Roc hordes were impossible to track. The massive birds could fly at incredible speeds, carrying riders with javelins or even small siege engines deep into enemy territory. They could sweep into a town, slaughter any opposition, snatch packs full of supplies and disappear into the sky in minutes.
With ground troops, they could take down citadels. But troops were much easier to track. Locasta and Trax picked up their trail on the far side of the giant’s temple, a wide swath of disturbed earth and brush that wound north and east through the foothills.
“Do you know of any roc towers in the east?” Trax asked as they hurried along, keeping an eye on the sky for scouts.
“None,” Locasta said. The dragon border guards occasionally flew north to check for roc or giant activity too close to the river that formed the border between them. There had been no reports of any rocs this far south.
“Should they not be heading north?”
“Maybe they are trying to cover their trail, or avoid giant cities on the way north?”
“Still, it will be difficult to move a large amount of troops through the desert.”
“That’s good for us,” Locasta said. “It will slow them down.”
They travelled on for a while, and Locasta tried to guess what the roc troops were up to. She had not heard of them attacking the holy places of the giants. There was little that would interest them in a temple, unless they were suddenly desirous of magical artifacts. That made her worry that they were after Craven, and they may have taken Gerard with them.
She had not officially met Gerard, the Iron Champion of her people. She had only been a child in training for the trials, and he had never spoken to them. But she had seen him fight. Trax fought with grace. Gerard fought with raw power. Sometimes his enemies lost out of fear long before they would have lost from being wounded.
“Are we going to talk about your way of solving problems?” Trax’s voice broke through her thoughts, and Locasta frowned.
“Are we going to talk about what you did in that cave back there?”
Trax did not answer. He was so strange, so different than what she had expected a descendant of dragons to be. In Stonehaven her actions would have been applauded, not questioned. His prayer for the dead of a people not his own would have been considered close to treason. Perhaps monks were allowed different ways, in exchange for the amazing skills they offered Dragonhelm.
As the sun sank behind the hills, Trax began to lead them through the valleys. His sight was better in the dark, and she had to admit, and his hearing was better than hers as well. She had a few objects in her possession that would allow her to see at night, but she didn’t want to reveal that just yet.
Being able to travel in the dark, when a horde of troops could not, and when a roc’s vision would be severely limited, allowed them to come upon the troops within an hour after sunset. Locasta started to move around the camp to find the roc’s roost, but Trax stopped her.
“It does not smell right,” he said, both sniffing at the air and slipping his tongue out slightly.
“What do you mean?”
“They do not have a roc with them.”
Locasta narrowed her eyes, and tried to sniff the air as well. rocs did have a distinct smell, but if it was downwind of them she would not be able to smell it anyway.
“Are you sure?”
“Fairly sure. I should be able to smell one if it were nearby. If they were travelling with one it is not here now. All I smell are humans.”
Locasta huffed a bit. But she had travelled with troops before, and there was a definite smell to a human army.
“Another odd discovery. I don’t like it.” Locasta readied her shield and the words to a spell. “Do you think we could get somewhere to observe them for a while?”
“Do you not want to try to infiltrate them? You may be able to slip through quietly.”
“I’m sure they will have more vigilant sentries than the giants did,” Locasta answered. “And I’m not skilled with subtlety.”
“I do not think we will learn much simply watching in the dark.”
“Then we’ll wait and speak with them in the morning.”
Trax and Locasta rose as soon as the sun began to show above the brushy hills, and made their way towards the camp. There were two guards, indeed more vigilant than the giant had been, but a great deal less impressive. They were armored with makeshift jacks of cloth and scraps of bone, and their weapons looked dull and ill kept. Locasta noted that the older of the two handled the weapon like he knew what to do with it.
“Who goes there,” the older one asked, a tall, sun wrinkled man with a dark rope of hair falling down his back. The limber woman beside him was younger, and fairer, but just as wary.
“I am Locasta, champion of Stonehaven,” Locasta said. She wished her voice didn’t sound as young as she was. The guards looked a bit surprised, and neither of them relaxed.
“And I am Trax, teacher of the Old Ways.” Judging from their reaction to her large companion, she guessed their tense stance was more in thanks to his presence than to hers.
“And what is your business with us?” the woman asked. Her voice sounded older than Locasta had estimated, rough and horse.
