36 6 1

Learn the value of one man's life before you seek to command a thousand.
- General Yarm, the Book of War

The next day was rain.

Cray awoke from a blessedly deep slumber to the sound of droplets pattering on the roof of the outhouse. A stream of water was running down the far corner of the room, forming a puddle that had soaked through the hem of Setka's cloak. It must not have reached his skin, as he was still asleep.

Joints aching, Cray shifted onto his hands and pushed himself upright. He'd fallen asleep sitting up, back resting against the rotting outhouse wall. His sword was propped up against a nearby workbench; he reached for it and buckled it on.

Gently, he pushed the outhouse door open to check on the world outside. The rain was coming down softly but in great volume; the air was thick with fog and the ground was drenched in moisture.

Dazi of Fees joined him, peering under his outstretched arm. "What sort of weather do you call this, then?"

"I call it grace," Cray said. "No man will leave his home today, and even fiends will have a hard time tracking our scent. We may get through the day without seeing a single soul, if our luck holds."

Dazi only snorted and turned away; it must have been too early in the morning for scorn.

Setka was shaken awake, his familiar coming to life at the same moment as he. They gathered their belongings and stepped outside.

They cut west, or as close to west as Cray could divine from what little he saw of the earth and sky. Their luck did hold, though the rain did not; by mid-afternoon it cleared, and by the time they made camp by a small grove of trees at the forest's edge, the ground was nearly dry.

The next day of travel was uneventful, as was the day after that. On the fourth, however, they came upon another ruined town. They had just started to step through the burnt and twisted buildings when they heard the drum of hoofbeats.

"Down, get down!" Cray snapped, but he needn't have wasted his breath. The Fees disappeared among the ruins, and Cray himself hunkered down on the inside of a blackened threshold. He soon pinpointed the source of the noise - some miles off, a band of men on horseback was galloping through the fields, skirting the edge of town. They were at least a hundred strong.

Cray and the others watched and waited as the ground thrummed and the men rode by. They soon passed out of sight, but Cray would not let his companions move until the thunder of hooves had died away. When it did, he emerged from the threshold and looked north with an impassive expression on his face.

"What manner of men were they?" Dazi asked.

"The long arm of the caravan of which Margo spoke," Cray said. "Did you not see the color of the lanterns they wore? Come - let us move away from this place. We would need more than three men and a jack-wolf to face that."

* * *

Yared and Barlow were captain Trahern's best men. They were plagueborn, the pair of them - afflicted since the days they had shared their mother's womb. They had barely sixty years between them, and yet the first unmistakeable signs were already showing on each man's face. Barlow, who slept too little and drank a mite too much, had it worse than his brother; but Yared still wore a few telltale spiderwebs on his face.

Still, they were honest, stolid, dependable men, and Trahern had made a habit of keeping them close at hand whenever his squadron ventured forth from the hidden keep. Yared could shoot a sparrow out of the sky with his bow, and Barlow had stuck his spear through well over a body of men in his short lifetime.

Black WindRead this story for FREE!