By Brian Flood
Chapter 46 - The Elf and the East Way
Along the East Way
Within the Eastern Reaches of the Kingdom of Cormyr
Late-Afternoon, 20th Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
The setting sun is coming close to touching the tops of the western forest as the caravan guard pauses to take a sip from his waterskin, revealing a distinctive tattoo on his inner wrist as he does so. The sellsword is tall and slight of build. His bluish tinted dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail, openly displaying the sharply pointed ears common to those of the elven race. His attire is rather simple -- even for a typically penniless soldier of fortune. A coarse cotton shirt covers a simple leather cuirass and similarly constructed pants end in tattered cuffs just above a pair of leather sandals that protect his feet. Long and short swords hang from the simple piece of cloth that acts as his belt. A large sack containing the moon elf's meager belongings hangs from this back.
It has been a long journey for Serethaniel and the caravan with which he travels. He found work with his current employer, a wineseller from Archendale, back in Highmoon -- some fifty or so leagues east from where he is now. Where he finds himself now is in the eastern reaches of the kingdom of Cormyr. According to the merchant paying for the elf's sword hand on this trip, a small settlement known as Kendall Keep lies just a few miles ahead. By his calculations, Serethaniel -- or Seth he is more commonly called by those not familiar with his native tongue -- estimates that the small caravan should reach the fortress just before sunset. The thought of a warm, secure bed and a good meal fills the ex-gladiator's thoughts and he is forced to slow his pace to allow for the merchants' draft horses.
The elf hypothesizes that the caravan with which his own group crossed paths earlier in the day must have originated from that border hold. The two groups of caravan protectors merely nodded in guarded recognition of each other as they passed but did not exchange words, so he cannot be exactly sure. Besides, the footholds of the Thunder Peaks, where the caravans met, are not a safe place for casual conversation. The other group had been headed east -- toward Highmoon in Deepingdale or some other destination. Seth mentally wishes them well, and hopes they, like his own group, manage to avoid trouble along the wilderness stretches of the trade route.
At the thought of his caravan, Seth glances back along the thirty or so paces separating him from the others. He sees that both wagons -- his own employer's conveyance at the fore with the other close behind -- are moving without problem along the hard-packed dirt road. The four other guards -- one under the same employ as he and three others that serve the other merchant -- are spaced in front, between, and behind the two burdened wagons.
The stretch of road upon which they now travel, the East Way, runs south but appears to turn eastward five hundred paces in the distance. Vestiges of the Hullack Forest encroach upon either side of the road. At this particular point of the trail, the trees creep to within four score or so paces to both the east and west. The ground between the road and the woods is covered in knee-high grasses. Ten paces from the eastern shoulder of the road, between the trade route and the woodline, a wide stream runs northward. It has clearly been doing so for some time, as its banks are four to five feet above the waterline.
Satisfied that all is well with the caravan, Seth's dark green eyes glance warily toward the two thin pillars of smoke that rise from the woods to his rear right. Because the caravan is so small, and its guards so few, departing it to investigate the smoke would only have made it more vulnerable to attack. Thus, Seth has been confined to merely look in that direction for dangers until the group passed beyond whatever unseen fires smolder within forest to the north and west from where he is now.
The elf's attention is so focused on the mysterious smoke that his ears barely detect a strange sound behind him. He stops in his tracks and his head snaps around, looking north and east for the source of the noise. What that a sneeze? he thinks to himself. The elf sees only the caravan, the stream, and the slightly more distant forest.
Seth decides that his own safety and that of the caravan depend on their number. He turns to walk back to meet the two wagons, keeping a watchful eye on the eastern side of the road. He waves slightly at the first guard in the column -- a bowman from Highmoon who is also under the employ of elven sellsword's current master.
The elf has not gone more than ten paces when there is a loud bree-yark from the streambed. Seth and the other caravan guards stop in their tracks and watch as five tall, hyena-headed humanoids start to heave themselves up out of the streambed. Gnolls! the ex-gladiator thinks to himself as he recognizes the foe from his battles in the Hillsfar arena.
His hands flash to his hips as Seth draws both of his blades in one smooth motion. "Stand your ground!" the elf shouts to the other guards, before running back toward the caravan. As he does so, the gnolls charge the caravan as the other guards rush to form a defensive line.
Screams erupt from both groups of warriors as they crash into each other. Seth watches helplessly as two guards at the front of the caravan -- the archer from Highmoon and a bearhide-clad axeman from the Dun Hills -- are viciously cut down by four of the large dog-men. The fifth reaches the elf's employer and smashes his battle-axe into the wagon's bench, barely missing the wineseller.
"Die you stinking dog bitch!" Seth yells as he confronts two of the gnolls, stopping them from continuing toward the wagons. The two surviving guards charge into the fray as well.
The elf's long and short blades bite into one of the monsters. It crumples to the ground even as the ex-gladiator turns his attention to his remaining foe, barely dodging gnoll's halberd as he does so.
Seth redirects his momentum into another twin attack. His attacks are deflected by the gnoll’s armor even as the creature’s halberd arcs in once again.
This time, the elf is not as lucky and he feels the cold bite of steel slash through his leather cuirass and across his chest. Gritting his teeth, he lunges in desperation and plunges his long sword through the gnoll’s abdomen before it can defend itself. He pulls the blade free from his slain opponent and quickly surveys the scene.
