Grumhog smiled a wolfish smile. Voel would be most pleased with the outcome of today’s hunt, and the men were high in spirits.
He looked at the captives from a distance, their limp bodies lying peacefully on the ground, surrounded by the spirit stones that the Voel had found for him. Those whom he had annointed with pigs blood would find themselves unable to leave the circle of their own free will. It would not hurt them, but they would find it unconscionable.
He heard cheers to one side of the circle as the bonfire finally caught alight, spreading a fierce yellow glow into the dusk light.
His feet moved forward towards the circle of spirits, carrying him as if possessed. He was no longer the wolfman, but he could smell the excitement in the air.
He stopped when he had reached the limp bodies of his enemies. A woman lay prostrated at his feet, her hair covering her face and her body straining against the ropes which bound her. He admired the sight, deciding that he would let the men have some fun before the ceremony.
He walked around the group then, kicking them all until they moved, his voice shouting for them to awaken. Several of his men had wandered from the bonfire to stand at the ring of circles, watching, while others lit the other bonfire on the opposite side of the stones. They knew the powers of the stones would keep Grumhog safe, but did not dare enter themselves.
Laurelyn was too dizzy to bite back the cry that issued from her lips when a boot kicked at her wounded side. The pain was so sharp that she nearly lost consciousness again, but some instinct demanded she wake up.
Rough kicks to her side and wounded leg rudely awakened Daron from her unnatural sleep. She dry heaved from a combination of coppery blood scent and the foul stench which clung to her clothes, skin and hair that caused her prior unconsciousness.
Daron picked up on the thoughts of the “leader”, images full of bloodlust…and other, more primal urges…
Her eyes and throat burned from more dry heaving.
Trying to spit the awful taste out of his mouth, Jacques came to with a familiar flow of consciousness. There had been more nights spent comatose after an excess of alcohol than even most accountants could keep track of, and this felt just like one more.
He spat again.
Maybe one more where they’d spiked the lager with something that tasted like the inside of his pony’s ears.
He felt the breeze across his scalp, and realised that there were no jangling bells. Somewhere along the line the bandits had obviously taken his hat.
He coughed. And spat again, though it wasn’t achieving anything, and with his face near buried in the grass, it wasn’t going anywhere useful either.
At least he still had his jester uniform. There were a few party tricks left yet. Or, there would be if he could manage the miracle of getting his hands free. Someone had obviously thought about jesters being somewhat dextrous and made sure the ropes were tight and gave no play to his wrists.
He sighed. And groaned.
Keir had been awake for some time, the bitter dracontium doing its charm before he spat it out. He had pretended to be out while they tied him, peeking whenever the opportunity presented itself, and had not liked anything he’d seen or heard since regaining consciousness. He had been able to tense his muscles so the ropes now had some slack but it was not nearly enough for him to wiggle free.
When at last one of the captives raised their groggy heads, Grumhog spoke, his voice rough and guttural, his body still throwing off the remnants of the Voel’s magic.
“In the name of the great lord Thorgovash, I declare your souls forfeit.”
He grinned, the light of the bonfire providing a manic glint to his eyes. His voice was clearer when he spoke again.
“Tonight, we and the Voel shall be feasting on your blood.”
Feast on my blood”? Faith above, there’s not much left!
There were times when Laurelyn truly wished that she had studied as a clan bard – with the skill to lay effective curse. And now was one of those times.
She was also regretting being fully awake – for though the gas was gone, the stench was not; it clung to her unbound hair and clothes. But since she was awake she decided she wasn’t going to just lay there and not give vent to her anger. For a clan anger – a nearly berserker rage – did burn through her veins.
Anger – not only at the damned bandits, but at a universe that let her survive the knife’s edge in fighting the League – only to let her end up tussed up and blood-smeared. Laurelyn thrashed her way to her knees and said in raw fury, “And by the Gods of Sea and Stone let our souls slash your thrice-damned Thorgovash’s throat to ribbons. And may your own guts rot – raw in the burning sun!!”
Laurelyn knew that her curse might lack a clan bard’s power, but it gave her satisfaction to hear that her voice was resonant and strong. And though she knew she’d probably pay for her outburst she was beyond caring – she hoped that her gods at least would give a clan daughter justice and honor her curse.
Daron stared in shock at Laurelyn, unprepared for the normally gentle woman’s outburst. She agreed with the storyteller’s attitude, however. The artist wished she could get her hands on even one of her throwing daggers…but the thugs had bound her too well, curse their mangy hides!
“COWARDS!” she cried out, struggling to her knees. “MANGY COWARDS!
You can’t even FIGHT honorably! You have to get your HIDEOUS MOTHER to help you out by having her belch on us! COWARDS!”
Daron’s throat felt raw from shouting and dry heaving. She fully expected the mangy thugs to take their revenge for her curses out on her. Pain from her wounds plus lightheadedness from dry heaves pushed the artist past the point of caring.
