Llara pushed her way through the undergrowth at the edge of the woods with practiced ease, into the large field between the woods and the tiny village of New Rinsdale. The villagers kept the field meticulously clear of anything that reached above knee-high, and as much as Llara loved the forest, she understood their reasoning. Anything bigger than that could provide cover for something coming out of the forest, and the villagers were a nervous lot. Their nervousness was certainly understandable, because Old Rinsdale had been leveled by a raiding band of orcs less than forty years ago. It had been a nice place, but it didn’t have a three hundred pace clearing between the edge of town and the forest. The orcs had snuck up to the low palisade surrounding the town, and had been climbing the wall before the alarm was even raised.
Llara felt a momentary twang of pity for the mayor. He had been a nice man, if not particularly bright. She couldn’t remember his name, but then, she had been fairly young then. No more than thirty or so. She had been more interested in playing with the other children on their very rare visits to the village than getting to know the mayor. In any case, New Rinsdale had a field, and a bit more of a wall. It was still only a wooden palisade, but it was higher, and had a walkway around the inside of the wall for guards.
Llara stepped out into the field, and blinked for a moment in the sunlight. It had been well before dawn when she left, and it was almost noon now, but her hunting trip had been well worth it. Over her shoulders she carried not one, but two large wild turkeys, and she had a rabbit hanging from her belt. She wouldn’t eat the rabbit, of course, her god had forbidden it, but the townsfolk could, and she had been hunting for them anyway. They needed it considerably more than she or her uncle did, and she hunted more for sport than for the meat. Besides, it might make the townsfolk give her uncle a better price on the supplies he was buying.
Suddenly she froze, all thoughts of her hunt and its rewards gone. There was smoke rising from the village, thick black smoke, and a sudden shift in the wind brought the smell of burning flesh to her nostrils. “Uncle!” she gasped, and dropping the turkeys she ran for the village, stringing her bow as she went.
Llara darted across the field, her thoughts on her uncle, when out of nowhere something hit her, hard. Her bow flew from her hand, but she hit the ground in a precise, practiced roll, her years of training keeping her from going sprawling. She ended the roll on her feet, and swept her sword out in the same fluid gesture, turning to face her attacker.
She relaxed when she saw who it was, however. “Uncle,” she said, “You scared me.”
“Get down,” he said, moving up to her quickly and pulling her down, so that she was in a crouch in the grass next to him.
Llara slid her sword back into its scabbard, somewhat awkwardly in her crouched position, and looked at her uncle. His grizzled face was lined with worry now, and he ran a hand through his snow-white hair, a nervous gesture he had always had. She smiled in relief. It was good to see that face, which was even more familiar to her then her own. She had known that face for as long as she had been alive.
She should have known he would be able to take care of himself. He was in excellent condition, both physical and mental, even if he did look like he was well into his sixties. In fact he was, as well as she could figure it, nearly ninety, but he could still keep up with her in the woods, and while he was no longer physically her equal, he had other talents that more than made up for it.
“Sorry about knocking you over like that,” he said quietly, “I needed to stop you, and you were running a bit faster than I thought.” A tiny smile flitted across his face and disappeared, the worry returning to his face.
Llara’s relief at finding her uncle alive and well faded slowly, replaced by concern that mirrored his. “What’s going on?” she asked. “A raiding party?”
“No, they’re far too well organized. There is something strange going on here. Something I haven’t quite figured out yet.” The worried look deepened.
Llara waited for her uncle to say more, but he simply continued to watch the village. “Well?” she said. “Aren’t we going to try to do something to help the village?”
Her uncle looked over at her. “My dear, there is no village left. There were well over a two hundred orcs.”
Llara stared at her uncle in shock. Two hundred? There were less than a hundred people in the whole village, including women and children! If there were two hundred orcs, well… it would not have taken long. And that smoke had been billowing into the sky for quite some time. At this point there certainly would be nothing left of the village to save. “What made them attack the village? Do you have any ideas?”
“I have a few, my dear.”
“Don’t worry about it, dear.” He grinned at her, but it was a weak smile. He was clearly upset, but trying not to let it show. Llara sighed. Her uncle had always been like this. Always protecting her.
Suddenly her uncle crouched down farther in the grass, and Llara followed suit, and followed her uncle’s gaze toward the road leading to the village. A column of orcs had just come into view around the village palisade. It was on the other side of the village and not visible from here, but it was clear they were marching out of the village gate. The column turned onto the south along the road in ordered ranks. Llara was surprised, but now she knew what her uncle meant about them being far too organized. She had never seen a raiding party march in a column. Raiding parties were unorganized, chaotic. It was one of their weaknesses, and she and her uncle had exploited that weakness on many occasions.
These orcs, on the other hand, looked more like an army. Llara had only seen a column of soldiers once, a division of Turmian infantry escorting some noble somewhere, but this column of orcs look far too similar to that one. In fact, there was even a figure on horseback riding at the head of the column. Llara shielded her eyes against the sun and looked closer at the rider. It was too small to be an orc, more the size of a human. The rider was dressed completely in black armor, of a style she had never seen before, and he had a long black cape flowing out behind him. Even his horse was black.
Suddenly, as though he could feel her watching him, the rider turned to look directly at her. A cold feeling washed over Llara, and she shivered suddenly. She could feel his eyes on her, feel him looking at her, through her, and she could not look away, she couldn’t look-
“Get down!” her uncle said sharply, pushing her to the ground, breaking her eye contact with the rider. The cold feeling disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Llara almost sighed in relief. She had felt like the rider’s eyes were dissecting her, and it was not an experience she wanted to either continue or repeat. She shuddered. “Something is very wrong here,” her uncle said.
Llara raised her head slightly to look again, almost against her own will, her curiosity overwhelming her fear. The rider was barking out commands to the orcs, although what they were was lost to the distance. It was obvious the commands concerned Llara and her uncle however, because the rider was gesturing toward them commandingly. The orcs began to break ranks, and started moving toward them. Even their charge was orderly, Llara thought, before she began to react to the threat.
Llara scrambled to the side and grabbed her bow from where it had fallen. Her uncle, however, had not moved. He was still staring at the rider so intently she wondered that he was not burning holes in the rider’s cloak. “Uncle,” she said, trying to get his attention. “Uncle, they’re coming.”
Then she noticed that the rider had stopped issuing commands, and seemed to be staring back at her uncle. Remembering the rider’s gaze, and what it had done to her, she hurriedly moved toward her uncle, but just as she reached him he turned his head to look at her.
“Llara,” he said, and she paid close attention. He only used her name when it was important. The rest of the time he simply called her “dear.” It was one of the many peculiarities that made him who he was.
“Meet at home,” he said. “Llara, run!”