Star Dreamer

Chapter VII: The Walking Wounded

What _is_ that foul stench?

[Brendan]

Brendan awoke to the sound of a horse in the distance, and the most disgusting taste and smell he had ever encountered.

!# PFUAH !#

He spat, wheezed and choked, leaning over to one side to dry wretch some strange slices of foulness to the ground. He stared at it a moment, gasping for breath and thinking that perhaps someone had fed him his brother’s undergarments (which were never washed).

“What in God’s name..??!!!” he roared, still spitting and blowing his nose in a vain attempt to purge his senses of the bileousness of the weed.

“Water!” he pleaded, waving for some unseen helper to provide him some relief. “Water…” he croaked.

[Keir]

Keir approached Brendan with a mug of tea, relieved that he had come to his senses. “Here, this will kill the taste and help with any head aches you may be having.” He was only partialy sorry the man had to suffer the foulness of dracontium, after all if he was a bandit then he was at least partially responsible for all the party’s injuries.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn had been standing by the tree where Thomis had rested; she had been lost in thought as to the best way to organize watches. The sound of Brendan’s swearing brought her around to see the young stranger sitting up – healthy enough to take offense at the flavors of some of Master Keir’s healing herbs. She was relieved to see him conscious – he had been the most wounded of the lot and the one that would have been most at risk if they had tried to move him.

Though it was too early to tell if he was travel ready at least they could if they had to.

The storyteller now didn’t really want to move the party – not with Thomis riding off to look for help. There was far too good a chance that they might miss each other on the road. She did a quick survey of the group. Jacques seemed to be hunting around the edge of the woods; Rudolpho was near Daron, who was looking over towards Brendan, but kept in place by her own wounds; and Keir was medicating the young stranger.

She focused her thoughts on the problems at hand – turning her mind away from Thomis’s risks.

A snort from Beast brought Laurelyn further out of her own thoughts and she went over to check the horse.

Beast watched her approach with accusation in large, deep eyes, and snorted again when Laurelyn stroked her nose. “Sorry,” the storyteller, “But Thomis was a hell of lot more hurt than you. I’ll get some salve on those cuts now.”

The bay Hunter snorted in derision as Laurelyn went to get the flask of alcohol, a cloth, and herbal salve.

On her way back to her horse a hopeful whimper caught Laurelyn’s ear and she looked to see Fiend looking as neglected as could be by a pile of supplies. She stiffly bent over to scratch the youngster between the ears, and equally stiffly stood and made her way back to Beast.

The horse held herself with an air of wounded dignity, but since the cuts weren’t deep it wasn’t long before Laurelyn had the wounds clean and treated. She debated about unsaddling the horse, but decided to only removed the saddle bags so they wouldn’t rub the wounds.

Once done she turned from the aggrieved horse and moved off to find Jacques. She wanted to talk to him about what precautions would be needed.

[Brendan]

Brendan wiped his mouth and handed the mug back to the strange looking little man.

“Thanks,” he muttered. If he was any judge of mood – and he thought he was – the little man trusted him not at all.

He decided that standing was not a good idea just yet, so he propped himself up against a tree and dusted himself off contentedly. Being alive was an extremely pleasant thing at times.

There was still an unsettling quiet to the forest despite the small tinkering and clattering sounds of the group that surrounded him. There were no bird calls, and no animal cries. Only a light breeze dared filter its way through the trees, and the weakening sunlight fell with trepidation to the forest floor.

It felt thoroughly lonely.

A woman walked past – he remembered her from before he had been knocked out, though her name eluded him – seemingly on her way deeper into the forest. Perhaps she was going to set traps and wards.

“If it is wards ye seek to set, milady, I’d set them in the trees,” he called after her, “if they came back on foot you’d hear the leaves crackling from a mile away.”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn stopped short at the sound of Brendan’s voice. Her blue eyes narrowed for a split second – then her expression smoothed as she turned back, and strode over to where he sat.

She hunkered down beside him, despite the sharp pain that ran up her right side, putting herself between Brendan and the rest of the group. Her blue eyes were calm but cold as she said, “Well, Mr. Brendan, that sounds like a good opening for the talk we need to be having.”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho sat by Daron felling slightly better for the hug, but not in the happiest of moods. It’s my fault that everyone is hurt. If I hadn’t hesitated, if I had been more ruthless and had the man under my control kill the leader, the rest of them would have scattered. I could have stopped that man Brendan from being clubbed. Now, most of the party is hurt in some way. All but me. I ran. Jacques was right. I guess I’m not much good in a fight. He sat staring into the cook fire mulling over these thoughts as the rest of the party tried to decide what to do about Brendan.

