Storms over Kelerak, Part II - Page 3 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part II

   
That impression was exactly the one I was hoping to convey. I doubt it will go anywhere, but I do want to see a more-than-professional relationship develop between the characters. There was only so much mileage I could wring out of Mavarra to justify this particular group of disparate dysfunctionals to keep sticking together and besides, I did make several mentions back in "Mists of Daven" that these four were ultimately destined to be the closest of friends they would ever have.

I feel as though whatever grows between Isolde and Aidan will be something akin to the relationship between two former lovers that have amicably split - except in this case, the breakup entails stopping the paladin-rogue sniping, or at least not doing it seriously as they still are. An "Only I can call my friend a self-righteous prig/pilfering little sneak!" type of friendship.

And there'll be a huge instalment coming along tonight which will very nearly wrap it all up, I hope. I've got until Sunday off work and my obsession with Horizon: Zero Dawn is basically finished, so I've got no more distractions for about 65 hours.

Keenly aware of the need for haste, the group did as Brokk suggested, marching north out of Dragonspur immediately, though Brokk continued to ride in the cart to save his strength. They reached Eagle Grove a very impressive two days later, though even Embla was visibly flagging as they entered the city in the morning of their third day out from Dragonspur. In fact, it had become clear to everyone that something was troubling her above and beyond the growing chill in the air.

She had become sullen much of the time, even snapping irritably at the slightest comment that might concern her, and periodically slapped at her muscles as though trying to crush a particularly troublesome biting insect. The final straw came on the second night when Isolde had, in complete sincerity, suggested the two of them take a few minutes in private to talk about whatever it was.

Only the halfing`s reflexes had saved her from a concussion, fully leaping clear of the cart as Embla lashed out with clenched fist and bared teeth. After that, Aidan had told her to range ahead and find something else to kill, or else ride the rest of the way with Brokk holding a magical leash to her throat - metaphorically speaking - and she had disappeared into the night without another word.

The paladin had cursed himself for a fool, wondering if his words had inadvertently doomed some hapless traveller or local farmer, but whatever ailed Embla had yet to drive her completely over the edge. They came across her about an hour after waking, silently resharpening and polishing her sword over the shredded corpse of an owlbear.

The battle seemed to have calmed her somewhat, and they had pressed on to Eagle Grove without further issue, although Isolde had kept a prudent distance nonetheless. Meanwhile, Aidan let his healer`s eye examine Embla as they finished this part of their journey. What he saw both did and did not make sense.

It did make sense, because her behaviour was what he would have expected of someone suffering the earliest symptoms of a nervous-muscular disease, such as rabies. It did not make sense, because he had been standing right next to her as the priest of Fisherman`s Solace had healed the injuries inflicted by that terrifying dire wolf. Yet despite knowing this, a little voice of doubt spoke to him, asking if he had actually witnessed that healing. At that time, had he not been venting his anger at the blind prophet Tarsus? Might something have gone wrong, and they left before any lurking sickness in her veins was purged? But if that was the case, he asked himself, then why had she said nothing?

She cannot have been so arrogant as to think she could just throw off such a disease, he debated with himself. I saw in her eyes the understanding of how terrible it is. She is wild, not stupid! Foolish and impulsive, at times, yes, but not outright stupid! No, it must be something else.

He resolved to deal with the matter during whatever downtime they had whilst in the Eaglesreach, or at worst on their way back to Dragonspur. They would find out what was wrong, and how to fix it, and would do so. First, to find the Silver Duke, and second, to convince him to return with them to Dragonspur. Had Aidan but known the consequences of delaying, he would never have done so.

*****

Brokk looked aghast. "Please tell me that that babbling eyesore up there is a different local lunatic than the one we`ve come to collect."

"Oh no, that is the Silver Duke himself all right," Isolde confirmed glumly, remembering the face well enough. "I get the feeling you are about to learn exactly why he is considered a madman by the rest of Kelerak. I dread to think what he`s thought up now."

The four friends, along with a considerable gathering from all walks of life, stood watching the balcony of the Eagle Grove city hall, where stood an elderly gentleman with an oversized Kalais mustache and clothing garish enough to blind a bat. He was muttering to himself, as though trying desperately to recall exactly what he was going to say. The other onlookers were waiting with extraordinary patience, even a degree of eagerness in some faces. Whatever Marius Sonnesberg XII, the Silver Duke, as beloved of his people as loathed by his peers, had to say, they wanted to hear it.

"Right, or maybe left, depending on which way you stand," the Silver Duke began his announcement, his voice clear and strong despite his obvious age. "There was a reason I asked myself here today. Does anyone remember it? I had it written down, but in the early hours I pulled it from the mouth of one of my hounds in my nightclothes. How it managed to fit itself into those I will never know."

The assembled townsfolk snickered at the ancient joke and Brokk buried his face in his hands. "Kelerak is doomed."

"Just wait until he gets to the point," Isolde said. "Sounds like he`s really lost it."

There was an overlong pause as the Silver Duke considered his next words, having obviously actually forgotten whatever it was he had come to say. Suddenly, his face lit up as it came back to him, and he leaned forward, perilously close to falling straight off the balcony.

"Of course! I have decided that the sacred institution of marriage here in the Eaglesreach is to receive my personal blessing. As of this very day, all new brides are to spend their first wedded night in my own bedchamber."

The Silver Duke furrowed his brow, thinking on this, then nodded, satisfied. With a cheerful wave at his citizens, he stepped back from the balcony and walked into the city hall proper. Aidan nearly bit his tongue, teeth gnashing in outrage, but stopped himself from roaring his fury when he realised that something strange was happening around him. There was a silence from the crowd around him that was not hostile to the proclamation, nor even disbelieving, but merely anticipatory.

