Drazar and I sat for a while in conversation that evening. After being offered up as a sacrifice to a Daemon, I knew he wasn’t going to be in the best of moods. At the time I still didn’t know why, but since I hadn’t had the chance to discuss it with Fjorlief, I just set about damping down the fire somewhat. Out there, taking the hard roads through a hard country, I didn’t want to be worried about two of my fellow travelers being at each others throats. Not when it looked like we would have no shortage of strangers more than happy to take on that job.
He seemed happy to listen to me, but managed to once again steer clear of the question of his mask. I wasn’t going to push him too hard though; he seemed happy to talk to me about other things, and pushing him away would have just made matters worse. Caderyn had no such qualms, and was quick to assume the worst, “She was probably off due to your spirit being aflame and being eaten away. You must have done something to cause offense”? He had obviously either overheard our conversation or had been privy to the Vytch’s opinions already.
While we were in the caves of the dead, I had noted that something wasn’t quite write with our Yerwian friend. From what I understood of such matters, he was a wielder of the Earth Powers and something in those dark caves had affected how he was able to sense the flow of the earth power. To this day, I couldn’t explain it any better than that, but it had obviously affected him if I had noticed it while he was hidden behind his mask. The Vytch also used the Earth Powers for her own magics, but didn’t seem to have been as put out by our subterranean journey as Drazar. Maybe she was surprised by how much it had affected him, and that was what she thought was “wrong” about him.
Either way, the Dummonni’s interruption called an end to our conversation and before long Skuza was making his presence known. Thankfully the herbal concoction that Valerius had provided had kept him out of our hair through the worst of the day, but he was up and about again now. For some reason he seemed determined to spend time with us as a man of the people he so clearly wasn’t. He at least seemed on Drazar’s side about the debate, agreeing with me that just getting along would be the best option.
The fact that he seemed equally frightened by the idea of a foreigner, a magic user and a woman probably tells you a lot about the kind of man he was, and after the day we’d had I decided to have some fun with the poor fellow. I knew he was trying his best, but it just wasn’t the right time. As he was stalking the campsite, hand on the pommel of his ferros, trying his damnedest to look every inch the wandering hero, I turned back to Drazar with a smile, “When he next has his back to us, throw a stick into the tree line. Lets see how brave and heroic he really is”.
He looked over to me and I could swear that he was smiling beneath his mask, eyes deep blue even the red light of the fire. There’s only so long that you can have some Numare try and convert you I guess, and that time was long since passed in Drazar’s case. He waited for the right moment and swiftly threw a short branch into the trees at the edge of our camp. Skuza wheeled around hurriedly, hand gripped tightly around his honour blade, eyes wide with fear. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing, but then Drazar threw again. Skuza spun like a top seeking out the Dummonii partisans that he was sure were waiting just beyond the range of his vision, readying their knives to skin us all at a moments notice.
They never appeared of course, but Valerius and Brand shortly made their way back, curtailing our fun. I don’t doubt that the physician had as little time for Skuza as the rest of us, but as a fellow Numare, he seemed honour bound to show him respect, and would probably have looked down on us for toying with him. That being said, I was happy to see his stern expression tonight as with it came a Toma. Not the mythological fiend that the Daemon had impersonated to trick us, but an honest to goodness toma. We ate well that evening, with a fresh stew made with vegetables from Brand thrown in the pot too. Brand being Brand, he was quick to work his way through the offal that the rest of us had left behind, tutting away at us for being wasteful.
We weren’t letting it all go to waste though; Valerius had claimed one of its horns, either for a drinking vessel or a prize, and I had asked for the skin. Brand set about treating it for me, and I still have the gloves that were made from that beast to this day.
* * *
Once we were all fed, it was time to get some sleep. We maintained the same watch pattern, regardless of Drazar and Fjorlief’s objections to spending so much time together alone. They would just have to put up with it, and if they managed to survive the night together, than there might yet be hope for them. As I pulled my blanket around myself I listened to the noises of the forest at night. After our near call with the vraag the other night, I didn’t fancy being caught out again. All I could hear though were the noises of some Scaren, and the unmistakable cawing of the Corbie that seemed to be following us from the caves.
I hoped no one was foolish enough to try and bring down one of the winged rodents for sport or food. Their defensive mechanism has to be seen to be believed, and really does no benefit to the individual scaren that has to employ it. Luckily I was awoken some time later without finding anyone covered in bits of flesh and foul smelling ichor.
I had a couple of hours before full dawn, so I made sure there was water for a hot drink and anyone who needed to shave, then set about my morning ritual of re-imprinting some selected runes in my memory, in case I might need them during the day. As I was finishing up, I spotted Brand getting himself ready for his particular morning ritual, and smiled as I realised that I had forgotten to remind our employer of the wake up call he was about to receive. As the bellowing and wailing began, I thought how lucky we were to be camped so close to the mountains still, as the echoes joined in his own high pitched shouts, adding to the cacophonous assault.
