It has been several days since the end of the battle with the Orcish army. Walking leisurely along the paths and clearings of the forest, I have taken some time to try and sort out my thoughts concerning the apparent attack on the faith and faithful of Tyrogatore. I did not get long to contemplate on what I had learned from my brothers, for about midday I was approached by a Fironi runner. He said he was sent by his commander, Martin Bradtree, to find me and asked that I join him and his men as quickly as possible.
I heard him before I saw him. He was one of the Fironi, loping along at an easy pace that would allow him to cover many miles without tiring too quickly. When he came into view, he was looking down at the ground more often than he looked ahead as if searching for something. Glancing up, he saw me and stopped looking at the ground all together.
“Greetings good Cleric Helodan” said the scout when he finally stopped running a few feet away. “I have been sent by Commander Bradtree of the Fironi to seek you out and ask that you join my commander and the rest of our soldiers as quickly as possible.” He was hardly out of breath as he relayed the request of his commander. I remembered Commander Bradtree from the coalition forces. He was a competent leader and hero among the half-elves. Bradtree organized his militia and they, almost single-handedly, took out a file of the Orcish army while defending the flank of the Coalition forces.
“I am curious.” I said to the scout. “How is it that you found me? I am a fair ways off the path.” To this the scout replied “In truth, I did not expect to find you so soon. Commander Bradtree thought you would still be with what was left of the coalition forces or with your fellow monks. As to how I found you,” his chest swelled just a bit with pride, “I came across a clearing a day and a half ago with a curious series of tracks. Having seen you and your fellow monks at you daily morning ‘Prayers’, I quickly deduced that one or several of you were recently there. I followed the tracks away from the clearing hoping to find word of where you were.”
Knowing what I did of Commander Bradtree and his soldiers, the skills of this scout were to be expected. The fact that he found me was proof enough of that. I had not been using many of the forest’s more ‘well known’ paths lately. I agreed to follow him back to Commander Bradtree and the rest of the soldiers. He wasted no time. The scout, whose name I still did not know, turned around and resumed the same loping stride I saw him using when he first appeared. The scout looked back, not breaking stride, only once to see that I was following him before plunging back into the forest.
I easily kept pace with the scout, much to his surprise. While we traveled, I finally got the scouts name. “Winterborn sir,” the scout replied, “Drake Winterborn. I am a sergeant in the Fironi Militia.” Sergeant Winterborn and I made good time. Using his skills, Sergeant Winterborn guided us back to one of the main roads through the forest and we continued on at an even quicker pace. We met up with Commander Bradtree and his soldiers a little over a day later.
“Thank you for coming.” Commander Bradtree said to me as we walked a short distance away from the rest of his soldiers. “Please come with me. There is something I need you to see and a problem I hope you can help me with.” I followed Commander Bradtree a short distance away from the others. We walked up to two covered mounds on the ground. The Commander pulled the covering halfway free. “These were two of my scouts.” On the ground before us were two dead Fironi. I could see several large arrow wounds on both of the dead scouts. “We also found these.” said Commander Bradtree as he pulled out a bundle of arrows from beside the bodies. “These are not Fironi arrows.” He pulled out one of his own to demonstrate that fact. “Fironi arrows have a smaller arrowhead and the shafts are made of a stronger, lighter wood.” The arrows from the bundle were different indeed. Though finely crafted, the heads of the arrows were larger and required a thicker, longer shaft. “I do not understand why you sent for me.” I said to Commander Bradtree. “Were they followers of the Mighty Lizard? Is there some sort of ceremony you think me to perform for them?” Truly baffled, I watched as Commander Bradtree recovered the fallen half-elves. He began to pace back and forth in the small clearing where the bodies had been placed. Obviously frustrated the commander said, “These are Gnoll arrows. My scouts were killed by Gnoll arrows.” Gesturing to the two on the ground, “They were veritable pin-cushions when we found them.” He paused in his pacing to stare into the forest. “The Gnoll contingent was only two hours ahead of us when we found the bodies. Their lands and ours lie in the same general direction from our mutual field of battle. It took a direct command for my soldiers to stand down and not rush off after the Gnolls.”
“Why did you not go right after the killers of your soldiers? You said yourself,” I asked, gesturing to the bodies, “they were killed by Gnolls. I witnessed your tactics in the battle with the Orcs. You are a cunning tactician and do not concern yourself about the number of your enemy. You have, time and again, proven yourself against a greater number of foes. Why do you not avenge your soldiers?”
“I said they were killed by Gnoll arrows, not necessarily by Gnolls.” I must have looked skeptical because the commander turned directly to me and ticked off each of his points on his fingers as he spoke. “One: these scouts were found not far from here, together. Their routs would not have brought them anywhere near close enough to be found, killed, together the way they were. Two: They were found in the road, directly in our path. No commander, of even a scouting party, would leave their kills out in the open to be found. If you kill your enemies’ scouts, you make it as if they never were. No trace of them left anywhere. It leaves your enemy more confused and off balance. And even a first year scout would not leave their arrows as evidence for an enemy to find. Not unless there was a reason you wanted the evidence to be found. Three: As a rule, the Gnolls do not bother with any other race but the Vass with whom they constantly struggle against. The Orcish army was enough of a threat to bring them to our side, but, even then, they resisted joining for a while. And four: Their forces were the most damaged in the battle with the Orcs. Why would they even dream of picking a fight with a much more substantial force? Things are not adding up.” Commander Bradtree paced a bit. I watched him and mulled over his words.
“What would you have me do?” I asked him.
“Go to them, the Gnolls.” He said, “Find out if it was truly by their hands that my soldiers lie here. If so, I will gladly take my soldiers and hunt down every last one of those dogs. But, if it was not them, well, let’s just say that I don’t want to be held responsible for bringing the Fironi into another war so soon after this one.”
“In return for…?” I asked. The commander was brought up short by my question and his face momentarily clouded over with anger.
