There were eight of us; mercenaries from the north where the winter stayed for but a few months of the year and our people had grown as cold and hard as the frozen ground we lived upon. Three years ago, when we left, there had been twelve. One by one our friends died on some battleground or another, on some raid or another for some lord we did not know and who spoke with an accent that was utterly foreign to us. In another few years we would return to our tribe and bring with us the gold and riches we had accumulated and most importantly – the steel that flooded the mainland and we so desperately needed in the north where we fought against the bears and darker creatures instead of each other.
It was the king's gold we would be taking this time. We were hired to escort a noble to the capital and protect him against highwaymen and bandits that infested the roads on the way there. We did this, received our pay, and then our leader, Borsh, was called upon by one of the king's agents. I caught a glimpse of his badge, bright gold on his tunic, before he vanished into private consultation with the large northman that ordered the rest of us around. Two days later we were packed with fresh supplies – everything we wanted – and heading west for the midlands.
I rode in the rear of our group. My horse was the smallest of the lot, a gray mare with a gentle temperament, and responsive even to my awkward commands. Even after two years I still had not mastered how to ride for these animals were dumb compared to the goatish larkans was had in the north. Those were intelligent animals built for the heavy snows and bitter cold, able to climb the terrain and smell danger on just the slightest breeze. We had left them behind in one of the first outposts and bought horses instead as the larkans would not be able to tolerate the heat of the rest of the human lands. I missed mine dearly.
It was Borsh who was calling my name. There was urgency in his voice and none of the teasing that was reserved for me. I was the little one of the group, Little Mekkla, Little Girl, or just Little. There had been another woman with us, but she had died, and there had been someone younger than me too, but he had died as well. So I was Little Mekkla and the men treated me like their own sister.
I kicked my horse and she obediently carried me towards the head of the group. The others were reigning in their own mounts and we were soon at a stop at the crest of one of the rolling hills that covered this land. The midlands were a wasteland of rock and short grass where the sky stretched on unending before us. It made us all uneasy to see such an open expanse and I knew that my companion's hearts yearned for the forests and the mountains again just as mine did. This was an unnatural place.
"Do your eyes see it?" he asked me. I squinted. My eyesight had not started to fade with age like it had with some and it was honed from practice to see things far away. It was how I fought – with a bow and my steel-tipped arrows and Tarth nearby with a sword drawn to keep anyone off of me while I picked off our foes one by one.
I nodded. On the horizon was a squat lump of dull brown, made duller by the gray sky behind it. There was no other detail I could make out from this distance.
"We should be there in another few hours," I said, "Shall I ride up here and keep a lookout?"
"Nay, Little Girl, stay in the back but keep your bow strung. I want the swords between us and the fort."
He kicked his horse and one by one the rest of the men filed in behind him. I rejoined the group at the rear and Tarth ruffled my hair as he passed. We had long since traded in our clothing for lighter garments of the south but the thick bands of bronze and the feathers and stones we wore in our hair and around our arms still remained. Each of us had a hat or hood to protect our fair skin from the sun.
"We keep our Little safe, neh?" he said with a smile.
It wasn't that I needed their protection. I had grown up in the same storms that they had and I spent my adolescence hunting the elk with a bow and spear. When I went into the wilderness to claim my adult name I killed a boar by putting an arrow through its eye and I wore its tusks on a beaded necklace now. When Borsh had come asking for young warriors to join his group I had volunteered and left my younger brother to tend to our parents with promises to return with steel and other treasures for the clan. I was trained in the use of a sword but it was my familiarity with the bow that kept me out of most frays, stalking the sides for easy targets. My arms were like the cord of the bow itself – taunt and wiry and honed to deadly perfection. The rest of me remained suspended in adolescence as my body had refused to fill out into a womanly form.
I didn't need to be guarded. I was just something to protect, like they had watched over their own family and their own tribes back home.
The fort slowly rose before us, like a bear rising from its slumber. There were no banners on its walls and no guards either. I watched the skies above it but did not see any crows or other birds of carrion. If everyone within the fort had died of disease then there would be rot and decay and a feast for the vultures. Or else all communication to this outpost had ceased for other reasons, ones that were whispered of among the people of the mainland and were why the king used money to send foreign mercenaries instead of his own men. We feared the beasts that lurked in the snows, that were real and made of flesh and blood – not shadows and spirits.
Borsh again. I urged my horse to the side so I could see around our little group. She shook her head in nervous unease and I put my hand on her neck to comfort her.
"The gate is open," I called out, "Just left open. There are no signs of an attack or forced entry."
