The men had continued riding forward, staying completely silent. All of them had seen corpses before; even some of them had slain men. But what concerned them is that a tribesman, whose voracity in combat was known but their forethought was lacking, had smashed their head into a tree until they died. No man did that. None of them had even heard of such a thing. In their minds, they began speculating about what could have driven him to do so. How far had he been running? Where did he come from? Were they due to face the same fate?

Sigi could hear the discomfort from the men behind him as he looked further on for any other signs. The forest continued on for a while, and the clouds were beginning to gather above. Though the tops of the trees swayed in the wind, the men were generally sheltered from the weather. The ground showed little sign of snow from the few nights before, so if the weather continued to worsen, they would be kept from it. Sigi was thankful for it; a bad nights sleep coupled with the thoughts the men were having would not bode well if combat ensued. He needed to ensure they were as rested as possible.

Though the ground on the forest leveled off to make for easier travel, the vegetation on the floor remained constant. It was lush despite the winter months, and stood at least to the knee in some spots. When the clouds allowed it, the sun shone through the branches, giving rays of beaconing light through the top of the forest. Eventually, Sigi saw light snow attempting to assault through the upper ceiling of the trees. It did little except to fall a few feet below it before being caught on the branches. It felt like the same type of storm he had walked through just nights prior. He pulled the hood over his head, gaining some sense of warmth from it. He looked back, to see some of the men doing the same.

The path widened a bit to allow them to ride at least two wide, and some of the men began doing so. But they didn’t speak. Everything was communicated between them with their body language alone. As Sigi looked at some of them, they seemed afraid to speak of the topic that was on the forefront of everyone’s mind: the bludgeoned tribesman. Sigi decided it was time to rest a bit, as it had been at least four hours since their encounter with the corpse. He brought his horse to a halt. The others behind him did the same.

Sigi’s words cracked the silence almost uncomfortably. “Let’s rest for a bit, and remember we have legs.” Some of the men grunted their acknowledgement, while others simply slid off their saddles next to their horses. Hergar was among them, reaching into one of the satchels on the horse for water. He was the first to look around, and when the others saw him doing so, they began to follow suit. They were looking for other signs. Sigi took a deep breath. He was used to much more calloused men; he almost felt like he was babysitting.

“There must be demons in this forest,” one of the men finally spoke out. Sigi looked to him passively. “Perhaps it is possible one of them was holding the tribesman by his head and bashed him into the tree.”

“Then why the scratches on the hands from the treebark?” Sigi interjected. It felt like a chance to crack the superstition taking hold of the group. “He was holding the tree while he did it to himself. As repulsive as the Goron may be, they still leave footprints. I don’t know of anything that doesn’t leave some kind of trail.”

The words rested on the men’s ears, but it was apparent the words were having a hard time sinking into them. Hergar looked back at Sigi. “Be that as it may, if a tribesman was driven mad–”

“Then we have a better chance,” Thom interrupted, coming up the horse line. “We have a lot more sense about us than the tribesmen do. For all we know, his lady might have done something brash. Or his sister. Or maybe his lady was his sister, and he found out.”

Some of the men looked down for a moment, apparent that the tension in the air had relaxed a bit. The winds picked up again in the trees, giving their soft roar through the treetops as darker clouds began to settle. Sigi looked around, seeing they were still well covered.

“Well regardless of it,” Relman added, “We’re still looking for proof that the Goron, or something greater, has begun amassing to assault the territories south. We’re not here to go in and combat whatever it was that scared off the tribesman. We’re here to just find out and head back.”

Some more of the men nodded and a few murmured. Sigi nodded as well, in acknowledgement and also in relief that the other men were thinking sensibly. He then felt a slight cringe as Telmar spoke up.

“Why fifteen of us, then?” Telmar asked. “If we were to simply scout and return, we could have done it with fewer numbers. Lord Rothgard could have sent fewer people with..” he gestured at Sigi, “…him.”

“From what I can gather,” Sigi countered, “you’ve all had a vested interest in what happens with your keep, and your Lord. It would make sense to me that, as you all seem to know him well enough, that each of you would likely know what information he wants in return.” Sigi pointed to them all. “Each one of you can provide a unique perspective on the scouting when we do encounter them. That’s what he needs.”

If we find it,” Telmar reminded. “The tribesman– no doubt– indicated something is wrong. But we need to find it.”

