One moment, the deep oak glade stood empty. Next, men’s feet trampled the leaves, ring-mail armor chimed quietly, and men’s breath hissed harshly in the damp, earthy fragrance. A dozen there were: most dressed as soldiers of Gunderland or Tauran, in sturdy armor and with a short sword or stabbing dagger at their side. One red-faced man still carried a pike, cut short for practical use in the forest. The last man differed from the others: lean and fierce, lightly-clad in leather and buckskins, and carrying a great Bossonian longbow. It was he who broke the silence, but in an urgent undertone, as though willing the others to silence:
“Quiet your noise! Only let me listen!”
Whatever trial the others had been through – and the marks of fear and deprivation were writ clear upon the features of each – it had given the speaker their respect. They quieted their breathing as much as they could, and stood still, hands on weapons.
The Bossonian, to name him by his origin, sank to all fours and pressed one ear through the leaf-mold, onto the ground. A long pause ensued.
“We lost Hurdic and Menelos… they were just behind me, and I barely heard a thing,” one of the waiting soldiers muttered.
“What attacked us? Was it human or animal… or something else?” another asked, a note of superstitious terror in his voice.
“It could be the Cimmerians have sent silenced war-hounds after us, but even a hound with its chords cut will growl. I heard more of a whisper,” protested another.
The red-faced Gunderman, a veteran of several campaigns by his look, made a chopping motion with his half-pike to cut off the speculation, and growled:
“Cimmerians move fast: much faster than we can run in armor. It’s some small patrol that chanced on our trail after we doubled back. If they sent word back, our best hope is to keep running south and east. If they catch us, we form a fighting square and beat them off.”
“I can’t believe Venarium is fallen!” muttered another, returning to a familiar theme.
“Lucky we were out on patrol! They came out of nowhere… I heard the blood-mad devils howling… fair chilled my blood, it did,” quoth a Tauranian.
“Well, the sooner we’re behind stout Gunderland walls, the better,” concluded another Gunderman. “What say you, ranger? A day more of running?”
The Bossonian leapt to his feet, alarm on his face:
“Claws! Claws in the trees!”
A line of red appeared on his neck: then with a great gout of blood, his head fell off; his body staggering a few steps to fall amidst the horrified soldiery. Some yammered in terror and fell to their knees; some ran this way and that, quickly disappearing into the woods. A few, rallied by the seasoned red-faced man, clustered in a defensive knot, weapons pointing outward. Whispering cries could be heard all around the glade. A lone choked cry signaled the end of those that had fled in panic.
A grey shadow seemed to fall upon the glade, as of many large creatures clustering over the stand of soldiers. The noise of armor and flesh being parted sounded: blood gushed and bodies fell.
Vaguely-seen shapes stooped over the bodies, as though curious. One of the shapes bent what could have been a monstrous beak and one enormous eye down to the Bossonian’s remains. It buzzed and whistled in a disappointed tone. Then turning west, it flung itself once more into the trees, and like a ghostly hunt, all the other shapes followed.
And stillness returned to the deep oak glade.