By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 27 - Winter is Coming
Not far from Berdusk, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, morning
Though the cold morning started out with a clear sky and sunshine, clouds are drifting in. They seem to be laden with the first snow of the season. It will probably not fall until the afternoon, but the sight of the clouds seems to diminish the warming feeling the sun provided. The light breeze that was blowing also seems to have taken on a chill, sending and involuntary shiver through the people in the clearing.
Marc senses Telsom’s apparent tension and takes one step to this man on his majestic horse. He looks up at the mounted man with his big sad brown eyes. Then he lays a hand on Telsom’s knee and says, with a warm smile, “I’m *so* glad that we managed to save you!“ He stands there smiling up to him for a second or so, his hand still friendly on his leg, before he looks at Kalil and calls to him: “Ehm… Aye“. Next he friendly nods at both Nik and Emlyn to invite them to say “Aye“ as well.
The scowl remains on Telsom’s face, but the warrior turns his attention to Marc. “Young saer, although you all valiantly came to rescue me, I was freed from the Troll’s clutches by the maiden sitting behind me.“ He says with a nod of his head towards Emlyn. “Together the two of us managed to escape and come to the aid of you and the others. I really do appreciate the fact that you all came to rescue me, but I was actually free by the time you arrived.“
Marc nods thoughtfully and replies, “Hmm… yes… now you mention it… I did see you two… yes.“ He smiles admiring at Emlyn, “Yes… She’s…“ But it remains unclear what Emlyn is according to Marc, for at that moment he looks back at Telsom and adds, “Well… anyway, I’m glad you are safe.“
“Oh, bugger!“ Nik gasps as the wind cuts through his wet clothes. He wraps his long arms around his chest and shivers miserably. “Alright, that’s the deciding vote for me.“ He says. “You lot can stay and solve all the world’s problems if it makes you happy, but I’m FREEZING!“ He looks up the ridge at Immerine and the guardsman, adding, “I bet if I run I can catch up with them.“
He walks over to Marc and puts a friendly – if slightly trembling and cold – hand on the lad’s shoulder, saying, “If you’re going to stay here, then I’ll save you the trouble of carrying Julia around. She’s not really made for creeping through the underbrush in search of undead.“ Nik smiles down at Marc, then looks up at the others, saying, “I really would stay and help, but I’M not exactly suited for that kind of thing either. I’m also freezing, and I’m sure the chattering of my teeth would alert all sorts of evil-doers to our presence.“
Marc, still expecting the whole world to enthusiastically shout an approval on Kalil’s proposal, rises one eyebrow when Nik suddenly puts a hand on his shoulder and addresses him about the instrument. He nods again at Telsom and then looks at Nik to tell him, “Of course you can take it, and it’s yours!“ He feels the cold in Nik’s shaking hand, which emphasizes the tall man’s earlier words and says, “Man, you ARE cold, ain’t you? Here!“
Marc retracts his hand from Telsom’s knee, drops his crook again and carefully drapes his fur cape around the tall man’s shoulders. During this action he continuous talking, “I don’t think it’s cold.“ He glances at the sky. “But it will be wet soon, I guess… You can use my fur… It ain’t too tidy, but it’ll keep you warm… And… ehm… I gather that’s more important now.“ He underlines this last remark with a wink and a soft pinch in Nik’s shoulder as he finishes draping the fur. Then he takes the precious instrument of his back and holds it offering it to Nik, saying with a smile, “I’d rather not inherit it… ehm… it is to say… not yet anyway.“
The tall bard drops to one knee with the grace and humility of a man receiving an accolade from royalty. With bowed head Nik allows Marc to arrange the fur cape on his narrow, shivering frame. Not moving an inch, Nik peers up at Marc through his long, tangled hair and winks, a grateful smile lightening his weathered face. He is about to say something, when… When Marc drapes the fur over Nik’s shoulders, both of them think they hear a tiny muffled smothering sound… something like “Oomph!“ The smile vanishes from Nik’s face, and he clambers to his feet, gasping, “Oh, bugger… you ok there?“ And he lifts the cape carefully.
Suddenly Marc’s eyes grow big and he looks at the fur. “Huh!“ He utters surprised. His eyes move from side to side, his brows are frown. Then he asks Nik: “Ehm…? What was that?!“ Attempting to remove the cape without dislodging his surprise passenger, Nik says absently to Marc “I do believe it’s a fellow music-lover I met on my way here from Nashkel. And he is a fine fellow indeed, who – with another very fine fellow – helped me get here out of the rain.“ A faint frown of worry crosses his face and he adds, “If I’m wrong and it’s something horrible, you can have whatever of my possessions it doesn’t eat.“
Having pulled the cape off, he smiles gently at Marc and hands it back. “I’m kidding about the horrible thing, you know. And I do appreciate the loan of your fur, but I’m a bit too tall and too wet for it to do me much good. Anyhow, if you’re going to stay here and help the Lady and the paladin, you’ll need it.“ Retrieving his precious instrument from Marc’s careful hands, he says solemnly “You be careful, lad, else I’ll have no one to give Julia to when I die.“
Craning his head around to peer at his shoulders, Nik says to his passenger “Sorry ‘bout that, saer. I should have known you were tagging along. Mind the strap, I want to get Julia to her usual place before something horrible jumps out at me and I drop her.“ With that said, he returns the strap back to the well-worn notches that mark its regular length and carefully hangs the guitar across his back once again. “I hope you want to go to Berdusk.“ He tells his passenger. “I’m headed that way for a change of clothes and some warm breakfast.“ Despite Nik’s reassuring voice, no sound or sign of life seems to be forthcoming from his back. Nor is Marc, or any of the others, able to see anything other than the tall bard’s backside.
