By Brian Flood
Chapter 41 - Flames in the Forest
Within the Hullack Forest
East of Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Late-Morning, 20th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
It takes about two candlemarks, but eventually, the party has gathered enough wood for two pyres. Velgardrin is drenched in sweat from hacking the scavenged deadfall branches into usable sizes. The sounds of his axe smashing into the wood seem to echo through the forest.
A candlemark later, the dwarven priest has directed the building of two pyres in the center of the small clearing that the party used to call a campsite. The piles of dry wood now force the battered companions and their gear to the forested perimeter of the old campsite.
Velgardrin pauses for a moment to wipe the sweat from this brow and catch his breath.
He looks at Alain and says “We be doern right but these pyres be a beacon should those evil ones be out seekern us.”
Nodding to his dwarven friend, Alain glances warily out over his shoulder. "I should hope the ceremony will not take long. I would like to be well away from here by sunset."
Nathan scans the area for a vantage point from which to keep watch for any would be intruders while staying within sight of party. Finding a spot, he begins to move toward it.
"I will keep watch over here if that is acceptable," the mage announces. "I wouldn't want to get surprised by anything else today," he adds with obvious sadness in his voice and then swallows hard.
The others in the party continue their grim work. At the center of what was once the party's campsite, Velgardrin holds his holy symbol and begins chanting quietly in what sounds like Dwarven.
As the sad tones of Velgardrin's dwarven chant to Clangeddin Silverbeard fill the clearing, Alain leans down and slowly removes the readily visible pouches and purses from Tiron's body. Leaving the half-elf's trademark carved wooden ring on the ranger's hand, Alain softly gathers the lifeless body into his strong arms.
Easily lifting his friend the warrior notes, "He always seemed bigger," with a sad voice.
Alain gently sets the half-elf onto the prepared pyre and begins arranging Tiron into a state of repose. Noticing something missing, the big warrior hurries off to the pile of extra gear and retrieves Tiron's beloved bow. Alain moves the elf's arms to cradle the bow and steps back, looking to make sure his passed friend is set to make his long journey.
Velgardrin continues to chant to Dumathoin to honor the fallen Silver Claws and send them on their way to their gods. He is waiting for Salik's broken body to be added to the ceremonial pyre before lighting it.
Malk opens his eyes at the quiet that seems to have descended on the campsite, broken only by the lonely chant of the dwarven priest. He struggles to his feet, using the elm for support and stands respectful of the chant and his fallen comrade’s body.
Not strong enough to carry Salik, the bard again draws out his harmonica and plays a quiet accompaniment to follow Velgardrin’s hymn.
After arranging Tiron's body, Alain turns and retrieves Salik. Bending down the big warrior scoops up his body and deposits him on the second pyre.
Malk continues his slow sad tune on the harmonica. The sad notes floating across the clearing, to mingle with the crackle of the funeral pyre. His thoughts turn also to Baulin Redbeard who had fallen before.
‘Too many dying – we have to learn to stay alive.' The insistent thought seems unwilling to leave the bard's head.
As Alain starts to put Salik’s body on the second pyre Velgardrin stops chanting for a moment and says “Place erm next ter Tirondalin and then the second pyre be fer those we defeated.”
Then he continues, “Amiel, der you feel up ter lighting the pyre with a stick from ther fire?”
Declan looks over at Amiel and sees she is speechless in her grieving.
"Ah think I kin be handlin' that most easily," fiery mage announces.
The young man walks solemnly to the pyre containing his friends. With little ceremony, he brings splayed hands together in front of his body, touching his thumbs together while spreading his fingers toward the pyre. A few mystical syllables later, a fan of flame gouts from his outstretched digits and ignites tinder and kindling.
Wood crackles and pops and fire begins to hungrily consume the combustible pyre.
* * * * *
A daughter of the woods, Kerielle is all too aware how swift and deadly a forest fire can be. However, she refuses to abandon the poor human, who she feels a certain kinship with -- alone, against many foes as he is.
Thinking the fire may indicate battle or a raid -- likely her quarry -- she advances northwest more cautiously now, being careful to keep to the shadows and undergrowth, and ready to flee instantly if it is indeed a full-fledged forest fire.
