We traveled in silence, keeping close to the tree line to avoid casting shadows in the moonlight that shone around us. It was a cool night, not yet chill, but a hint of fall laced the air and the slight breeze that touched the trees and stirred leaf and grass. After several minutes of moving in this manner, dodging from tree shadow to tree shadow, I stopped, holding a hand up to signal my movement and crouched near the bole of a tree in the midst of short shrubbery. Kearney did the same, her gaze drawn to the same image mine was. To the right of our path of travel we had taken so far, lord Campbell’s castle could be seen, rising up out of the still water of the moat spread around it. I studied the layout, as well as our position, for several moments, recalling the paths the guards took. Kearney sat in silence for several moments before she said in a hushed tone,
“Alright; your cue.”
I gave a slight nod, and took a deep breath, half closing my eyes as I focused. I brought to mind the place I desired to be. My eyes closed even further as images flashed, memories of Campbell’s castle, both inside and out.
Though to me it felt like a longer duration, it was but mere moments from when Kearney had spoken that my eyes snapped open. I could feel it; the sense of direction, an innate notion that I knew, instinctively, where I wanted to go. I pointed to a spot near the back of the castle, where it joined into the stone of the mountain.
“There,” I said. “We need to travel right until we hit the ridge that his castle is built into. We’ll find the tunnels there.”
Kearney rose from her crouched stance, staring down at the castle with a set expression. “Lead, and I shall follow.” She murmured.
I stood, and began to walk once more, continuing to use the tree cover and moving to the right along the forested ledge down towards the valley.
Kearney matched the pace I set, alert as I was and softer on her feet. Night flowed onwards, stars twinkling and the faint sounds of forest life reaching my ears. The hoot of an owl, crickets in the grass around us, occasionally a breeze ruffling the greenery. Minutes slipped by; the castle, and the mountain it was built into, came ever closer as we walked. It reared like an ominous shadow against the moon, though lit every so often by pin-pricks of light shining from windows.
I drew a deep breath of the night air, letting it wash any weariness I had away, then I felt it. A sudden pang in the pit of my stomach; my inner compass swung, and I stopped in a sudden motion, breaking the silence with a single word. “Wait…”
I glanced around with sharp twists of my head, trying to pinpoint where the sense of… danger, something, was coming from. I caught the subtle movement of Kearney’s hand sliding over her sword hilt out of the corner of my eye as I looked about. Suddenly, I felt it; urgent desires to be out of sight, to be away, off of the course we were taking. I veeredoff of the path I had formerly chosen. The feeling heightened, almost seeming to shout, and I obeyed the silent command as it gave mute voice to one word: run.
Kearney following behind as I sprinted toward the moat, no longer heeding silence, for I knew somehow that if we did not get out of sight soon, it would make no difference. We reached the water, and I tore my cloak off, tossing it aside in my haste I as I began wading into the water.
“Hurry, we’ve little time before…” I grasped for anything to explain it, anything to convey my feeling in words I could muster in so short a time. “Before something happens. Don’t worry, the water remains shallow enough throughout the bay.” To my surprise, Kearney did not react in confusion, but nodded as she crouched by the water’s edge, and located a sizable rock, one she could lift with one hand. She unfastened her own cloak, snatched up mine, and bundled the two around the stone. She walked out into the water, dropping the bundle after wading about knee deep , and then followed me as I headed deeper into the moat’s water. I turned around to watch her draw closer to my position, but a sudden spike warned against any more activity.
“Get down!” I hissed, before sinking into the water, staying high enough above the water to keep my nose above. Kearney lowered into the water, disappearing as I did. To our luck, we had reached far enough into the moat to be hidden from moonlight by the castle’s immense shadow.
I had not long to wait to see what it was I had been disturbed by; creating enough din to be heard long before they were seen, a large force of soldiers marched past, traveling on the same path we had been taking, just outside of the tree line. Their voices and the tramp of their feet sounded harsh on the night air. It took a full three minutes for the column of soldiers to pass out of sight , and two more for the sounds of their movement to die off. As it did, so did the feeling of discomfort within me, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I rose a touch from the water, holding my head above the water and murmuring,
“Good show we were on this side of the castle, else the moon would have shown us. We’ll have to swim for it if we’re going to go on, I don’t want to risk meeting anyone else.”
Kearney rose from the water to my level, brushing a strand of wet hair from her face.
“I didn’t get a good look at the emblem,” she said, “Were they Campbell’s, or Ross’s?”
“Ross’s, I’m certain. Campbell’s men would not make such a din. They know the area, and despite their allegiance, they have more care for their forests.”
I peered out into the forest, stilling a tremor in my muscles from the cool water. A troubling thought came to my mind, and I voiced it.
“It seemed a large force for a simple scouting party, though… do you think…?”
Kearney glanced at me, traces of uncertainty coming into both her voice and expression. “They can’t have found out where we’re staying…”
“Unless I was being tracked.”