A few moments passed, then the Silver Duke reappeared, flustered and red in the face. "I should have said, new brides should also bring their husbands to spend their wedding night in my bedchamber, whilst my wife and I sleep elsewhere. Thus on this most special of nights, they shall have the most comfortable bed in the land to themselves."

Now the crowd pressed forward, cheering and applauding with enthusiasm enough to nearly knock Aidan off his feet. As he steadied himself, shielding Brokk from the surging mass, he tried to convince himself he had heard exactly what he just had, and felt his mind buckling under the strain of doing so.

"Well, in a sense I was right," Isolde commented, trying to make light of her own shock. "No other nobleman would dream of making such an offer. So, what do you think of Marius Sonnesberg, twelfth of his name, and twelve times as crazy as any twelve lords put together? Take your time. I`ve had years and I still can`t come to a decision."




>>>>>

Just a quickie before I get into the meat of the next bit.

Much to everyone`s relief, getting an audience with the duke proved to be immeasurably simpler than it had been to meet with Burcan the White, and turned out to require nothing more than waiting in line with the other supplicants looking for ducal justice. As most of the cases were read out to him, the Silver Duke waved a hand or his cane to one of his aides, indicating which of them was to take responsibility for achieving a settlement in the matter.

With a very few, all of them children who had heard their parents talk of how they had been helped by going to the Silver Duke, and who bravely thought he could do the same for their own insurmountable problems, he fully rose from his chair and knelt down beside them. So made smaller and safer in their eyes, he listened to their halting speeches, encouraging with soft words and softer pats to the head or shoulder, and when they had finished, whispered his secret advice into their ear and sent them away smiling and hopeful.

Aidan had never seen anything like it in his life, and Brokk, who had for a time tutored the spoilt sons and daughters of nobility, wondered that anyone who ruled could be so compassionate. Then at last it was their turn. Though Brokk had argued he should speak their case, as it was he of whom Burcan had asked this favour, Isolde overrode him with a simple and compelling argument.

"The last time a man asked the Silver Duke to leave the Eaglesreach, it was an unusually proactive agent of Sloth hailing from the Havenish isle of Macadeimon. When the Silver Duke found out, before he killed the agent he cut off his...well, you know what they grow on Macadeimon. Better that a woman makes the request."

So, even taking the time to splash some water on her face and wash the hard travel away, Isolde mentally rehearsed what she was going to say. It would need to be exactly the right mixture of honesty and intrigue, to compel him to leave this sanctuary and rejoin the turbulent world of the Kelerite barons and merchant princes. She was a quick thinker, but the importance of this was not lost on her and so Isolde took care to review everything several times as she waited. Naturally, the plan all fell apart almost as soon as she stepped forward and attempted a curtsy, as the Silver Duke`s eyes lit up in recognition.

"Well now, if it isn`t the young missy with sticky fingers and unlucky friends," he exclaimed jovially, clapping his hands. "These ones you have now look much better than the last one you visited me with! All that skin on them still, and every bit inside or out as it is supposed to be."

Isolde winced at the return of unpleasant memories. "Milord Sonnesberg, Silver Duke of the Eaglesreach, Beloved of Bestra and Restorer of Her Faith, I humbly come before you-"

"Koorlsh was a naughty boy back then," the Silver Duke interrupted, a faraway look in his eyes. "Probably still is, actually, I sent him east after that affair. Raving about filthy little hositan stealing his precious rings all the while. Had a real bee in his bonnet. Very difficult to get him to wear a bonnet, you know. He looked ridiculous until I had it painted to match his skin tone. Quite fetching then, in a strange sort of way."

"Gracious Duke Sonnesberg XII," Isolde pressed on desperately. "I am here by request of Burcan the White, High Potentate of Heshtail and Reannan, who wishes to-"

"Last I heard my old seneschal was spending unseemly amounts of time in noctician company. You know, those night giants out of Old Cadez? Dreadfully boring creatures. I hear they can spend ten hours a day just talking about rules and laws and protocols, trying to understand them perfectly so that they can bring them down more easily. As if the quickest way to getting what you wanted was not simply going after it, but instead dancing around your question and never drawing closer to anything resembling a point. Planning for a future without leaving the past is one way to go."

Isolde sighed, suddenly seeing through the mad duke`s coded words. As he paused to take a breath, fully intent on continuing his verbal avalanche, she straightened up, inclined her head back just enough to hint that she was looking down her nose at him, and stared him insolently in the eyes. As the final touch, she threw off the adopted accent of a decent education and good breeding, and reverted to the true tones of a Zelish hositan gutter runner.

"Why don`t you just shut your backside and give your mouth a chance to talk, prune face!"

For the space of a heartbeat, there was a horrified silence. With a sudden, fluid movement that belied his age, the Silver Duke rose to his feet, unaided by the cane that he now held as he might a fencing foil at rest. He glared down at the halfling. Then he let loose a single, sharp bark of laughter.

"That there`s the sweet missy who visited me last! A joy to see you again, my dear. This time, you and your friends will be actual guests. Just between you and me, and the fifty other people listening in, I still have some of Old Norey`s Eastern Blend in dire need of pipe and flame, hmm?"

*****

"It`s a leaf. Gold and silver, spent on two caravans of leaves. You do know that come autumn...?"

Brokk and Aidan looked at each other wearily and, for the umpteenth time, attempted to explain to a disturbingly calm Embla about the multitude of uses for pipeleaf, and especially its most popular and profitable one, whilst Isolde and the Duke and Duchess Sonnesberg looked on in amusement. No matter how many times or how simple an explanation was given, the Erunian seemed utterly incapable of grasping the concept.

