Some thirty leagues west of the city of Rogafjord, the Hofenwood breathed with a life that was unbecoming of a forest. Its ancient trees shot up from the ground like twisted talons, each branch rising higher and higher to drown out the light. An unsettling air emanated from the dark grove, forcing Ser Othur's battle-ready steed into a slight panic.
"Easy there, Bruthos." Othur cooed the horse, bringing the reigns away from the wall of trees.
"What is it, Commander?" Asked Hedgor, Othur's second-in-command and the acting quartermaster for the Rogafjord scouting party.
"The beast was startled by something." Othur explained. "There's a creek here that flows from the forest main. We can stop for a bit and allow the horses to drink."
Ser Othur and the rest of the cadre numbered fifteen strong. They had set out from Rogafjord two days prior, on a scouting mission. Several accounts had filtered into Earl Olafson's hall, speaking of a brutal attack made against the Earl's subjects, somewhere along the borders of the Hofenwood. The survivors were treated to a meal and were sent on their way, while Othur and his riders were summoned from training to seek out the source.
"Have you seen any sign of a skirmish?" Hedgor pressed, hopping down from his own horse and leading it to the edge of the flowing creek.
"No," Othur said, surveying the thick and impenetrable darkness that loomed within the Hofenwood. "No, I haven't."
This grove was timeless, as far as legend was concerned. At one time, it had served as host to some of the world's deadliest beasts. Now, it only served to frighten small children, but plenty of rumors were beginning to surface of barbarian troops moving through the old wood. Nothing was ever confirmed, but after this latest account, the Earl couldn't ignore it any longer.
"They could have been beggars." Hedgor went on, grabbing an apple from a leathery satchel attached to his horse's saddle. "They could have just been vagrants from the dirt, grown bold with hunger. A starving man would tell a lie for food - it's not that difficult to understand such motives."
"The Earl is a beloved ruler, Hedgor. His people would never betray his trust in that way."
"Suppose they weren't his people."
Ser Othur gave his comrade a scourging look, but failed to generate a worthwhile response. Taking a deep breath, he could understand why the horse panicked. This place was a dreadful tarnish upon the beauty of the Northlands. The forest stank of decay, harboring an atmosphere about it that could pass for malice. No one could love this place, Othur thought to himself. Perhaps that was why it had succumbed to such a pitiful state - the forest may have been cursed, long ago.
"Commander!" A shout rang out ahead of the creek.
Turning to face the direction of the noise, Othur saw what had been found. Just ahead of their position, mangled corpses lay strewn about in the snow. Bones absent their flesh jutted up from the soft layer of snow that had descended during the previous night's blizzard. Most of the bones were broken, a severed head sat in isolation nearer to the forest edge, even the small arms of children could be seen perched above the veil of white.
"We've got bodies over he --!" The cadet's voice was interrupted by a crude, oil-covered arrow, jutting from his windpipe.
Before Othur could draw his sword, a cacophony of tortured screams pierced through the interior of the Hofenwood. The horses turned to face the disturbance, having been trained for battle ever since they were colts, still on the tit. A whistling sound penetrated the air and the soldiers instinctively brought up their shields. Three arrows hit Othur's shield, while another carved a small crevice into his exposed lower-thigh.
"Barbarians!" He shouted, noticing it was a bit too late to blow the trumpet. He checked his left and saw that the remaining thirteen, including Hedgor, had already taken the defensive stance.
Barbarians were not known for their military strategy. They had no taste for patience, tactics, nor anything else that would deviate from the thought of wanton slaughter. They relied on power in numbers, and their weaponry was often very primitive. Othur felt a surge of adrenaline flow through his veins as the cracking of sticks could be heard along the forest border -- the foolish brutes were coming to meet them head on.
"Forward!" Othur gave the command, and the cadre pushed on in advance.
The horses, seeing their enemy emerge from the forest, took off into a galloping charge. A warhorse of Rogafjord was trained to fight to the death, even without it's rider. Othur felt pity for Bruthos, but he thanked the gods for the diversion they would provide for he and his men. Lowering his shield, he saw that the barbarians numbered at least twenty five. That was about right, he thought. Taking a few more steps, he saw the horses reach the nearest foes, using their hooves and teeth as formidable weapons. At this, he drew a great breath.
One rather nasty looking savage came at him with hooks made from the antlers of a deer. The man had strapped them to a blunt stick and attempted to use them as short tridents. Dodging one of the grotesque weapons, Othur brought his sword up and delivered it down onto the barbarian's head. His skull cracked and shattered in a pleasing way, but Othur had no time to revel. One of their wild-haired woman came at him with razor sharp metal fragments. They could have once served as iron braces on the side of one of the Earl's bridges, Othur thought as she carved a wicked path through the air and towards his neck. He nonchalantly dispatched her by dodging to the left, sending her into a stumble, and following through by taking her ugly head off with one, giant swing.
They had been outnumbered, nearly two to one, and Othur realized that he had already met his quota. Looking around, he saw the rest of his men finishing off what was left of the small group. Othur spit on the decapitated body of the girl savage and moved over to tend to his horse. Bruthos still stood, stamping at the ground and nudging the body of the fallen barbarian - his head caved in from what could only have been Bruthos's mighty hooves. Othur clicked his tongue and Bruthos perked up his pointy ears.
"Come here, you big brute, you." Othur lovingly said, a huge grin standing in contrast to the streak of blood across his face.
"Commander," Hedgor said, nearly out of breath. "This isn't right, at all. They were far too close to Rogafjord."
"Yes, they were." Othur agreed, patting his horse's neck. His grin had slowly disappeared upon realizing that the rumors had been true. "Assemble the men, we're going home."
"Aye, Commander." Hedgor said, pulling a blunt arrow from the surface of his shield.
Othur wasn't sure what exactly was going on with the wild men, but he knew that the small rabble they had dispatched were no testament to the true strength of the horde. Barbarians bred like rabbits, and if this was a precursor, telling of a larger host to come - Rogafjord was in peril.