he was right. Before he had left one glare from the man would have cowed him into silence
Not that Willbrand looked at it that way. He had always considered himself quite self-assured. Since he had left Crotasia his confidence had taken a beating, but he thought that was only because of the trying circumstances that had been thrust upon him. To him, this was just an indication that his confidence might finally be returning. He had stood his ground with the Warden and had gotten his way, for the most part, and he couldn’t help but feel a little proud over that fact. This more than overrode any doubts he might have felt.
“We leave tonight,” he announced.
Willbrand had assumed that once he had the Warden’s blessing on his little plan the other men would fall in line without complaint. It turned out in this he was very wrong. Willbrand had decided to launch the attack at night. He had noticed that the dog men, like humans, seemed to be more active in the day. Given that fact and also that the men never left the fort at night, it seemed more likely they would be able to achieve their goal of surprise at that time. The men, however, were not at all pleased with the thought of getting up in the dead of night to leave the safety of the fort and plunge out into the dark and forbidding forest. Willbrand picked the men to go for their ability to fight, or his assumption of their ability to fight, for some he had not seen in battle. None of them, it turned out, would go along willingly. All of them grumbled, some had to be cajoled, and some flatly refused.
Willbrand had hoped the Warden would be of some help with this. He was certain if the Warden told the men to go they would follow without protest, or at least keep their protest to themselves. The Warden, however, seemed to take no interest in this at all except to say that Brant would be coming along. Willbrand was not particularly happy with this since Brant was, one, in Willbrand’s opinion even more of a scoundrel than the Warden was and, two, he was the Warden’s right hand man and Willbrand thought (rightly) that the only reason the Warden was sending him along was to keep any eye on things. Though he was well built from the waist up he didn’t strike Willbrand as someone who could be depended on to do anything but bolt to the nearest place of safety should danger rear its ugly head.
Of course, there wasn’t a lot Willbrand could do about that, nor about the other men. With him and Brant and a considerable amount of horse trading he finally got five others to agree to come. The final spot would go to Merigan.
Willbrand had been in a bit of a conundrum about whether to bring her along. He certainly didn’t want to expose her to any danger but the simple fact was her ability to detect the presence of the dog men made her just too valuable an asset to leave behind. The entire mission depended on surprise. If they stumbled upon one of the dog men by chance along the way the entire plan could be ruined. Merigan could guarantee that at least would not happen. He reluctantly realized this and left the last spot for her.
The other men, of course, knew nothing of Merigan’s singular abilities, and when he revealed to them that she was to join them it set off another round of moans and groans. They wasted no time in voicing their opinion that a young girl like her had no business being on a raid like this and she would at best be useless and at worst jeopardize the mission. In a way he could understand. Under ordinary circumstances he would even agree with them, but Merigan was no ordinary girl. Even so, he couldn’t tell them the real reason she was coming along, and instead came up with the rather lame excuse that he refused to go without her because she was his good luck charm. He had noticed on many occasions that most of the miners were a superstitious lot, and even though Willbrand thought it a lame excuse, the men seemed to accept this with only a perfunctory amount of grumbling.
So it was that Willbrand found himself leading a band of men out of the fort in the early morning hours, and with each step into the darkness he felt his confidence wane and his doubts grow. They didn’t have a large party. They could not fend off a concerted attack. They were heading off into the unknown, far from the safety of the fort. If they were discovered prematurely, if the dog men reacted to their attack quickly enough, things could go very wrong very quickly. Not only that but the plan called for their finding the dog men’s lair, or one of them, and he really had no idea where that was except for the vague observation that it might be uphill of them somewhere. Hardly a confidence building little fact. They might wander around in the dark until dawn without coming upon the dog men at all.
Ideally someone should have scouted the area ahead of time, should have found beforehand just where the dog men took shelter for the night, if they took shelter at all. Unfortunately that would have taken time and a level of woodcraft Willbrand suspected none of them, including himself, possessed.
No, what he was doing was a shot in the dark. It was a gamble and the odds were definitely against him.
True as that might be there wasn’t much he could do about it now. It was too late to turn back; he had too much invested in this. He had only his gut instinct to tell him this would succeed yet how many battles had been won for that precise reason?
