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The ground was frozen.
Captain Dennis Hartraft, commander of the Marauders, was silent, staring at the shallow grave hacked into the frozen earth. The winter had arrived fast and hard, and earlier than usual; and after six days of light snow and freezing temperatures, the ground was now yielding only with a grudge.
So damned cold, he thought. It was bad enough you couldn't give the men a proper funeral pyre here, lest the smoke betray their position to the Tsurani, but being stuck behind enemy lines meant the dead couldn't even be taken back to the garrison for cremation. Just a hole in the ground to keep the wolves from eating them. Is this all there really is in the end, just the darkness and the icy embrace of the grave? With his left hand—his sword hand—he absently rubbed his right shoulder. The old wound always seemed to ache the most when snow lay on the ground.
A priest of Sung, mumbling a prayer, walked around the perimeter of the grave, making a sign of blessing. Dennis stood rigid, watching as some of the men also made signs to a different god—mostly to Tith-Onaka, God of War—while others remained motionless. A few looked towards him, saw his eyes, then turned away.
The men could sense his swallowed rage . . . and his emptiness.
The priest fell silent, head lowered, hands moving furtively, placing a ward upon the grave. The Goddess of Purity would protect the dead from defilement. Dennis shifted uncomfortably, looking up at the darkening clouds which formed an impenetrable wall of grey to the west. Over in the east, the sky darkened.
Night was coming on, and withit the promise of more snow, the first big storm of the year. Having lived in the region for years, Dennis knew that a long, hard winter was fast upon them, and his mission had to be to get his men safely back to their base at Baron Moyet's camp. And if enough snow fell in the next few days, that could prove problematic.
The priest stepped back from the grave, raised his hands to the dark heavens and started to chant again.
'The service is ended,' Dennis said. He didn't raise his voice, but his anger cut through the frigid air like a knife.
The priest looked up, startled. Dennis ignored him, and turned to face the men gathered behind him. 'You've got one minute to say farewell.'
Someone came up to Dennis's side and cleared his throat. Without even looking, Dennis knew it was Gregory of Natal. And he understood his lack of civility to the Priest of Sung was ill-advised.
'We're still behind enemy lines, Father. We move out as soon as the scout comes back,' Dennis heard Gregory say to the priest. 'Winter comes fast and we'd best be safely at Brendan's Stockade should a blizzard strike.'
Dennis looked over his shoulder at Gregory, the towering, darkskinned Natalese Ranger attached to his command.
Gregory returned his gaze, the flicker of a smile in his eyes. As always, it annoyed Dennis that the Ranger unfailingly seemed to know what he was thinking and feeling. He turned away and, pointing at the squad of a dozen men who had dug the shallow grave shouted: 'Don't just stand there gawking, fill it in!'
The men set to work as Dennis stalked off to the edge of the clearing which had once been a small farmstead on the edge of the frontier, long since abandoned in this the ninth year of the Riftwar.
His gaze lingered for a second on the caved-in ruins of the cabin, the decaying logs, the collapsed and blackened beams of the roof. Saplings, already head-high, sprouted out of the wreckage. It triggered a memory of other ruins, but they were fifty miles from this place and he forced them out of his mind. That was a memory he had learned long ago to avoid.
He scanned the forest ahead, acting as if he was waiting for the return of their scouts. Normally, Gregory would lead any scouting patrols, but Dennis wanted him close by, in case they had to beat a swift retreat. Years of operating successfully behind Tsurani lines had taught him when to listen to his gut. Besides, the scout who was out there was the only one in the company able to surpass Gregory's stealth in the forest.
Resisting the urge to sigh, Dennis quietly let his breath out slowly and leaned against the trunk of a towering fir. The air was crisp with the smell of winter, the brisk aroma of pine, the clean scent of snow, but he didn't notice any of that; it was as if the world around him was truly dead, and he was one of the dead as well. All his attention was focused, instead, on the sound of the frozen earth being shovelled back into the grave behind him.
The priest, startled by the irreverent display, had watched Dennis leave the group and then stepped up to Gregory's side and glanced up at the towering Natalese, but Gregory simply shook his head and looked around at the company. All were silent, save for the sound of a few desultory shovels striking the icy soil; all of them were gazing at their leader as he walked away and passed into the edge of the surrounding forest.
Gregory cleared his throat again, this time loudly and having caught the men's attention he motioned for them to get on with the work at hand.
'He hates me,' Father Corwin said, a touch of sadness in his voice.
'No, Father. He just hates all of this.' Gregory nodded at the wreckage of battle that littered the small clearing: the trampled-down snow—much of it stained a slushy pink—broken weapons, arrows, and the fifty-two Tsurani corpses that lay where they . . .Honored Enemy
. Copyright © by Raymond Feist. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.