By Jaap-Peter Hazelhoff
Chapter 30 - Autumn Leaves
Somewhere in the Reaching Woods, 1371 DR, Eleint, 9th day, afternoon
With Friend and Marc leading the way, the group enters the outskirts of the massive forest. At first the trees are young and much light filters through to the forest floor. Leaves and dead wood make crispy almost whispering sounds as man and beast penetrate further into the wood. It doesn’t take long before Telsom decides to dismount, lifting Emlyn out of the saddle. The branches keep swinging into their faces. The trees don’t really provide the space required for riding in this part of the forest. Leading Teri by the reigns the paladin continues the trek, his thought seemingly intent on the forest in front of him.
After a mile or so, the trees have grown considerably larger. There are no young saplings, only massive trunks that reach up into the sky. Most of the trees here still carry their autumn colors in defiance of the approaching winter. Despite the wider spaces between the trees, their thicker canopies block out most of the daylight, shrouding everything in an almost dusky atmosphere. Yet noting seems out of the ordinary. Birds are chirping, a woodpecker can be heard hammering on a tree somewhere. A squirrel makes a dash for some nuts and upon seeing the group, rushes lightning quick into a tree. Out of reach of the approaching two, and four legged creatures.
Marc has been following something of which he though might be tracks left behind by the other undead Ditalidas had mentioned. Yet he’s not entirely sure, he had to double-back several times during their trek through the younger wood. Continuing in the direction the young lad estimates the undead might have gone, the group moves along further among the ancient trees. Then Marc finds something interesting: an old trail and something that resembles a footprint.
While the group finds a way into the woods and Marc kind – a leads their way, he makes sure he doesn’t walk too far from Telsom and Emlyn. Sometimes interrupted when a might-be-something has to be investigated, Marc tells extensive about one of his encounters with wolves. Somewhat halfway the story he tells how Friend and he followed the wolves’ trail into the forest and were attacked from behind while they were busy sorting out the trail. He tells her elaborately about the fight in which Friend and he by turns saved each other’s life. And of course he pulls up his left sleeve to show the halfling woman the teeth marks on his upper arm.
When he bends and pats Friend thankfully on the back he suddenly stops walking and looks intensely at something in front of him, kneeling beside it to look properly. Then he stands up and looks to the left and the right a few times before he turns to his friends. A little excited he addresses them, while pointing at a certain point on the ground: “Wait a second. I think I’ve found something here.“ He looks at some of his friends faces and adds, “I think it is a human footprint and…“ He pauses a moment to express his doubt, “Well, I know it’s leading that way…“ He gestures in a direction left and forward compared to the direction they followed thus far. “Perhaps one of you can have a look, I’m not sure whether… ehm… well… what kind of foot… I mean… shoes or such… well, anyone?“
But before anyone can react he starts to tell about something else he discovered: “Thing is, this print is on some kind of track. Here, look!“ He points in the same direction as before, “To the left it leads deeper into the woods… I can see quite a bit of it.“ He shrugs his shoulders and points in a direction somewhat opposite, “And there… it leads… well, into the wood as well.“
Marc tries to address Ditalidas especially, because he sees her as the leader, “Ma’am? We have to decide whether to go left, were… ehm… it went, or to the right, were it came from.“ He tilts his head, “So… where do we go?“
Ditalidas doesn’t seem to react to Marc’s question, instead her eyes seem to be focused elsewhere, and her face seems to have been drained of color. As she seems to try and focus on Marc, her body sways lightly and her hand reaches out toward Matteo who happens to stand close to her. Then her eyes close and she seems to crumple to the ground.