What was with all this shouting, Jacques wondered as he winced with an almighty headache. Even a night of Thunderspirits hadn’t felt this bad.
Jacques spat again, and managed to lever his aching body into a sitting position, his head spinning like a hummingbird in a tornado.
Then again, maybe Thunderspirits had felt this bad.
“Your lord Hogwash is a little late, boy,” he grunted. It was a strain using his stage voice, but at least it carried across the entire clearing without him having to shout his lungs out. “My soul’s been forfeit to someone else for more years’n you’ve been the runt pup of this litter of carrion eating whelps.”
He laughed dryly.
“Fact, old Torpidmash’ll just have to wait in line. Can’t be more’n twenty in front of ‘im.”
Rudolpho awoke to find himself in strange surroundings. The last thing he remembered was smelling something so terribly awful that he passed out. Upon further inspection he found that he was in a stable. In the stall next to him was another horse. From outside the stall he could hear shouting and cursing. It was a bit muffled at first, until he heard the strong rich tones of Jacques’ voice. At least he and Laurelyn are alive. He noticed that he and the other horse were being watched.
He wondered if it was Beast in the stall next to his. “Beast is that you” he neighed to the other horse. While he waited for a response he kicked experimentally at the back wall of the stall.
What fear Keir had felt from being helpless in the face of Grumhog’s threats and random kicks was slowly but surely replaced by anger. His shame at being captured so easily and the mistreatment of his friends combined to raise his hackles. His desparate mental calls to his insect allies were disappointing, most of the night flying insects in the area were innocuous though enough mosquitoes responded to at least annoy their captors. The one small success he had was with the earwigs and hundreds of them were now taking bites out of the hemp that bound him. Their progress was slow but as fiber after fiber gave way he felt them loosen.
Grumhog seemed oblivious to the taunts being thrown at him. rather, his head was angled slightly to his left, and the look on his face made him seem like he was listening to something that was carried with the wind. Except there was no wind, and there was no sound but that of buzzing insects.
When he looked down, his face seemed sedate and peaceful. His whole air had changed, and as the sun completed its slow decline beyond the horizon, there was more than a hint of pity in his eyes.
He turned slowly and strode from the circle of stones, moving silently and solemnly. His men gathered around as he walked past, and followed him into the darkness of the woods, leaving the prisoners all alone.
The two bonfires crackled loudly, casting long shadows across the clearing.
Laurelyn watched in quiet rage as a far too calm Grumhog left them. She tried to struggle to her feet – to do something with the unreleased energy, but the damp grass was slick beneath her feet, and the bonds around her upper body awkward – and she fell flat on her back. There she lay cursing – using many of the colorful phrases she learned from her smuggler kin. This isn’t getting anyone anywhere, she reminded herself as she lay on the grass, breathing hard from her exertions.
She rolled over on her side and looked at her equally trussed compatriots, and asked, “Is everyone reasonably alright…and does anyone have a boot knife?”
The earwigs finally chewed through enough of the cord for Keir to get his hands free. He quickly checked for his surgical knife but it was gone. Dragging his bound legs behind him he crawled over to Jacques, as he was nearest, and began untying the jester’s hands. “If anyone has a knife anywhere this will go a lot faster.”
“I may have a couple left,” replied Jacques as he felt Keir working on his ropes.
He was feeling miserable. Not only had he been captured, not only had there been that incredibly awful smell, not only was there something decidedly strange going on, but worst of all, his audience hadn’t been paying attention.
The ropes finally came free, and Jacques flexed his hands to restore the blood flow. Then he slipped a hand into one of the pockets in his uniform and pulled out a long green-handled knife. This he passed to Keir. From another pocket, he pulled a long yellow-handled knife, sheared away the rest of his bindings and shuffled over to Laurelyn.
“Anyone seen my hat?” he asked nobody in particular. He patted his pockets, and remembered that his silver bottle was now empty. “Or some booze,” he sighed.
Laurelyn’s ropes parted as the blade worked its way through. He turned to see how Keir was managing with Daron.
“Thanks,” Laurelyn said as she struggled to her feet.
Since others were having luck finding their knifes she bent to check her own boot dagger, and truly regretted the move. A sharp catch in her side reminded her of her battered ribs. She waited for the dizziness to pass and pulled out the stiletto from her boot, and after slowly straightening put the blade in her belt.
“Unfortunately, Jacques,” she added, “My vision hasn’t cleared enough to see your hat.” She gave him a grim smile to let him know that she wasn’t taking her aggravation out on him.
Daron looked over at Jacques and Laurelyn as Keir cut her free of her bonds. She tried to answer each person in turn.
