By Brian Flood
Chapter 40 - The Archer and the Merchant
Along the Trade Road
East of Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Mid-Morning, 20th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
It has been a few tendays since the elven warrior-maiden left the ruins of her home to search out those responsible for the slaughter of her people. Rumors and legends she gained on her travels hinted at troubles brewing on the far eastern border of the Kingdom of Cormyr -- perhaps near the area where the Hullack Forest meets the Thunder Gap.
Kerielle has made her way westward from the Moonsea region, lending her hunting and survival skills to various caravans to recoup her rations and arrows. Finally, she crossed through the Thunder Gap and headed down the East Way traderoad into Cormyr.
About thirty miles west of the Thunder Gap, Kerielle came across a merchant caravan headed eastward. The caravan had the usual odd mixture of merchants and farmers as well as a grievously wounded dwarven warrior that was accompanying the caravan to this homeland in the Thunder Peaks. From the dwarf, Kerielle learned that the local lord of Kendall Keep had hired a band of adventurers, the Silver Claws, to investigate mysterious attacks that had been committed along the traderoad by an elusive band of brigands or raiders. The stout adventurer also mentioned that a merchant from the caravan had stopped about two miles back in order to see to a sick travelling companion. The merchant and his companions had yet to catch up to the main caravan. The elven archer thanked the dwarf for the information and continued westward down the East Way.
A mile or so later, Kerielle passed through a north-south portion of the road that is closely bordered on both sides by the Hullack Forest. A stream ran parallel to the road, it waters flowing northward since the terrain slopes slightly upward as the elf travels south.
Kerielle mentally noted the area with the stream as a likely spot for an ambush - perhaps useful to her, and certainly a place to be wary of, should she travel that way again. The elven archer warily eyed the encroaching woods but passed through the potentially dangerous area without incident.
* * * * *
Just after breaking out into a more open section of the road, the archer spies a wagon pulled off the western side of the road. Four large draft horses are hitched to the wheeled conveyance and a brunette human woman clad in seductively tight travelling leathers sits on the front bench seat. A man clad in chainmail and carrying sword and shield paces impatiently back and forth along the side of the wagon. His attention appears to be focused to the northwest, where a gradually sloped hill rises to meet the edge of the Hullack Forest.
Not being one to take others - especially humans - on trust, nor one to assume, Kerielle decides to find out who the two apparent travelers are waiting for before making contact. The elven archer creeps off of the road as stealthily as she is able and slips into the shadows of the forest to the north and west, hoping to avoid being noticed by the strangers.
Hanging back in the trees, keeping the wagon just barely in sight in the distance, Kerielle cautiously moves south. She angles southwest to reach the southern edge of the forest, at the top of the hill - slightly more than a bow shot due west of the wagon. Reaching the edge of the forest, she lurks in its concealment, now commanding a good view of the road to the south.
Because she approached from the depths of the forest, low to the ground, using brush as concealment, and moving from shadow to shadow, Kerielle has apparently gone unnoticed by the two people at the side of the road. From her position, the elf's keen eyes study the two more closely.
The man is clad in chain mail armor complete with an open-faced helm but without a tabard or other markings. In this right hand, he holds a bared broad sword. His left hand holds a small metal shield. Some small items -- possibly dagger scabbards or purses hang from the man's belt.
The woman is dressed rather seductively for travel -- it is obvious that she does not call the road or the wilds her home. Her closely tailored black leather leggings and top are almost the same hue as her dark brunette hair. Something hangs from a belt around her waist -- it is unidentifiable from the current distance.
Kerielle also notices that the ground just past the edge of the forest is disturbed. From the looks of it, between ten to twelve fresh mounds of dirt mar the otherwise smooth grassy surface of the crest of the hill.
The elven archeress stays concealed, content to study the humans. She watches their actions in detail, attempting to discern their reason for being here, and if they are indeed waiting for someone.
Both of the strangers appear to be anxious. The man still paces back and forth in a small area next to the wagon. His attention is focused primarily on the forest in about the same area where Kerielle now lies. He only occasionally glances back and forth along the road, paying only minimal attention to any direction other than the forest.
The woman is apparently even more concerned with the forest. Her gaze never strays from scanning the wood line. She occasionally tugs on her leathers, most likely out of nervousness.
Deciding that these strangers are no brigands, Kerielle decides to approach. She is confident of her ability to take them on if need be, due to their apparent lack of missile weapons and laughable lack of awareness. She is also sure that, if she willed it, she could easily circle round these dull, unaware humans through the eastern forest, and take them from behind before they even knew she was there.
The elf calls out a cautious "Ho, travellers!"
She then stands up, and steps lightly from the concealment of the forest. She makes no sudden move, and is careful to appear unthreatening. But, as ever, she has her bow in hand and an arrow on the string, although not drawn.
Kerielle approaches slowly and comes to a stop about two score or so paces away when the man demands that she do so.
"I mean you no harm," the elf says in her broken Common, carefully choosing the words of the unfamiliar tongue. "I seek only information. Evil men are near - do you know of them?"
"We have heard that," the armored human replies. "What business have you with the bandits?"
"No business," Kerielle replies in her broken Common. "I seek another evil - the bandits may know. I hear also of the Silver Claws - think you that they may help?"
