Sanders waved the soldiers along, leading them into the woods, flicking his gaze between the treeline and the ground, for tracks, shreds of clothing, anything. Not one trace of blood. Undoubtedly one of the raiders had been struck. One hundred feet into the forest, a thick bed of pine needles, covered a patch of forest floor, masking tracks.
A four-winged crow cackled and took flight, its flapping wings a sharp clap in the air. The cool air mixed with fresh pine and teased Sanders with the hope that winter would soon be over. His bones ached for warmth. The crunch of the needles beneath him punctuated the melancholic groans of the pines.
“Aric?” Sanders asked.
“Nosir.” Aric’s voice was loud and crisp, the voice of a soldier whose short tenure in the Negdamian army had drilled into him the need for calm and precision.
“Secure,” Sanders said.
Secure. The word was foreign in this place.
Vapour streamed from out of Sanders’ nostrils. He drew in a breath, ignoring the rush of blood in his ears. His grip on his sword eased as he scanned the treeline for hidden archers, but only a charcoal-coloured squirrel the length of his shin looked at him from a branch twenty feet away.
Sanders’ jaw tightened at the prospect of more attacks as the weather improved.
Terrified workers emerged from hiding as Sanders led his soldiers back to the lumber camp. Sanders paused by a nervous horse, pawing at the snow. “It’s all right,” he said, and he reached out to stroke the mare’s neck and whisper words of comfort in her ear.