“Reasonably well, thank you, Mistress Laurelyn.” Scratching the back of her neck, she found her throwing dagger was still sheathed there. Out of habit, Daron checked for the other four. They, too, were still in their sheaths. “I still have my daggers; the mangy cowards didn’t seem to see the need to search us all that thoroughly.” She shrugged off the ropes and smiled at Keir. “Thank you, Master Keir. Sorry, no; I haven’t seen your hat, Master Jacques. But, if they haven’t raided my saddlebags, I do have a bit of lager…for ‘medicinal purposes’, of course,” she grinned sheepishly. “And you may have some if you want; got it in Helgastop before we left. Well, feet, don’t fail me now,” she muttered, a grim smile now adorning her lips, and shakily rose to her feet. “Okay. Let’s get going…” She walked to the edge of the stone ring and started to step over one of the stones.
A sudden weariness enveloped Daron like a heavy cloak. She slowly sank to her knees.
“I think I’ll rest for a while, first, though…” she murmured sleepily. “G’night…” The artist laid down on the hard ground and closed her eyes.
Watching Daron, the jester nodded to himself – and considered the motion – oddly silent.
“Sounds like a good plan to me.” He retrieved a trio of brightly coloured balls from somewhere in the endless depths of his pockets, and began juggling.
[Rudolpho] Not receiving an answer from the adjoining stable, Rudolpho figured it was not Beast next door. The problem is how do I get out.
He began to watch for patterns and for his opportunity. When the chance presented itself, Rudolpho changed back to his human form and moved quietly to the next stable. Keeping the horse hair ready for a quick change back, he opened the door to the other horse’s stall. He entered the stall and got behind the beast. Imitating a low growl of a panther, he smacked the horse’s rear, keeping well out of the way of a stray kick. The animal spooked and bolted out of the stall. Muttering the words to the spell, Rudolpho changed back to horse form and ran out after him, neighing in mock terror. The panther growl is something they will recognize from before and think it followed them. Maybe to hunt or something. Once out of the stall, Rudolpho wasted no time running in an opposite direction to the other horse. I hope he gets away too.
The stablehand was the first to respond, shouting for the guards to quit their game of cards and catch the horses. But by then it was too late, one darting away into the darkness while the other wheeled around madly, whinnying in fright. It saw them running for it and bolted – then it, too, was lost in the night.
They let it go, knowing they would not be able to catch it until morning.
Pierre swallowed several times. His entire mouth tasted foul, and he suspected it was due to the “fog” that had covered him some time ago.
“I am quite all right,” he said. “At least,” he amended, “As right as can be expected.” He attempted a weak smile.
“Is she all right?” he queried, looking over at Daron. It had been somewhat unusual for Daron – for anybody – to suddenly fall asleep like that for no reason whatsoever. Concerned…Daron had been kind to him…he walked over to her.
“Daron?” he whispered. “Are you all right?” His hand passed through the stone circle.
He couldn’t go out there. Pierre couln’t explain why, but he knew, without a doubt, that something terrible would happen if he dared to leave the circle. He was petrified, too much so to move.
“Pierre?” Laurelyn said, coming up behind the boy, “What’s the matter?” She was careful not to get near the stones – they had a loathsome sense to them, and she was hesitant to touch the musician – in case some new danger had presented itself. She did note that both Daron and Pierre had begun to act oddly when they neared the stones. The circle of stones seemed to be a pointless corral for the prisoners, but the storyteller had the deep feeling that some dire danger lay beyond that barrier; one she did not want to confront.
She said, “Master Keir, perhaps you should check Daron – she could be suffering blood loss.”
Out of the night, a black horse came charging, snorting and whinnying. The harsh light from the bonfires blazed in its eyes and shone on the white mark on its forehead.
It wheeled and kicked at the air as it reached the edge of the stone circle, it’s eyes wide.
A cold wind blew past, carrying with it the sound of whispering. The voices were hushed and undefined, yet they seemed unnaturally rhythmic.
The horse snorted at the sound and bolted to one side in a mad panic, slamming into one of the bonfires. It ran into the night, it’s mane slightly aflame.
The whispers died down into nothingness, and the chill left the air.
Keir started out to check on Daron but froze momentarily as the horse made it’s odd charge. He’d been around enough mages to recognize the circle for what it was and forced himself to step beyond it to Daron’s side. Nausea and dizziness sweep over him instantly as he grabbed her under her arms and drug her back into the circle. As soon as she was in he rolled to his side and began retching.
Pierre faintly heard Laurelyn speaking to him, but he couldn’t quite understand her words. He detested this; this intense fear. All he could do was know that something terrible would happen if he left the circle.
It wasn’t easy, but he somehow managed to force himself to move; to force himself back inside the safety of the stone circle. Once there, he pulled his body into a fetal position, breathing rapidly, eyes still wide in the fear that had consumed him but a few seconds ago.
Laurelyn knelt by Pierre and lightly touched his shoulder, saying, “Pierre?”