"You can just chew the leaves? Then spit out the mash. That last part I understand. But then you chew more leaves!"

Following the first meeting with the Silver Duke, the four had been escorted to his estate, where Isolde had preemptively warned against the other three from attacking the orc-blooded guards on sight, in case they thought them to be brigands in the middle of raiding the place or something similar.

"Yes, I can see that sticking it in your nose would make you sneeze. Why do you want that again?"

The Duchess Brigid Sonnesberg, already informed of their arrival by a runner, had taken charge of them immediately, and even Embla had gone along with her orders without argument ("Teach me," Aidan had begged only half-jokingly). Once she had deemed them suitably rested and presentable, the duchess had personally ushered them to the dining hall to eat their fill before the Silver Duke returned from his more usual duties and their own request could be discussed with the time and care it deserved.

"So you set fire to leaves, and breathe in the smoke. Why not just stand in front of a fireplace?"

It had surprised all of them, even Isolde, to learn that the duchess was so very much younger than her husband, enough so to be his granddaughter, but the news that she was no Kelerite, but a Anarian of the Rindar, the Bear Tribe, had truly shocked them. Another sign of both the Silver Duke`s madness and his genius, in that he had married one of the ancestral enemies of his people, and in doing so secured the northern borders against them. In hindsight, both the breadth of her wrestler`s shoulders and the shortness of her bear-black hair ought to have clued them in to her heritage far sooner.

"Who thought to, wait no, wrong question. How did they convince anyone else to stick burning leaves in their mouth?"

That evening, the duke and duchess entertained the four friends privately. They had made it quite clear that rushing this matter was not an option, and so the day neared its end in a far more sedate fashion than had been envisaged at its start. And since whatever plagued Embla had apparently receded upon encountering the duchess, there was nothing to fear from her either, beyond infuriating ignorance.

"Next you`ll be rolling these leaves into little pieces of parchment for convenience. Keep an unlit one behind your ear until you want it."

As had already been demonstrated, the Silver Duke was a good listener, and genuinely interested in hearing what other people had to say. One of the things he was most interested in, he confided, was what had happened to 'the dear girl' after he had arranged her escape, and how she had met with her current companions. Isolde leaned back in her chair, half-smiling, half-frowning, thinking back to that meeting. After a short while, she knew how she should begin.

"Well, as you can probably guess," she started the story. "It was my sticky fingers that got me involved with that motley bunch over there..."

*****

FOURTH INTERLUDE

There was always a need for more money in the gutters of Zel City. Always there were more bribes that needed to be paid, and always did these bribes tend to become more expensive and more dangerous. The chaos resulting from the collapse of the Association and the subsequent purges of its remnant components by Orlander drow sensing opportunity had given the Ballussia clan more breathing room than they had any right to hope for. They knew better than to assume that it would last.

Ironically, with all this having been brought about by his daughter, it was Panta Amero Ballussia, who had survived being a freelancer during the days of the Association only by virtue of being married to one of its most feared guildmasters, who now held much of the power and retained most of his connections in the criminal underworld of the Twin Kingdoms of Zeland and Orland.

One of these connections now sent word of a potentially very lucrative opportunity just over the border in the Disputed Zone at Rochehome. There, a half-elven mercenary leader who was quite clearly a paladin in disguise - and given his offensively red hair, clearly a Zelish one at that - was putting out a call for adventurers to join him in a warlock hunt, with the local authorities supporting this endeavour on the grounds of any discovered coven being an illegal organisation and therefore treasonous.

All that was needed, so the message read, was for a skilled agent to be embedded in the party sent after the coven, or at worst to tail them. After that, it would be a simple matter to pilfer whatever riches were uncovered, and then reveal the so-called 'mercenary' as a paladin to the garrison commander at Fort Zel. The reward for that 'good' deed alone would certainly open up many future doors in the Rochehome region, and current evidence suggested that it might even grant some access to the uncharted reaches of the Greatkin Quarter down in Old Cadez.

When this last part was queried, it emerged that the half-elf paladin was often seen in the company of a barbarian woman of tremendous size and ferocity. As she was plainly inhuman, and trying to treat her elseways would be far too much effort for the languorous officials of Sloth, there was the distinct possibility that she might even end up becoming sponsored by a bazok or even an ogre war-caller looking for some added muscle to advance in the ranks.

It went without saying that if this was to be encouraged, by for example, a well-placed hositan infiltrator on good terms with this gigantic brute, the benefits could be extraordinarily long-lasting. It also went without saying that the best person for such a job was the last one that Panta wanted to place in such a dangerous situation. Oluks and bazoks, drow and duergar, corrupt officials and rival career criminals, bounty hunters and mercenary leaders - all these were unpleasant, but manageable natural predators of hositan in the Occupied Kingdoms. Adventurers, especially paladins, were a vastly more unpredictable threat.

Not that, realistically, there was much of a choice here. Isolde was the best suited to this job, and it was becoming ever more necessary to secure new and improved sources of funding to keep everyone at least in the pretence of safety. So within a week, she was dispatched south to Rochehome, and to a destiny she could not have imagined.

*****

The usual selection was on display. Vagrants and fools most of them, seeing only the promise of coin at first, then fleeing when hearing what was needed to earn it. Isolde despaired of anyone worthy approaching the half-elf, and began to foresee she would have to apply for a position herself in order to get this expedition moving.

The only individual that had thus far stayed long enough to be accepted was a withered husk of a dwarf that claimed a nebulously unspecific 'considerable skill with the art magic' as the talent that he could bring. Less encouragingly, his whole demeanour was that of a death-seeker, and when Isolde ventured to speak with him in the guise of a curious onlooker wondering what his reason was for volunteering for such a mission, he had looked at her with such bleakness in his eyes that the halfling had shrunk back in genuine dismay.

