Monthly Archives: June 2009

Refugees

Miklos looked up at the lowering skies and then at Hasan. “I seems that we have little choice now. If these are wise beasts they will make their own way back home. we must follow the trail before it is washed away. Bring Fyodoryll if you must. I suspect that would be the safer option.”

Maruc fell into step next to the elf, all the better to keep an eye on her. In some respects she was like Seath. It was disturbing. He wondered if they were related, briefly.

“It seems our Walker of the Quiet Way has taken a shine to you, Fyodoryll. If Feldard had had his way well… but enough of that,” he ducked under a branch. “Do you serve dark masters? Or are you as Hasan has suggested; cleverly duped or simply misguided?”

The captured elf squinted her eyes, and gritted her teeth. Today had produced such a swift change in fortune for her. She had nothing to say to this crew of troublemakers.

Stephan shook his head in disbelief.

“The physical trail is lost. We can’t turn twenty four good horses loose in the woods. We’ll have to follow the ‘trail” of the gobs via word of mouth.”

“Your loyalty to your horses and your clan is commendable, Stefan.” Maruc replied sternly. “But how many lives would you trade for them? I fear any delay will cost lives. Hasan has proven himself in woodcraft and will not lead us astray. Your folk are devout, Mighty Halav will not see them destitute, He will lead your horses to safety. This rain is a sign. To turn from our path, however noble a task, would be to turn or back on Him and our lives will be forfit.”

Maruc clasped Stephan’s shoulder. “Have faith, my friend. Our paths have been intertwined. Do not let doubt enter your stout heart. We must go on, do not leave us.”

“Look for riding tack, Stephen,” said Hasan. “I fear the horses’ speed is our only ally, now that the signs are so faint. We must make up ground quickly.” In the meantime, Hasan tried to pick up the trail the best he could.

The dwarf scowled at the idea of having to ride horseback. He glared down at the gagged and bound elven horse-trader and gave her a nudge with his foot. “Do you know where the goblins you got these horses from were headed? Cooperation.. might just save your neck, elf.”

Fyodoryll was a bit more intimidated by the dwarf. Their race was well known to be hotheaded and impulsive—a dangerous mix. And this one particularly so. “Back to their lair, I suspect,” she replied. “They were in quite a hurry.”

“I am sorry, Maruc. I can not abandon the horses to the woods. Halav does not favor, as far as I’ve learned, foolishness. Your head should also tell you to return the horses as they represent a great wealth. You would surely be compensated and have greater means then to find out what evil lurks in Dimrak. And I would join you.”

Turning to address everyone, “This rain has already removed the gobs’ trace. I have made a solemn oath to my family.” He held up the barely healed wound where his family ring once adorned the middle finger. “If you will pursue the gobs, I pray you Halav’s speed and offer you what horses you need. But I must return the rest as promised. I can then join you in your quest to rid Dymrak of these fell beasts.”

“I fear you judge me harshly, Stephan. I have spent my life away from the cold light of trade and the hard lessons of money. All I see is the choice between the lives of the families in the path of goblins such as your clan, and their livelyhoods which can be rebuilt. But an oath is an oath and I would never ask a man to break one.” Maruc glanced at the falling rain. “I saw this rain as a portent to hasten our steps along our adopted path. Perhaps I was wrong? I am but a servant of Halav and I would be arrogant indeed to assume all my decisions are His. I have faith in Him, not my interpretation of signs.” Maruc grinned to himself.

“I am no woodsman either, although I would guess that it would take time, even in a torrential downpour, for all tracks to vanish, especially if not all the horses were left here. But only Hasan could answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Maruc walked over to the elf, his footprints leaving swift filled puddles. “Our path is set by your woodcraft. We need to know how far ahead of us they are and whether their tracks would become unreadable before we found them. If it proves impossible then our choice would be to return the horses and, as Stephan says, rely on word of mouth to guide our steps. Having faith that there are mouths left to utter them.”

Maruc’s words would prove to be prophetic. The tracks, which lead south, were indeed washed away quickly by the rains, and the group had no choice but to shelter for the night. In the morning, the group returned to Sukiskyn at the insistent urging of Stephan.