Caught by surprise Matteo tries to catch Dita as she falls, staggering at the sudden impact of her body and collapsing to the ground beneath her. Looking at her with eyes that are wide with shock he cradles her gently in his arms, his face suddenly pale. “No, not again.“ He whispers hoarsely. Looking up and around at his companions his eyes fall on Marc and he calls, “Marc, get her horse!“ As he turns to the nearby guard his eyes rinse clean of emotion and he commands in a flat voice, “Jarem, you will accompany the sergeant back to Berdusk and deliver the Lady Jalarghar to the Jalargharspires.“
Marc, who was looking at his lady, instantly reacts upon her behavior and runs towards her, getting there almost at the same time the two hit the ground. He kneels down next to them and bents over, examining her thoroughly by looking and feeling her hand and wrist.
Marc looks surprised at Matteo’s whisper, but refocuses on the woman after that. At Matteo’s commands he answers, “No, saer, I won’t! My place is here and nowhere else.“ He looks at the lying man for a second or two and adds with a bit of irritation on his face, “Call it what you want, but it sounds to me the lady was right, you are ordering her about.“ He frowns and softly says to himself, “I wonder why.“ Then he straightens his back and looks around in the forest to look for possible danger, still kneeling by the fallen lady.
Friend followed Marc and silently sits beside the couple, licking the lady’s hand softly.
“There is no point in continuing forward. Let us all return to Berdusk.“ Telsom says as he eyes the unconscious woman with an upturned eyebrow. “She mentioned that her powers have been coming to her in her sleep, they might be taking their toll on her.“
Marc looks up at the paladin with a questioning look on his face and replies, “What’s this with you, brave warrior? Gone for a pilgrimage and then turning back home after half a mile, discouraged by a pebble in your boot?“ He shakes his head, “There’s a saying where I came from that says ‘when you do two jobs half you end up having done nothing’… it’s all so true.“
Marc looks at the lady’s face before he addresses Telsom again, “What happened to her could be a lot of things. My mother knows these things… ehm… knew these things. Perhaps she’s just hungry or pregnant, but… if you’re right and her powers do speak to her in her sleep…“ Marc’s voice slows down and there is respect in it when he continues, “It sounds more logical to me that the gods have some kind of message for her right now.“
Marc looks around to gather reactions from his companions and speaks to them all now: “Let’s just give her a little while before we decide, she deserves that at least… Perhaps she can decide by then.“
Marc sighs and frowns thoughtfully, staring in the foliage for a moment. He gestures mildly with his hand for rest, “In the meantime, let’s examine the tracks I’ve found and… well… we are vulnerable this way, so be alert.“ As to set an example he takes his bow from his shoulder and lays it within reach near his knees, together with an arrow, and shares his attention between Ditalidas and the surrounding forest.
Inspired by her masters’ alertness, Friend ceases licking and pricks up her ears while she in turn looks around for perils.
“Whelp, I know my place, it is time you learned yours. Speak to me in such a manner again and we shall finish the conversation with steel.“ Telsom says staring angrily at the boy. “That is your final warning.“
Startled Marc hears the words of the apparent angry paladin. He turns to look up to him and says nothing for some five seconds. Then he says, with a truthful look and in an honest tone, “Saer, you can call me ‘whelp’ as often as you like, but… saer, I honestly don’t know what I did to deserve this warning of yours.“ Marc throws a glance at the friends around him, “honest!“ He spreads his open hands in a gesture of harmlessness and looks with sad brown eyes at Telsom, “All I did was ask a you a question… Can’t I disagree with you?“ Still startled he shakes his head in disbelieve, “Saer…? Is ‘brave warrior’ offensive to you?“
Sadly Marc looks down, his shoulders hanging low. After another silent moment he looks up again and asks with trembling voice, “Can’t you just talk with me in words…? What did I do wrong…? What did I do to hurt you this much…? Are you that eager to leave?“ Marc slowly shakes his head, “I honestly don’t know, saer… I just think we ought to stay for the moment, that’s all.“
He looks at the angry man for another long moment – is it compassion in his eyes? – Before turning his back on him to observe the friendly lady and the inimical surroundings again.
