Sieghard was in no hurry. He spent the rest of the day making his arrangements to leave, hand-picking the men who would make up Oswald’s garrison – and the squad that would accompany them into the Karst.

For the latter he chose two of the halberd militia and three of the Thorns. The halberdiers’ names were Hartmann and Durnhelm; the Thorns’ were Silas, Steffan and Thom, though the other crossbowmen called him Whispering Thom on account of his exceptionally loud voice. The last three were all men who had been with the company long enough to remember Adelbert as a friend, and they greeted him as such, full of curiosity about where the wizard’s mission was taking them.

Ingwald watched all the planning with suspicion. Sieghard suspected he was merely put out at being left behind, but the canny crossbowman did his best to find an angle he could work. “I don’t like it, boss,” he said. “Splitting us up, sending us every which way... seems like counting our chickens to me.” He scratched the stubble on his chin. “You really going to give over good Thorns to that prat Oswald?”




Backertag, 31st Sommerzeit

The ten of them left camp the next morning, the Captain having been informed of their plans and Ludo having ensured they had plenty of provisions for the journey – particularly water. They were three days out from the summer solstice, and the sun was already hot on the back of their necks as they turned west into the rocks of the Karst.

The Harmugstahl passage was much as they remembered it from the last time they had come this way. Choked with weeds, fallen boulders and gravel, it was slow going even for those on horseback. Morrslieb circled above the trail, riding the thermals that rose off the baking rocks to keep a beady eye out for trolls or bandits on the path ahead. Thankfully, he saw none.

The day was dying when they finally came upon the ruins, tired from their long day’s march. A number of crows or ravens were perched on the broken wall that sealed off the overgrown courtyard of the tower, and flew up in agitation when the party approached. After a brief aerial altercation, Morrslieb dived down onto Elsa’s shoulder, croaking indignation at how rudely he had been received.

The militiamen kept a tight grip on their weapons, not approaching the ruins until Sieghard led them closer. “Thought we’d seen the back of this place,” said Steffan, scanning the gravel-strewn courtyard with a wary eye. It looked deserted, empty but for fallen masonry and growths of spiny weeds.

Still squawking and squabbling, the crows began to settle on the ravaged roof of the central tower, above that broken window that seemed to stare like an empty eye-socket across the Karst. The sun was sinking fast, lending the shadows within an inky blackness that put the birds’ coal-coloured feathers to shame.