A Cold Wind by W. David Wood

It’s cold, Mallan thought. Damnably cold. But then, everything about this place is damnable. He shrugged his cloak tighter around his shoulders, cursing when it caught on parts of his armor. The overcast, autumn sky matched his mood perfectly. He paused and looked about the ruins of the charred camp, nudging sticks and cinders with the toe of a leather boot. A cold wind blew, suddenly, flinging bits of ash and grit about. He closed his eyes to it, shielding them with his free hand. One never knew what was in the dust- bits of wood, glass…people. His sword was out, but he didn’t use it to pry at the wreckage- it could make too much noise, and that might draw the Enemy in.

“Mallan.” He heard, whispered from behind him. He turned at the sound and saw Hathik stalking carefully up from behind. “Let’s get out of this place. There’s nothing left. We’re late reporting back, anyway.”

Mallan nodded. “You’re right. Let’s go.” He turned and made his way silently from the remains of the village, his friend alongside him. It was troubling, but not surprising, that they found no bodies. Sometimes there were remains, and that could be more disturbing than mysteriously finding nothing at all. “Why would they even let pilgrims try to start a village this far out, anyway?” He asked. Hathik had no answer.

A few hours’ worth of hiking brought them back within sight of the ramshackle gray walls of Kenabres. The squat outpost city crouched like a wart atop a hill overlooking the Sellen river. Mallan stopped and marveled at the sight, shaking his head. “Tell me, Hathik. How can there be so much damn gray in the world. It defies nature, I tell you.”

Hathik smirked, taking in the scene as well. The river was gray, the hills were gray, the city was gray, the sky, well the sky was always gray. Looking from a distance, one could hardly tell anything apart. It all became a large, gray smudge at the limits of one’s vision. It gave the disturbing illusion that there was simply no end to this cursed place.

The two men descended the hill to the river and made their way to the gated bridge, almost a small fortress in itself, crossing back into Mendev. There they were stopped by haggard looking guards. “Halt and identify.” Their sergeant asked, firmly, leveling his halberd. Hathik heard the creaking of bowstrings pulling back coming from the shadowed slits of the tower over the bridge.

“Scout-sergeants Mallan and Hathik, 7th Ursus light foot, 3rd platoon, back from checking on a village three hours’ walk north of here, opposite side of the river.” He jerked his thumb back toward the direction they had come from for emphasis. “Permission to pass?”

“Submit to the tests. Pass them and you can move on.” The guard turned. “Priests!” he shouted. Mallan looked at Hathik, who rolled his eyes. Standard operating procedure, this close to the Worldwound.

Two priests, one young and portly and the other older and whip-thin, both resplendent in their robes of white and yellow, came from the bridge tower and immediately started chanting of the rites of testing. They asked questions that the two men had no choice but to answer true, received blessings that would supposedly burn the skin from an infiltrating demon, and submitted to inspections of their equipment for chaotic taint. That was the part Mallan hated. The priests poured over their clothes and satchels, their weapons, and finally their bodies, this last needing them to strip almost to their underclothing.

“Your cloak must be confiscated- it shows signs of taint.” The older priest said. Mallan, already shivering in the cold, handed it over with a scowl. The younger priest turned to Hathik, eying the Scout’s bow hungrily.

“Your bow also shows signs of taint. It must be surrendered for purification.” He held out a pudgy hand. Hathik looked at the outstretched palm. In spite of the cold, the hand was sweaty. Mallan started to say something but his friend silenced him with an upraised hand.

“It’s alright. Here you are.” Hathik handed over the longbow to his friend’s obvious amazement.

“Arrows, too, please.” The priest said. Hathik dutifully turned those over as well. The older one turned away and went back into the tower. The fat cleric beamed. “The faithful praise your dedication, my sons.” He stood to the side. “These articles will be returned to your quarters after the purifications are performed. You may both pass back into Iomedae’s light.” The two men gathered their belongings and made their way through the bridge tower gate.

“I can’t believe you did that!” Mallan said as they walked across the bridge. “Your bow and arrows? In a pig’s eye they’ll be returned. That chinless nugget of shit just got away with open thievery, I tell you!”

Hathik just smiled as they walked up the heavily eroded hillside road to the city gates.

Mallan was amazed at his friend’s calm attitude about what just happened. “Don’t you have anything to say about it?” He asked.

“They were from the armory. My good ones are still back at our quarters.” Hathik said, still smiling. Mallan laughed and put his arm around his friend’s shoulders, and together they strode through the gates and into the northern-most bastion of goodness and mercy against the hordes of the Worldwound. According to those running it, that is.