"Maybe they got tired of this barren wasteland and went home," Tarth suggested and that got a chuckle out of the men. Who wouldn't want to leave this place, a land that had remained uninhabited for centuries out of fear and superstition? These men here, at the fort, were all ordered here by the king as a first step in establishing a foothold in this land of rock and bare earth. And now it had fallen silent and we were here to find out why.
Our two best scouts went into the fort first. They dismounted from their horses and while I kept my bow at hand with an arrow nocked, they slipped in through the open doors. The wall was high enough so that a horse could not jump it and the front gate was wide enough that three of the animals could ride through abreast. We waited and after a few minutes a bird whistled out at us, a northern bird, and we knew it was safe to enter. We walked our horses inside, Tarth holding the reins to mine as I still had my bow ready. Then we spread out, I knelt in the center of the group and watched along the walls. There was no living creature to be seen. I could see houses, made of timber carted here from the forests that bordered the midland, and posts upon which to tie the horses. Stables. A barracks. Some gardens that were now overgrown with weeds. But not a single creature – no horses, no people. It was eerily silent and I wondered if perhaps the superstitions about these lands were true. After all, the mainland people believed that dragons were merely a legend and I had heard their roars before, shaking the very earth. I said as much to the others.
"Nay," Borsh replied, "Smells more like magic to me. It is a pity we don't have a spirit-walker with us."
That had been said many times before. But the spirit-walkers could not be spared for an expedition such as ours and the mainland mages were too arrogant to lower themselves to be in service with mercenaries from the north.
The sun was hanging low in the sky, its light blotted by the gray clouds that covered the sphere above us. In a few hours it would set and the moon would spread her mantle. Borsh ordered us to split up and search the houses and ensure that nothing lurked in the shadows before we made camp for the night. I felt a tremor of fear at the thought of spending the night in this haunted place but it was either that or outside the walls. Either way, we would be close enough to feel its unnatural presence. At least here we could bolt the doors, which I was ordered to do with the help of Tarth.
A few months ago the group had decided that Tarth and I should be together and were quite unsubtle in their methods to achieving this. Tarth had yet to make any suggestions and I supposed he was waiting for us to return to our homeland, when he could barter for a wedding band and make the proposal official and among our own people instead of in this strange land. I wasn't sure if I would accept but as time went by I grew more and more amiable to the idea.
I closed the doors while Tarth drug over the great beam that held them together. Together we lifted it into place and he turned to me, a glitter in his pale blue eyes. We were like the frost itself, fair-skinned people of white hair and eyes like ice.
"Are you scared of this place, Little Mekkla?" he asked.
"Some," I said, "There are no bodies and no sign that these people have left whether voluntarily or not. Like they simply vanished."
"It is strange." He shrugged. "We're not being paid to puzzle this out though. We're paid to come and return and tell the king what we found. They can do the thinking."
"We leave here soon then?"
"I hope so. You sleep near me tonight, yes?"
A smile crept over my face. He too, was not very subtle in his intentions. We had not slept together – that was for married couples – but we slept near with his sword between the two of us, barely a hands width away from either person as an oath that he would protect me. I nodded.
He started to say something else when a scream pierced the stillness. Tarth drew his sword and I pulled an arrow from my quiver and nocked it as I ran after him. The voice belonged to Lans and it continued in agony for long heartbeats before finally falling silent. We found him on the ground near the stables, laying face-down in a pool of blood, the wound that killed him located clean through his chest. The warriors formed up around us and one of our scouts scanned the ground, brushing aside the dirt and looking for any sign. I could hear my heartbeat in my chest and my vision jerked back and forth between each shadow, searching for an attacker.
"Someone," the scout said, "Very faint footsteps. I can barely tell where they go to."
"We saw no one!" another warrior cried.
Seven of us, then. Just seven left now. I licked my lips and found that all the moisture in my mouth had dried up.
The scout raised his head to speak again. He gurgled helplessly and I watched in helpless disbelief as blood poured from his mouth and a weapon was wrenched from his throat, leaving behind a gaping hole but no sign of where it had come from or even what sort of blade it was. These were ghosts.
"Get to the horses!" Borsh cried, "We can't fight magic!"
Two broke for the horses, the rest covering their backs. I ran alongside them, watching, and Tarth was by my side with his sword drawn. One stopped and started untying the horse from the post and it reared and kicked, landing a hoof in the warrior's chest and knocking him flat. Then it spun and ran. The rest were similarly panicked and I could see them frothing at their bits and their eyes were rolled back in their skulls.
He managed to pick himself up before he died. I saw his body jerk, saw him stagger to the right, so I drew back and aimed my bow to the left of him and let go of the arrow. I was rewarded with a thin cry, like that of an animal, and I saw blood and a faint outline of a humanoid creature. Then the horses moved and I couldn't see any more.