A few score paces after she has left Mendel's faint trail to follow the smell of smoke, the elven archer detects a new sensation that is foreign to the forest. This time, it is music. The faint notes of a mournful tune, played on a wood flute or some other wind instrument drift through the midday air. The sound seems to be coming from the same direction as the smoke.
With a rising sense of the hunter nearing her prey, the elf quickens her steps, eager to see the mysterious player. She maintains her cautious and stealthy approach, however.
As she creeps nearer to the sound, which she now estimates to be about one hundred or so paces to her front, she continues to analyze it. From her own knowledge of the elven flute, she decides that it is probably not a similar instrument. Perhaps a mouth organ? she thinks to herself.
Kerielle slows and concentrates on stealth, creeping as silently and unnoticeably as possible toward her target. She knows little of other races, but she thinks it unlikely that they would simply sit about playing the flute if there were danger nearby, such as forest fire or brigands.
Hence, she concludes that the flutist is friendly with the controlling force in the area -- presumably the brigands -- and not afraid of the fire. And she postulates that the smoke is from a bonfire, or buildings fired by the flutist or his allies. Kerielle concludes the mystery musician is unlikely to be friendly, and she approaches with utmost caution, an arrow nocked and drawn.
As she creeps even closer to the source of the music and smoke another smell assails the archer's nostrils. This time, it is an odor that Kerielle knows all too well, a memory that haunts her dreams at night and drives her ever onward toward her goal of vengeance.
Burning flesh. Somewhere ahead, flames are consuming the mortal remains of someone… or something.
* * * * *
Malk tries to summon some moisture to his dried lips. He continues playing his tune to accompany his short companion as he leans back against the elm to help him to remain standing.
Almost hoarse from chanting, Velgardrin's gravelly accent is even more pronounced as he stops chanting to speak.
"Wer need ter ber retrievern ther othern bodies and commitern therm to Dumathoin as a symbol of victory and ter proterct urs from therm beirn livern dead. Burnern seem to be ther best way ter keep therm dead. I be hatern livern dead and be wantern these all ter ber deadern dead and be stayern ded. Now I be ready ter go get anothern for ther othern pyre."
Leaning down, Alain speaks in hushed tones, "Do we dare go gather up those two? With Amiel and Malk hurt, would it not be better to go into town heal up and come back and cremate them?"
With a deep sigh, Velgardrin replies in a voice much quieter than normal but still able to be heard clearly. "I be agreern except that we dern't want ter be meetern those two as livern dead. And how long it takes ter make therm that way I dern't know.
"Killing therm once be all we need. With Dumathoin's forgiveness I can be chantern therm quickly. Slittern throats be havern no honor and thery dern't dererve it but we, all Silver Claws, do," the dwarven priest waves his hand to encompass the entire group of companions.
Alain nods his agreement to his dwarven friend's words and continues, "Of course I'll have to bow to your judgment. This is obviously a spiritual matter, and clearly you are best suited to make such choices."
Pausing for a second, Alain continues in a whisper loud enough for all to hear. "Besides, if I should find myself in a similar state," the Cormeryan motions to the funeral pyre, "I'll expect you to intercede with the father o' battles for me."
A faint smile playing at the corners of his lips, Alain gives Velgardrin a solemn wink.
Velgardrin's mouth gapes and his eyes open wide but no trace of a smile crosses the dwarf''s face as he slowly draws his axe and holds it flat against his chest with his right hand. His left hand grasps his holy symbol and presses it against his axehead.
In a solemn voice the priest intones in unaccented Common, "By the power of these three axes and the whiskers of Clangeddin Silverbeard I swear this oath: Should you be fallen as were Salik and Tiron, I shall carry out your wish as well as I am able. This blood is my bond."
Velgardrin lets his holy symbol hang loose and uses his axe to open a small cut on the little finger of his left hand. A drop of blood slowly wells up and he rubs it into the blade of his axe. A second drop comes even more slowly. He sheathes his axe and moves to face Alain.
Taking Alain's right hand in his, the stout priest rubs the second drop of blood into Alain's palm. "By my blood, the oath is sealed."
