There was some call for caution, as well. The riders had been told about the civil war which had broken out over the High King's decision to aid Ostheron in the Wars. They were warned about the groups of men who patrolled the roads looking for unwary travelers to capture, humiliate, and execute for "treasonous offenses." Every now and again, one of these travelers would actually be a Vyorian soldier.
The riders slowed and stopped at the rise of a hill. Litenstad spread out below them, a dark, sprawling mass nestled in the foothills of the mountains. They took a moment to consider their options.
"No," the shorter one, a man named Ulric, finally said, "I don't feel like being measured for a noose tonight."
"The hunters might not be out tonight."
"Hrothgar, we're out tonight. They're probably waiting to ambush someone. I'll wager many travelers have tried to slip through in the dark."
Hrothgar's face was hidden in the recesses of his hood, but Ulric could imagine his brow knitted tightly as he thought about it. There was only one viable way around Litenstad, and that was the Kulku pass. It would take them north, but there was no direct road to Ytaanhald from there. They'd have to traverse the edge of the Wastes.
"You're right," Hrothgar admitted, and they turned their horses back just in time to see distant flashes of light to the north. They both knew instantly what it was. Magic, though it was never called that by those who used it, had featured heavily in the Wars. There were places west of Ostheron where nothing would ever grow again.
"Well, then," Hrothgar murmured, "Mages or hangmen..."
"I'd rather take my chances with the mages."
The riders paused at the mouth of the pass, as if reevaluating their plan. A sudden southerly wind picked up, and was gone. It stirred something in Ulric's memory and sent chills up his spine, but he was interrupted by the arrival of the girl.
She ran blindly out of the trees and collided with Hrothgar's horse, bounced off and landed on her rear in the snow. Her hood fell back to reveal a mane of dark hair and a frightened, thoroughly female face. Her eyes focused on Hrothgar, who, under his cowl, must have been a terrifying figure indeed.
Snapping twigs and crunching snow warned of someone in pursuit of the girl. Without a word, Hrothgar slipped from his saddle, drew his blade, and positioned himself in front of the girl. Ulric drew his bow and watched the forest for any sign of movement. The first man to emerge from the trees caught an arrow to the chest. As Ulric reached for another, a second assailant charged Hrothgar, who struck him down with the flat of his blade.
The two riders surveyed their handiwork with a craftsman's sense of pride, and turned to congratulate each other on a job well done. Only then did they realize that the girl--and more importantly to Hrothgar, his horse--had gone.
Hoofbeats faded into the distance.