The family were grateful—tears of gratitude welling in their eyes—at the sight of Stephan and the horses. After all that had been lost, it was the first sign that they would indeed survive this tragedy.

Four new arrivals appeared with the family. In contrast to the Sukiska clan, they appeared quite solemn. Before long, they introduced themselves. Stephan knew the men, and was anxious to hear what they had to say.

“Well met,” said a confident, muscular young man in battered leather armor. “My name is Gregor. Pyotr has told us much about you. ‘Tis an honor,” he said bowing. “This is Yuri,” he said gesturing to an older man, also quite muscular, wearing a torn black tunic. “And these are Grisha and Grishkal,” now referring to two young men, identical twins in fact, with long black hair, tied back into pony-tails, and dressed in brown working smocks and trousers.

“Three nights before last, our lumber camp was attacked by the goblins,” he explained. “We’ve been hiding in the forest, trying to avoid attack and picking up refugees along the way.”

“As we feared, Sukiskyn was not the only homestead to be attacked,” interjected Pyotr. “Cherkass, Hokol and Segenyev were all destroyed. Gregor and his men have brought precious few of the women and children with them. They are safe inside.”

“They, the ones with the wolves, took the ones they didn’t kill,” said Yuri, gloomily. “The survivors said that the bigger ones ransacked the homes, and when they were done, burned them to the ground”

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Here Comes the Rain

Hasan asserted his command of the situation. “Feldard, watch her closely. Bind her hands, if you can. Maruc, if you’re well enough, you’ll need to attend to our exhausted mage!”

He turned haughtily to the captive, “Fyodoryll, your trading activities have kept you out of the forest too long. You’re woodcraft is weak. But I thank you for collecting these horses on our behalf. Now, tell us about who sold them to you. Do you know where they went next?”

“Bah!” she cursed, defiantly. “I have done nothing wrong. Thieves! You have attacked without cause or warrant! I do not answer to the likes of you.”

Maruc watched the mercenaries withdraw. His heart was still racing but he knew that they were unlikely to return. He’d treated their type in the past at the cloister and he’d learnt from them of their distrust of zealots. This was part of the reason for his desperate defense. Men like them fought for money, but that only bought you so much loyalty.

But the priest had one doubt. Good mercenaries relied on their reputation. If they deserted a master who was still alive, word would spread and they would swiftly have no business. The chances where that they would either attempt to recapture Fyodoryll, thus retaining their pay and reputation. Or if they felt they could not overpower us they would probably seek to silence her.

He knelt down next to the mage and gently rosed him, “Wake up, this is no time for sleep,” he grinned.

The mage’s eyes flickered open. “Ah, I see she got the better of me. Oh well. I’m glad she didn’t get the better of you.” He rolled onto his feet and brushed the leaves off. “Where are the four ruffians?” He asked whilst fishing around in the sticky mess for the wand.

“They have fled. But I have a sneaking suspicion they shall return for Fyodoryll. She holds their reputation in her hands,” replied the priest.

“This isn’t over then? Well they have a fairly major obstacle in their path. Us.” Miklos located the wand. “Aha! Now where was I, oh yes. We have a conundrum. We return these horses and lose valuable time because in order to protect them we would all need travel with them. Or we free them in the forest, this would mean the mercenaries get them but that has the advantage of keeping them off our backs while we travel on.”

Miklos rubbed his clean shaven chin.

“My heart tell me the return the horses in reparation for the losses of the Sukiskyn clan. My head tells me to pursue the foe without delay, who knows what evil could be prevented for the sake of a few horses and a few hours?”

As if to settle their decision, the sky grew darker and rain began to fall. These goblins were doing a fair job of obscuring their tracks, and now the precipitation would finish the job.

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Forest Fighting

Miklos pinged the wand at her.

