Miklos looked up at the lowering skies and then at Hasan. “I seems that we have little choice now. If these are wise beasts they will make their own way back home. we must follow the trail before it is washed away. Bring Fyodoryll if you must. I suspect that would be the safer option.”
Maruc fell into step next to the elf, all the better to keep an eye on her. In some respects she was like Seath. It was disturbing. He wondered if they were related, briefly.
“It seems our Walker of the Quiet Way has taken a shine to you, Fyodoryll. If Feldard had had his way well… but enough of that,” he ducked under a branch. “Do you serve dark masters? Or are you as Hasan has suggested; cleverly duped or simply misguided?”
The captured elf squinted her eyes, and gritted her teeth. Today had produced such a swift change in fortune for her. She had nothing to say to this crew of troublemakers.
Stephan shook his head in disbelief.
“The physical trail is lost. We can’t turn twenty four good horses loose in the woods. We’ll have to follow the ‘trail” of the gobs via word of mouth.”
“Your loyalty to your horses and your clan is commendable, Stefan.” Maruc replied sternly. “But how many lives would you trade for them? I fear any delay will cost lives. Hasan has proven himself in woodcraft and will not lead us astray. Your folk are devout, Mighty Halav will not see them destitute, He will lead your horses to safety. This rain is a sign. To turn from our path, however noble a task, would be to turn or back on Him and our lives will be forfit.”
Maruc clasped Stephan’s shoulder. “Have faith, my friend. Our paths have been intertwined. Do not let doubt enter your stout heart. We must go on, do not leave us.”
“Look for riding tack, Stephen,” said Hasan. “I fear the horses’ speed is our only ally, now that the signs are so faint. We must make up ground quickly.” In the meantime, Hasan tried to pick up the trail the best he could.
The dwarf scowled at the idea of having to ride horseback. He glared down at the gagged and bound elven horse-trader and gave her a nudge with his foot. “Do you know where the goblins you got these horses from were headed? Cooperation.. might just save your neck, elf.”
Fyodoryll was a bit more intimidated by the dwarf. Their race was well known to be hotheaded and impulsive—a dangerous mix. And this one particularly so. “Back to their lair, I suspect,” she replied. “They were in quite a hurry.”
“I am sorry, Maruc. I can not abandon the horses to the woods. Halav does not favor, as far as I’ve learned, foolishness. Your head should also tell you to return the horses as they represent a great wealth. You would surely be compensated and have greater means then to find out what evil lurks in Dimrak. And I would join you.”
Turning to address everyone, “This rain has already removed the gobs’ trace. I have made a solemn oath to my family.” He held up the barely healed wound where his family ring once adorned the middle finger. “If you will pursue the gobs, I pray you Halav’s speed and offer you what horses you need. But I must return the rest as promised. I can then join you in your quest to rid Dymrak of these fell beasts.”
“I fear you judge me harshly, Stephan. I have spent my life away from the cold light of trade and the hard lessons of money. All I see is the choice between the lives of the families in the path of goblins such as your clan, and their livelyhoods which can be rebuilt. But an oath is an oath and I would never ask a man to break one.” Maruc glanced at the falling rain. “I saw this rain as a portent to hasten our steps along our adopted path. Perhaps I was wrong? I am but a servant of Halav and I would be arrogant indeed to assume all my decisions are His. I have faith in Him, not my interpretation of signs.” Maruc grinned to himself.
“I am no woodsman either, although I would guess that it would take time, even in a torrential downpour, for all tracks to vanish, especially if not all the horses were left here. But only Hasan could answer that with any degree of certainty.”
Maruc walked over to the elf, his footprints leaving swift filled puddles. “Our path is set by your woodcraft. We need to know how far ahead of us they are and whether their tracks would become unreadable before we found them. If it proves impossible then our choice would be to return the horses and, as Stephan says, rely on word of mouth to guide our steps. Having faith that there are mouths left to utter them.”
Maruc’s words would prove to be prophetic. The tracks, which lead south, were indeed washed away quickly by the rains, and the group had no choice but to shelter for the night. In the morning, the group returned to Sukiskyn at the insistent urging of Stephan.
The family were grateful—tears of gratitude welling in their eyes—at the sight of Stephan and the horses. After all that had been lost, it was the first sign that they would indeed survive this tragedy.
Four new arrivals appeared with the family. In contrast to the Sukiska clan, they appeared quite solemn. Before long, they introduced themselves. Stephan knew the men, and was anxious to hear what they had to say.
“Well met,” said a confident, muscular young man in battered leather armor. “My name is Gregor. Pyotr has told us much about you. ‘Tis an honor,” he said bowing. “This is Yuri,” he said gesturing to an older man, also quite muscular, wearing a torn black tunic. “And these are Grisha and Grishkal,” now referring to two young men, identical twins in fact, with long black hair, tied back into pony-tails, and dressed in brown working smocks and trousers.
“Three nights before last, our lumber camp was attacked by the goblins,” he explained. “We’ve been hiding in the forest, trying to avoid attack and picking up refugees along the way.”
“As we feared, Sukiskyn was not the only homestead to be attacked,” interjected Pyotr. “Cherkass, Hokol and Segenyev were all destroyed. Gregor and his men have brought precious few of the women and children with them. They are safe inside.”
“They, the ones with the wolves, took the ones they didn’t kill,” said Yuri, gloomily. “The survivors said that the bigger ones ransacked the homes, and when they were done, burned them to the ground”