"What does it matter?" he had asked, a question to which she could find no answer, and so crept away with shivers trickling along her arms.

She had feared the whole thing was going to be called off when the half-elf was accosted by a group of drow in the town square, no more than petty thugs, but still enough of them to kill a lone warrior before anyone could help, though nobody would because that would only have been suicide. That was her first, and mistaken, reading of the encounter.

As Isolde watched the half-elf wait for the brutality to begin, she noticed how calmly he stood, as if unconcerned by the prospect of his immediate death. He exchanged barbs and taunts with the drow, drawing it out as long as he could, and by the way he kept turning his head as if to look at one of his enemies in particular, Isolde realised that he was actually checking on the approach of an ally, and that he had been waiting here in order to meet with them.

The would-be ambushers did not come to this same realisation, however. They were nearly as surprised as Isolde was when the huge warrior woman and the withered dwarf entered the square, sized up the situation, and promptly waded into the group, fists and spells flying. Mordularian curses and more prosaic screams filled the air as the ambush was turned against its makers, and magical flames seared those whose bones were not broken by savage blows.

One of the drow, too confident to realise his own stupidity, drew a sword against the woman. Her hand closed upon his before he could raise the blade to strike, and there was a moment of unimaginable pain before the blessed release of death as she gripped his shoulder and tore his entire sword-arm free from his body. Whereas the dwarf`s expression had been as bleak and empty as a winter famine, Isolde noted that of the woman was a joyful rage, delighting in the spray of blood and the crack of bone, as she used the severed limb to beat a second drow into the ground.

Most of those who had been in the area when the violence began had fled, of course, but a few stayed. Most those with vested interests, and who recognised Isolde watching the unfolding battle the same as she recognised them. Wordless communication of eye and gesture asked them to run interference when the city guard came to investigate, and then Isolde burst out, daggers at the ready, to slice and carve and tear at the terrified, fleeing drow.

"Nothing but an impulse I`ll come to regret," she would say to the half-elf afterwards. "Enough of them got away to be able to pick me out of a crowd and get revenge. I have to leave, go back home to Zel City."

Then, though it hurt her pride to do so, she gave the half-elf an awkward hug and deliberately failed to lift his coin-purse at the same time. A simple ruse that only a paladin would fall for, and this one did not disappoint. He grabbed her arms, angered by the 'attempted' thievery, and threatened to turn her into the authorities for it.

She pleaded with him, hating every aspect of this feeble role she had to play, and it did not take more than a few minutes for him to 'suggest' that she could earn redemption by joining him and his companions on their quest. Naturally, since it was precisely what Isolde had intended, she accepted.

*****

The next two months had been life-changing, of course. Even discounting the horrific experience of capture and near-sacrifice or worse at Mavarra, Isolde could not have gone on as she had previously. The pay was erratic, to say the least, but far greater than anything she had earned as a common thief, and the option to travel almost wherever she chose had its own appeal. More importantly, however, was the rush of power she felt. Suddenly the danger posed by adventurers was her danger to impose on others.

Bandits threatening a crossroads? Kill them, take their coin, get praised for it. Monster terrorising a village? Kill it, loot the remains of its victims, get paid and praised by those who had escaped being its next victims. Hints of corruption (in the Occupied Kingdoms? Oh, surely not, say it is not so)? Kill the corrupt, take their coin, and seek out a wealthier wretch whose death would be just.

It would be entirely fair to say that Isolde, upon realising the perks of her new life, reacted in exactly the same way as many of the adversaries she had already or would later face when they had first found themselves in her position: by indulging every appetites she had once no chance of enjoying, from the mundane pleasures of food and drink, to the more lasting of the exercise of power.

Unlike many before her, however, Isolde had a moral compass to steer her away from the excesses that sought to bind her to Sin. Her three great friends, and the shared nightmare of Mavarra, served as a constant reminder of what in her heart she did not want to become. It was a struggle to change her ways, of course - the nationwide curse of the Lord of Sloth, encouraging the eternal absence of change or effort, and of the enjoyment of whatever pleasures came easiest to you.

Perhaps what saved her in the end was the very notoriety the four were beginning to amass. The Occupied Kingdoms were no place for heroics, after all, and travelling with a paladin only seemed to ensure that heroism was a daily obstacle for her to face. The word from the Ruin Woods in the far west of Daven had come at exactly the right time for them. Indeed, they later learned that they had departed Victoria barely a day in advance of the troops sent to arrest them for a variety of offences, some of which were even genuine and included the all-time favourite, aiding and abetting a servant of the outlawed gods.

As with any such endeavour, almost as soon as the first effort was actually made to change for the better, it began to get easier day by day. Her tendency to gamble increased somewhat, especially with her favourite pair of dice - that is, until Aidan confiscated them for the first time following an especially unfortunate roll - but she no longer actively stole or cheated, and she put aside ever more of what she earned to send back to her family and ease the struggle she had all but escaped.

It was not a perfect life, but it was certainly one she could live with.

*****

The story told, Isolde sighed contentedly as she looked back at her three finest and dearest companions, still arguing over the merits of pipeleaf (this time restarting from "But why chew it, spit it out, and then chew more?" and so it went on and on), and then back to their hosts.

"You said Burcan wants me to silence the barons," the Silver Duke suddenly said. "Because a whole new barony may be created and thus set them all to feuding more openly over it."

A little surprised by the change in conversation, Isolde took a moment to recall the basics of what she had originally wanted to say to him before agreeing. The Silver Duke was silent, deep in thought, for nearly a minute.

"Starsul is gathering support, is he not? And even Felmund is attending the meetings? I see. This is very interesting. But not enough. Not yet. You, my dear, I understand. Your short and tall friends, from what I hear of them, I understand as well. That paladin however, requires an education greater than any he has received so far."