“I am not without means.” Commander Bradtree replied. “I can give you as much as you require for your “assistance” he spat angrily. “You will pardon my tone. I did not realize that Clerics of your faith required barter for your services. And that for comrade!!”
As he finished his tirade, I began to laugh. His visage grew angrier until I patted the air with both hands for him to calm. “I seek no reward or payment save that if the situation is resolved to your satisfaction you make a donation to the shrine of Tyrogatore in Balinhost.” Standing, I continued, “Not many people, regardless of faith or occupation, will do something for nothing. Why did you and your men join the Coalition forces? Was it for altruistic reasons? Or was it because your superiors saw what you and they would inevitably loose if you had to face the Orcish Armus alone.” I laughed again at the chagrin beginning to creep onto the Commanders face. “Commander Bradtree, many of the faithful of Tyrogatore are not so different form you and your militia, or any other, in the ways of thinking. It is usually ‘hit first and ask questions later’. Most of the monks of my faith do not think beyond the end of their fists.” the later comment made with a resigned sadness. “But, it is up to individuals like us to see beyond the immediate, as you have done here, otherwise why send one of your men to look for me. I will go.”
“You have my thanks Cleric Helodan. I estimate that in four days we will be close enough, because of terrain, to see and engage the Gnoll troops. I have held my men in check so far, but their anger will continue to brew like Dwarven spirits. If we do not resolve what happened to my scouts by then, the fallout of what I expect to happen will throw my people headlong into war.”
“Then I should be going. I know parts of the forest, but only areas along the main roads through the forest. If the Gnolls cut through the forest, I doubt my skills at tracking will be enough to lead me to the Gnolls in time to head off any confrontation. If you could spare him, Sergeant Winterborn has shown himself to be an able tracker.” The commander looked at me a bit askance. “Winterborn you say? He is one of my better scouts, but,” he paused, “let’s just say that he has a bit of an ego problem.” I just smiled. “Commander, we are wasting time. I have seen the skills of Sergeant Winterborn and we have already met. We can both be on our way and feel confident in the skills of the other.” Commander Bradtree let out a sigh. “Very well then, I will send Winterborn with you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Commander Bradtree and I walked back over to the rest of the soldiers. He detailed a few of his soldiers to assist me in gathering what supplies we would need for our journey and divide them into two packs. I saw Commander Bradtree talking to Sergeant Winterborn. The Sergeant’s face, at one point, clouded over with barely concealed anger, spat something back a response to the Commander who, in turn, appeared to reprimand the Sergeant, bringing the full weight of his rank and experience to bear on the unfortunate Sergeant. Soon after, the Sergeant jogged to his belongings and began to ready himself to leave. When all was packed I met up with Sergeant Winterborn on the north side of the Militia encampment. Commander Bradtree and some of the men were there to see us off. With little fanfare we set off on our course at a quick trot. Once the journey began, I expected it to be like the first one made with the sergeant only the day before, with small talk made between us as we traveled. But almost as soon as we started off, Sergeant Winterborn put himself thirty paces ahead of me on the trail and never let that distance close in any appreciable way.
It was still an hour or so until nightfall, we had been on the trail of the Gnolls, and away from the rest of the Militia for almost twice that long. Still ahead of me, I saw Sergeant Winterborn crouch down at the left side of the trail. “They left the trail here.” The sergeant said. He walked a bit further down the trail looking down at the ground the whole time. After about fifty feet he stopped. “All of them.” he said. By this time I had reached the spot of his initial discovery. I looked down at the ground to see if I could see something of what the sergeant could apparently read fluently. As I was examining the ground I heard the rustle of grass. Looking up I saw the sergeant walking off the path to the left, a south and west direction by the sun’s reckoning. He was moving at a swift and determined pace with a scowl on his face. I believed then that I knew why the sergeant was acting the way he was. I had seen it time and again with young monks. They let their anger and resentment seethe and they keep it bottled up inside. That anger and frustration eventually boils over and leads them to make decisions that are clouded by emotion. This would not do. I decided to help things along.
“How do you know?” I called to Sergeant Winterborn from the road. I heard him stop. “What?” he called back.
“How do you know that they left the trail here? How do you know that all of them went?” I asked.
“I know because it is my job to know!” the sergeant yelled back. “Do you doubt my skill so readily?” He angrily stalked back towards me a few feet. “I found your trail with less evidence than this!!” he yelled. “I do not doubt your claim.” I calmly replied. “Indeed I admire your ability, but I was wondering how it is that you can tell so much from what looks like a clutter of debris to me.” My playing to his vanity in this matter mollified him somewhat. He stomped over to where I was standing and angrily pointed out several things. “These tracks here,” he said angrily, pointing to a spot on the ground. “The heel print here is fairly deep and the edges of the imprint have not been too dulled by the wind, so it was made fairly recently. And see the front of the print here?” he pointed. “It is splayed out more than a human or elf print would be and you can see the imprints of clawed toes where the boots have worn thin. Many of the prints overlap and head in that direction.” He said pointing to the south and west. “There are no more tracks after fifty paces. Now, if we are finished with this basic lesson in survival, can we go?!?! We’ll barely make it another half a mile with the light we have left!” he finished angrily. I could indeed see what he was talking about with the tracks. One can not live the majority of one’s life in the Halfling Forest with out picking up some survival skills. “How far ahead do you think they are?” I asked. With a disgusted sigh the sergeant put down his equipment and walked over to reexamine some of the tracks. I walked over to where the sergeant had placed his backpack and traveling equipment. Before leaving Commander Bradtree and his soldiers, both the sergeant and I were given backpacks filled with traveling rations and camping gear. The total weight of the pack is around 130 pounds. Focusing inward I used a secret Emenote technique and easily hefted both packs onto my shoulders. “Sergeant Winterborn, are you finished?” I called out. Squatting over some tracks, the sergeant called back “A day, no more. I don’t know if we……hey! What are you doing?!”
