Craig

Craig

They moved with more speed than they had throughout the morning,
and a good thing, too. The storm, when it came, thrust snow at them from
every direction. The temperature dropped and the snow grew beneath the
hooves of their mighty destriers. If not for the fact that they knew the region
as well as the back of their hands, they’d likely have no idea in which
direction to travel, since they could not even see the backs of their hands if
held at arm’s length.
’Twas mostly Craig who led them. Simple the big oaf might be, though
a bloody executioner with a double edged sword in hand, but aye, he knew
every rock and tree and hill of the border of Caithness. Duncan squinted up
ahead at Craig; the lad didn’t know enough to bend his face away from the
pelting snow, but trudged on mindlessly, while they’d formed a tight line—
stem to stern, his seafaring da’ would have said.
Only a short-lived reprieve from the wind and blinding snow showed
Duncan that they neared the bottom of the Isauld hills. The silver birch here
were particularly plentiful, he recalled. He’d just tucked his face down into
his neck, needing only to see the butt of Iain’s horse ahead of him to keep
pace up the side of the hill, when he heard the short jip-jip call they
regularly used to signify halt. Duncan tugged on the reins and waited.
“Blood in the snow,” Iain said, maneuvering his mount around Craig
and then Duncan.
Duncan peered down and around him, noticing what Iain had, little
droplets of blood, fresh, and dotting alongside a set of tracks. Turning in the
saddle, Duncan followed the tracks, unwilling to move his horse lest they
disrupt more of the footprints. The spots of bright red blood were very
small and stark against the snow, indicative of a wound, but possibly not a
grave one.
The snow here was not more than ankle deep, he discerned from the
impression.
“Fresh,” he said to Iain. These hills wouldn’t have retained much of
the snow from a fortnight ago, as the ground being presumably warmer than
the winter air would have warmed and melted it by now. The winds and
current snow had done their best to obliterate them, swiping sideways
across each track, but they were still clear, and Duncan guessed, not more
than an hour old.
“Small. Child, mayhap,” Iain guessed. He pulled his long sword from
its sheath at his hip and instructed Craig, “Lead on.”
Each man, likewise, withdrew his blade, eyes scanning the entire area.
Truth be told, they saw only white, or occasionally a tree or brush as they
passed close. A person or many could be standing ten feet away, inside the
swirling snow, and they’d not know it. If they were to be attacked, they’d
not see it coming until it was possibly too late.
They encountered no one, but found that the tracks, which they
followed just to the left, continued up to the old huts, just as they did. There
were three such huts on this side of the hill. The original builders had made
fine use of the hard rock and occasional level spots to serve as at least one
wall of the aged dwellings. The outer walls had been built with whatever
was at hand, twigs and brush and clay, forming thick walls that would serve
them well through the storm. The first one they came upon was the largest
and tallest, and they dismounted, swords still drawn and poised, while
Donal and Daimh gathered all the leads and dragged the horses within.
There was no door, of course, naught but an opening, and they could only
hope the daft animals were at least smart enough to stay inside.
Archie and Iain followed the blood trail and footsteps, which
circumvented this first hut, as if the owner of the footprints had not noticed
the closest shelter.
The next hut was the deepest, being more of a cave, a depression in the
rock serving as three sides and a roof of the shelter, with only one wall of
wattle and daub supplying the barrier against the weather. At one time, it
would have been Duncan’s favorite one, as it was deep enough to allow for
a fire if the winds were agreeable, without smoking out the whole of the
interior, but that was before they’d stumbled upon those corpses. They’d
been a mother and child, he’d known—he’d never be convinced otherwise
—the image of those embracing little figures, decayed beyond stench even,
haunting him since.
And damn if that wasn’t exactly where these prints led.
The opening to this shelter thankfully faced the opposite direction
from which the winds came. Craig and Archie posed like sentinels just
outside, while Iain ducked and entered, Duncan fast on his heels. Pitch
black was all that greeted them, not any wild animal or frightened and
injured child. There was no noise within, save for the occasional drip of
some water somewhere deeper inside.