By Brian Flood
Chapter 35 - Another Night in the Forest
Within the Hullack Forest
East of Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Early Evening, 19th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
Paced by Velgardrin’s short, encumbered stride, and hampered by the irritating brambles, it takes the main body over half an hour to cover the distance across the field and reach the edge of the forest. Glancing at the lengthening shadows that forecast the coming of nightfall, the group pushes on into the dark woods.
Alain and the others meet Tiron and Salik coming from the other direction just as they step into the woods. The half-elf informs the group that he and the rogue have found a suitable clearing about three hundred yards further into the forest, just off the north side of the faint tracks that led to the cliff. He also explains that he thought it best to return to find the group since no one in the main body would have had the necessary skills to follow the faint tracks that brought the group here.
The ranger and the rogue lead the party into the forest. Two candlemarks later, the party finally reaches a small clearing just as Tiron described. However, their trek has taken precious amounts of time. Already, the grayish haze of dusk permeates the forbidding forest that has – on three previous occasions – produced nocturnal predators that threatened the party.
Velgardrin slips off Alain’s pack and then his own. Then he moves to check on Amiel and get her settled for the night.
After thinking for a moment Velgardrin adds, “Alain, I thernk that I should not be on ther same watch as Tiron because we two have the best night vision. Considering our past experiences, we need any advantage.”
Malk gratefully drops his pack next to a comfortable looking patch of turf. He unstraps Amiel’s sword and takes it over to place beside her. He then returns to his pack and squats down. Looking over at Alain, he asks, “Shall I gather fire wood or are we having cold rations?”
Nathan moves to an open spot seemingly chosen at random. Removing his pack, he spreads out his cloak before unceremoniously slumping down onto it. To those who observe him, he seems to be deep in thought.
Not always aware of people's moods, Tirondalin notes Nathan’s consternation with ease. “What is on your mind, magician?” he asks in a casual voice.
Nathan shakes his head as if to clear his mind before looking up Tiron. After a pause, the mage softly replies, “All of us, and Amiel especially, could have easily been killed back there. Without some assurance that we will work as a group when next we meet a foe, I will not be travelling further with the Claws.”
Standing up from making sure Amiel is settled comfortably, Alain looks at Velgardrin. “Yes, I agree. You and Tiron will be on separate guard shifts. Also, I would like to split Nathan and Declan, so that we have a mage on as many shifts as possible. So, Declan and myself will stand the first watch. Tiron and Nathan have the second watch, and Velgardrin, Malk, and Salik will take the last.”
“If no one has any objections, I would prefer to have a fire. Not all of us can see in the dark, and I am sure a warm meal would sit well in everyone’s belly,” the warrior adds.
Finishing his instructions, Alain turns to Nathan. “I agree wholeheartedly. But what exactly did you see that could be done differently? We have all expressed some concerns about this, and it should be talked about in the open.” For the first time in a while, a slight smile returns to the warrior’s face.
“Nathan,” adds Velgardrin, “we herv discussed standard combat procedures. Ert seems that they were not followed.” A concerned frown crosses the dwarf’s face as he speaks. “And the questions I asked and ideas I perposed befer are part erv having good strategy. Yer be welcome ter add opinions and ideas. And may the Father o’ Battles, Clangeddin Silverbeard hisself, guide us in these difficult situations.”
“Much as I would love to stay for this discussion,” interjects Malk, “I am tired and hungry. Can we postpone this until we get the camp sorted? Nightfall is not far off. We need firewood and I would feel safer with company in these parts while I collect some.”
To emphasize his words, the bard stands and heads towards the nearest scrub to search for firewood. Velgardrin stands and follows to assist him. Tirondalin watches as the party disperses, twisting the oaken ring around his finger, before moving off to assist Malk and dwarf.
“Yes, let’s get camp set up,” agrees Alain. “Declan, let’s move away from camp and start guarding.” Motioning to the mage, Alain starts looking for a good vantage point.
* * * * *
Heading to the southeastern edge of the clearing, Alain looks for a vantage point that will allow him to see the camp and the trail leading to the stone door, while still leaving him in position to intercept anything that might still come from the graveyard. He soon selects a spot and settles in with Declan to await the imminent arrival of the night.
“’Long as we’re sittin’ ‘ere,” Declan begins, “do ya mind if cast me spell on those items that Amiel wanted checked out?”
“Sounds good to me,” Alain replies. “There won’t be a big flash or anything, will there?”
Declan shrugs. “There might be a bit o’ glowin’ if any o’ it is really enchanted.”
“Go ahead, I’ll keep an eye out for trouble.” So saying, the warrior turns to the descending darkness and begins his vigil.
Declan sets about his task. He reaches into a belt pouch and removes the vial of amber fluid that the party earlier discovered on the corpse of the bird-woman. He clicks his tongue and remarks, “Salik’s still got the earring. I’ll ‘ave to git that later.”
