By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 23 - Faded Glory
Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, just past early breakfast
Ditalidas and Marc enter the stable, as Kalil is finishing saddling up his own white thoroughbred Amnish steed. Immerine is leading her white stallion to the inn’s court. She wears full studded leather, including a soft leather facemask. She carries her staff easily, but it seems truly a deadly weapon in her hands rather than a prop as she has used it previously. She also carries loaded saddlebags and wears a leather backpack. Her cloak is a mottled forest green and brown and the armor is a serviceable brown with black studs. She seems more at home in this garb than in the dresses he has seen her in.
Stroking the horse’s head, one of the stable boys, Marc, has saddled the brown roan Ditalidas rode this morning. Outside, the young guard is sitting on his horse, waiting for the others to arrive. Matteo has mounted Telsom’s white mare and he holds the reins of a black horse, which Ditalidas recognizes immediately: Alana. Alana is still carrying her riding gear, yet the gear is somewhat tangled with twigs and grass.
The young guard turns in the saddle and looks at Matteo. “This is everyone that’s coming along?“
Rubbing his hand on the shoulder of Telsom’s mount Matteo nods curtly. “Seems to be.“ Turning away from his companions once he sees them leave the stables, he looks out over the city in the direction of the city gates. Adjusting his position in the saddle he pats Telsom’s horse once again and mutters, “Nice horse.“
Immerine secures her staff and swings up to the saddle and calms Qwenta with a few soft murmurs and a gentle hand on his neck. She stares merrily at Matteo and rides close, leaning in to Matteo, Immerine whispers “You must forgive Qwenta, he was broken by my hand alone. If you need salve for the wound, all you need do is ask.“ before backing Qwenta away from the Sembian. Her eyes continue to reflect amusement.
“Wound? What wound?“ Matteo asks, tucking one hand under the other on his saddle spur. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.“
Immerine eyes his hand, “No, I don’t suppose anyone of your caliber would – insensitive in mind, body and soul.“ She takes up the reins and applies gentle pressure to Qwenta’s side and begins turning her horse.
The skin around Matteo’s eyes tightens and his pupils visibly dilate. Sitting rigidly upright in the saddle he has to make a physical effort to unclasp his whitened knuckles from the saddle spur to grasp the reins of his horse, teeth marks deep enough to have drawn blood standing out lividly against pale flesh. A muscle in the side of his face twitches as he unclenches his jaw. “As you say.“ Applying pressure with his knees he spurs Telsom’s horse forward a few steps, breathing deeply.
As the two exchange a few quiet words Matteo stiffens in his saddle, spurring his horse forward and away from Immerine with his knees.
Immerine looks like she is about to ride off on her own, when she guides Qwenta over to Matteo and speaks to him again softly.
Immerine guides Qwenta over to Matteo. “I did not mean to insinuate anything about your wife or mock your pain. I meant you are hardheaded and prideful. I know that hurts.“ She touches his wounded hand. “Why won’t you let me help you? I know what you think of me – the stable boys told me.“
Matteo’s hand flinches away from her touch and he closes his eyes momentarily. “Do not believe everything you hear, my lady.“ He whispers in a rough voice, staring straight ahead. “You should get ready to ride. No doubt you’ll find some of your spirits to talk to once we get there.“
This time Immerine flinches. She bites back, “Better them, than you.“ She kicks Qwenta and the horse shoots off like an arrow. After her second soft conversation with Matteo, Immerine kicks Qwenta’s sides sending the horse into a run.
“Stupid, arrogant, hardheaded…“ Matteo swears as Immerine gallops off. Glancing over his shoulder at the others he calls, “Well, come on then!“ and spurs Telsom’s horse after the rapidly departing woman.
Ditalidas walks up to the brown mare as she notices Alana. “Alana!“ the brown mare is forgotten as Ditalidas runs towards her own trusted mare. Closing in she calms down a bit, not wanting to scare Alana. When she reaches Alana she takes the reigns and strokes the mares head. “Hey girl. Where have you been lady? I was so worried for you.“ She whispers to the horse. She keeps on talking while she removes some of the grass and twigs. “Thank you saer, for bringing back my horse.“ She says looking up to the guard. Stroking Alana’s gracious neck she turns to Marc. “Marc? If you want you can take the brown mare.“
Marc looks back and forth between the lady and her mare an enthusiastic smile grows on his face. “Ehm… really?…? Great! Gee, thanks!“ He looks again at the fine brown mare and says, “Hmm, nice horse!“
Before Ditalidas mounts Alana she removes another twig and checks if Alana is not wounded. After that she turns her attentions back to her surroundings. Noticing Immerine leave in a hurry she asks: “Where is she going?“
Marc walks up to the black horse first, talking to that mare in a reassuring way. “Don’t know, ma’am… Ehm, perhaps she’s not going towards something…“ He wrinkles his lips, “… it looks more as if she’s going away from something… or some-one?“ Marc gazes at Immerine’s disappearance, “Hmm, I hope they’ll return soon.“
Then he offers Ditalidas a hand mounting Alana.
Ditalidas shrugs her shoulder. “Maybe. I assume she knows what she’s doing.“ Then, with a smile, she accepts Marc’s helping hand. “Thank you.“
When Ditalidas is mounted Marc pets the black horse for a few reassuring seconds. As he sees the ladies are all right he walks to the brown mare, saying, “Hmm, you’re nice… Good looking too… but, men, you are huge!“ Marc looks around seeking a bench or something, and addresses Friend, who’s gazing interested at him, “Where are you looking at?“ He looks at the horse again, “Well… how on earth will I get up??“ Then he takes two steps back and runs and jumps, gets grip on the top of the saddle and pulls himself up, floundering his long legs high in the air. Somehow he finds himself lying across this saddle. Slowly he gets seated. “Pffjew“ He looks around extremely proud and smiles at the stable boy, while trying furtively to get his feet in the fluttering stirrups.
With mirth in her eyes Ditalidas looks at how Marc mounts his horse, a smile on her face during the whole scene. At Marc’s proud gaze she snickers, turning her head away. Barely able to hide the mirth out of her voice she asks: “Is everybody here? Can we leave?“
By this time Marc is still trying very hard to place his last foot in a stirrup. As he eventually succeeds, he guides the horse carefully next to the black one. Still Marc is glowing proudly. With a deep rolling “Ehm“ – he feels big this way – Marc answers “I think we are, and I see Friend is… but what about Immerine and Matteo?“ He silences, closes one eye and tilts his head to catch up the sound of the disappearing horses. “Ehm, are they going the right direction?“ He asks, looking at Ditalidas with a proud smile.
Ditalidas shrugs again. “As long as we are going the right way. Come let’s go and see if we can catch up with them.“ Ditalidas spurs on her horse, but not too quickly so that Marc can keep up with her.
The young guard has been looking open-mouthed at the whole scene, amazement in his eyes. When he sees young Lady Jalarghar is ready to ride, he urges his own mount forward. “They will have to wait for us ma’am. That is if they’re to join us riding to the lieutenant.“
Marc leads his horse to follow Ditalidas. In a few seconds he goes as fast as her and he comes close again. “Gee, this is nice!“ He says, “less bumpy than a pony.“ He keeps silent for a few moments, to enjoy the moment. Then he says, thoughtfully, “But if they’re not going the right way… Then what?“ He looks ahead, but he can’t see a trace of the two horses, “I still think we can use all the help we can get.“ He looks over his shoulder and sees Friend is keeping up.
“We’ll see them again when we’re at the Woods Gate lad.“ The guard looks over to where Marc is riding, and smiles at the boy. “You ride pretty well lad, despite your awkward mounting. Some more training, and they might make a horseman out of you yet.“
And, like he’s struck by some magic spell, the proud look is back at Marcs’ face.
The trio rides on through the streets of Berdusk, down the hill towards Woods Gate. The air still has a cold tang from last night’s frost, but with the sun now well over the mountains in the east, the day appears to be a pleasant one. Beyond the gate they can see Matteo riding. Immerine is a little further ahead, standing on a small hillock looking towards the east, away from the city.