[Jacques]

Down by the stream, Jacques had just finished cleaning the last of his knives, and secreted it back somewhere in his uniform. He had watched sourly as Thomis had ridden off – presumably to get some people to help with the wounded, or to find how far the next town was. One man alone in this place seemed to be a suicidal idea, even if they had managed to rout most of the bandits. While they wouldn’t be attacking any large groups any time soon, a lone rider seemed far too easy a target to present to them.

He sighed loudly, and the shaggy white pony snorted and took a few steps away.

“What’re you complainin’ about? Nobody poked you with anything.”

Then he looked back at the others, and noted Laurelyn talking to the stranger – Brendan – and Rudolpho staring morosely at the fire.

He sighed again, and stood slowly. Using that much energy in one go didn’t leave him much any more, and his bones ached. He cursed. Must be getting old.

As he walked back to the others, he reached into a pocket and pulled out his silver bottle. So the bandits might come back. Better to die drunk than die because you couldn’t damn well move any more. He took a long pull, and another. And then shook the empty bottle sadly.

Fiend tried a half-hearted yip as he approached and he reached down to pick the pup up. It licked across his face, and snuggled in a little closer before making a contented purring noise.

“Thought you were a dog, boy. Not a cat.” Jacques then turned to Rudolpho.

“Hey kid. Glad to see you showed some sense there. Ain’t no point in all of us getting beat up. Sometimes its best to stay out of the way once you’ve done what you can. Don’t be in any hurry to kill people, boy. There’ll come a time you’ll wish you never started, and find you can’t stop. You stick to scarin’ them.”

He paused, and remembered the two bandits who’d turned on their friends, and the little dolls he’d spotted the boy making of Daron and Thomis. It didn’t take an accountant to put three and two together to get five. Or something.

“And if you use a little imagination next time you’re controllin’ somebody, you needn’t have them do the killin’ either.”

He shrugged. Much as Daron obviously thought he was some uncle type, he didn’t know how to handle children. Nor did he really intend to find out.

[Brendan]

Brendan looked blankly at the woman for a moment, his senses still dimmed by the ringing in his ears. She had a sense of business and intelligence to her, this one, and he knew better than to let her get the upper hand of the conversation.

“What exactly did you wish to talk about, Miss…” he probed tentatively.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn settled into a more comfortable position. Her expression calm, her blue eyes watching him – her tone conversational as she said, “Well, you were mentioning warnings in the trees – I only caught part of what you said.” She tilted her head slightly and looked at him quizzically.

[Brendan]

He smiled. “Ah, that was just some friendly advice, nothing important”, he said, waving a hand to dismiss the matter. “But you said that there was a talk that we were meant to have… that couldn’t have been about my advice, as I hadn’t proferred it yet”. He sat back and let his dark eyes lock with hers. “Who are you anyway? Surely not mere travellers, by the way you handle your weapons…” he grimaced, looking around at the small piles of clothes and flesh that were once men. “If it weren’t for appearances, I would take you for mercenaries or militia… and sadly then I shall have no lot with you.”

[Daron]

Daron raised a dark eyebrow at Brendan’s words.

“I, sir, have had to defend myself from the likes of those bandits for the past year. My father did not believe that ‘female’ automatically meant ‘helpless’. If my being able to defend myself disturbs you so much – then – then, the devil take you!” she blurted angrily.

She returned to her mending, taking angry stitches an inch long in the material.

[Pierre]

Pierre nervously reached out and put a hand on Daron’s shoulder, hoping she wouldn’t cringe away, and hoping he was doing this properly.

“I believe he did not mean that women are weak,” he whispered. “Please, do not be angry,” he added, urgently.

[Daron]

Daron looked up at Pierre, grateful the musician did not touch her wounded shoulder.

“I just don’t like his attitude when, after all, we risked ourselves to save his neck.” Her calm features belied the venom in her voice.

Don’t take your anger out on the undeserving! she chided herself.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Daron gently covered Pierre’s hand with her left hand. “Now, could you please get that letter so I can make it right?” she whispered urgently. “Your secret’s safe with me…”

[Pierre]

Pierre’s face paled visibly and he began trembling ever so slightly. So…she knew. “Please,” he whispered. “Promise to me you will not read it. It is…private.”