Aidan looked over at that remark, frowning. "I want to prevent a civil war as much as anyone else here. Is that not enough for you, Duke Sonnesberg?"

"For me? I never said 'for me'. There are others I must consider if I am to leave. I know what people say of me. I have even understood it for longer than you have lived. I do not understood you, though. Not yet. Again. I must see what you think of what you see first, or maybe second, before I can decide if I will come at all. You see, there is a matter of great importance I must see resolved before I could possibly make the journey to Dragonspur."

"Just a little further to the northeast are some of the richest pastures in the Eaglesreach. Hositan pastures, mostly, though you would not know it to look at them. Some human villages help to keep things going as they ought to, but, if this means what I think it does to you little missy, the region is sometimes called Hynaphlund."

Isolde nodded. "Centaurs. A respectable arrangement between their people and mine. They work our fields, protect us from enemies, and in return, we pay them in food and stabling, and various other services. Most dark folk are too stupid to see that centaurs would never work their own fields! The pact has certainly held for hundreds of years, thousands even."

"But it is straining ever closer to the breaking point," the Silver Duke said. "And since the centaurs suddenly disappeared from the farms over the same three days that followers of the Dark God attacked the villages and killed or carried off a great many people, only to return after the attacks had ended..."

"That`s your price for coming with us to Dragonspur?" Aidan asked in surprise. "Find out what a bunch of centaurs were doing whilst their neighbours were being butchered? I hate to say it, but I wouldn`t be entirely surprised to find out they were involved. Centaurs hate being tied down to one place. Making them farmers is a terrible idea. Some of them would snap under the pressure eventually. Obviously, we`ll do it. We, Burcan, Kelerak, all of us, need you at Dragonspur soon."

The Silver Duke said no more, but appraised Aidan closely. Whatever thoughts passed through his head then, he kept to himself.


>>>>>

Alright, I've got to get to bed and rest for a bit, then I'll ring up the last part for the update over the course of Friday. It shouldn't have taken this long to get Part II up and running, but various things distracted me that I did not have the heart to withstand. And then along came Aloy and I didn't want to withstand, heart or otherwise!

Shortly before noon on the following day, the four disembarked the carriage provided them for a swifter journey to the farmsteads, and almost immediately saw the extent of the problem facing them. The hamlets here had been devastated by the raids, and none of the buildings above ground were still standing. Many of the hositan burrows had clearly been dug up as well, leaving the survivors with little in the way of shelter of any kind.

The fields were overgrown with weeds, the few remaining crops being strangled by grasses and ivies, and most were left untended. Those few that still had any attention paid to them was by small groups of exhausted humans and halflings fighting to make use of equipment made for creatures far larger than themselves. Much larger groups of centaurs, of all sorts and breeds, could be seen sunning themselves on the hillsides, watching their former employers struggle and making no move to help.

"Typical hynaph behaviour," Isolde sneered, upon taking in the sight. "Abandon everything the moment they become difficult and don`t shift a hoof to put things back together again after. Having these farms revert to wilderness would suit their lazy selves right down to the weed-choked ground, it would. They could go back to being grazers. Ugh."

"We need to track down the raiders and get back whoever is still alive. Bolster the locals` numbers and get these feckless brutes back to work. Maybe then things can get back to normal around here. Look there, perfect example! That`s a man shackled to a plough! You don`t shackle people to ploughs, you shackle animals. Centaurs if you can get them, obviously, at least that way you can explain what needs doing and leave them to it."

Brokk glanced at her in surprise. "Your entire life has been spent in the hustle and bustle of cities, or as a vagrant in search of gold and silver. And yet, you speak as though you and your family have been personally wronged by centaurs for the last ten generations!"

The halfling continued to scowl in the general direction of the centaurs as she answered: "My people have lost nearly everything. What little is left us is remembered, and remembered well and long after. Even after all we have done for them, the hynaph look down on us, like they`re better than us. As if they could be happier without working our farms, or joining our feasts, or taking advantage of our smithies for their shoes and weapons! They get fed, and paid, and armed, and sheltered, and still they complain or shy away from their duties? Theirs is a better life than any they would have without us! They`d be no better than those wild herds that the dark folk hunt for sport!"

"Arguments for another time," Aidan interrupted hastily, taking charge. "But you are right that we must try to hunt down the dark folk that did this, if they still in the area, and rescue any of their prisoners. And we must make that a priority, else we risk having fewer prisoners left to save, and more bodies to give a proper burial. First, tracking. Embla, physical tracks. Brokk, divinations, if you have the strength. Isolde, just be polite, and take me to whoever would be in charge now."

So with something akin to a plan, they divided and began the search. Surprisingly, the route taken by the raiders on their way out of the farmsteads was not only quickly found, but actually pointed out to them by the survivors. None had pursued in part because most of the first few brave souls that had tried were cut down by arrow and spell, and in part because any further sign had resulted in one of the prisoners being killed and dumped on the path as a very effective warning.

It was this last piece of information that caused Embla to snap again, screaming insults at the cowardice and weakness of these traumatised farmers before Brokk, not even waiting for Aidan`s command, took her voice away - and then had to immediately bind her to stillness as she turned on him in a silent fury. It took nearly an hour before her heavy, wrathful breathing returned to something approaching normality, and the wizard cautiously returned her voice to extract a promise of self-restraint.

After that, Aidan was convinced that she had indeed been infected with rabies by the dire wolf, and that the disease had absolutely not been cleansed from her. Under normal circumstances, he would simply have sent her back to Eagle Grove to receive the necessary healing spell. Unfortunately, he did not have that as a choice at the moment.

