[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This chapter is in Cullen’s daughter Isabo’s POV]
Isabo winced as sweat stung the corner of her eye. She spun, blocking a high sword slash that might have crippled or even severed her right arm. Dancing to the left, she dropped her shoulder as if preparing to close with her opponent–and staggered as a heavy blade arced through the air, missing her head by inches. She flinched, turning her head from her enemy. He pivoted and delivered a furious roundhouse kick to the back of her knee. She tottered, regained her balance and staggered backward toward the edge of the low cliff.
“Ounwe’s teeth!” she cursed, and charged at the tall fighter, raising her own sword in a lumbering overhand attack. Her adversary parried the clumsy stroke, sidestepped, and dealt her a crashing backhand blow to the chest with the flat of his blade. She coughed out a curse and leapt out of range, gasping for breath.
“Is that the best you can do?” she panted, and lunged toward him again. She hammered at his sword arm, hoping to knock the thick blade from his hand. Her own arm ached, but she drove forward, angling to push him toward to the edge of the hill. He backed away at each stroke, nearer and nearer to the edge of the worn flagstones and a ten-foot drop to the hillside below. He grunted and faltered, lowering his blade—just enough.
Isabo smiled and redoubled her attack. As he stepped backward, just off balance, she lunged, aiming a scything blow at his elbow. He parried, anticipating the blow, and with two deft strokes Isabo lay on her back.
“You’ll be the death of me, Wulf,” she said, panting.
Her companion laughed and dropped to one knee beside her. He pulled the battered steel helm from his head and mopped his brow. “No, girl,” he said. “You’ll be the death of you if you don’t keep up your guard. You charge into the fight like a half mad ape without a thought for your enemy.” He pushed a sweaty wisp of dark hair from her eye and frowned. “I’m fond of you, Isabo Cullen, but a troll won’t give you time to recover. And he won’t give you a love tap with the flat of his blade. Maybe you should stick to scouting, like your father. You track better than you fight.”
Isabo sat up and rubbed at her shoulder and bicep, aching from a flurry of Wulf’s ‘love taps’. “I can do both. I need to do both. A tracker needs to be able to handle a weapon.”
“Well,” Wulf said with a wicked smile, “you really are getting better. At this rate, in a year or two you could almost be left alone with a sword without too much danger of taking off your own foot.”
“Ow! That wounds, Wulf!” Isabo clutched at her chest. “I’m slain to the heart!”
He leaned close and kissed her. “You’re also a bit of a goose. You can’t be slain to the heart. In the heart, certainly, but not to the heart.”
Isabo returned the kiss, lingering, breathing in his earthy scent. She caressed his rough, stubbled cheek. “In the heart, to the heart, or through it, mine belongs to you, Wulf Wheatley.”
He chuckled and stood, pulling her to her feet. “And mine to you. You know, Iza, I intend to marry you when your father gives his blessing.”
It was her turn to laugh. “If he gives his blessing, you mean,” she said. “He’ll not do that until the trolls are hunted down and slain.” She ran an aching hand through sweat-damp hair—it had been a good bit of swordplay, whatever he said.
“I’ll convince him, trolls or no,” Wulf said.
She raised an eyebrow and shook her head. “What will you do, track him down while he’s on a hunt and ask him? You can track about as well I fight.”
Wulf sheathed his sword and grinned. “Maybe I will. How could he refuse his daughter a husband like me? That would just be cruel.”
Isabo sighed. She wasn’t opposed to marrying Wulf, but now was not the time. She limped to the edge and contemplated the settlement at the base of the hill. A scarce few dozen houses huddled behind a palisade of trimmed pine logs. For most of her life, the gates of Hallam’s Rest stood open. Infrequent traders visited from Cleft a dozen leagues north or from Tall Grass to the south. But when scouts spotted trolls in the area, the gates were barred. Traffic to north or south was forced to trek around the Watchers Hill, adding leagues to the journey.
“My father has other things to worry about just now,” Isabo said. “He and Arden Luck won’t rest or take another thought while those beasts are still out there.” She glanced northward—the direction her father had taken. The road from town curled around the western edge of the Dimwood. In the distance, a lone figure jogged toward town. He had the long, easy stride of a plainsman.
“Look,” Isabo said. “Someone’s coming along the North Road.”
Wulf followed her gaze, shading his eyes from the noonday sun. “I see someone, I think.”