***

The streets used to be a melting pot of pilgrims from across Golarion. Throngs of peddlers, merchants, and vendors sold any and all types of goods once lined the avenues of Kenabres, hawking wares to any who could or would listen. Mallan stopped and bought a new cloak from one the few street vendors left. The two scouts noticed fewer soldiers and merchants these days. Once you couldn’t swing a stick without it ringing off a crusader’s helm. Now, though, well…the church’s quest to root out the heresies it claimed were running rampant within the city walls had taken its toll. Not many wanted to come and fight the denizens of evil when they may be perceived as such and burned for it on the papal pyres. The fighting orders and units left were the ones who knew a thing or two about survival in place where faith had become a weapon of paranoia. One needed to step carefully, here.

Street corner mendicants howled or muttered the praises of Iomedae while refugees jammed the alleys and gutters. City watchmen strolled along, keeping the decrepit mobs from clogging the streets. Mallan threaded his way along the avenues until he and Hathik reached their favorite tavern.

“You, know, Hath, it never really feels like we’re back until we tilt one at the Lyre, eh? We can make our report in a bit.” Mallan said, eying the faded wooded sign hanging over the entrance. The sign once showed a beautifully painted silver lyre on a black, lacquered background. Now it was more like a chalky outline on a peeling board, more bare wood showing than painted surface. Hathik nodded his agreement and they went in, finding a table near the fireplace, next to the wall. They motioned to a barmaid, holding up two fingers. She came over with two tankards of grog and took their orders.

Mallan looked around while waiting for their food. He waved to some scouts he knew from a different unit, and to Ol’ Griss, the barkeep, when he caught his eye. “Not too busy today, eh?” He asked.

“Nope.” Hathik replied. “Refugees can’t afford much, and prices have been going up, as it is. More shops have closed down, and the scrutiny of the papal guard over our shoulders isn’t good for any kind of business, legit or not.” He tilted his stool back and leaned against the wall, sipping his drink. Mallan noticed his friend’s sour mood. It was unusual for the quiet archer to go on like that. He looked around- it would not do for his friend’s opinions to be caught by the wrong ears.

“Ease up, Hath, everyone’s under pressure, especially the church leaders. There’s fewer soldiers, but always more to do. It’ll pass, we’ll get reinforced and then we’ll see another surge against the Enemy, one that’ll push ‘em right back in that damnable hole, eh?”

“Maybe they’d have enough men if they quit burning them at the stake.” Hathik said over the edge of his tankard, not looking up. Mallan glanced about again, but thankfully his friend had kept his words at the table. He was about to say something else but a figure approached, cutting off their conversation.

“Ho, Mallan, Hathik. How be ye boys, today?” A wiry man said. His voice was soft but carried weight. His road leathers were streaked with dust but his eyes were clear and keen beneath a weathered brow. A hand rested on the hilts of two worn short swords, slung low on a hip, and his other held a tankard. It was one of the other scouts Mallan had waved to earlier.

“I’m well, Ramiel, yourself?” Mallan replied. Hathik only made a noncommittal noise.

“Good, I’m good. Mind if I join you?” He asked. Mallan motioned at an empty stool. Hathik shrugged his assent. The man sat, thumping his drink onto the table.

“So, just back or heading out?”

“Just back. Sent to check on a village about three hours’ north. Nothing left.”

“Three hours, ye say, eh?”

“Yep.”

“Which side o’ the river?”

“West. Why?”

The thin scout pursed his lips in thought. “I think me and my squad had been sent to check that area a few weeks back. Wasn’t no village, then.”

“Well, there was one when we checked it out, right Hath?” The Archer nodded. “More of a glorified camp, really. Just getting started, looked like.”

“Can’t see how. We reported it unfit for exploration or anything else. Too much sign o’ the Enemy. Spoor, tainted trees and shrubs. You could o’ planted church-blessed corn there and it’d come up rotten and screamin’, most like.”

“Then why was there a village started up there if it was reported unsafe? The charter committee must of known of the reports.”

Ramiel shook his head. “Couldn’t tell ye. Must of screwed it royal and sent the poor buggers to the wrong place. They’re tryin’ to settle too many new villages to deal with the refugees. Poor bastards.” He gulped from his tankard and made the sign of the hilt. “The lady take ‘em under her shield, bless ‘em.”

“Aye.” Mallan agreed. Hathik nodded gravely.

“Much left?” Ramiel asked.

“No. Nothing.”

“Could you tell what types o’ Enemy did the deed from the bodies?”

Both men shook their heads. “None of those left, either.” Mallan said.

Ramiel sat back, brooding. They drank in silence together until their meals arrived. Ramiel bid them good day and rejoined his friends at the other table. Mallan and Hathik ate quietly, paid, then made their way to the barracks to make their report.

A Cold Wind continues in Part 2