Kehr walked with the refugees. They had pleaded for his protection, offered him food and a few pieces of silver in exchange for his company. The barbarian had taken their meager payment and curtly agreed to escort them. As far as Kehr was concerned, the poor folk were already dead, or they would be once their path diverged from his. He was just sharing the road, but he would fight for these people until the Iron Path dipped into Khanduras. Would Faen still pursue him if he traveled with others? He hoped not, but he decided to spend tonight's sunset alone so they could not hear her; there was no point in frightening the refugees any further. Regardless, it would be some small comfort to walk amid living voices for a time. For their part, the peasants kept their distance from the man, unsure of their silent companion but unwilling to fall too far behind his long strides.
"You are a barbarian, yes?"
It was the woodcutter. Kehr had lost track of the man after he had left to bury the unknown child, and the barbarian had not heard his approach just now. Increasing his pace, Kehr grumbled assent.
"I thought so. Who else could match blows with these monsters? Who else could wield a farmer's plow like a falchion?" The woodcutter shook his head, smiling.
Kehr frowned. Perhaps he was wrong about the comfort of living voices. It had been long weeks since he had last shared words with a man... or had them shared at him at such measure. He wondered if conversations had always seemed so light and empty. That said, he was impressed with the woodsman's perception. Scorn had indeed been forged from a plow blade. Kehr rolled his shoulders, heard the thick leather straps securing the weapon to his back creak under the strain.
The peasant took a few quick steps ahead, trying to catch Kehr's eye. "I doubted at first. You lack the wild beard and locks mentioned in the tales..."
He cleared his throat.
"If you do not want to speak, I understand. I wanted only to thank you."
Tilting his head in a bow, he let the barbarian stride past. Kehr continued on, but almost against his wishes he found himself intrigued by this woodcutter. Here was a man who had stood to defend a stranger's child when others ran, a man who had chosen to express gratitude while others cowered. Such mettle was impressive, especially among the common folk. Kehr turned to see where the woodcutter had gone, and the barbarian was startled to find him only a few paces behind.
"You tread softly, woodsman. You learned this while hunting trees?"
The smaller man laughed; it was a surprisingly warm sound in this place.
"We did not have these khazra in the woods when I was a boy, but that did not mean it was safe to go stomping about. It is hard to gather tinder when running from bears."
Kehr nodded. The explanation made sense, but he suspected there was more to the woodcutter than he let on. Some men kept secrets, the barbarian knew, and looked away.
"This is the first you have seen of the goatmen?"
"Well, never in these numbers. Over the last couple of years, we saw them from time to time, scavenging in herds of three or four, usually at higher elevations, where their hooves allow them to move at great speed. We considered them dangerous, but they tended to shy away from armed men on level ground. But now... now they are everywhere along the Kohl, from the peaks to the foothills."
He tightened his grip on the axe, and Kehr could see dark thoughts pass over the woodcutter's eyes. "They… they seem to have organized themselves. Never before have they shown such coordination, such initiative. They began attacking the more remote villages. Seven days ago, I spotted a horde of the monsters moving up the valley toward our township of Dunsmott. I was able to warn my people, and we grabbed what we could, slipping away as the sun fell. Following the Iron Path, we joined with others. Others with the same tale.
"We are the vanguard"—the woodsman swept his arm around to indicate the pauper's caravan straggling behind him—"of what will soon become an unending line of displaced folk looking for refuge if something is not done to stop these attacks."
This claim gave Kehr pause.
"Nothing will be done about the khazra, woodsman. These mountains are borderlands; no king rules them, and no king protects them. Get your people down from the Kohl, down to safety. And then stay there."
The smaller man slowed as he took in what Kehr had said, and he set his mouth in a grim smile. He seemed to come to some decision, and he reached out his hand.
"We are mountain folk, but that does not mean we are fools. Our intent is to follow this road and then continue down to the lowlands of Westmarch… and there we will start anew, I suppose. My name is Aron."
The woodcutter—Aron—kept his hand extended until Kehr finally growled and snatched it in his own calloused fist. The barbarian gave a perfunctory shake, then let go.
"I am Kehr Odwyll, last of the Stag tribe."
"My people are no longer. Arreat took them in her fury."
"I am... I am sorry. I can imagine no greater loss than to be separated from your people. That is why, regardless of the danger, I sojourn with these." Aron gestured toward the refugees.
Kehr and the woodcutter walked a dozen steps more.
"But..." mused Aron, "how did you survive the destruction? News of the mountain's ruin reached even my humble village. What miracle kept you alive?"
Kehr did not answer. He fixed his eyes on the Iron Path and lengthened his stride until he had outpaced Aron. Some men kept secrets, the barbarian knew, and looked away.
The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the ragged caravan at Kehr's back would soon be setting up camp for the night. The peasants were far behind him now, but still the barbarian climbed into the rocks away from the road. It might not be necessary... but he had to be sure.
Faen came that evening. Her jaw had been lost in the journey, leaving her black tongue dangling wet against the tangled cords of her throat flesh. But her words were the same. The horror was the same. Kehr had hoped that traveling with these people would turn her away. He had hoped that protecting them would redeem him in her sunken eyes. He had even hoped—dared to hope—that she was somehow all in his mind, a result of his festering guilt. Yet the cold felt so sharp and liquid, crawling up his arms, his shoulders. That was real. The icy heat of Faen's staggering rage was undiminished.
Kehr knew he would spend the evenings of this journey apart from Aron and his people.