[Daron]

Daron’s green eyes met Pierre’s violet ones.

“I will not read the letter,” she promised.

[Pierre]

Pierre made his decision. She knew about the letter; refusing to bring it to her would do nothing. However, if he was to bring it to her, perhaps then it could be mended. He excused himself and made his way for his horse, wherein it was stored, still in the satchel.

[Daron]

The artist put down her mending and picked up a sheet of rice paper and her black lacquer box. Rummaging through her sack, she pulled out her rectangular drawing board with a metal clip along one short edge. The sheet of rice paper was then clipped to the board. Daron took out a glass jar and a brush from the black lacquer box and set them near her on the ground. She sighed softly, and waited for Pierre to bring her the letter.

[Pierre]

Pierre handed Daron the torn letter, folded over so that the words were not visible. “Here it is,” he whispered.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho looked up at Jacques a bit surprised. Based on their interaction thus far, he hadn’t expected him to be concilliatory in as much as he expected an “I told you so”. “I shouldn’t have hesitated. I had the chance to end this before it really started but I didn’t. If the leader was out of the way, they wouldn’t have known what to do next. But I didn’t get him, he told them to attack and… well, you know the rest. If it wasn’t for you, we would have been a lot worse off. I wonder if that guy Brendan was one of them. And I’m going to find out.

Knowing that people often let “children” get away with things adults couldn’t Rudolpho got up, strode purposefully over to where Laurelyn and Brendan sat talking, and stopped crossing his arm in front of him. “Are you a bandit too? Or maybe you were and you decided to go out on your own and they are after you now. Why were you out all by yourself in the woods? It’s pretty dangerous unless you know you have nothing to fear?” He waited expectantly for the man’s answer.

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn refrained from rubbing a blood-begrimed hand over her tired eyes – now was not the time to show weakness.

She remembered that the last time they had cornered Brendan he had walked away – if he tried that now they’d have to subdue him, in case he was working for the bandits. Or if he had fallen out with them – and might try to get back into their good graces by offering up a wounded group. “We’ll talk later,” she said, standing up and schooling herself against wincing. She moved off to seem to be seeing to her horse, but she kept an ear on Brendan’s answers to Rudolpho.

[Brendan]

Brendan rubbed at his aching head, not sure if it was sore because of injury or the troublesome questions… he sighed.

“Lad, I can’t tell you what you want to know. There are issues in this that you are too young to be worrying about.”

He tried to stand, and this time managed to raise himself to a squatting position. In a few minutes he’d be fine to walk. He addressed himself to the rest of the group, without completely ignoring the young man.

“I had nothing to do with the attack on you, at least trust me in that. Milady…” he said gently, looking at Daron, “I honestly meant no offense. If my word would ever mean anything… I apologise.”

He looked down, ashamed.

“However, I do intend to get my revenge. I would not suggest you linger in these woods much longer. Those bandits will be back, and I would not want you to risk yourselves again.”

He stood, and checked the strap on his shortsword. Despite the blood which lined the hair on one side of his head, he looked ready to take on anyone.

[Daron]

Daron could not keep her surprise from being reflected in her expression.

“Apology accepted,” she whispered just loud enough for Brendan to hear. She appraised the man’s condition.

Stubborn. Like someone else I know…

Uncomfortable comparisons to her brother caused Daron’s expression to cloud over. She promised herself she wouldn’t cry before this stranger.

Her voice shook slightly when she spoke, “I may not be a healer like Master Keir, but I still think you should rest a bit before you try running off.”

And getting yourself killed, she finished silently. Like Dillon might have…

Daron broke her promise. Tears silently trickled down her cheeks.

[Keir]

While the others talked among themselves Keir busied himself with the last details of their healing. He hadn’t liked seeing Thomis ride off, knowing he was far from recovered, and would have tried dissuading him but knew his efforts would be wasted on the duty-bound. He had little energy left to waste, as his knotted stomach reminded him none too subtlely, and he hoped Thomis would continue to enjoy the Luck O’ the Hortus on his journey.

Daron too seemed to be pushing herself too quickly and Laurelyn was so absorbed in her assumed duties that he still didn’t dare approach her about the injuries she was so unsuccessfully trying to hide. When Brendan rose his patience snapped completely. Snatching up his staff and his shirt, still damp from the washed herbs, he stormed off muttering about the foolish hastiness of Big Folk.

