Chapter 1 - Shattered
Bobmadik stopped. He could hear nothing. Absolute silence, why? It was early evening and he was making his way home from the high paddock. Looking around he listened, not a crow caw, not a cricket’s chirp, nor a frog’s croak.
Then he saw it, a billowing black plume of smoke rising into the clear, crisp autumn sky. A plume rising from where his home stood, where his family was. Bobmadik dropped the pick and axe he had been using to construct the fence and charged towards his home.
As he crested the hill the realisation of why the silence hit him like a sledgehammer. The log cabin he had built for his small family was on fire, smoke billowing from the windows, flames consuming the wood shingles of the roof. He paused to take in the scene; he could see no one.
He ran with his heart in his mouth, the exhaustion of his hard days work evaporating as he plunged down the hill. Towards his home his family, his wife, and son, the two people who meant everything to him.
The people he had moved here to protect. To this remote, idyllic, safe part of the world where they could raise Aelen in safety, away from the dangers that had cast him into their lives in the first place. A place free from questions; a place where two dwarves raising an Elven child would go unchallenged.
Getting to the cabin, Bobmadik ran through the smoke, kicking in the door to the cabin, screaming ‘Taesha! Aelen!’ Heat and flame burst from the door pushing him back. Flame, smoke, the crackle, hiss and roar of the fire was all he could hear, no voices not anything. He could do nothing. ‘Taesha! Aelen!’
He stood stunned for hours, in silence, the cold of the autumn night against his back, the heat of the fire destroying his home, consuming his family. Empty. Hollow. Despairing at his helplessness. As time passed he collapsed to the ground, exhausted. Spent falling into a stupor of sleep and dreams.
Opening his eyes hours later, to a clear blue sky, he heard the Larks singing their morning song, calling to each other as they had every day since their arrival. The peace and tranquillity of their valley coming back to him, briefly.
The smell of charred wood attacked his senses. The memories of the previous evening flooded back into his mind. Taesha! Aelen! Where are they? He had to find them. Charging into what was his home he stood on the threshold and looked around him. Everything in sight had turned to charcoal or ash.
Bobmadik slowly moved through the remnants of his home. The kitchen bench, stools, everything crumbled at his touch or the kick of his boot. He looked to where Aelen’s cot was, to where he liked to play with his toy wheel as his mother cooked and moved around the cabin, nothing.
He looked to the kitchen, to the bedroom, everywhere Taesha would have been; Nothing. No remnants of anything that would tell him that they had been caught in the fire. It was as if they had vanished.
Looking beyond the walls of his home Bobmadik scanned the horizon, looking for a sign of his wife and child, hoping, praying that he would see them returning from the forest. The field around the cabin was empty in every direction.
Then he spotted it, a small patch of bright red cloth. Aelens’ cloth, the security blanket he always held. Tattered and torn as it was, always by his side, now it lay forlorn in the field. Running to it, Bobmadik picked it up, stopped and looked around, again scanning for his young family.
His heart sank; as Bobmadik scanned the field he realised all around him there were prints. Claw prints, all heading in the same direction running from his cabin into the forest. Searching he could only see the claw prints, an easy half dozen. Then he saw it. A single small footprint, a moccasin, Taesha was alive.
Running to retrieve his pick and axe he had dropped the night before, and refill his water bladder. He returned to follow the trail of claws; plunging into the forest. Following the prints into the depths hoping to find his young family.
It quickly became evident that who or whatever had taken his family was not concerned about being followed. They had barged through the forest leaving a clear path. Snapping branches from trees, pushing through the scrub where no path existed. Scuffing moss from trees and rocks as they passed.
After several hours, Bobmadik started to despair that he would never catch them. Exhausted he stopped to drink the last of his water. Stopping mid gulp, he slowly lowered his bladder and listened. Concentrating on slowing his breathing, his heartbeat thumping in his ears. Yes, he had heard something. He heard it again, yapping, a whole heap of yapping.
Not the yapping of wild dogs, but the yapping of a ‘Conversation’. It was not too distant; coming from the direction the trail led. Crouching low Bobmadik took his axe from his belt and crawled forward. As he approached the sound got clearer, it was most definitely not dogs, but a language of sorts. As he crawled along the trail that was fresh there was a strong stench of damp dog.
Bobmadik lowered himself even further, slowing as he approached. He could clearly hear them speaking, and could most definitely smell them, the air was pungent with their odor. He dared not move any closer until he could learn more, to understand what he was up against. Peering through the undergrowth he could see one of the yapping creatures.