Marc looks pleased to see Matteo and says to his companions, “Look! There they are“, pointing forward. He looks at his co-riders and adds, “But… Ehm, where’s this Kalil-bloke?“ He briefly looks over his shoulder, but swiftly looks in front of him again, as this horseback riding is not as easy as riding a Wetland Pony and he surely wants to make a good impression…
Still, he’s enjoying the ride, his companions, the early sun and frosty smell, perhaps even just life itself. He starts singing a suitable song, entitled ‘A horse with no name’.
Outside the city Immerine slows Qwenta and finally comes to a stop on a small hillock. She breathes deeply, more at ease now than she has been in two days. Dismounting she looks over her shoulder and sees Matteo a few hundred yards away and behind him almost a mile away the others riding toward her. Ignoring the oncoming noble, she puts a hand on Qwenta’s muzzle and enjoys the simplicity of the beauty around her.
Reining in Telsom’s lathering mount as he approaches the top of the hillock, Matteo slips from the saddle and strides angrily towards Immerine. “What in the hells do you think you are doing woman?“ He demands quietly in a barely controlled voice as he draws near. “You know we are approaching what may be danger. How dare you ride off like that?!“
“How dare I? You weren’t interested in danger earlier. Telsom could rot for all you care.“ She drops her hand from stroking Qwenta, so as not to send any upsetting vibrations into the stallion.
“Face it, nobleman. You care only for coin, now. You are alive but do not live. I know the pain you feel when you wake with each dawn, I know what you feel each night as you lay to sleep. What do you do with it? Do you let it burden you, or do you let it temper you into a better person? There will come a day when you will have to accept the past, care for it and cherish it… but you will have to go on. Until you are able to do that, you have no right to question me.“
“What do you know about what I care for?“ He replies, biting his words off, his voice rising slightly. “I am sorry if I don’t resemble some knight in shining armor or one of your slobbering barbarians but its not you that has received personal death threats or woken up to things thrown into your bedroom. I’m still here aren’t I?“
Standing now just a couple steps away from Immerine he adds in a tight voice, “But I have every right to question you woman. While you are in this city working against the undead you are my responsibility. By charging off you endanger everyone else.“
“You are correct you do not resemble either – too shoddy for a knight and far too small and rustic for a barbarian.“ Amusement flashes across her eyes and in her voice.
“So, you have been threatened. Threats are merely that. My people do not threaten; it is a waste of time. You feel your life is in danger? Perhaps then it is you who seeks my protection, riding after me as you did.“
She steps a hands breadth away from Matteo, “And you will notice – we are no longer in the city. This is my domain, Sembian. Here, you are my responsibility.“
“Seek your protection?“ Matteo snaps, “If I thought there was real danger you’d be the last person I’d take!“ Pausing as the words leave his mouth, Matteo stiffens even more. “Look at you! Overdressed and hiding behind a mask.“ Taking a single step backwards he deliberately and slowly runs his eyes up and down her body.
“And damned if I am your responsibility out here. I know this area much better than you. While you’re busy hugging trees and talking to stones I intend on finding Telsom.“
Lifting a hand between them he wags a finger in her face. “You will do what I say, when I say it! Don’t forget it girl!“
Immerine is quiet and amusement and wonder reflect in her eyes. When Matteo shakes his finger at her she says simply, “You think you would have learned. When you wag a finger in someone’s face you might get bitten. Now, stop being a fool. Let me see your hand. Qwenta’s teeth can gnash pretty hard.“ She holds out a hand to him.
Glancing down at her hand Matteo stiffens and clenches his teeth. “I… am… not… being… a… fool.“ He bites back, having to force each word out. Spinning from her he stalks away a few steps before throwing his arms in the air, swearing out loud. Turning back he strides abruptly back towards her, presenting his hand. Glaring at her he mutters, “That damn horse is almost as bad as you are woman. I swear it enjoyed biting me.“
Immerine gently unfolds his hand and turns it over several times. “Qwenta does not like being approached by strangers. Bribing him with salt was one of the worst things you could have tried.“ She turns away from him and whistles softly for Qwenta. The stallion lifts its ears and comes to its mistresses’ call. She reaches into a saddlebag and pulls out her healer’s kit. Rummaging through the kit she finds an ointment to ease pain and relieve swelling.
Looking him in the eyes she says, “This will be uncomfortable at first, I need to massage the ointment into your flesh. This will numb the pain and help the swelling. The bruise is too far-gone for me to stop, now. If you had let me help you earlier, I could have prevented it from turning purple.“ She applies a small amount of the ointment and delicately begins stroking his hand. As the ointment takes effect her strokes become more vigorous and deeper to allow for quicker penetration.
“There, flex your fingers. Will you be able to hold a sword, or whatever weapon you use in battle?“
Grunting softly when she applies more force to his hand, Matteo remains tight-lipped throughout the procedure, flexing his hand at the end. “It will suffice.“ He grudgingly admits. Looking up into her eyes he gives a curt nod of the head and says, “Thank you.“
As the numbing feeling in Matteo’s hand subsides and a warm glow starts to spread, the others are drawing up closer.
There is a bit of confusion in her eyes, “Well, I can’t have you getting hurt further. I mean, well, my healing power needs to be saved for those that truly need it. This was – oh, never mind.“ Immerine drops his hand and looks behind Matteo. “The others are coming.“ She steps back from Matteo to Qwenta.
As Kalil, Ditalidas, Marc and the guard are riding toward the hillock, they see Telsom dismount and stride to Immerine. The two seem to be in a heated discussion. Probably continuing where they left off at the Stag. The group covers the mile quickly to team up with Matteo and Immerine.
Immerine looks toward the group approaching and backs away from Matteo to her horse. She remounts and waits for them to finish climbing the hill.
Matteo stares after Immerine for a second, clenching and unclenching his hand before turning to remount Telsom’s horse.
The view from the hillock where the small group reassembles is breathtaking. The forested hills in their autumn colors light up in the early sunlight to the east and the south. Behind, to the west lies Berdusk, the sunlight glittering on the roofs and spires of the buildings on Castle Hill. To the north stretches an enormous forest: The Reaching Woods. Small clouds form briefly before evaporating as man and beast breathe in the cold morning air. Though still close to the city, the surroundings are serenely quiet. Only a view birds are singing in the nearby trees.
When the foursome slows down in engaging the hillock, Marc suddenly whistles sharply. Friend stops and drops the chunk of bread she was carrying. Marc steers his horse in a slight turn to the left and they increase their speed until the horse is galloping very fast. Marc is bending over, his head next to the neck of the animal, holding his crook in his right hand, being one with his mount. Not until he’s almost half a mile away he makes a large turn and returns to the hillock. At the foot of which Marc makes the mare slow down and, eventually, stop.
Marc arises straight up in his stirrups, lifts his right hand in the air and cries “Iii-aaar!“ Then he bends forward, caresses the neck of the horse and speaks thankfully to her. After that he rides calmly to the gathered companions, patting the horse and still talking to her. He whistles again and Friend takes up the chunk and approaches the group as well. When Marc’s getting near he says “Gee! Great!“ The joy on his face is obvious, “Wow…“
As the others ride up Matteo asks the guard, “Which way?“
Kalil who has been riding in the back keeping a really low profile comes forward as the group halts. “Golden. Which way will we go now?“ He looks briefly at Matteo and Immerine, smiles and asks teasingly “And what were the two of you doing?“ Immerine smoothly answers in a calm voice, “I was convincing his Lordship to follow my advice.“ Matteo looks hard at Immerine and mutters something under his breath before looking away from the group, out over the countryside.
Kalil looks at Matteo for a second and begins to laugh aloud. “Now that’s a good joke!“ He rides towards Matteo and slaps him on his shoulder, trying to cheer him up. “Don’t worry, you will heal your wounds…“ Scowling, Matteo looks at Kalil suspiciously, almost certain that the man is having fun at his expense. Hunching his shoulders he turns up the collar of his coat, muttering something about staying in bed.