Keir headed back toward the stream, his eye scanning the vegetation for any plant he could use to treat Pierre. The young bard’s cut cheek was minor but he hoped to prevent any permanent scarring. While Thomis’ scar befitted the man’s character, Pierre would need to retain his good looks if at all possible.

His thoughts calmed some as he walked. As much as he regretted it, he agreed with Brendan’s advice on leaving the area as soon possible. Keir didn’t even need to speak with his insect friends to know there was much celebrating among the flies. The bandits’ bodies already teemed with freshly hatched maggots and he suspected other larger, and more dangerous, scavengers could not be far behind. They probably wouldn’t be able to move very far in the shape some were in, nor should they, however some measure of separation would be prudent.

Keir sat down by the patch of mushrooms he’d passed earlier and greedily stuffed them into his mouth, hardly bothering to brush off the dirt and bits of humus that clung to their stems. As his hunger slowly waned he reflected on the battle and the image of the man whose skull he had split. Keir shuddered as the scene played over and over in his mind. He had never killed a Big Folk, or anyone for that matter, and it made him ill to think how little the act had concerned him. Till now. He lay shivering uncontrollably, clutching his shirt tightly around him, until his eyelids closed shut and he drifted off to a troubled but much needed sleep.

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho noted the characteristic tone that meant he was going to get the “brush-off”. “Don’t worry about what I’m too young to worry about” he said moving into the man’s field of vision. “If I’m old enough to be with this party, and old enough to kill someone, then I’m old enough to ‘worry’ about any issues that your presence here will raise. You have to grow up awful fast sometimes, and I have. You can trust me on that. I find that I often ask the questions that people want to ask but don’t in order to be polite. For example, you plan to get revenge.

“It took all of us to fight that group of bandits but you want to go after him alone. How do you expect to best them without help? Maybe if you told us why you wanted revenge and what happened, we might be willing to help you.” As he waited for Brendan’s answer he moved back over to Daron. “I think I need that hug now Daron.”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn had finished ground-tying Beast near some grass and walked back over to the fool young brigand – though he seemed to be better mannered than the louts that had attacked. She had already noted that fatigue and fear was catching up with the group – she had seen the symptoms too often of late. And she had seen that they seemed to be missing Master Keir.

Before she went over to talk to Brendan she stopped next to Jacques, and said, “Master Keir seems to have wandered off now – I’m thinking if he’s gone too long that we might need to go a’looking.” She didn’t add that the idea of splitting the party further worried her – not for one minute did her fear for Thomis leave her.

She considered a minute and said, “Jacques – could you do me a favor and buy me a minute of undisturbed time with our determined friend?”

[Jacques]

Jacques nodded, the bells on his hat ringing oddly in the heavy emotional atmosphere. He turned to Rudolpho. “Here boy,” he said quietly. “Why don’t you come and help me retrieve Ms Daron’s knives? She may have lousy taste in nursery rhymes, but she can handle a knife.”

He glanced at Daron briefly before drawing Rudolpho away with a light hand on his shoulder. “And remember what I said, boy. Killing people doesn’t make you any more grown up. Just makes the world a sadder place, is all.”

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller made her way over to Brendan, and said quietly, but firmly, “Friend – before you go declaring vengeance down on anyone’s head we had better talk.” She glanced back at the others, hoping that they were occupied for a minute -she needed practical details, which she thought would be more forthcoming without a crowd. She met his eyes and said in a tone that would not carry, “Whatever your past or future are are no concern of mine …..and I do believe you that you had no truck with this ambush. But you’ve made it as clear as the morn that you’ve a history with those gents. And since we saved your hide I think you owe us at least some recommendations.”

It took all her willpower to ignore the sharp grating pain in her side that confirmed she had a cracked rib. But her discomforture did not show on her face – though it fueled the intensity of her words as she said, “Before you go haring off on a death run and probably bring down your enemies on us – tell me where I can take these people. One of whom isn’t fit to travel far. And how far those brigands range – so I’ll know when we’re clear.” Her blue eyes snapped with angry fire, “For you see, gent, I’ve a friend now traveling that road to get help – mainly for you, because you were unconscious when he left. And I’ll need to stay upon that road so we can catch up with him and not miss him.”

She steadied herself, keeping her fears from getting the better of her, and added, “And as for being militia I’ll ask you this – do you think we would have sought healing for you if we were? Herbs instead of the hemp of a rope back in Helgastop?”

[Brendan]

Brendan glanced the woman in the eyes, but a glance was all it took to show that he longed to be hunting.