“I can’t speak for my companion,” Locasta said, motioning towards Trax. “I wish to bargain with your leaders for some of the spoils from your last raid.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, but the other guard laughed in a short bark.
“I wish to speak with someone of the Jolani tribe or family, if they are travelling with you,” Trax said. “I have personal news for them.”
“That is interesting,” the man said. “Very well.” He took a few steps closer to the camp, and started shouting. “Fen! Fen, here boy!” A young boy, no more than twelve, came running into the valley. “Go and fetch Kilven, and Jola. Hurry now.” The boy hurried off like a shot, only having raised his eyes once to Trax and immediately looking away again as though his eyes had been burned by the sun.
They waited in silence in the valley, shadowed in the early morning light. The guards never relaxed for a moment, and Locasta amused herself by counting how many ways she could disarm them. There were at least six options for the woman. Only one, perhaps two for the man.
After a short wait, three people appeared behind the guards. Two were obviously a couple, older, the man partly gray in his beard, the woman very gray and a little stooped. The third person bore himself very straight, and walked in a measured pace, taking in everything with keen, bright blue eyes.
As soon the couple saw them, the woman ran forward, a terrible rage spreading across her face and her hands up like claws. She was running towards Trax.
“You!” she shrieked, spit flying from her mouth. “How dare you show your face to me!” The female guard caught her, but the woman managed to drag her forward a few steps before they skidded to a stop, the woman still reaching her claws out towards Trax. “How dare you come to me without my Jami!”
Trax stood still and silent in the cool of the morning, looking at the woman with deep, expressionless eyes. The woman’s husband had caught up to her, and was holding her back as well, though she was starting to collapse in a heap to the dusty ground.
“I know what happened! I know that you survived and my Jami didn’t! How dare you come back here.” The woman’s words trailed off into sobs as she fell completely against her husband. He held her close, and looked up at Trax, not in anger so much as exhaustion and sadness.
Trax stepped towards them then, holding something out to them in his hands. “Jola, Mavi, I am sorry that I was not in time to deliver the news myself. I am sorry that I was not able to save your son.” He stopped several feet in front of them, knelt in a fluid graceful movement, and bowed so low that his snout touched the dirt. “Your son was a valiant and graceful warrior, and his skills and prowess should make you proud.” Locasta couldn’t tell what he was holding until he raised his body up and handed it to the elderly couple. It was a robe, and a belt, about the size right for a youth.
The woman would not look at him, instead burying herself against her husband’s chest. He took what Trax offered, however, and his face crumpled. Then Trax started his prayers again. At first those around them looked anxious, unsure of what was happening, but then a breeze picked up, and a calm came over the couple. The woman even stopped crying. They took a deep breath at the same time, picked themselves up, and headed back into the camp.
“What was that about?” Locasta asked in a low voice as Trax came to stand beside her again.
“That is another off my list,” he answered. By now the other person who had joined them had stepped forward, and was watching them closely.
“A champion of Stonehaven?” he said finally, his voice about as rough as any of the others, but elevated somehow. The voice of someone used to giving orders, Locasta thought.
“The champion of Stonehaven,” Locasta corrected, trying to match his lower pitch and commanding tone.
“Really?” The man tilted his head a bit to the right. “Seems I’ve met another who claims that title. They call you the Iron Champion, isn’t that right?”
“The last champion went by that title, yes.” Locasta stood up a little straighter. “I prefer to be called the Iron Sorcerer. Where is this supposed champion? I’d like to speak to him about his use of this title.”
“Not sure where he is now. This was a few weeks ago.” The man paused, looking down at his hands for a moment. Locasta remembered the same mannerisms in the regent of Stonehaven. It was a common political tactic, reminding the listener that the person speaking holds the power. “It seems he was not eager to meet anyone from Stonehaven.”
Locasta frowned. At first she had hoped that this man had actually seen Gerard, perhaps recovering from the attack at the giant temple. It seemed he really had only met someone claiming the title. “I imagine not, pretending to such a title as that, it wouldn’t be to his advantage to meet anyone out of Stonehaven.”
“Do you have proof that you are not the pretender?”
Locasta smiled. “Certainly.” She raised her left hand up suddenly, and something burst out of the ground behind the woman guard. A massive hand formed from compacted earth grabbed her roughly and picked her off the ground. She squeaked in surprise and dropped her sword. Locasta’s smile widened. That had been her favorite option for disarming the woman. Trax clicked his tongue in disapproval. The other guard raised his weapon, and though the leader paled some, he calmly raised an arm to stop the guard.
