A wave of foul smells hit them at once from the open barn door, blood and smoke mixed with manure and filth. Korina held her breath and charged into the darkness. At first she could see nothing. In the darkness, other sensations hit her more keenly– the sharp buzzing of flies, the hot, damp air. When she gasped for breath, the smell was overpowering. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the shapes on the floor, bodies and limbs hacked and torn apart. Elice made a strangled sound in her throat and pressed her hands over her mouth. Voren dashed back outside and doubled over retching. Tam stood in the doorway, shaking his head and saying nothing.
Korina made herself look down at the remains in front of her. Her stomach turned as she tried to make out the body parts piled in the bloody straw, but she had to know if her mother was here. The limbs and trunks were hard to count, but to judge by the heads four people had died in this barn. In one face she recognized the farmer who had bought some of her mother’s flock. The other three looked like women, but she could not see their faces. She sheathed her sword and took a hoe down from were it hung on one of the barn’s posts, then used the tool to reach into the bloody pile and pull the other three heads closer. One was old and white-haired, the other two younger, but none belonged to her mother.
“She’s not here,” Korina announced. She looked around for Voren, saw his hunched body outside the door, then stomped out and dragged him into the barn. “Tell her she’s not here,” Korina demanded, pushing him towards Maza.
Voren looked away from the bodies, hastily wiped his mouth, and mumbled a few words to Maza. Maza nodded, her face inscrutable.
Korina stepped back out of the barn with Voren quickly following. Maza came after them, reslinging her bow over her shoulder. Suddenly Korina whirled about and slammed Maza up against the outer wall of the barn.
“Liar!” Korina shouted. “She’s lying to us!”
Maza twisted out of Korina’s grip and at once had knives in her hands. Kobu snarled and tensed for a lunge, but Tam pounced on the wolf’s back first, wrestling it to the ground. Maza slashed at Korina, making her jump back, then sprang away to crouch by a corner of the barn. Her eyes flickered from one human’s face to another. It was impossible to say what was in them. Fear? Anger?
Korina drew her sword and hefted her shield, but before she could take a step towards the corner of the barn, Maza jumped up and with startling agility climbed onto the roof of the barn. There she took her bow in hand and nocked an arrow, looking down at those below.
“Kori!” Elice exclaimed, coming to her sister’s side. “What are you doing?”
“She lied!” Korina repeated, glaring up at Maza.
“What are you talking about?” Voren asked.
“She said the orcs wanted our mother’s blood for some demon ritual,” said Korina. “Well, there’s four humans in that barn that they just hacked apart! They didn’t care about their blood. Why did they take our mother? What are the really doing with her? I bet she’s one of them and she’s just been leading us a chase all this time!”
“Let me talk to her,” said Voren.
“I don’t want to talk!” Korina screamed. “I want my mother!”
“Talk to her!” Tam shouted, his voice somewhat muffled by the fur in his mouth. “There’s gotta be an explanation.”
Voren set down his staff and looked up at Maza with open hands. He spoke a few words in orcish. Maza leveled her eyes on Korina and spat back an answer. They exchanged more words with gestures at the barn and the woods. Finally Maza relaxed her bowstring and barked a few words at Kobu. The wolf ceased to struggle in Tam’s grip and lay unmoving on the ground. Voren turned around to Korina.
“She says she’ll come down and talk,” he reported, “and she’ll tell us everything, but only if we put our weapons aside.”
“So she can kill us all?” Korina exclaimed.
“She’ll come unarmed, too,” Voren insisted.
“No!” said Korina. “It’s a trick!”
Elice came up next to Korina and leaned her head on her sister’s shoulder.
“Kori,” she whispered, “she’s already helped us. She waited when we asked her to. If she was one of the warlocks, why would she have brought us here?”
Korina turned and looked into her sister’s eyes.
“I have to keep you safe,” she whispered back. “I can’t lose you.”
“You’ll keep me safe,” whispered Elice, “I know you will. But listen to me this time. We have to talk to her. It’s the only way to find Mama.”
Korina let her arms fall. She pulled the scabbard from her belt and slid the sword back into it, then she set the sword and shield both against the wall of the barn along with her hatchet. Tam and Elice dropped their knives there, too. They all stood by their pile of weapons and looked up at Maza. She nodded, jumped down from the barn roof at the far corner, and left her bow, quiver, and knives on the ground there. She whistled and pointed at the pile and Kobu slunk over to lie down next to it.
The orc and four humans stood by their arms at opposite ends of the front of the barn, looking at each other. Voren moved first and gestured tentatively out into the field. Maza nodded and took a few steps in that direction. The humans followed suit. A few steps at a time, they all got a little farther away from their weapons. Eventually they met near the center of the field.