“We need to hurry if we are to find the Gnolls before your comrades.” I yelled over my shoulder as I ran in the direction of the tracks. As I looked back I saw Sergeant Winterborn look back down the road, the way we had come. Moments later I head him running through the grass behind me. I smiled to myself as I continued to run. The Gnolls’ passage through the grass was easily discernable even to me and I had no doubt that I could follow their trail until they rejoined this or another road. The sergeant, full of anger, kept up, just behind me, for almost two miles, but there are not many who can keep pace with one who has trained for most of their life in the service to Tyrogatore.
When the day’s light had waned to the point where the tracks on the ground would soon be no longer discernable, I looked for a sheltered place to make camp. I had just finished making a stew over a small fire when the sergeant came gasping into the copse of trees I selected for our campsite. “Ahhh, Sergeant. You are just in time for an evening meal.” I spooned some of the stew into a bowl for the sergeant and handed it to him. When he did not take the offered bowl, I sat on the ground and retrieved my own bowl and began to eat. As I ate I looked at the Sergeant and chuckled, “Ha, ha. ‘Barely a half mile’ did you say? I think this spot rather more like two and half miles from where we left the road.” The sergeant just stood there catching his breath and scowling back at me. He stood there for a few more moments and then stalked over to the far side of the camp and sat down on the ground.
The rest of the night passed uneventfully and early the next morning we began the trek anew. The sergeant pushed out ahead of me on the trail never letting me get within one hundred yards. We continued through the clearings until the trail emerged to join another road. Around mid morning though, the sergeant stopped on the road. “Is there anything wrong?” I asked. The sergeant stood there in the middle of the road for a moment and then looked to the east. “They left the path again. It looks like their trail is angling around the forest spur up ahead. I won’t be able to confirm that without checking their trail. Wait here.” The sergeant took his pack his pack and most of his belongings, taking only his weapons and headed of the path following the Gnolls trail. Less than an hour later the sergeant returned. “It is as I suspected. They are working their way around this stretch of forest.”
Looking at the trail ahead where it entered the forest proper and back to the trail left by the Gnolls I asked “Why would they leave the trail again?” As he was gathering up his belongings the sergeant answered “I’m not sure. They are not familiar with this area of the forest and may not want to get into any confined areas where they may be easily ambushed. We Fironi have scouted this area in the past and I believe that it would take more than twice as long to circumvent this section of the forest than to follow the path through it.”
“So if we continue through the path, we should come out ahead of the Gnolls?” I asked.
“Yes, we should.” The sergeant replied.
“Well then, what are we waiting for?” I asked and proceeded to continue down the path and into the forest.
We walked for the rest of the day through the forest. With the intertwining canopy of tree limbs, darkness fell quickly and we were forced to stop earlier than normal to make camp. We found a small, twenty foot clearing on the side of the path with what looked like a ring of stones in the center. We surmised that this was probably a common spot for travelers to use while walking through the forest on this path. While we ate I tried to engage the sergeant in conversation. The sergeant was still brooding over the way we covered so much ground the previous evening though and was not responsive to my questions.
“Well, if conversation is not to be had then I guess I will practice my forms.” I said getting up and moving over to a clear section of the small clearing. Saying a short prayer to Tyrogatore, I began some of the simplest forms, ones taught to new initiates. It is from these basics that all of the advanced forms stem. Without mastering these steps, one cannot hope to master the more difficult ones. I increased the speed and the difficulty of the forms. Soon I was covered in a layer of sweat. I used the ten feet on the side of the fire-pit that we were not using to practice. Working through my forms and moving a few steps, I was at the forests edge. Working through more forms brought me back to the fire-pit, then again I moved and I was at the edge of the path. Faster and faster I moved and struck at unseen foes. The steps of my forms took me randomly across my impromptu practice area. I had moved back to the edge of the forest with it on my left and the rest of the camp area to my right.
I halted instantly, my weight perfectly balanced, my left hand outstretched in a brutal strike. A fingerbreadth above and below my outstretched hand, still quivering, were two arrow shafts. I looked over at our camp and I saw the sergeant, with a grin that was half smug superiority and half anger on his face, putting down his bow. “It’s a wonder you’re still alive Cleric.” the sergeant said with great distain. “You would be running around in circles looking for the Gnolls without a guide. And who did Commander Bradtree send as your guide? One of the best shots in the militia who, instead of fighting along side of his comrades when they finally catch up to the Gnoll scum who killed our friends, has to baby-sit a damn cleric who is going to ‘talk’ to the gods forsaken Gnolls.” Pointing to the arrows he said, “That could have easily been your head! All that fancy dancing is worth nothing in real combat. I could have skewered you at any time.” The sergeant was, by this time on his feet, fists clenched in anger. I slowly turned towards the sergeant. “Are you so sure?” I asked calmly. “I was on the hill shooting Orcs in their eyes from five hundred paces. Every arrow that left my bow felled an Orc. I was waging battle while you were probably hiding behind your whore of a mother’s skirts behind the defenses.”
That was it. “I think it’s time we had a discussion about Faith.” I said in a coldly calm voice. “If you can draw blood from me in the next minute, you are free to return to your comrades. I will even write you a ‘note’ so Commander Bradtree doesn’t think you ran away.” I finished sarcastically. “If you can’t, well, we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it shall we.”, and saying that, I began to advance on the sergeant and count.
Calling upon my faith I advanced on the sergeant. He seemed confused for a moment as if not sure that I was serious. Then, his anger getting the better of him, he set himself and his bow in a position to fire. He didn’t know it yet, but that was the mistake that would cost him dearly.
The sergeant set an arrow to his bow and pulled the string back to his cheek. With cold anger flashing in his eyes, he released the bowstring. The arrow sped through the air in the short twelve feet now between us. The sergeant must have wanted to show off his skill for the arrowhead slid along the outer edge of my right arm. The sergeant laughed as if in triumph, but quickly quieted. No blood flowed down my arm. And even more to his astonishment, there was no wound where the arrow had struck. At this distance, which was quickly closing, he knew he could not have missed.