“It is not your place to worry if the title is mine, or the man’s you met before, if you have indeed met anyone claiming that title. I am simply here to bargain with you for an item that is rightfully the property of the dragons.”
“I understand,” he said, his voice changing to the tone one takes with a wild dog. “Please, release her.”
Locasta lowered her hand, and the magical hand dissolved into dust, dropping the woman to the ground.
“When you raided the giant’s temple,” Locasta began, wanting to get straight to the point. “Did you discover a long, dark metal sword, with a . . . prickly hilt?”
The leader looked a bit confused, but before he could answer, a clang of alarm bells began in the camp, and there was shouting and shrieks. A huge shadow fell across the valley, and the screams of the people in the camp blended with and then were drowned out by a piercing shriek from the sky.
The leader and the guards rushed back into the camp. Trax ran after them, leaving Locasta shaking her head. Things just kept getting stranger. Rather than having been working for the rocs, it seemed they were running from them as well. Could they be sea folk? This far from the coast? And of course Trax would be jumping in to defend them.
Locasta slowly made her way up onto a hill, waiting for the roc to finish its initial dive, looking out to see if any more were coming, or if there were troops approaching. So far nothing else was coming. Now that she had a good view of the camp, she thought she could understand why. None of the Gargants would consider these people much of a threat.
The camp was a ragtag group of people of all ages, certainly not soldiers, scattered randomly through the valley. They couldn’t have defended themselves against a pack of wolves, let alone a roc. How they had managed to raid the giant temple, she couldn’t guess. Unless something very fortunate happened now, they wouldn’t last the next few hours.
The roc was climbing again, becoming a dark spot the size of her fist against the sun. There were several deep gashes in the ground in the middle of the camp, filled with the broken ruins of tents and a few people. Trax was positioned near the gashes in the ground, and looked like he had taken a hit trying to defend the people in the camp.
Locasta waited, watching as the massive, spiky bird began to swoop back down. She would only have a few chances to cast the spell she had in mind before the bird hit the camp again, and Trax could probably not afford to be hit again. He was hurrying people away from the open places in the middle of the camp towards an overhanging hill that would afford them some protection from the attack. He was not moving as quickly as he could. As soon as the roc was in range, about when she could see the deep jeweled green of its feathers, she raised her arm.
From beyond the camp, directly along the path of the roc, long tendrils of earth rose from the ground and made a snatch at the roc. It twisted in the air, avoiding the tendrils, still swooping toward the camp. Locasta squinted into the sunlight, and tried again, the tendrils shifting quickly along the ground, leaving a trail of dust. Again the roc swerved. Locasta cursed under her breath, and tried to be patient. She watched carefully, waiting until it was close enough to see its shiny black eyes. Then she raised her hand and made a catching motion.
The earth strips tangled around the roc, and began pulling it down to the earth. The problem with having waited as long as she did is the bird would be brought down on top of the camp. She started shouting and running down the hill, motioning to whoever saw her that they should get of the way.
With a loud crash the roc hit the ground and began to struggle against the strips of earth.
“Quickly I can’t hold it long!” she said, readying her spear. She wouldn’t be able to cast another spell while she was holding the roc down, but she could stab at it as well as anyone.
Trax beat her to the bird. It snapped at him, still struggling to stretch its wings or get its feet underneath it, but the long earthy arms hugged it tightly to the ground. Trax dodged the beak lightly, landing several kicks against the bird’s throat. It screamed again, making most of the camp pause to cover their ears.
Then the leader reached it. He had a massive war hammer in his hands, and he ran at the bird with complete abandon, his deep voice rumbling in a crazed yell. He swung the warhammer down into the side of the bird’s neck while it was busy trying to get a taste of Trax. There was a loud crunch, and the roc went limp. They were strong creatures, and quick, but their bones were fragile and hollow like any other bird.
Locasta finally arrived at the creature as the leader swung the hammer down again, making sure that the roc was dead. She looked from the battered, bloody lump of feathers to the leader, who had a flecks of blood spread across his face.
“So, I have a proposal,” Locasta said. “I will tell you about my quest, if you tell me what in the four lands is going on here.”
He eyed her a moment, breathing heavily, leaning on the handle of his hammer. “Sure. But first we move camp.”