Fyodoryll had no idea what mystical power lay in that dark wand, and it concerned her. The last thing she expected was for it to be thrown through the air and knock her in the head. It distracted her just long enough for Miklos to launch his own counterspell. He tried to beat her to the last syllable, but the elf beat him by a fraction. The mage’s spell fizzled as the command word stuck in his mouth. After using the spell successfully so many times, Miklos was now the victim of the slumber enchantment. A few choice, smart retorts occurred to him as he slumped to the ground, too tired to speak.

Fyodoryll was concerned that her sleep spell did not effect the others. Still, five against three were not bad odds.

“Get ready chaps.” said Maruc, “This is going to hurt.” Maruc wildly glanced around. Feldard on the two left hand merc’s, Stephan on the elf, That leaves two mercs fo him. What Fun.

Too clueless to realize the voice was a ploy, Feldard was taking advantage of the wagons cover. He set down his axe and took a moment to pull his crossbow and load a bolt. Peering from around the edge wagon, the dwarf fired at one of the approaching henchmen.

With another close on the firsts heels, Feldard retrieved his axe and prepared for melee.

Maruc ducked the first swing but the tall scar-faced merc on the right. The shorter blonde man’s blade rode up his shield flicked off the top lip and caught cleric’s helm. Maruc dived to the right putting the two men between him and the elf. He jabbed the edge of the shield into scarface’s knee forcing him back giving Maruc time to pivot out of the way of the shorter mans murderous thrust. These guys were good. Better than the goblins, who were all lust and blood.

But Maruc had one advantage. And it was a big one.

He had God.

Laughter peeled from his lips as he soaked up one of the bandit’s attacks. Then he cried, “Halav! Guide my hands!” and the flail became as light as a stick it circled a weaved entrapping blades an unbalencing scarface who stumbled. He flicked the round the edge of the blond man’s shield mashing his elbow. Then the blonde man shirked off the injury and bore Maruc back with a series of overhand blows that sent enamel flakes of shield paint flying. The tall man had picked himself up and launched back into the fray, Maruc’s fresh blood dripping from his sword.

As soon as Stephan realized the elf’s ploy—covering the mouth to hide magics, indeed!—Stephan charged toward her. He was too late to help Miklos, nevertheless he lunged with his sword at her. His aim was not solely to wound but to first and foremost foil any more spellcasting.

On seeing his companions engaged in pitched battle, Hasan sprinted forward, hoping to avoid further lethal force in this encounter. Taking advantage of the elf’s focus on her spellcasting and Stephan, Hasan was able to approach within range. He unleashed a sticky web and tried to ensnare the horsetrader. He wouldn’t be unhappy, he realized, if the two traders were trapped together. Birds of a feather, after all.

Stephan out of the corner of his eye, Stephan saw his elven ally approach. Before he could react, he and Fyodoryll were covered in a mess of sticky strands.

“Soldiers-put down you weapons!” Hasan’s voice swelled with unusual auithority. “Fyodoryll is down. Mercy will be shown, and payment may still be earned, but lower your swords!”

The four mercenaries, seeing their leader and paymaster entangled and controlled, swiftly diagnosed the situation. First one, then all four sheathed their blades. One whose short-cropped hair could not disguise his balding pate wore a jagged scar across his face that reminded Hasan a bit of Nicolai. “I be Igor, and these be Ivan, Sergei and Vladimir. What say you?”

Hasan brushed off the man with a single finger to the man, casually, disdainfully, and approached the mess of magical cords that encompassed Fyodoryll and Stephan. The two continued to tussle about, shouting at every turn about brands and hindquarters and hoofs and such. “Enough!” The elf thundered to his maximum extent. Maruc and Feldard suppressed guffaws at the elf’s efforts to assert command, but the war of words in the web slowed nonetheless. “Enough, I say! Fyodyrll, the horses of the Susikyn are forfeit. But come now with us and pursue those who sold you these great steeds. Come now and you may yet earn some to sell at Rifflian. Come now, else we shall turn ye loose, penniless and humbled, in the Dymrak.”

“It’s a trick!” yelled Fyodoryll.

The four men looked at each other briefly. One made the first move—he turned and ran toward the forest. The others immediately followed suit, sprinting in four different directions.