By this time I was too close for the sergeant to use his bow effectively, so he dropped it and drew his short sword, but he was too slow. I leapt over the fire-pit and, with my foot, caught him in the chest, propelling him several feet backwards to land, on his back, on the dirt covered ground. I was on him in an instant, punching and kicking, striking at vital areas again and again. The sergeant tried to strike back with his sword but no blow he landed did more than crease my skin.
When the sergeant stopped moving I stopped my attacks and stood up. “28…29…30…humph…pitiful.” I left the sergeant where he laid and went back to my exercises.
Night had descended in full. I had a nice fire going to keep away the chill of the forest night. I was keeping watch over the campsite as I tried to figure out what I was going to say to the Gnolls when we caught up to them. There was a small sound of movement from the other side of the fire. I removed a small cooking rack and traveling teapot from my belongings and put some water on to boil. A short time later soft whimpering could be heard from across the fire followed by a loud ‘groan!’
“Don’t try to sit up. You will black out again.” I said. The groaning lessened a bit in volume. The water now boiling, I fixed a cup of tea. When I was finished I stood up and walked to the other side of the fire. Sergeant Winterborn, looking very worse for wear, was lying on his bed roll, where I had placed him after finishing my exercises. I stood over him until he looked up at me. “Has your anger played through? Or would you like to try my game again. You are lucky.” I said when there was no reply, “No one else who has insulted my mother like that has woken up. Here is some tea.” I set the tea on the ground beside the sergeant. “When you are able to sit up, it will be cool enough to drink.” And with that, I went back over to the other side of the fire and sat down. Less than an hour later, the sergeant was able to move to a sitting position. He quietly sipped the tea I had given him for a while. Finally he spoke up. “I feel like I was hit with a mountain.” He said through swollen lips and puffy cheek. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” I said, “but, you should know, I was not striking to kill. I was teaching you a lesson. I left you some souvenirs to remember this night, but you should be well enough to travel again tomorrow. You will be stiff and sore until then though, the tea should help too.” Gingerly touching his face, he said with a self-deprecating chuckle, “I’m surprised you didn’t take care of the Orcish Armus by yourself.”
“Only a regiment. Only a fool would have tried to take on an army as large as that by himself.” I replied.
“You’re not kidding, are you?” asked the sergeant after a moment.
“You’re saying that you took…” the sergeant began, but stopped mid sentence. A look of confusion and then concern painfully crossed the sergeants’ face. I looked quizzically at him until my own senses realized what the sergeant’s had seconds before. The forest was quiet. No longer were there night birds chirping. No insects buzzed or clicked unseen in the dark. All was eerily still. Then the smell hit us. Like fetid swamp water in the high summer. “Not good.” The words from the sergeant were barely heard. There came from the forest around us, a low pitched grating sound. I stood up and stared into the forest. The grating sound was joined by others until it could be heard all around us. I turned in place trying to see the source of the noise. Turning to face the road, I saw them, Wugs. Coming out of the forest all around us was a Wug raiding party. Most of the wugs on the road moved around to the other side of the fire to join their fellows, on the same side of the fire as the sergeant, who was still on the ground. I quickly kicked the rest of our kindling into the fire as I moved around to stand between the wugs and the sergeant.
“What? How did they get here? We’re nowhere near the Boiled forest.” The sergeant asked, completely panicked. “The Wugs are drawn to battle like bees to honey.” I said. Looking around, I saw immediately that there were several different types of wugs facing us. A dozen brownish-green wugs, three blue wugs, and, my biggest concern, a large dark brown wug had come into our camp this night. All of the wugs held a weapon. Some of them had swords or axes, a few had clubs, and the rest had spears. The big red Wug was holding a serrated great sword. “So many people were pulled away from their normal posts and positions because of the pending battle with the orcs, it is no wonder that something like this would happen.” I said. The large Wug gave a gravely command and several of the wugs with spears inched closer and looked like they were preparing to charge. Seeing that there was no other way out of the situation, and not really looking all that hard for one, I fell into myself and prepared for battle. Time seemed to almost stop. I slowed my breathing the same way I had for countless other battles. I focused my will and prepared to activate the Holy Garments of Tyrogatore in my possession. I set myself in a defensive stance. Time seemed to return to normal. The wugs rushed in. A group of four spear wielders charges at my front while others moved into flanking positions. Still, I had not moved. Two humans against their band of sixteen, they expected an easy kill. The charging four were only five strides away. That’s as close as they got. Activating my Holy Garments, I struck at the charging wugs. With a single strike and a roar of defiance and joy to my god, all four were thrown back to the edge of the clearing. Two did not rise again. Five of the brown-green wugs had moved to flanking positions, three to my left and two to my right, closer to the road. The three to my left were closer, so I went after them next. I accepted a stinging thrust of a sword wielding wug to my side before I snapped my fist into its face driving it back. The weapons of the other two wugs I was facing could not get through my guard. I spun and struck at the three wugs until there was only one left standing. This axe wielding wug swung high and I dropped down to one knee and executed a sweeping kick. My foot connected with the side of the wugs knee and I heard the crunch of bone. Knowing that this one would no longer be a threat I turned to face the rest of the wugs. The two who had been flanking the sergeant and me on my right were right on top of the sergeant. The sergeant was fending the two off with his short sword as best he could, but after the beating I had already given him he was in no shape to fight. He knew it, but he continued to fight on, accepting hit after hit as he tried to keep the wugs at bay. The wugs knew it too and several of them began to surround him. I activated another of the Holy Garments which caused my arms from the elbows down to become scaled, my fingers to elongate into claws, and both my arms to be covered in a golden fire, I rushed to the aid of the sergeant. I bowled into the wugs knocking several down. I yelled “Down!” and the sergeant, who had been trained as an archer in the Fironi militia, acted on instinct and flattened himself to the ground. I kicked out over the prone sergeant and knocked one of his attackers back. I turned my attention back to the wugs I had knocked down. Several of them were getting to their feet. With well placed strikes to their heads and chests, the wugs went down. Several times I heard the crunching and cracking of bones as I struck.