“Bless Pelo! Is this to happen every morning”! Skuza threw open the window of his caravan and shouted out to us.
“Indeed my Lord”, I replied, with a smile on my face and a warming beverage in my hand, “the daemons do not rest, so our holy man does not either. It is truly a good sign for the day though, just listen to the earth shouting back to him in agreement. Uma herself has blessed this day for us”! I wasn’t entirely sure he believed me, but I was just trying to get through the morning without incident, and was happy for him to take his cup and join us for breakfast. Maybe in future I should learn more about this Pelo, god or man that he was, and use it to placate our nervous patron.
The hunter’s gatherings still remained so we ate well indeed, and Skuza decided to forgo his morning bath, roughing it with his men, as we discussed our route for the day. As a non native to either of the lands we were skirting the borders off, I had little to offer in the discussion, but it seemed that once again we were to brave the Dummonii side as it looked like the quickest way to reach our destination. The other option was a place called Kad-Bah, but only the Pelosians seemed keen on journeying there, and not even all of them.
They made pointed looks towards the New Raphelian and the other foreigners, but Catranasia seemed to have something else on her mind that made her want to steer clear of the outpost. It had a ferry that we could use to cross the river easier, but there would likely have been a day long delay both waiting for the ferry and jumping through the Pelosian bureaucratic hoops. It was all much of a muchness to me, but I was happy to cede to Caderyn’s plan when he informed us all of a fording point only really known to scouts on the Dummonii side. The place was called Maiden’s Play, but I had reason to doubt we would have as much fun as the name implied. With everyone in agreement though, we quickly set off, at our usual walking pace, with the fighters taking point.
* * *
It was plainly clear that we were in the disputed lands, and that the war – although winding down for the year – was still fresh, and had left fresh scars on the countryside. Ahead of us were six impaled Pelosian men. All looked like legionnaires to me, with tattoos on their shoulders, bar one that was probably a priest of Pelo. They had been stripped of anything else though, and left to die, naked with a sharp pole thrust up through their arses and out of their mouths. I’d heard stories of such atrocities – and the things that Pelosians did to their own enemies – while I was back home, but it was another thing entirely to see the poor sods hanging limp like that. The partisans were supposedly skilled at such things, and could leave you hanging like that until you died from hunger, rather than pierce any vital organs on the way through.
I doubt if such a thing is possible now, but at the time the stories seemed very real. They had been indeed been there for days, and dead for about that long. The skin was already tightening in the heat, and black carrion flies were everywhere. Soon the bodies would be little more than nests for maggots and eventually just a stain on the wood. Valerius was as grim faced as I had ever seen him, but Skuza was almost apoplectic. Once he had cleared his gut of his breakfast at the sight and smell of the impaled Pelosians, he insisted we cut them down and bury them.
Looking about, it was fairly clear that what ever had happened here had taken place days ago, but I doubt Skuza knew that at all; he just wanted to do the right thing, the bloody fool. The fact that a holy man was hung up there made him doubly sure, even as he once again lost control of the contents of his stomach. “My lord”, interrupted Valerius, “look about you. The tree line is close, and we have no idea if the scalpers are still around. This could likely be a trap, designed to get well meaning folk such as ourselves to stop, so that we can be run through just like these poor souls”.
“Also, we don’t want to offend Krath”. We turned and looked at Caderyn at this, wondering just who the fuck this Krath was, but fully expecting it to be some kind of god of bloody awful deaths and horror. The boss seemed to be the only one who wanted to do anything for the poor bastards – I for one was happy to keep going until we made it across the river, stopping for any length of time made us tempting targets for anyone with a grudge, Dummonii or otherwise. Skuza didn’t want to give up on this though, it seemed like it meant more to him than his own safety, but luckily for us, his constitution got the better of him. He was breathing too quickly, but struggling to suck in any air, and with his hand on his chest he fell unceremoniously backwards in a dead faint.
Valerius and Vitus lifted him back into his caravan, and we all moved off, glad to leave the grim spectacle behind us. Were these more ghosts that would follow me? I hadn’t killed them, or left them to die with a ten foot pole stuffed right up their fundament, but just leaving them like that could still have pissed them off somewhat. They never did haunt me, but I do wonder if Skuza still remembers them?
As we marched further onward there were more signs of the recent hostilities; a few half destroyed buildings in the Pelosian villa style, and corpses of hormorn lying by the side of the road. Someone with better eyesight than me also spotted day old tracks of some zolts, moving tightly together, probably someone’s guard beasts or part of a hunting pack, but it kept us all concentrating on our surroundings, that’s for sure. When I saw more ruined buildings up ahead, I got a strange nervous tickle down the back of my neck. The others looked ready to carry on down the road, but there was at least two buildings on each side of the road, and half ruined or not, they made great hiding places for anyone wanting to ambush us.
