"Get up, Tresh! Stay quiet!" whispered Loric urgently. "Nothing is stirring in the woods. There are orcs about."
As Tresh sat up, his blanket fell away. The crisp morning air rapidly replaced the warmth his meager cover had afforded him throughout the night.
Loric, packing quickly, added, "I smell smoke too. And it isn't from a cooking fire."
Tresh looked around the encampment, taking in the hurried but nearly silent movements of soldiers breaking camp. Several scouts trotted into the woods to the north, pulling their bows from their backs and reaching for their quivers. The contingent of squires traveling with the company busily checked straps, adjusted bridles, and helped align the horses into formation.
Reaching for his own pack, Tresh hurriedly placed his blanket and kit inside then closed and tightened the straps in the practiced way of a seasoned soldier. His horse stood ready, impatiently pawing the ground. As he slung the pack over his mount's back, Tresh caught his first scent of the smoke, an acrid, heavy smoke kindled from violence.
"Let's move carefully. No noise. Keep your weapons in their scabbards. I'll tell you when to get them out," Loric brusquely commanded as he mounted his stallion. Behind him, the column of mounted soldiers sat motionless waiting for his signal. "The scouts have the trail!"
Tresh quickly mounted his own horse, taking his position as second in command, directly behind his commander. Loric urged his horse forward slowly and rode into the woods following the path the scouts had taken moments ago, his raised hand signaling everyone to follow.
Tresh urged his horse onward, his thoughts falling back to the frantic days past. The company had crossed a small stream several days ago, west of here. There they had discovered the frenzied trampling of a large orc band. Loric had abandoned their planned patrol as he pushed the company along the orcs' trail. Since then, they had crossed their own pursuit route three times as they followed the destructive path. All told, two small farms, a hapless merchant, and two outriders from Loric's own forces had fallen prey to the vicious marauders. The mutilated and slashed corpses left in the wake of the monsters told Loric everything. These orcs were bent on destruction and mayhem. Loric had to stop them before they could kill and terrorize again.
As the company entered the woods, Tresh spied the lead scout, Milar, running toward them. Motioning for the company to halt, Loric leaned down to receive the report from the scout. As Milar saluted, Tresh directed his horse alongside Loric's to hear the conversation.
"We found the source of the smoke, Captain. Shortly past those trees, is a meadow with a wagon road running through. It looks like they set up their ambush on a low ridge on the far side of the clearing. They must have waited until the caravan was directly below them before unleashing their arrows. Then they charged down the hill to finish the task," the scout explained.
"Did you see any movement on the far side?" asked Loric.
"Nothing was moving. But the trees are thick and densely packed on the other side. I cannot say whether those orcs are still about or not. It certainly is quiet-too quiet for my tastes. The other scouts are still watching for any movement."
"What about the clearing? What's the situation there? Any survivors?"
Milar looked down and, in that brief moment, Loric knew the answer. Milar confirmed it. "No, sir, not that we can see. But it looks as though the orcs applied their usual gruesome manner."
"Thanks, Milar," Loric said solemnly as he nodded to the scout. "Resume your watch. I will be up shortly."
The scout, with a quick salute, turned and jogged back the way he had come. Loric dismounted, turned to Tresh and motioned for him to do likewise, and signaled him to follow. The two commanders stopped after a short walk, remaining in sight of the column.
"I don't like it, Loric," Tresh began, "I don't like this one bit. This shows all signs of an ambush meant for us."
"Well, I don't much like it either but I don't think we are the targets this time. Look how close we were camped and our sentries were unaware of them. If the orcs wanted us, they would have attacked while most of us were sleeping."
"Perhaps, but this doesn't feel right. They have to know we are following them by now."
"They might and they might not. In either case, let's go take a look at the situation before we go any farther."
Tresh returned to the company, told them to hold their position, and then moved to rejoin Loric, who had already made his way toward the scouts. Reaching the wood's edge, Tresh found Loric already crouched behind a large fir tree. Taking up his own position behind a fallen log, Tresh looked out onto the grisly scene. Several small wagons were smoldering in the middle of the meadow, some with the carcasses of horses still attached to their harnesses.
"Where are the bodies?" Tresh whispered to Loric. "These orcs have never taken prisoners or trophies from their other massacres. Do you think those families got away?"
"We can hope, but sadly I don't think that is the case, Tresh." Loric's brow furrowed as he looked ahead. Turning back to Tresh, he continued, "Go back to the men and bring them from the east. Drop down through those trees over there and enter the clearing. I will wait here with the scouts. We'll cover your advance."
"Aye, Loric. But make sure that ridge is in range of our bows. We are riding in with an unprotected flank."
"Have no worry of that, my friend. You're no good to me dead," replied Loric, letting a small smile form. "And Tresh, be careful."
Tresh turned back toward the deeper woods, maintaining his crouch as he made his way back to the waiting soldiers. Loric continued watching the clearing. After several tense minutes of waiting, Loric finally saw Tresh break through the tree line with the rest of the soldiers in two lines behind him. The scouts around Loric drew their bows and sighted their arrows on the opposite ridge. The mounted formation continued down from the cover of the woods onto the trail. Watching their unimpeded progress, Loric breathed a sigh of relief as Tresh reached the first wagon: There were no battle cries, no charging orcs, no sound of arrows in flight. Loric continued observing Tresh as he began directing the men to cordon off the wagons. He noticed that the soldiers faced outward, watching for any threat.
"Milar, keep your men here and stay vigilant. I am heading down to meet them." With that quick command, Loric walked out of the woods and into the meadow. As he neared the wagons, he could smell the smoldering wood, the burnt wool the traders had been carrying, and another smell that he knew all too well-the scent of burnt flesh. His fears were confirmed as he approached the darkened lumps he had spotted from the edge of the woods. All told, he counted twelve lives lost, twelve more transgressions that demanded justice.
Navigating his horse through the debris of smashed chests, scorched bags of wool and flax, and smoldering wagons, Tresh looked for any sign of survivors. As he passed the fourth overturned wagon, Tresh heard a thumping sound coming from inside it. Sliding off his horse and quietly drawing his sword, Tresh approached the wagon. Loric noticed his friend's actions and moved to join him.
The upended wagon had provided a small crawl space at the back, just big enough for someone to squeeze into. As Tresh approached the opening, he heard the thumping again. Kneeling down, he peered into the darkness and caught a glimpse of something inside, something moving. At the same time, a small cry broke out from the wagon.
"No! Leave me alone, please ... don't hurt me."
"Tresh, what have you got there?" inquired Loric.
"I'm not sure yet, but I think it is one frightened little boy. Let me see if I can get him out of there."
Laying his sword aside, Tresh worked his way into the upturned wagon and found a child. "Come on, little one. I am not going to hurt you. The orcs are gone. We are here to help you."
A small hand reached out and grasped Tresh's arm. Tresh reciprocated by clasping those fingers with his own and gently pulled the terrified child out of the wagon. Wrapping the boy in his cloak, Loric took the child from Tresh and cradled him. Loric felt the small form shiver and shake. "It's all right, little one", he whispered. "I won't let anyone hurt you.""Loric, that isn't a child you are holding."