The reports from the survivors were unequivocal in the number and strength of the raiders, and Aidan knew that they would need Embla to defeat them and rescue the prisoners. The longer they delayed, the fewer would live to be returned to their families and what remained of their homes. The paladin consoled himself with the thought that in her current state, Embla would likely be even more dangerous to the enemy than usual. Of course, he also suspected that he would regret bringing her along for this mission.

As things turned out, he was absolutely right on both counts.




>>>>>

OK, slight delay owing to spotting a plot hole that I needed to rewrite, but that's done now, and the whole thing will be on its way very soon to you, Farland.

I think this is your best installment yet. So many layers to it! You really breath life into the world.

"Just out of interest, how badly does someone have to be tailing us that I can tell they are doing it?" Brokk queried, frowning back along the trail. "We only left the farms ten, fifteen minutes ago. That`s pretty poor by any standard, isn`t it?"

"They aren`t even trying to be hidden, Brokk," Isolde said sourly, deliberately not looking behind them. "Subtle is not something they can do even if they wanted to. When they pluck up their courage and actually catch up to us, you`ll have the dubious pleasure of finding that out for yourself. For now, we keep walking. I doubt we`ll have to wait long."

She was right. After a mere two minutes, the hoofbeats were audible, and five more after that, their owners trotted up alongside. Two of them, dock-tailed piebalds with the characteristic heavy fur and pale flesh of more northerly breeds, were twin stallions likely only in their first few years of maturity, bearing crude clubs that had clearly been carved straight from fallen tree trunks. The third was a bay mare with strange wine-dark skin and silver threads wound through her mane and tail, her slender build and soft features showing her to be even younger than her companions, and over her shoulder rested a barbed hunting spear that would be more akin to a halberd in the hands of a smaller creature.

"A fine g'morning to you, mates," the left-hand stallion announced cheerfully, his accent broad enough to be a canyon. "D'you mind if we tag along for a bit?"

The right-hand one, perhaps seeing Isolde`s expression, hastily added: "Only if you fancy having us along, a'course. We don`t want to be rude. Just thought if we`re all having a go at the same lot, why not do it together, whaddaya reckon?"

Aidan looked the centaurs up and down, uncertain of quite what he was seeing (or hearing). "You want to help us fight the dark folk? Can`t say we`d normally turn down the help-" Next to him, Isolde spat contemptuously. "-but you seem a little on the young side. It will be dangerous and bloody, and we don`t want to have to look out for you as well, ah..."

"Oh! Oh, now where are our manners?" the left-hand centaur exclaimed, clapping a hand to his forehead in shock. "Here we are, offering up to take up a shout or three, and we ain`t even given our names! We are so sorry, mate! Comes of us all knowing each other from when we were just hoof-scratchers and ankle-biters. Hard to say how often we actually need to know a new name, but - ow!"

"By Dekk, shut your gob, you great yabbering larrikin!" the right-hand centaur interjected, giving his brother another clip around the ear for good measure. "Intros before the goss, you know that! So, I`m Harrah, and that`s my brother Makkah. Pleasure to meet you, not so much him, right? Still love you bro. And this here lovely bessie is Zindri."

Makkah let loose a very equine snort of shock, his eyes going wide, and then Harrah realised what he had said as well, though too late to take it back. The spear slipped from the mare`s shoulder, twisting in her hand almost of its own accord. It brushed gently along Harrah`s belly, the vicious barbs just plucking at his hide without piercing it, and he immediately stopped talking. In fact, he stopped moving in mid-step, freezing in place as though paralysed by a spell, whilst the mare leaned in close.

"Call me a bessie again Harrah," she breathed, the implied threat obvious to all. "Or did I mishear you? I must have just misheard you. You and your brother have such charming drongo accents but they are so hard to...penetrate."

"I meant beaut, proper beaut, bestest beaut! Best beaut. On my honour, Zindri."

The mare left her spear dangling below his belly for a few seconds more, then withdrew it and gave him a punitive rap on the haunches with the shaft. As Harrah and Makkah breathed sighs of relief, hooves scuffing at the ground nervously, she glanced over at Aidan. The half-elf straightened up instinctively, catching in her eyes a maternal look of command he was familiar with from his childhood. At that moment, he wished he knew more about the social structure of centaurs, because so far as he was aware, they were not usually matriarchal.

"I am too old to obey every order Mother gives," Zindri said simply. "And since these two were not told to stop following me about, they cannot stay behind as do the others. Go ahead before us, or have us walk at your side, but we will fight our enemies with or without your permission. Less still your blessing, little bridler."

Isolde`s lips peeled back from her teeth, almost hissing at the centaur. Then she took a deep breath, turned her back on them, and strode off in a huff. Over her shoulder, she tossed a parting: "So are we hunting dark folk or each other?"

The centaurs, knowing they had won, smiled at each other and walked after her. Aidan, knowing that what little authority he ever had over a situation was absent from this one, shrugged at Brokk and took up his own place in the procession again. This had suddenly become much more complicated.

Much more complicated and more fun! Great centaur interaction. It really captures the horse aspect of them. I like how they discipline each other like humans discipline horses.

They had spent less than an hour following the trail when the raiders` camp was revealed to them, a chaotic and slovenly heap of hide tents and crude huts nestling in a small wood at the bottom of a hill. Thankfully, the group was neither upwind nor downwind of the camp, thus keeping both their scent from the flaring nostrils of the red-skinned irzuk tracker-orcs ostensibly on sentry duty, and the dreadful stench of butchered captives from them for a while yet. Nothing could be done to drown out the sounds that reached the vengeful group, however, and Isolde needed a good minute to settle her nerves before she could sneak closer to scout the place. When she returned, her face was ghost-pale, and tears had wound their way down her cheeks.