Shaking his head, Matteo raises his eyes towards the heavens as if to ask, ‘Why me?!’ before sighing and lowering his gaze to Telsom. “Can you give me a moment? I’ll ask Immerine to lead everyone who wants to return to town back to the Stag, then we can check this site in the forest for tracks or clues before following them back.“ Telsom nods to Matteo and then stares at the approaching clouds “Aye, take your time.“ A few moments later, Telsom speaks to the group once more. “It appears the weather will not let us wait until the morrow to look for signs of what happened yesterday. Any amount of snowfall could hide the smallest hints which could be of the biggest use to us.“ Still staring heavenward, Telsom brings a smile to his face, but it is apparent that it is a forced smile.
Nodding briefly Matteo turns from the group and quickly makes his way towards Lieutenant Aluar and Immerine, slowing as he approaches. When he reaches the two on horseback, Lieutenant Aluar rides on toward his men, while Immerine and Matteo seem to be engaged in a conversation. Immerine seems to be agitated a little as she gestures wildly at the others down in the clearing. Her agitation seems to affect Qwenta as well. The horse makes a few nervous paces, stepping nearly on Matteo’s toes.
While their horses step forward, slowly climbing the ridge, Lieutenant Aluar looks at Immerine, and then over his shoulder at Kalil and the others, “Seems your companions have some difficulty deciding what they’ll do.“ His gaze falls back on Immerine. “I take you are riding with us back to Berdusk?“ Immerine looks over her shoulder toward the others and rolls her eyes as she sees Matteo approaching. “I was, but now I am not so sure.“ She says quietly.
“Well don’t take too long in making up your mind, or in convincing the others.“ The lieutenant says while looking over his shoulder as well. “We will ride back shortly. With or without you and your friends.“ He looks at Immerine, a slight blush coloring his cheeks. “Not to be unfriendly, ma’am. But I have other assignments I need to attend to.“ As Matteo approaches Immerine, he hears the last words of the lieutenant, and sees a light blush on the man’s cheeks. “Not to be unfriendly, ma’am. But I have other assignments I need to attend to.“
“As it should be. I take no offense at your attention to duty. It becomes you, saer.“ Immerine replies politely then turns to speak to Matteo. Walking to within a few paces of Qwenta, Matteo eyes the horse warily before looking up at Immerine. “My Lady, the Lady Jalarghar has just seen fit to inform us of another incident that occurred last night. With the weather closing in it seems prudent to investigate it now rather than later but some of the party are feeling the effects of recent events and wish to return to the city. Could I ask you to escort them back to the Stag? Please?“
Immerine looks down at Matteo then back to the Lieutenant, “I was right.“ Then she looks down at the group below, “Your chances at finding anything are very slim at the moment. And, if you do find something, more than likely you will be defeated. Most of the group is exhausted and spells are getting slim.“
“I can understand your desire to remain, I can understand the Lady’s desire to remain. I will not. Tell the others to hurry. I am leaving with the Lieutenant, if they lag – they find their own way to the Stag. It has been interesting meeting you, Your Lordship. I may or not be at the Stag when you and the others decide to return.“ Immerine replies emotionlessly. Lieutenant Aluar gives a wink at Immerine, and urges his horse forward to rejoin his troops.
Watching the lieutenant move away Matteo scuffs his boots in the ground and runs a hand through his hair. His hand drops to fidget with the hilt of his sword. “May not be at the Stag?“ He asks softly, a hint of something in his voice as he unconsciously steps closer to her and Qwenta. “Why not? What is the matter Immerine?“ Immerine drops her head and says almost imperceptibly, “You do not need me.“ She takes a deep breath, “None of you. You do not listen and I will not listen. I don’t know what is wrong. You confuse me. You make me care. It is something I cannot afford to do.“ Immerine gets agitated and Qwenta snorts at the increased pressure against his sides as his mistress gestures wildly down at the others. Her agitation seems to affect Qwenta as well. The horse makes a few nervous paces, stepping nearly on Matteo’s toes.
