At one time the farmhouse had been an imposing, two-story structure built of thick oak and gray field stone. It must have been beautiful in its heyday.
It had been gutted by fire. A huge section of the roof had caved in and one entire wall was destroyed. The interior, visible through numerous holes, was a charred ruin. Part of a stone chimney had fallen inward, strewing rubble everywhere. The heat from the fire must have been tremendous. The ground around the house was blackened for several yards in all directions.
The barn, off to the right of the main house stood open, the cavernous doors ripped off their hinges and thrown aside. Four bodies, mutilated and nude, hung twisting from ropes tied to the top of the doorway. The carcasses of pigs, cows, chickens and several dogs littered the yard, feathered with arrows.
Closer to the cornfield were two, squat granaries. In the tight space between them were more bodies sprawled in a dry lake of blood. Storm’s trained eyes flickered over them, seeing how they had run into the tight confines to limit the invader’s ability to get at them. He pictured the desperate battle that had taken place, scythes and hand knives against swords, spears, and arrows. In his mind’s eye the dead rose, re-fought their last fight, screamed in their death throes then fell once more to the bloody ground.
Storm moved ahead of the men, motioning them to follow behind, his eyes continuing to note every sign in the dusty yard. As they drew near he saw where a scuffle had taken place, a pool of dried blood telling the grim outcome. Two sets of footprints led to the spot, but only one set walked away. The prints led to a large well. Peering down inside he saw two bodies, dimly visible in the reddish water at the bottom. The sharp odor of smoke and charred wood, still recent, assaulted his nostrils as he drew up in front of the ruined house, Specter’s harness jingling somberly in the stillness. Leather creaked as he dismounted.
His men swung silently down out of their saddles, spreading out behind him as he cautiously climbed the stone steps up to the front door and peered inside. Up close the devastation was worse. Three burned skeletons lay crushed under a charred beam, another was visible further back in what had once been the kitchen. Stepping high over a pile of rubble in the door he slowly circled the house, examining everything closely. Debris crunched underfoot as he explored. Here and there he found utensils or bits of pottery, burned and cracked. He was reminded of the way French villages looked in World War I after the Germans were finished with them. Finally, he returned to the front room, shaking his head.
Outside, his men were slowly picking their way through the bodies, still without speaking, as though speech were somehow an insult to the dead.
Coming out of the house he met Durin at the foot of the porch steps. The dwarf’s face was set in grim lines. “Tis a terrible thing that’s happened here,” he rumbled softly. “No matter how many times I see it, it still horrifies me to see such cruelty.” He gestured at the mutilated bodies in the barn door.
Storm nodded agreement. Such scenes held a terrible power which radiated evil. He started to order the bodies cut down when he saw a figure emerge from the barn, a bow held at the ready. He bellowed warning as he leapt past the startled dwarf, sword flashing in the air.
The men spun around to him, saw where he was looking then whipped back around in that direction. Several archers dropped to one knee to allow the rest to fire over their heads.
The figure in the doorway tensed, drawing the arrow all the way back.
The tableau held for a frozen moment.
The figure was a woman, Storm realized. She was tall for a woman, only four inches shorter than his own six feet, two inches. In Gaian terms, she was half a span less than four cubits. Gray eyes were set in a lovely face tense with battle readiness. Her long, black hair was braided in the manner favored by the horse tribes of the great Biqah prairie. She wore brown riding breeches, knee-high black boots, and a plain, white shirt. Under her shirt which struggled to contain her full breasts, he could see the shimmer of crysmeir armor, the crystalline armor the horse people were renowned for; as strong as steel, it weighed only a fraction as much, so lightweight it floated. The secret of its manufacture was one they guarded well. A brown, fur-lined cloak dropped behind her nearly to the ground. She had tossed it back over one shoulder, freeing her bow arm. He recognized her powerful bow as one of the new, re-curve bows the Biqah tribes had been using lately.