“My name is Brendan,” he said, for the second time that day. This time however, it held a sinister tone, and his face held no smile.

“This road is safe enough. If you can trust me at all, Grumhog has led the men into the trees where they’ll not harass you if you travel quickly.”

He gave her a worried look.

“But I have not been good at predicting Grumhog of late, it seems.” His eyes still held a haunting image of dead men, though the woman was blocking them from view.

He stood, using a tree for support.

“I quarrel with the man for my own reasons, and my death shall be my responsibility. But please,” he glanced at Daron, “let not your blood be on my hands. Go; but be wary… if they beset you again, you will not be so lucky.”

[Laurleyn]

“Thank you, Brendan,” Laurelyn said, “We’ll ride quick enough.” She felt bad that the young man was going to try to take on a band of brigands – even a depleted one -all on his own. But that was his decision and his fight. In many ways she regretted agreeing to take on traveling companions – though they were a good lot, but Thomis and she – and Jacques – could have easily moved fast enough to have avoided this confrontation. {And left the others to fall to the brigands’ hands her conscience reminded her; again picturing the leering face of her attacker – whose blood still stained her right hand.

But she knew she had made the choice and taken on the responsibility when she’d agreed these people could ride with her. And that responsibility did not include leading them into this gentleman’s fight.

[Brendan]

He turned to leave, his boots scraping on the dirt beneath him. After a stride, he stopped, looking around for his sack which had been lost in the confusion.

[Laurelyn]

“Missing something?” the storyteller asked as she saw Brendan’s puzzlement. Her own expression softened a degree as she saw the hesitation in his step, and recognized it for what it was – a body being driven forward by willpower alone. “Wounded as they are will they hunt you?” she asked. Laurelyn pressed her elbow to her aching side and continued, “Because if they wouldn’t – you could at least ride with us to Morrow’s Hold. Heal up there before you take them on.” She hadn’t suggested the next village since it was far too likely they were tied into the brigands. She bit her lower lip as she realized that Thomis could be riding into a town that would note his wounds and see the need for revenge.

Before that thought could turn her blood to ice a more pressing realization took hold. She had already noted that Keir had left their “camp,” but his absence now had gone past the the allowable. Now was the time to start looking. “Brendan,” she said, her voice again all business, “It doesn’t look like we might leaving as soon as we’d like…..”

Laurelyn turned back to the others and said, “Rudolpho I think we’re going to need your tracking skills – Keir is missing.” As she looked around at the group she decided they’d need two to stay and watch out for Daron and Pierre and two to scout.

[Brendan]

“Find him quickly,” Brendan added, “If he wanders upon the bandits he is dog meat.”

He felt recovered now, and had found his bag next to a tree. He hoisted it to his shoulder and with a single fluid burst of energy, bounded up into a tree and away from sight.

“Take care,” he called out, his voice already distant. “May we meet again in better times.”

[Laurelyn]

The storyteller stared after Brendan – looking up into the shadowed branches of the tree. She was torn between anger at him not repaying the blood debt – at least with helping seek Keir, and wishing him some luck on his lone battle. But she didn’t have time for idle thoughts and turned on her heel to go organize a search. “Folks Iooks like we need to do some quick planning,” she said.

[Daron]

Daron stared after Brendan in shock. She silently concurred with Laurelyn’s anger at the man.

After all we’ve done for him!

Then Daron projected one angry hiss at the alleged bandit as he scurried away through the trees. “COWARD!”

She did not care if he heard her or not; but she felt somewhat better, nonetheless…

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho acquiesced and helped Jacques start to retrieve things, even though he had wanted to continue his line of questioning with Brendan.  Since he had left, it was one more thing that he would have to watch out for in the future.  Like it or not we are involved in his affairs.  Those bandits aren't going to be looking only for him anymore. "I try not kill when I can avoid it."  He paused.  "I'm sorry for the way I acted towards you back at the bar.  I tend to get a little defensive sometimes and I needed to get out of that town.  You really are a good fighter.  Even though we couldn't actually see you fight."  Rudolpho wasn't sure how Jacques was taking all this.  He dropped his head and made himself busy with the task at hand until he was called by Laurelyn.  He moved to where she stood.  "We need to find Keir?  That shouldn't be too difficult, I remember his scent.  You want me to start now?"  He waited for Laurelyn's approval.

[Laurelyn]

“As soon as we sort out who else will be going with you,” Laurelyn said, though she knew the choice was between Jacques and herself.

