The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 6

Their original path leading southeast out of the village bore evidence of the creatures’ passing, so Dronkhar turned north into the forest. The trees here were old, and the undergrowth thick, but the ground rose smoothly. Mindful of his injured load, he trudged carefully up the slope. After an hour’s march he crested a rise. The tree line opened to a grassy meadow split by a quiet brook. A gust of wind pushed past them, carrying away the smoky pall that drifted from the wreckage of Tarn.

“They aren’t following us,” Ilinnia murmured. “I can’t feel any trace of them here.”

Dronkhar gave a grunt of acknowledgement and took stock of their surroundings. They might have shaken pursuit, but he wanted to avoid any other prying eyes while he tended to Ilinnia’s leg. The trees were close enough to provide good cover, and the water would be useful for his task. He was no healer, but he had done his share of field-dressings. He set her down under the largest tree nearby and examined the wound more closely.

The wood shard was almost an inch across and buried deep in the muscle, though not far enough to emerge from the other side. Dronkhar swore quietly. No matter how he did this, it was going to hurt. As gently as he could, he gripped the shard. “All right, girl. Are you ready?”

“No,” Ilinnia said, her eyes moist. She took a deep breath and clasped her arms to her chest. “Ai guide your hands.”

Dronkhar braced himself against the tree, counted down, then paused and looked into the distance with surprise. Ilinnia cracked open an eye and turned to follow his gaze. Then he pulled. She gasped breathlessly, and blood poured from the open wound. “Bandages in my pack,” she rasped. He fished around inside, but there was only enough cloth left to make a thick pad for the wound. He tore strips from his tunic and tied them tightly over the bandage and above the gash. Ilinnia quieted again, concentrating on her breathing. Dronkhar jogged down to the stream and filled his flask with cold water.

Walking back to the tree, he caught a glimpse of her face and realized why he had thought of Nolaara at their first meeting. There was a subtle strength hiding in those features. Not the persevering stoniness his wife had possessed, but like the current of a river. Gentle but insistent. His wife would have liked…

No. He wasn’t going to think that she was gone, that he wouldn’t see her again.

“That sohntar…” Ilinnia’s voice intruded on Dronkhar’s thoughts. “He saved our lives.”

“Aye, he did.” Dronkhar lifted her chin and caught her gaze. “But so did you. Without your warning, no one would have escaped that death trap.”

She sniffed and nodded. “I know you didn’t plan for this, but thank you for looking after me.”

Dronkhar scoffed and turned his head away. “We have to get out of here. We gave those ones the slip, but who knows how many more are running around.”

“We need to warn someone about them. Whatever their intent is, they are evil.” Ilinnia slung her bag over her shoulder. “I can sense if any come close to us. I’m ready.”

Dronkhar helped her to her feet and found a suitable walking stick. Their pace would be slow, but his instincts told him that this was not over.

They walked in silence for some time, moving eastward as the terrain allowed. Dronkhar stayed a few paces ahead and kept his gaze searching for any threats, while Ilinnia hobbled behind him. Every so often he could hear her whisper words that sounded vaguely like a prayer. It surprised him when she finally spoke up.

“How is your side?” she asked.

“It was fine until you called attention to it.” Dronkhar glanced back at her, but the scowl he put on couldn’t hide the smile in his eyes. Ilinnia wasn’t fooled, and she laughed at his attempt. “Don’t trouble yourself with it,” he continued, turning forward. “Trust me. I’ve had worse.”

“Quite the pair we make.”

Dronkhar snorted. “You’re only now realizing that?”

Ilinnia laughed again.

The shadows shifted under the thinning trees. The color of the sky darkened as the sun stretched toward the horizon. Dronkhar distrusted the coming night and began to give thought to finding a safe place to camp. Looking back, he saw Ilinnia showing signs of severe discomfort. At last, she stopped altogether. “Wait,” she cried out.

He started toward her, but her gaze grew strangely distant, and he watched her warily. She closed her eyes. “There is something ahead of us. I can’t say with certainty, but it feels like one of those creatures. It’s still far off, but we will cross paths if we continue in this direction.”

Dronkhar tugged on his beard. “Does it feel like we’re being tracked?”

Ilinnia remained quiet for a moment, and his pulse quickened. “No, I don’t think so. It’s going somewhere else.”

“Good.” Dronkhar felt a familiar sensation surging through his body, the anticipation that always preceded a battle. “Keep your senses trained on it. We’ll see where it’s going and then end it.”

Ilinnia looked hesitant at the idea, but she limped forward, leading the way. The minutes dragged by in tense silence when they nearly stumbled into a broken path. Snapped branches and trampled undergrowth were strewn in a line as far as they could see.

Dronkhar turned to face Ilinnia with a serious expression. “I’d wager it’s going that way.”

Ilinnia released a nervous giggle.

She led them down the path toward their foe. Great footprints were burned into the skin of the earth. It had knocked trees and rocks from its path, so single-minded was its course. As they walked, Dronkhar saw that there were more tracks. Smaller prints marked a trail alongside the main route. He knelt suddenly and grabbed something from a patch of scorched leaves. An insignia of flame in worked metal. The sohntar closed his fist around it, his face contorting with rage.

“What is it?” Ilinnia asked, frightened.

“Baelrock,” Dronkhar spat. “The fiend has an escort of the Baelrock clan.”