She, however, realized that kneeling had been a mistake – exhaustion and strain was making her shiver, and she realized that she was going to have to rest. With great caution she eased herself into a sitting position – promising herself she would only rest a moment.
Pierre looked up. “I – I am fine,” he managed. While he wasn’t perfectly fine, he was certainly doing better than he had before. He pulled himself into a sitting position. “Thank you, Mademoiselle Laurelyn. Are you all right?” he asked, concerned. “Are they all right?” He spoke half to himself, half to anybody who could hear him, as he looked at Daron and Keir.
“Better then we could honestly hope for,” Laurelyn said gently, keeping the bitterness from her voice.
Daron’s eyes opened. The last clear memory she had was stepping over one of the stones. She looked over towards Pierre, Laurelyn and Keir.
“What happened?” she asked, puzzled. “Is Master Keir all right?”
“I do not know,” he whispered. “I hope that Keir is all right.” Pierre realized that such an reply was not a full answer to Daron’s query, but it was all he could do.
Her arm and leg ached terribly. She actually cherished the pain. It proved she was alive.
Though, considering Grumhog’s proclamation, Daron could not begin to guess for how much longer…for any of them…
“Why’s everybody acting strange all of a sudden?” Jacques muttered to nobody in particular. There were now six coloured balls spinning in a circle as he juggled to relax. After all, there wasn’t any point in going anywhere. It was perfectly safe and comfortable in the middle of the circle here.
He flipped the balls into an end flourish, fishing balls out of the air in pairs, and placing them on the ground.
“Anyone got any food?”
Pierre shook his head regretfully. “Sadly, not with me. I am sorry.” He glanced at the jester, and wished he could at least put up some front of confidence.
“Please don’t mention food.” Keir pleaded as he staggered to his feet, carefully avoiding the small pool of partially digested mushrooms. “I think we’ve got bigger problems here.” He frowned at Jacques as he went over to check on Daron, hardly believing the jester’s choice of activities.
As he had expected, the artist’s wounds had reopened and her shoulder in particular was bleeding profusely. The blood on her neck caught his attention and a quick sniff told him it was not hers. Keir looked into Daron’s green eyes and noted the dullness that had replaced their former luster and shook his head, she could ill afford to lose more blood. “I’ll be back in a moment.” he asured her, patting her hand gently as he rose and went to Laurelyn.
As he walked he checked his own neck and was disturbed to find the same queer smelling blood smeared into his hair.
“Mistress, we’ve put this off longer than we should have, are you ready to tell me of your injuries?” Keir already had his suspicions from watching how she moved and intended to examine her whether she protested or not.
Laurelyn was deeply glad to see Master Keir seemed reasonably functional. She gave him a tired smile, and said, “Just one ache. And I don’t have many doubts that its a cracked rib.” She chuckled – a harsh, bitter sound, and added, “Heard the prognosis on a friend of mine – though he was lucky enough to have a bruised rib or two.”
The back of his neck itched slightly, and so he reached up a hand to scratch it. When he removed it, he was slightly disturbed to find some blood on his nails. Strange…had he been injured and did not know it? Perhaps when he had been knocked out, he had cut himself. The blood didn’t seem terribly fresh, though Pierre could hardly be considered an expert on such things.
He started by checking Laurelyn’s neck, finding the same smear of dried blood as on himself and Daron. He was glad he’d still been unconscious when it was applied and shook his head at the odd ways of Big Folk. Getting her to lie back Keir placed an ear on her abdomen while his hands gently explored her tender ribs. Her sudden winces told him where the damaged ones were, though whether they were cracked or just bruised he couldn’t tell. At least they weren’t broken and he heard no sound of hemorrhage or lung puncture. He sat back on his heels with his hands on his knees. “You’d be alright if you could just lie still for a few days.” He didn’t need to see her quizzical look to know how absurd that was under the circumstances. “I have an idea for something that could heal you faster but I fear there’s no time for that either.” And we’d need Rudolpho’s help, he thought, suddenly realizing the thief was missing and hoping that, as a horse, he’d managed to escape capture.
Keir helped Laurelyn sit up. “I can wrap it so it won’t hurt as bad but you’re going to have to move as carefully as possible.” he instructed as he began winding the ropes that had bound them snuggly around her stomach and chest. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere fast anyway, ” he whispered, “this circle is some sort of spell.”
The storyteller nodded and whispered back, “Do you think it has something to do with that blood you found?” The few minutes of laying still had been enough of a respite for her to begin thinking again. She hated just sitting helpless and looked around at the ominous stones.
As Master Keir finished tying off the ropes Laurelyn had the passing thought that the bindings might act as a makeshift armour. She smiled her gratitude to Keir and said, “Thank you for your aid.”