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Showdown at the Horse Corral

The priest already on edge, spun at the voice. He yanked his shield up and placed himself between the voice and Miklos to protect his back. He pulled the fail and stood ready. He didn’t expect archers to shoot into potential melee, but he wasn’t sure.

Feldard did not recognize the elven voice and assumed it a hidden accomplice of the horse-trader. He turned to look for its source but did not follow it’s directive. Instead, the dwarf hefted his axe and closed the distance to the covered wagons to gain some cover should the hidden elf begin firing arrows at their party.

Stephan’s sword veritably flew from the scabbard. The metal resonated with the action leaving a high-pitched tone hanging in the air. Like a pitch-pipe preparing musicians to play, the sound was familiar to the companions and had the effect of focusing the mind for battle.

Hasan was as confused as the rest by the second elven voice. He froze in place and watched.

Stephan took a step back, shield and blade raised, to give himself some room. Not sure what the voice meant for them—was it Hasan casting some sort of spell?—he kept his eyes on the Fyodoryll, shifting them only to take in the four ruffians.

“Its a trap!” cried Miklos. He flung his wand out and jabbed it toward the elf. “Utter a word. Make any sudden movement and it’ll be your last. Now all of you. On the floor. Now!”

She paid him no heed, as her expression changed from feigned dismay to deliberate action. Her hands moved from obfuscating her mouth to gesticulating in the air, weaving a spell with which Miklos was very familiar.

Her henchmen drew their swords, with the intention of taking full advantage of the distracting voice from the forest.

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“I Claim These In The Name of Sukiskyn!”

White Horse d

Maruc listened to the conversation with interest, this wasn’t his theatre, so he stayed silent and watchful. Awaiting any sudden movements.

Miklos tried to to play devils advocate with his inner desire to mistrust this elf. The goblins may have handed over the horses to the Iron Ring and their associates may have sold them to her. Maybe her only fault was asking a lack of questions? No, elves are cleverer than that.

This is going to end badly.

Hasan could hear little from his distant post, but what he saw suggested the two parties were in a holding pattern, circling around one another. He tried to get all the way around the confident strange elf, who was beautiful in a raw way his own refined Rahasia did not share. Nonetheless,his instincts pitted him against her. Directly opposite his companions, he now saw only the backs of the strangers. He stayed hidden but prepared to advance from behind.

“Ah”, Stephan feigned patience, “you are in a hurry to sell, it seems.” He turned to eye the horses.

“They do seem to be a fine lot.” He started walking toward the corral, leading the group and Fyodoryll. His horse-trading sense was kicking in. “And only just arrived. Did the seller say why he needed to make the sale here, in the woods? The real trading is in Rifllian and often good prices.”

The Sukiskyn clansman approached a white mare.

“There, there, lovely,” he spoke softly, easing her. The horse responded with a cautious exhale but she turned to Stephan, obviously interested.

“She seems a bit spooked.”

His hands gingerly caressed the mare’s neck. His fingers probing behind the ear for the Sukiskyn mark: a tattoo of two curving “S” marks crossed by two bars — the same emblem that marked his ring recently parted in oath to his brother. He was not too surprised to see the mark had been crudely burned into a ragged patch. The goblins must have taken some time to erase any marks of ownership. The brand was recently burned. The horse winced at his palpitations.

Stephan made no secret of the ear check. Fyodoryll clearly saw his action and the horse’s reaction. He shot the she elf a side glance to make sure they had an unspoken understanding: the horses were clearly illicit.

While Stephan and the others seemed intent on the horses and playing the part of prospective buyers, Feldard hung back to keep watch on the four hired help. He noted how they watched him warily. The dwarf grunted and moved closer to the covered wagons.

“Bah, all this concern over horses,” the dwarf muttered to himself. Feldard had no interest in the stolen horses—not really; what he wanted to know was where the goblins had gone to after off-loading the herd.

Bending to check the back left hoof, Stephan spoke. “From what I’ve heard, you’re lucky to have no troubles in Dymrak of late.”

He examined the inside of the hoof, there, clearly carved was the Sukiskyn brand. The secret, secondary mark was a trick his grandfather concocted to better ensure ownership.