“Can’t afford to care?“ Matteo asks uneasily, biting his lower lip as he looks directly up at her face. “What do you mean? Do Witches not care?“ Glancing down at Qwenta, Matteo’s unease seems to increase slightly before he looks back up at her. “I… We do need you. A lot. And I do listen Immerine, to every word you say.“ Averting his eyes from her face he quietly adds, “I told you last night I would listen.“
“Witches care. They care very much about certain things. They care to such a degree that they will forsake their families in the name of duty.“ a stiff angry undertone enters her voice. “We care. We care so much that we don’t care how we are viewed by those we protect. Ditalidas needs you. Return to them and tell those wanting to come – to hurry.“ Immerine leans over Qwenta’s neck to whisper softly in the horse’s ear. She rubs her damp eyes with her hands and stifles a sniffle. “Ach!“ She says quickly as she stretches her hip wrong and the stud grinds into her flesh.
“Lady Jalarghar does not need me.“ Matteo replies with a ghost of a smile, “She has Marc and Telsom to dog her every step. But I will do as you ask Immerine…“ In the process of turning away when she utters a brief exclamation of pain he turns back quickly, his eyes wide with alarm. “You are hurt! Gods, why didn’t you say something? You don’t have to be so strong Immerine.“ He says before adding in a softer tone, “Not around me you don’t.“
“I’m not hurt.“ Immerine almost shouts at him. “I fell off Qwenta when he was hurt. When I hit the ground, well… I AM wearing studded armor and I drove some of the studs through the under coat and now have a big black bruise, or so I imagine. I am not being strong. I am being selfish. I want to get back to the Stag, out of my armor and into something warm and soft. I want a bath, I want to wear something clean and I want out of this hideous armored mask.“
Taking a step back at the sound of her raised voice Matteo pales and stammers, “I… I’m sorry. I… you…“ Taking a deep breath he glances away from her before his eyes are slowly dragged back to her mask. “I’ll go get the others. Now I mean.“ “Wait! I mean, well… I – Never mind. Fine, go get them.“ Immerine sounds resigned and sad.
Stepping back towards her, Matteo raises his hand as though to touch her knee before pausing and letting it fall back to his side. “I… we… will not be long. Before the rest of us follow you back to town I mean.“ Opening his mouth he goes to say more but no sound comes forth. His feet shift about as he glances towards the others and hesitantly asks, “Perhaps when we return to the Stag we can talk?“ “Just talk.“ He hastens to add. “I’m not… I wouldn’t…“ Sighing softly he says, “We could just talk.“
Immerine looks down at Matteo, confusion and apprehension obvious in her gaze, “If you can find me, we can talk. I promised to spend the evening with Kalil. Go then, since you wish to risk even more danger to yourself and the others.“ The last sentence comes out in vicious anger. Matteo jerks back as though slapped, his eyes wide with hurt and surprise before closing over. Giving her a slight bow he quietly adds in a subdued tone, “As you wish, My Lady. I will just send those wishing to return to town to you then you can depart. I would not wish to keep you from your bath.“
Looking back up he cannot bring himself to meet her eyes. After a brief moment he spins sharply on his heel and begins to cross back towards the others. Immerine watches him leave and clenches the reins tightly in her hands. She turns Qwenta sharply toward the soldiers and trots to them. “Thank – you for waiting Lieutenant. Lord Ashgale.“ She bites his name off, “Has informed me there are a few people below needing recuperation. He has decided to escort a handful of the group further into the woods.“ Her eyes flash in anger and in sadness.
“You have been very kind Lieutenant Aluar, thank – you.“ She says softly. Lieutenant Aluar turns his head to Immerine and nods in thanks. “No problem ma’am. Like I promised, I will leave two able men with them for added security.“ Reigning in his horse when they’ve arrived at the top of the ridge, he looks over his unit, as if mentally weighing which of his men are best suited. Having come to a decision, he point at two guards. “Jarem. Rengal. You two report to Saer Ashgale. You are under his command. Your mission will be to provide additional security to the group down below.“
The two men salute briefly, and wheel their horses around, stepping them down the ridge. Both men wearing chain shirts under their tunics are armed with a short spear and a longsword. As far as Immerine can judge them, the two men seem to be veterans and able to fulfill their task.
Immerine closes her eyes against the burning behind her eyes. She also swallows hard to clear the bitterness in her throat. She looks back once more her eyes searching only for Matteo. “Khelliara, protect them in my absence.“ She whispers as she touches the unicorn pendant. The woman who turns back to Lieutenant Aluar is different, broken somehow. Immerine touches Qwenta behind his right ear, “We’re off my beauty. A good rest will ease what is left of us this day.“
Lieutenant Aluar raises a dark blond eyebrow in question, and some concern is visible on his rugged face. “I don’t want to intrude, but are you all right Milady?“ And he nudges his horse a little closer to Qwenta. “No.“ Immerine says in a subdued tone. “I’m not all right. I’m stiff, sore and tired. I – I hurt inside, a pain in my chest and I don’t know why and it only gets worse when I fight with him. He is impossible… and a barbarian… and he… well – he loves her!“ Immerine’s voice rises until she is shouting. Once she has reached a fevered pitch she plunges Qwenta into a gallop back to Berdusk.
