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Kehr had been wrong about the goatmen. He staved off another two attacks the next morning, and three more refugees died in the bloodshed. Seven khazra decorated the Iron Path with their corpses, and Aron began to worry about how many curved horns lay between him and Westmarch. The khazra would try quick ambushes whenever the barbarian moved too far ahead of the group.
Their fears amplified, the peasants now walked in a huddled band just ten paces behind their protector. Aron followed the small caravan of twenty souls, his axe drawn and ready, and a few of the hardier men and women gathered arms from fallen pursuers. This formation proved effective against the cowardly beasts, and there were no more attacks that day.
Kehr helped the refugees erect a defensible camp, and then—despite their protests—he left them as the sun slid behind the western peaks. He claimed that he wished to survey the surrounding hills, to study potential attack locations for the coming day.
Aron could tell that Kehr was lying. And he saw dread in the barbarian's face.
But Kehr returned not long after dark, much to the relief of the refugees. Aron sensed that something dire had taken place; the barbarian had brought a coldness back with him, a palpable chill that went deeper than the mountain air. It was as though the fading sun had pulled the heat and life from Kehr Odwyll, dragging them away as it had fallen behind the Kohl. The woodcutter judged it wise to stay quiet around the large man.
Aron handed him a sizeable portion of the food the peasants carried. The mayor's frowning widow had allotted the barbarian's share as the hungry refugees had looked on. Kehr took the offering without question, setting to it with silent intensity. Aron wondered how long the barbarian had gone since his last meal. And he wondered if the berries and small game the caravan gathered along the road would be enough to both sate Kehr's needs and allow the refugees to arrive in Westmarch before starvation set in.
Aron had spoken with the widow, a pinch-faced dowager named Seytha, when Kehr left at dusk. He had told her that the barbarian was not deliberately attempting to harm them; he was simply unaccustomed to traveling with such needy, unprepared charges. Despite his taciturn ways, Kehr had shown that he was committed to seeing the peasants to the end of their journey. The woman was unconvinced and had only looked through Aron, staring at the path ahead.
The woodcutter took watch that evening with Daln, the swineherd. Armed with a crooked shovel, the old man had proved he was tougher and more resolute than many younger men. Daln had a stutter and seemed to be in a constant state of disbelief. After his threescore years of life within the same square mile of Dunsmott, this journey was harrowing and incomprehensible to him. There were no attacks that night, no signs of goatmen for the first time since the peasants had abandoned their homes. Daln asked, in his staccato words, what the barbarian had done at sunset to frighten the monsters away. He asked if Kehr had called down some icy god from the Dreadlands to protect the refugees. Aron told the old man to keep his mouth shut and his eyes on the road. One does not question the branches of a fallen oak. One just collects them and is thankful.
Two days became four, and then four more. The attacks were fewer but did not cease altogether. Aron could see the caravan's pursuers, usually a pair of scouts following along the peaks at either side of the road. Occasionally these khazra were joined by another two, and, encouraged by their numbers, they would abandon any attempt at secrecy. Aron felt this to be nearly as unnerving as the outright assaults: the constant presence of beastly shapes silhouetted against the ridgeline, the tapping sound of hooves on rock, the wind carrying the monsters' greasy calls across the way like the smell of spoiled meat.
Kehr's demeanor began to thaw as the Iron Path started its slow descent into the foothills, and Aron found the barbarian more amenable to conversation as long as the woodcutter kept his comments brief... and his questions few. Kehr seemed to find some comfort in talking of his people, and Aron learned of the Stag tribe, of its vigil, the sacred charge to protect Arreat. He also learned how this vigil had brought Kehr's people meaning, how it had sealed their connection with the animals of the mountain. It had been a covenant shared by all the barbarian tribes, the source of their spiritual strength.
In return, Kehr learned of the woodcutter's upbringing in the rustic mountain village of Dunsmott. Aron and his brother had been raised by their father after their mother had succumbed to illness. Aron's father, a veteran militiaman, had known almost nothing of non-military matters, so he had trained his sons to be soldiers. It was a harsh life. So harsh, in fact, that Aron's brother had run off north to Ivgorod to study with the monks, never to be heard from again. His father passed away not long after, handing down a humble cottage in the woods, a worn axe, and little regret. Aron was grateful that the old man hadn't lived to see his beloved Dunsmott surrendered and ransacked by these unholy beasts. It was a small blessing, a kaelseff. Aron often used these words, these pieces of the old tongue. Kehr scoffed at what he considered to be an affectation, at the woodcutter's "simple reverence for words from a useless language." Aron took no offense. He just smiled.
