By Brian Flood
Chapter 57 - The Standoff Begins
The Caves of Chaos
Near Kendall Keep, Kingdom of Cormyr
Morning, 22nd Day of Mirtul; Year of the Tankard (1370 DR)
As dawn breaks over the valley that hosts the Caves of Chaos, and the first hint of light creeps into the hole that marks the entrance to the troll's lair, Malk and Nathan make their way around the company's holdout, gently waking each member as they do so. Slowly, eyes open and adventurers sit up – many groaning from the lingering effects of combat and wounds. So too, do many groan in disgust from the smell emanating from the two goblin corpses that occupy the center of the sleeping area.
While Malk and Nathan continue guard duty, others go about their morning routines. Velgardrin and Declan spend the next hour or so in deep concentration – the mage studying his spell book while the dwarven priest prays to his patron deity for the granting of holy powers. The four severely wounded companions – Helios, Amiel, Kerielle, and Serethaniel – remain in a hazy state of mind somewhere between sleep and full awareness.
When he finishes his prayers, Velgardrin channels healing powers and manages to cure most of the wounds that he and Alain suffered during the engagements with goblins and the troll. He then moves about the severely wounded companions and redresses their wounds. Because they were so near to death before stabilizing, he announces, the company must wait until the afternoon to try magical means of alleviating their suffering.
At the dwarf's announcement, and with the party in such dire need of security but also suffering from the burden of several severely wounded members, Amiel makes the decision to stay another day. The weary ranger calls for an inventory of the companions' gear. Several minutes later, it is evident that there is sufficient food for several more days in the wild. Water and oil are another matter, however.
The fight with the troll and the allowance of a burning lantern through the night has nearly depleted the oil supplies; so, the lady ranger declares that only one lantern will be used at a time until the company can replenish its stocks of flammable oil. As for the diminishing water supply – several companions' have emptied their skins and there is only enough remaining among the others to get the company through another day – Amiel directs Velgardrin to use his powers, at his next opportunity, to purify several skins of water that will be filled from the troll's murky pool.
In order to strengthen the company's defensive posture in the troll's lair, the ranger next directs Velgardrin to spike the one-way door leading to the goblin tunnels as Kerielle earlier suggested. That will leave only the main cave entrance to defend, she explains. In obedient response, the dwarf retrieves his hammer and his remaining spikes from Kerielle's pack and sets to work.
At the same time, Amiel crawls over to the troll's pool, intending to conduct a cursory reconnaissance. She draws her hand-and-a-half sword and leans over the edge, slowly and carefully plunging the weapon into the water. The wet clay-like surface that rings the pool nearly causes the badly wounded ranger to slip into its murky unknown depths, but she manages to steady herself with her free hand. She is then surprised when her sword slips unstopped into the pool, even with her entire forearm submerged.
Frustrated by her attempt, Amiel returns to the main body. The ranger has just asked the other companions for their ideas in methods to search the pool and the pile of debris in the cave when Declan, posted near the cave entrance on guard, hears the unmistakable sound of a heavy object – like a body – falling from a tree somewhere outside the cave. The sound is followed by grunt and then a harsh commanding whisper. Then there is silence again.
* * * * *
Outside the troll cave, at a spot located between the entrances to the troll's lair and the goblin tunnels, two burly warriors freeze in place. They are tall, towering half a head or more above even Alain – the company's tallest member. Their skin, at least those areas that are not protected by scale mail armor, is a ruddy brown and yellow eyes peer out from under open-faced helms. Each carries a strung long bows in its hands wears a broad sword and a quiver full of broad-headed war arrows on its belt.
One of the humanoids lies on its back upon the forest floor at the base of one of the larger trees. The other glowers down at him, curling his lips to reveal a set of pointed teeth. It then places a finger to its lips in the universal command for quiet.
The standing warrior slowly takes an arrow from its quiver. It notches the missile to the bow string and then draws back, bending the powerful bow shaft until his fingers rest on his cheek. Holding steady, it aims toward the brush that conceals the entrance to the troll cave.