Lieutenant Aluar reigns in his horse, surprised at the woman’s reaction. A similar reaction seems to affect his men, as all of them look at galloping crazed woman. After a moment’s hesitation Lieutenant Aluar kicks his horse forward into gallop, and he races after the Rashemen Witch.
Emlyn straightens her back and with a small movement of her shoulders, almost physically seems to put down her weariness. “If that is how it is, I will remain to help.“ She says with a comforting look at Telsom’s strained smile. As she opens her mouth to add something, she watches the strange conversation between Nik and Marc. For a moment, she doesn’t have any words, but then finishes with a heartfelt: “What in the Nine Hells…!“
Worry, confusion and finally embarrassment troop across Nik’s face. He turns to those standing near him, and meets their disbelieving stares. “Eh, ehm, heh…“ He starts, clears his throat, and gives a bright, encouraging, brittle and entirely forced grin. “Maybe he got knocked off…“ He begins searching the ground around himself, careful not to move incase one of his oversized feet would come down on the little being. “Hey, friend.“ He mutters to the ground, in hopes that the little man will take pity on him and speak up. “Let me know you’re alright, eh? I’m beginning to look a bit of an ass to these fine people, and all it would take is a word from you to help me out here.“
Looking at the confusion on Emlyn and Marc’s faces he says to them, desperation in his eyes and voice, “You DO believe me, don’t you? I’m NOT crazy. How else could I get from Nashkel to here in one morning?“ His forced smile turns as desperate as his voice, and he says again, as if convincing himself “I’m not crazy…“
At first Marc is startled and confused about the sound he heard when he put his fur on Nik’s shoulder. He keeps his eyes focused on Nik’s back, trying to see something where the sound came from, during the bard’s unbelievable explanation. He co-operates gently in the exchange of his precious fur and of the instrument called Julia, listening intently and friendly nodding every time he thinks he should comprehend something. His look expresses a big question mark, though.
As happened before, the only way to make sense from the words of this new companion is to interpret most of it as humorous talk. He’s just about to consider the talking to be just that, when Emlyn reacts so fierce on the event. He looks up at her with an inquiring look on his face. During the rest of Nik’s speech Marc keeps looking at her, questioning or thinking, while he throws a glance at Nik from time to time.
At Nik’s direct question to him, Marc quickly looks at Ditalidas, Telsom, Emlyn, and Matteo and even at Kalil for a brief moment. Then he shakes his head smilingly and says – clear enough for all of them to hear – to the tall man who seems to be convincing the grass he’s not crazy, “I don’t know what to believe, dear saer… but I do know what I heard.“
He crosses his arms in front of him, looking at the ground without seeing anything out of the ordinary. Then he suddenly seems to realize he might not have been as explicit as he intended. He erects his head and addresses the others, “Ehm… I really DID hear something, you know… Can’t see anything… but I surely did hear it.“ Then he pats Nik on his shoulder and, with a smile like tweak in the corner of his lips, he says very friendly, “Come on! Don’t worry! It’s all right… Saer…? Ehm… Nik??“
After his speech, Kalil watches the others to see what they do. It is clear he is quite irritated by the way some of the party react. But he keeps his silence and just watches. When Matteo and Immerine talk, he seems to hear something. He watches the two with narrowed eyes for a moment. Then he returns his attention to the larger part of the group.
Ditalidas listens to everybody with the same attention and patience. She nods were she agrees, smiles and shakes her head lightly when she doesn’t agree. At Kalil’s proclamation Ditalidas blushes but she listens to his arguments and nods. She smiles warmly at Marc as he compliments her but doesn’t say anything. She looks after Matteo with a somewhat irritated look as he rides off without consulting anybody about his idea again. Then she shrugs her shoulders and listens to the conversation between Nik, Marc and Emlyn.