"Names have power, Kehr Odwyll," he said. "They have power to bind us."
Kehr grumbled and pulled his bearskin tight around his chest.
The party had gone several days without an attack, and spirits were lifting. Khazra scouts still followed at a distance, but everyone had grown accustomed to their presence and looked forward to the hopeful prospect of leaving them behind as Westmarch grew closer. Kehr predicted that it would be another day or two before the caravan was out of the mountains. Aron prayed that foraging would be more fruitful once the refugees reached the lowlands. He and a few of the hardier men and women were now giving their daily meal to the barbarian. Their stores were almost depleted.
The woodcutter's stomach growled as Kehr drew up and called a halt for the day. Aron leaned wearily against a boulder at the side of the road while others scurried to make camp. He noticed that the only people with any energy were those who had been fed: the young, the old, the wounded... and the barbarian. Aron knew that he should talk with Kehr, see if he could help him understand how things were being rationed. He decided to broach the subject tonight when the large man returned from his evening solitude.
Eyes locked on the sinking sun, mouth drawn in a grim line, Kehr kept his thoughts elsewhere. He finished his meal without a word and then set off on his nightly journey toward the fading light. After a full day's travel, there was still purpose in the barbarian's pace, the long strides that meant no man should follow.
Aron didn't have the vigor to pursue even if he wanted to. Lightheaded from hunger, he was startled when a woman's voice called out from behind him.
"Kehr Odwyll! If you should cross paths with one of your khazra tonight, please bring it back. Some of us perish for want of food and would not turn from eating the more goatish parts so that we may have the strength to walk the rest of the way!"
The barbarian came to a stop. Aron turned to see who would say such a thing. Perhaps hunger had made her thoughtless? It was Seytha, who served Kehr from the caravan's vanishing stock every night. She stood with her hands on her hips, her courage betrayed by a wet gleam in her eye.
Kehr had his back to the refugees, who had fallen still. His voice echoed up the canyon walls.
"Do the people of Dunsmott regret my service?"
Aron stumbled toward the barbarian, hands wide.
"No, Kehr! She did not mean—"
But Seytha spoke again, and it was clear that she had been chewing on these words all day. "We are starving in your shadow, barbarian. What does it matter if we die by a goatman's blade or by hunger?"
Aron heard angry murmurs of agreement, the sound of people who were tired and hungry... He cringed at what was starting to build into a rant against their protector. The woodcutter turned and faced them, trying to stem the tide before it got out of hand.
"This has been a hard journey for all of us, Seytha. The food must go to him because he needs the strength to stand against our attackers. Once we are out of these mountains, we will be able to hunt and—"
"We won't survive another two days if we don't find more to eat!" Her tone cut through the cold air like a knife. There were some gasps, and more voices were raised in anger. Daln pointed his shovel at the barbarian, who was now facing them.
"Why doesn't he bring us back s-something from his n-nightly hunts?" came the old man's warbling query. "We are not feeding him to ab-b-bandon us when he pleases. His d-duty is to keep us alive!"
Aron had been watching Kehr's response to the angry crowd. He seemed to be cut from stone, only flinching at one word: duty. Aron could see the muscles tighten in the big man's jaw and neck, the barbarian's breath misting the air in dangerous, smoldering clouds. Kehr turned toward the woodcutter, his voice burning like hot coals.
"I have been sellsword for sultans, for warlords, for merchant princes throughout the southern isles. Never have I bared steel for so little." He spat on the ground. "You people should have died on these mountains and will surely die when you reach the lowlands. Westmarch has khazra and worse. I should have left you on the Iron Path when I saw you. It would have been a mercy."
Desperate, Aron spread his arms.
"Please, Kehr. Forgive their hasty words; they are frightened and hungry and know not what they say. Do not leave us!"
Kehr Odwyll caught himself for a moment, his eyes resting on the forlorn man.
"You will live if you leave them behind, Aron. You have the skills to survive the journey. But if you stay with them, you will die with them."
Then the barbarian strode into the waning light, accompanied by the pitiful pleading of the refugees. Aron turned toward his people and hefted his axe against his shoulder. Never had it felt so heavy.