Why would a Biqah archer be here in the mountains of Ingold? What was she doing here at the sight of this slaughter? The Biqah were nearly as fierce and wild as the northern barbarians Storm had been raised with, but their feudal society had a strong sense of honor, refusing to prey on the helpless, dealing sternly with any who breached their strict sense of fair play. He found it hard to believe one of them could turn so completely against the principles instilled in them from childhood.
Still . . .
What was she doing here so far from the great prairie? Alone?
Or was she alone?
Unlike his men, the Biqah were experts in the art of silent movement. Whole tribes of them could move through the grassy plains of their homeland without disturbing so much as a single leaf. How many of them might be lurking in the corn rows beyond the fence? He had no illusions that their chain armor could stop one of the gray fletched arrows from their mighty bows.
His gaze flickered over the corpses hanging beside her. The fletching on the arrows protruding from them was red. Would they deliberately use different colors to throw off suspicion?
Durin’s voice rumbled angrily across the yard. “Drop yer weapon and stand down or ye’ll never leave that doorway alive!”
“So you can rape and torture me the way you did these poor innocents? I’d rather die where I stand.” Her voice was a smooth contralto with a touch of huskiness to it. If she felt any fear she hid it well.
“Oh yeah?” Thomas sneered. “Is this the part where we’re supposed to believe you had nothing to do with this and lower our guard so you can slaughter us in our sleep?” He pulled his own bow back another notch. “Drop it now!”
Her face darkened with rage. “How dare you! The Biqah are not murderers!”
Storm had had enough. “Perhaps not,” he barked, striding forward. “But this needs explaining.” He gestured at the carnage around them.
Her eyes flickered over him for an instant before returning to the men aiming arrows at her breast. “I found them this way a few minutes ago. I was checking to see if any were still alive when I heard you approach and hid in here.” She held her stance all the while, her eyes constantly roving from one archer to another.
“I would like to believe you,” Storm said slowly. “But we cannot afford to take chances. Besides, the Biqah do not travel alone. Your tribesmen could be watching us from ambush as we speak.” He inclined his head at the cornfields. His men shifted nervously at his words, giving the fields a wary glance.
The woman had now identified him as the leader. She looked him over carefully. “You know the Biqah? Who are you?”
His men bristled at her presumption but he waved them to silence. Despite appearances, he was starting to believe she was as innocent as they were in this matter. “The Captain of this band of voyagers,” he said, deliberately withholding his name. “I have met with the Biqah on occasion. I have never known them to slaughter the helpless.”
His omission didn’t escape her. “Does your voyage have a destination?”
He nodded without saying anything.
She watched him for a moment more, obviously thinking it over. “You’re no city man,” she told him. Her brow furrowed in confusion. “You dress like one, but you act, and talk, like a Northerner, a sell-sword or soldier.”
“I come from north of where we stand,” he agreed. The corners of her mouth twitched. His answer encompassed over half of Gaia. “Why does one of the Biqah travel alone, if you are alone?” He was nearly certain she was, in fact, traveling by herself. Her tribe would never have waited this long to reveal their strength of numbers.
She shrugged, her bow never wavering from its aim. “I travel on behalf of the Biqah,” she admitted.
It was his turn to suppress a smile. One vague answer deserved another, he thought. He had always liked the Biqah, and this woman was a splendid example of the breed. He sheathed his sword with a ringing smack. His men glanced sidelong at him, lowering their weapons reluctantly. “Fair skies and green grasses,” he said, giving her a traditional Biqah greeting.
She dropped her aim slowly. “Fair skies and green grasses,” she replied. According to Biqah custom, it would now be rude if she didn’t introduce herself. “I am Lorelei of the Abeytu tribe, daughter of Crowsotarri.” In their language Abeytu meant Greenleaf.