With her head cocked a little she seems lost in deep thoughts for a moment. Quite suddenly she begins to speak. “I am going to look for other signs. I heard some arguments against this decision, but I feel a strong urge to go.“ She turns to Telsom. “If you have problems with being unarmed, you could ask one of the guards who is returning to Berdusk if he wants to lend you a weapon or even an armor. I will not force you to go though. If you want to go to Berdusk don’t let me keep you from going there“ She looks up at the sky to the approaching clouds and back to the group that accompanied Aluar. “As for the lack of spell power, we could ask Aluar’s priest to ride with us. The weather is not allowing us any delay. I’d hate to miss clues that could ease our search.“
Ditalidas turns to Nik. “Nik? I’m sorry, but I’m not riding back to Berdusk right now. You can still take Alana if you like. You could leave her at the Running Stag or at Jalarghar Spires.“ She looks at Alana for a moment. “Take good care of her, she’s a good friend. I already lost her almost once.“ She turns to Kalil. “Kalil? Are you sure you still want to go back? I would appreciate your company.“ Then turning back to the others, “As would I appreciate the company of you all.“
Nik sweeps a deep and graceful bow to Ditalidas. “I would stay with you, my very brave lady, but I fear I would be of little help – especially in my current wet condition. And I would not think of taking your fine steed, you may need her yourself.“ His expression is solemn, his eyes filled with concern for her that holds back his fear of horses. “I am perfectly able to reach Berdusk on my own two feet, hopefully the returning guardsmen will slow their pace to accompany me.“ He smiles at her, then at the rest of those who are staying to search. “You are very brave folks.“ He says. “I do wish I was as brave as you. But the simple truth is I am not, and I am freezing. So I will await you at the Running Stag. Good hunting and please be careful…“
He seems about to say something else, concern in every line of his weathered face. But he rethinks whatever was on his lips, and instead turns away and starts trudging up the hill towards Immerine, giving Marc a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he passes him. Together with Nik, Marc too bows gracefully, as if they are a couple of artists who just made a great performance for some important queen. Then again, Marc’s bow prolongs a second or so longer and he doesn’t speak.
When Nik touches his shoulder Marc turns his head towards him, smiles warmly and says, “May you find all the warmth you’re looking for; may… ehm… your god be with you.“ Then his smile suddenly intensifies and in a less weighty tone he adds, with a wink, “Hope to see you soon.“ Nik grins down at Marc, the shadow of pain in his dull eyes once again. “Be very careful.“ Nik says, his deep voice a hoarse whisper. He resumes his walk up the hill, head down, shoulders slumped and his steps weary.
When Ditalidas addresses him, Kalil simply nods. “I will go with you, lady Ditalidas, Berdusk can wait for a little while. I still think this operation is dangerous, but follow you nonetheless. I hope you find what you’re looking for, hope we can protect you doing so.“ Proud and with his head up high, Kalil leads Corundum towards the lady. “I sense no evil in the woods at the moment. Best to check it now before evil returns, or the snow falls.“ Telsom reaches forward running a hand through Teri’s hair, “No time like the present.“ He says as he urges Teri forward.
The sun has now passed its highest point, and moves steadily closer to the horizon and toward the approaching clouds. The breeze seems to picking up in strength somewhat, sending a new wave of shivers through everyone. Suddenly the attention is drawn to the ridge. Friend’s ears prick and the horses raise their heads toward the ridge. A female voice cries out, as if shouting. Immerine suddenly gallops away on Qwenta. The pair is quickly out of vision as she goes down the rise on the other side. Lieutenant Aluar and his men seem baffled for a moment, but then the lieutenant urges his horse forward, and rides after the woman. Two guardsmen on their way down, heading for Matteo, look over their shoulder in surprise as well.
In a split second Marc raises his head and looks at the rim of the ridge. Instantly, as an instinct reaction, he whistles a high note and runs towards the ridge as fast as he can, dropping his fur and reaching for the bow on his back. At the sound of the whistle Friend stands up, pointed towards the ridge, but not moving yet. Her ears are pricked and from time to time she looks over her right shoulder at her approaching boss, but mainly focused on whatever is happening beyond the edge.
At the woman’s cry, Nik stops dead, his head snapping up and his wiry body tense. Marc’s whistle makes him jump, and the tall bard looks around sharply, fear evident in his posture. He watches Marc run past him and makes no attempt to follow, instead just shivering in the brisk air. His hands are clenched around the heavy strap of the guitar, his rapier once again untouched at his side.
After he runs several yards, getting almost halfway to the top of the rise, Marc suddenly stops. He holds his bow in one hand and his crook in the other, frozen in position. He looks over his shoulder at his companions, looks forward at the disappearing riders, then turns and quickly walks back to the group, his hands trembling and his eyes wide open. “What to do now?“ He utters, “We can’t…“ He glances over his shoulders again before he stops a couple of yards from the group, “…Can we?“
On his way back down to the others, Matteo’s head snaps around at the cry and he looks on in amazement as first Immerine and then the lieutenant go galloping off. Cursing softly under his breath he looks over at his companions and then towards the approaching guardsmen. Raising his voice he calls out to Marc, “Stay there. I’ll be back in a second.“
Kalil looks back as Immerine rides off so suddenly. His boyish face shows wondering, and a little unbelief. He slowly shakes his head, lost in hidden thoughts.
Ditalidas narrows her eyes at the shout and shakes her head as Immerine rides off with the Lieutenant close behind her. She shakes her head again at Marc’s question. “It’s no use. She could almost be back in Berdusk before we are even ready to leave if she keeps up that speed.“ She gestures with a slight movement of her head to the woods. “Let’s go and see if we can find some tracks. Friend might be of a great assistance.“ She slowly turns and walks towards the forest edge. Waiting for Marc to catch up with her she looks worried at the spot were Immerine disappeared from sight and after that to the approaching clouds before moving on.