The guard smiles at the Marc’s antics, before returning his attention to Matteo. “This way saer.“ And he guides his mount towards the great forest in the north. The massive forest stretches as far as the horizon. The elevation of the land makes the forest look like a multicolored sea with large waves. Glittering through the trees, the Chionthar can be seen, winding its way through the valley like a large silver snake.
Ditalidas shakes her head with a smile at Marc’s playful actions. At full gallop the guard leads the group down the hill onto a small trail that winds its way close to the forest, paralleling the river. Soon Ditalidas recognizes where they are, the area were the ambush took place is nearby. Ditalidas goes visibly pale, her hands, holding the reigns are trembling as she squeezes them in fists.
Marc looks with wide-open eyes at the lady asking concerned, “What’s the… Oh, gush! It was here, wasn’t it?“ Marc covers his mouth with a hand. As the memories come back to her at full force, she makes Alana stop so suddenly that the mare rears. For a moment it looks as if Ditalidas is about to fall from Alana’s back, but somehow she manages to stay in the saddle. She closes her eyes as if, by doing that, she’s able to keep the overwhelming feelings at bay. Moments pass as she tries to get a hold on herself again. When she opens her eyes again, she seems to have herself under control again, but she still looks very pale and tears and sweat moister her face. With frightened eyes she looks around her into the woods to see if monsters are approaching.
Sitting astride Telsom’s horse Matteo gives Ditalidas a look full of sympathy. Nudging his horse forward he walks it over to Immerine where he pauses for a moment as though struggling to find words. “Could you scout ahead? Make sure everything is safe for the Lady Jalarghar?“ He asks quietly. Turning back towards the others he stops, looking back at her, “And be careful. Please?“
Immerine’s eyes sparkle at Matteo, “Why – your Lordship, I thought you knew these woods far better than I?“ Laughing she spurs Qwenta over to Ditalidas to reassure the lady. Grinding his teeth together Matteo mutters from between clenched teeth, “I meant… never mind.“
Immerine pulls Qwenta close to Alana and places a hand on Ditalidas’. “Peace lady. Most beasts of the sort you saw keep to the night. And, the forest knows when they are near.“ Immerine closes her eyes and speaks, “Right now there is a sense of unease, but not tension as there was the other evening. Listen, you can still hear insects and birds. They are hushed but not silent.“ Ditalidas bows her head and listens attentively to the sounds of the woods. As she hears the insects and the birds she relaxes a little and nods her head. “Thank you.“
Pulling gently on the reins, Matteo turns Telsom’s horse back towards Ditalidas, Kalil, and Marc. Pulling up beside Ditalidas’ horse he leans forward and lightly touches her hand. “Will you be alright my lady?“ He asks softly. “If you wish we can pause here a moment before moving on.“ “Matteo is right, ma’am, we could take a moment to catch a breath.“ Marc nods his head to Matteo and the lady. At the concerned questions from Matteo and Marc she answers: “I’ll be okay. Just give me a moment.“
Marc makes his horse take a little step aside and back again. When he’s close to her again he talks softly, “You seemed to have found an inner strength or something this morning… could you grab to that again?“ He looks at her interestedly, “‘course, if not, we’ll have to consider returning for now…“ He winks understandingly and smiles at her for a second, his eyes looking sad though. “You don’t have to go right now, it’s up to you.“
“Thank you all for your concern. I will be all right, it’s just… it took me by surprise… A pause won’t be need. I want to continue.“ She wipes the sweat and tears from her eyes and seems indeed all right again. Only her trembling hands and a remainder of fear in her eyes, give away how tensed she still is. She bends over Alana’s neck and strokes it. “I am sorry my friend. I shouldn’t have treated you like this.“ She mumbles some more excuses to the mare but she isn’t audible anymore. The whispered conversation seems to calm both the mare and Ditalidas. When she’s finished, she gets up and says: “Okay I’m ready. Let’s get going again.“ She sighs deeply before she signals Alana to go forward again.
After reassuring the Lady, Immerine rides next to the watchman, “By your leave.“ She nods her head and pulls Qwenta to the front of the group and rides about a hundred feet ahead. She listens and looks carefully around and trusts Qwenta’s instincts.
The guard looks confused at Immerine for a moment, and before he can reply, Immerine is already on her way. Motioning to the other four to remain behind, he quickly guides his horse to Immerine. Friend notices Marc and the others seem to have no intentions to move, and as all Marc whistled was ‘come here’ she lays down, putting the chunk of bread under her front paws and starts enjoying the mere smell and taste of it. In the meantime Marc looks in the direction of Immerine and the guard, who are slowly descending from view.
Riding closer at a careful pace, the two crest a small bluff. The site of the ambush is clearly visible. Lieutenant Aluar and his men have set up a small perimeter around the site. The lieutenant himself is looking at the remains of the undead that are scattered about. The other patrol members have their crossbows at the ready, facing the woods.
The young guard rides forward, making sure his uniform is easily spotted by his fellows. Lieutenant Aluar rises from his kneeled position and motion’s for Immerine and the guard to come down. Pressing his finger to his lips, indicating a need for silence.
Immerine instantly takes in the scene before her and dismounts, taking her staff with her. She drops Qwenta’s reins to the ground and holds her hand before his eyes motioning for him to stay. She whispers to the young guard, “We cannot allow the Lady Jalarghar to see this. She is distraught enough. Please can you delay them?“
“Ehm… I – I guess you’re right ma’am.“ The guard replies, a bit insecure. Yet he turns his mount about and returns to the others.
Following her whisper to the guard, Immerine cautiously walks to the ambush site, her eyes trying to piece together what happened. She chooses her steps carefully and tries to remain alert.
Several decomposing bodies are spread all over the site. Most of the bodies have been torn apart. Some seem to have been partially eaten or at least gnawed on. The lieutenant is walking towards Immerine, carrying a sword and a helm. The helm appears similar to the one from Sune’s young paladin.
“Fair Morning Milady.“ Lieutenant Aluar inclines his head in a polite bow. “Did you come alone, or are the others over there?“ He points at the ridge Immerine and the guard crossed. “They should come down here. That would be safer. There is a Troll about. Judging by the tracks and some of the beast’s droppings. It appears the beast has feasted upon the undead here…“
Immerine bows her head slightly to the Lieutenant. “I do not believe it would be wise for the Lady Jalarghar to see this carnage. She was distraught enough as we approached the area. I asked your escort to delay the group for a bit.“
“All right, I’ll have two of my men go over there.“ The lieutenant signals one of his men to approach.
“I have been asked to scout the area. We are missing a companion that may have come out here this morning by himself. He wore a helm quite similar to the one you hold in your hands.“ Immerine points at the helm. “I worry for his safety.“
“Then this might be his sword as well.“ Lieutenant Aluar holds up the sword and the helm. “From what I have gleaned from the tracks, there seems to have been a fight between your companion and the Troll. I fear for your friend’s life, as I must conclude that the Troll won.“
Immerine’s eyes wander through the site and she quietly asks the man before her, “Do you mind if I have a look about?“
“Go ahead.“ The Lieutenant sweeps his hand in an arc gesturing Immerine to look around the area. He turns to the guard he summoned and quietly whispers to him. The guard gestures to one of his fellows and the two of them walk towards the ridge, their eyes scanning the surroundings and their crossbows loaded.
Looking around Immerine sees the various decayed and decomposing body parts of the undead that have attacked Lady Jalarghar yesterday. Though dirty and half gone, there are still pieces of clothing, which might provide a clue as to where these undead came from. Yet none of it is recognizable to Immerine besides the fact that there seem to be two different styles of clothing. On some of the pieces fresh teeth marks are evident. And some body parts are indeed downright missing. The feeling in the area is a feeling of relief, yet there is a sense of wariness around as well. As if nature isn’t sure if the undead abominations have really gone.