Most of the remaining wugs attention was on me by this time and I was beginning to be hard pressed to keep myself between them and the sergeant. One of the wugs, an axe wielder, came in more cautiously than the last time. The rest of the wugs were using this lull in the fighting to take up positions around the sergeant and me. The axe wielding wug came in for the attack. I struck it square between the eyes, right where the bridge of its nose met its skull. It was not a killing blow, but the wug was blinded. I leapt over the still prone sergeant and pushed back the attacking wugs on that side. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the wug I had blinded going into a chopping frenzy with its axe, hitting several of its comrades. Not appreciating being attacked by one of their own, the nearby wugs quickly disposed of their blinded brother.
Using this moment of respite, I quickly prayed to Tyrogatore and a wall of wind formed between me and the sergeant and three of the wugs coming at us from the road. With those wugs held off for a bit I turned my attention back to the rest of them. The sergeant was attempting to fend off another wug from his position on the ground. The wug had knocked the sword from the sergeant’s hand and now the sergeant was trying to use his bow like a club to keep the creature at bay. I rejoined the battle, quickly taking out two of the remaining wugs. The last two wugs on this side of us cautiously stayed out of range. One of them made some guttural clicks and growls and the two blue wugs began to move forward. They were still some distance off so I focused my attention back onto the two wugs in front of me. The two of them kept feinting attacks, one then the other, trying to keep me off balance and at bay. They truly did not understand the depth of martial training that Clerics of Tyrogatore receive. Back and forth they made feinting thrusts and I prepared myself. As one of the wugs made a high feinting thrust, I pulled my legs beneath me and crouched as if to avoid the blow. As soon as the wug began to pull his weapon back I sprang up from the crouch and launched myself through the air to land a few strides behind the other wug. With a silent prayer to my god I launched a devastating attack. Within seconds the wug was dead, charred in the places where my fists had connected with its body. By this time the three wugs by the road had pushed their way through the wall of wind and were descending on the sergeant. Luckily they still had to go around our campfire to reach him. Two broke to the right of the fire and one to the left. I moved to intercept the single wug, who was the closer, but quickly changed my mind. The single wug, running strong for the sergeant, all of a sudden twitched once and broke stride. It twitched a second time, clutched at its throat, and fell to the dirt. The sergeant, it seemed, had managed to retrieve some of his arrows. I turned to the other two and executed a flying kick to the face of one, dropping it like a rock. The other survived only moments longer. The last of the brownish-green wugs backed up towards the blue wugs who had all advanced to half the distance between the red wug and the sergeant and me. The red wug said something in its gravely language. The brown wug shook its head back and forth and continued to back away from us. The red wug growled louder, but the brown wug ignored what I assume to be a command. The brown wug continued to back away for a few more steps before a spear tip erupted from its chest. The wug looked surprised for a moment before all life fled from its eyes.
One of the blue wugs pulled its spear out of the smaller wug. All three, wielding spears moved a little closer. They seemed calmer and like more skilled warriors. The three blue wugs arranged themselves in a triangle like formation, with two of the wugs standing side by side and the last wug standing between, but behind them. The three of them set themselves and looked as if they were going to charge. Suddenly the one in the back launched itself through the air and at the same time the front two charged. I could see the cunning of this type of attack. If you focused on the two on the ground, then you left your self open to attack from the one leaping through the air. If you focus on the leaping one, you get run through by the two on the ground.
I set myself to face the two on the ground first. I set myself in a purely defensive stance and waited for them to close in. The timing of their attack was near flawless. The two on the ground veered to the right and left and attacked as the one that leapt through the air landed almost on top of me. We battled fiercely for a few moments neither them nor me landing any significant blows. Then one of them dropped their guard a little too low and I struck out with devastating force. I felt the wugs shoulder shatter and flex backwards with the force of the blow. Though gravely wounded, the wug continued to fight, but not as well as before. I found more and more holes in all of the wugs’ defenses.
I was gaining the upper hand when I heard a bellow and the thunderous footsteps of the last wug. I was being pressed from all sides and being forced back. I spared a glance to the sergeant and saw that he was trying, unsuccessfully, to rise. But I noted that none of the remaining wugs were paying him any attention. That glance almost cost me. I turned and barely moved my upper body out of the way of a vicious series of thrusts and slashes. I continued to dodge and move back out of the way of the heavier blows. It was then that I realized that I was being herded. The wugs were moving me back towards the tree line. There seemed to be one large tree that I was being herded towards. If I was caught with that tree at my back then the wugs would eventually wear me down. I let them move me a bit closer to the tree. Before the wugs could close off any escape, I darted around the tree and into the forest. The wugs gave a short chase, but I had used my skills to hide myself in the forest. They could not find me. The leader was bellowing angrily and the rest of them took a quick look around the immediate area. When they could not find me they moved back out into the clearing. They gathered around the base of the tree they were herding me to and the leader was yelling and gesturing into the forest. The wugs looked back into the forest and, from a branch above them I leapt out, over them, back into the clearing. I landed a few feet behind them and turned to face them. After a split second of surprise they resumed the battle. But, they were all in front of me now and I could bring the full force of my Holy Garments to bear. I struck out at the leader. I landed several blows, but the large wug seemed to ignore them. The rest of the wugs, though, felt each blow.
I was finally pushed back by the mad swings of the large wugs serrated greatsword, but not before the other three wugs were either dead, or too wounded to fight. Now that it was down to the large wug and myself and I could tell hat the wug had gone into a rage and that the rush of battle was keeping it from feeling the effects of my attacks. I fell into the full power of my Holy Garments and redoubled my attacks. I began to rain blow after blow onto the wug. As I did, wounds started to appear on my body. Bloody gashes, as if from giant claws began to appear with every blow to the wug. I landed several blows directly to the wugs face and it started to reel. Its swings came slower and with less power. It began to stagger. Then, with a final half-hearted swing, it fell over into the dirt.
