A southerly wind blew the dry needles on the yellow cedars, sending an eerie moan through the forest. A shiver raced down Sanders’ spine. He spun on his heel, sword ready, knees bent, ready to lunge into combat. But there was nothing behind him except a dense forest, shadows that played tricks on his mind, and more questions.
At his feet lay three wounded men. Two days into the week and already four good men killed and six too injured to work. Sanders had failed in his responsibility towards them as he had failed his responsibility towards the woodsmen lying in the bloody snow at his feet.
As a boy, Lord Sanders Maksiner Persungen’s father had told him and his brother stories of their grand mission to save the world from an ancient foe. Sanders had dreamed of magnificent buildings, sword fights and adventures, ancient ruins and glory—not mud, blood, groans of pain, and cold so brutal it made bones brittle.
A crash in the thick forest. Sanders and five of his best guardsmen ran toward the sound, but the snowpack slowed them, and they were too far behind to catch up. The raiders vanished along their secret trails to dugouts and caves, or wherever they went to bend heads together and plot their next attacks.
Sanders and his troops ran back to the clearing and Sanders dropped to his haunches next to the first injured worker. The long shaft of an arrow stuck out from the labourer’s side and blood-soaked his shirt. The worker clutched at it, grimacing. A few feet away, a man held a bundled shirt to his head and a second man winced as a tradesman saw to the gash on his leg.
Sanders moved to the downed worker, protecting him, knowing raiders often doubled back after an attack.
“Stay down.” The name of the worker danced on the tip of Sanders’ tongue. He’d seen the black-haired fellow around, recognised his bent nose and scarred cheek. The labourer always slapped others on their backs, encouraging them, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember the man’s name.
Around the logging camp, a dozen workers crouched behind carts and boulders, the whites of their eyes large and stained red from sleepless nights. A nervous horse whinnied and stomped its front hoof on the ground, tossing its head from side to side to free its reins from the cart.
A rustling in the woods sent the workers scattering like dandelion seeds in the wind towards the nearest rock, tree stump, or overturned cart. Sanders swung around, his blade poised to strike, then he relaxed. A squirrel jumped from tree to tree, and with each bounce, a pinecone dropped to the ground.