The other thing Immerine notices clearly are marks of clawed feet in the dirt. The tracks are all over the place, as if the beast wandered about nibbling bits and pieces from every corpse. Though at one point the marks are different. The creature’s tracks came from the river, and came upon a spot where there are prints of a humanoid and a horse. The horse’s tracks lead away, while the humanoid’s tracks are mingling with the creature’s tracks as if the two were doing a macabre dance. Drops of red blood are splattered around at the spot.
“This is where I found the helm and the sword milady.“ The lieutenant says, when he sees her looking at the signs of the struggle. “It looks like the monster ran of toward the forest. I had the tracks followed for some distance into the forest, but I didn’t want to risk my men to an assault of the foul beast.“
Immerine looks at the tracks, her thoughts racing. “Lieutenant, would the Troll take a prisoner. Could our companion still be alive?“
“That could be, though for your companion’s sake I hope we don’t arrive to late to help him.“ Lieutenant Aluar replies as he looks at the tracks, following them into the forest with his eyes.
Immerine looks into the forest in the direction the tracks disappear and turning abruptly away begins examining the ground once more. Immerine stops from time to time to check the earth or a plant. “I believe I will return to the others now. They are probably cross with this delay.“
Just before reaching the top of the bluff, the young guard returns, motioning to stop and to be silent. He approaches Matteo and whispers something to him.
“Saer, the lady Immerine advised to keep Lady Jalarghar back for now. She thought the sight of the bodies might be too much.“ The guard whispers to Matteo. “And the lieutenant indicated the need for silence.“
Ditalidas can’t keep her eyes off the site. She keeps riding towards it, feeling somehow irresistibly attracted to it. When she’s halfway to the site she descends from Alana. For a moment she hesitates. Softly she whispers, her voice trembling: “I… I have to… I need to…“ Without another word, she starts walking to the site, leaving Alana where she dismounted.
After listening to the guard Matteo gives a brief nod of his head and a murmured thank you. Wheeling Telsom’s horse around so that he faces his companions he begins speaking softly. “The Lady Immerine and Lieutenant Aluar are investigating something and require quiet so as to not disturb whatever it is they are doing. Rather than making a lot of noise by riding in we’ll just wait here a few more moments.“
Turning to address his companions after the guard has finished speaking Matteo notices that Ditalidas has continued onwards and he spurs his horse forward after her, cutting her off just before she crests the bluff. Matteo sitting on his horse can see two other guards approaching. The guards are holding loaded crossbows and they are scanning their surroundings, specifically the forest edge behind them and to their left. Dismounting Matteo moves to stand by her, gently seeking to take her arm and murmuring something quietly to her.
It’s not until Matteo touches Ditalidas arm that she notices him. She blinks a few times apparently surprised to see him. “What? But…“ tears moister her eyes. “But I need to know. Don’t you understand? I need to know if she’s still there. I need… I want… I…“ She closes her eyes and shakes her head. When she looks up again, her eyes are filled with despair. “She could be my mother…“ Her hand reaches for the locket that adorns her chest. “They have… How… Why…“ She takes a deep breath. “Oh mother, why is this hurting so bad?“ She looks at Matteo as if she hopes he has the answers and with a plea for help in her eyes.
Marc was still looking at where Immerine went. Not until he hears the sound of Matteo’s running horse he notices Ditalidas’ move and combines it with the words she just whispered, then he urges his horse to hurry towards Ditalidas, calling loudly “Ehm… ma’am! Ehm… I don’t think! .“ Whether this was all he had to say or not, by this time Matteo stopped the lady, and Marc got within a few feet from them and halts.
While he watches the lady dismount and Matteo’s action, Friend’s already at his horses’ feet. Apparently she collected her breath again, she watches her boss.
Closing his eyes Matteo steps forward and embraces Ditalidas, holding her head into his shoulder. Taking a deep breath he whispers hoarsely, “Because you loved her, that is why it hurts.“ She notices that he is trembling slightly. “Someone special to me once said that you have to find a way to go on… but it hurts so much.“
Ditalidas nods while sobbing against his chest. It’s not clear if she nods because of the wisdom of the words or because she agrees that it hurts so much. Feeling that she’s not grieving alone, somehow, makes it easier to bare the pain. After a few moments she looks at him, trying to catch his gaze with her beautiful blue with tears filled eyes. Whispering she says: “Those are wise words… it is a sad thing that wise words are so very difficult to follow…“ Her hand follows his arm till she reaches his hand and squeezes that hand gently. Then she takes the beautiful red rose that adorned her black hair and hands it over to him. “Here. I want you to have this. It was my mother’s favorite.“
Matteo squeezes her hand gently in return. As his fingers close over the flower he murmurs, “I would be honored, my lady.“ Raising her hand to his lips he kisses it lightly and says, “We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.“ At the sound of Marc approaching Matteo stiffens slightly, recalling that they are not alone. “Are you ready to continue, my lady?“ He asks, stepping back to gather the reins of his horse. “Just as soon as the lieutenant or the lady Immerine sends word we can proceed down.“
After a moment Matteo gestures for Kalil and Marc to dismount from their horses and to come forward. As they draw near he motions for quiet.
At Matteo’s gesture Marc descents and leads his horse, walking, to Alana. Next he takes the reins of both Ditalidas’ horses, and leads them gently forward to Matteo and the lady, in soft voice talking reassuringly to the animals.
He whispers to Matteo, while looking at the dame, “What’s going on? And… ehm… where’s Immerine gone?“ Marc looks at the incline that hides Immerine and the rim of the woods behind it for a few seconds and then returns his attention to Matteo and Ditalidas.
“Are you ready to continue, my lady?“ He asks, stepping back to gather the reins of his horse. “Just as soon as the lieutenant or the lady Immerine sends word we can proceed down.“
Turning towards Marc, Matteo glances down at the rose in his hand. “The lady Immerine has gone forward to scout the site. It appears that she and the lieutenant are investigating something, something that may be dangerous. They do not want us coming down and disturbing their investigation just at this moment so we are waiting for word it is alright for us to proceed.“ Matteo turns and threads the rose through a saddle strap on his horse while waiting.
All the time, Kalil stayed where he was: on his white Amnian steed, his beloved Corundum. He looks at the scene in front of him, keeping an eye on the place the investigators went to. He is clearly disturbed by something, and fully alert. You notice that Kalil plays a bit with one end of a rolled rope. It seems this somewhat makes him feel more comfortable. He remains silent, even at Marc’s shouting and the little conversation that’s being made. He only makes a low rolling noise in the back of his throat when Ditalidas walks away and again when Matteo embraces her.
Ditalidas nods silently. Her eyes following the rose to the place where he puts it. Than she nods and looks to the bluff that blocks her view from the site. “Yes, I’m ready to continue.“ She quickly wipes the traces of her grief from her face. Slowly she starts walking to the buff. When two paces away she turns and looks at Matteo. “Don’t worry, I won’t go down there, but I’d like to look at it… I won’t disturb whatever they are doing.“ for a moment she pauses, looks him in the eyes and adds: “I promise.“ She turns and walks until she’s able to look at the site. Than she finds herself a place to sit down and give it all a thoughtful look.
Nodding to Ditalidas, Matteo follows after her leading Telsom’s horse with him.
Marc holding the reins of two horses tries to step in front of Ditalidas. Alana apparently does not want to move and jerks her head back, bringing Marc out of balance. Suddenly Marc finds himself sitting in the grass looking into the eyes of Alana, who mere gazes back for a moment before she starts to graze. Marc is startled and utters “ehm… What…? What happened…? Why did you do that?“
Friend seeing Marc sitting down in the grass picks up the remains of her chunk of bread and moves over to sit beside Marc.
Standing beside her when she sits down, Matteo gazes down into the clearing, his gaze only occasionally flickering to the lady beside him.
Marc looks Alana in the eye, and then he looks at the serious eyes of Kalil, who’s sitting sturdy on his proud stud and looks down on Marc. Then Marc realizes the situation he’s in: sitting in the white frosted grass and he can’t help bursting into loud laughter, his roars of laughter resounding over the fields.
