Our story begins far to the north of Harmark, in the foothills of mountains that have earned no names. Rain falls in fat droplets from the boughs of the trees that cluster like walls on either side of the muddy track. It's late spring, but the chill and the damp die hard this far north, and the rain has not let up in three days.
It seems to fall heavier on the procession of settlers - more than two hundred Harkers, Ironbacks, Reachmen, and gnomes who have spent almost a month marching up perilous ravines and passes only barely clear of snow. By the reckoning of those in the lead, they should be within a day's ride of their destination, but they are so bone-weary that they can hardly muster the energy to sigh in relief.
They are the second wave of settlers on their way to New Harjevo, a town founded last spring with the permission of the throne of Harmark. It has been decades since the last time such a thing was attempted, yet there was no lack of folk hoping to test their mettle against the stone of Hyperborea. Among these are Fane and Narcissa Vascelov, exiles from the Iron principalities. They ride near the head of the column, with the officially designated governor of the settlement, Beatrise Petra, and her second, an aged knight named Arturas Dain.
Though the mood is largely dreary, Narcissa breaks the monotony of foot and hoof on mud with a halfhearted plinking and plunking on a lyre.
Fane sighs. "Do you really have to play that?"
Narcissa scoffs "It's my only instrument! I have to practice, don't I?"
"You've been 'practicing' on that thing all the way through the mountains."
"Well then," she sniffs. "All the better. Just imagine how much worse I would be now if I hadn't spent all that time improving myself." She pauses for a moment, crestfallen. "Agh. I should have taken the lute."
"We didn't have the space," says Fane.
Beatrise, the governor, glances back. "She's, ah, very enthusiastic. I appreciate something to break up the monotony."
Arturas lets out a sigh that verges on a groan without moving his eyes from the path.
"How much further?" asks Fane.
"Couple of hours," Arturas replies. "We're in the valley now."
Beatrise has a rough map, stained with travel. She admits that it's not totally accurate, but it's the best they have right now. Fane decides to leave Narcissa to her practice, and slows his stride to see what the rest of the column is up to.
Near the back of the column, a Kolechian scholar named Anton Kostov is trying to strike up a conversation with the parade of gnomes. They've been relegated to the far back, with a gap of a dozen yards between them and the rest of the settlers. Anton happens to know the gnommish language, and speaks animatedly of what he's read about their customs and religion. He's unaware that this is seen as rude and presumptuous, so despite his best efforts, he finds himself largely ignored by the gnomes. Still, he gathers a little about gnome contingent of the settlers. They seem to all come from Harjevo, where they were forced out of the neighborhood they'd set up there. Furthermore, they defer to an older looking gnome that they refer to as "Charna the Thunderous." Anton has noted her a few times on the trip, and that she never seems to be without a certain hulking half-orc by her side.
Anton tries unsuccessfully to strike up another conversation with a gnommish cobbler before shrugging and riding up the line. Most of the party doesn't have horses, but Anton is the proud owner of a tubby and rather dim pony he has affectionately named Stanley.
Not far ahead, riding a couple of paces back from the main body of the procession, Anton comes alongside Galapas, a fellow Kolechian with whom he's tried to commiserate a couple of times. Anton clears his throat with a nervous grin. "Think the rain will let up before we get to town?"
Anton nods, undeterred. "Probably not, probably not. Doesn't hurt to hope, eh?"
The archer shrugs again.
At this point, Anton notices the half-elf brothers, walking side by side a little further up. He's seen them and Galapas speaking with fair frequency on the trip, but they've always fallen silent at his approach. The scholar clears his throat. "Well. I suppose I'd best get going. I had something I wanted to talk to Yustan about." He gently urges Stanley forward, and Galapas hardly even looks at him as he goes. Yustan is an irritable and high-minded Icosian architect who's spent most of the trip courting Beatrise's attention with promises of broad stone streets and glimmering domes.
Anton offers a friendly wave to Vasily and Vitaly Zherdev as he passes, and Vasily offers it back. Vitaly mostly looks after the scholar's back with a tranquil curiosity. "Brother?" he asks, "Have we met that man before?"
"Surely you've seen him,"
"Seen him, yes, but have we broken bread together?"
"Not as I recall."
"Then why does he smile and wave at us?"
"I do not know."
A brief pause fills the space between them. "Brother?" asks Vitaly again. "What will we do once we get to New Harjevo?"
Vasily shakes his head, "I don't know. I haven't seen the town."
"If you don't know what we'll do there, why have we spent so long getting there?"
Vasily sighs. "You rely too much on certitude, Vitaly! Is it not enough to have the woods around us, the frontier ahead of us, and each other beside? What happens will happen."
"I suppose..." says Vitaly. "Yet, this land makes me uneasy. I can;t even see the horizon for all these hills and trees. It makes me feel... rudderless."
Vasily pats him on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he says. "I'll make sure you don't get turned around."
It's at this moment that Vasily catches sight of something through a gap in the canopy of leaves. He squints up at it, pausing in his tracks.
"Brother?" says Vitaly.
Vasily points, and sure enough, they can both make out a thick cluster of dark winged birds, circling perhaps a half a mile ahead of the caravan.
"There's a kill ahead," murmurs Vasily.
"Too many to be small game..." agrees Vitaly without taking his eyes from the flock. The brothers look at each other, and without another word, increase their pace and begin marching up towards the head of the column.