Storm bowed shortly, hiding a twinge of unease. Crowsotarri, which meant Wind in His Hair, was the man Storm had become blood brothers with. He was the Chieftain of the Abeytu tribe. He’d met him during his last trip through the prairie a few years ago. What was his daughter doing here? Lorelei meant Child Of Heaven, an obvious reference to her great beauty. But it also had a second, older meaning; it referred to one who was touched by heaven, blessed by heaven itself. The Abeytu nation was one of the most respected on the great Biqah prairie. According to Crowsotarri, they’d also been one of the first to adopt the worship of the Lord of Light, although with considerable backsliding from time to time. If they intended her name in the older, more traditional sense she was no ordinary Biqah. Her presence here was not a good sign.
“My father sends me to Vaneer to find one named Storm of the Bear Clan,” she continued. “Let me pass and I will call you friend.”
The men turned to Storm in astonishment. “Hey, Cap’em! She’s talking about you!” Thomas ejaculated. Durin and Ralt exchanged unreadable glances then turned to look at Storm.
Lorelei started. She stared at him in wonder. “You’re Storm of the Bear Clan? Truly?”
He cursed under his breath. Crowsotarri had saved three of his men from snake bite poison during their trip across the Biqah. Storm’s sense of honor had compelled him to offer his own aid in return if it should ever be needed. Now it looked as if Crowsotarri was about to call in the marker. “I am Storm, formerly of the Bear Clan,” he admitted reluctantly, stressing the ‘formerly’ part. “I was living in Vaneer for a time, but no more.”
A brilliant smile flashed across her face. It was immediately replaced by a look of grim concern. “Then I have an urgent message for you from my father. He bids you come to him. We must go back at once.”
He knew it! “Cut those bodies down,” he ordered before his men could react to her surprising announcement. “Lorelei and I have to talk.” He strode over quickly and grabbed her arm, steering her around behind the barn.
“What is there to talk about?” she asked, jerking away from him. “Father said you promised your aid if he should ever need it. He needs it.”
Storm ground his teeth. The corn stalks waving gently in the breeze mocked his frustration. “He will get it. But not today,” he added as she turned to leave.
She stopped, a hurt expression on her face. It rapidly changed to anger. “Have you no honor?” she spat. “You would renege on a promise without even knowing what my father asks of you?” Her hands balled themselves into tight fists.
“I didn’t say that!” he thundered. “I said, ‘not today’!”
Her face turned to stone. “Why not?” she asked in a deadly monotone.
“Because I am honor bound to see these people safely to Robling,” he told her, forbearing to mention he was getting paid for his services. The Biqah didn’t equate honor with paid duty. To them, there was nothing wrong with leaving a job half done when honor called them to another task. The Bear Clan held similar notions but he’d long known honor came in many different forms. “These city folk have no experience in the wilds. Leaving them alone would be cowardly. Besides, our wagon carries a cargo certain to bring trouble before our journey is over.”
Her face softened somewhat. “Robling is on the road to where my father waits,” she mused. “I had to pass through it on my way here. You can fulfill your duty to them and my father at the same time. Very well. But,” her eyes darkened, “I saw no wagon.”
“We left it behind while we investigated the farm,” he said absently, sensing he’d won this round. Were those hoof prints leading into the cornfield?
Lorelei nodded, needing no further explanation as she fell in behind him. The Biqah also left the weak behind when approaching a likely battle. In their minds a wagon was worse than weak, it was an unneeded hindrance.
Storm crouched over the double row of tracks leading away from the slaughter behind them. “I make it ten of them,” he said, tracing a print in the dirt. “Riding slow.” Something about the tracks tugged at his memory. What was it?
Lorelei ran a practiced eye over the tracks. “Yesterday, maybe the day before,” she added. “You will avenge the helpless ones?”
“Yes.” His voice rang like steel. The bodies in the well had been children. Those who killed children deserved no mercy. He stood up, brushing his trousers off. “We’ll track them as far as we can while my men take care of the bodies. Then tomorrow we’ll make them wish they had never been born.” He didn’t bother asking if she would help. The daughter of Crowsotarri could be counted on to insist on taking part in punishing the invaders.
He wasn’t disappointed.