From his horse, Kalil looks at Marc with a sad smile. “Get up boy. Frostbite on your behind won’t do the trick.“ Again, he looks around him suspiciously. “I have the feeling something is about to happen“, he says to no one in particular.
After a few seconds he gets hold on himself, wipes his tears and stands up. He brushes down his trousers and says, smiling at Kalil, “Don’t get it“ – Marc giggles – “but hit the ground alright“ Marc giggles again, but he looks a bit more thoughtful while he looks at his behind “But it is cold and wet for sure.“
Then he walks very carefully towards Alana and says softly in a reassuring voice, “Hmm, what’s wrong with you…? Afraid of your own mistress are you?“ Marc looks over his shoulder at the lady, “… Can’t see why… Hmmm!“
“Hmmmm“ Kalil mumbles, along with a few words that cannot be understood by anyone but Kalil himself. He grips the end of the rope he’s holding and turns it around his hand, as if he was ready to strike out with it. He is still looking for the imagined dangers around him.
Then he picks up his crook and collects the reigns of the two horses, calls Kalil over his shoulder inviting him to follow them, and walks the horses slowly towards the couple on the hill.
Kalil nods to Marc when he addresses him. And indeed, he follows Marc’s example but remain ahead for about 30 foot. He’s constantly looking to his sides, and the back. It seems like he is waiting for something to charge at him…
When Marc gets over to where Matteo and Ditalidas are, he says, “Sorry, Matteo, couldn’t help myself there.“ Then he looks down at the crime scene.
Matteo turns a furious gaze on Marc. “Shut up you little idiot. Did you think I signaled for quiet to amuse myself?“ He asks coldly as he stands there with clenched fists. “You might have just killed someone. If you’ve startled whatever it is down there and it attacks someone …“ Matteo turns his back on Marc and remounts his horse, which paws at the ground uneasily.
Coming up over the bluff are two guardsmen, their crossbows at the ready. Both of them are keeping a wary eye out towards the forest edge. From the vantage point on the bluff several bodies are visible at the spot where yesterday the ambush took place. A little further, other guardsmen have set up some sort of a perimeter. Lieutenant Aluar is directing one of them to take up position near an old tree stump. Immerine is walking towards the group on the bluff.
The two guardsmen take up position on the ridge, aiming their crossbows toward the forest. The young guard that had been this morning’s escort does the same. There is almost a tangible tension in the air, even though the sounds of the forest seem to be normal…
When Immerine gets closer, lines of worry are clearly visible above her eyes. Immerine quietly approaches the group. She nods to the guards and walks to Matteo. She waits until the group has gathered around before speaking and keeps her voice low. “Telsom was alive a few hours ago, whether this is still true I do not know. He battled a Troll and was carried off. If we hurry we can catch up and save him, or at least recover his remains so they may be returned to his temple. Also, I have a question for you about clothing, Matteo. Something is odd about the remains of the undead. I believe you know more than your share about fashion and other noble’s tricks. Now you can turn your knowledge into practice.“
Raising an eyebrow at Immerine’s choice of words Matteo murmurs, “Noble’s tricks? You want me to examine corpses and give them fashion advice?“ Shaking his head he adds, “Never mind. As my lady wishes, I’ll take a look.“
Immerine gives Matteo a sharp look and her knuckles whiten on her staff. There is a sharp intake of breath and a heavy exhale as if she decides not to rise to Matteo’s bait. “Thank – You, Lord Ashgale.“ She says exasperatedly before turning to Ditalidas.
Immerine looks at Ditalidas, “Lady, I know what lies below will be difficult for you to face. Please remember, some fears are better faced and you are not alone. There are several people in this group that care for you, including myself. When you are ready, I will lead you all down. Qwenta is still there – guarding.“
She nods reassuringly to Kalil and Marc, and then kneels to scratch Friend’s chin and neck. When the group is ready, she will lead them down.
As the group is ready to move, the guard at the old tree stump suddenly aims his crossbow and fires a bolt into the trees. A flock of birds takes to the air in panicked flight as the bolt connects with a solid ‘chunk’ somewhere in the trees. Drawing his sword Lieutenant Aluar drops into a fighting stance, facing the tree line. The guards on the bluff are also aim their crossbows towards the tree line where the first guard fired. Except for the receding sound of the fleeing birds and the sound of a crossbow being reloaded, an eerie silence drops over the site.
Friend flattens her ears and the horses seem a little skittish, their ears tweaking nervously. Lieutenant Aluar barks a swift order and his men regroup near their horses. One by one they mount, while keeping their crossbows ready. Guiding the two remaining horses, the patrol rides up to the bluff. Only Qwenta, Immerine’s horse remains behind.
“I’m pulling my men out of here.“ Lieutenant Aluar says when the two groups link up. As the three remaining guards also remount, he continues “We’re not prepared to fight Trolls at the moment. I don’t want to risk loosing my men unprepared.“
“Though I’ve only seen the tracks of one of the monsters, I have no further reason to assume that it is the only one.“ The lieutenant looks to be none to happy with the situation. “We will return to Berdusk, to get some more men and better weapons to fight Trolls. I know you are worried about your friend. But there is nothing I can do at the moment for him. For your own safety, I would suggest to return with us to Berdusk.“
Immerine looks at the Lieutenant, “My thanks for your aid thus far, Saer. But I will not allow anyone to remain in the grips of creatures such as those.“ Turning she gives a piercing whistle and Qwenta comes trotting up the hill. His ears are laid back but his love for his master keeps him calm.
She turns her gaze on Matteo and the others, “My advice to you is do what you feel you must. Your heart will be your guide. I am going hunting.“ Her hand snakes up Qwenta’s face and she strokes her stallion between the ears. She whispers soft words and the horse grows calm at his mistress’s voice and touch.
Matteo’s eyes narrow as he considers Immerine. “You can track this thing back to its lair so that we can find Telsom?“
Looking at her stallion’s liquid brown eyes for a moment, she finally turns to respond to Matteo. In a voice sure and strong she says, “I will find Telsom.“
Giving a brief nod of his head he replies, “Good. We cannot fight this thing; it would rip us to pieces. That means we have to distract it, lure it away so you can get Telsom.“ Pausing for a moment in thought he looks at Immerine and says, “You will need help. It appears Telsom has taken a blow to the head; he may not be in any condition to leave of his own accord. You will need Kalil in case you need to manhandle him. Marc will provide a good scout I think.“ Glancing down towards the woods he adds, “I’ll go down and try to get its attention, distract it and draw it away. Once I’ve done that you follow whatever woodland signs you need to locate Telsom and get out.“
Immerine stares blankly at Matteo. “But you also told me you know this area better than I do. Wouldn’t it be easier for me to distract the beast since I know how to evade such creatures? Then you can demonstrate your own skills and get Telsom out.“ While she is talking, she mounts Qwenta.
“Stop being difficult, Immerine, and don’t you dare rush down there on your horse. I know the general region, not specifics. You are the only person we have who can find Telsom, so whether you like it or not you cannot be the one to distract the Troll. You might need Kalil’s assistance; Marc can act as another set of eyes and ears. I am the only one who can be spared. You said it yourself, this is your environment not mine. If I am going to stumble about it might as well be for a useful purpose.“ Looking directly at her he adds, “Or would you place your personal preferences ahead of saving lives?“
Immerine raises her voice loud enough to be heard by the party, but soft enough to be hard to overhear from any distance. “Difficult? Who says I am rushing anywhere? No one is splitting. You would be overmatched by the beast as easy – nay – easier than Telsom. If we keep standing here arguing about it the point will be moot and the beast will be upon us. Telsom needs all our help. Each of us Matteo – each of us has something to offer in this search. I am not placing preferences above saving lives. If I did you would not have seen me come over the rise. I would have ridden after him immediately. However, I know my limitations. I cannot do this alone. I have never fought a Troll or tried to outsmart one. I do not know if they run alone or in packs. Are they smart enough to run in single file or dumb enough to leave an array? All I know is that Telsom needs us now.“ There is a note of finality to her voice. She and Qwenta fall silent, the pair could be etched from marble as they look attentively into the forest as the others make their preparations to leave with the guard or come with her into possible death.
