It was past dusk when they came upon the dead horses. Ash looked down at the carnage and could not determine which flesh belonged to horse and which to man. The signs of combat were scattered all over the small patch of clearing. Small metal rings, a broken sword hilt, a half-helm that looked as if it had been eaten, then burnt, then spit out.

Up to that point, Ash had been fearing an ambush. Steed and Ziggy's plan to follow their pursuers at a safe distance seemed utter madness to him, yet he had followed them all the same. No one, other than perhaps Simon, would listen to him. Steed responded to Ash's extensive military and tactical training with a guffaw and a pull on his crotch. Those Imperial rangers were lying in wait for them. They knew the lay of their own land.

He steered his horse around the puddles of blood, slippery on the cold ground. He no longer feared a trap. Whoever had taken these rangers, met them in combat and slew three of their horses was clearly a formidable opponent. Outlaws, brigands, desperate wanted men, or worse. And with numbers, most likely. Rangers are generally quite skilled fighters. Ash's eyes scanned the path ahead for signs of fire or movement.

Look at this fat henfucker! They dragged his blubbery hide into the bog!” Steed was pointing at a dark red streak about six feet in length. Ziggy had said that one of the three rangers was quite obese.

Ash trotted up. “How do you know it was him?”

That's his fat down there on the ground, ain't it?” He pointed at some solid bits in the dark crimson soil. Ash nearly retched. Ziggy coughed behind him.

The red streak led into the bog that surrounded the clearing. Similar signs of dragged corpses were now revealing themselves to Ash, gruesome possibilities emerging from the anonymous gore, stories with no heart and no moral rising from carnage and staggering in no direction. Their attackers escaped through the bog. A surprise attack. Needless carnage. A sign of desperate men.

Ambushed from the bog,” he mumbled. “We need to get out of here, now.”

Steed wheeled up on his mount. “Ambushed?” He smiled. “Looks like dragon-work to me. Swamp dragons. Ma used to tell us stories about them attacking soldiers at night. Feed on man-blood, and shit emeralds.”

That's not true,” Simon angrily blurted. “There's no such thing.”

Let's hear your explanation for this little dinner feast, old man.”

I —I don't know. But we best leave.” Simon slunk in his saddle. “Not swamp dragons, though.”

Ash could not agree more. “The brigands are probably celebrating their victory now, licking their wounds, getting ready for their next kill. We've got a little time to get out of here before they find us. Let's move out.” He purposefully used his baritone commander's voice, the one he had practiced for long hours in his private quarters at the Abbey. He hoped it would have an effect on these undisciplined louts.

Steed sniffed the air, swallowing huge gulps of the icy sky in his wide nostrils. “Over there. Fifty yards off the path. It's not cooking its meat, probably 'cause it don't have to. Swamp dragon. Just like I said. Let's move.”

He pointed to a spot far off to their right, fifty yards to the north of the path. Ash squinted his eyes in the fading light. All he could see was the same cold, wet bog they had been riding through for the last half-day. Simon tugged on his arm and whispered, “Bubbles!”

He could see them now. In a patch of bog nestled between two fallen trees near a pool of dark brown sand, large orbs were boiling over the surface of a black, oily liquid. An underground lair? Odd.

The four clopped through the pools of blood, past the edge of the clearing and down the narrow path as quickly as they could.