Commander Conall Macdrust dragged his knife slowly across his red stubbled pate--the dry, rasping scrape sounded loud in the predawn stillness.
He ignored the caustic look shot in his direction by the praying warrior priest from the temple of Beordin. The priest's name was Alrik Kloengr, High priest from the order of Wolves of Beordin. He was kneeling, forehead close to the ground, bending his mind and will earthward, reading, feeling and interpreting the ripples and waves in the earth's living fabric.
"Witch hunters!" spat Talorg Brude, a short, but very broad, muscular man who strode up on Conall’s left, to join him on the earthen wall of the camp. His dark eyes, dark skin and intricate tribal tattoos bespoke his aboriginal, Gaelged Firar heritage. Tying his long black hair into the traditional topknot of his people, Talorg continued complaining. "The troops 're gettin' restless , Con, chasin' ghosts and rumors around the wilds."
"You saw the writ from the king, Talorg; we are to extend every courtesy to the priests of Beordin," scolded Conall, who finished shaving and stood stroking his bushy mustache, which covered his top lip, its graying red ends framed his mouth and extended all the way down his broad chin. "And you gotta admit, it's kinda weird out here. We haven't seen a living thing for days, and damn, it's hot for late autumn!" He turned away from the kneeling priest and gazed through the predawn haze at the distant tree line in the east. He could hear the thundering of hooves in the eerie stillness, followed by two short horn blasts, signaling the return of his outriders.
Dawn was fast approaching, and thunder rumbled in the west. The distant storm clouds were ugly and had the greenish tint that usually promised hellacious weather.
Conall tightened his belt and habitually checked the straps and fasteners on his worn chain link and padded leather armor. For twenty years he had commanded the winter patrol on the southern border of Reban and the wastelands to the south. The patrols job was to keep the roads from the silver mines and farming communities safe from outlaws and marauding bands of painted savages from the forest, providing law in a lawless land.
Like himself and Talorg, half of his hundred and fifty man company was mercenary; weapon-men from all parts of the continent, working away the winter in the patrols, before being relieved by Rebanian military in early spring. They then collected their earnings and scattered. Some returned to their homes to tend farms and livestock, others stayed on with Conall, patrolling Reban’s eastern border with the Khorian Empire. Most returned in late fall to resell their swords to the border patrol.
One month ago, Alrik Kloengr and his fifty wolves of Beordin rode into the dun Conall commanded, with orders from the king. A silver caravan from the mines had been attacked, the lone survivor – bloody, badly burned and thoroughly mad – had ranted of demons before dying.
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