* * * * *
Declan's eyes widen in dismay. He immediately turns to the group and begins waving his arms in distress. After gaining their attention, he draws his finger across his throat and points toward the cave entrance. Then the mage turns to watch the cave entrance, contemplating his burning hands spell.
The able others in the cave react to the mage's wordless warning. Velgardrin slips his hammer into his belt as he readies shield and axe. Alain steps in front of Declan to face the cave entrance, rapier and main gauche held firmly in his hands. For his part, Declan steps back a few feet to stand behind the warrior upon the slippery path the rings the troll's pool. Carefully maintaining his balance, the mage leans his staff against the wall to free his hands for spell-casting. Lastly, Malk and Nathan simply hold their position against the north wall of the sleeping chamber.
Those unable to defend themselves do the best they can to prepare for danger. Amiel grits her teeth in frustration and gets to her feet, leaning on her naked blade for support. She gestures to Alain to get to the entrance and beckons Kerielle to join Helios and her in the back of the cave.
She next touches Nathan to get his attention. Putting her hands together, open palms facing each other, she touches her clasped hands to her cheek and shuts her eyes. Snapping them open again, she points to the cave entrance. There's an apologetic look in her eyes as she watches her friends ready themselves for combat.
Also aggravated by her inability to support her companions, Kerielle grinds her teeth. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, she casts about quickly before ducking back to put the wall that separates the pool chamber from the sleeping chamber between her and the cave entrance.
Helios stumbles slowly across the sleeping chamber, headed toward the pile of debris to take cover as he is barely able to lift his body, let alone his sword. His eyes flash with an angry light at being unable to perform his duty to defend his companions. He sighs heavily with resignation, realizing that a live man can serve Torm better than a dead one.
Seth can hardly react to the alarm as pain envelopes his torso. Being the recipient of many wounds previous, he grits his teeth and accepts the pain. “Uuma ma' ten' rashwe, ta tuluva a' lle!” Don't look for trouble, it will come to you , the elf says to himself in an attempt at humor, one of his few remembered native phrases, crawling slowly away from the cave entrance.
The next several seconds stretch on for several silent minutes as the band of adventurers waits for a sign for Alain, who stands at the cave entrance. But the heavy foliage that blocks the cave entrance from casual observation from those outside serves also to screen the warrior's view of the surrounding environs from inside the cave.
Velgardrin moves toward the cave entrance. When he gets close, he taps Alain on the shoulder and motions him to move over slightly to allow both of them to guard the entrance. Alain softly sidesteps to his left, giving the hearty dwarf room. Malk also moves toward the entrance, taking up a position behind the two more proficient fighters and Nathan takes up a position behind the bard.
Also behind the pair of warriors, Declan is clearly unhappy with his choice of ground but is unable to discern an immediately-available better option. He concentrates on his maintaining his footing while he awaits the appearance of whatever is outside.
Several more minutes slip by. The only sound in the cavern is the muted breathing of the nine companions as they concentrate on the cave entrance. Amiel represses a groan as she tries to lift the sword. No good. Nothing to do but wait and see whether they'd be discovered.
Finally, in a very low voice, Velgardrin asks, “Declan, what did you see?”
Declan replies in a very quiet voice, “A thud, like a body fallin' from a tree, and then someone ‘shushed' whate'er fell. They're knowin' we're ready fer ‘em. Oughta' be challengin' ‘em.”
“Be they speakern so yer can be understandern therm er just ther sound?” Velgardrin asks.
“Nary a word. T'were as a grunt. I kinna e'en tell ye whether it war human, orc or dragon. It had the feel o' a command, though. They're knowin' that we're knowing that they're outside,” Declan replies in a remarkably quiet voice.
Gaining eye contact with Nathan, Declan points at the mage with but an index finger, then points with the index and middle finger at his own eyes, and finally points with the index finger toward the secret door. “Use yer fireball there,” Declan adds a little more loudly.