Sigi nodded. “I agree with you completely, for a change. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Telmar persisted. “How long will it be before we determine there is nothing to be found?”

Sigi conceded to the point. “You all know where the tribeslands are. We’re about in them already. When we find a stripped village, this will show you what I have been talking about.”

Telmar held up his hand. “No, it won’t. It’ll show that a village is gone. We need to find something showing us that the Goron are responsible.”

“He is right,” Relman agreed uncomfortably. “We need something more than your Talisman.” Sigi gritted his teeth, but knew they were right. He simply hoped they’d find something of a similar nature when they came across a stripped village.

“We have provisions for four more days, not counting if we hunt. We can look for two more days before we return,” he noted. The other man remained silent, but seemed to accept it.

“Ech,” Thom chimed in. “I like it out here, out from behind the wall. Each of you can’t tell me this hasn’t brought some excitement back into your life aside from working the keep in the day, and drinking at the tavern each night.” Thom looked at the men as he said it, some of them acknowledging it. From a distance, a twig snapped. Sigi’s head snapped around to find Hroth, one of the scouts, returning. Sigi began walking towards him, as did the other men.

“You found something?” Sigi asked.

Hroth nodded. “It was just like you said. I found one of the villages, but all that was left were holes in the ground. Nothing was left there, but it was clear people lived there. I can take you to it.”

Sigi didn’t need to look at his men to know how they were looking at him. “Mount up,” he said as he approached his horse. The other men hurried back to theirs, and began following off after Hroth at a moderate pace. Sigi sat a bit easier, knowing that the first piece would be laid before them. The only other matter would be finding the proof that he had. He had scouted several abandoned villages before he found the talisman. He didn’t know if they’d have enough rations for scouting that far ahead. As he pondered this, Relman came up to Hroth, just ahead of Sigi.

“So it was exactly as Sigi said? Nothing was there?” Relman asked with anxious curiosity. The other men had been riding closer to the front than normal. Hroth turned off the path to cut through some of the foliage.

“It wasn’t what I pictured when Sigi described it to us,” he started. “The posts had been pulled out of the ground. It was literally uprooted, every single building.” Relman looked at Hroth a bit more before looking forward as they started descending down a steep hill. The men behind Sigi were murmuring in the back.

Eventually the murmur died down, and they continued down the steep hill, which leveled out. The storm above was trying to dump heavier snow on the men, and some of the snow made it through the trees to drift onto their shoulders. The treeline continued on, the woods here seeming to give no end. Before long, they came across a clearing that relented in the density of the trees, but was still largely covered. Sigi had visited this one before. He stopped at its border as the rest of the men moved on into the clearing.

The men all got off their horses, spare for Sigi, who was staying at the edge to let them examine for themselves. They fanned out amongst the small clearing, where the snow more easily trespassed through the treetops to find its home on the ground below.

Occasional “look here!” and “you see this?” broke the silence between the men as some would go see what the other had found. It was evident that there was a village here, as ashes were in some places where fires once burned, and the ground was worn from where others had slept. Where there were supports in the ground, they had been pulled out. The men were in astonishment at this. Had it been given a year, there would have been no evidence that there was a village here.

A few of the men, Thom among them, started wandering back to Sigi. Others were still looking about for any evidence that suggested there was something else afoot.

“Well, you’ve shown us this much Sigi,” Thom looked up at the dark man on the horse. “And you say you found several villages like this?”

Sigi nodded. “It did take a few before I found the talisman, however.”

“If it was all uprooted, where was it taken?” another man asked. Hroth was near, and heard the question. Sigi let him answer.

“They drug it out through the woods, seemingly as carefully as possible.” Hroth pointed towards one of the edges of the clearing, where a few of the men were already wandering towards. Thom looked at the path that had been made, and then back at Sigi.

“We have a trail, then,” Thom iterated. Sigi immediately shook his head.

“The amount of men needed to overtake the village, and then take it entirely back with them is far greater than the number we have here. We shouldn’t confront them until we have to.”

Thom nodded at this, looking up at the treeline. “If anything, we have a place to rest for the night. It’ll be dark soon, and I doubt that whatever did this, Goron or otherwise, will not come back to it, having cleared it.”

