Ukase the Dvergar stirred the ashes of the fading fire and added more fuel. The Greater Sun was creeping over the horizon, its light staining the snow covered landscape a startling crimson. He balanced the small cauldron on its tripod and set to making breakfast.
A loud snort followed by a series of coughs and curses came from his left. Glancing over, he saw the powerful form of Cailte sit bolt upright, his black hair standing up on end.
“Good morning Master” greeted the Dvergar “I see the poison didn’t work”
Cailte frowned slightly and scratched his head. His piercing blue eyes settled on Ukase.
“When does it ever work?” he grunted “I’d think you would have given up by now.”
Ukase grinned savagely and dropped some dried meat into the thick gruel he was preparing.
“I’ll give up when I think of something more effective; you did trick me into being your bondsman after all.”
Cailte began to carefully inspect his war axe for nicks and other imperfections.
“There was no trickery, Dvergar; you agreed to be my bondsman till I die in exchange for your liberation from the Sithi. Frankly, I thought you would be more grateful…”
Ukase nodded solemnly, “In fairness though, master; I was unaware that you were an Immortal”
“Not an Immortal,” corrected Cailte “a Halfling, I’m sure you’re aware of the difference. If you are unhappy with our arrangement, I can always return you to the Sithi.”
“Die now or serve for eternity,” grumbled Ukase “that is the Druj’s choice you offer, Cailte.”
“Ukase, you whine endlessly; perhaps this is your new scheme? You intend to annoy me to death?”
“If I thought that would work, I assure you I have a capacity to be annoying that you cannot begin to imagine.”
“I don’t doubt that my vertically challenged bondsman. Now, bring me food and nourishing ale. If it is of sufficient quality, we shall forego the morning beating. Never accuse me of being unreasonable, yes?”
“You are reasonableness incarnate, glorious master” grinned Ukase with a mock bow “I, in return, have not poisoned this particular meal.”
“I am overwhelmed by your loyalty. While I digest this…delightful…meal, you should check on our Nemedhian friends in the next valley. Try not to be observed or caught, we wouldn’t want your life debt to extend into the afterlife as well.”
Ukase tramped through the snow, which in some areas was a high as his waist. It took him about a half hour to find a suitable vantage point to view the Nemedhians. A large boulder overlooked the vale, which Ukase crept towards, keeping an eye on the sentry points below.
When he reached the rock, Ukase called upon the innate power of his people and slowly phased himself into the boulder itself. From the centre of the large stone he could view the valley below without any danger of being seen himself.
The valley below was taken up with a large camp, complete with temporary fortifications. He watched as the Nemedhian legionnaires began to swiftly dismantle their camp. Ukase focussed his gaze on the command tent in the middle of the camp. He took note of the figures which emerged from the tent and attempted a head count of the figures below. He also took note of the golden standard outside the command tent.
The Dvergar waited for the Nemedhians to start their march before leaving his vantage point. His Dvergar nature, mildly impressed at the speed which the legionnaires readied themselves to continue their journey into the north.
“Well?” demanded Cailte as Ukase waded through the snow back to their camp.
“There are somewhat over a thousand of them, master. It’s one of the borderlands Legions from the south, the Ninth, I believe.”
“What in the name of the Underworld are they doing all the way up here?” mused Cailte “Another day’s march will take them into the territory of the Clans of the Mound.”
“If I might offer more details, I observed the Nemedhian Nestor emerging from the command tent.”
“Nestor? The trader? That makes even less sense. Surely he’s not going to try and create a trade route to the Mound Clans.”
“The Nemedhians did have a large number of covered sleds with them; it’s certainly possible they are on a trading expedition.”
Cailte considered all of this. The Clans of the Mound had never submitted to Nemedhian rule. Indeed they feuded with Cailte’s clansmen on the very basis that they did pay tribute to the Emperor.
“Pack our belongings, bondsman; the ravens are circling and blood will be spilt this day.”
“With respect master, you could have done that when I was risking life and limb spying on the Nemedhians.”