Kalil rides to the front of the party. Close to Immerine and Matteo he halts Corundum. “You folks keep amazing me. I don’t know why you two are here, but I’m here to save Telsom, not to bicker amongst our selves. Let’s try to use our party members to the maximum effect! I suggest Immerine goes with us to find Telsom. Matteo can follow us from a distance and try to distract the Troll – I surely hope there’s only one! – When it appears.“
At this, he turns his horse sideways so he can address all. “Does anyone know a decent way to fight a Troll? I’ve heard several unsettling stories about them, but am not sure what to believe. If we cannot fight it, our search mission will be suicide unless we manage to stay away from the Troll. I fear we might not be that lucky… “
“That is just my point Kalil.“ Matteo replies softly. “We cannot fight it and hope to prevail. Our best chance is to attract its attention and draw it away from its lair. Then once it is away others can move in to rescue Telsom. It is not much of a plan, but we don’t have a lot of time for debate. Take Immerine, she is the only one that possesses sufficient woodland skill to locate the lair and rescue Telsom.“
“If I am to be the decoy then I should go down first and draw the Troll away. When you hear it chasing me, come down. You cannot go first, the Troll would not break away from a larger group just for one person.“ A faint look of distaste crosses Matteo’s face as he adds, “There’s less to eat that way.“
Kalil listens to Matteo, while nodding a few times. When Matteo finishes, Kalil shakes his head and ask in an amazed voice “Why are you so willing to be the one to die first?“
Ditalidas tries to say something, but seems unable to come in between. Her face displays anger clearly at the way the group is behaving.
Immerine swivels around on Qwenta an odd look in her eyes, “Because he is a fool. I saw what this thing is capable of – it fractured the bones of the bodies and tore gashes in their forms. It took huge bites of their decayed flesh. The worst was the blood I found where Telsom encountered the beast.“
Her eyes flick over to Matteo, “If he wishes to throw his life away, we cannot stop him. We need him more alive than as a walking corpse, but convincing him of this is futile. He is already dead.“ Immerine’s voice breaks as she falls to silence and turns back to face the trees below and the river beyond. “I am leaving to find Telsom.“ She nudges Qwenta forward.
Increasingly flabbergasted, Kalil looks from Matteo to Immerine. At Immerine’s harsh words, he has the looks on his face of a wolf that’s being eaten by a rabid. “Immerine!“ He speaks aloud “Be ashamed of yourself! Do you know what you say? I strongly suggest you two start cooperating right now! You are both as stubborn as, as… “
Matteo’s face pales at Immerine’s words but he says coolly, “I have no intention of dying. My plan was simply based on who is better suited to locating the Troll’s lair and who therefore can be spared to lure the Troll away.“
While searching for the right word, Corundum starts to move. Kalil needs all his attention to gain control of the horse again. When he has, he addresses himself to Immerine once again. “If you walk out of us now, you’re as big a fool as Matteo is. I prefer to stay in one piece, and alive at that! Sure, I would like to rescue Telsom, of course. But we cannot do so if you two risk the lives of us, the others. So you either make friends, or we go back! Your choice.“
When Immerine says that Matteo wants to throw his live away Ditalidas’ anger disappears in a blink of an eye. With a peculiar look in her eyes she regards Matteo for a moment. It’s not but after Kalil’s last words that she takes her eyes off him and says: “We don’t need to be friends. We only need to work together. In order to do that, we all have to make concessions. Just let’s not fight over it. We are all grown ups.“ Her gaze includes Marc. “We can act and talk like grown ups. Now what is our plan of action? If Matteo is to be bait, I will also be bait.“ giving herself a task in the plan.
“I am not walking, dear Kalil, I am riding. If you wish to preserve your skin, return with the Lieutenant. For myself, I wish I had not chosen to include any of you. I should have pursued immediately. At least the arguments would have been eliminated and you would be safe.“ She continues moving down the hill, ignoring any further conversation behind her. Her senses are fully attuned to what is before and around her.
Marc says, to no one in particular, “Did you see what’s hanging from Aluar’s saddle?!“ And as there is little verbal reaction to this remark he adds, “… Look!“ Marc breathes slow and deep “It’s …“ Marc falls silent for a second, his Adam’s apple jumps twice, before he nearly shouts, “It’s… Telsom’s helmet!“ Still emotional, but with less volume he adds, “… and… ehm… it’s dented badly!“
When Immerine leaves Ditalidas calls after her. “Immerine please. Can’t we talk about this? If we rush into this without a plan, we could all get in serious trouble.“ Immerine continues down the hill ignoring all calls after her. “Brilliant, what Telsom couldn’t do and Matteo cannot hope to accomplish, will be done by our dearest witch all by herself…“ Kalil says in a bitter tone. Marc looks at Kalil, Matteo and Ditalidas and says, “Well, the lady is right… ehm… I mean *this* lady of course… we have to have some plan…“
Marc shakes his head and seems to be talking softly to the horses he’s holding. Then he turns back to the humans, scrapes his throat and says, “Look… her… well… I mean: Listen! I think I owe this Telsom-guy something, so… well… Immerine’s plan isn’t too bad, but I think we should do it the other way around …“ He looks enthusiastically at all the eyes around him, “I do think there should be some frontal attack… you know, as much power as we can afford… but …“
Marc looks around in a conspiring way, as if to be sure the Troll(s) won’t listen in and adds softly, “… but this attack is the distraction!“ He smiles inspired and waits for everyone to grasp his intention, “and when this fight is busy …“ His voice drops to a whisper, “… one or two of us get behind them and drag Telsom away.“
He looks how they react on his plan and adds, explaining, “This last group has to be small, if only to be extremely quiet.“ Then he looks down modestly and states, “I think I’m the man for that job… I can move silently in the forest and I have a sling which can add to the distraction if needed.“ He takes his sling from his belt and to show it.
Suddenly he scratches his head, “I’m not too sure I can drag him all the way back though.“ Then his eyes lighten up and he says, “Good thing is we don’t even have to win the fight with the Troll or Trolls… but then again, we might… and… her… I’ll have to sneak in first of course.“
Marc pats the noses of Ditalidas’ horses and looks to each of the gathered, looking for confirmation…
Ditalidas smiles at Marc’s enthusiasm.
“Thank you for the offer Marc.“ Matteo replies softly, “but I don’t think a frontal assault is a good idea. I don’t know a great deal about Trolls but they are rather large by all accounts. It could strike at us even before we could get close to it, and a single blow from it would likely kill any of us.“ Glancing at Immerine who is descending down the hill he adds, “But if we are going to stop Immerine from killing herself we can’t remain here talking about what to do. Just try to stay away from the Troll, run if you have too. If it chases you keep running, the rest of us will try to rescue Telsom and then lead it away from you.“
Matteo looks to see if anyone else has anything to add before nudging his horse forward.
Ditalidas nods. “I’m afraid that I have to agree with Matteo. These monsters are huge and very hard to kill. At least that’s what I understand from the stories. I have never had the ‘pleasure’ to encounter such a creature and I rather would not meet one at all.“ For a moment she thinks…
Not really knowing what’s exactly is happening around here, Kalil says to Matteo “Great, you want to go after her? That would be certain death! We cannot fight a Troll. We would be lucky is our horses can outrun them! I don’t want to die. Let’s fetch a lot of townsfolk with pitchforks and torches. Let’s smoke the Troll out!“ While talking, more and more panic is showing in Kalil’s voice.
Ditalidas looks thoughtfully at Kalil after his words. “I was just thinking about that. About smoking it out I mean. Maybe that isn’t such a bad idea after all… What does the rest think of it?“ She walks up to Kalil ad lays a hand on his arm. “Now don’t panic. Let’s think rational about this. We’ll work it out. Stay calm.“ She looks at him for a moment to see if her words have effect.