“I know it looks like a couple of days since anyone was round these parts”, says I, “but I’d be happier taking a look at those buildings on foot for now, just in case there’s anyone left around waiting to give us a surprise”. Most of them looked at me like I was a paranoid fool, but Drazar was quick to offer his assistance. With his mastery of the Earth Power, I was glad to have him on side, and it seemed that taking the time to talk to him the evening before had worked out in my favour. I thought for a while it would just be the two of us, but Caderyn eventually offered to join us too, something that I would be very thankful for later.
As we made our way forward, Caderyn’s training as a scout was obvious, as he quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, constantly moving from cover to cover. Even Drazar seemed to know what he was doing, but hung back a little his deep blue eyes concentrating through the mask as he slowly stalked towards the buildings. As we neared them I was struggling to keep the Dummonii in sight, so skilled was he at keeping hidden, but Drazar pointed me towards a certain building. I could see nothing unusual about it; no figures in the windows, or shadows moving within, but he seemed sure, and I knew well enough to heed his advise.
Moving closer, I began to hear the sounds of talking. The language was clearly Dummonii, and there was at least four or five people engaging in conversation. I moved as close as I dared before I spotted a bowman on the roof of another building, and realised just how much danger we were all in. From where I was hidden I could just about make out a few obvious partisans, one built like a brick shit-house with a Hutz-axe in hand, a couple of women – including one sat on a tether – and a handful of other rough looking types. I could also just about make out Caderyn, and signaled him to be wary as best I could.
Thinking such a thought, I turned to see Drazar walking down the street towards the building. He was trying his best to stay in cover, but there was no way that anyone stationed on a roof would fail to see him. It was either take a risk or watch or him stuck with Dummonii arrows. Luckily for him, I acted as usual without even really thinking, and gave out a low whistle. The Gods alone know if it sounded like a bird native to anywhere even in these lands, but it got his attention without alerting the Dummonii, and he scampered back to where I was secreted. “Partisans, Drazar”, I whispered, “You need to get back to the wagons and bring Brand and Valerius. Make sure he has his bow strung, there’s at least an archer or two”. And with a nod he was off, keeping his head low heading back towards the carts.
It helped that Caderyn was making a distraction of his own, but at the time I was more concerned with my own skin. He had walked right up to the Partisans, weapons not drawn, hands held high, looking ready to parley. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then he was talking, loudly at first, claiming to be one of them, or at least in the same line of work. It calmed them down somewhat, and after that he dropped his voice so that I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. The way he had managed to get close to them with alarming them had me worried that he was about to betray us, and I kept my sword in my hand, the fingers of my other hand tracing out a Rune of sharpening on the air above the blade.
No matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t make out what was being said, but behind them I noticed something that shouldn’t be. A still living Pelosian, stripped almost naked was standing unsteadily on a buggy. His neck had a rope coiled around it that was hanging from the tree above, and every little breeze seemed like it would be enough to knock him off balance and end his life. I looked around for a way to get to him when I finely heard something from the Partisan: “Killing many Pelosians!” It was the big sod, the one carrying the Hutz-axe that looked almost the right size for him. I spied Caderyn quickly, and he seemed to be making placatory hand signals to the men, but I still wasn’t sure exactly whose side he was on.
The wait for reinforcements took an age, so long in fact that Caderyn was walking away from the Partisans, almost straight towards me. I know he was formidable in a fight, but I also knew he was injured, and hoped that if he was about to attack I could take advantage of that and at least finish him off quickly. He still had no weapons drawn though, and was whispering as he came upon my hiding spot, “They mean to let us pass, come back with me, but keep your weapon sheathed”.
Sod that, thinks I, “They haven’t seen me, if I stand up now, how do I know I won’t get perished”?
“Come on you bloody idiot”, was his only reply, but he didn’t seem to want to draw their attention to me, so kept on walking before any of the partisans would get suspicious of his dallying in the rubble. I watched him walk away, back towards the caravans, and held my position, happy to be able to at least hear them talk, now that Caderyn was no longer there, practically whispering. What I heard was something very similar to the conversation going on between my friends I would later find out. Some wanted to kill us as we approached, others were happy to let us past if we didn’t start any trouble, and a few just plain didn’t trust that we were just going to go on our way without trying to kill them all.