The four stood facing Maza who looked at them with wary eyes. She reached up near her throat and began undoing the ties that held her jerkin closed. She opened the leather to bare her chest. Her skin was covered with the traces of old cuts, some tiny slits, others deep gouges, all covered over with pale scars. She spoke in a low voice and Voren translated.
“I was once a demon-worshiper. I bled myself to summon demons and wield their power as my own. I abandoned the spirits. I was lost. To wield that power was like being drunk on…”
Voren struggled for a word. In the end he gave up and explained: “It’s something strong, I think.”
“I thought I commanded the demons, but they ruled me. I did terrible things for the power they promised. I even killed my own kin to offer their blood to the demons. When I opened my eyes and saw what I had done, I could not bear it any longer. From that day I sent myself into exile and have never shed blood for the demons again.”
Maza closed her jerkin and took in a deep breath. Her hands were shaking as she tied the leather thongs tight.
“Hear this, Kor-i-na. I know the demon-worshipers. I know their ways better than you can imagine, and I hate them more than you ever can. I know why they took your mother, and I know there is still time to save her. If you will trust me, we will fight side by side.”
Korina put her hands on her hips and looked from Maza to Voren.
“Do you believe her?” she asked.
He nodded, and looked at Tam as he answered:
“I know what pain sounds like. We both do. I don’t think she’s lying about it.”
“It’s a thing you get good at on the street,” Tam agreed, “knowing when someone’s having a jay on ya. Even without talking the lingo, there’s things as don’t lie. I believe her.”
Korina looked into Maza’s eyes. Once before she had looked into those eyes and felt there was something familiar there. She looked for that feeling again. Part of her wanted so badly to trust Maza, because that meant there was hope of finding her mother alive. Another part of her kept telling her that she couldn’t trust an orc, not ever. She looked back at Elice.
“I don’t trust her,” Korina said to her. “But I trust you. Tell me what to do.”
Elice touched her sister’s hand.
“Listen to her. We won’t save Mama without her.”
Korina turned back to Maza.
“All right,” she said to Voren. “Let her talk.”
Maza talked and for a while Voren just listened, occasionally asking questions. After a time he explained:
“She’s telling me about the ritual the warlocks want to do with the vessel. That’s why they wanted your mother. You see, when they summon a demon, it is bound to the person whose blood was used to conjure it. When they spill some of their own blood to summon a demon, that’s what lets them order it around, but if the person whose blood was shed dies in the summoning, the demon remembers a little bit of that person’s life. It will seek out the places and people that made that person feel at home. Then it will try to destroy them to rid itself of the memories. It’s something the warlocks do to their enemies.”
“I don’t understand,” said Korina. “The warlocks want to send a demon to wreck our house? Why?”
“Because it won’t stop there,” Elice said, her eyes widening. “A maddened demon going on a rampage just outside the walls of Stormwind when the militia is away on the Redridge borders? It’ll destroy Goldshire, maybe even break through the gates of Stormwind.”
“It doesn’t even have to do that,” Voren put in. “Just cause chaos and confusion behind the lines. If the army divides its forces to send soldiers back to Elwynn, or if enough militiamen desert and run home to protect their farms and families, the Blackrock orcs can get a foothold in Redridge, maybe even in Eastvale.”
“But there are still guards in Stormwind,” Korina protested. “Veterans of the wars. Surely they can handle one demon.”
“Ay, sure and all they can,” Tam agreed, “but they won’t know it’s just the one, ay? And may come it won’t be. Them warlocks set up somewhere safe, grab another farmer every few days. The guards’ll handle the demons right enough, hunt down the warlocks and deal with them in time, but in the by-and-by it gives the Blackrocks the advantage they need– divided forces, confusion, fear.”
Korina looked back at the barn.
“That’s why they didn’t want any of the Stonefields.”
“This wasn’t a ritual,” he said. “These folks out here in the middle of the woods aren’t the ones they want. One of the Stonefields must have spotted them passing by in the woods. The orcs just killed them all to stop them from alerting the guards.”
Korina stepped closer to Maza.
“Why didn’t she tell us this before?”
“Because she didn’t want us to know that she used to be a warlock,” Voren answered. “She didn’t want us asking how she knew so much.”
“We all have things in our past we wouldn’t want to share,” Elice said to her sister.
Korina nodded and sighed deeply. As the breath went out of her, she felt her anger go with it. She reached out her hand towards Maza.
“Tell her we will fight side by side,” she said. Voren relayed the message, but it was clear that Maza had already understood. She clasped Korina’s hand in hers. Voren laid his hand atop theirs. Elice and Tam quickly added their own.
For a moment they stood in awkward silence, their hands piled together. Finally Tam said:
“I have the feeling we ought to say something now, together like.”
Korina pulled her hand back and let the hand-pile collapse.
“No,” she said. “Now we find those warlocks.”
They retrieved their weapons from the front of the barn. Elice stood for a moment, looking into the dark interior. She caught Korina by the arm.
“We can’t leave them like this,” she said.