Sigi squinted his eyes in thought for a moment, gripping the reins slightly tighter. “It is at chance they don’t come back. However, we should keep fires to a minimum if they are near. The storm will help cover us. We’ll make sure we have only one fire and sleep aside it.” He pointed to one of the edges. “Let’s make it over there.”

Thom nodded, going back to the other men and instructing them the same. Sigi rode his horse closer to the spot where camp was to be made, noting the increase in wind. The storm would be laying down heavily tonight. His mind turned to the other scout that had been sent out, Skelder. Though the forest would provide decent cover, he would hope he’d find his way back in the dark.

Sigi dismounted his horse, the weight of the sword swaying with him as his hood attempted to blow backwards in the slightly heavy wind. It kept its place, as if held by something else. As he dismounted, he saw the men moving back to where camp was, and away from the uprooted village. There was constant talk between them all, discussing what other people might do this, and trying to recall anything that sounded even remotely familiar in history and legend.

With the fire built, they retired to it, continuing their chats. Sigi sat somewhat to the side, listening to them as the fire whipped around in the wind. His hood hid his features, and kept him dry. While many others wore hoods, the fire was not able to progress past Sigi’s. It appeared the men were too distracted by the recent discovery to even notice.

“…no, the village looked like it had at least twenty people in it,” Hroth stated as he joined in the conversation.

“At least twenty people,” another responded. “So whomever came and did this, maybe the Goron, brought enough men to subdue them without bloodshed, take them away and then take every single thing indicating a village was here? There had to be at least a hundred for that.”

“Yes,” Relman continued. “And if all of the villages were uprooted like that, it is easy to assume that they also had more than that to strike different villages at once. I would doubt that they’d simply continue to add onto what they’d taken with the same group.”

“Indeed,” Thom agreed. “If there are at least six villages that Sigi visited, some of which are bigger than this, then there may well be over one thousand men for this area alone.” More murmur erupted from the men as they sat gathered. Sigi continued to remain silent, as he watched the weight of the situation slowly settle on their shoulders.

“But we still need to ensure it’s Goron we’re dealing with,” Telmar reminded, looking at Sigi. “While I agree that this is a dire situation, no matter what people are doing this to the tribes, knowing whether it is the Goron or someone else will determine how precisely we get others to react.” He took a deep breath. “Not to offend you Sigi, but perhaps if our Lord reinforces you with the findings we have, we might persuade the council to act.”

Sigi looked down slightly, speaking. “Need I remind you that they threw me from the capitol? After what services I have rendered the council, I was thrown out on my head when I told them the severity of this situation. They would have none of it.

“It’s up to us to act outside of the council. And actions are fueled by gold when it’s not fueled by the council’s orders. I hope you all see now why I am approaching this in such a fashion.”

Hroth nodded. “Let’s just hope that whatever we’re able to muster against this force will be enough.” The men murmured in response.

Sigi looked up. The sun had set, and the snow was continuing to come down. Skelder still hadn’t returned. This was on Relman’s mind too.

“Shouldn’t Skelder have returned by now?” Relman asked Sigi.

“Before dark, yes. But if he found something and has to remain still until it moved along, he may have to wait until morning light before he can move again,” Sigi replied. “I have faith in the men that I choose to undertake tasks. If he dies under my service, and thus under the service of your Lord, it is an honorable death.”

The men nodded in agreement. One of them pulled some of the provisions out, and the others followed suit. They began to eat quietly, their thoughts focused on what was right beside them in the flat. The wind howled around the trees as the snow attempted to pervade the top layer of trees. The wind blew from the forest into the clearing, so they were not finding much of the snow amongst them.

Relman looked up at Sigi. “So where are you going to raise an army, if the council is not willing to put one together?”

Sigi took some of the provisions from his pack that he had set aside himself and his sword, grabbing a bit of dried meat with his gloved hands. He began to chew on it. “I’ll start with some of the other houses that are on the outskirts of the council’s reach. House Ralthos, for example.”

Relman nodded. “They’ll be able to provide a decent number.”

Sigi continued. “House Warfren, House Regor. Those are the few that I could think of off-hand that would be willing to join me without more than unnecessary justification.”

Thom nodded. “Yes. And perhaps if they’re amassing under your name, the council will listen.”

“Perhaps,” Sigi said in a monotone voice, taking another bite out of the dried meat. He then looked back over at the uprooted village.