Laurelyn gingerly rose to her feet, though her expression was faraway and thoughtful. She pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, spit on it, and began rubbing the moistened cloth across the back of her neck and into her hair.
Thomis shifted a bit in his saddle, trying to find a position that would not aggravate the throbbing from the wound in his thigh. And trying not to look sideways or over his shoulder at the three strangers he had picked up at the next hamlet. He could not pinpoint exactly what it was about the three that made him uneasy, they seemed to be pleasant enough fellows. Perhaps it was just his continuing worry for Laurelyn and the others. And the fact that the small village – nothing much more than a collection of thatched houses and a few rutted dirt streets – had seemed practically deserted when he had ridden in.
The residents had been more than reluctant to answer his quiet hail once he had ridden in. Thomis had seen some shadows pass by the windows, and lights doused quickly at the sound of his voice. Everyone pretending they were not at home. Just this healer to his right, a nondescript laborer of some sort to his left, and the brawny blacksmith riding slightly ahead… The only ones who had been willing to step out and speak to him, and even then only warily. At least they had agreed to ride back with him, even knowing of the bandits, and aid in bringing Laurelyn and the others back to relative safety.
Jayden grimaced as he jounced around in the horses saddle and tried his best to stay hidden within his cloak. It was not his horse, of course, nor was it his cloak. What was worse was that he was sure that Pondra and Vels knew that he had thieved them from someone. He suspected that they came along as much to make sure he didn’t waylay this wounded man as to verify his story.
The darkness of the night suited him well enough, but he tried not to think of bandits as the dirt road bobbled around in his vision before him.
Pondra held his thick arm up in warning, and reined his horse in clumsily. Leaning back, he spoke in far too loud a voice to be prudent.
“I think if we want to find your friends before the bandits decide to attack again, we’d best ride as fast as we can.”
He glanced only briefly at the healer, Vels, before directing his bushy brow towards the man, Thomis. He ignored Jayden entirely – men like that don’t make responsible decisions.
“Thomis?” he prompted.
Perhaps we could light torches to mark ourselves for the bandits, Thomis thought to himself with a touch of exasperation at the blacksmith’s loud voice. “Quiet is our best option,” he pointed out in a purposely hushed voice. “Both in our speaking and in our movement.” They were close already to the area where he had left Laurelyn and the others, but despite his anxiousness to rejoin them, did not want to risk a headlong gallop.
From slightly ahead of the men came the sharp snapping of branches, and an angry snorting.
The sound came closer and out onto the road came a large bay hunter – tossing her head, with the whites of her eyes showing. From the backpack tied to her saddle came a continuous whimpering..
The horse fidgetted nervously in the middle of the road, looking ready to bolt at the least noise.
Shortly after he had escaped the stable, Rudolpho recognized the other horse as Falcon. I don’t have time to take care of her now. She can take care of herself and I can track her later. The others need me more right now. Falcon has given me a good idea though. Searching through his menagerie of spell components, Rudolpho selected an item and closed the pack. With a few words he had adopted Falcon’s namesake and taken to the sky. In a very short time he came upon a small traveling group and an unridden horse. In one more pass he had picked up enough detail with his acute vision to know that Thomis was among the group and they had met up with Beast and Fiend.
Rudolpho screamed a piercing call and came in for a landing on the branch of a tree before the small group. He looked at Thomis and lowered his head as if in a nod. He then winked one eye and squawked. I hope he knows it’s me.
Jayden sat back on the horse that he called his own and breathed deeply. His heart had beat itself down to a safe rate, but things were still getting too hectic for him. Like any good thief, he was not comfortable with surprises.
Besides, he hated animals. He rather suspected that they shared his feelings.
Ahead, Pondra sat on his horse, slow to register the meaning of riderless horses and birds of prey. Or perhaps that was what he wanted everyone to think. Jayden knew Pondra well enough to know that he was nowhere near as dumb as he acted sometimes. Just when he thought Pondra was pretending to ignore the event entirely, the big man spoke.
“Is this horse belonging to one of your friends?” asked the blacksmith, his voice a whisper. The sound was almost comical coming from a throat that was designed for shouting over loud bellows and the clanging of iron, but he managed to keep his voice down to an acceptable level. Jayden was almost proud of him..
As Pondra had begun speaking, Vels had dismounted and strode calmly towards the horse. He whispered in soft tones, and held a bundle of herbs in one hand. Jayden had no idea what kind of herbs they were – he was no healer or herbalist – but he knew that Vels would do what was best… he always did.
“It belonged to one of my party,” Thomis answered the blacksmith with the faintest of grim tones to his voice. With a slight nudge, he inched his own horse closer to Beast, making soft noises in the back of his throat to reassure the bay hunter. With a sideways glance, he nodded towards the raptor, an acknowledgment to Rudolpho; at least one of his traveling companions had escaped whatever fate had befallen the others. The Oath-bound ached to get the boy alone, so he could shift himself back into a form capable of speech, to discover what it was that had happened to Laurelyn, what had been enough to overcome even the jester.
