Abram stalked into the tree line. His gait was slow and cautious, his ears pricked, ready to catch the slightest sound, and his eyes darted constantly from one shadow to the next. Every few minutes he would pause in his advance to take in his surroundings. Then, once he was convinced he was alone, he would continue his patrol.
Equidistant from him in a wide circle, the other two designated watchers would be doing the exact same. Together they would scour the area, reporting back at the first sign of trouble. Not that he was expecting any.
In his years of military service, Abram had come to a fundamental truth regarding night time patrols. They didn’t work. If an enemy wanted to attack them, they would, and for all the warning, they would still not be prepared for it. That was the simple fact of it. No man could jump up from sleeping, have a sword or bow in his hand and be ready to fight, at least not nearly as well as if he’d been awake the whole time. He’d be disoriented, mind cloudy. The adrenaline would help, but it was rarely enough.
Then of course there were the nights where nothing happened. Those were the nights where the guards could have slept as well, or the gates left unguarded. Those were the nights they would complain about, and there would be many of them to come. Those were the nights where one or more of them would suggest it wasn’t worth keeping watch at all.
Abram didn’t hold to that though. Even if he didn’t believe in the effectiveness of a night’s watch, he held to the reasoning behind it. Warning was still better than no warning at all. Besides, he never questioned orders, even when he disagreed with them. When he was given a task no matter the importance, he took it seriously. He was just that kind of man and it was all he had ever wanted to be.
It was for that reason that he turned on his heel and had his knife held ready to strike when a man came tumbling out from the bushes behind him. It was only because of his practiced skill that he managed to pull back in time when he recognised the other man as one he had picked as a fellow watcher.
‘What are you doing, soldier?’ he whispered angrily, blade still pointing at the other man.
The soldier pulled himself up off the ground and looked at him with a grim expression on a dark feline face. He was by most counts a giant, easily the tallest of their group. He was also impeccably built, with the kind of musculature that did not come natural to the far weaker human form. In spite of his intimidating exterior, it was the bowed head and eyes filled with fear and confusion that convinced Abram finally to lower his weapon.
‘It’s Tawkran, sir,’ said the soldier, referring by name to the third watcher. ‘Something’s happened to him. ‘
Abram’s body tensed.
‘You saw something?’ he asked. The other soldier nodded. ‘Take me there.’
The time for stealth had likely passed, but all the same, Abram remained vigilant, making sure to tread just as lightly while also quickening his pace. A clever enemy might pick off the watchers silently, hoping to catch the group entirely unawares. After all, sleeping men wouldn’t fight back.
The large soldier led him to a small clearing where a scrap of cloth hung from a low lying branch. He sped over to it, recognising it even in the darkness as a remnant of Tawkran’s cloak. He swore under his breath as his fingers found traces of blood.
‘Unsheathe,’ he ordered the other soldier, readying his own dagger. The soldier did as ordered, and then Abram looked down at the ground where a patch of grass had been flattened, with the ground beneath it forming a rough trail that disappeared behind a pair of bushes.
Cautiously, soundlessly, Abram followed the trail to its conclusion. He swore again when discovered to what it led.
‘What is it?’ said the other soldier. ‘Bandits?’
He too stopped when he followed Abram around the bushes, eyes widening in shock at what he saw. Tawkran lay before them, dead. His lifeless eyes stared accusingly up at the tree line while his mouth remained stuck in an unending scream.
Abram leant down to expect the body. There was no doubting how he had died. There were claw and bite marks all up his torso and across the back of his neck. If he was lucking it had at least been quick, but that was something he didn’t want to think about.
Holding back his disgust, Abram reached into a wound and retrieved a short strand. When he held it aloft he realised it was a hair, silver and sharp. It could only have come from an animal.
‘Wolves,’ he muttered, almost disappointed. ‘It’s just wolves.’
‘Wolves did this?’ said the other man incredulously.
Abram nodded. It was uncommon, but it still happened. They tended not to venture too close to camps, but he doubted that would stop them if they were desperate enough, or hungry enough. All the same, something didn’t feel quite right. He couldn’t place it, but there was still something that didn’t quite add up.
‘Go wake the next three watchers,’ said Abram. ‘I’ll join you when I’m done with the body.’