. . . The old skald, Barnen, was no friend, but Hunter couldn’t grudge the man his spot by the fire. It had been a hard Winter, only recently did its icy grip show signs of loosening, and the days nearing Imbolc already. Hunter had sung when asked despite the venomous glances of the wizened old teller. The story of the Magic Lady had held them rapt a time or two as well, but folk in general and Rig himself pumped him for news of parts beyond their little sphere. He embroidered the news of the lands he had travelled into a rich tapestry, but nothing caught their attention like the news of the burned out village.
Truth to tell, Hunter had avoided the subject for fear that this Rig had had a hand in it, but too many ales and familiarity had caused him to let down his guard. On the topic of turmoil and war he had dropped the news as an aside, “You know what I mean. . .” He’d blathered, “like those poor folk on the other side of the mountain, all of them killed and their village burned to the ground.”
There was shocked silence, for indeed nobody but Hunter did know it. Anger followed and women weeping. The entire scene turned from eventide ease to pointed interrogation.
Barnen the Skald was the only one the least bit happy. It seemed there was much back and forth and everyone related to someone over the mountain, but no more and Hunter Wilde had borne the news and told it too late.
There was nothing for it but to go with a scouting party, a fact finding effort, to see what had befallen their kin. Hunter knew the way of these things, he was the outsider, in their fear and pain and the desire for revenge could easily fall on him. so he went, trying to seem concerned and likemindedly all for revenge while ignoring the dirty looks and the sharpening of knives.
It was a long walk and Hunter made himself useful and free by ranging ahead and bringing down fresh meat for the party. Slowly the questioning around the fire became less accusatory. Hunter had known their folk, had planned to spend Winter with them, had taken care of them in death as best he could. He could name many of them though he confessed he had tried not to remember names as he buried the dead who had not been treated kindly.
They drew some of these details from Hunter and anger flared again, but now it was not aimed at him. that relief was soon overshadowed by their approach to the place full of so many nightmarish memories.
The village was nothing but blackened timbers sticking up through the snow, lonely and forlorn. Hunter showed the place he’d laid the villagers. Then the grim work of learning what had befallen the villagers began so that they might be avenged.
When he had come upon the tragedy, Hunter had worried first about burying the villagers to protect them from Winter scavengers. He had come late to the massacre, snow already hiding some of the carnage so that as they tried to make sense of the horror they came upon bodies, bodies torn by scavengers at times, but at others frozen in icy snow, as they were, by the rictus of death.
Horrific wounds marked the folk. Many seemed mauled as if by animals, but as they ranged out from the buildings they found weapons, sharp edged stones embedded in mauls, short stone tipped spears, bone hafted obsidian knives, and here and there something man made and innocent as a rusty kitchen knife turned into something vicious. Many of the weapons had fetishes attached to them made of bone and human hair.
The mood at camp was somber and watchful. Clearly a war party of some strength had fallen on the village. They were savages, without the use of metal, but they were accomplished killers and well organized if the totality of slaughter was any indication. The deaths in the village had been brutal, but relatively quick. Not so those who seemed to have escaped or even fought back. In the woods there were bodies of people who had suffered cruel and intentionally long deaths.
The night was long, but few could console themselves in sleep. Everyone knew there would be more grizzly finds on the morrow. The watch did not need to be reminded to keep themselves from dozing. It was fairly clear that where their kin had been slaughtered was now enemy territory.
Finally the sun rose, blood red, tinging the world with anger as the men gathered themselves for another depressing day of finding the dead.
There was a foreboding, a sense of dread, as they approached a rocky gorge. They were not surprised to find a body on the ice rimed rocks below. It was a surprise that for once nobody was related to the corpse. With ropes and much clamoring and hauling they brought the dead thing up.
The body was not human, at least not in the way any of them would recognise humanity. It was obviously one of the raiders, they found brutal stone tipped weapons like those they found in the villagers. The creature, though slightly shorter than the men of the party, was heavier, with a savage visage, powerfully muscled, and perhaps most alarming of all, it was female.
There was a clear trail along the top of the cliff. Hunter felt the foreboding worst of all from that direction. Now that they knew their enemy a bit better they all clinched their weapons tighter and looked around furtively, fearing ambush around every tree.
Hunter led them, step by step, into the dark foreboding wood. There was no breeze to stir the Winter dead branches that clawed toward the sky. “Do you smell it?” Hunter murmured as much to himself as those with him. there was a stink in the still air, a stench of sulfur and corruption.
The land rose until they topped a rise, the stench smote them in the face. Moss hung trees formed a dark tunnel down into the sheltered copse.
“I’ll not go there,” a man’s quavering voice suggested he might not stand either, and there were murmurs of agreement.