Beast tossed her head at the nearness of Vels and Thomis, but didn’t bolt. From her backpack came frantic yipping as Fiend picked up Thomis’s scent.
Rudolpho sat on the branch and watched Thomis approach Beast. She should stay still for him. She knows him and was the one who approached him first. While Thomis did that, he also observed the others with him. He wasn’t quite sure of them but decided to keep an eye on them. We have to hurry up. He squawked plaintively at Thomis as if to communicate the urgency and tell him to hurry up.
[Vels, Pondra, Jayden]
Vels smiled at the animals, and then at Thomis. “It appears that they are well, but I hope that we do not need my skills on their owners…” he said, turning to remount his horse.
Jayden spurred his horse forward to join the rest of the group. They ignored him largely, but he spoke up regardless.
“The birds here are making me nervous. Lets find your friends. Pondra, any idea on what direction we should take?”
Pondra didn’t even look his way, as if he was pretending that someone else had spoken. “Probably straight, maybe left a bit…” he pointed. Jayden shrugged, and spurred his horse forward, hoping that Thomis would give him some support in this unfriendly crowd.
Thomis reached out slowly and hooked Beast’s trailing reins in one hand, drawing the nervous bay closer to his own mount so that he could snag the yipping backpack. He did not remove the pup, but did slip one hand inside to stroke his head reassuringly. “Think you can stay quiet for a bit?” he murmured before securing the pack, and pup, to his own saddlebags. Then he considered the falcon again, and trusting to Rudolpho not to hold too tightly with those taloned claws, he extended one arm to the bird. “Which direction?” he asked the falcon, as if he were accustomed to conversing with large raptors on a regular basis. He had no particular reason to doubt the three who had come out with him, but only one person present merited his trust.
Fiend gave one more whimper, and licked Thomis’s fingers, before settling into the pack. And Beast nosed Thomis’s horse – then began to tug against the reins the Oathbound held; not hard enough to pull away, but enough to indicate a desire.
Rudolpho took Thomis’ cue and sprang from the branch. He glided gracefully over to Thomis and landed gently on the proferred arm. He rubbed his head up against Thomis’ cheek because he was glad to see him again, and because he wanted to give the others the impression Thomis was his master. At Thomis’ inquiry, Rudolpho jerked his head slightly to the left of their present course and chirped quietly. If he doesn’t get it, which I think he will, I’ll get up and show them. It wouldn’t be too much further to where the other companions were being held. Rudolpho consciously avoided fidgeting as his claws could hurt Thomis if he wasn’t careful.
The group started forward once more, travelling with urgency yet trepidation, for the threat of bandits loomed large in their minds. The forest grew dense as they travelled, bushes and undergrowth became thicker and hampered their passage. There was the sound of wolf packs hunting in the distance, their howls and bestial growling echoing in the darkness.
The sun had set completely, and Vels feared the worst. They could not light torches to ease their passage, yet the horses could not see the bushes or trees that threated to cripple them at every step.
It was Pondra who spotted the light ahead, flickering red. A fire of some kind.
“Their camp?” whispered the big man, uncertain even in the face of an obvious truth.
A curse from behind made Vels look back. Jayden sat on his horse at the back of the group, sucking at the back of his hand.
Vels had to ask.
“Are you well?”
Jayden nodded and waved his attention back to the rest of the group.
“I am not good with the horse… walked into a bush.”
He kicked his leg out at a thorny bush which had wrapped itself around a tree nearby.
Jayden looked at Thomis.
“We need a plan,” he whispered.
Laurelyn wiped at the back of her neck as thoroughly as she could, making sure she reached up into her hairline. And when she was satisfied, and the white handkerchief bore red smears, the storyteller began to walk towards the standing stones.
The others watched as she walked boldly towards the ring of dull grey stones, their breath held.
At first nothing was apparent, then as she reached the beginnings of the circle, they spotted it.
It appeared slowly on the back of her neck where the blood had been, until it covered a larger area than before. Perhaps she became aware of the wetness at her neck, or perhaps some greater power drew her to a halt, just inches from the edge of the circle. She turned slowly, and her face was pale.
Pierre spoke quietly, thinking out loud. “Where…where is the blood coming from? It can’t just come from out of nowhere. It has to come from somewhere. Nobody’s cut. Where is it coming from?”
Laurelyn felt the wetness on her collar and reached her hand back to touch it. When she looked at them they were stained with her own blood – her fingers closed into fists. And for a minute she contemplated damning the risks and throwing herself through. Instead she turned and contemplated the stones.
