To most of the known world, the summer season brought warmth, life, crops and smiles. Life was still difficult whether snow was on the ground or not, but the ability to work beneath the warm sun and sleep without the need of a fire, brought a small measure of comfort to the war-torn inhabitants of the world.
A rueful frown tugged at Sub-commander Skrelak´s lips as he stood just outside his tent surveying the area. It was late summer, but no warmth seemed to reach this land. A thick mist slowly swirled about the sparse population of spruce trees as the sun rose in the east. It obscured all but the tips of the mountains, while an elk bleated somewhere in the distance. The elk’s voice echoed across the hills and over the numerous lakes that dotted the region, giving the scene an eerie feeling. Only the wind rivaled the elk with its voice, as it continued to blow across the valley.
The elf commander´s eyes scanned the horizon, seeing nothing but mountains and mist. Slowly he shook his head at the dark inner thoughts, the frown now fully formed. "They’re on home turf now, sir." came a voice behind Skrelak. Most of the camp still slept, some stirring as the sun just crested the horizon. "With this mist, we’ll loose another day or two." The voice continued, its tone of disappointment evident. "Mmhmm." Skrelak replied with a nod, his eyes still trained on the horizon to the northwest.
Obsidian Serpent banners ruffled in the cool breeze as Skrelak turned to face his lieutenant. "Rouse your men, Rennik." he ordered in a soft but deep voice, his mood affected by the stillness of the morning. "These Sons of Kronos eluded us despite our knowledge of the terrain. Now, as you pointed out, they are on home turf. This hunt continues to be challenging." Skrelak´s disappointment was evident as well. Rennik snapped a shallow bow to his commander then departed to wake the camp. Exhaling deeply Skrelak turned back again toward the mists that just seemed to hang in the air defiantly. Inwardly the elf wondered if the mist was doing just that.
"There is little else we can do with the Object. It continues to emit its call despite our best efforts." The deep voice reached the ears of another who sat upon the cold, wet ground. "Unless the Wyrd can find a different way of transporting the Object, we will have to continue this forced march." the voice came again. Dressed in furs and leathers, and covered in patches of worn body paint and dried mud from days of travel, the scout looked down upon his seated chieftain. He said nothing more, respecting his chieftain’s silence and awaiting a response. After several moments, the seated man opened his eyes slowly. "They are still out there. Much closer this day than we had hoped." said the older man, gray hair streaked through his long brown locks. The older man stood slowly, similarly covered in fading body paint and dried mud. "We can do nothing more with the Object until we reach The Grove." he said to the scout, shaking his head.
Without another word, the scout took the silence to mean he was dismissed, and turned to leave. "We turn directly north." The chieftain said in a subdued voice. "Make for Connor’s cairn." he continued with the same subdued voice. The scout paused and turned to regard his chieftain, understanding the gravity of that decision. After a moment, the scout´s eyes scanning his chieftain for some indication of his thinking, he nodded then turned about to pass on the word. His skills as a scout would be tested by dawn the next day.
Left alone amid the copse of spruces, within the thick mist that carpeted the valley, he turned back towards the southeast, lost in thought. Two pairs of eyes, one elven and one human, faced each other but did not meet. A race borne of desperation, begun by two peoples, would soon come to an end. Only one would return to their home.
Less than two hours after the sun crested the misty horizon, hundreds of booted feet stomped in time across the soft, wet ground. Banners snapped in the wind, their black and purple colors a stark contrast to the ethereal colors of the valley. White-tipped mountain peaks in the distance reflected the sunshine, but did little to lighten the mood of the elves. Indeed very little could lighten the mood of any elf employed by the Obsidian Serpent. Orders barked from group commanders echoed across the land, while the occasional grunt or roar from the numerous beasts that flanked the column, spurred the army northward. No one wanted to fail this task and be asked to "feed the dragonbanes".
Surrounded by their guard, Skrelak and Rennik rode side by side behind the first unit of elves. Occasionally directing the column, Skrelak alternately stood up then sat down in the saddle, his mount well disciplined and remaining quiet. Overhead the flying dragonbanes flew lazily through the air, looking in vain to the misty floor below. Skrelak knew they would find no sign of their prey, but kept the flyers in the air anyway. Dark thoughts continued to follow the sub-commander as the elves marched into the misty valley.
As the column continued northwest, the hand signals signifying an approaching scout reached Skrelak’s eyes. Two dragonbane scouts loped into the area, the beasts panting heavily from the run. "They turn due north my lord!" the first scout shouted over the marching army. "Tracks indicate they have slowed under the burden, their camp a short distance from here." The second scout of the pair – a team ordered by Rennik to ensure one scout would sacrifice his life to slow their enemies while the other scout would immediately turn back to deliver the report – appeared a moment later, similarly winded. The beasts were high spirited, and could sense the approaching battle. "They remain un-mounted my lord." said the second scout. Skrelak and Rennik both nodded in understanding and approval. "Within their own lands and still on foot." Rennik voiced the common thought. Skrelak nodded his understanding again.
"Turn north!" the sub-commander barked to the unit commanders at the head of the column. All four nodded their understanding then relayed the commands, pulling out whips to ensure the column stayed tight and orderly as it turned to the north. Flapping banners streamed out in different directions as the wind blew in from a different angle. "We´ll catch them my lord." Rennik said with confidence, a wicked smirk tugging at his lips. Skrelak nodded his agreement, his own face impassive. Inwardly the sub-commander had his doubts.
Dozens of men and women, dressed in fur and leather, carrying crude weapons of steel and wood, jogged along the grassy ground. Despite their number, they were no louder than a few deer loping down a path. A few heads turned to regard the man kneeling beside the trees. None spoke, understanding the need for swift and silent travel. One in the group did slow, then stop beside the man. Panting from the run, he looked up a moment as his people continued on, soon swallowed by the swirling mists in the valley.
"Will they come, despite the Object?" the chieftain asked the man kneeling beside the thickets of the trees. Dressed like the others, but carrying an intricate staff adorned with feathers, fur and antlers, the man looked up from a carving on the tree trunk and nodded once. "They know we have returned. And despite the Object, they understand the importance." The chieftain nodded at the Wyrd´s words, supremely confident in the man´s abilities and special wisdom. While he could not feel the Earth Mother´s touch as keenly as the Wyrd, he had no doubt she – and her minions – were all around. With a glance back towards the southeast, a silent reminder to the Wyrd that time was important, the chieftain turned and jogged ahead, to catch up with his people.
Undaunted, and unhurried, the Wyrd finished his carving then picked up a patch of moist moss. Rubbing it between his hands, he blew on it then tossed the crumpled foliage away from him. Instantly the footprints of his people disappeared from their current location, then reappeared again many paces away, seeming to head towards the thick trees at the base of the mountains. "Hunt well, green lords.” he whispered towards the mountains. Some distance away, hidden by the mists, the Wyrd heard the sharp grunt and growl of dragon-beasts. Then like an autumn leaf, he silently drifted off into the mists, mingling with the land.
(to be continued)