"I don't know what that force was that wouldn't allow us to pass earlier," Gadon said. "I've never experienced anything like it. Must've been some kind of black magic. And two days lost to this foolishness!"
He and his men bustled through the underbrush, leading their mounts. They stepped around a patch of poison ivy. Flies buzzed around their heads as the sun beat down, adding to their discomfort.
Gadon's leather creaked. "Now that the barrier's down, we need to move quickly. Hopefully we'll come upon her—or even better, her remains—soon. With any kind of luck, the beasts got to her in time."
The storm, complete with winds, thunder, and lightning, but without rain, had come upon the men two days earlier. In its wake, it left limbs of trees torn down and a pathway littered with debris. Now, hot and still, the air hung heavy and humid.
The men stopped periodically to check for tracks, but found nothing. Where earlier they'd followed a path, albeit a sketchy one, none existed now, and they found no sign of either Rowena or the grut.
"There . . . just ahead," Simon said, pointing. "Something burned down over there."
They trudged on to the place Simon indicated. There they found the remains of a fairly large fire. Smoke rose from it in tufts and streams, lending a heavy acrid smell to the air. Nearby, some bones from a horse were strewn about.
Petron stepped up to the fire's edge. He rubbed his eyes to clear them of the thick smoke drawn his way. He crouched down and poked a stick through the coals. Ashes flurried upward. Small flames erupted from hotspots within the bed of rock and embers. "What's this?" he asked, pushing out to the perimeter a large solid object.
Gadon got down on one knee. He reached for the stick Petron held, then moved things around, shoving some additional larger solid pieces to the side.
"Looks like bone. Human bone, I'd say," Simon said.
"Damn," Gadon swore. "There's no way to identify who this was. But the trail did lead this way."
"'Spose it's hers?" Bruce asked.
Gadon scowled. "Damn it. Do I look like I can identify one of the Select—or anyone else for that matter—by their burned up remains?"
"Now what?" Petron asked.
Just then, a voice cried out. "Hello!"
Collectively, the men turned toward the sound.
"Heri," Gadon called, "where've you been?"
"After you sent me ahead, out of nowhere, a storm of sorts erupted. Lightning struck all around me. I thought I was a goner."
"Yeah," Bruce said, "we was caught in the storm too."
"Shut up," Gadon scolded with a forceful slap to the young man's head. "Then what?" he asked Heri.
The man shuffled his feet as though embarrassed. "It was odd, sir. I couldn't take a single step forward. It was as though a wall blocked my path." He looked up to catch his leader's reaction, apparently fearing ridicule.
"Yeah, we experienced the same thing. So what did you do?"
Heri smiled weakly, his dirty, crooked teeth making the expression more of a grimace. "I just waited. Then just as suddenly as it came, the barrier disappeared about an hour or so ago."
"So you've seen no sign of Rowena or her Oathtaker?"
"None. When I could get through, I came straight this way hoping to intercept you."
"All right, then. Simon!" Gadon shouted.
"We need to search the area. The fire may have been a ruse."
In ever widening circles, the men searched. Cockleburs caught at their pants. Horseflies buzzed around their heads and bit their sweaty arms and necks.
"What's this?" Heri called out. Standing not far from a great oak, he held forth a small frayed swatch of cloth.
Gadon hurried to his side. He took the ragged piece of linen and inspected it. "Where'd you find it?"
"Here, in the brush."
"Looks like it was torn from someone's clothing." Gadon ordered Heri and Petron to continue to search for any additional tracks or other clues, then turned to Simon. "Let's take another look through the remains of the fire."
They sifted through the coals, finding only a few more charred bones.
"I'd guess that's a leg bone," Gadon commented.
"And I'd say these here are from an arm. Given their size, I think these are a woman's remains," Simon said.
"Right. But what woman? This could have been anyone."
Gadon called for his men. When they assembled, he gave his orders.
"Simon, you take Wayne and head downriver. Don't spend more than an hour or two. If you see nothing, return here. If we don't see you by nightfall, we'll expect you've found something and we'll make our way back to you come morning."
They nodded their understanding and moved out.
"Heri," Gadon continued, "my instincts tell me that Rowena would expect us to expect her to go downriver. That would make traveling easier for her. That means she probably did the opposite and went up river. You go that way at a good clip. If you find anything significant, stay on the trail unless it's safe to head back to report. We'll follow behind and search more thoroughly. If Simon and Wayne find anything, I'll send someone for you."
Heri mounted up and rode off.
"All right then, let's get started."
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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