Gripping his dwarven friend's hand, Alain feels strength and determination flowing up from his grasp. Nodding in silent agreement at Velgardrin's oath, Alain's gaze sweeps around to each member of the party, finally coming to rest on the grieving leader of their party Amiel, and seeing no immediate response coming from her.
"Alright everyone," the warrior announces, "let's make the best speed we can back to the battle sight, we have a task to complete before we can rest." Using his body and height, the big warrior starts herding everyone in the right direction.
Malk stops playing his mouth organ and turns to Alain, having slumped back down the tree trunk. “Er, I think I’d better stay here for a while with Amiel. I don’t see either of us travelling much in the near future without help. You go and do what you must; Milil willing, we will still be here when you get back. We wouldn’t be much use at the battle site anyway.”
"An' wot o' me an' Nathan, then?" asks Declan. "Will ye be wantin' us, too?"
Velgardrin pre-empts Alain's response. "Perhaps it be better fer quicker if I be guardern here and you three long-leggerd walkers be gettern the other corpses," the dwarf says with a twist of a grin on his lips.
Nodding, Alain motions to Declan and Nathan, "You two with me."
Turning back to Velgardrin, the warrior says, "Keep everyone's head down. If you see anyone or anything, try and hide. We are in no condition for any more conflicts right now."
Velgardrin nods an affirmation and responds in his normal heavily accented voice, "May the alagh of Clangeddin be upon us. And may I niver be needern to ferfill me oath ter you, Alain."
The two mages fall in behind Alain as the warrior turns to leave the camp. Nathan grimaces as he does so.
"Even as much as I dislike carrying corpses," the young magic-user announces, "I would rather do that than fight them for a second time. Let's get this over with expediency if at all possible, please."
* * * * *
A wave of memory threatens to engulf Kerielle as the pungent scent reaches her nostrils. She brutally fights down the urge to charge screaming at the desecrators of life, and instead forces herself to cold, driven, ruthless focus. All senses heightened, she moves forward, eager now to lay eyes upon her prey.
The elf's ears briefly detect a low, steady voice from the direction of the music and smoke and then that sound fades away. As she creeps closer still, the music stops as well. A few seconds later, Kerielle can just barely make out the flicker of flames from about two score paces up ahead. The light wind that blows the smell of burning wood and flesh toward her also carries snatches of conversation among several voices.
"… wantin' us… other corpses… try and hide… in no condition… may the alagh… upon us… let's get this over…"
Determined now, though not unaware that she is being foolhardy, Kerielle inches closer still, attempting to get a glimpse of the speakers without being seen.
A few minutes later, Kerielle moves to a nearby tree to add to her concealment as a small roughly circular clearing, roughly ten to fifteen paces in width, takes shape about ten paces ahead. The elf has approached the southeastern side of the open space.
From her position, she can see two large piles of wood have been apparently deliberately constructed in the center of the clearing, arranged north-south of one another. The northern-most woodpile is in flames and is the source of the woodsmoke and burning flesh smell. Its southern twin is, as of yet, unlit.
The archer can see two figures at the western edges of the clearing, both facing inward. At the southwestern edge of the clearing, almost due west of Kerielle's observation point, a young adult human male sits with his back to a tree. His skin looks pale, although its texture shows he has had much exposure to the outdoors. He wears a suit of leather armor studded with brass and his hands are in his lap. From where she stands, Kerielle cannot see if he is armed.
At the western edge of the clearing, a head is just barely visible over the top of the unlit woodpile. Dark-red hair and a beard frame the helmeted face, which looks down at something unseen. Neither of the two strangers appears to have noticed the elf.
Every sense tingling with the anticipation of possible battle, Kerielle draws a bead on the barely visible bearded face, reasoning that he has more cover available and that the sitting man will not be able to reach her as quickly, since he will have to rise first. Also, though she is unsure which is friend and which foe -- and both might be either -- the paleness of the sitting man -- perhaps from beating, sickness or starvation, she reasons -- leads her to believe he is more likely to be the victim, if indeed either of them is a victim.
Gathering herself for a fight, the archer steps from the trees and into the clearing.
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