Cailte considered this. He then reached out and applied a scholarly smack to the side of Ukase’s head.
“I could have done that,” he agreed “but that’s your job, so get on with it.”
Nestor rode at the head of the winding Nemedhian column. Though his face betrayed nothing, he was experiencing a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. This could be the day he became a legend in the Empire; the man who brought the heathen Clans of the Mound into the fold, as trading partners to begin with and then later, when the time was right, as a subject people.
The task had been a long and arduous one; before even reaching the territories of the Mound Clans, Nestor had been compelled to bribe no less than seven of the Highland Godelian Clans to assure safe passage back and forward.
Then had come the tense, initial meetings with the representative of the Mound Godelians. Nestor had made the trip four times previously, each times extolling the virtues of Nemedhian civilisation to the northern barbarians.
The representative, a woman named Ishel had claimed to only be able to speak for her own Clan, but had explained to Nestor that with the fine steel weapons made by the Nemedhians she could seize control of enough other Clans to force the remaining into agreement.
Nestor was no fool, however, and suspected her clansmen would try to merely steal the weapons. To discourage that kind of thinking, he had called in favours to arrange for a Legion to escort the goods. Although the Ninth were not true Nemedhians, they were an auxiliary Legion; he deemed they would be able to dissuade any treachery by their numbers alone.
Nestor smiled to himself. If he pulled this off, he would truly be the rising star of the Guild of Merchants. Honours and praise would be heaped upon him and the naysayers would be dismayed.
“They appear to be heading towards Glen Rath” remarked Ukase.
“One of the best ambush spots in the area,” agreed Cailte “I feel embarrassed on their behalf; they’re walking into the most obvious trap I’ve ever seen. I’ve obviously misjudged Nestor; he’s clearly some kind of simpleton.”
Cailte paused for a moment’s thought.
“We need to get ahead of them, see what’s waiting at the Glen. Ukase, it’s time for you to employ some of your foul sorcery.”
“My foul sorcery is yours to command master; I think that the rocks over yonder would suffice for our purposes.”
Cailte and Ukase approached a large stone, half again Cailte’s height and three times his width. Ukase made a few arcane gestures and muttered under his breath. The surface of the stone began to shimmer and then ripple, like the surface of a pool of water.
Cailte stepped forward and then walked through the rippling rock surface, disappearing from view. Ukase glanced about and then followed him. A second or two after Ukase stepped into the rock, its surface returned to its normal solid state.
Cailte and Ukase emerged from a rocky pinnacle on the steep west side of Glen Rath. Both sides of the valley were incredibly steep and covered with evergreen trees. At the northern end of the Glen, a wisp of smoke indicated the presence of a small camp.
Cailte closed his eyes and focused his mind. He let his awareness drift down the slopes of the Glen and slowly fill it.
“The woods are filled with warriors,” he observed in a distant voice “and there’s another Halfling down there, I felt the edges of her power.”
“I can smell Trolls, master”
Cailte snapped out of his trance at this.
“You can actually smell them?”
“Yes master, there are several dozen”
“So you have a good sense of smell then?”
“What about your sense of taste?”
“Also superior, master”
“Then why is your cooking so bad?”
Cailte hefted his war axe and regarded Ukase.
“We can both see how this is going to go, I think. I propose the following; once the killing starts you grab Nestor and get him to safety and I will question this other Halfling.”
“Why are we doing this, master?”
“Because something… unusual… is happening here. I don’t know what it is and I hate that. I would imagine the two people I mentioned are best informed and thus we will ask them what’s going on while the Nemedhians are being slaughtered.”
“This is a dangerous way to satisfy your curiosity, master”
“Ukase, you are a coward and you disgust me. I would behead you on the spot, but for the dishonour it would do to my weapon. Now, be silent and find a position in the lower tree line. Kill anyone who sees you. I will place myself as close to the Halfling as I can without alerting her to my presence.”
The pair clasped hands briefly and then moved off in different directions, Ukase to the south east, Cailte to the north east of the Glen.