The bodies were frozen when the Takare warriors rode up to them. Snow had fallen overnight and the bodies–six of them–were partially covered in a white, gauzy drift. They lay in a short canyon, a spot where the trail dropped down to follow a stream as it wound between two low cliffs. The ambush had been brutally efficient. The victims had not even had a chance to run or defend themselves. They laid in the snow in single file, each pierced by several arrows that had clearly been fired from above. Three were elderly, two men and a woman, and the other three were barely into their second decade, their faces carrying the smoothness of adolescence.
The leader of the warriors–a broad-shouldered man with his hair tied into a single braid and a scar that ran across his forehead–held up his hand and his followers came to a halt, their horses’ breath steaming in the frigid air. The warriors numbered ten, both men and women. Their mounts were of excellent breeding, their saddles finely tooled and their robes rich with gold thread and satin. They wore hardness like armor and anyone observing them would be quick to see the contradiction between their finery and the cold look in their eyes. Their weapons were plain but of the highest quality and worn from countless hours of use. They sat their horses with the coiled grace of cats, compressed lethality that could explode in any direction at a moment’s notice. They stared at the bodies on the ground dispassionately. Those on the ground, though dressed more simply, still had something in their features that spoke of kinship with the warriors who looked down on them.
“This must be answered,” said one of the warriors, a tall, lean woman with graying hair and twin swords strapped to her back.
“As it will,” said the leader, touching the sword at his side. His horse snorted and stamped its foot. “Skeler!” he called. At his call a woman appeared at the other end of the short canyon. She was dressed all in red and a strung longbow was in her hand. When they had first spotted the bodies she had peeled off from the rest, disappearing into the surrounding forest.
“They went south,” she called. “The trail is easy to follow.”
The leader nodded, then returned his gaze to the frozen corpses. “The answer will come soon, my brothers and sisters,” he said to them, then spurred his horses through them, the rest following.
They reached their destination in the mid-afternoon, a sleepy village sitting in a clearing at the base of a small hill. The village had a stout palisade around it and probably three dozen homes, including several of brick that were more than one story. The warriors made no effort to conceal their approach and long before they reached the village the alarm bell tolled. Men ran from fields around the village and soon the palisade bristled with bows, swords, axes and pikes. Men in mismatched armor hurried back and forth.
The Takare warriors stopped a bowshot away from the village and arranged themselves in a line facing the main gate. For a time, they just stood there, staring at the village while its defenders shifted nervously. Then the leader lifted his hand and opened the clasp that held his rich cloak in place, letting it fall to the ground behind his horse. The rest of his warriors followed suit. A sound of dismay rose from the defenders as they saw the red sashes each man and woman wore. Every citizen of the Empire knew those sashes: the Takare. The most feared warriors in the known world.
A handful of defenders broke then, jumping down off the rampart and fleeing into the village. A while later they could be seen climbing up to the ramparts at the rear of the village and dropping over the palisade to run away.
“Answer them,” the leader said to the graying woman with the twin swords strapped to her back. She nodded and trotted around the side of the village. She moved almost leisurely, as if she had no concern that they would escape.
“It wasn’t us!” one man yelled. He had a shock of red hair and the thick forearms of a smith. “The ones you want ran off this morning!”
The Takare did not reply, sitting on their horses and watching.
More cries arose from the village and there seemed to be an argument going on. Then the main gate creaked open. A rotund, nearly bald man stuck his head out. He withdrew and more voices were raised. Moments later he reappeared, arms pinwheeling as he sought to keep his balance. Once he did, he stood there, his eyes fixed on the frozen warriors, wiping his hands over and over on his clothes. Straightening his shoulders, he walked toward the silent warriors.
“Uh…Lords and Ladies,” he stammered. “I am Trel, the mayor of this town and I have come to…” His voice trailed off as a scream came from the forest on the other side of the village, quickly stilled. His face turned pale and sweat ran down his face.
“Our brothers and sisters have been killed,” the leader of the Takare said. “The killers came here.”
“Yes, they came last night…but they left.” The mayor’s eyes darted up and down the line of silent killers, seeking something that he could not find. “We told them–”
He was still speaking when the leader’s sword flashed into his hand and took his head from his body. Slowly he toppled to the ground.
At a gesture from the leader the warriors began to walk their horses forward. Cries rose from the defenders on the wall and a handful of arrows flew out. Most of the warriors simply slapped the missiles aside as if they were flies, but the leader grabbed the one aimed at him out of the air. Then he snapped it in half and threw it on the ground.
The defenders held their positions for a few more seconds, then broke and scattered.
The leader stopped before the gate. One of the warriors, a young man, slid down off his horse and ran to the wall. He climbed it easily and dropped out of sight on the other side. Moments later the gate swung open and the warriors entered the village.
Eight of the warriors entered. One stayed outside and circled the walls to watch for those who escaped the net. By the time it was dark the village was in flames and the warriors were riding away. Their people had died, and they had given answer.