While Marc maintains eye contact with him, Telsom glares at the boy unblinking. When Marc turns back to Ditalidas, Telsom shakes his head. Reaching up to Teri he pulls the steed’s head down to his their two foreheads pressing up against one another. “You know of what I’m talking, don’t you?“ He says softly.
Extricating himself from under Dita, Matteo stands with her in his arms, cradling her in his arms. Turning to Jarem he hands the lady over before reaching into his jacket and withdrawing a ring, which he shows the guard. “Take the Lady Jalarghar back to the city immediately and see that she is cared for.“ Gesturing towards the direction they came from, he adds, “The black mare we left with Rengal, that horse is Alana, the Lady’s mount.“ About to turn toward the others Matteo addresses Jarem once more, “Tell Rengal to stay with the horses. I would like to catch ride back to Berdusk when I’m finished here.“
Looking back at the others he says, “An acquaintance of mine is dead, a friend is missing, and the city I love is endangered. I am going to investigate these tracks to see if there are any clues that they may divulge so I can find those responsible. You can come with me or return to Berdusk with the Lady Jalarghar as you choose, I don’t really care at this point.“ About to say more, Matteo clamps his jaw tightly shut and turns to follow the tracks.
Kalil stares momentarily stupefied at the scene unfolding before his eyes as he sees Ditalidas sink to the ground only to be caught by Matteo. Marc, rushing to his lady’s side, disagrees with Matteo’s request. In his concern for Ditalidas’ safety Marc’s actions and words seems to upset both Matteo and Telsom. As Telsom controls his temper by turning away to find calmness with his faithful mount, Matteo hands Ditalidas to the guard that accompanied them. After giving the guard some orders, Matteo makes his intentions clear and turns towards the tracks, following them deeper into the forest.
When Matteo hands the lady to the guard Marc stands up and desperately tries to persuade Matteo and after that the guard to leave her alone for a moment, but he fails and the guard starts to carry her away.
Startled Marc looks from the guard to his friends and back, uncertain what to do. “Ehm, Saer… Please let me lend you a hand… I can help you carry… ehm… and I will help too, protecting you.“ He glances over his shoulder at his companions, lifts his hand and touches his forehead, sighs deeply, groans and says to them, “Ehm… will you folks manage?“ He shakes his head and stares at them for a few seconds, before bending to pick up his bow and arrow.
While he puts his arrow back in his quiver he looks up at Telsom, spreads his hands and shakes his head, saying, “Really don’t know.“ He shrugs his shoulders, “Ehm… Sorry?“ Then he puts his bow on his shoulder and bends again to collect his crook. He smiles sadly at Emlyn and Kalil, nods at Matteo and Telsom and sighs again, “Goodbye to you all, may your gods protect you… ehm… hope you succeed.“
Then he calls Friend and walks off, following the guard. When he’s almost disappearing between the trees and the foliage he stops once and looks back at his friends, opens his mouth twice, but says nothing.
Emlyn follows the heated conversation for a while, and then turns to both Telsom and Marc. “It seems the loyalty and love you both… all… hold for the lady Ditalidas is setting fire to your words.“ She says seriously. “Surely she would not have you… us… quarrel like this?“ Saying this, she gives a quick look to Kalil, who was mostly responsible for electing the young woman as their “leader.“
“Look, I am sure that she’d want us to at least have another look for answers – if we can’t find any, it’s better than not having looked.“ Her gaze darts to the unconscious Ditalidas and the guard. “Maybe it’s wise to send her to Berdusk with more than one escort…“ She looks at Marc. “Still we do need some tracking skills, otherwise we too might return to the city as well.“
At the halfling’s tiny speech Marc turns his head towards her to listen. When Emlyn mentions ‘fire to your’ Marc takes a breath to answer her, but decides not to and nods at her remark about ‘looking for answers’. When she advises to have some escort for Ditalidas he nods again. Finally, when she says they need Marc for his tracking skills, Marc smiles awkward, takes another breath, shrugs his shoulders and sighs, shaking his head.