Only one other guard remains standing – a skilled swordsman from Waterdeep under the employ of the other merchant in the small caravan. Although critically wounded, the man’s broadsword drips with gnoll blood as he faces off against two foes.
Further back along the caravan, the last of the surviving gnolls is attacking the swordsman’s employer -- a dealer of woodcarvings from Archendale. Seth watches helplessly as the dog-headed humanoid decapitates the defenseless man with a massive two-handed sword. The slain merchant’s draft horse panics at the smell of blood and death; in a mindless rout, it leaves the road in a gallop, dragging the wagon and the headless body with it.
The elf turns his attention back to the closer foes. Assessing that the wounded caravan guard cannot hold much longer against two determined enemies, Seth charges one of the beasts from the rear. Unfortunately, the elf’s blades skip harmlessly off the gnoll’s chain mail, but he does succeed in drawing the creature’s attention away from the wounded swordsman.
Out of the corner of his eye, Seth notices that the murderous third gnoll is now attacking the surviving merchant – the ex-gladiator’s employer. A canine growl and the loud crash of steel against wood hints that the elf’s employer has managed to avoid the beast’s assault for the time being.
The elf turns his attention back to his present danger. Steel crashes against steel as the two adversaries struggle to find an opening in each other's defenses. The wounded Waterdhavian swordsman has more luck. He cuts down his opponent and moves to assist Seth. The two sellswords attack the gnoll from separate directions, hoping to quickly finish him and then rescue the surviving merchant.
But it is too late. The meaty sound of steel cleaving flesh, followed by a gurgling gasp and a howl of triumph, signals the demise of Seth's employer. The ex-gladiator glances to his left and watches in dismay as the merchant's blood sprays in a crimson shower from the brutal wound inflicted by the gnoll's massive sword.
Seth's opponent's sword comes arcing in again. The elf's short blade flashes as he steps deftly to the side. The smaller blade skids up the length of the creature's longer weapon and strikes the crossguard in a jarring blow. The gnoll grunts as the vibration causes one of his hands to go numb and he partially loses his grip.
Unfortunately, the monster's armor deflects the blades of both Seth and his fellow swordsman as they try to take advantage of the gnoll's misfortune but fail. At almost the same time, the horse pulling Seth's employer's goods panics, as did the other beast of burden.
The horse's frenzied departure clears the way for the merchant-slaying gnoll to come to the aid of the creature that faces off against both Seth and the other swordsman. Again, the elf is caught helpless and he watches as the murderous creature comes at the swordsman's flank. The warrior's wounds prevent him from turning fast enough to meet the threat and he screams in mortal agony as the massive bloodied blade smashes through his splint mail armor.
Seth forces himself to ignore the guard's brutal demise. He grants the disadvantaged gnoll no quarter. With a grunting sweep of his long sword, the elf eviscerates his foe and then uses his momentum to dodge the attack of the gnoll that slew both merchants and the Waterdhavian swordsman. The elf and the gnoll -- the sole-surviving combatants -- lock eyes as they prepare to battle to the death.
The pain in Seth's chest has sapped his energy with every swing and with every deep, labored breath. As stinging sweat drips into his eyes, the warrior mounts an attack with a desperate fury as an imagined audience and the invisible walls of a gladiatorial arena form within his mind. There is no running from either this fight -- or the life of a gladiator.
The two adversaries act out their deadly dance over several minutes. Slowly but surely, Seth begins to wound the gnoll, to tire him, to wear him down. But the elf's instincts override his physical peril. Despite opportunities, the ex-gladiator holds back from inflicting the killing blow. Without conscious thought, he prolongs the melee -- seeking to please the bloodthirsty crowds that roar in his imagination.
Eventually, the gnoll is barely able to hold his huge sword at the ready. As the two fighters circle one another, the creature's blade begins to dip further toward the ground, eventually leaving a furrow as its tip drags through the dirt of the road. It is then that Seth makes his final move, timed perfectly to finish the fight in a theatrical fashion and providing the imagined crowd with the macabre entertainment that it demands.
Tucking his shoulder, the elf somersaults past the gnoll then comes quickly to his feet to his opponent's rear. He thrust his short sword behind him without looking, piercing the gnoll's midsection. Then, as the monster stiffens and howls in pain, the elf spins on his heel, executing a perfect pirouette. His bloody long sword flashes briefly in the afternoon sun before it slices through the gnoll's neck, separating its head from its shoulders.
Blood sprays in a gruesome shower over the victorious elf as the creature's headless body collapses to the road. Breathing heavily and standing amongst the slaughtered bodies and bloodied weapons of the both the gnolls and his former comrades in arms, Seth closes his eyes as the illusory applause reaches a congratulatory crescendo.
Time remains slow while rehearsed images of the battle play over and over in his mind. But it is the remembered yelp of the attacking dog men and the acrid smell of blood that steals Seth from his reverie while he struggles to control his labored breathing and relax his shaking muscles. Surveying the scene, the former gladiator sighs. Six men lie dead, the ground beneath each encrusted and crimson. The elf cleans his weapons on the cloak of one of the corpses and then returns them to their scabbards with the sound of ringing metal.
The sellsword looks more closely at his surroundings. He then works hard at stripping one of the slain guards -- a Cormyrian mercenary -- of his chain mail hauberk and thoughtlessly slings it over his own shoulder. Then he scavenges a short bow and a quiver of arrows from the lifeless bodies of his former comrades-in-arms. Content, he begins walking toward the wineseller's wagon that sits to the south upon the worn, tired road.
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