In the meantime, Anton has come to Governor Beatrise, who is now being talked at by a man whose dark skin and thick ponytail marks him as a native to the city of Icos. He gestures grandly and speaks of marble domes and bath houses and towering ramparts. Beatrise seems to be doing her best to feign interest, but Arturas is visibly melting in his saddle.
"Ho there!" calls Anton with a quick wave.
"Oh - I don't believe I've had th-" begins Beatrise, but the Icosian cuts her off.
"I beg your pardon," he sniffs, "but the Governor and I were discussing important matters."
Anton gives a sheepish smile. "Sorry to interrupt, I just thought I should introd-"
"What, introduce yourself? Pfah! Do you know what kind of work you are intruding on? Do you know whose work you are intruding on!?"
Anton opens his mouth dumbly.
The man rushes on. "I am Yustan Adalet, master architect, master painter, master sculptor, master of creation. My works grace streets of granite and marble and gold, my thoughts are studied - nay, revered - by the highest institutes of the finest art in the imperial capital of Icos itself!"
Anton pauses. "It's... an... honor to meet you?" he ventures.
Yustan gives him a blank look, then turns away to survey the path ahead. "The same, I suppose. You shouldn't slouch like that, it ruins the constitution."
"If I might ask, what is a man of your, ah, standing doing in Hyperborea?"
"Hah!" Yustan scoffs "What place could serve me better? As broad a canvas as I could ask for, a wilderness to tear aside with my own two hands! The mistake of academics is to presume that the world will naturally conform to the mind. I understand that labor is as much a divinity as conception!"
Narcissa gives a light chuckle as she strums another lilting bar from her lyre. "Weren't you just saying that they kicked you out for pissing off one too many nobles?"
Yustan's nostril's flare, and he looks on the edge of exploding with rage. Instead, he merely pauses before hissing "I wish you wouldn't play that thing."
Beatrise drags her eyes from the two of them to turn and address Anton. "In any case, I don't think I've had the pleasure?"
Fane has noticed Vasily and Vitaly shouldering their ways to the front. Most of the settlers merely grumble about elven self-importance, but Fane can tell from their expressions that there's something else going on. He follows close at their heels and takes care to undo the clasp on his scabbard.
The brothers reach the front of the train. Vasily approaches Arturas while Fane listens in from a few paces behind. "There's something dead on the road."
Arturas snaps to attention. "Eh? What are you talking about?"
Vitaly points. "There are crows circling above the road ahead, assuming the path doesn't change course. Something died ahead. Something big."
Beatrise notices their hushed tones "What? Wh-what is it? Sir Arturas?"
The old knight gives the brothers a wary look. "Something might be up," he says. "Can you two move quickly?"
Fane speaks up "I'm not sure they should split from the column..."
"I'll ask for your advice when I want it, sir." Arturas growls.
"We can check it out," affirms Vasily.
"Can you slow down the march a bit? Give us more time to make sure it's safe?" says Vitaly. Arturas nods, and the two half elves dash off and away, vanishing around a short bend just a few paces off.
"I should have gone with them," murmurs Fane, but Arturas gives him a smack on the shoulder.
"Come on. If there's something dangerous out here, you need to be in position to defend the train."
Arturas sighs. "I told you, I don't need your supposition, I need your discipline. I need to stay here, but I need you to pass word down the column."
Fane hesitates. He casts a glance toward Narcissa, still oblivious and strumming her lyre.
"Go, before I have to pound some sense into your skull!" growls Arturas. Fane sets off back down the line.
Vasily and Vitaly make quick progress along the path. It's muddy and thick with patches of brush and roots, but both of them are adept at moving across wild terrain. The rain slips into their boots with every step, and they run in silence as they glance at the fast approaching cloud of birds above.
At last, they round a bend and both skid to a halt in shock at the sight before them.
Blood and rainwater mix freely to form a carpet of crimson mud across the path, in which a shattered cart lies half submerged. Limbs and bodies picked of skin peek out from under a blanket of black wings, along with the stained white fletchings of arrows. As the brothers approach, the birds take off in a storm of caws. Vasily and Vitaly glance at each other, then wordlessly begin to pick through the remains.
It's hard for them to tell much about the deceased. Aside from the horse, there seem to be two adults, probably human, killed within a couple days. Wolf tracks circle the site of the massacre, but its plain that these people were killed by something with hands. Vasily kneels to take a closer look at the corpses while Vitaly circles wider. He catches sight of a splash of crimson under a fern some distance off to the north of the road, and finds signs that someone under five feet tall went blundering through the underbrush.
"Shall I follow?" he calls to his brother.
Vasily offers only a grunt as he turns over the larger of the bodies.
Vitaly shrugs and sets off through the trees.
Vasily finds that these are almost certainly humans, a man and a woman. A copper band on each of their hands suggests they were married. The druid carefully extracts one of the arrows to examine it more closely. The head is a low quality iron broadhead solidly affixed to a shaft of ash - not a wartime arrow, but a hunting or bandit arrow. Vasily glances from the arrowhead to the man's corpse. It killed him just the same. He sighs and tucks the arrow under his belt, about to turn and follow Vitaly when something else catches his eye - a footprint in the deep mud, with blood and rainwater pooled deeply within. Much longer than a man's foot, with a depth that suggests something at least seven feet tall.
Vasily curses and dashes off into the woods.