Despite the evening chill, Pyotr had to stop and dab the swat from his pasty, jowled face. It wasn’t the exercise of walking from the Sanctum to the vaults, it was that cursed letter he had to deliver. It sat in the pocket of his cassock, a simple fold of parchment that bore down on his conscience like a cold and heavy stone. Pyotr felt queasy just thinking about the contents, a wave of regret rolling over him about eating the extra sweetbreads after vespers. He reached a hand into the pocket, his short, thick fingers finding the edge of the parchment and brushing over the wax seal.
Stamped with the crest of the Fifth Tower, the letter had been penned less than an hour ago by Justiciar Servius himself. As his secretary, Pyotr would normally have summoned a boy to run the missive to the Vault but the Justiciar had insisted that Pyotr do it himself. He knew the reason His Grace would not trust another. Should the letter be seen by the wrong eyes, the entire Congregation would suffer. Fear coiled and uncoiled in his expansive gut and Pyotr suddenly found himself heaving up his last meal into a carefully tended garden.
Massive statues of saints, carved into cliffs above the vaults, looked down upon Pyotr, silently admonishing him for his weakness. Centuries old, the stone guardians stood ten times taller than a man, their visage dominating the grounds outside the Congregation vaults. Between Saint Belethon and Saint Augris yawned the vault entrance, like the shadowed maw of a great beast. Clutching the letter, Pyotr was struck by a fancy that if he stepped inside the vaults he would be swallowed up, never to see the sun again. He wiped his mouth with an ink stained sleeve and forced himself to walk between the sentinels. He kept his head bowed so as not to meet their gaze, but he felt their stony judgement all the same. Pyotr swallowed hard and walked on into the shadows.
The North March
Uthwulf stamped the snow from his boots before ducking to enter the crofter’s house. He was broad shouldered and tall, but the similarities to his father ended there. The Marshall kept his hair cropped short and his cheeks bare, but Uthwulf took after his mother’s northern stock. His hair hung past his shoulders in a great blonde mane, and his beard was full enough to braid. While Gerrick was taciturn, his son was renowned for his jovial nature. They shared a love of the North and its people, however; a fierce loyalty that drove them to protect the March, no matter the personal cost. That loyalty had made Garrick a distant father and husband, a quality that could have given Uthwulf cause to resent his father. Instead it drove him to be better, to be a man that his father would respect.
The North-man did not feel particularly jovial as he surveyed the horror inside the roundhouse. The eviscerated torsos of the crofter and his family were arranged at the central table, their severed limbs carefully presented on plates in front of them. Their innards and heads hung from the rafters like an obscene parody of festival decorations. Every surface of the dry-fitted stone walls was covered in insane scribbles, daubed in blood and excrement. Uthwulf whispered a prayer to the saints, thankful that the spring thaw had not yet reached this far north. The entire scene had been frozen, preserved in perfect crystalline clarity. More importantly, there was no smell and no insects. Uthwulf felt sure that was the only reason he kept his meal down. Swallowing a wave of nausea, he stepped back outside.
‘Same as the last one’, said Gheadred. The lanky ranger, his ginger beard dusted with grey, pushed himself off the wall and fell in beside Uthwulf.
‘Aye. And the two before that.’
Uthwulf and his rangers set out from Tol Nordia a week ago, traveling east and following the trail left by the refugees arriving at the citadel. The weary farmers had not seen any raiders with their own eyes, but they had seen columns of smoke on the horizon. They knew only too well what it meant. They had abandoned their homes and livelihoods to seek shelter behind the Citadel’s thick walls, and Marshall Gerrick wasted no time in organising patrols and scouts to seek out the latest menace.
The snow-bound hamlets and homesteads became progressively emptier as the rangers traveled east but there had been no sign of raiders from the Chaos March until, on the eve of the fifth day, they found the burnt out skeleton of a Legion watch tower. The small village clustered at its base had been ransacked, and the hacked up bodies of the garrison lay strewn all about. From there, Uthwulf had followed the raider’s trail as it wended west and north.
Gheadred spat a wad of sourleaf juice into the snow, staining it green. ‘I don’t like it, young wolf. Raiders don’t take their time like this. They don’t stop to leave a message.’
‘I know, Gheadred,’ Uthwulf replied as he reached his horse, running a hand along its neck before continuing, ‘but we have to find them. At least get an idea of their numbers before we send word back to the Citadel.’
‘That’s the other thing. Their tracks keep changing. Yesterday they were a score at most, now I count more than seventy! Ruwen’s Bow, boy. Fifty men don’t just appear out of thin air.’
Uthwulf shrugged. ‘We’ll know more when we catch up. For now, we’d best be moving.’
He put a foot in the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle. Looking back towards the crofter’s dwelling, he called out to a young, clean faced ranger that stood near the door. ‘Leif! Finish your prayers and saddle up.’
Leif, tall and strong like most from Northman stock, bore a serious expression. Some of the men teased him for his piety but he bore it well. ‘My lord. What of the remains? The house?’