The autumn air was thick with smoke and the smell of death.
Though the gentle slope of the valley was ringed with golden leafed trees, the usually verdant grass and gentle, crystal stream was ruined, covered in broken bodies and the debris of war. Smoke curled from the burning husks of chariots, blotting out the slim and weak sun, whilst man-shaped mounds dotted the ground like shattered dolls. The ravens feasted, their joyful calls a riot of sound that echoed throughout the valley.
Medb watched from the hillside, sat amongst a bed of soft heather. As the grey light waned, she watched groups of men walking the battlefield, delivering a swift mercy to the worst wounded and an undignified death to those helpless enemies who lay amongst them. A rare few they gathered, set on a stretcher and carried away to their surgeons. Medb imagined their healers as butchers; stocky men with cleavers and violent minds. With a grimace, she chided herself for her prejudice and calmed her feelings; she needed to see the truth behind the hatred and conflict.
The wind that had tugged fiercely at the pretty banners of the Rimlanders had died to a slow breeze that lazily moved at the clouds overhead. Beyond the carnage, the trees moved gently, swaying in time with the waves that the wind made in the longer grasses near the valleys peaks. A small flock of starling lifted from the branches of a copse of oak and swirled in the sky before wheeling south for warmer lands. Beyond the battle, the world was as it should be.
This troubled Medb. All her divinations had pointed to this being a place where the world would change, yet all she saw was simply another pointless conflict. Another fight between the warlike tribes of these lands and the godless soldiers of the Rim.
Breathing deeply to settle her thoughts, Medb calmed herself and let the land tell her what she needed to know.
Golden leaves fell from the autumnal branches. Winter was beginning to creep into the valley. The wind had slowed, like the lull before the storm. The battlefield was quiet. All of these things held meaning.
The fighting had been brutal, much like the wind that had howled through the valley. Marukai horsemen from the steppes had tried to circle the Rimlanders, raining arrows into their numbers, yet the sturdy shields of their massed infantry had turned most of them aside. As the battle had joined, the halberds of the Rim soldiers had hewn the lightly armoured tribesmen like wheat to the scythe, cutting down the men. Yet the tribesmen had five times the numbers of the Rimlanders. Eventually they had overwhelmed their lines, forcing them to fight in divided groups where their tight ranks meant nothing. It had seemed lost, until the white haired warrior had arrived, cutting down tribesmen with his slim, silver sword. The battle was over shortly afterward, with the Rimlanders taking the field and the tribesmen fleeing.
Again, nothing out of the ordinary. The Rim was pushing into the lands of the Tribes with ease, taking more and more land each season. Even the white haired warrior, clearly one of the Accursed, was not an uncommon event.
The smoke was curling into the sky now, mixing into the clouds. As they mixed, they took on the colour of snow clouds, almost threatening an early frost. For a brief moment, the wind picked up, whistling through the valley and whipping at the nearby trees. Below, on the battlefield, a fire guttered and died, whilst the crows clawed angrily at a small group of looters who disturbed their feasts. Though they complained, they moved off, hopping across the bodies with no respect or taking wing and moving to a fresh feast. One of the wandering men stopped by a small cluster of mangled bodies and began tugging at what looked like cloth. Though it was at a distance, Medb could see that he was trying to remove a mans cloak. By the stream, a pair of women washed their newfound treasures of blood.
Stilling her own frustration, Medb sought help from her guides. Not all of them; just the ones that gave her insight. She called on the inspiration of the sunset, those quiet times when the mind would wander; with a smile, she called upon the wisdom of the Grandmother to bless her with understanding beyond her youth. Finally, she even called upon the crow to give her the knowledge of things otherworldly, even if the crow would demand a prize.
The clouds were thinning; sunlight was creeping across the top of the valley in sweeping patches that danced amongst the undulating grasses. The cries of the wounded were all but silent and the looters had begun to slink away. The flocks of crows had grown.
Yet her insight had not. The portents spoke of nothing other than the usual dance of life. For a moment, she imagined that she was missing the signs; that they were too subtle, yet she was a Wych and her insight was unmatched. There was a message here, but it was not apparent. Or it hadn’t appeared yet.
Her journey here was a long one, stretching some 400 leagues from the borders of the Rigoi lands where she had first received the vision that this battlefield would be of great importance. This had been close to half a year ago and her decision had caused ripples of disgruntled agreement amongst the tribes. For two seasons, since the start of spring, she had travelled south west through the Weald, sometimes with caravans and sometimes alone. She had moved through forests, plains and steppes, stopping often at the villages and homesteads to help birth babes and settle disputes, as her position demanded. In her journey, she had eased the raging heart of a spirit of sickness and earn’t his pact; she had been given the pelt of the Grey Lion, an ancient fetish that could only be earnt by satisfying the spirit of the beast. It warmed her now while she sat and waited for a sign.
As she had travelled, her purpose had raced ahead of her in the whispers and gossip of merchants and nomads. After a season of travel, she had begun to hear about rumblings within the Marukai; her coming was agitating them and making them suspicious of a coming conflict. They began a series of raids against the nearby Rimlands outposts, bringing retaliatory strikes. As Medb drew closer, these raids escalated, causing her to worry that the battle would take place before she reached the valley. As she rode the rest of the way on a horse given to her by one of the steppes clans, she began to worry that her actions may have caused this conflict in the first place. Asthe battle joined and the me had begun to die, she began to feel responsible; maybe her decision to travel this far to explore a vision had caused this battle.
It was important that she find the omen. If she found. Lathing, then she might have caused the deaths of so many for no reason.
She felt the dry cackle of the crow echo in her head. On the battlefield, a small group of the creatures moved to the corpse of one of the Rimlanders large white horses, one that was buried beneath a group of men peppered by arrows and yoked to a destroyed chariot. As the crows gathered, congregating on the wooden beams and hopping over the rotting mento get to fresh meat, the pile lurched suddenly. As Medb watched, the pile shifted and corpses tumbled to the ground. She watched the horse struggle momentarily, pulling against the cords that held it and kicking violently at the crows that began to peck at its flanks. With a sharp crack that echoed throughout the valley, the yoke snapped, sending the corpses rolling away and a cloud of crows awkwardly into the skies. As the horse pushed free from the carnage and stood, shaking off its bridle, the sun burst from the skies and bathed the battlefield in a golden radiance. The horse reared, crying out in fury and fear, framed in the glow of the evening sunshine, before taking off at a gallop, heading toward the southern end of the valley, toward the Rimlander encampment.
It startled a group of looters as it raced past, sending them into the waters of the stream to avoid being trampled. Medb’s heart lifted as she watched it’s glorious escape; it’s beauty and poise a beacon of wonder in a scene of devastation. The steed sped along the stream and cleared a smouldering pile of woodwork with a leap, before splashing into the water. It swerved past the women cleaning their new cloth and charged a group of ravens, sending them hurtling into the sky.
The horse had almost reached the edge of the battlefield when a looters arrow took it in the flank and brought it down. It crumpled under a tangle of broken legs and lay screaming for a long moment until another looter took off its head with an axe. Their hideous laughter at the event drifted across the valley.
Medb grimaced, then sent her thanks to the crow. The startling event had told her enough. The time had finally come.