“There’s nothing we can do for them,” Korina answered. “Time is short. We’ll let someone know when we get back to the village.”
Elice tightened her grip.
“We can’t leave them like this,” she repeated with force.
“What do you want to do?”
“There’s a freshly-dug garden patch at the back of the house. We can put them there, at least get them covered by earth and say a prayer. It won’t take long.”
Korina waved Voren and Tam over and explained to them what Elice wanted to do. They both protested, but when Elice and Korina insisted, they relented. Voren explained to Maza, who agreed to help. Using the farm’s wheelbarrow and some old sheets from the house, Korina and Maza gathered up the torn limbs and pieces of flesh and bone. Voren delivered them to Elice who carefully sorted the pieces into more or less recognizable bodies and buried them in the soft soil of the garden patch. Tam found a rasher of bacon in the larder and used it to keep Kobu away from the bloody work, winning back a little friendship in the process.
Once all the pieces had been buried, the five of them assembled around the makeshift grave. Elice spread her arms and began to sing the prayer for the dead. Korina folded her hands and bowed her head in the manner Brother Padwell had taught them, but couldn’t resist sneaking a look at her sister. Elice seemed at ease as she recited the hymn. Even in the midst of death and terror, Korina was proud of her sister.
She noticed that Maza was sitting cross-legged at the edge of the grave. She saw the orc dig into one of the pouches on her belt and pull out a little token of fired clay. Holding the token in one hand, Maza gathered a clump of earth in the other, then held both hands outstretched before her, closed her eyes, and began to whisper some words.
Korina poked Voren in the side and pointed at Maza.
“What’s she doing?” she whispered to him as quietly as she could.
Voren leaned down and listened, then straightened up and whispered back to Korina:
“She’s speaking to the earth spirits and asking them to give the Stonefields peaceful rest.”
Korina’s first impulse was to kick Maza away and yell that the Stonefields were human and they didn’t want any orc prayers, but she stopped herself. A few days ago she had known for a certain fact that orcs were evil and deserved to die, but getting to know Maza had broken that certainty, like dropping a cup on a stone. She had once heard Brother Padwell say: “The older I get, the less I know but the more I understand.” Those words had never made sense before now.
Elice finished the prayer; Maza put her clay token away and spread the handful earth back on the grave. They all stepped away from the burial place in and looked at each other. Elice handed out bread and cheese and Maza shared some more of her dried meat. They ate in silence.
“I suppose we’d better get back to the woods and keep following the track,” said Korina. She squinted into the sun, low and orange over the trees. “We can go a few more hours before the light fails.”
“Don’t need to go back nowhere,” said Tam. “I can tell ya where the warlocks went, ay?”
He pointed down the slope behind the cottage. The stream they had been following most of the day emptied out into the lazy, muddy waters of the Nazferiti River. Not far from the angle where the two rivers met there was a rickety dock. On the far side of the Nazferiti, a raft had been pulled up on shore.
They peered across the river. On the far bank the trees were old and bent. The sunlight did not penetrate the gloom under their branches. In Goldshire, the Duskwood across the river had an evil repute and grandmothers would terrify young children with stories of babe-roasting witches and restless graveyards in that dark place. By the look on Tam’s and Voren’s faces, Korina guessed that the same stories were told in the city, too.
“Ask her,” she said to Voren, “if she thinks that’s where the warlocks went.”
Voren asked, and came back with a simple answer: “Yes.”
“That’s where we need to go,” said Elice, “but how do we get there?”
Maza whistled to Kobu and strode down to the water’s edge. The rest of them watched while she took an arrow from her quiver and showed it to Kobu, then she fired the arrow across the river and lodged it in one of the wooden planks of the barge.
Kobu splashed into the water and swam across. On the far side, he first shook the water from his fur, then went and sniffed around where the arrow was stuck. After a few hesitant attempts, he found a rope tied to one corner of the raft, grabbed it in his jaws, and dragged the raft into the river. As the humans on the far bank clapped and cheered in excitement, Kobu swam the raft back and dropped the rope at Maza’s feet.
“Blind beggars!” Tam exclaimed. “Now why can’t I get a pup will do that?”
Maza rewarded Kobu with some dried meat and a ruffle of his wet fur. Then they all climbed onto the raft and paddled their way to the far shore. Maza quickly found the traces of where the party of warlocks had unloaded their prisoner and dragged her on into the woods.
Suddenly Maza dropped into a crouch and pointed up the slope into the woods. Korina followed her pointing finger and saw it too: a little winking spot of flame far away in the dark.
Korina drew her sword and took up her shield. Elice, Tam, and Voren came to look as well and prepared themselves likewise.
“Stay close,” Korina whispered, “and stay quiet.”
“And stay alive,” Voren added.
Together they began to make their way up the slope from the riverbank towards the distant flame.
Continued in Chapter 7: In the dark woods