The storyteller remembered the strange voices when the horse charged the circle and her expression turned contemplative. Laurelyn reached into her tunic and pulled out a tin whistle; she began playing the elven tune she planned to be the offering for the Captain of the Star Dreamer. A strange tune of elven tones and lilts that spoke of the deepest sorrows and greatest beauty. After awhile Laurelyn stopped playing the whistle and wordlessly sung it in chant – her’s was not an elven voice but the tune was still haunting.
From deep within the ground rose the voices, ancient and whispery. It was as if some tangible force had risen from the dirt to wrap itself around the group and cool the air that surrounded them. It rose as if called to the tune, as if cravenly seeking the singer. Wisps of air flitted around the storyteller, lifting her hair and ruffling her clothes.
Then as if something had shifted in the wind, Laurelyn felt the wind knock her legs out from under her and she felt her face being pressed into the ground.
The voices rose in pitch, shrieks and cries calling out helplessly in the darkness. The bonfires could barely be seen, as if they had died out completely.
From the ground, Laurelyn could see blood seeping from the hard grey stones around her, making the ground slick with its redness. As the gruesome pool reached her cheek and soaked into her clothes, the cries rose to one last echoing shriek – then all was silent.
The bonfires rose once more in blazing anger, but the coldness remained.
“The spirits do not want you to leave,” came Grumhog’s voice from behind one of the bonfires. He stepped from behind it, his eyes feral and his smile sharp.
“Thorgovash has bound you to this circle… only he can let you free.”
He held forth a curved dagger. It glinted on cue, silver bladed and ruby handled. His message was clear. The dagger he held would be their only freedom – their final freedom.
His eyes turned to Laurelyn.
“It appears Thorgovash has taken a liking to your blood, ” he smiled, “A man once tried to leave this circle… actually succeeded…” he paused, reminiscing. When he continued, his voice held a distant tone, “he bled to death where I stand now”.
Keir had gone to check on Pierre when Laurelyn tried to escape the circle’s hold. Other than the hint of terror in the young bard’s eyes there appeared to be no physical damage though he, like they, had the telltale blood smear.
He was about to see to Daron, while keeping a wary eye on Laurelyn’s progress, but halted when the voices began. Fear stirred deep inside him, primal fear that threatened to overwhelm his reason. His mind assured him that there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing of substance in the chill whispers. Still, his legs trembled and the urge to flee grew with each passing second. His hands groped inside his vest pockets, grasping upon his vials and giving him a sense of familiar comfort to fight the unseen horror.
As Grumhog approached Laurelyn’s prone form Keir flung vials into the nearest bonfires where they exploded almost instantly in a brilliant flash of sparks. Thick black smoke billowed from the fires, obscuring the clearing in moments, and Keir could no longer see either Grumhog or his companions. He felt his way to the edge of the stone ring, gathering a length of rope as he crept along.
“Mistress, grab hold!” he yelled into the inky blackness as he tossed the rope’s end toward where he thought, hoped, Laurelyn was lying.
Jacques had been about to make some suggestions as to what Grumhog and his Hogwash friends could do with their blood, when all hell broke loose. Or at least a small corner of one of the lower levels of the abyss.
He spluttered as the smoke billowed across the circle and cursed volubly when it blinded him.
“Mister Keir!” he called out. “Some of us were tryin’ to concentrate here. You’re not gettin’ all hysterical on me like the rest of the kids now, are you?”
He coughed again, and pulled a brightly coloured fan from one of his pockets – fruitlessly trying to fan some of the smoke away.
“God damn over-reactin’, frightened, brainless, children,” he sputtered into the smoke. And then a string of curses that were too muffled to be made out clearly. The fan was pushed back into a pocket, and he withdrew a small shovel from another. If they were so all-fired anxious to get out of the circle then he’d help them – just so’s he could stay and rest in peace. So to speak.
Laurelyn didn’t even bother trying to clean the vile blood from her cheek, but she did shakily get to her feet. And more than ever she wished she had a clan bard’s power to invoke curse. Aloud she did say, “You and your thrice-damned god will find that clan blood comes at a price. How many of your men do want to see go with me?”
She moved through the fog and nearly ran into Keir. “Is everyone alright?” she asked, trying to figure out where the smoke came from.” Her voice was shaky as she said to Jacques, “Good Jester – I take it you have an idea?”
“Seems to me,” replied Jacques, “that if it’s the circle that’s causin’ all this trouble, then we break the circle, and we stop the trouble. Then maybe I can sit here and rest for a bit while the rest of you go look for our horses. And my hat.”
He wandered over to the edge of the circle and glared at the stones. Then, with a shrug he stuck the shovel into the earth at the base of one chosen at random.
“Unless Keir has some fancy flash powder that’s rather stronger than any I’ve got, our chances of blowing these things to smithereens is pretty remote. So, maybe we can topple them, or simply dig ‘em out of the way.”