The man shakes his head. "No, I've heard of no other problems, here. And I've never head of these Silver Claws. There were some adventurers in the One-Eyed Cat, but I'm not sure if they're who your lookin' for."
As he speaks, the man repeatedly looks past Kerielle toward the northern woods. He seems distracted and anxious.
"What is the One-Eyed Cat? And who do you watch for?"
"The 'Cat is the tavern at the Keep," the man replies curtly. "We're waiting for our master. One of his ladies was not feeling well. He took her into the woods so she could… relieve herself. They've been gone for over an hour."
"Who is your master?"
"He is Master Trader Mendel of Sembia. We are in his employ. This our normal trade route; from Sembia, through the 'Gap, to the Keep, and beyond to eastern Cormyr. We were part of a caravan; we'll have to push it to catch up, now."
"Yes; I met your caravan, I think. Who are you? Does she not talk?"
"I am Devdas, her name is Chantel. As I said, we're a bit preoccupied for casual conversation ri --- Mendel!"
The man's eyes go wide as he looks over Kerielle's shoulder. The elf glances back toward the forest to see a rather overweight human come stumbling out of the woodline. He limps slightly as he makes his way down the hill.
"Devdas, Chantel!" the man cries.
Kerielle takes a step backward as Devdas brushes by her and starts to jog up the hill to meet his employer.
The elf hurries after Devdas. She is curious to know what has happened, where Mendel's "lady" is, and also why he is limping. The archer does not yet lower her guard toward the humans though, aware that there are now three to one, and that the woman is behind her.
When they intercept Mendel, Kerielle allows Devdas to speak first. The elf notes that the plump merchant's robes are torn in several places. Leaves, dirt, and other forest debris decorate the ruined clothes.
"Master, what is it?" asks Devdas. "Where are Ohtar and Sascia?"
Gasping for air, Mendel throws an arm over Devdas' shoulder. The man-at-arms half-carries, half-drags the terrified merchant down the hill, toward the wagon.
"Brigands!" Mendel utters between gulps of air. "Murderers… came… from nowhere. They… they killed Sascia… Ohtar… stayed behind… fighting them off…We… we must leave here… they'll be coming…"
"Mendel!" Chantel cries when the two men and the elf return to the wagon. The woman leaps from the conveyance and throws her arms around the bedraggled and chunky man.
Devdas helps Mendel into the back of the wagon. Chantel leaps in afterward and cradles the terrified man's head in her lap.
Devdas then moves toward the front of the wagon. He places a foot on the step leading up to the front bench seat and pauses, turning to Kerielle.
"We are leaving. We must catch the caravan. The three of us stand no chance against a company of bandits. And they will surely be coming to find where Mendel came from. You may do as you wish. I suggest you make haste to the Keep."
With that, the man heaves himself up into the bench seat. He takes up the reigns of the four sturdy horses in his hands and glances down toward Kerielle, to see if she has anything else to say or ask.
"Have no fear of bandits," Kerielle states. "I would come with you, help fight them off. I have some skill with a bow. However, you say this man - Ohtar? - was left behind? We must rescue him. We cannot leave one against much evil!
"You will come?" she asks Devdas. "Save your man? He is your friend, yes?"
"He's a colleague," answers the man. "He's also a sellsword, as am I. And my job is to keep my employer safe from harm. Chasing off into a large forest after an unknownst number of brigands is not. If you wish to fight them, may Tymora go with you."
Devdas snaps the reigns and utters a single-syllable command to the brace of horses. With a jolt, the wagon starts moving eastward along the trade road.
<And Rillifane watch over you - and teach you courage,> Kerielle says quietly in her native tongue to their departing backs.
Swiftly, the elven archer runs toward the forest, hoping to save Ohtar. While she cares not at all for the fate of some human, the thought of one alone against many evil men brings home unpleasant memories, and she feels that she has no other course than to attempt to save him.
All senses alert for the sound of battle, or any sign of her enemies, she moves as swiftly and as silently as she knows how, hoping to catch them unawares. While confident to a fault, she has few illusions about her chances should there indeed be an entire company arrayed against her.
Kerielle runs roughly north-northwest from where the cart was parked and arrives at the woodline. She takes a knee and her eyes narrow as she searches the ground where, as best she can tell, Mendel emerged from the forest.
After a few minutes, the elf discovers a thread hanging from the underbrush. She conducts a more thorough search of that spot and soon discerns the faint traces of footprints coming from nearly due north, paralleling the contour of the forest.
As swiftly as she is able, Kerielle begins to follow the faint signs of the merchant's passage. She remains in a low crouch, aware of her surroundings and prepared to conceal herself should the need arise. Her left hand holds her bow at a low ready position while her right hand lightly rests an arrow against the weapon's string.
A few score paces into the forest, the archer's senses suddenly blare a silent warning. She stops and slowly sinks to a knee as she absorbs the new information.
It takes only a few heartbeats for her to understand why her instincts have gone instantly alert.
Fire. Kerielle sniffs lightly at the forest air, analyzing the faint odor of wood smoke. The wood elf's face turns slowly to the northwest as her nose zeroes in on the source of the inherently intrusive and dangerous emissions.
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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