Captain Marius bade his troops wait at the edge of the forest and went up to the hilltop alone. He moved slowly, scanning everything with a practiced soldier’s eye.
It should have been a good position. The forest was thin, trees starved and twisted from the wretched stony soil and the brutal winds that Marius had been told came with winter in these climes. The hilltop, though, was more than thin, it was bare, weathered rock and dirt so lifeless that it was scarce worthy of the name. The knob stuck up from the surrounding trees like jagged bone forced through a wound.
The Imperials had built a stockade fence from the scrub pines, sharpened poles leaning outward at a slight angle. The trunks didn’t grow straight here, but the poles had been lashed together firmly and the fence had held. The gate was hanging ajar.
There should have been vigils posted… he thought as he walked along the perimeter, studying the ground. Blood stained the stones, there and there, and again there. The hard ground left few marks, but the blood was smeared. Men taken quickly, throats cut most likely, then the bodies dragged away. Imperial vigils, experienced watchmen, and three slaughtered like sheep.
Marius frowned and walked around the fence a second time. There were no signs of a heated battle, just those three splashes of blood like mess left on a slaughterhouse floor. Had the others been taken inside the stockade then? That would imply the vigils had been killed silently, with no chance to raise the alarm. And why drag the bodies off?
-From “Nox Invictus” by Misha Burnett.
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