A three quarter moon hung in the sky to the west, its silvery light dappling the ground around them where it penetrated the branches above their heads. Impenetrable shadows lurked beneath the trees. The air was cold and still around them. The forest was silent, the only sounds an occasional rattling of a rock come loose somewhere on the slopes above them, a common occurrence this high up in the mountains, and the crunch of the underbrush beneath the men’s feet as they walked. Willbrand had already tried to get them to watch their step, to walk more carefully so as not to give themselves away. He soon realized he was just banging his head against a wall. If that wasn’t bad enough, he couldn’t get their mouths to remain silent either. No matter how may times he turned to tell them to be silent he could still hear some muttering about this or that as they went. Not very loudly to be sure, but loud enough nonetheless. If the dog men’s ears were anything like a real dog, their hearing would be much superior to a humans. Keeping silent was vital if they expected to achieve surprise.
Yet these men were not Crotasian cadets. They seemed to feel little obligation to listen to anything Willbrand said at all. As they progressed Willbrand felt his confidence continue to fade. With an undisciplined group like this, was their any hope of success at all?
Slowly they made their way up the slope. Much too slowly, in Willbrand’s opinion, but this time the cause was not the recalcitrance of the men but Merigan herself. She walked right beside him. He needed her close to alert him of any dog men she might sense. Since the other men knew nothing of her ability to do this they had agreed that if she sensed one of the dog men near she would alert him by placing her hand on his shoulder. She hadn’t done that yet, but she kept pausing, stopping suddenly and remaining still for some time, holding up the whole party for much longer than any of them deemed necessary. After one particularly long pause the men started grumbling behind Willbrand again. He leaned closer to Merigan, looking at her in the darkness.
“Is everything ok?” he whispered.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said distractedly. “I’m just a little… tired.”
Willbrand gave her a look. She just returned his gaze rather helplessly, and he got the impression there was more that she didn’t want to say. He could only assume this had something to do with her abilities and she did not want to say anything in front of the others.
In this he was precisely correct. The truth of the matter was he had no concept of just what a difficult task he had assigned to her. Using her senses to detect the presence of someone else might be a passive thing but that didn’t mean it didn’t take a lot of concentration. She couldn’t just turn her abilities on or off on a whim. Everything she did took effort and concentration, a concentration that was almost impossible to achieve while she was doing something even as simple as walking. She could use her powers when moving but it was extremely difficult and taxing to maintain and she couldn’t do it for very long.
Thus the frequent stops. There was no way she could maintain her vigilance the entire time they were out here. It was physically and mentally impossible for her. She had to pause every once in a while to concentrate on sensing if any of the creatures were there before moving on for a bit. But of course she couldn’t tell Willbrand this now, not here in front of all the other men. She had heard the other men’s complaints about her coming along. They had aired them right in front of her, none of them concerned at all about sparing her feelings. She knew what she was telling them now, that she was tired, would just reaffirm their objections but what could she do? She couldn’t tell the truth and she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
So they were forced to continue on their way at a snails pace. The trees were thinning around them and the ground was becoming rocky. They had to step more carefully now, for one false step could twist an ankle or worse yet, send a shower of stones tumbling down the slope which would almost certainly give away their presence. The men were still muttering among themselves and Willbrand was beginning to think the whole idea was just a big mistake when he felt Merigan’s hand upon his shoulder.
Willbrand turned to look at the men behind him.
“They’re near,” he hissed.
This at least, got them to shut up momentarily. He saw them all suddenly lift their heads, looking around, weapons at the ready. Willbrand too peered into the darkness, but he saw nothing but the moonlight upon the trees and heard nothing but the wind rustling in the branches above their heads.
“I don’t see anything,” one of the men said eventually, plainly skeptical.
Willbrand didn’t either. He glanced at Merigan but she gave no other sign, didn’t seem to be looking in any particular direction. He had several questions. Where was it? Was there more than one? How far away? He wasn’t even sure if she could answer all that but he was certain he couldn’t ask her. He thought now that perhaps he should have put a bit more thought into their crude signaling system.
He took a few steps forward, glaring into the darkness ahead. The trees thinned in front of them, opening up into a boulder strewn clearing similar to the one he and Merigan had passed through on their way to Cen Findol. Perhaps a rockslide was the cause of this one too but if it was he couldn’t tell. There were no broken trees, no stumps. A few trees, in fact, still grew in the area in front of him, rising up from what little open soil they could find between the rocks. They were obviously much younger than the trees around them however, for they were both thinner and smaller. Willbrand suspected if there had been an avalanche here, it had happened a long time ago.
He took a few steps forward, scaling up the side of a large rock to get a better view, hoping the shadow of the trees behind him would still conceal him.
There he stopped again, staring out into the clearing ahead. He knew at least one of the dog men was nearby but he had no idea where. If the creature was behind them…
But no. From this vantage point he spotted a shadow in the clearing ahead. Looking closer the soft light of the moon revealed two of the dog men perched near the top of a large pile of boulders.
He turned to those behind him and pointed.