Not quite catching all of the conversation, Alain continues to concentrate on the opening to the cave, trying to catch any sound that might give away their enemies' position.
Time continues to creep by as the adventurers wait with readied weapons and tensed nerves. Soon, an entire candlemark has passed since Declan first signaled danger.
Velgardrin turns so that only Alain, Declan, and Malk can hear him. “I be thinkern erv a plan, Alain,” Velgardrin says very quietly. “Maybe we kern send out a sort erv scout. Can yer be castern tiny magics, Declan? Like the sound erv a troll? Malk, ask Nathan that also.”
Nathan turns to Malk. “I can use some small magic to throw my voice, not sure if I can make the sound of a troll,” he says quietly. “Perhaps if I had some more idea of the plan, I could be of more help.”
Velgardrin's expression turns into a grin that somewhat chills his companions rather that cause amusement. Quietly he says, “I think one of you long-leggered folk could get thert armor and polearm ferm ther wall. User a staff er goblern spear if necessary.
“Nerxt, we use those and whatever ter make a victerm fer those waiting. Wern Nathan makes a sound like ther troll, we push ther dummy ert the opening. Erf we be careful ert should draw ther attack ernstead erv us.
“Thern we kern attack er pull ther dummy back. Commernts from you all on this be a good therng.”
“I kinna ma'e troll sounds,” Declan replies. “Me talents lie more with Fire. So I dinna think I'll be helpin' much with that part o' yer plan.
“And this clay I'm standin' on is very slick. Someone'd hav' t' be walkin' around the pool t' get the armour and the polarm – and there's a better'n even chance they'd be fallin' in t' the pool. How about grabbin' one o' them goblin bodies and usin' that?
“Also, I'm not particularly fond o' fightin' in this spot. Kin we be pulling back and makin' our front line where Nathan is and the spot just behind Malk?
“That'd be forcin' them t' be dealin' with th' pool and this wet clay if'n they're wantin' t' be bringin' many against us. And we kin be dealin' with the door if we need to.
“After we pull back, we kin be usin' the body fer yer plan. What ye think?”
Deeper in the cave, Seth grows tired from holding himself at the ready. With his free hand, he wipes the sweat from his eyes. Meanwhile, pain weighs heavy on his chest.
“This is foolery,” he confers to Amiel, voicing his disapproval. “But why do they wait outside?” he asks, angry and frustrated.
Amiel puts a finger to her lips. “Go listen at the secret door to see if they're waiting for us to send someone out via that way,” she tells the elf.
Meanwhile, near the cave entrance, Declan grabs his staff and then edges closer to Alain to tap the warrior on the shoulder. The mage points first at Alain and then to where Nathan currently stands. With a gesture of his head, he indicates that Alain should move to where Nathan is standing. He next taps Velgardrin and points directly to the other side of Malk and again gestures with his head for Vel to move to that point.
Finally, looking directly at Malk and Nathan, Declan pushes his open faced palm toward them, indicating they should back up further from the entrance. He remains in Alain's spot and considers the cave opening while the others are moving back into the cave.
After his comrades establish the new line, Declan edges quietly forward into the mouth of the cave as silently as he can, trying to reach the edge of the thick brush. He attempts to peer through the foliage for signs of the intruders.
Velgardrin waits in a position, guarding, as Declan investigates. Alain leans over the dwarf's shoulder to whisper, “You know, we should not let the wizard do the scouting.”
With a half-chuckle Velgardrin quietly answers, “He be lots quieter than you er me clankern in chain. Mehaps Malk should be scoutern?”
Even as the two warriors exchange thoughts, Declan's eyes scan the wooded area outside the cave from left to right. Before he can complete the arc, he hears a thun come from his front-right. A moment later, an arrow streaks across his face from right to left with a hiss , barely missing him before shattering itself against the cave wall to his left.