Jogging up to the two guardsmen Matteo stops and asks, “What happened?“ “Saer Ashgale? I have no idea. The masked woman was talking to the lieutenant. She seemed a bit distressed.“ One of the two guardsmen answers. “Lieutenant Aluar sent us down to report to you. We are as surprised by what happened as you are.“ The first guard salutes, bringing the spear to attention at his side, “Rengal, of the Berdusk Watch, Saer.“ His colleague quickly follows Rengal in saluting. “Jarem, Saer. The Lieutenant is normally not a man to upset the ladies, Saer.“ Both men seem to be veterans, their rugged faces showing the effect of years and the weather. They’re wearing the standard issue of the Berdusk guard, a chain hauberk under a tunic with the city heraldic symbol; a silver dragon’s claw on a royal blue field. Besides the spears, both men seem to be carrying longswords as well.
Matteo’s eyes narrow and his lips thin as he nods in response to their query regarding his identity. “What were the lieutenant’s standing orders for the rest of the men? Do you have a tracker with you?“ “The Sergeant will take the men to Berdusk. Saer…“ Jarem replies. “We don’t have a real tracker in the unit, but most of us have some experience in the field. Saer.“ “Very well.“ Matteo replies. “The lieutenant can escort the Lady Immerine back to Berdusk when he catches up to her. Let’s get this search over with before the weather closes in.“ Turning about Matteo begins to move back towards his companions.
Watching Immerine and the lieutenant gallop off, Nik’s shoulders slump even more. Nik heaves a deep sigh, his whole body seeming to collapse into itself. Head down once again. Nik continues trudging up the hill. He passes Marc without a word or even a glance, giving the dog a wide berth, his face set and weary and his eyes dull.
Nik looks up as he approaches Matteo, offering him a faint smile that does nothing to ease the weariness lining his gaunt face. “I guess I’m spared the horror of riding after all, eh?“ He says to Matteo. “I do hope it’s not a long way to town, else I might freeze before I get there.“ Without pausing for an answer Nik continues his steady pace, following the dust-cloud that marks Immerine’s hasty departure and hoping it leads to Berdusk. He doesn’t look back at the intrepid group he leaves behind.
Matteo looks after Nik in puzzlement as he passes by before realization dawns of just what the tall lanky man is doing. Cupping his hands he shouts, “Nik! You’re going the wrong way!“
“Rengal, go after him and escort him to the sergeant. He can return to Berdusk with the rest of the guard.“ Matteo’s shout stops Nik in mid-stride, one foot raised for a moment before he sets it down with a deep sigh. His shoulders slump even farther, and his head drops to his chest. Suddenly he throws back his head and screams; a ringing, primal howl of frustration.
Whirling around before the echoes of his cry have faded, he stomps off back the way he came. His gaunt face now a fixed snarl of irritation. His hands are clenched into fists and as he draws closer to Matteo, he can be heard complaining bitterly “Bloody hell. Bloody, buggery, gods-forsaken damn mother “He bites off his rant as he realizes he’s close enough for Matteo to hear him.
Giving the man a bright, brittle smile that borders on the insane, the bard stops in front of Matteo and says briskly “Right. Thank you for pointing that little fact out to me before I ended up somewhere even more unpleasant. Which way DO I go then?“ There is a manic gleam in Nik’s eyes and a muscle twitches along his left cheek. His fists – held rigidly down at his sides – are clenched so tight that his bony knuckles are white. The tall man seems to be strung tighter than his precious guitar.
“Ah…“ Matteo replies a little warily, his eyes watching Nik rather closely. “Just go with the sergeant there.“ He adds quietly, licking his lips while gesturing towards the assembled troops just a little way across the clearing. “They will see you safely to Berdusk. They can even show you where the inn is. Ah… just tell Mumadar, the innkeep, that you’re with me. He’ll get you a room and anything else you want. At no charge.“
The manic gleam fades slowly from the tall bard’s eyes as Matteo talks, and awareness of his odd behavior brings a flush of embarrassment to Nik’s craggy face. Nik’s clenched fists relax, and his rigid posture returns to its normal slight stoop. The tension gone now, he starts shivering again and wraps his arms around his thin chest in an attempt to stay warm. He looks away from Matteo, clearing his throat and tugging nervously at the scarf around his neck.