I heard all this, and saw the dark fleeting shape of Brand in the tree line. I didn’t know why he wasn’t attacking, but was happy to at least know that him and his magic sword were close by. It would certainly scare the crap out of a bunch of pissant partisans, and could give us the edge we’d need against a group with better numbers and position, should it come to that. It wasn’t to come to that though, and before long, I saw the caravan heading towards me, rolling along at its usual slow pace, with Caderyn at its front. “Come on out Kantrel”, he shouted, “we have safe passage, just put your bloody sword away”! The bugger was looking right at me, and there was little I could do from where I was. I wasn’t going to meekly step forward though, so instead I stood up swiftly with a smile on my face and my steel in hand. With a flourish I swept the length of the blade across my front, and slid it swiftly into its scabbard while turning to face the partisans with a smile and a bow.
Turning my back on them was a hell of a risk, knowing now that they had at least two men with warbows in the buildings above me, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me worry about them, “Don’t worry none, they don’t plan on killing us, just letting us go past if we keep ourselves out of trouble” I said. As I rejoined my companions, I shared a smile with Vitus, who seemed pleased that we had at least got a little something over them, but they weren’t going to let us have the last laugh. One of them had walked towards the hanging man as I had walked away, and as we neared them, ready to go past, he kicked the buggy out from under his feet. The rope went tight, and his legs started to kick. The drop wasn’t far enough to break his neck, and it would be a slow death for this man, whoever he was. “Next we meet, your going to die first, pig-sticker man”, sneered the big fellow, looking at me with a powerful hatred. I kept my hand on the hilt of my sword, knowing that only Caderyn and I were still armed and met his gaze: “I’ll be waiting, when the midnight killer smiles”, I replied in Raphelian and carried on walking, leaving him looking confused.
* * *
The rest of the day passed uneventfully; more walking, more signs of war. We were never a very chatty group on the march, but we were practically silent that afternoon. Only Caderyn seemed his usual self, but I can’t imagine him losing any sleep over a dead Pelosian, regardless of whether it was a combatant or just an innocent farmer. This close to the front line, I don’t suppose anyone could be thought of as an innocent bystander.
Come the evening we settled down for another night, and Skuza brought forth a bottle of white wine, and several goblets. It was a small bottle, and shared between us all, we we were lucky to get more than a mouthful each. I wasn’t in the mood to be drinking, so took a small sip for the sake of decorum, than passed what little was left on to Vitus. More than anyone, he seemed to have taken the Pelosian’s unwarranted death to heart. I noticed that Valerius also didn’t seem to be in the mood for drink, but didn’t draw any attention to it. As we sipped, Skuza again went into his man of the people act.
After the day we had had, I wasn’t in the mood to play with him for fun, so instead thought I would do him a favour. He had after all spared us some of his no doubt very expensive wine. As he waffled on about Portage ales and this being the closest thing he had to offer, I took the time to thank him, not only for that, but for being willing to lead from the front when facing the Partisans. I slight bending of the truth, but it lifted his confidence somewhat to know that the men thought highly of him, and in the days to come, we would sorely need him to stay focused on the path ahead, believing he was a capable man to lead us.
With the wine all drunk, we called it a night, set the watches, and prepared ourselves to be woken at dawn in the usual fashion.
* * *
The next day we began our journey through the foothills towards the vale of mists, and were lucky enough to have an uneventful morning. Noon rolled around soon enough, and we were again confronted with the signs of the war. At least eight dead Dummonii, each executed in the style of the legion. After dispatching the deserter, I knew the signs well enough, but we moved on with barely a word. It was true that both sides were capable of atrocities in this conflict, but since we had recently seen what the Partisans were willing to do first hand, we were’t in a rush to defend them, or honour their fallen.
We moved on through the mists and ahead of us we heard some kind of commotion. The fog was too thick to see that far ahead of us, but the sounds of a struggle still reached us. Drazar used his gifts to pinpoint its location, and a few of us headed off in that direction. At first I thought we were facing more vraag based on the noises we were hearing, but as we closed in, something bigger was seen striding through the mist. Its long pointed beak was sharp enough to rival my steel, and it moved quickly, like a fencer sizing up an opponent.
The Dagger bill was huge, and if it wasn’t in our way, I would have been happy to have gone around it, rather than tangle with it. We didn’t have that luxury though, so we went at it with a gusto. The mist was too think to be entirely accurate about what happened during the melee, but I do remember Drazar falling at one point. The point of my Baseado found its target, but the thing was wearing armour! Around its neck hung a small steel plate acting as a breastplate.
The cling of metal on metal had me startled, and I glanced around, not sure what to expect. On the ground behind the bleeding Dagger Bill was a body in a pool of blood. Seeing this, I looked again at the creature, taking in its livery and decoration. It was clearly a pet of some kind, maybe even a riding beast, but these things were often trained to defend their owners too. In a few more seconds, the bird was down, with Fjorlief claiming the final blow, and its neck. As we all calmed down, getting out breathe back, we stepped forward around the fallen body, wondering what had become of it.