[Jacques]

Handing the knives to Daron, Jacques refrained from commenting on either the nursery rhyme, or the fact that the corpses had been rather efficiently made that way.

[Daron]

Daron silently nodded her thanks as she resheathed her weapons.

[Jacques]

Killing all those bandits had been bad enough, without having to actually be nice to Rudolpho, and then being told he was good at killing people. If he hadn’t known better he’d have sworn that the kid was still trying to annoy him.

Jacques sighed and glanced at Fiend who was dozing quietly, oblivious to all the drama. The pup whimpered and twitched occassionally in its sleep, and Jacques wondered what nightmares the animal was reliving.

“Well,” he said turning to Laurelyn. “How ‘bout you and the boy go look for our medic. I’ll stay here and watch the children in the meantime. Don’t think you’ll have much trouble with these bandits for now – so long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

He shrugged, setting the bells off for a second, faintly.

“At least I trust one of you that much.”

[Laurelyn]

Laurelyn hid a grim chuckle as she shifted her sword belt. “We’ll keep an eye out for each other,” she said. She looked over to Rudolpho and added, “Okay Rudolpho – see what you can do about that trail.”

[Daron]

Daron’s eyebrow went up when Jacques referred to “the children”, i.e. herself and Pierre. She bit her tongue till it hurt to keep herself from making an angry retort, remembering that it was, indeed, her fault that members of her party were injured. Knowing that they would have to leave soon, she carefully packed up her things, gently placing Pierre’s letter between sheets of rice paper on the board before returning the board to the sack.

Now the fun begins. she thought ruefully. Trying to get back on my feet without falling flat on my face…again…

She resolved to cause no more trouble or delay to the party.

[Keir]

The door to the burrow stood open and Keir entered, looking for Frazzle or was it Zuzzie. He wasn’t sure but it didn’t seem to matter as long as someone was home. No one was there and he suddenly found himself outside, atop a tall burial mound looking out to the sea. Dozens of small ships with the distinctive triangular sails of the Hortus neared the island and Keir’s heart leapt with joy and hope. Laughter floated in the air, slowly growing louder and more sinister. Keir looked down into the grinning face of the bandit he had killed. Only the head stuck out from the mound and he watched as the flesh rotted and fell til it was but a howling skull with coppers for eyes.

Keir’s eyes jerked open and he sprang to his feet. Relief overcame his terror as he realised it was only a dream. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep but hurried back towards the road, his search for herbs abandoned in his rush to rejoin the party.

The looks he received upon his return were a mixture of concern and perhaps a hint of annoyance from Laurelyn. Noting Brendan’s absence he wondered if that was what had upset her. “My apologies mistress, I did not mean to be away so long.” he muttered, his cheeks turning pink with embarrassment. “Did the bandit escape?”

[Rudolpho]

Rudolpho had just begun to ready the components of the spell when Keir appeared. He looked back over to Laurelyn. “I think I found the trail and it ends right there” he pointed to Keir and smiled.

[Laurelyn]

“Indeed. I think you’re right, Rudolpho,” Laurelyn said; silently thanking the gods of sea and stone for Keir’s safe return, and deciding she’d be grey before she got to Morrow’s Hold. “He left to settle some scores,” she told Keir. She looked at the healer and added, with some relief in her voice, “And now that you’re back safely, Master Keir, I think we better move on.”

As she moved over to the fire she stopped near Jacques and softly said, “Thank you for buying me a bit of time….” She looked down at the sleeping pup, and added just as quietly, “I’m not sure Fiend will be happy about being in the backpack – some bad memories there, but I’m not sure how else to carry him – we’ll need our sword arms free.”

[Jacques]

Keeping his eyes on Keir for a second, Jacques shrugged.

“Sometime when I need the kid off my back, I’ll ask you to return the favour.”

Then his eyes wandered to Fiend.

“At least he’s young enough to adapt,” Jacques said, though whether he was referring to Rudolpho or Fiend was unclear. “I just hope to hell that these bandits have more sense than to try anything further.”

He glanced at the piles of corpses, and only then finally turned to Laurelyn.

“Guess the joke’s on me this time.”