The mage mumbles a brief incantation, the words to which seem to slip through Alain’s ears before he can comprehend or repeat them. A second or two later, the fluid within the vial begins to emit a soft reddish hue.
“I’ll be chuffed,” remarks Declan, “this lot’s got a bit o’ magic in it!”
Alain smiles over his shoulder. “Well done Declan,” he whispers. Returning his attention to the settling darkness, the warrior resumes his duties as sentry.
* * * * *
Only the last fringes of daylight remain when the firewood gatherers – Malk, Tiron, and Velgardrin – return to the campsite. The three adventures drop their last loads of wood on the pile they have created. They find that Nathan and Salik have already ignited the evening’s fire and are slowly stoking it. Amiel still lies unmoving where she was placed.
Velgardrin turns to the rest in camp and says, “With ther darkness coming I did not get any stretcher fer Amiel. We need ter make her as comfortable as possible.”
“I’ll see if there are any useful herbs or soft bracken to help make her comfortable,” announces Malk. “I’ll look close to camp before we lose the light completely.” With that, the bard quickly scouts the ground around the edge of the campsite.
Meanwhile, Velgardrin is silent for a bit and then speaks up some more. “If we be plannern ter enter that door our tactics so fer be stinkern’ worse than an orc.”
“I’m no warrior,” Nathan states plainly, “but it is clear to me that it would have been best to draw the foe out into the open, attacking them as they emerged. With one of our number standing in the doorway and blocking the rest from action, we are not exactly supporting each other to the best of our abilities.”
“I’ve never faced creatures such as these except for in stories of my grandfathers,” Tiron tells the others, “there are at least twenty of them.” He shakes his head. “Perhaps we should try further up the road, closer to where the caves are supposed to be according to our map?”
“Ther cave may be a better choice but we dasen’t know,” Velgardrin replies. “A score er them skeletons be a lot ter deal with when they hits like on Amiel. I be concerned erbout burnin’ them. What else be there that would burn.”
“I would be in favor of exploring the area for another entrance, which I did suggest some time ago,” Nathan says with a grin to Tiron. All traces of his earlier pensiveness are no longer visible.
Turning to Vel, the mage continues, “I’m not so sure about burning skeletons. Without flesh, will fire even hurt them?”
Malk steps back into the clearing, having had an unsuccessful search for herbs. The young bard goes over to check on Amiel and then rejoins the conversation.
“We need to remember why we are here,” he asserts. “We’re looking for a group who attacks caravans. It is not likely to be these skeletons, is it? If I am wrong and it is these bags of bones, then Nathan has the best of it. Let them come out to attack and we can ambush them and all be involved in the fight. Vel is also right that it should be in a planned way.” He pauses to draw breath. “To my mind, the best plan for the safety of the travelers would be to trail the caravan or lead it out of sight and see who attacks and then use the element of surprise.”
Tirondalin nods in agreement. “Well, I believe following the caravan would be a more direct attack on our quest, but do we know where and when this caravan is scheduled to travel and where we may intercept it in order to follow along?”
“Yes we do,” replies Malk. “In the market place, the traders said that they would be leaving today or tomorrow, and going towards Thunder gap. That’s along this trail. All we have to do is scout a good site to watch and wait. We can watch for skeletons or any other bands until the caravan appears.”
“Be this Baulin’s caravan?” asks Velgardrin.
“Yes it is,” Malk answers. “And I for one am anxious to protect it and see it safely through this area.”
“Personally, I see guarding the caravan as a more productive decision in terms of our goal,” asserts Tiron. “And it is certainly a less frightening assignment than those horrid living skeletons!” he adds, absent-mindedly playing with a stick poking from the fire.
“In Sembia,” Malk replies, “once we have elected our leader, we generally do things with their consent. I know things are different here in Cormyr. I suggest that we sleep on it; and if no one feels any differently in the morning, we put it to Alain over breakfast. We also have to consider Amiel’s condition.”
“Sembia sounds like a civilized place – I should like to see it someday,” states Tiron in a neutral tone, looking deep into the oracle that is the open fire. “But for now, that is sound advice. And my bones cry for sleep.”
“Aye, my body begs for rest as well,” Nathan says sleepily. “I’m going to get what sleep I can before my watch begins.” Turning over on his cloak to face the darkness, the mage awaits slumber’s call.
Velgardrin checks Amiel one more time. Then he slips his armor off and unrolls his bedroll. He crawls into his cloak and falls asleep.
As his companions drift off, Malk pulls out his harmonica and plays a gentle soothing piece. When he is finished, he too wraps himself in his cloak and settles to sleep until his watch.
The content of Company of the Silver Claws is the property and copyright of Brian Flood, and are not to be published or redistributed without permission.
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