Not meeting the other man’s eyes, Nik says softly “Ehm, thanks. I… ehm… I…“ He coughs, staring at a point somewhere off to Matteo’s left, and tries again. “I… I’m not… used… to things like this…“ He clears his throat again, and forces himself to look into Matteo’s eyes. The tall man’s eyes are desperate and pleading and his words come out in a rush. “I’m not crazy. Really, I’m not. I’m just not used to magic, mayhem and death, particularly not all in one day and before breakfast. I’m just an ordinary fellow trying to get along. I’m not brave or strong or skilled with a sword or with magic. I’m just a musician…“
Nik gets his tongue under control again, and he smiles wanly at Matteo. “I think I really need to get to town.“ the bard says apologetically. “I think I need a drink. Maybe several. I never drink before lunch, but I think today I’ll make an exception.“ He glances over to the troops and adds “Thank you for the loan for the room. I’m bit short of funds at the moment, but I can always make money in a town. I WILL pay you back.“ He looks back at Matteo, gratitude mingling with the embarrassment still in his gaunt face. “Thank you.“ He says again, his deep voice a hoarse whisper. “Thank you.“ Still shivering and rubbing at his arms to generate some warmth, the tall bard sets out towards his escort for the trip to Berdusk, his long strides eating up the ground between them.
Marc listens to the lady’s words intensely, with a serious frown. Then he nods, “So? You think it was Immerine shouting…? I wasn’t sure, but if you are…“ He glances over his shoulder at the galloping lady and adds smilingly, “SHE certainly looks alright from here!“ He looks over his shoulder again and shakes his head. After that he turns to the highborn lady and nods twice. “Okay then, let’s go.“ He whistles another biting note and waits for his Friend to arrive. Friend was ready to run off to follow the horses, but waited patiently for her boss, who took an incredible route to climb the rim. But when Marc whistles she doesn’t hesitate and swiftly walks towards him.
Awakened by Ditalidas’ words, Kalil straightens himself. Then he dismounts and intends to get his crossbow from Corundum. Suddenly he smiles, and shakes his head. He decides to leave the crossbow where it is and instead retrieves the rope on Corundum’s saddle. With this rope in his right hand, and his horse in his left, he stands there for a moment, waiting for Ditalidas to take the lead. As Ditalidas starts to move, Kalil nods encouragingly to Marc in an obvious attempt to get Marc – but the others just as well – to follow his example. Then he starts walking. Kalil intends to walk on the right side of Ditalidas, just a few yards behind and next to her.
At Kalil’s nod Marc waves with his hand, indicating he’s following in a second. When Friend is nearly there, Marc starts to walk quickly towards Ditalidas and Kalil. Friend follows him silently. When Marc draws near to Kalil he slows down and softly talks to him a moment.
When Marc draws near to Kalil he slows down and softly talks to him: “Excuse me, Saer… Ehm… I’m not sure about the goal of this quest.“ He nods at the feminine figure walking in front of them, “But it seems to be to find her mother’s dead body.“ Marc frowns and sighs “In order to collect it we… ehm… we might need… ehm… a bag or something.“ An unpleasant smile tweaks at the corner of his mouth, “Hope you have something like that in your box?“ Marc gestures, “Well, anyway, if you have something like a bag…“ Marc tilts his head a little to underline the coming request: “Please take it with us in the forest.“ Then he shrugs his shoulders and walks on.
Picking up his pace Marc quickly reaches Ditalidas. When Marc has approaches her, he softly grabs her arm to make her wait a moment for Kalil to catch up with both of them. Marc looks at the lady’s face and smiles encouraging. Then he asks, “Ehm… Ma’am…? Will your horses be all right over there?“ Marc nods at the two horses, “Or should we take ‘em with us? Like the others?“ Ditalidas nods and turns around. “You are right we better…“
Nik arrives at the top of the rise and is speaking to the guards there, while closer to the rest of the group; Matteo speaks to the two guards that apparently have been assigned to him and gestures towards the horses. One of the guards dismounts, and hands the reigns over to his colleague. That guard salutes briefly, accepts the reigns and rides of, trotting towards Alana and the other Jalarghar horse. Matteo and the first guard continue their way toward Telsom and Emlyn, the paladin slowly guiding the mare into the forest, silently staring ahead.
Seeing the guard taking care of the horses, Ditalidas turns around again and smiles at Marc. “It’s already been taken care of I believe.“ Drawing near Telsom and Emlyn, Matteo peers intently into the forest for a moment and murmurs almost to himself, “Right, let’s get this over with before the weather closes in.“ before addressing the soldier who has accompanied him. “Jarem, can you keep an eye on the Lady Jalarghar? If anything happens try to keep her safe.“
“Aye Saer!“ The guard replies and marches over to Ditalidas. Arriving there, he salutes her, “Ma’am.“ And takes up position near her. Ditalidas smiles one of her sweetest smiles at the guard but when she turns and looks at Matteo her gaze seems to turn to ice. “What a gentleman.“ She murmurs under her breath. “I almost wonder if he does it on purpose.“
Turning to look back over his shoulder Matteo calls out, “Marc, why don’t you come up here. We could use your eyes to warn us of any danger or to find any tracks.“ Marc looks up at the calling of his name and listens to Matteo. He smiles proudly but turns back to Kalil and the lady to see what they’re intending.