I walked over to Sergeant Winterborn, who was still valiantly trying to stand. “Well,” I said, “That was a poignant lesson. Don’t you think?”
The Sergeant looked at me, not understanding. “Never underestimate the forest.” I clarified for him. “The moment you do, could be your last.”
“You do realize that you just wiped out a scouting party, don’t you?” said Sergeant Winterborn.
“That’s not entirely true.” I replied. “We wiped out that scouting party. You really are very good with that bow of yours. But, you are right.” I continued quickly, seeing the argument forming in the Sergeants mind. “We need to leave this area. We will need to push on through the night and get as far away as possible.” I began to clean up the rest of the campsite as I said this.
“You are just going to leave me here then?” asked the Sergeant. “You said yourself that I cannot travel in this condition.” His omission of how he came into his current condition gave me hope that I had gotten through some of that proud exterior of his.
“No Sergeant, I am not going to leave you, but we will quickly after you are healed. Every creature within shouting distance will know exactly where we are. And not even I, with all the blessings of Tyrogatore at my disposal, care to see what would find us.” I could see that the Sergeant didn’t understand. He had obviously not been healed by one of Tyrogatore’s faithful before. I finished packing up our things and knelt down next to the Sergeant. “Before I heal you, I want to warn you that it will hurt. Tyrogatore grants his faithful the ability to heal, but at the same time counsels us to be strong of body. Are you ready?” The Sergeant nodded.
The shout echoing form our clearing was loud, but, to the Sergeants credit, he cut off his cries of pain after only a few seconds. Soon after, we grabbed our gear, lit two torches, and continued on our way.
It was nearing dawn when we finally cleared the forest spur and stopped to rest and have a quick meal. The Sergeant scouted further down our trail and a short distance into the grasslands that surrounded this section of the forest. When he came back he said that there were no signs that any large groups had traveled through this immediate area.
“Do you think we are ahead of them? Or do you think they continued away from the main road?” asked the Sergeant. I looked out over the grasslands and into the dawning day. “I don’t think it matters Drake.” My use of his first name surprised him and he looked back at me. I gestured out into the grasslands. Drake looked out into the waving, waist high grass and saw a dozen shadowy forms rising from the receding shadows with bows drawn, several of which were within the area he had just scouted through.
A guttural, almost barking call came from one of the shadowy figures. I glanced at Drake and he subtly shook his head. He did not understand the language, if that is what it was. Then from the shadowy figures came a command, “No Weapons!” I turned my hands palm out and moved them away from my body, showing that I held no weapons. “Drake.”, I said quietly. Drake looked over at me and followed my lead. The shadowy forms closed in and surrounded us. It was as they were moving to surround us that the sun broke through the nearby trees, illuminating the grasslands before us. Passing in and out of the rays of sunlight, the Gnoll party warily encircled us. With the numerous Blessed Items of Tyrogatore at my disposal, I understood that these Gnolls would pose little physical threat to me if it came to a confrontation. But, I understood that these were skilled warriors and that, though I may survive, Drake surely would not.
Our gear was taken and our hands were bound before us. There were a few minutes of guttural conversation. Several of the nearby Gnolls were focused on the banter between the talkers. I took the opportunity to quietly pray to my Deity. One of the Gnolls nearby heard me and knocked the wind out of me with a quick jab to the stomach. But not before I had finished my spell.
“We take them back to the others and that is final!” growled one of the Gnolls. The spell allowed me to understand the Gnolls conversation. This Gnoll, whom I assumed was the leader, issued orders to have us and our things taken.
We were herded into some grasslands and were made to run with the Gnolls. We were kept to the middle of the group. With one Gnoll on either side of us with swords drawn and four behind us with arrows set and ready, there was no choice but for us to go along. We ran on for the rest of the morning through stretches of forest and grassland. The Gnolls stopped only once near midday to eat a quick meal. Drake and I were given nothing to eat or drink. So far, we had both managed to keep pace with the Gnolls, but I could see that Drake was tiring and would have some difficulty if the Gnolls kept up the same pace.
After a short rest the Gnolls began moving again. All too soon Drake started to stagger. At one point, Drake fell face first into the dirt. The Gnolls, hardly slowing, roughly pulled Drake back to his feet and kept him moving. When Drake made it back into the center of the Gnolls, I saw that his face had a few bruises, his nose was bleeding, and his right eye was beginning to swell shut. I saw too, that Drake now clasped a sharp rock in his bound hands. It seems that Drake had been keeping his eyes on the ground as we ran. He had been looking for a sharp object to aid him in cutting his bonds. When he finally saw what he had been looking for, he staged a fall, not hard given the pace of our run, and used it as cover while he grabbed the rock from the ground. Grant sighed. They had been sent to find the Gnolls and it seemed as if they were being taken to their camp. But if it came down to survival, it seemed as if Drake was not going to go quietly to his grave.
They had been running for about an hour and there seemed no end in sight. The leader of the group of Gnolls dropped back to talk with the others running at the rear of the group. I once again prayed for a quiet spell to be able to understand them.
“Why did we not kill them on the road Longstride?” one of the Gnolls in the rear group asked. The leader replied, “What is one more tale of ambush? The others do not fear what they cannot see. More effective is a live target for their hatred. Hatred we can build upon. We will force the Fool to show the others he is weak. When he does I will challenge him and gain control of the force. With that power I can begin the extermination of the filthy Fironi from our forest. As my second, Taregard, you stand to gain much.”
“My loyalty is to you Longstride.” The one named Taregard replied. “I will gladly fight by your side to rid the forest of the stench of Fironi. All of your men will. Once you take down the Fool, nothing will stop you.” The two Gnolls share a quick laugh and then Longstride moves back to the front of the group.
As dusk approached, we came across a Gnoll scout. It seemed as if we had finally caught up to the Gnoll troops.