It stood barely three feet tall, a good foot shorter than Bobmadik. It had red scaly skin, a face like a dog. Walking upright it carried a short spear and wore a sword on its hip. Its hands and feet were talons, with unblinking orange eyes. It truly looked worse than it smelled.
It appeared the creatures had stopped for the day, as it was now late afternoon. Bobmadik took the opportunity to circle around to the side of the yapping creatures to see if he could get a better view, wondering if he would be able to see Taesha or Aelen.
Finally, he saw them; Taesha slumped against a tree nursing Aelen. Both silent wide-eyed, fear evident on their faces. From his vantage point, Bobmadik was able to work out how many creatures he had to deal with, seven. He had no choice now but to wait and hope for the right opportunity.
The largest of the creatures barked orders at its underlings. Two creatures headed further into the brush returning a while later with three dead pigeons and a brace of rabbits, whilst another gathered wood and lit a fire. Bobmadik waited.
As the hours passed and the shadow’s lengthened, activity in the camp slowed. Four of the creatures, including the largest rolled out leather blankets around the campfire and lay down to sleep. One stood watch over Taesha and Aelen, who despite their fear had managed to fall into a restless slumber.
The remaining two creatures stood guard over the camp facing away from the fire, scanning the forest. Bobmadik waited. He knew he only had one chance at rescuing his family; he slowly crept towards the creature closest to him. Soon, not long now his opportunity would come; he just needed the three sentries to become tired and inattentive. Taking this time, to crawl closer, slowly closer.
Crouching behind a boulder not two meters from the nearest creature Bobmadik waited until it looked away. He stepped out and quickly covered the distance to his prey. Reaching one arm around its shoulders, his other hand darting out to grab its dog-like muzzle.
Twisting the creature’s head towards him, holding the shoulders in place Bobmadik was able to look into the orange bulbous eyes of the creature as he felt its neck snap. A feeling he’d felt before as he killed chickens for the family table. The creature’s body twitched, jerking suddenly and went limp in his arms.
Laying the creature on the ground Bobmadik took the short sword from the creature and turned to look at the campsite again. It was quickly apparent that the remaining sentries had not heard him, not noticing the fall of their cohort.
Pulling his pick from his belt he raised it above his head and threw it with all his might at the creature on the far side of the camp. Watching as it silently tumbled end over end, hoping it would hit its target.
He watched as the pick head struck to the left of the creature’s spine. The force of it flipping the creature head over heels, landing splayed on the ground with the point of the pick protruding from its chest.
As quickly and as silently as possible, sword in hand he bolted towards the last remaining creature. Slamming into its back, driving the sword up through the creature’s lower back and into its chest. Bodily lifting it past the tree Taesha and Aelen were resting against.
Tripping and falling onto his victim, Bobmadik landed hard on the pommel of the sword knocking the air out of his lungs. Rolling off the creature, laying on his back gasping for air Bobmadik lay still waiting, listening for the commotion to begin.
Nothing! No rapid movement, no yelping, no screams, simply the silence of the night, as if the whole forest was holding its breath to see what was to happen next. Had the creatures woken and realised what had happened? Or were they oblivious to the death of their three guards?
Sitting up, Bobmadik looked back towards the campsite, towards Taesha and Aelen. There was no movement, how was this possible? How could, he a mere farmer kill three of these creatures and not alarm anyone; not even a squeal from his son.
Crawling forward on hands and knees, anxious of a trap, he came up behind the tree his family was resting against. ‘Taesha’ his voice straining as he spoke the first words he had uttered since seeing his cabin aflame. ‘Bob?’ ‘Yes behind you, pass Aelen to me’.
‘Where did you come from? Where have the sentries gone?’ Taesha’s voice wavering between panic and relief. ‘Quiet Taesha’ he said firmly. ‘We have to sneak away, pass Aelen to me’.
A moment later Aelen’s angelic little face with his piercing blue almond shaped eyes appeared. Silent, yet wide awake in this moment. Bobmadik was amazed that a normally defiant little three-year-old child would be nothing but silent and compliant in this situation. ‘Come Taesha, we have to get away from here.’
Bobmadik led his small family-wide around the campsite and rejoined the trail left by the creatures the previous day. Stopping at the trail he listened, still no sound of movement or commotion from the campsite, luck was definitely on his side. He knew there was no way that would last. Gesturing for his family to be quiet he retraced the route he had come the previous day, knowing this would be the best way to hide their tracks for now.
Bobmadik, Taesha, and Aelen were now on the run. There was no way, and nothing for them to return to at the farm. That life was behind them now. He had to get them away from the creatures as fast and far as possible and then work out what to do.