Stephan’s patience ran thin at sight of the mark. Turning to Fyodoryll, “I don’t know from where you hence but in this kingdom trading in stolen horses warrants death under hoof!”

A telling glance to his scabbard directed the she elf’s eyes to the clearly embossed Sukiskyn emblem decorating the metal clasp.

“Check the hoof, she elf! Your purchase is forfeit! I claim these 24 whites in the name of Sukiskyn!”

Fyodoryll gasped and covered her mouth with both hands in shock at Stephan’s accusation.

From the woods opposite Hasan, an elven voice shouted—“Halt! Drop your weapons!”

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Fyodoryll, Equine Entrepreneur

fyodoryll

Feldard eyed up the four men while Stephan talked to the elven horsetrader. Didn’t matter what the female said, Feldard didn’t trust her or her men. Anyone in business with goblins couldn’t be trusted.

Maruc, however, was relaxed. Horses were horses, he had no idea if white was a common colour for horses out here. In his experience of elves so far, they were friendly so he was surprised at Stephan’s somewhat anagonistic approach. But then again perhaps this was how horse traders dealt with each other. Life in a cloister had shielded him from all this comercialism. He watched with open interest as the conversation progressed, his hand slowly resting on the hoop of his flail when he read the faces of the warriors as Stephan approached.

“Methinks something foul here,” Stephan muttered to his friends as they cautiously approached. “If this one deals with gobs, her profits are forfeit.”

His hand was instinctively on the hilt of his scabbarded sword. Keeping an eye on the ruffians, Stephan looked over the three wagons wondering if more were concealed in them. He hoped Hasan was at a good vantage for all this.

Miklos eye’d the elf with a mixture of concern and doubt. Elves in general were not selfish or driven to shady deals by trade. He had no doubt she felt the party was a threat and if she had been a horse trader for a while she would have traded with the Sukiskyn clan. She may well recognise that Stephan was of their kin and be tempted to some rash pre emptive action. Especially if he pressed her early in the conversation.

The spell casting was another concern. It could be anything, illusion, divination… charm? It was pointless guessing, but it showed she was used to dealing with potential enemies. She obviously felt that we, being strangers were such. He could hardly blame her. If she had dealt with the goblins then they would have told them some details about the raid. Maybe even our descriptions. She has four mercinaries but what she was doing now is gauging us as opponents. If she had any hint of our reputation she would do well to give up the horses, but it all depended on her skills and arrogance. Sadly, elves are known for their arrogance …and their skills.

Miklos looked like a mage. Not the ‘covered in stars and moons’ mage but the traveled, introspective mage. He pointedly made no offensive spellcasting gesture in response to her fumblings. But he did allow Denetiata’s wand to cross from one palm to the other in such a way that a keenly observant individual might notice it.

Subtle. But it would serve as a sufficient warning. Being well versed in casting his sleep incantation at short notice in stressful situations Miklos stood ready to take down all five of them. With a word.

“Good day…Fyodoryll, it is? How is business?”

“Business is well as ever,” she replied. “As you can see we have a fine selection. You have arrived at a fortuitous time. We have just acquired two dozen pure whites only just today.”

Stephan bristled at her words, but tried not to let it show. He started off with some banal talk to assess whether the elf bode evil or no.

“Have you been in these parts long?” The wagons had clearly been there for a long time. The elf and her crew seemed to have commandeered them for a makeshift horse corral.

“We travel to various locales throughout the Dymrak,” replied Fyodoryll. “We shall be here for trading throughout the month of Thaumont.”

Stephan wondered if this elf was profiting from goblin raids. The strategy was simple: provide a mobile market for the goblins to make quick sales of loot. Just follow the clans around on raids and make a tidy profit without having to dirty ones hands. She’d have to pack some formidable defenses, however. It wouldn’t be long before the goblins figured out that this elf must have an ample supply of silver and gold. The dwarf remained in his position at the back of the party where he could keep an eye on each of the four men. If there were more, he couldn’t tell so didn’t concern himself with them, that was Hasan’s job.

“And have you heard of any troubles? Or had any?”