Without making eye contact with Marc, Telsom looks back the way they came. “Your skills will be needed for tracking. Saer Ashgale could use your assistance. I will accompany the lady and guard back to the city, where I will retrieve my weapon and return as quickly as possible.“ Looking skyward, Telsom gives a small scowl. “I guess I’ll be able to follow the tracks in the snow.“ He muses.
Puzzled Marc looks at the muscled man, who threatened him so fiercely just a moment ago. While he stands still he crosses his arms in front of his chest, tilts his head and looks at him for a few seconds. Then he glances at Emlyn, remembering her remarks, and nods silently.
Still nodding, he turns to Telsom again, and carefully chooses his words, “Saer… ehm… this might be a good idea.“ He stops nodding, “… Ehm… if you permit me to say so.“
There’s an awkward look on Marc’s face when he slowly shakes his head, “Saer? I do wanna talk about what happened… well, another time perhaps.“ Suddenly a thought startles him and eagerly he adds, “…Ehm with words I mean!“ Marc throws a glance over his shoulder at the progressing guard, “Can’t stay here all day“ Marc murmurs silently before he continues to speak to Telsom, “May your road be smooth and even, saer!“ He walks back to Emlyn and Kalil. Just before he’s there he looks over his shoulder at the paladin and addresses him with a friendly smile and in a warm voice, “Ehm… Saer…? I won’t hesitate to come to rescue you again if needed!“
Still smiling he turns to Emlyn and Kalil, “Well, come on then! Saer Matteo’s awaiting us.“ He friendly takes Emlyn by an arm and starts walking towards the footprint and the track he found – towards Matteo that is.
Turning to the paladin, Emlyn says: “May Ilmater guide you both on your way… I trust you and the lady will be fine.“ She bows her head a little and then finishes with an encouraging smile. “And don’t forget to take a warm bath yourself.“ Then she follows Marc to the track he found, and takes a first good look at it. Meanwhile, she winks at the boy. “What I said…“ She begins softly, “…you weren’t mean to Telsom, but there are wiser words to say to one who has just faced death, a troll and his lady fainting in front of him.“
Kalil, who has kept aside from the conversation and lady Ditalidas’ recent passing out, speaks at last “What’s the matter with the Lady? Is she wounded, or did she just faint? Let’s go back to Berdusk. There, we might be able to help her. At least she is safe at her father’s mansion.“ Kalil backs up his words with action and he walks towards the guard carrying Ditalidas.
The guard, carrying Ditalidas on his back looks at Telsom as the paladin approaches leading Teri. “Saer, if you are going to join me, could we lift the lady on your horse? Not that I mind carrying her, but she’d be more comfortable in the saddle than on my back.“ Telsom nods to the man a serious look on his face. Aiding the guard in placing Ditalidas in the saddle, Telsom makes sure that the woman is secure. In the mean time Kalil arrives as well, joining the three that will travel back towards Berdusk.
After a short trek back through the forest, Telsom, Kalil and the guard arrive back at the site where they fought with the Troll. Ditalidas is still not conscious, but Telsom made sure she was secure in the saddle. Besides, Teri is a gentle horse, and seemingly understood her master’s wishes. The guard they left behind looks up in surprise from where he has collected the rest of the horses. After Telsom and Kalil explain what had happened, Telsom climbs in the saddle behind Ditalidas. Kalil loads his chest back on Corundum and mounts his steed.
After the guard hands him the reigns of Ditalidas’ horse Alana, Kalil looks at Telsom. With a nod of his head, the paladin indicates he’s ready, and the pair rides of to Berdusk, leaving the two guards with their own horses and the other Jalarghar horse. The ride to Berdusk is a silent one. Telsom holding Ditalidas subtly guides Teri with his knees in the right direction, but otherwise leaves Teri to decide to pick her own pace. Kalil, respecting the paladin’s silent mood, makes the best of it and manages to read something in his book while following the paladin’s horse.