A few of the others scrambled up the rock as well, until they too could see the creatures. Willbrand winced at the noise they made, but turning to look at the dog men again he could see no reaction. Fortunately they were too far away to hear.
Willbrand lightly padded back down to the bottom, the men that had followed him up right behind.
“Sentries,” Willbrand whispered when he reached the bottom.
To his surprise, for once none of the men scoffed at this. Brant looked at him warily.
“How did you know they were there?” he questioned.
Wllbrand paused for a moment before replying, looking at Brant. It wasn’t light enough to see the expression on his face. His outline in the dappled moonlight made him look even more misshapen than usual.
“It was just a feeling,” Willbrand replied.
Brant had no reply for this, of course. Just like the rest of the men he had no clue about Merigan’s psychic powers. Brant’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
“We may be near their lair,” Willbrand went on. “C’mon, let’s head this way.”
He started off again, leading them up the slope, staying in the woods and out of sight of the sentries, if sentries they were. For once the men were silent, which pleased Willbrand greatly. Perhaps they were finally taking this seriously, and better yet, perhaps they would take him seriously. Though they had said nothing he had seen the looks on their faces when his prediction that the dog men were near had panned out. Brant might have been skeptical but Willbrand could tell the others had been impressed. It was almost funny really. They obviously thought that Willbrand had used his own instincts to detect the presence of the dog men, as if he was some kind of savvy backwoods hunter and if that made them more likely to listen to him so much the better. That would serve him well even if they were completely wrong and it was, of course, in reality all Merigan’s doing.
The ground rose steeply here. Willbrand looked back momentarily. He could see far down the slope, the moon outlining the trees in its stark light. The ground fell away sharply, deep into the dark valley below, the dark shape of the mountains rising up once again on the other side. He could see no trees there, just a mass of brooding darkness and far below, at the very bottom of the valley, he could see the glint of moonlight off the river that ran there.
There was no sign of the fort. He had no idea how far they had traveled but he was certain of one thing; they were too far away to run back to its safety of things went awry.
No point in dwelling on that, however. Willbrand turned his eyes forward once more. The trees were thinning rapidly now and they could see quite a distance ahead in the moonlight. It was less rocky here and a short stubby brush with large five pointed leaves filled up the spaces between. The brush was brittle and they soon learned would snap like dry twigs beneath their feet if stepped on, the resultant noise being something Willbrand wanted to avoid at all costs.
So they threaded their way carefully farther up the hill. The mountain rose like a wall ahead of them now, and he didn’t think they could go much farther in this direction when he suddenly noticed a deeper darkness in the slope ahead of them. He came to a halt, at almost the same time; he felt Merigan’s hand on his shoulder once more, this time her nails digging into it sharply.
He turned to glance at her. She was looking ahead intently and of course said nothing to him. Why had her grip been so hard? He was sure there was a message here but what was it? Did that mean she had detected the dog men coming from a different direction? Or perhaps there were a lot of them?
He didn’t know. Once again he cursed himself for not coming up with a better system of communication.
He realized there was not much he could do but stay alert. There was no point in just standing here. What she meant would become evident to him eventually, for better or worse. He led them forward again, staring into the darkness ahead as if his eyes could penetrate it by will alone.
He hadn’t gone far when he realized the deeper darkness he had noticed in the slope ahead was in fact a cave entrance. He stopped, staring into the darkness, trying to make out the details. Looking carefully he spotted the dark figure of one of the dog men either sitting or lying on the ground beside the entrance.
“There’s more,” he whispered.
No one replied. He turned back to them and saw them all looking at him.
He hesitated a moment. A cave, and possibly a sentry in front of it? Could it be they’d found the dog men’s lair? He gave Merigan a sidelong glance but she just returned his look impassively. If this was the dog men’s lair, of one of them at least, then it was time to attack. The problem was he didn’t know that for sure. The cave in front of them might hold nothing at all and the dog men in front of it just be there by chance. He didn’t think so, but, of course, he couldn’t say for sure. To get in the cave they would have to slay the dog men in front of it and that would give them away. He didn’t think he could sneak up close enough to kill the creature before it raised an alarm and he didn’t think any of the others could either. If they attacked him they would give themselves away, and if the cave was empty it would be for nothing.
What had Merigan meant by gripping his shoulder so tightly? He had to know.
“I’m going to take a closer look,” he whispered. “Stay here.”
He turned and, taking hold of Merigan’s hand drew her along with him as he walked away from the others. Some of them, especially Brant, looked at him curiously, but he ignored it. Let them think what they wanted. If his actions raised some suspicions then so be it, he had no choice. He didn’t go far, just a little ways up the slope, just far enough to be out of earshot of the others. Then he stopped and turned toward his companion.