[Laurelyn]

“On all of us,” Laurelyn murmured, scratching the pup’s ear. More innocents …....Laurelyn wondered if everything bright and innocent she neared was doomed to nightmares. True – she hadn’t caused the suffering behind her. But she hadn’t alleviated any of it either. She studied – seemingly dispassionately – the cooling corpses. It did seem that blood and bodies were never far from her. Some of the more superstitious might say that since her father was from the mountain clans that battle would never be far from her, but while she loved her father’s kin and mountain home she had no use for the continual blood feuds. She had the urge to look at her bloodstained hand, which she hadn’t had time to cleanse. And as she fought the desire she remembered Thomis’s stories of his home – possibly a bloodier land than her father’s. A place that required Oathbound to stand between warring mages. And she remembered his calm and his humanity. His was not a coldness, but he simply seemed to deal with the situation with what abilities he had – which weren’t inconsequential – to protect the people he cared about.

“Get everything gathered up,” she said, getting her medicinal supplies from beside the fire, “We need to get out of here.

And please let use run into Thomis – well and safe – on the road ahead, she prayed to her gods.

[Rudolpho]

Sensing the the party was about to get underway again, Rudolpho decided to adopt a form more suited to travel. He moved over to where Laurelyn had placed Beast’s supplies and found the brush. He plucked a couple of hairs off it and replaced it. As soon as they were ready to go he would transform and be able to keep up easily. He packed everything in the bag and placed them together to be replaced on Beast for travel. He then set to the business of extinguishing the fire.


[Grumhog]

“Where the hell is he?!!” roared Grumhog, spittle flying.

He stormed up the hill, slipping once or twice on the mossy incline. The earth around him was half sodden, the trees more suited to swamps, and the wildlife decidedly more amphibian. Light did not pierce the trees, but glowed from the distance as if unable to penetrate into this area of the woods. Above him rose a hill of sorts, bare of life and vegetation. The gaping maw of the Voel’s cave loomed above him reeking strongly of dead bodies.

“Perhaps he is dead?” voiced a young man behind him. He was new to the gang, and most definitely not the brightest.

Grumhog hadn’t wanted an answer however – particularly that one.

“Idiot!” he spat, stopping halfway up the mud hill. His boots sank into the damp earth up to the ankles with a faint sucking sound. “The Voel doesn’t die!”

<< not so >> spoke the Voel, it’s voice coming from the darkness. The Voel’s voice shuddered and sucked at the air as if it were some fatally ill beast breathing its last breath through blood-filled lungs. << voel dies always >>

Grumhog stepped back, his boots sticking and sucking in the mud. He hated the Voel, and rather suspected that it hated everything that ever existed.

<< where is bren? >> asked the Voel.

“Voel!” he called out to it, “Brendan is gone. Dead. We want revenge on those who did it!”. Why this damn creature liked Brendan he would never know, but he had always suspected that as long as it was fed, it cared not who it helped. He knew he was right.

<< revenge? sweet would it be if voel could get revenge on all that ever hurt it. sweet, yes. sweet…. >> it’s voice lingered in the air, its breath pouring forth from the cave. The smell was rank, and Grumhog bit back bile.

There was a sound of something massive dragging its own weight through the darkness, then a grunt and laboured breathing. When the Voel’s voice came again it was sicker than before and closer.

<< but bren not dead. voel can feel bren hurt. voel gives you revenge… what will you do voel? >> it asked.

“We will give you the corpses, of course.” replied Grumhog, pleased with the thought, but angered that Brendan was still alive. His men behind him chuckled in anticipation, obviously failing to hear that Brendan was still alive.

The Voel was silent for a long time, it’s breathing loud and liquid. It moved once, and when it spoke again, some dark mass moved just inside the shadows.

<< voel gives you your revenge then, man-thing. revenge those who hurt bren >>

Grumhog shuddered even as his men chuckled with glee behind him. He could hear the Voel moving it gigantic body backwards into the cave and he knew then that the Voel would kill him if it thought he had betrayed it in any way. Perhaps Brendan had been right…

<< go >> breathed the voel in the distance, << you change if you hunt >> it burbled.

Grumhog turned and ran down the hill, the sound of his men’s boots making sucking sounds in the mud behind him.

[Brendan]

Brendan travelled through the treetops with ease. He hadn’t spotted Grumhog or his men yet.

When he arrived back at their camp, he saw nothing but women. The men had not returned yet, and the women had set up camp to look like a merchant caravan.

He cursed. If the men hadn’t returned yet, that meant Grumhog was up to something.

[Back at the road.]

Laurelyn made comforting sounds to Fiend, who had had to be put back into the backpack, since there were few other ways of carrying the pup. She felt sorry for the youngster – the little one had been hurt in the backpack and was now afraid. Letting it be known in loud howls.