And they seem to have. Kalil’s mild panic fades away at Ditalidas’ soothing words. “Thank you.“ He mumbles, “I sincerely hope we don’t march to our deaths. Let’s keep our head together and evade the Black Forecloser“
Then Ditalidas turns to Matteo and asks: “Ehm… Matteo? I have an odd question. Could I borrow Teri for a while from you? If we really need to leave right now or on short notice, you could ride Alana. There’s something I want to look at. If it can be done while talking here …“ She shrugs, “even better.“
“Teri? Oh, the horse.“ Matteo replies, looking down the hill as Immerine gets further and further away. “We can’t stay here and talk forever. If you want we can swap mounts.“ Matteo slips from the saddle to exchange horses with Ditalidas, continuing to speak as he does so. “Smoking it out is not a bad idea but with all the smoke how would we find Telsom? If he is unconscious we might well end up suffocating him in the fumes.“
Ditalidas nods. She strokes Alana over her nose and whispers a few words of comfort in her ears. Than she takes Teri’s reigns, strokes his neck and let’s him know she’s there before she mounts gracefully. She turns to Matteo. “If you insist we can go. But what ever you want to do, I want to check the bodies down there. I just need to know if she’s still there. After that…“ She turns her attention to Teri, “I will see if there’s something here that can help us… Probably not.“ She strokes Teri’s neck again “But you never know.“
“Very well.“ Matteo replies, “But stay on your horse. I’ll try to persuade Immerine to wait for you.“ Nudging Alana with his heels Matteo descends down the hill, trying to catch up with the Rashemi witch.
Lieutenant Aluar watches first Immerine and then Matteo ride toward the forest. Marc, having handed Alana over to Matteo, remains standing for a moment. Ditalidas searches through Teri’s saddlebags. A frown on her forehead indicating that she didn’t find what she was looking for, she closes the bags and mounts Teri to ride down to where the remains of the undead are. Kalil calmed by Ditalidas’ soothing words remains and seems to ponder whether or not to continue.
After handling the reigns of the beautiful Alana to Matteo, Marc just stands there, caressing the other horse he’s holding and gazes at the developing situation. As Ditalidas rides of as well he stammers, “but… but“ and looks at her while she descends.
“Are the two of you joining them, or are you coming with us?“ Lieutenant Aluar asks. “If you decide to ride back to Berdusk, you’d better hurry. We are leaving.“ Not waiting for an answer, he pulls the reins, guiding his horse around and rides back toward Berdusk, signaling his men to follow him.
Marc walks to the side of his horse and grabs the pommel. Still standing next to the noble animal he turns his head and his attention to Kalil.
“Hey, it’s just you and me now.“ Marc smiles reassuringly at Kalil for a second. Then he lets go the pommel and grabs the reign again. He takes a few steps to the left, making the horse follow him in the direction of Berdusk. Then he stops a moment, looks at Kalil again while holding his forefinger against his lips, a naughty gleam in his eyes.
He addresses Friend: “STAY!“ and walks away from Kalil, westward. Friend lies down, staring at her disappearing master, squeaking very softly.
Kalil looks at the young boy, smiles silently and places his finger against his lips in answers to Marc’s message. He stays on his horse, however, and keeps on looking around for dangers in his surroundings. He clearly awaits Marc’s actions. At a certain moment, his gaze halts on Friend for a few seconds.
Marc moves down the hill first back to where they came from then he veers off toward the forest. Leaving the horse behind, the young man disappears into the forest. Only when looking very carefully, Kalil can see Marc moving within the forest in the general direction of Matteo and Immerine. On his vantage point Kalil catches the warm rays of the morning sun, brining some warmth to the cold morning, and creating a long shadow westward.
Friend lies comfortably in the rays of the sun as well, resting her head on her paws she appears to be looking in the direction of Marc as well.
Suddenly Friend’s ears prick up as if the dog heard something. Raising her head, she looks in the general direction of where Marc should be. When Kalil follows the dog’s gaze, he thinks he sees something large moving in the forest, quite near where he suspects Marc to be.
Upon Friend’s reaction, Kalil looks at her and then at the forest. As he sees the large shape, he fears for Marc’s live. Kalil quickly ties the rope he was holding to his saddle. Then he takes the crossbow from the saddlebags and cocks it. Meanwhile, he looks down at the others and waves to get their attention. As soon as he has it, he points to the place Marc should be. He holds his crossbow in the air as a sign that trouble is on its way.
As soon as Kalil sees the others take action upon his warning, he urges Corundum to walk downwards to Marc’s position. Kalil takes care to keep enough (lack of) speed to use his crossbow, which he holds directed at the shape. Of course, he scans the woods and tries to pin point the shape, and – if it’s possible – Marc as well…
In the dead angle of the ridge Marc walks the horse towards the forest. At some point he leaves the hillside and descends to the rim of the forest, bearing north. As he’s walking at the right hand of the horse Marc hardly can be seen from the East.
When he comes at the first trees he ties the reign of the horse to a branch and carefully covers himself in his wolfs skin. The dark gray color makes him seem to disappear against the dark shadows underneath the trees. Marc looks back and up at the ridge. Then he looks along the horse at the scene of the ambush in the distance and sighs.
Then he reconsiders and unties the horse, which seems to be glad with the freedom and starts grazing at the very spot. Marc looks at the ambush site again, sighs again and disappears in the forest, walking in a more westward direction again.
As Marc looks towards the ambush site, he sees Ditalidas dismount and kneel on the ground, inspecting something. Matteo has caught up with Immerine and the two of them seem to be talking. Kalil is still sitting on his horse, clearly visible on the ridge, highlighted by the rays of the sun.
Marc walks silently through the foliage. In a way he feels like a fish in a bowl. He’s back in the woods. The smell of frost in the air, the bright colors of autumn and the giant tree trunks, they all put him back in a more natural state than he was in the city. After some 300 feet he stops walking.
He looks around and sees he’s gone past the mere rim of the forest. There’s less brushwood, less shrubs and it’s quite dark in here. Yes, and cold. Marc rearranges his fur again, using a slip of it as hood. He collects a few pebbles, puts most of them in his pocket, but loads his sling with a bigger one. He holds his sling in his right hand and the crook in his left.
Meticulously looking around he turns left (North) and continues his lonesome silent walk. The forest is extremely quiet, given the time of day. It’s a bit frightening, well at least it’s alerting. It reminds him of the silence in the woods when wolves approached him and his flock. Marc looks next to him, but this time he left Friend behind. He’s really alone now.
After another 300 feet he turns left again. His bearing would be something like east now. He skirts some thorny bushes and stops now and then just to listen. Wait! Does he hear? No, it’s just a squirrel high above, hastily running with an acorn in its jaws.
Marc does find some late green leaves of a Red Blooming Casister. He picks a few. They might come in handy if Telsom’s wounded…
But again Marc walks on. Alone. Silent. Alert. He walks more slowly as he approaches the area where the bolts hit something, until he walks at proximately half his normal speed.
Slowly Marc walks through the dark forest, constantly peeking around. He sees the giant trunks. Men, some of them must be large enough to contain entire houses! And that’s even without considering the enormous height.
Marc looks up and sees how the trunks seem to reach the sky, of which only tiny spots are visible between the red, brown, yellow and green colored leaves. Now and then he can see a glimpse of light at his left. Marc carefully notices these glimpses to maintain the right direction towards the spot where the crossbow bolts seemed to hit a target. Somewhere up there just might be some enemy, some beast probably, Telsom hopefully.
They mentioned a Troll, but Marc has very little idea what to imagine by this word. O yes, he’s heard fairy tales when he was a child, but who knows what’s true about these stories? Do Trolls turn to stone when they’re hit by direct sunlight? Do they really eat humans and human bodies? Just to name a few questions that are insoluble for Marc.
And – of course – he knows how the village Eastlake was depopulated while Marc was only a child and how some magician killed this Troll and got killed himself while doing so. In fact Marc has walked through this village much later and seen the demolished houses and barns. Well, one thing is clear to Marc thus far: he has to make absolutely sure he doesn’t encounter this creature!
