7 - The Burning Snow
Do not turn around, she told herself. Do not look back.
But of course, she did.
Through the thick haze of falling snow she could make out the battle raging behind them. She saw Halas ablaze, her people bravely defending their city against the onslaught of the snow orcs. Every instinct demanded that she turn back and aid her kinsmen, but she knew this was important. This is where her duty lay, not dying on the field of battle. So she kept walking.
"Aimara, we must return and fight for the city," the husky barbarian said to her. "It isn't right to abandon our home to those monsters."
"Shut up, Murbeck," she said coldly.
He bared his teeth at her. "Do not speak to me that way, woman! I say we go back and die with glory instead of fleeing like rats from a sinking ship!"
She spun around and punched him hard in the stomach, then again across the chin. Murbeck fell back into the snow.
"Listen to me!" she said to him, loud enough for the others to hear. "I want to fight for the city as much as you. But we have been ordered to guide the children and the old ones to safety, and by the gods that is what we will do! If you are so eager for your blood to adorn the snow, Murbeck, just tell me and I will be happy to oblige you here and now."
Murbeck rose slowly, holding his stomach. He bowed his head. "I will carry out my duty, Aimara."
She walked up to him and brushed the snow from his armor. "Good," she told him, "for I will have need of your strength very soon. We must pass through Blackburrow, where all our swords will be tested. Now, go to the back and make sure everyone is keeping up." He nodded and walked toward the rear of the group.
Aimara surveyed her band of refugees. There were hundreds of them, mostly too old, too young, or too sick to stay behind and fight. She had been given dangerously few soldiers to escort all of them to Qeynos. The heavy snowfall was a blessing, for it both concealed their exodus and covered their tracks behind them, but it also made travel difficult for the weak ones.
She signaled for them to move forward once again. Aimara led them through the narrow crags she had learned so well as a young girl. Those were happier times.
"If one of them sounds the alarm, we're all dead," Murbeck whispered.
Aimara nodded. She signaled to the archers on the rocks above them.
The arrows sailed silently through the cold air, piercing the necks of the gnolls guarding the mouth of the tunnel. They whimpered slightly as they fell.
"We don't have much time. There are more within. Move!"
Aimara charged forward into the cave, flanked by Murbeck and a dozen of the other warriors. It was dark, but they could see a campfire ahead. She ran toward it, suppressing a fierce desire to yell out a Halasian battle cry. The gnolls looked up and saw them coming, but they could barely draw their weapons before the barbarians were upon them.
The fight was swift and violent. Murbeck seemed pleased, but Aimara knew the element of surprise would not give them the advantage much longer. "Signal the others to come into the cave but to stay well behind us. We move forward."
The soldiers crept carefully down the rocky passageways. Though she had passed through this place many times, it was easy to become confused by the twists and turns. She knew they'd soon be out in the open where there would be no more hiding.
Aimara turned a corner and there, directly in front of her, stood a young gnoll guard. It seemed as startled to see her as she was to see it, and they both paused for what seemed like an eternity. She moved first, raising her sword and swinging. But before the blow could land, the gnoll reared back its head and let loose a loud howl.
The gnoll was silent as he slumped to the ground, but she knew the damage had been done. "Be ready!" she hissed back at the others. "Here they come!"
They guided the last of the civilians out of the crude maw of rock that marked the entrance to Blackburrow from Qeynos Hills. The battle had been fierce, and too many of them had fallen. But there was no time to mourn the dead.
"We head south," she said somberly. "The city lies ahead."
It was warmer here, but the fur of her armor felt too comforting to abandon. Besides, she intended to make use of it again, when she returned to her homeland to teach a lesson to the beasts that dared defile the Northlands.
As they marched, Murbeck walked beside her. His eyes stared forward as he spoke. "You led us well, Aimara. I regret defying you the day we left. It was not right."
She smiled as she put her arm around him and hugged him tightly. "It is no matter, my husband. You only wanted to do what was in all our hearts. But our people are better served by warning Qeynos of what is coming, for you know as well as I that the orcs will not stop at Halas. And besides, who better to teach these puny humans how to defend their borders than the children of the north, eh?"
He smirked. "It is so warm here. I miss the snow already."
"As do I, love, so very much."
They crossed the grassy hills and made their way toward Qeynos. She thought about the savagery of the orcs' attack and wondered if even this city could withstand such an assault.
In her mind she saw Halas burning, and she shivered.