Hernane was afraid. Afraid of what she would become if she continued with this group. Eaten by some spider, choking to death on her own blood after having her throat slit by an Orcish blade, or something worse. The thought made her sick. She knew that this was not the life for her, and wanted to be home to see her family. To be safe and not hear or see in her dreams the faces of the lives she had ended.
Taking Feldard to one side, “Feldard it is time for me to depart, I intend to take Tekaryon home so he can recruit new workers for his mine. Once home, I will see your father and tell him your shame is mine, that you were not to blame for me leaving. I will tell him of your courage in battle and one day I hope that you and I can be friends for you will always carry a most special place in heart. Thank you for coming to my rescue, be safe”.
Hernane thanked each of the group in turn, and collecting her backpack, she lead Tekaryon and the two other Dwarfs on the path home and the next step in her life. She paused at the top of the path, waved to the group and idly wondered if they would all be safe. She sent them a prayer to keep them all safe, for she knew they travelled on the path of danger.
At Hernane’s announcement, Feldard was torn between feeling disappointment and relief. He doubted his father would understand his not returning with her, but he had committed himself to this group and this endeavour and he couldn’t in good faith leave them now to take her home, and perhaps she was right—perhaps, in time, he might forgive her and his brother. But for now, his pride was too strong for him to face either without outrage.
To ensure she made it home safely, Feldard had one of the rescued miners swear to see her home. When it came time for her to leave, Feldard made himself absent, keeping watch on the goblin, questioning him on where Vlaak could be found.
The prospect of plunging back into the forest pleased Hasan. “Unless that goblin comes up with anything, let’s leave him with Tekaryon. We’re better off exploring without him, as he’ll only take us on known ways that are bound to be watched. Rather, we should head back to the river, I believe, and then straight south, into the heart of the forest.”
Stephan offered his farewells to Hernane and her traveling companions. He then looked around to see how Feldard would deliver his goodbyes but the dwarf was nowhere to be seen.
Rubbing his neck, Stephan nodded at Hasan’s words. “This sounds very well with me, Prince Hasan. Your woodland skills will guide us true.”
Stephan eyed the skies, noting the direction of cloud drift and general atmospheric conditions. Sniffing, he said “Aye. There’s a good chance some rain will catch us soon. Let’s set foot on dry ground whilst we can!”
Before leaving the mine area for good, Stephan took one last look around noting the environs. He felt his jackal statuette in his neck pouch and felt not a little disappointment at not solving the riddle of it.
“Do not worry!”, he thought to himself. “It is Halav’s Will. My little statue, perhaps, has another role to play. Or not! The ways of Halav are odd.”
But Stephan studied with care the lay of the land around the mine, thinking that one day he’d return to see if more could be learned from the strange chamber filled with similar statues.
The priest smiled warmly at Hernane. “Good luck my dear. May your hands flow with gold.” He bade farewell to the other miners and waved goodbye as they strode away.
“Well Feldard, I’m surprised you didn’t take that opportunity to travel to Highforge. It is afterall the reason we traveled this way. Albeit we now have many more reasons. I for one am glad you have chosen to accompany us instead.” Maruc was tired. He sighed heavily as he pressed life into his calloused hands. He caught sight of Miklos.
“Hey, what do you make of the Yellow garb’d man story?”
“Well.” replied the mage, “It is my opinion that he is likely to be one of the masterminds behind this alliance. Robes are usually worn by aristocrats and scholars, although this too could be a deception. The fact that he was spotted by this mere footsoldier means he was not trying to remain unnoticed. Certainly not in yellow at least! Shall we assume the worst? If so, he is a Mage or a Lord, bent on the overthrow of the local government. He is stirring trouble, agitating the goblinoid races. If I were him I’d be setting other fires of unrest to stretch the Dukes forces and empty Specularum. Noting the tower token we retrieved at Sukiskyn ,and the general power this man has over the goblins my mind is erring toward a black warlock. Perhaps even a follower of the Sons of Night?”
He shrugged. “It’s too early to tell,” he waved over to Hasan. “From their direction of travel so far they have followed the river eastward. From my memory of the maps of this land, the river forks over yonder one arm stretching to the north and the other piercing the heart of the forest. I agree, we would make better pace following the bank.”
“Very well. We strike out as soon as Feldard has finished with our little friend then trust in Halav to guide us.” Maruc grinned. “After all, he sent us Hasan!”
* * * * *
With further interrogation, Feldard was able to garner a rough idea of the Wolfskull’s territory. The goblin described a dismal valley, deep in the Dymrak Forest. Apparently, long ago in a forgotten age, the valley was smitten with a magical blight that turned every living thing—plants and animals—to stone. It sounded like a miserable place—fitting for the likes of goblins.
They did not put all their trust in the goblin, however, for there was no guarantee the goblin would not attempt to mislead them. Instead, they relied on the instincts of their elven companion to guide them true. And that he did. Along the way, they had some close encounters with various woodland creatures, some dangerous. Thankfully, they were able to avoid any direct engagements through avoidance and intimidation. During the journey, Maruc was able to employ his healing arts to bring everyone back to full health, and the spellcasters were able to replenish their minds with arcanery for their upcoming showdown with the goblin clan.
Eventually, they came to the area described by the captured goblin. The petrified forest was an eerie and silent place, with little or no color to relieve the grey stone of the stiff, blighted trees and undergrowth. The trees were transformed while in full lear, and now formed a dense, opaque canopy which drew a shadowy, twilight gloom over the forest floor. The only living things here were patches of pale moss and lichen on the tree trunks and limp, web-like creepers hanging like shrouds from the branches. Petrified birds and other animals could be spotted littering the valley floor.
Maruc sighed. His mood wasn’t helped by the grey broken landscape. Magi! he thought angrily.
In the distance, they heard the sounds of armor clanking, rubble cracking and wolves growling. There was nowhere to hide—the tangled, petrified undergrowth rose to a height just above their heads, and blocked them from any chance of quick concealment. Around a bend in the path ahead, they saw a lone man sprinting toward them.