When he rethinks he has to avoid this Troll, he sees something big and gray just between two trees at the left of him. Marc freezes. In a soundless whisper his lips form the words “Chicken shit!“ Marc feels his heart beating in his throat.
Slowly Marc hides behind a blackberry bush and looks between the thorns. Well, at least the beast hasn’t seen him apparently; it’s not coming his way. But it would be nice if the Troll would be so kind to move on! Why doesn’t he?
Again Marc looks at the gray skin and thinks it really looks like stone. That could explain these stories, couldn’t it?
Marc peeks again, but the Troll hasn’t moved at all. Marc decides he can’t stay here and even if he could, he has to look for Telsom, so he crawls towards the next tree. And the next, then he moves on to a nice spot underneath the hanging branches of a pine-tree. Hmm, it seems the Troll hasn’t sensed him yet. Good!
Moving from one tree trunk to another bush Marc moves forward, his route forms half a circle around where he saw a glimpse of this frightening beast. As Marc has finished this surrounding movement successfully, he looks back to see whether the Troll is still there and what he is doing.
Then Marc drops himself down at the floor. Because he sees that… This Troll isn’t a Troll at all. It’s just a rock. That explains why the skin Marc saw looked like a rock, doesn’t it?
Marc sits against a big tree to laugh at himself, carefully avoiding making any noise, which is very hard indeed. After a few seconds Marc has got hold of himself enough to stand up again and continue his bloodcurdling stroll through this cold and dark forest.
Marc does his utmost to be extremely quiet, while intensely watching the trees and ground for traces of Trolls, humans, caves or a fight. He continues to look for possible hideaways as well.
His heart beats wildly, while silently questions make circles in his mind: Will he encounter the Troll? Will he find Telsom? In what state will Telsom be when he finds him? Will he be able to help Telsom escape? How’s his female master doing? What if he meets the Troll? Is there any visible difference between male and female Trolls?
At first, when Ditalidas searches Teri’s saddlebags, she didn’t seem to find anything. Though she didn’t really had expected anything she seems disappointed. Than she takes out a piece of silken clothe. In it she finds a rose. For a moment she looks at the rose and closes her eyes, holding the rose against her chest. Then she puts the silk around it again and puts it back were it came from.
Ditalidas rides after Matteo but stops where the bodies lay shattered around. For a moment she sits on Teri and stares at the mutilated bodies, obviously looking for something. As Ditalidas approaches the remains of the undead, she looks around trying to spot the one that resembled her mother. The undead have been severely mutilated. They seem to have been half-eaten or gnawed upon. Upon closer investigation, the undead seem to be dressed in bits and pieces of very old armor. Yet none of the clothes resembles what she saw yesterday. Subconsciously Ditalidas concentrates on the remains and after several heartbeats, she sees a faint aura forming around the remains of two of the mutilated corpses. At first she doesn’t seem to find what she was looking for, but then her gaze locks on something. Quickly, without giving it another thought she dismounts Teri and takes a closer look.
On the first mutilated corpse she finds some sort of cord, it appears to be threaded with silver. The metal is tarnished and dull, but in some places it still shines. It radiates a faint magical aura. The clothes of the corpse remind Ditalidas vaguely of the style of clothing worn by the people further south; Amn, Tethyr and Calimshan.
The other undead has a ring around one of its fingers. It is difficult to spot without the magical aura as loose flaps of skin have draped over it. The ring bears some unreadable inscription and a stylish dragon motif.
Matteo catches up with Immerine when they are parallel to the corpses. They see Ditalidas dismount and walk up to the remains of one the undead. The forest seems normal, though no movement can be seen, the sounds of little animals scurrying about can be heard as well as some insects chirping nearby.
Clearly visible on the ridge, Kalil is sitting on his horse, basking in the rays of the morning sun. Of Marc there is no sign, though it appears his dog is close to where Kalil is.
“There is something I would like to draw your attention to Lord Ashgale. There are two distinct cuts and type of cloth on the undead that lie where Lady Ditalidas walks. She will more than likely need you more than I. Go ease her mind and I will remain here waiting and watching.“
Looking from Immerine to Ditalidas and back again Matteo quietly asks, “Why don’t you come over with me? If the Troll is about we don’t want to make any one person a more attractive target by leaving that person by themselves. And you can watch just as well from over there.“
Immerine shakes the reins and nudges Qwenta towards the bodies. She keeps alert and watches the surrounding forest.
Matteo’s eyes widen with poorly suppressed surprise as Immerine actually does what he asks and he stares after her, his mouth hanging slightly open. Starting, he kicks Alana into motion after her, heading over towards Ditalidas.
Immerine pauses waiting for Matteo to catch up. “You are still intent on getting yourself killed, aren’t you?“
“Are you still prepared to throw your life away to prevent anyone else getting hurt?“ Matteo counters. “You cannot mother everyone you know.“
“That is what you thought I was doing? Matteo, all life is precious. I am not about to throw away a gift given to me by the gods.“ Immerine pulls Qwenta alongside the man and watches him silently before looking towards Ditalidas. “Remember what I said about the clothing. Something is wrong here. I can feel it. Now, you should attend the Lady.“ Immerine’s eyes are very, very sad as she looks down at the undead and back out to the forest.
Matteo looks steadily into Immerine’s eyes for a moment before glancing away. “I am sorry for saying…“ He begins, laying a hand on hers, “I… Sorry.“
Bowing his head to look at the ground below, Matteo dismounts from Alana and walks towards Ditalidas.
Ditalidas looks at the corpses intensively. Slowly she reaches out to some sort of cord. Just before she touches it her fingers hover motionless over the item. She glances over her shoulder to Matteo and after that to Immerine. Than she sighs and turns her attention back to the body. Carefully she touches the item, picks it up and examines it more closely.
Ditalidas moves to another corpse and it appears she has found something of interest on another one of the corpses. With the cord still in her hand she reaches out to remove a loose flap of skin. Underneath appears a ring. She takes the ring and turns it over in her hand. “Magical items on undead… What does that mean?“ She whispers softly.
The undead have been severely mutilated. They seem to have been half-eaten or gnawed upon. Upon closer investigation, the undead seem to be dressed in bits and pieces of very old armor.
When Matteo examines the remains more closely he finds that there seem to be two different styles, one, which appears to be of a more southern style. Amn, Tethyr or perhaps Calimshan. The other is more of a Heartlands style, Eastern Heartlands. Possibly Cormyr or the Dales. Yet both seem styles seem to be outdated.
Straightening from an examination of the bodies Matteo glances towards the tree line and then back at his companions. “Have you finished, my lady?“ He asks Ditalidas, “We should not tarry here in the open over-long.“
Seeing that Kalil has not descended down the hill his eyes narrow and then he swears softly under his breath, moving towards Alana to remount. “Lady Jalarghar, I suggest you retake your saddle.“
“Lady Immerine, if we move around the hill a little, can you find Marc’s tracks? It seems the little idiot has decided to be a hero and find Telsom all by himself.“
Immerine glares down at Matteo from Qwenta’s back. “He had the opportunity to join or return, the same as Kalil. Both know there are risks. You say I ‘mother’ too much, perhaps it is time for the fledgling to try his wings. I will not waste anymore time. Telsom needs my aid more than Marc.“ She turns Qwenta to prepare to ride off to where she saw the tracks earlier.
Looking up at her coolly Matteo nods briefly, his face impassive. Turning he goes to mount Alana before glancing at Lady Jalarghar. “Do you wish to ride Teri or Alana, my lady?“
Ditalidas gets up her feet again and looks at Matteo. For a moment she doubts, but then she says: “I’ll ride Alana again. I did what I wanted to do and found nothing.“ She looks at the items in her hand, thoughtfully turning them around and weighing them as if she wants to guess their value. Suddenly she shakes her head, shaking off her thoughts. She mounts Alana before she puts the items in a pouch at her belt. “Okay I’m ready to go.“ She looks uphill and motions Kalil to come down and join them. She notices Friend, so she doesn’t worry, expecting Marc to be nearby and to descend right after Kalil.
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