Kearney looked at me sharply, and I met her gaze as steady as I could.
“I didn’t detect anyone, but it’s a possibility. I took all the precautions I could, but even still…”
Unable to bear her stare any longer, I looked away. “I must have been a fool to try and find you all.”
Kearney rose fully, water dripping down her armor and clothing as she stood half out of the water, staring back the way we’d come. The way the soldiers appeared to have traveled.
She sloshed back to shore, and I followed, though with a wary eye on the trees; my sense was still pinging enough that we might not be yet out of danger. When her feet touched the firm sand of the shoreline, Kearney began to run, back the way we had come and after the soldiers. Again, I followed, and we jogged up the slight embankment to the tree line, retracing our steps.
The pace she set was swift, less heedful of stealth, but I did not voice any complaint. Steadily, as we traveled, a feeling of ominous disquiet settled upon me, growing with each step I took . But I knew it would be useless to say anything . I pressed on, following her form, moving through shrubbery and around trees.We did not stop until we had reached the place where the skiff had been hidden. Kearney halted, leaning over as she took heaving breaths. Though I was in better shape than she, I breathed heavily, glad for the respite. I took the time then to attempt to reason with her, but I had little hope of succeeding; she could be quite stubborn if she had her mind set to it, and especially at a time like this.
“We… can’t go back,” I said, between the breaths I took.
Kearney did not respond for several moments as she regained her own breath. Even as she did at last speak, she began walking, past the bushes where the boat was hidden and onward to the camp on an overland route.
I sighed, unable to explain to her what I felt, and trailed her once more. “I don’t know. All I know is that little good will come of that path.”
“There’s no other path that leads back to the camp,” she answered. I did not respond. The night air was still, I noticed while we walked. The sounds of the forest had fallen silent, even more so than their usual wont. No crickets. No birds. Even the trees dared not give to the breeze’s enticing.
We should not be returning.
I ignored the urgent sense. This way was wrong, I could feel it, terribly so. But Kearney walked ever onwards. We topped a small hill, and I noted that the underground tunnels we’d taking earlier must travel underneath. Kearney halted at the crest, peering over the forest from our vantage point, searching for any movement, I surmised. I stepped a few paces ahead of her, crouching and taking note of the marks crossing the ground in a wide swath.
I spoke over my shoulder as I traced one of the marks, a footprint. “Boots, many, some iron shod. And fresh.”
“Then they did find the camp…” Kearney breathed out.
I jumped up, attempting the quell the disquiet in my stomach.
“We must be quick. I can’t tell how many have passed, but maybe they still fight on as we speak.”
Even before I had finished talking, Kearney dashed ahead, and I hastened to keep up, loosening Pathseeker in its sheath as I did, ready at hand to draw. Smoke tinted the air.
Kearney did not hesitate in her direction, even in the shadow of the trees, as she plunged forward.
Gradually, the path we sprinted on was obscured less by trees and more by stone outcroppings as we came to the ridge that encircled the camp. Kearney turned aside from her course and entered a dark opening between two boulders that led into one of the camp’s back tunnels. I ducked through the low entrance after her. Torchlight dimly lit the hall, showing the path ahead to be fairly straight. The smell of smoke was thicker, and Kearney coughed once as she drew her sword, leading the way down the passage. I kept close behind her, my hand on my sword hilt. Ever inwards we walked, the smell grew stronger .
Then I heard the sound of burning. But nothing else could be heard. No sounds of battle, crying men, neighing horses or clashing steel. Just an eerie silence that settled throughout the caves, even as our hasty passage echoed down the tunnel. The sense of danger ahead increased, and I drew my sword, fighting away a horrible thought of what we would find as we passed chamber after chamber, each empty of any signs of life. We finally reached the main cavern, and stopped . Like the other chambers, it lay empty. The feeling of danger was almost throbbing now.
“Where are they?” I said, not heeding the echo of my voice. “These caves could have been held long against an attack with the barricades up.”
Kearney did not answer, but gripped her sword as he walked with measured steps to the cavern entrance, then into the clearing. We both stopped at the same time.
Fire burned unchecked on tents, wooden buildings or anything that could burn. Strewn all over the ground, in varying positions…
I choked back a cry, gripping the cave wall for support. “No…”
The missing warriors lay scattered on the ground throughout the camp. Some had their eyes closed in the sleep of death; others stared out, silent, lifeless.
Kearney retreated a few paces into the cave. I glanced back, watching as she sank to her knees, her back to the gruesome sight. I forced my limbs to move, and staggered out into the clearing, managing to crouch without falling beside the body of one of the fallen warriors. He was young, barely past twenty, by his looks. My eyes misted as I covered my face, unable to look the dead man in the eye.
“Like what I’ve done with the place?”
The harsh voice cut across the clearing like a knife. It was familiar, very familiar, for it was my own voice, save laden with contempt. My hands fell away, and I looked to the sound, a feeling of hate surging through my being and showing on my face.