The ride back to Berdusk is uneventful, once through the gate, Telsom rides directly to the Jalarghar Spires. When the guards recognize the precious cargo Telsom has in front of him, one of the guards dashes into the mansion. The other quickly approaches the riders. Inquiring what happened to his lord’s daughter, the guard helps move Ditalidas’ body out of the saddle. Within a couple of moment’s Lord Jalarghar appears, a worried look on his pale face. The man has great difficulty composing himself upon seeing his unconscious daughter.
A messenger is quickly sent to fetch a physician from the nearby temple of Helm as Ditalidas is carried into the mansion. Lord Jalarghar remains with Telsom and Kalil and takes them into a room. Telsom recognizes the room from the previous day, when he, Druth and the lieutenant had arrived after Druth and himself had rescued Ditalidas from the undead. Telsom and Kalil are given enough time to explain the events to the stricken lord, whose features still haven’t regained their natural coloration. Resting his head into his hands, Lord Jalarghar is quiet for a while.
Silence painfully echoes through room before he lifts his head again. “I’m very thankful to you and your companions for bringing my daughter back. I owe you more than you can imagine. I understood that you have establishments at the Running Stag. Please inform Mumadar that all expenses are to be charged to me. This doesn’t cover my debt to you all, I understand that fully. When your friends have returned from their foray, let me know what you lack in equipment and resources.“ Lord Jalarghar is visibly trembling with anger now, though he is able to control his voice. “I will fund your mission, if you are willing to investigate to find out what happened to my daughter.“
After leaving the Jalarghar Spires, Kalil and Telsom head back to the Running Stag. Leaving their horses in the care of the Stag’s grooms. The pair heads towards the establishment’s main entrance.
When it is clear that Kalil is joining Telsom and the guard in returning Ditalidas to Berdusk, Emlyn and Marc join Matteo who is studying the old trail and the footprint Marc found. The print indicates the owner moved further into the forest, along the old trail.
Rising up to his feet after having been squatting next to the footprint, Matteo turns to look at Emlyn and Marc as they approach. “Right.“ He says in a subdued voice, “Let’s try to do this quickly and get back to Berdusk before the weather closes in. There’s a chance that whoever made these tracks is still at the end of this trail, so try to keep all unnecessary noise down. Any questions?“
When Emlyn winks at Marc a happy gleam very briefly is visible in his eyes. While they walk he repetitively looks down at the lady next to him and listens to her words. When she’s finished his left cheek twitches while he thinks about her words a second.
First then he answers her, speaking as softly as she did, “Truly don’t know what I did wrong… Haven’t we all just faced death, a troll and my mistress fainting?“ He shrugs his shoulders, “I think he overreacted… and I’m curious why! Don’t wanna…“
By this time Matteo interrupts him and Marc nods at his narrative, “Yes… Well… not too hasty, I hope.“ He says with a smile. Marc intensely gazes at both directions of the track, then looks at Matteo and Emlyn, nodding. Thoughtfully he says to them, “Let’s follow the track to the left, where… ehm, whatever went to… And yes saer, as I said before, let’s be quiet and listen.“ Marc seems unaware of the fact it was him who did all the talking during their previous walk.
Marc gestures at Friend – who points her nose down again – and, still holding Emlyn’s elbow, starts walking slowly in that direction, looking concentrated for other trails of previous use of the track and for possible danger. When they’ve walked a few yards Marc suddenly stops, lets go of Emlyn’s elbow and turns. Silently he gazes at the direction they came from with a serious, perhaps even sad, look on his face. He bytes his lip and whispers with an awkward smile, “Did I do the right thing… leaving her?“
After standing there for about five seconds he sniffs his nose and mumbles “Anyway… too late now“. He revolves again and continues walking attentively, be it still with an awkward look on his face.
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