“What is it?” he whispered.
“There are a lot of them nearby,” she replied just as softly.
“In the cave?” he questioned.
“There’s no way for me to know that.”
Willbrand wasn’t all that pleased with that response. He wanted to know for sure before committing them to attack. Unfortunately, it seemed as if that wasn’t possible.
Realizing she had nothing more to tell him he led her back to the others who stood there waiting impatiently for him.
“I think this might be their lair,” he announced. “We’re going to attack.”
“You think?” Brant questioned immediately.
“Yes, I do,” Willbrand replied. There was nothing for it. He couldn’t know for sure but Merigan had told him there were a lot of the beasts nearby and it seemed reasonable to assume they were in the cave. It was a gamble but what could he do? Rarely did you find a sure thing in battle.
Brant almost seemed about to protest but he said nothing, merely shrugged his shoulders after a moment. That was fine with Willbrand. He wasn’t really interested in the man’s opinion anyway.
“We’ll get as close as we can and then charge,” Willbrand told them. “Even if this one alerts the others before we kill him, we should be able to get in the cave fast enough that there won’t be much resistance.”
He had no idea if this was true. Had no idea how quickly the dog men would react, if they were in there at all. He had no idea how many of them were there. There were a million things he didn’t know, a million things that could go wrong, and they all flashed through his mind as he led them as close to the creature as he dared. They were ready now and all he had to do was give the word. He could second guess himself all night long and not put his fears to rest. It was too late for that now. Now he had to cast his doubts aside and do what he came here to do.
His sword was already out, and suddenly he ran forward, out of the shadows of the boulders around them, straight at the beast in front of them. Though he was tempted to, he didn’t yell charge. There didn’t seem to be any point, the others could see him well enough and follow without his saying anything at all.
At first the beast didn’t react at all. Willbrand wasn’t sure if it was dozing but it was obvious they had caught it unawares. By the time its head jerked up Willbrand was almost upon it. It turned and bolted for the cave entrance, letting out a loud barking yowl as it went. It was fast, but by now Willbrand was too close and cut it down with his sword before it could enter the cave.
Still it had raised the alarm, and the barks and cries Willbrand now heard from inside told him it had not been unheeded. Now speed was of the essence. They had to do as much damage as they could as quickly as they could and then get out of here.
Willbrand raced into the cave. It was dark inside, much darker than outside though he could still see enough to make out the shapes of some of the beasts charging at him. He swung his sword again and another of the beasts fell and for the next few minutes all was chaos around him. The creatures suddenly seemed to be everywhere and he found himself constantly fending them off or driving his sword at them. He could barely see and at first thought it would be hard to tell friend from foe but that was not so. The creatures were howling and barking all around him, making more noise than he had ever heard from them before. He wasn’t sure why they were doing it but he wasn’t complaining. The noises they were making could hardly be issuing from a human throat. It made it very easy for him to tell friend from foe. He didn’t know how well the dog men could see, didn’t know if they had an advantage in the dark. They didn’t seem to be having any trouble finding him, that was for sure.
They had brought torches. Willbrand had suspected the dog men’s lair might be in a cave or something similar. He had one himself but had no time to stop and light it, at least not at first. For long minutes the beast men seemed to be all around him. He had no time to coordinate the battle, no time to see where everyone else was, no time for anything except to defend himself. He could not even be sure how well the battle was going.
The dog men fought with desperate ferocity and Willbrand soon found himself covered with numerous wounds from their teeth and claws, but for all their fierceness they were no match for Willbrand’s sword, nor the weapons of the others as it turned out. Willbrand had been right about one thing at least, the dog men had not been expecting an attack and had been taken by surprise. They were used to fighting under their own terms, with superior numbers. Though the dog men were strong, their claws and teeth could not stand for long against the concentrated steel and iron of the men in front of them.
So it was that Willbrand eventually found himself with no enemy to face. He looked around but in the darkness could see very little. He could see the shadowy figures of some of the other men nearby, and the lighter outline of the cave entrance behind, but that was all. Was the battle over? He hadn’t been able to keep track of anyone in the dark. Where was Merigan?
He had given her a dagger, though from the look she had given him when he gave it to her he wasn’t sure if she would use it. She did not carry a weapon of her own and he had never seen her use one. It would have been much too dangerous to come on this mission unarmed, however, and he had insisted she take the dagger. He had told her to stay behind him but looking around now he could see no sign of her. He felt a sudden anxiety growing inside him. If something had happened to her…
Light suddenly flared as one of the men finally took the time to kindle a torch. Willbrand squinted in the sudden light for a moment then to his relief he spotted Merigan standing near the entrance. She held no weapon in her hand, but appeared unharmed.
