At the dwarf’s rebuttal Maruc laughed with delight despite the macabre scene. “Take no offense. It is his way. We ourselves are turning aside from our journey to satisfy a yearning of his. These are dangerous lands…”
“A yearning!? Bah, speak not of what you know little of priest! A duty to family is not a yearning. And that duty has been delayed far too long while I travel with this accursed group” Feldard’s words came out harsher than he intended. The dwarf scowled, and turning away he stomped to the bow of the boat and kept watch.
Stephan’s brow furrowed at the blistering retort of the dwarf. His eyes narrowed in anger but he fought to banish the clouds of anger.
“Understandable, my good fellow…Felgard, I mean.” He turned from the dwarf, clearly concluding that any efforts to sway one of the dwarvenkin in this matter was futile.
After the awkward exchange, the priest returned his attention to the corpses. “I wonder…” Maruc studied a tattoo. Absently he asked, “Nicolai, is this the emblem of the Iron Ring?…ohh.” No Saeth to ask either. He stood up and turned the new warrior and offered his hand. “Maruc. Curate to the blessed Lord Halav. He who graces the throne of the Duchy and guides us in corporeal form. Blessed are these days!” he grinned.
“Aha! My lord Abbot did not foresee this! Or perhaps Blessed Halav seeks to test my resolve? Nevermind, you have aided us Stephan. Halav has placed you here for a purpose.”
Stephan’s eyes widened at the words of Maruc. He genuflected the sign of Halav.
“You speak with the wisdom of Halav. And I tremble at the prognostication! My path is as Halav wills it! He truly leads me ever to my well being! If it is with you fine adventurers I am cast, then it is the good will of Halav and is truly where I belong!”
Maruc struggled to keep the smile from his face at the obsequeous nature of Stephans’ genuflection. “Stephan, you are a true son of Halav Incarnate.” he lent closer and lowered his voice, “But He will not be upset if you fail to fall to your knee’s every time you mention Him. All things in good measure…even piety!” he grinned reassuringly.
He was still sore and feeling a little faint. The arrow had been removed but he had many shallow cuts and the heavy lifting had drained him. He checked aroung for Feldard and hasan but they had taken themselves off somewhere. The oarsmen were busy with the boat and Miklos was buried in his book again. No one was in clerical need so he endulged in a prayer to cure his scratches.
Maruc gazed up the river. “I fear our road may wind much to Threshold. But we are not a fortunate group Stephan, troubles dog our steps and we seek to unseat a great evil. If you would ally yourself to our cause then do so with open eyes and a mind clear of the deceits of others.”
Seeing an opening, Stephan implored, “Perhaps I was not clear. My brother is a horse trader. At his homestead, in addition to the Dorian steads, we have a number of other horses. Of course, I’d like to offer a reasonable number of these to you as compensation for their safe transport.”
Stephan found himself now mimicking a sure-tongued general he once had the privilege to overhear negotiating a surrender with enemy Valdukin warriors. It was not his natural bent but at times he found himself employing the cloying verbiage to meet some end…usually some carnal goal on a late night in some tavern…
“These steads”, he continued, “may greatly enhance your travel time. We are but a short distance from them now and given the demise of this river boat, they may well afford you swifter transport to Threshold. Surely, the remains of your fallen companion can easily be ported via horseback as well. And if all is in order at the Sukiskyn homestead, I will accompany you to lend whatever support I can to the safe travels of your fallen brethren.”
Maruc pulled out his roughly drawn map on the river and roadways. ““Thank you for your offer of transport Stephan, I am sure this will be acceptable to Hasan, Miklos and myself. You may have trouble influencing Feldard!” he grinned. “Naturally, I am keen to return Nicolai to his mother, and all the more so with the light she might shed on the tattooed men and their purposes. Unless you can help us? Have you seen this mark before?” the priest indicated the mark of the closest corpse.
Stephan could not contain a gasp at the markings on the flesh. He again genuflected. “Blessed Halav! This be the mark of the Iron Ring! I did not know they be active in these lands! We must take extreme caution. These are folk twisted to deviltry! They are hideous thieves and worse–slavers! They’ve no regard for morals and will abscond with women and children, even!, to sell them into utter despair! Nay! Their actions have also swayed kings with fell extortion, ransom and assassinations! These are a lot to watch carefully!”
With that, he peered into the surrounding foliage and setting sun. “Soon, we must away from here! Surely we are watched!”
“Prince Hasan, did you perchance see from whence the …ahh for want of a better term and in light of Maruc discovery… slavers came from? Any tracks that might lead to their lair? They must have come from somewhere.” Miklos’s mind characteristically raced voicing his thoughts as they popped into his head.
“There may be further information,” offered the mage, as he helped Maruc unload the corpses. “One might suggest that these folk where hired to stop us. Which raises some unpleasant questions like who, and more importantly how. How did they know we would be here at this time? I’d not like to have more slavers on our heals all the way to Highforge and beyond. Perhaps Feldard might join you in case of trouble? Sadly I must remain here, as I need to rest after all that magical exersion! When you return I can appraise you of what I learned in Specularum, now I think Stefan is trustworthy I can voice my concerns.””
After Feldard had time to cool down some, the dwarf assisted the priest in hauling the corpses off the boat. The priest arranged a pyre, and placed the bodies on it he ensured there were on further clues to be gleaned from them before reciting the funereal edict and lighting the pyre. “May the light of Halav Incarnate cleans your souls and receive you.” He intoned the final words. Then turned his back on the gathering gloom of evening to see if the boatmen and finished their temporary repairs.
He sat at the bow of the boat pulling his traveling cloak about him against the early evening chill. He pulled his new spellbook from its oilskin bag and opened it. He was about to light a lantern when the blaze from the pyre shone across the shoreline. He absently hoped that it wouldn’t draw more foes to them as he started to read, listening to the lapping of the water.
Remembering Miklos’ suggestion of checking for tracks, the dwarf nodded readily and looked to Hasan. “Come Hasan,” the dwarf would never dignify the elf by calling him Prince, “before daylight is gone altogether.”
Feldard began his search where the bodies had dropped, and began tracking back into the wood. How difficult could tracking be? If elves could do, so could he! Ah see there a definite footprint, Feldard thought to himself. Oh wait, that print was much too small for a man’s. Oh curse it all it was his own! With little chance of actually tracking them himself, Feldard followed Hasan; the elf might need help if he ran across anything.
Hasan followed the dwarf’s lead, away from the boat and into the forest. He watched, bemused, as the dwarf scrambled — hip deep and wayward — through the lush, ferned underbrush, and then led him back to the clearly marked trail to the ambush point he had discovered earlier that day. Both rearmoured and rearmed, Feldard had insisted he would go no further without his armor, the two demihumans trudged forward along the trail, with every dwarven step punctuated with the odd jingle or curse. We certainly won’t sneak up on anybody, Hasan laughed to himself.
As he walked forward with Feldard, Hasan pondered Miklos’s obscure reference to things learned in Specularum, wondered what they would find at trail’s end, and hoped that he wouldn’t regret not bothering to rememorize any of his spells. Then he saw the flash of a young deer. The sight, so common in a wooded walk at dusk, relaxed the young elf immeasurably, and he walked forward untroubled with his companion.
Track the ambushers’ trail was child’s play for the elf. It continued through the forest, following the river along the direction they had been heading in the boat. At this point, it was time to make a decision—follow the tracks, or take the boat to Misha’s Jetty and from there to obtain horses at the homestead of Stephan’s brother.