“We are peaceful traders here,” she said smiling. “We avoid trouble wherever we find it.”

“Those are some beauty horses,” Stephan said, nodding to the corral. “They look a bit wet. Have they been run recently?”

“As I’ve said, they are new arrivals, from early this afternoon. You are lucky indeed to be the first to have an opportunity to buy such fine stock. I shall have no trouble finding purchase for this unique breed. In fact,” she continued, “I will most likely be making a journey to Rifllian to see the Calaari, so if you have interest, I’d recommend making a quick and abundant offer.”

Hasan cast the little cantrip he learned long ago, ventriloquism, then circled to the left on the outskirts of the clearing, his subtle movements as innocuous as the waving forest ferns. The humans would never see him, but he could not be sure his skill would defeat the elf’s greater sight.

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Lost Horses Found

Miklos read the sign and raised an eyebrow. “Providence? Am I wrong? Let us see if this…ahh, ‘horse trader’ has to offer. Hopefully useful information about the road ahead. Lets hope she hasn’t suffered at the hands of the clans.”

“Yes, hopefully she is unharmed. But the thought that undisturbed folk in the path of the goblin clans might mean some sort of collusion?” added the cleric darkly.

“Ahh Maruc, you have a suspicious mind.” replied the mage, “The words are also written in elvish, this suggests an educated human or an elf. And with that surname I’d be surprised she’d be a human. Elves don’t collude with goblins, to my certain knowledge and are very good at hiding in woodland.”

“She is advertising.” said Maruc simply, “She lives in a land overridden by goblins trading horses? Assuming you are right, even with all that elven magic, also assuming she could protect all her inbound and outbound trade and her stock all at once. If she is still alive she wouldn’t have a great trade here, would she? I suspect we will find her dead or gone. There would be no reason to stay otherwise. Unless you were trading with the goblins.”

“The raids have only occured recently.” said Miklos patiently. “I’d agree with you if this place was in a goblin heartland. She may well be holed up somewhere secret until she feels it is safe to come out. She wouldn’t have much of a reputation if she traded with goblins for stolen horses now would she? Stop being so negative. And lets see if she’s alive and in need of help.”

Feldard was more akin to Maruc’s thinking… he felt it more than coincidental that the goblins, would make track straight away from the homestead to a horse-trader. This was no raid. This was a business deal.

Yet after a long night of battle, and a longer day of decisions and traveling, the dwarf was for once not keen on another fight with the goblins, but he hefted his axe and kept a sharper watch as he followed the group.

Hasan was intrigued. The name was indeed elvish, but he knew his racial brethren little. While the humans questioned her proprietry, Hasan questioned her flamboyance. He knew outlander elves were more accustomed than he to the hurly burly of relations with humans and beyond, but he couldn’t imagine the kind of elf who would simply hoist a sign on her cottage trail. He led the party down the track, more wary now of the strange elf than of the goblins he had recently hunted.

Stephan had been eyeing the skies through the surrounding trees. “There’s no smoke. No major burning currently aflame. At least.”

He started following the elf. “Hasan,” turning to the others, “and the rest of you, perhaps, one of us, and I think Hasan may be best suited, should not show them self. If the rest of us are in trouble, Hasan could be yet free to act.”

The group continued down the trail. “If the gobs be there, they are dead.” Stephan spoke with a smoldering rage. “The horses, or proceeds from them, go back to Pyotr.”

Through the trees, the group saw the camp of the horse trader. It consisted of three old, broken-down covered wagons and a rough corral. There were 32 horses in the corral, included the 24 white riding horses that were unmistakably those belonging to the Sukiskyn clan. Four rough-looking men in leather armor could be seen in the vicinity of the camp.

Spotting the group approaching, one of them whistled and a tall female elf emerged from one of the wagons. She wore a blue robe over chain mail. All of the group were armed with swords and Fyodoryll was additionally equipped with a longbow. She eyed the approaching strangers, and, while speaking softly, made a few subtle gestures. Miklos, and Hasan from his hiding spot, could tell that she had cast some sort of spell, but it had no visible effect.

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