"The monsters have slaughtered all but a few of the men," she whispered, her breathing fitful. "The rest, the women...I can`t describe...the lucky bled out. Before the - oh, gods - the shamans got to them. I think if unbound, unguarded, most could even run."

Embla, until now remarkably calm and silent, suddenly moved, staring blankly at Isolde. Her voice was low and empty of emotion as she asked: "Run? They can even walk? Why?"

Isolde shuddered, trying to shake the image from her head. "I saw one girl. The shamans stopped the bleeding. Gave her back to be used again. No fun if...if there is no wriggling. No crying or sobbing or begging."

The others growled their loathing, except for Embla, who was now just beginning to frown. "Begging. These women are begging? They can speak. And stand and walk. What do th-"

"What does any of that matter?" Aidan interrupted savagely. "Those abominations must be wiped from this world. You three, however quickly and quietly you can get to a flanking position, do it and wait to strike when the attention is on us. Aim for their leadership wherever possible."

Harrah and Makkah looked to Zindri for confirmation, and when she nodded, the centaurs hurried away, moving respectably stealthily for creatures of their size. In a couple of minutes they were out of sight somewhere on the edges of the camp, and Aidan steeled himself for the patience needed to wait until they were sure to be in a good position. He knew every second spent here was another second of unimaginable torment for the captives, but he told himself over and over that to rush in might doom the rescue attempt entirely and condemn the victims to the nightmare for the remainder of their lives.

He was so focused on this mantra that he very nearly did not notice when Embla took several steps back along the trail, planted herself firmly alongside it, and turned her back on them all. Her sword remained sheathed, her arms folded across her chest, and there was a dreadful clarity in her eyes as she ignored Brokk when he demanded to know what she was doing. It seemed impossible, but the now-literally rabid berserker evidently had no intention of joining battle!

Puzzled by this behaviour, Brokk glanced over at Aidan for permission, and when the paladin nodded, gesturing furiously at their target as if to say 'Obviously, we need everyone for this!', Brokk readied himself to speak the words to a spell he had never thought he would need to cast on a friend. Timing would be key to induce the magical compulsion. Embla had to be very nearly upon the camp when Aidan and Isolde broke cover to launch the attack, otherwise the likelihood of her simply abandoning the fight - formerly a thing they had all deemed next to impossible - was just too high.

A short while later, Aidan, trusting his friend to know when the time was right, began to creep after Isolde, following her wordless directions to make it slightly easier for him. Brokk watched their progress, trying to calculate when they would be perfectly placed to launch a surprise attack, so that he could determine when to drive Embla in that direction.

At any other time, this might have been an interesting intellectual challenge. At this particular one, however, it was a horror all its own, and Brokk dreaded what might happen if he misjudged when to cast the spell, or worse - if Embla should simply resist it, as was always a risk when using this sort of magic on anything more intelligent than a fungus. In theory, when she felt the first touches of the spell caressing her mind, she could allow it further access without further struggle, but in her current mood, rejection was essentially guaranteed.

As the moment neared, the wizard found himself hoping that the disease had weakened her mental defences enough that the compulsion would be able to take hold no matter how strongly she fought against it. The moment came, the spellwords spoken, and Brokk held his breath in anticipation as Embla shifted her weight.

With a sharp jerk, she rose to her feet, almost as if she was a puppet whose strings were being played. With similarly sharp movements, she turned around, looked Brokk up and down, drew her sword...and then thundered towards the camp, hurtling down the hill at a speed that was as dangerous to her as to anything she might crash into at the bottom. Nonetheless, Brokk concentrated on maintaining the magic`s urging, forcing one of his dearest friends to charge right into the heart of that den of monsters, releasing his hold only when she passed the outermost tents and even to attempt retreat would require bloodshed.

*****

In any battle, the element of surprise is one of the most powerful tools available to a combatant. Certainly the opening seconds of this battle were the most surprising - and terrifying - any of these dark folk had ever experienced. All but a few were still in the throes of their unspeakable pleasures, or basking in the aftermath, with neither weapon nor armour to hand.

Embla, moving fast enough to be little more than a giant bronze blur to the startled irzuks, let her sword collide with the nearest sentry first. He was instantly impaled on the blade, fully lifted from the ground and carried away on its hilt, breath and life knocked out of him mere seconds apart. As Embla slowed, Brokk`s compulsion starting to lift from her, the sentries turned in shock to face this intruder, some of the more disciplined taking deep breaths to roar out the alarm.

Two of them died before the sound even escaped them, their skulls caved in, as the wrathful paladin burst from cover and brought down his warhammer with all the strength of righteous fury. A third collapsed, shrieking at the agony in his heels, before he too was silenced by Isolde`s flashing daggers.

With this first death dealt out, the halfling ducked out of sight and began the work she had been trained for. As more of the raiders emerged from their lairs, blinking and confused, many still struggling to get back into their clothes, never mind the protection of armour, she struck from above and below and behind, spilling their lifeblood before they had a chance to react.

As the clamour of battle rose up around her, Embla realised what had happened, and what had needed to happen in order to get her here at this moment. The rage grew in her more swiftly and powerfully than it ever had before. The dead orc still hanging from her sword was cast off without a second thought, and she replaced it immediately thereafter. What little part of her thinking self remained decided that this was as valid a tactic as any, and so continued it, at intervals hurling the bodies of the slain at their fellows.

The goblins, possessed of greater survival instincts than their larger cousins, were the first of the raiders to break rank and attempt to flee. Aidan, remembering how similar beasts had once nearly killed him, sprinted after them in eager pursuit. He had a weapon greater than a mere mace now, and put it to deadly use, pulverising one of the wretches with every strike. It would not have been enough on its own to prevent some from escape, but a strong dwarven voice rose above the tumult, uttering crackling words of power.