“How can you not? He’s right there, past the second hill.” She glanced at Wulf. “That’s why I’m the scout and you aren’t. But I think I know him. That’s Tallard. He’s a scout from Cleft, up by the Chalk Cliffs.”
Wulf shook his head and gave a low whistle. “I can barely tell there’s a person out there. What color are his eyes? Does he have a ring in his nose?”
Isabo jabbed him with an elbow. “Hush,” she said.
She turned back toward the town, placed two fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle. Below, a watchman on the wall looked up the hill and waved.
Isabo returned the wave and pointed north.
When she saw him acknowledge, she turned to Wulf. “Let’s go. Maybe he’s seen my father.”
* * * * *
A dozen townspeople gathered around the open town gate, clamoring for news about the traveler. Isabo pushed through the crowd with Wulf Wheatley behind.
“Hey, Iza. Hey, Wulf,” a voice called. “It’s about time you two came down from the hill. What were you doing up there? Did you hear? A scout is coming down the road.”
Isabo smiled at the gangly figure of her brother Amon, a stringy boy of fifteen. “We were sparring,” she said. “And you should be at home minding the sheep.”
“The sheep can mind themselves.” The boy pointed a thumb at the crowd. Stragglers hurried up to see what the excitement was about. “See? Everybody wants news. Maybe the scout has word of Pop and Arden Luck.”
“I hope so,” she said.
The traveler came in sight over the low rise north of town. As he drew near, Isabo strode forward with Wulf and Amon to meet him.
“Welcome, Tallard,” she said to man. “I saw you coming from up on the hill. Have you seen my father? What news of the trolls?”
The scout met her eye. His face was lined and weathered and he wore a travel-stained cloak. He nodded and gave her a half smile. “You’re Cullen’s daughter. I remember you from when last I was here. I hoped I’d find you here. There’s news, but you won’t like it.”
He reached into a pouch at his belt and drew forth something wrapped in in a worn kerchief. Opening the small bundle, he revealed a pale green sheet of woven mulegrass and pine needles a little smaller than his palm.
Isabo gasped. “That’s a tale-teller. My father uses those to leave messages.” She glanced at Wulf and said, “Each knot and weave is part of the message.”
“Here now! Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” a tall wiry man said, pushing his way to the front of the crowd. “I’m the only one here on the town council. Once the council is called and assembled we can have the news properly.”
Tallard gave him a doubtful eye but rewrapped the tale-teller in the kerchief. “You’re Patro. I remember you as well. Call your council then. News I have, and it’s not good, but I’ve been on the move for three days to get here. Give me food and drink. I’ll tell you what I can and then I must be away north. There’s no telling how many trolls have come across the Roaring River.”
Patro nodded officiously and said. “We’ve an inn nearby with all you need. But first I must send for the rest of the council.”
Tallard waved a dismissive hand. “I don’t care who hears else it, just take me to the food.” He looked up at Isabo. “You come, too.”
* * * * *
By the time the council arrived—the blacksmith Bullis, Seala the herbalist, and Patro—Tallard had nearly finished his meal in the common room of the Black Goat Inn. The three watched in expectation as the scout pushed a wedge of bread through a bowl of mutton stew.
The scout glanced across the table at Isabo. “I’ve known your father for years,” he said to her, “and Arden Luck. They went out together after trolls?”
Isabo nodded. “Two weeks ago. Have you seen them?”
He took a long pull on his beer, wiped his mouth with a calloused hand, and shook his head. “I came on the same trail they were following. If I had to guess, I’d say your father and Luck tracked them from the Dead Plains back to the forest. I came on a troll camp up inside the north edge of the Dimwood.” He reached into his pouch and took out the tale-teller, laying it on the table. “That’s where I found this.”
“They’ve been taken, then?” Patro asked.
“Tell me what you make of this,” Tallard said, pushing the grass weave across the table and ignoring Patro. “I found it hidden in the trolls’ camp four days ago. I got there no more than a couple days after they’d moved on eastward.”
Isabo examined the crosshatched pattern of grass and pine needles, trying to remember the weave and knot patterns her father taught her. “Three, no, four days after the new moon. Traveling east with . . . trolls.”
Tallard nodded. “That’s how I read it as well.”
Now Patro leaned forward, his voice a nervous quaver, and repeated, “Cullen and Luck were captured by trolls?”
The scout didn’t speak for a moment, then nodded, “Luck is dead—butchered. I found what was left of him. Filthy beasts carved him up like a slaughtered deer.”
Patro fidgeted and made weak retching sounds. Isabo shook her head at the man, hoping he’d keep his lunch inside him.