“Relman, the clans here have always served as a buffer zone between the council and the kingdoms further north. House Rothgard is not far from the coast. Your Lord still encourages trade there, and has a hand in it, yes?” Sigi looked at Relman for an answer.

“Well, yes,” Relman replied. “We make a good amount of gold from what we ship from that port to other locations south.”

“And what of the trades to the northern kingdoms?”

Relman thought for a moment. “A lot of them cut their ledgers with us because they had ‘other important matters to attend.’ Others simply stopped trading one by one. We didn’t hear from them afterward.”

Sigi sat in thought for a moment. Relman looked at Sigi, and his eyes went wider. “You don’t think…”

Telmar interrupted. “Perhaps the northern kingdoms are preparing to invade us?”

Sigi looked at Telmar. “Or, perhaps they have been overcome by what we are seeing here.” He took another bite of his dried meat before swigging at some water.

Thom looked up from his food finally. “Them, overcome? The council never started a fight with them because both sides would take on heavy tolls before one side or the other one. There wouldn’t be anything, or anyone left. I am sure the north thought that too. What could be greater than the entire council and the southern ring they command?”

The men looked to one another. More thoughts crossed their mind.

“If this fight erupts,” Relman thought aloud, “it is going to leave so much destruction in its wake. Whatever force is up north of us, if this is all true, is not to be taken lightly.”

“Let’s not worry about the bear until it comes out of its cave,” Sigi warned. “We do not know for certain what we are dealing with yet.” He looked at the men as he said this, and kept a stern look in his face. Eventually the men nodded, and went back to eating their provisions.

The wind died down a bit, but the snow continued to come down quietly, settling more on the camp as it wasn’t being blown past the tree line. Some of the men continued talking while others drifted off to sleep. Thom had setup watch ahead of time, so Sigi simply sat against a tree, looking north. He was cursing himself for not thinking of the trade clues earlier, but his mind hadn’t been pushed into thinking of it until he had reached Rothgard’s keep. The questions kept pervading his mind. Were the Goron strong enough to overtake the northern kingdoms? Were they somehow coerced to work with them?

And where was Skelder? He turned his focus from the north to the northwest, where he had sent him to scout further. Did he catch the rough snow earlier than the rest of them? Had he been found?

It seemed that there were more questions arising as he tried to answer each one. As he continued looking north, Thom approached him. He sat down beside him, offering a flask of mead to Sigi.

“Here, it’ll keep you warm.”

“I am warm enough.” Sigi held up his hand in declination.

Thom shrugged, taking another swig. “Your face might be buried in the dark. But I can tell when someone’s got a lot on their mind. Ya worried about Skelder?”

“Among other things, I am concerned for his return, yes.”

“Ech,” Thom grunted before taking another swig. “He handles himself pretty well. He was gone out beyond our wall scouting for the council for a few days once, came back with a load of information and without a single scratch.”

Sigi turned to Thom. “I thought you said they had no experience outside of the keep.”

“I said that, but our keep extends pretty far. You know this,” Thom stated. He held up the flask to Sigi again. Sigi looked between him, the flask and then finally took it to have a swig before handing it back.

“I’ll not worry as much about it just yet,” Sigi stated after clearing his throat. He turned his face back north, returning to silence. Thom took another swig.

“We’re in for something,” Thom said in a lower voice, ensuring the other men didn’t hear. “I may not be as old as you, but I’m old enough to know when there’s a fight ahead. It will be tooth and nail.” Thom stopped for a second, taking a final swig before capping it and looking at Sigi.

“I’ve heard stories about you. I’ve been around you for the last few days and between the two, I can tell you now that I’ll follow you where you need help, if our Lord allows it. You know what you’re doing,” Thom finished. Sigi sat stoic, letting the words carry on the wind a moment before acknowledging them.

“I don’t know as much about you,” Sigi replied. “But your demeanor says a lot for you, even if you do wear a breastplate under your clothes.” He looked towards Thom slightly before looking north again. Thom looked at Sigi, and let a grin slide across his face before letting out a few laughs. He patted Sigi on the shoulder before using it to stand his big frame up.

“See ya in the morning, Sigi,” Thom said as he wandered back towards the fire, shaking off his thick cloak of snow. The fire was starting to die out, and the men were beginning to turn in. Sigi sat against the tree, looking north. It felt like a flame to him, and he was being drawn north. But he couldn’t figure out why.