She sighed. Not much to be done for it – she had cleaned the blood out the best she could, just as she had done with the blood staining her hand. All they could do now was ride out of here as quickly as possible – before Fiend’s howls brought added attention. The storyteller looked around the group to see if everyone was ready.

[Daron]

Daron secured the sack to her saddle. It had taken sheer willpower to walk without falling over to her horse. Falcon whinneyed her unease. Daron soothed the mare as best she could, feeling a knot in her stomach herself.

She gritted her teeth and prepared to mount her horse. Though she did not relish the idea of being jounced around in the saddle, the alternative – staying put and taking a chance of being attacked by the bandits again – was even less pleasant…

[Rudolpho]

Sensing that they were about to get going, Rudolpho affected his transformation. Having completed his spell, he now looked to be a light brown horse similar in build to Beast. He whinneyed and waited for them get going.

[Grumhog and attackers]

It did not take long for Grumhog to track the smell of his enemies to their current position. He could smell their blood, and his snout twitched with anticipation. he dug his claws into the dirt and circled. He could feel the Voel beneath him, underground – waiting.

When he picked his spot, he raised his head to the sky and howled. His wolf-men howled in response, their call echoing throughout the forest.

He stood on his hind paws and strode out from the trees, saliva dripping from his feral maw.

If he could have spoken, he’d have said something witty like Brendan would have, he was sure of it.

Angered at that thought, he summoned the Voel.

[Beast]

At the scent and sight of the wolf-man the large Hunter reared back, ripping the reins from Laurelyn’s hand. With a shriek of terror the horse charged towards the woods – carrying a howling Fiend with her.

[Daron]

Falcon whinneyed in terror. Daron whirled around, regretting that action even as she did it. She started to reach for the dagger sheathed under the back of her shirt at the sight of the man-beast.

[Pierre]

Pierre was almost a bit slow. He turned around, and saw the beast. A sort of wolf-man was the best word he could think of to describe it. He gulped, and put his hand on his appaloosa to calm her. She whinnied some, but that was all.

[Grumhog]

The forest floor around his enemies exploded upwards in a cloud of dirt and debris. Foulness billowed up from the ground and swallowed them in brown horror, the fumes so thick that they stuck like mist to clothing and skin alike. Through the thick brown gas, Grumhog saw the Voel lying deep in the ground in a circle around the group, it’s body worm-like and rotting. Gas spewed forth from man-sized boils that covered the length of its body.

[Laurelyn]

When Beast had fled Laurelyn had pulled free her sword and pivoted – feeling her side catch at the movement. Before she could truly register the lumbering shape of the wolf-creature a hideous brown gas engulfed the area. The storyteller gagged and heaved at the scent, and the feel of the file stuff clinging to her skin and hair. And whether it was from the lack of oxygen or from something else Laurelyn felt herself blacking out and pitching forward.

[Keir]

Every hair on Keir’s fuzzy body stood on end upon hearing the wolves’ howl. His instincts told him to flee but before his legs unfroze he was choking on the noxious gas. As the dizziness came over him he looked about desparately and dove for the remnant of the dracontium root he’d used on Brendan. He managed to bite off a chunk before the darkness took him.

[Daron]

The noxious gas surrounded both woman and horse without warning. Daron barely avoided being crushed under her mare as Falcon succumbed to the gas first. The artist fell to the ground hard on her wounded side beside her faithful traveling companion. Though she was long past feeling anything at that point…

[Rudolpho]

The rotten smell that overtook thme was like nothing Rudolpho had ever smelled. Even when he had turned himself into a rat and hunted for food among the town’s refuse and rotting garbage he had never smelled anything like this. It was a matter of moments when the gas overtook him as he had inadvertantly taken big lungs full of the foul gas. He sank to his his knees and collapsed the best way a horse could.

[Pierre]

Pierre coughed several times, feeling slightly lightheaded. He began to pitch back and forth, stumbling, hoping to find some break in the stench that had suddenly come over the group. He noted his horse collapse, and had barely time to register surprise when he, too, fell down.

[Jacques]

The white, shaggy pony, snorted and pulled back in disgust as the smell and the wolfmen became apparent. It knocked Jacques to the ground and shuffled away nervously.

Being that much closer to the stench, Jacques found himself spluttering and choking too much to even reach for his hat. In the end, he welcomed the familiar, oncoming night, and closed his eyes.

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