Afternoon, in the spring. Heavy clouds overhead diffuse the sun’s light into a grey wash. Rain falls, light and steady, as it has all day. As it has all week. The North Talabec Road has dissolved into thick mud.
A rider appears suddenly around the bend of the road. Klaus, a veteran guardsman, is drawn to the movement at the edge of the forest. He raises a hand to shield his eyes from the drizzle. Half a mile away. Black horse. Wheels around, twice, before the rider pushes on toward the gate. A fast trot, splashing through the muck. Weaving through a line of refugees in the road.
“Wilhelm.” Klaus summons one of the other guardsmen keeping watch as the customs men levy tolls and fees on entrants to the city. Wilhelm, tall, young, wisp of a beard steps through the knot of people and wagons gathered near outside the gate.
“He better slow down,” says the younger man, “someone could get hurt.” Everyone at the gate is now watching. They begin scattering to either side of the road. Fifteen feet away, the rider reins the horse in. It stumbles and the rider loses his seat. Falls hard, on his back, a loud smack and a big grunt as he hits the muddy earth. The little crowd is startled.
“Ouch,” says Klaus. He steps forward, grabbing the reins of the horse as it recovers its footing. The horse is blowing hard. It is lathered, coat shiny with sweat, legs covered in mud.
Wilhelm hurries to the rider. “Everyone stay back now.” He uses his big voice, the one that always amuses Klaus. Kneeling now, in front of the rider. “Are you alright?” The rider gasps, wheezing. Shuddering, he catches his breath for the first time since hitting the ground.
“This place?” the man asks. His accent is strong, northern. His pronunciation harsh and clipped. The younger guard kneels, helps him rider sit upright. The man groans, in pain, his eyes squeezed shut, a grimace set in a mud splashed face.
“Wurzen,” says Klaus, “I’d guess you to be from Kislov, eh? What’s your name?”
“I am Grigori. Messenger. From Count Vladimir,” he says, straining to breath. Grunting when he does, eyes watering.
“Broken ribs,” said Wilhelm. “Here, let me help you.” The guardsman shuffles to help the fallen rider to his feet. “It’ll be easier to breath if you stand up.”
“Da,” says Grigori. He gets to his knees, stands, sways.
Wilhelm steadies him. “Better?”
“Better.” Grigori looks to his horse. Both are still breathing hard. “He not go. Much farther. I think.”
“No, probably not,” replies Klaus, who is rubbing the clearly exhausted horse’s muzzle and neck. “Neither are you, by the look of it.” Grigori shakes his head, wiping the sweat away from his eyes.
“I must.” he says. “I ride for Talabheim. To summon help.”
“You have news?” Wilhelm asks. “Of the Chaos horde?”
Onlookers draw closer.
“Da.” Grigori leans over. Hands on his knees. Looking at the mud. “Count’s army was routed. Survivors fall back to Kislov.”
“Where?” asks Klaus. Sharp. Demanding. “The battle was where?”
Wilhelm turns to Klaus, the question plain on his face.
“South of Petragrad,” Klaus answers, “right at the border with Ostland.”
“Petragrad is lost. Sacked, burned.” An emotion creeps into Grigori’s voice. Grief.
Klaus: “When? Three days? Two?”
A dreadful chill runs up Klaus’s spine. Chaos invasions rarely get this far. And usually they’re directed west to Middenheim or east to Kislov. “Where are they now?”
“I don’t know. They could be to the River by now.”
A gap of silence. You can just hear the rushing waters of the Talabec River over the bluff to the right. Klaus, like several others in the crowd around him, calculates. Walking from Osel-on-the-Lake, half-a-day to Zwolen. A full day then along the North Talabec road through the Shutzen Forest and past Steinhof. Two days total to Wurzen, if they’re walking. Outriders, a day.
The moment of quiet breaks with a buzz of voices. The news is already spreading like the Red Pox into streets and ally’s of the little city. Considering the gap where the north wall collapsed last summer and the lack of working gates in the gatehouses, Klaus is certain that panic will follow the news.
“Come,” he says to Grigori. Wilhelm will get you another horse. And something to eat. But, first, you need to tell the Baron."
Klaus looks back to the dark line of trees. Wonders who is looking back at him. And knows the cold grasp of despair.