I had another arrow out of my quiver before Tarth gasped in surprise. We were being broken apart, one by one, and Borsh's cries for us to stick together fell ominously silent as I turned. It was like walking in a nightmare, when you can never reach your destination because it always steps just one pace out of your reach. Tarth's face was contorted in pain and blood dribbled from his lips as his sword fell from his hand to land in the dirt. I stood there for seconds and he looked at me before the blunt end of a pole was slammed into my stomach and I doubled over and collapsed onto the ground.
I heard voices. I heard a sharp order in some language I had never heard and Tarth fell not too far from me, an arm's length away with his sword between us and his eyes open and sightless. I reached out and closed them, gently, before they grew clouded over. Very few of us left now.
Another blow from the pole, this time into my ribs, and I felt them crack under the impact. I rolled onto my back, crying out from pain and curled up on myself. I felt hands on my person, slitting the strap to my quiver, taking my sword and knife. I didn't fight them. I couldn't even see, they were like spirits or ghosts and they had killed us all. The invisible hands grabbed my arms and dragged me over to the fence where the horses were being untied and the bodies of my companions loaded onto their backs. I forced myself to watch, to memorize all those who had died so that if I lived by the benevolence of the spirits of the northern mountains that I could bring news to their families. Borsh. Tarsh. Our two scouts. My arms were bound behind me and to one of the posts. Each northern warrior was killed by a single clean wound, aimed to be fatal and swift. They were all granted clean deaths and for that I was thankful. Just one of us left now. Little Mekkla.
The fort grew very quiet as the horses were led off, straining against their reins in protest to whatever was leading them. The door was left open and the only traces of the combat were the puddles of blood, slowly sinking into the dirt. I thought myself alone for a moment before hearing the soft sound of voices from somewhere behind me. What were they waiting for? I was helpless before them – it had taken them only minutes stretched out like eternity before me to slaughter these proud warriors of the northern tribes. I felt despair in my stomach and I bowed my head and wept.
I was there for hours as the sun sunk below the horizon and the night sky remained hidden behind a veil of clouds. I couldn't see the stars and the faint light from the moon only outlined the shadows of the buildings. That was when I saw our attackers walking towards me then, a small group of them gathering around where I was bound. They were as visible as any other living creature and I could see the gentle rise and fall of their chests that meant they breathed. I tried to remember what I had heard of the midlands from the people of the mainland before we left. There were just rumors of strange creatures and spirits that left no trace of their passing. These did not look like spirits to me for they left footsteps and if I were right – bled and died when wounded with steel like any other creature.
But still, they were not human. Their bodies were tall and lithe and they wore no clothing, just bands of twine around their ankles and the muscles on their upper arms. Their faces were thin and their features were slight, the lips barely visible underneath a slight nose and their eyes were wide and slanted under hair that tufted out like that of the lions I had heard of from the desert lands. The joints of their bodies were furred and each hand was long and tipped with claws. The strangest was their skin – a deep purple that seemed to glow luminescent in the moonlight like certain kinds of rock or fungus and there were marks in a lighter shade of the same color, bands around their wrists and strange runic patters on their shoulders and chest. It was impossible to tell their gender and I made the assumption that they were all male.
One stepped forwards and knelt so that our eyes were more even. He was far taller than me and he held a spear in his hand of some metal I did not recognize. It seemed to glow like his skin in the moonlight.
"You know this speech, yes?" he said in the common tongue of the humans. I nodded. His speech was slow and broken and the accent thick but I could understand enough of it.
"You strange humans. Not like the others that came before." He reached out and curled my hair into his fingers. I shuddered away from his touch and he let go.
"Take word back to humans. This our land. Belongs to no others. We kill those that try."
He bared his teeth and I saw how sharp they were, like a wolf's. Then he stood and walked away and two more approached me, one kneeling behind and undoing the bonds that held my hands. Another brought forth a horse and held the reins, watching me stand. I stood there for a moment, hunched over with one hand against my damaged ribs. It was difficult to mount. The horse was skittish and taller than the gray mare I had been riding. I finally managed to drag myself into the saddle and then the creature let go of the reins and I pulled them to myself, turning the horse's head towards the open door to the fort. It was utterly silent again and not even the distant call of a night bird broke the air. The horse broke into a gallop and I held on, leaving the fort behind and returning to the mainland from where we had come.
I did not stop for days until I reached the first outpost in human lands. The horse died and I was taken back to the capital in a wagon, exhausted and recovering from my injuries, where I told my story to the king's agent. I was given the money that was meant for the eight of us and with it I bought the steel we needed and returned to the north, to the winters and far away from these lands of monsters.