Declan immediately jumps back into the mouth of the cave having at least established he was not hearing things before. Once inside the cave, he heads toward Vel and reports the results of his recce in a low voice to Vel and Alain.
“I didnae see anyone. I couldna finish a proper scan a'fore they started shootin' at me. They're usin' ‘n arrow, and I dinna remember the gobo's usin' such a'fore. It may be a new source o' trouble we're seein'.”
“Hrm,” Velgardrin says quietly. He looks back and forth between Alain and Declan as he continues, “What be they if not ther goblerns? Should we be tryern ter talk ter therm?”
“I didna see ‘em, only the arrow!” Declan says. “They might'n be goblins, but the goblins didna ha'e bows before. They didna seem too interested in talkin' when I stuck me head outside. If'n yer game, we can call to ‘em and see if they call back.”
“They're not going to rush us,” Amiel observes, her voice laced with frustration. “They know they'll lose half their number at the cave mouth.
“Dec, Nathan do you have any spells that make illusions – even if they're just sounds?”
“I can use a ventriloquism spell to make sound come from almost anywhere in the area,” Nathan replies. “However, I am limited to what sounds I can make. Perhaps I could distract them for a few seconds – I'm not sure.”
“I canna make any sounds with magic,” Declan offers. “I'll be a bit more help if they do decide t' come in the cave.”
“I can make a light appear as long as it's not too far away,” Malk whispers. “I do not know whether or not that would be effective in daylight.”
Amiel smiles at Nathan and Declan, the first time in an eternity. “I was thinking of the troll's roar,” she whispers. “Think you can do that ?”
“Oh, well thought!” Kerielle applauds softly, her hunter's sense appreciating the ruse.
Quietly, the archer offers her thoughts. “Whoever they are, they clearly have no intention of entering – nor of allowing us out. Why should they? However well equipped we might be, we can hardly have unlimited supplies – while they can resupply at will. They can simply starve us out.
“I think they are some new group, not the goblins, but either way they are probably relying on the goblins and other unfriendly denizens of the Caves to deny us the back way out.
“It seems to me that we have four possible courses of action: to wait, to try and fight our way out the front, to try and sneak out the back, or to sneak around via the back and attempt to outflank them. Charging out would be suicide, and the back not much better. So I say we wait and heal up as much as possible, being on constant alert for attack. Only then , when we are at full strength, do we try and break out.”
Velgardrin looks back into the second part of the cave as best he can before turning back to the opening to the outside. Then, in very loud Common, accented as is his norm, Velgardrin says, “In the name erv Clangeddin Silverbeard, Father O' Battles fer the Dwarves, who be yer outside this cave attackern us?” Finally, he thunders in his native tongue, repeating the question.
Only silence answers the priest's shouted challenge.
Frustrated, Malk starts to remove his armor, stripping down to his trousers, shirt and boots. He piles his belongings in a heap by the wall. Next, he re-buckles his sword belt with only one empty water pouch a pouch with his shot. Then, he makes sure he has his dagger in his boot before finally tucking his sling and harmonica into his belt.
“I am the fittest and fastest of our company. I am going to rush out of here and will dodge and swerve like a young buck in spring. I expect someone to watch from the entrance.
“It should have one of two effects. Hopefully it will draw them away after me and let the rest of you make your escape to a safer place. You should at least be able to see who and how many are out there, along with their position and make your plans.”
The bard continues “If they do not follow, then I shall move away and circle quietly back towards them from behind. I will take out those that I can in hit and run raids. I shall try to coordinate my attacks when I see what you yourselves do. If our paths and plans separate us, I will meet you two days hence in the Keep.”
In a more somber tone he finishes, “May the love of Milil go with you and bring you out safe. Do not try to persuade me against this – I have steeled my heart and do not know if I could do so again. Vel, your blessing would be appreciated. Farewell.”With that, Malk pushes past Declan and Velgardrin to head out of the entrance at a run. Zigging and zagging to the left as if his life depended on it, out into the bushes he runs.
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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