Tallard mopped the last of the stew with his bread. “There wasn’t a bit of meat left on him,” he said. “They stripped and smoked the meat and gnawed his bones while they waited. By the time I got there, not much remained.”
Isabo watched the man chew and swallow. Her own stomach gave a queasy lurch. “They captured my father and ate Arden Luck,” she said.
Wulf looked to Isabo and spoke. “Then we go after them.”
Patro waved his hands and gave Wulf a dismissive look. “Let’s not be hasty, young man. What if there are more trolls out there, or what if this pack of beasts comes back? If half our people are gone hunting these creatures, we’d be slaughtered, like poor Arden Luck.”
Beside him, Bullis spoke for the first time, his voice was a low, placating rumble. “Isabo, we don’t know your father is still alive. All we have is a few blades of grass woven together. Patro is right; we don’t have enough people to send a hunting party halfway to the Blue Mountains while trolls are about.”
“It’s not halfway we’ll be going, if I read the signs right,” Tallard said. “They come out of the Blue Mountains and that’s where they’ll be heading.” He took a last long swallow from his beer mug. “Though how in Ounwe’s heaven they get across the river I don’t know.”
Isabo sneered at Patro and Bullis. “I’m going after my father. You can cower here if you’d like. I’ll take Tilman, Perban, and Wulf.” She looked to Tallard. “Will you come, too?”
Tallard considered for a few moments. “I need to get back north to my village. I’ve been away for weeks and there may be more of these creatures that came over from their filthy dens across the river. But your father was a friend. I’ll take you to where I tracked them.”
“No,” Patro said. “We can discuss a plan, but for now we need to strengthen our walls and—”
“You can sit home cowering behind your precious walls,” Isabo said. “I’ll going after my father.”
* * * * *
“Amon, we’ll be back as soon as we can,” Isabo said, tightening the straps on her pack. “You stay and tend to the flock. There’s food in the larder and in the garden. Gran Willis next door will look in to see that you don’t starve.”
“But I’m coming with you, Iza,” he declared, his arms crossed and defiant. “I’m fifteen. That’s old enough. I can track scent like you and Pop and I can handle a sword.”
“You have to stay to watch the farm,” she said. “Those murdering trolls captured Pop and killed Arden Luck. I won’t have you injured or killed as well. You’re staying safe here!”
“Ounwe’s bollocks I am!”
Isabo slapped her brother hard across the face. “That’s for blasphemy and for defying me,” she said with a sharp edge in her voice. She paused and then took her brother by the shoulders and lowered her voice. “I’m sorry if that hurt you, Amon, but you have to stay to watch over things here. We’ll be back soon, I promise.”
Isabo pressed her hand over his mouth. “You’re as stubborn as I am, Amon Bray Cullen. Now, are you staying here to watch over things until we return?”
She smiled and said. “What’s that you say? You’ll be pleased to stay here and lovingly tend to things while your sister is away?”
He shook his head and nipped at her hand with his teeth.
She kissed him on the forehead. “Good. We’ll be back quick as we can.”
* * * * *
Tallard led the party along the North Road for two days. He moved quickly, his eyes scanning the five leagues of rolling grasslands stretching from the Dimwood on the east to the gray Dead Plains in the west. Far northward the Chalk Cliffs just scratched the morning sky. A low cloud of brown dust told of a herd of aurochs grazing in that direction.
Isabo decided she didn’t care for the gruff, old scout. He had a bit of her father’s patient watchfulness, yet he was rarely still. She watched as he bent to examine a bruised tussock of wiregrass then straighten to scan westward. He tracks well enough, but something is missing, she thought. After a moment it dawned on her. He didn’t sniff the air.
“You don’t have the scent gift, do you?” she asked.
“I don’t,” he said. “Most scouts don’t.” He paused. “Though I don’t begrudge them that has it.”
Isabo walked to the top of a low rise beside the road and sniffed at the breeze. She caught nothing but the distant tang of the aurochs, just noticeable to the north. She turned, tasting the faint breath of air until she faced the forest a hundred yards to the east. Something’s there, barely. Blood and . . . apples?
Wulf walked up to join her. “What do you smell, Iza?”
“I caught something. A faint waft of something,” she said, pointing toward a narrow valley rising into the woods.
Tallard nodded. “You aren’t wrong. That’s where I was taking you.”
“What’s there?” Wulf asked.
“The troll camp,” he said, “and what’s left of Arden Luck.”