Sir Anomen Delryn scanned the horizon with troubled eyes, searching. He paid no attention to the constant fall of snow, which swirled into his eyes and dusted his hair and beard with a faint whiteness that, from a distance, made him appear much older than his twenty-five years. On approach, however, the face was still smooth, the eyes still clear, though not so quixotic as they had been only six months earlier.
Anomen had seen many things, had been many places, and though his faith in the god Helm remained unshaken, the line between light and darkness had blurred slightly, and he followed his Lord now with the understanding that shadows cannot exist without the light, and it is a long night of darkness that makes one grateful for the sunrise.
The great war-horse snorted beneath him and began to paw the wintry ground. Anomen murmured to it in his low, smooth voice and patted its neck with his free hand, his eyes never leaving the skyline. There had been no sign of activity, and it was that, perhaps, that troubled him more than anything else. Ice trolls were known neither for patience nor cunning, and in the beginning, their attacks had been frequent and chaotic.
Over the past few weeks, however, they had begun to show more thought in their raids, coming in the hours just before dawn when the fires had faded to glowing embers and the watch was drowsy with cold. Their last assault had come during a violent snowstorm, when the men had sought a desperate shelter in the rough huts that formed their battle camp. The trolls had come silently, invisible in the swirling snow until they managed to enter the camp itself. The soldiers were taken off guard, unprepared. The battle had been won, but only barely, and the clerics had wandered the camp for many hours after that, using nearly every spell, potion, and scroll at their disposal to quiet the cries of the wounded and dying.
Anomen sighed softly and bowed his head in an unspoken prayer for the fallen. There had been many, too many, in spite of everything that could be done. Good men, every one. Many he had known since his days as a squire, and even more he had come to call comrade and brother over the past few months. He remained there in silence for some minutes, praying for their safe return to their God, and for their forgiveness.
Many moments passed, and Anomen began to hear faintly in the corners of his mind the sound of muffled hoofbeats as they came toward him through the snow. As they grew louder, he lifted his head and turned his eyes in the direction of the sound. A lone figure approached, dressed in the shining silver armor of the Order, but bareheaded, as was Anomen.
Sir Duncan Quartermaine was an older man, some ten years older than Sir Anomen, tall and broad-shouldered, and still fair of face. The eyes were strong and gray, the deep black hair only faintly streaked with the first shadows of age. Anomen nodded faintly as the newcomer approached, then returned his gaze to the horizon, saying nothing as Duncan came nearer, then held his mount beside Anomen’s own. They sat in silence for some time, until at last the younger man spoke quietly, pulling on the reins slightly as his horse once again began to pull against the bit.
"Still no word?"
Duncan shook his head, turning his own eyes to the horizon. "None, my Lord."
"Then we can only assume…."
He fell silent. The snow began to fall more steadily, giving the landscape an almost dreamlike quality that somehow made both men grow more uneasy. The sky darkened under a growing cover of thick clouds, and the wind began to swirl the snow before them in a ghostly dance.
At last Anomen sighed wearily and lowered his head, suddenly feeling the fatigue and discouragement of the last few weeks that he had desperately been trying to ignore. He longed for a warm bed, a roaring fire, the feeling of a slender figure in his arms, the laughing green eyes that ever set his heart to burning within him. But she was a fortnight’s ride away, and he had not been able to send a letter for weeks.
Duncan spoke gently, sensing Anomen’s thoughts. "My Lord, we could send another…"
Anomen lifted his head a shook it slightly, interrupting. "There are no others. We can spare no more men. We lost too many in the last assault, and we know not what comes in this storm. There is something in the air, an evil that I cannot see, but it is there, Duncan." His brow furrowed and his eyes searched the snow. "And it is coming."
Duncan knew better than to second-guess his commander. Though young, Sir Anomen was experienced, and had seen more in the past year than most of the Order had seen in twenty years of service. He liked Anomen, respected him. Anomen had lost much of the arrogance of his youth, but had found instead a mature confidence that inspired, and the others followed him without question.
Duncan nodded. "Then your orders, my Lord?"
Anomen paused, and when he spoke, his voice was low and determined. "Two hour watches, four at each entrance. We will build fires behind each gate. Those who are not on watch sleep in their armor. Not comfortable, I grant you, but…" He smiled grimly.
Duncan nodded, nodding faintly. "I shall see it done, Sir."
Anomen turned his eyes back to the horizon. "Helm guard us."
"Helm guard us all, Anomen."
Anomen nodded slightly, adding in his mind, Helm guard her if I cannot return.
Forgive me, my Love.
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