They saw no trace of the dragon for the rest of the afternoon, but along about evening they came across some of its handiwork. A dark cloud above a distant ridge resolved itself into a flock of vultures as they drew closer. Instead of a single ring, the carrion birds formed a twisting spiral like a stationary tornado. Moribus’s heart raced. What could have attracted so many?
A massacre awaited them on the other side of the ridge. The mangled bodies of men and horses were scattered willy-nilly about what had recently been a good-sized encampment. Bodies were rag-dolled into unnatural poses with snapped necks, wrenched torsos and limbs hinged in multiple places. Some had been smashed with such force they had burst apart in a spray of blood and viscera. Leaves were stained autumnal scarlet and trunks spattered with slugs of flesh. Clots of blood stood suspended in a spider’s web.
Packs of wolves laid claim to the corpses, rending off hunks of flesh. Buzzards waited their turn, swooping in to snatch away ropes of shiny entrails. A pair of crows fought over an eyeball like children squabbling over a marble. A large wolf snarled at them but didn’t leave its feast. Its bloody muzzle and jaundiced eyes seemed to say, Maybe you’re next.
Moribus’s stomach spasmed. Under the pretense of having to relieve himself, he ducked behind a thicket to vomit.
“Are you taking a piss back there or digging a privy pit?” Lord Manerion called out.
Steeling himself, Moribus returned to the encampment. Far from being disturbed by the mayhem, the knight moved about the site purposefully, observing the dispositions of the fallen men, measuring off distances, and taking careful note of every detail as if reconstructing the events in his head.
Determined not to show any more weakness in front of the knight, Moribus focused on making his own observations. He tried to consider the situation with objective detachment. The men were beyond suffering now, their mutilated bodies just butchered meat. But just as a cut of steak could reveal the skill of the butcher, might the bodies have something to teach them about their foe?
He counted twelve corpses. While a few were just boys, probably camp runabouts, most were armed and armored after some fashion. Weapons were drawn, and several spent arrows stuck out of the ground. They had not been taken by surprise then, and some had even gone on the attack. Yet arms and numbers had not availed them in the least. If more than a dozen well-equipped men had been so helpless, what chance did a lone knight and his squire stand? The beast that had done this could lay waste to a city. Their quest was starting to look more like a death wish.
The slaughter could not be more than a few hours old. When he kicked at the gray remnants of the campfire, a flurry of fresh sparks shot up. Upright tankards bore only shallow evaporation lines, and food scraps were still being worked over by ants. A pair of dice and piles of coins showed where the men had made their last gamble.
The ground was hard and stony, but a cluster of bed rolls had been squashed in an irregular pattern. Standing back to take them in, he could make out three tubular depressions branching trident-like from a central point with a short, fat depression facing the other way. Three plus one. Like the talons of a bird of prey, Moribus realized.
“I’ve been looking for one of those.” The knight came up beside him. He marched off the length of the dragon footprint, which turned out to be eight of his long paces end-to-end. “Whew,” he whistled. “He’s a big one, all right. Poor bastards must have crapped in their boots when they saw this beast.”
“Looks like a few men escaped,” Moribus observed.
“What gives you that idea, boy?”
“There were fourteen bedrolls, but I only counted twelve bodies.”
“Carried off to its lair, most likely. Just the knights, I’d wager. A dragon wouldn’t have much interest in these others here. They like their trophies nice and shiny.”
Moribus felt a tightening in his chest. “There were knights among them?”
“Stands to reason. Speak of the devil, there’s the sigil of House Marduke.” He trotted over to a banner bearing the gray head of a wolf on a background of forest green. “Mardukes of the wolf devoured by wolves. Poetic. I think I’ll hold onto this. I might need something to wipe my arse with later.”
“Shouldn’t we bury the bodies?”
“And spoil the wolves’ dinner? I wouldn’t waste any ceremony on them, boy. The Mardukes have a whole litter of knightlings back in Alvaron. I don’t suppose they’ll miss a few. Ord’s blazes, they might be happy to be rid of the whelps. Fewer contenders for the dukedom.”
“We should at least say last rites over them, don’t you think?”
“Suit yourself. While you’re at it, check the bodies for valuables.”
Moribus didn’t relish the task of getting up close to the torn and mangled bodies, but Mardukes or not, the fallen men deserved some shred of dignity in death.
Clenching his stomach, he went from corpse to corpse, dispelling the carrion eaters with a few well-placed stones. It was no use trying to straighten them or cross their arms. Some of the bodies had already stiffened in place and many were badly gnawed. The best he could do was make the sign of the arch over their foreheads and mutter a ritual phrase. He was still muttering over one man when a hand shot out and seized him by the ankle. The man’s head turned to fix him with his one, remaining eye. His lips moved, but no sound came out.
“Lord Manerion!” Moribus called out. “This one is still alive!”
“Quick, boy!” The knight rushed over. “Fetch me a cloth and some water.”
Tearing himself from the dying man’s grip, Moribus rushed over to his mount to retrieve the requested items. When he returned, Lord Manerion’s hunting knife was covered in fresh blood and the man was staring sightlessly at the sky. While Moribus struggled to process what had just happened, the knight calmly took the waterskin and cloth from him and used it to rinse and dry off his blade. “It was a mercy, boy. Anyone could see that.”