Our entrance into the Gnoll troops camp was as I had recently come to envision it. While none of the Gnolls were openly hostile, there was anger behind each pair of eyes. Drake bore the brunt of the angry looks. Lips curled back into snarls as he passed by. As word of our approach spread, it seemed as if the entire camp turned out to watch the procession. Those Gnolls who were not injured helped those who were out of their small tents to watch us pass.
We were brought before a large tent. This one was much larger than those that we had passed, used by the regular troops. Before the tent, which was located near the center of the encampment, was a clearing, at the center of which, was a good sized bonfire. By this time the clearing was surrounded by and filled with Gnoll troops. The Gnolls who had found us in the forest still surrounded us and there were a few feet of space between our captors and the rest of the Gnolls. We stopped several feet short of the bonfire, directly across from the large tent.
Out of the tent emerged two figures. The figure of one was tall and imposing, the other only slightly less so. As they approached the fire, the details of the two came into view. The larger and more imposing of the two, who I first took to be the commander of the Gnolls, was in fact a Cleric of Dedestroyt. It was the same Cleric that blessed the Gnoll troops before the great battle. The smaller of the two, though still possessed of a commanding aura, was the leader of the Gnoll troops.
Longstride and Taregard stared across the flames at the cleric and their leader. I assumed it was the one they called ‘Fool’. Longstride spoke in his own language and the leader responded. Longstride spoke again, at length. When he finished many of those gathered were nodding in agreement with whatever it was that Longstride had said. The leader said something, posing a question to Longstride I assume. Longstride waited until all heads had turned his way. With a quick gesture, he motioned to Taregard. Taregard took something from our gear and threw it over the fire to land at the feet of the leader and the cleric. As I watched the item sail over the flames, I locked stares with the cleric. I saw his eyes subtly widen in surprise and recognition. The look was only there for an instant and had I not been looking directly at him, I don’t think I would have noticed his reaction. I doubt the others, engrossed and curious into the happenings in front of them, noticed the cleric’s reaction at all. The leader of the Gnolls picked the thrown item up off the ground. It was Drakes quiver. The leader pulled an arrow out of the quiver and those in the crowd close enough to see it began to whisper to their fellows. The dark looks turned to angry sounding muttering and the Gnolls closest to Drake began to edge closer to him. The guards surrounding us made no move to stop their approaching comrades.
A barking command from their leader stopped everyone short. The leader said a few words and gestured to the cleric beside him, who bowed, and then continued speaking. At the end of the speech all of the surrounding Gnolls cheered wildly. Glancing at Longstride, I saw his eyes narrow dangerously. Drake and I were taken by several of the watching Gnolls and taken into the commanders’ tent.
We were led into the tent behind the leader of the Gnolls and the cleric. Once inside, the leader of the Gnolls ordered those who brought us in back outside. Now the four of us were alone, the leader of the Gnolls said something to the cleric and he took some small items out of several pouches hanging about his person. The cleric mumbled something in his language and tossed the materials from the pouched into the air.
The leader of the Gnolls walked up to Drake and said something to him. When Drake did not respond the leader looked at me and repeated the same phrase in his own language. When I did not respond, the leader said something to the cleric who sighed and began rummaging in his pouches again. After another prayer from the cleric, the leader once again spoke, though this time I could understand him.
“You both can understand me, yes?” said the leader of the Gnolls. Drake looked at me and I at him. I turned to the leader of the Gnolls and said “Yes, commander, we can understand you.”
“Good.” He replied. “Speak freely here. None can hear outside of these walls.” The leader of the Gnolls walked over to a sturdy yet comfortable looking chair and sat down. “I am Dycet. The cleric is Brissen.” Before we could introduce ourselves, Dycet continued. “We know who you are, Cleric Helodan, but we do not know this Fironi.” In the silence, Dycet and Brissen looked directly at Drake. Drake pulled himself up to his full height, focused his sight above the heads of the Gnolls, and addresses the tent at large. I am Sergeant Drake Winterborn of the Fironi Militia garrisoned at Balinhost under the command of Commander Bradtree.”
“Yes, I know Martin. A good Strategist.” Dycet interrupted. “So you are one of his men? Good. Maybe you can answer a question for me. Why have your people been slaying mine as we head back to our homes?”
Drake looked at me then back to Dycet. “But it is the Gnolls who are killing our people as they travel through these lands. We found two of our scouts, experienced soldiers both, riddled with Gnoll arrows.” Drake said.
“As we have found our own scouts. Riddled, as you say, with these.” said Dycet tossing Drake’s quiver to the ground so that several of the arrows spilled out. “Left for us to find, no doubt.”
Drake was ready to defend the honor of the Fironi then and there. He took one angry step forward and there were words on his lips that would further divide these two races. I put my bound hands on Drakes shoulder and held him in his place. Before he could say anything, I asked Dycet, “Who found your scouts?”
“Some of Longstride’s troops.” Dycet replied.
The pieces started falling into place. To Dycet I said, “I think someone is trying to start a war.” I relayed to Dycet and Brissen what I had overheard between Longstride and Taregard. When I finished my story Dycet merely ‘Harrumphed’ and motioned to Brissen. Brissen pulled a dagger out of the folds of his robes and advanced on Drake. Drake, seeing the dagger, backpedaled away from the priest. Brissen quickly caught up to Drake and grabbed him by one of his bound arms. With a quick thrust and slice of the dagger, Drake’s bonds came free. Drake rubbed his wrists and looked from the cleric to me and then to Dycet. The priest had started towards me to cut my bonds as well. I held up my hands and said, “No need.” I flexed my arms and, with strength that only those trained in the Emenotan arts can achieve, easily broke the bonds holding my wrists together.
Drake looked at me dumbfounded. Even Dycet seemed a bit impressed, though the cleric seemed to expect as much.
“No offense” I said, “but clerics of Dedestroyt coming at me with a weapon tend to put me on edge.”
Brissen indulged me with a brief smile at my attempt at humor. He turned to Dycet. “He is getting bolder. Now he openly talks of a challenge with his men!”