Ditalidas sighs deeply and shakes her head. She turns to Marc and tosses him a warm smile. “You know what? I’ll go with you so you can show me how to find tracks. Leewan promised he would learn me once, but with him gone I guess you’d better teach me.“ At the name Leewan a sense of tenderness seems to overcome her and shortly after that sadness. She shakes the feelings off and her smile returns. “Let’s go.“
“There may be danger, but there is not evil intent in the woods.“ Telsom adds, “My ability to sense such things is limited however and so I will check every moment or so to be sure we are aware if it does appear.“
At Ditalidas’ smile the proud gleam in his eyes grows more intense. At the suggestion he could teach her something Marc shortly mumbles something like “I… ehm…“ But it’s hardly audible and interrupted as she talks on. His big brown eyes are focused on the lady while she talks. When emotions pass within the lady he looks at her more intensely for a second. When she says, “Let’s go“ Marc puts his bow back on his shoulder and cheerfully takes Ditalidas and Kalil each by an arm and walks with them to the forest. While they walk toward the forest Marc secretly squeezes Ditalidas’ arm once. Marc starts whistling some melody, but will silence when they reach the forest. Friend followed his master thus far, but when they reach the first trees she’ll walk in front of the threesome.
With Marc’s whistling and a friendly dog near, Emlyn’s silent mood, caused by the sight of the undead and, more pragmatically, the cold wind that for a while chilled her to the bone, slowly disappears. “I must say I’m not used at tracking either.“ She says to their newly chosen expedition leader. “But they say my people have keen ears and eyes… that at least I can do for you.“ She winks. “And of course we have the walking nose…“ She points at Friend and smiles.
Ditalidas smiles to Marc and walks along with him for a moment before she gently loosens herself from his grip. “One moment please. I’ll be right back with you.“ She changes sharp direction and with a firm pace she walks towards Matteo stopping right in front of him. She blinks a few times quickly with her eyes and smiles at him. “I do believe you do this all because you think it’s the right thing to do. And I do think I appreciate your concern.“ She nods quickly to the guard that probably followed her on her tail. “But… I would very much appreciate it if we could be able to discuss things.“ Up to this point her voice is sweet as honey and her smile bright, the look in her eyes almost friendly, than the smile disappears and her gaze darkens. “I just HATE to be ordered around.“
She blinks with her eyes again and shakes her head for a moment. Then she continuous, as if ashamed of the way she lost her manners “I’m sorry, but if you were in my place and I would send you a nanny on your tail… how would you feel?“
Until now, all Kalil did was walking along with Ditalidas and Marc. When Ditalidas turns around and walks to Matteo, Kalil’s face shows an interesting mixture of surprise and curiosity. He turns around to follow Ditalidas, but thinks better of it, just remaining at his place – looking at the young lady who seems to grow in her role as party leader. Kalil can’t do anything than applaud to this. All in discrete silence, of course…
Matteo looks at Dita, a slightly surprised expression on his face. “I never gave you an order, my lady.“ Glancing aside towards the forest and back he adds, “As for personal guards, it would not worry me. I am used to them, at home one never left the house without them.“ A wry grin tugs at the corner of his mouth but fails to catch hold and his eyes remain expressionless. “Of course, if I was at home now they would probably be trying to kill me.“
“If you will forgive me for saying so, my lady, your presence is something of a complication that we have to make allowance for. If anything happened to a member of one of Berdusk’s first families all of our futures would be endangered.“ Absently fingering the rose linked through his belt he adds, “I am truly glad you are with us but Jarem is as much protection for everyone else as he is for you.“ His voice softens as he says, “I am sorry if this causes you pain, Ditalidas. But Jarem stays.“
When they reach the first trees Marc stops and turns to his mates. “Listen up.“ He says, with the darkest voice he can produce. Then he wiggles his shoulders a bit, trying to get the most of this moment of importance. He gestures with his hands as if he’s silencing a big audience. “Tracking is never easy.“ He says solemnly, “But keep an eye on everything out of the ordinary.“ He smiles and nods a few times at the gathered adventurers. “You know… like a freshly broken branch… ehm… just look at the color of the fracture… well… and… a stone apparent next to its bed.“ Marc is thinking of more things to add, as his speech is much shorter than he intended, “well… if you see something like that… ehm… you know, exceptional… call on me.“
Marc’s proud look is descending while his talking passes into stammering, “Ehm… well… Oh yes! And listen! One day I was following a the track of a couple of wolves, when… ehm.“ Then he gathers he has little interesting to tell these people he smiles awkward and turns forward mumbling something what well could be “Let’s go then“ and starts walking into the warmly colored foliage, carefully looking for trails. Friend not only accompanies him, but certainly helps him as well.
Emlyn silently walks behind Telsom through the bristling forest, quietly enjoying the birds’ songs. After Marc’s instructions, she mumbles: “It appears I have trouble enough keeping up. But I have good eyes and ears, so at least I’ll know where you guys are…“ She smiles wryly. “Oh, but tell me. What happened to the wolves? Or will that distract us too much from the stones and broken branches?“
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