The fact that she hadn’t even drawn her weapon didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t think the dog men would hesitate at all in attacking her just because she didn’t have a weapon in her hand. He knew she was no fighter, he knew she depended on her illusions to get her out of any trouble but she had told him herself she wasn't certain how well her illusions would work on something that wasn’t human. Given that it was foolish of her to go straight into their lair without at least taking the dagger out.
As much as he might have wanted to take her to task for that he didn’t have time for at that very moment he heard another of the men shout.
“There’s more of them!”
His head spun around at that to see yellow eyes peering at him in the now revealing light. He could see now that the cave was not very deep, ending in a large hollowed out cavern the entrance to which they now stood at. The ground was uneven in front of them, the walls filled with corners and crevices, and he could see shadows lurking in there. A lot of them.
To Willbrand’s surprise he saw one of the beasts crouching on the ground just a few steps away from him. Much closer to him than he either expected or wanted. Cursing himself under his breath he pulled his sword up in front of him, even as he did so realizing that the beast was already close enough to strike, close enough to have leapt upon him before he had his guard up. He took a step forward, preparing to run the beast through, thanking his lucky stars that it had not attacked.
And then he hesitated.
He hadn’t seen the creature in the dark. He was close enough to it that it could have struck at any time yet it hadn’t. It wasn’t leaping at him, it wasn’t snarling or snapping or clawing. What it in fact was doing was cowering down in front of him, its legs tucked underneath itself, in no position whatsoever to attack. Its nose was resting on its front paws and it abruptly gave out a whining yipping sound that he’d never heard from them before.
It made no move to attack, nor to retreat. Looking closely at it Willbrand could see it was smaller than the others he had seen, then the one’s he had battled outside. Was it a young one?
Was this… surrender?
He lifted his gaze. The men had rushed forward at the announcement that there were more enemies to fight. Now they were scattered about the room, slaying any of the beast they came upon. Looking closely Willbrand realized that none of the beasts that were left were fighting back, or at best putting up but a token resistance. The few that were fighting also appeared small and Willbrand had thought them youngsters but mixed in among them now he saw some even smaller still. A lot of them, small ones, tiny ones, clustered in the crevices or cowering in the corners and suddenly Willbrand realized what was happening. The beast cringing helplessly in front of him wasn’t a young one, it was a female, and so were most the other adults that were left. They weren’t fighting against the male dog men anymore; they had killed them all, all that were left in this lair. What they were doing now, it seemed, was slaughtering women and children.
No one heard him, or if they did, they paid no attention. They were all caught up in the blood lust, all bent on killing without discrimination.
And it should not have come as any surprise. Willbrand hadn’t expected this when he had first thought up the raid. His idea had been to strike at the enemy, fight nobly against the beasts and vanquish them. He had thought to face their enemy bravely in battle, an enemy that would fight back just as bravely, an enemy that was capable of defending itself, a worthy opponent.
They were going on a raid into enemy territory, trying to find the dog men’s lair. Logically if the found it they would find the women and children there as well but for some reason Willbrand hadn’t thought of that. He didn’t know why but it hadn’t occurred to him. Seeing the beast cowering in front of him made all desire to kill fade from his mind. What nobility was there in butchering the innocent, even if they weren’t human?
“Stop it!” he cried out again.
It was foolish perhaps. The dog men were their enemy. He had come here to hurt them. These puppies that were scattering in front of the men now, in a few short years they would grow to be adults and would pose just as much a danger to the miners as any other full grown dog man. This was war, and in war unpleasant things happened.
Even so, even knowing that, he couldn’t bring himself to kill a dog man that was putting up no defense. His sword had dropped to his side; the dog… woman in front of him had backed slowly away, and had now gotten up and was slinking toward the exit. He made no move to stop her. Yet again he cried out for the others to stop and this time, finally they did. The place fell suddenly silent and Willbrand looked around to see that the men hadn’t stopped because of his calling for them to do so but instead because there were no more enemies to kill.
The ground around them was littered with the remains. Blood was splattered on the walls (and the men) and was slick on the floor beneath their feet. They had won. They had caught the dog men by surprise and had caused them to suffer grievous losses. Better yet he looked around and saw though a few of the men were lightly wounded they had not lost a single soul in the battle. The plan had worked to perfection yet Willbrand looked around at the slaughter they had wrought and felt no elation at all. Instead he found that he was sick to his stomach.
“Let’s get out of here,” was all he could bring himself to say.