Dycet struck a pensive pose in his chair. “I see. That is what he is trying to do. He thinks that if he can show me as weak in front of the others he can challenge me for leadership. He could very well win that challenge if it ever came to that.” Seeing the look of confusion on me and Drake Dycet continued, “Out there” he pointed to the entrance to the tent, “Longstride accused the two of you of being among several others who have been killing our scouts as we have been traveling. We have lost several since we set out to return to our homes. Some from Longstride’s own ranks. Always has he been eager to fight the Fironi. He fought hard to not send our troops against the Orcs, but to instead attack the Fironi while their troops were busy elsewhere.”
“Longstride is not well liked by any save his own troops. Though, with the discovery of the bodies of our scouts, presumably slain by Fironi, he is turning more to his way of thinking. He demanded that the two of you be put to the flame for your crimes. He knows I prefer quick clean deaths as opposed to long torturous ones and probably I would refuse him out of hand. With the current sentiment against the Fironi in camp now, he could have made his challenge. But, I recognized Cleric Helodan from the Tuskball competitions following The Battle. It is hard to forget the human who could stand toe to toe with those Orcs. I told all those assembled that I would take the two of you and have Brissen interrogate you to find out if there were any more of your band still out there. I also told them that in the morning, whether or not we gained any information from the two of you, you would be set to roast over the banked remains of the bonfire. A longer and more gruesome way to die. You are helpless over red hot coals. The fat is literally melted away by the heat of the coals. Your skin finally begins to crack and split from lack of moisture and that is when the pain is said to only really begin. By promising a fate worse than that asked for by Longstride, I inadvertently destroyed his basis for a challenge. We Gnolls are a fiercely loyal and proud race. By condemning you to a horrible death, it showed the rest of the troops how the deaths of our people in a supposed time of peace, has angered me, thus strengthening my position with them. Any challenge Longstride would have made, or plans to make in the near future will only make him seem a whining cub.”
“But Dycet too is backed into a corner.” said Brissen. “Any accusation without proof we make against Longstride is a reason for him to make a challenge, if only to die with honor. And it will lessen Dycet in the eyes of others. Without proof, nothing short of a confession will condemn him in the eyes of the rest.”
“If it is a confession you need, then a confession you will have.” I said. “We don’t have much time. Commander Bradtree and the rest of the Fironi Militia may have found your trail by now. If you can describe the rout you traveled, Sergeant Winterborn can backtrack your trail and intercept them and lead them to this spot. With any luck only those who deserve to be here, will be when the Fironi arrive.
The following morning, a bloodied and bruised Grant was pushed out of Dycet’s tent. The coals of the bonfire had been banked the night before and now were being stoked to a red hot glow again. The Gnoll camp was almost completely packed away at this point, with the exception of Dycet's tent. Several of the Gnolls moved to start pacing the tent away as soon as he exited the tent, hoping to finish so that they could see some of the spectacle of the “Roasting” before they left.
The rest of the troops gathered around as they did the night before. Longstride and his gnolls were once again standing together opposite Dycet, Brissen, and me, across the now smoldering coals.
“Where is the other one?” shouted Longstride. Many nodding heads echoed the question. In response Brissen reached into his robes and pulled out a fist full of something. He slowly opened his hand and ash fell to the ground to be blown away in the gentle morning breeze.
“His soul and his body now belong to Dedestroyt. A fitting end for a murderer.” Brissen said.
Dycet nodded to Brissen, who began to pray for a spell. “It is only fitting that all of us should be able to understand this human's cries for mercy as we roast him!” shouted Dycet. The roar of approval was deafening. The Gnoll troops were all ready for travel. All of their gear had been packed away and each of them wore their weapons.
“Take him!” shouted Dycet.
Seven handpicked officers moved toward me to bind me to a pole that was to suspend me over the coals. As they neared I activated a portion of my Holy Garments and with one tremendous blow sent all seven officers flying through the air.
With a shout to Tyrogatore, I quickly said a prayer and threw my hands in the air.
There was a blinding flash.
“Hear me!” I shouted to the assembled group. And hear me they did. The power of ‘Tyrogatore’s Roar’ is almost enough to wake the dead. “I am a Cleric of Tyrogatore, Council Judge of the Body!” I continued. “I was given power by my god to take down an entire Orcish regiment single handedly! I have been warned by my god that there are traitors among you! Traitors that have killed your own people! With my last breath I place a curse on you all! No traitor shall henceforth be able to draw their weapons!” There was an immediate silence at my words. No sound, except for the sounds of twelve swords leaving their scabbards.
Every head turned to Longstride and his troops. All of whom had tried to draw their weapons in response to the curse. Longstride looked at me, and then his eyes moved to Dycet and the smile that played on Dycet’s lupine face. He had been tricked and he knew it.
With a shout of hatred Longstride shouted “Kill them!” and charged Dycet.
To his credit, he made it almost ten steps before he was tackled to the ground by five officers. Longstride’s gnolls fared no better. Their weapons were taken and all were restrained. Dycet went on to tell the rest of the assembled group of Longstride’s duplicity. I erected an area of warding where no lie could be uttered and Longstride was eventually made to reveal the truth. He confessed to killing the Fironi scouts as well as that of his own people. And if it was not his arrows or sword that ended those lives, then it was on his orders that his men did so.
It was several hours later that Sergeant Winterborn led Commander Bradtree and the rest of the Fironi Militia back to the campsite. Almost all of the Gnolls were gone. As were their gear. All that was left were Longstride, his gnolls, myself, and Dycet the leader of the Gnoll troops. Several more fire pits had been constructed and half of Longstride’s troops were slowly being baked in the clearing, including Taregard.
Dycet greeted Commander Bradtree and told him what had transpired. My job finished, I picked up my gear and began to retrace my steps back to the main road through the forest. As I was leaving I overheard Commander Bradtree saying that ‘Splinching’, whatever that was, was said to be as painful, if not more so than ‘Roasting’. Apparently he explained what ‘Splinching’ was to Longstride, because when Commander Bradtree walked away, Longstride's face was as white as a ghost.