A wall of fire burst from the earth in front of the goblins, blocking their paths out of the camp, and forcing them to confront the paladin - though a few, more scared of the half-elf than of the flames, took their chances in a daring and futile leap through the inferno. These died before their charred remains even landed on the other side. In place of such a death, Aidan granted the remainder a more merciful passing.

What little semblance of order remained was lost as a pair of excited whoops rose up from the sides of the camp, and from the rear a hideous noise that seemed a cross between a donkey`s bray and a woman`s scream, as the centaurs arrived. Though crude, the clubs the stallions bore were very good at battering their enemies into the ground, where they were promptly trampled. Zindri`s barbed spear was no less brutal, leaving horrific rents in its victims, and the ghastly sound she made with every breath made more than one creature clap their hands to their ears.

Now even the orcs tried to break away from the melee. More fire sprang up to corral them as Brokk encircled the camp with incendiary barriers, or even as it spread naturally through the trees and crude structures. Isolde would emerge smoke-darkened and scowl-faced from some of the latter, bullying a shaking captive into running to a vaguely safer location before they too started to burn.

As could have been expected, the shamans of the raiders had retreated to the rear of the camp the moment they caught wind of the attack. Such was the privilege of leadership, as was the right to exact their own brand of punishment on the trespassers for daring to disturb them - once said trespassers had been suitably worn down, of course. As a result, they were taken completely by surprise when Zindri appeared among them.

Her spear and hooves flashed like lightning, puncturing throats and crumpling chests, stifling every attempt at a spell from the few with the presence of mind to try one. Most of the shamans merely panicked. The sight of their leaders in such a dire state did nothing to bolster the morale of those dark folk trying to marshal their courage. Desperate to escape the butchery, they began to fight each other to reach what they hoped was the best way out of this impromptu slaughterhouse.

When Brokk lowered the first wall of fire he had erected, many began to flee in that direction. Aidan and his warhammer put pay to them easily enough, and he moved in to help the centaurs hunt down the last of the shamans. With a clear way out of the burning camp, Brokk joined Isolde in herding the rescued villagers to safety.

Throughout all this, Embla was a whirlwind of destruction, her berserk rage exacerbated by the disease polluting her veins, and she lashed out at everything her gaze fell upon. By now, all the surviving raiders were hobgoblins, undoubtedly legion-bred by their discipline and coordination, and the majority of these had attempted to surround Embla and wear her down before moving in for the kill. Inexhaustible as Embla now was, the effort only resulted in their blades being dashed from their hands, and the cover they ducked behind shattering under her frenzied assault. There was nothing disciplined or coordinated in the way she dismembered them once exposed.

In the centre of the slaughter, Harrah and Makkah were taking it in turns to kick a stunned, bloated bazok back and forth between them, iron shoes splitting the skin and splintering bone easily. As its troll blood strained to heal the grievous injuries, the stallions finally combined their strength and knocked the brute into the spreading flames. For a few seconds, the monstrous hybrid shone like the beacon of a lighthouse, before it was consumed.

And with that, it was done.

So freakin' awesome. But now I am afraid what Embla will do.

Four figures emerged from the inferno, the centaurs streaking ahead of Aidan before the surrounding flames lost them their fight against the horse-half`s urge to flee, and regrouped near the top of the hill, where the remaining villagers were huddled together in mingled joy and disbelief at their miraculous salvation. Brokk immediately spotted the problem.

"She`s still down there!" he gasped, and one by one the others followed his gaze downwards to the blazing wood.

The distance was not so great that the bellows from Embla could not reach them, or to miss flashes from her sword as she continued to hack and slash, mindlessly and without regard for her own safety, at every tree and hut and flaming corpse within reach. The burst of clarity that had briefly possessed her was obviously gone, and nothing now remained but the rage, continually fuelled by the burns she was suffering every moment she remained.

Harrah muttered in awe: "Gone off like a frog in a sock! We can`t just bail, fire be damned. She`ll be carked else! Zindri, d'you wan'us to grab a goose, me and Makkah together, whaddaya reckon?"

"Dekk blind me, don`t you be vol'ting me into this!" his brother protested angrily. "It`s my shout anyway, I saw you rushing in first, and out first too, you overgrown pansy. On your hoof mate, it`s me who`s going first."

The stallions struck each other across the head and shoulders, open-palmed and just lightly enough to sting, as they hurried back down the slope, still bickering and with Makkah taking the lead. Brokk had seen similar behaviour among miners when they were about to mount a rescue following a cave-in, and knew it for the deliberately false bravado that would hopefully keep their minds off the danger they were heading into. When Aidan made a move to follow, Brokk held up a hand to stop him.

"They can move faster without you," he explained. "If they can resist the panic, it will take both of them to bring Embla out of there anyway. Don`t make it harder by having them worry about you, when they`ll barely be holding themselves together as it is."

Aidan ground his teeth, knowing that this was the truth but not feeling any better for it. Turning his back to the flames below was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He reminded himself that there were victims of brutality here that he could help right now. Though most of the villagers could currently walk unaided, they had suffered so much both physically and mentally that they were likely to collapse at any moment. It would only get worse, especially once the shock really hit them and they had the time to pause, breathe, and think back on the trauma they had experienced. Best if they did not get a chance to do so until they were all back in their homes.

He opened his mouth to issue the order, but Zindri got there ahead of him, taking charge with the effortless ease of one who was born to command. Her greater stature drew the eye better than the half-elf`s anyway, and the obvious familiarity the villagers had of her made them latch onto to her words like a drowning man onto rope.







 

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