The shovel took a small chunk of earth, and he tossed it to one side, then dug in for another. It would take a while – it wasn’t exactly a large shovel.
“If anyone’s got any better ideas, I’m all ears,” Jacques finished as he set to his digging.
Laurelyn shrugged, and said, “I can’t think of any better ideas.” At least it offered a chance to burn off the anger that threatened to consume her.
From the edge of the clearing, a loud voice boomed at the group in greeting.
A man and horse appeared dimly, crashing through underbrush and tree branches to charge across the clearing towards them. He appeared to be waving at others behind him and at the group in the circle at the same time.
When he reached the bonfires, he dismounted awkwardly, and he smiled.
“You are friends of Thomis?” he asked, his smile genuine and his voice deep and reassuring. A massive hammer dangled from his belt, and glinted in the firelight.
“My name is Pondra.”
Laurelyn had barely started to kneel when the newcomer heralded them – as if they were still picnicking by the stream. She managed not to let her mouth hang open – as she wondered at what new lunacy cursed this section of the woods. Nor had she missed his mention of Thomis – and wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or worried that the madness had caught up with him. She stood slowly and said, “We know of him.”
Vels cursed the blacksmith for his stupidity, and nudged his horse forwards. He pushed the remaining branches out of his way carefully, and stopped once his horse stepped into the open. He looked back.
Thomis and Jayden were still there, probably cursing the blacksmith with much greater gusto than he had managed.
Jayden had a sweat on his brow.
“Jayden, if you are afraid, you should stay behind…” he whispered to the thief, affecting his best impression of sympathy. He knew Jayden was not very good at confrontations, and feared the worst if he ran into real bandits.
Jayden looked up. His eyes held an intensity that hadn’t been there for years. “I want to help these people, Vels. I want a chance to help them…”
He wanted redemption.
Vels beckoned for him to follow. Who was he to stop another man from cleansing himself of his sins?
With a quick glance at Thomis, Rudolpho sprang off his shoulder taking care not to dig in his claws when he pushed off. Flying close to the ground, Rudolpho changed in mid flight to his panther form. He then strode majestically into the clearing where Pondra, Vels, and Jayden stood. He walked past them, into the circle, and gave Daron a big lick on the cheek. He noticed Jacques digging at the edge of the circle and watched his efforts with interest. Perhaps he was digging to find the source of the strange whisperings he had heard when he crossed the boundary of the circle. He realized that all the members of the group seemed to be sitting in the circle making no efforts to get out. -hat’s strange. There doesn’t seem to be any gaurds around but they just sit there. It must be some sort of spell. Jacques seems to be able to do magic, maybe he knows something. Rudolpho approached Jacques and rumbled a questioning growl.
Laurelyn wondered if Rudolpho would be able to get back out, though she suspected that not only blood marked those in the ring, but some spell.
Thomis spent the first few minutes after Pondra rode out into the open and announced their presence to anyone within hearing simply studying the tableau before him. A faint tinge of worry had passed through him at the sight of the blood marking Laurelyn, but the storyteller seemed to be physically well, even if some unknown magicks held her – and the others – in place. Not for the first time, he wished Mesani I’Se at his side; even at her most unpredictable, she would prove to be a useful ally in a situation such as this.
Bonfires and blood-spells, Thomis thought to himself. This would be a nasty business; Grumhog and his men obviously were more than the simple bandits he had last seen them as. With a sigh, Thomis prodded his horse next to Jayden’s, and spoke quietly without taking his eyes from the stone circle. “These are more than thieves,” he observed calmly. “What do you know of them?” Someone in that village had to have heard something about blood rituals occurring in the nearby woods; perhaps that would explain why nearly everyone’s door had been closed to him.
At first Jayden didn’t reply, as if shocked that someone would speak to him, or as if his mind was wandering.
“Little. Their leader is a man known as Brendan, and he pictures himself as something of a great leader who is merely trying to improve the living conditions of his men – men who we cast out because of their violent tendencies…” he looked at the stone circle, and wiped at some sweat that had formed on his brow. “I had no idea that Brendan was into blood magic.” He shook his head in bewilderment.
A wolf howled in the darkness, followed by the reply calls of his pack. Jayden shivered on his saddle.
Jacques cursed as his shovel struck a seam of rock that appeared to be linking at least two of the stones in the circle. He scratched out some more earth to be sure, and then gave up in disgust.
“Looks like there’s more’n just these few rocks making up this circle,” he muttered, and noticed the stranger coming over. He stodd and moved back a few inches from the edge of the circle.
Vels nodded in greeting to those in the circle.
“Please do not try to leave the circle for a while” he requested, then dismounted.
He kneeled on the grass next to one stone and began examining it slowly, methodically. He began muttering to himself, but when the area beneath his hand glowed blue it became obvious that he was employing some sort of magic.
A frown crept onto his face, but he said nothing, merely continuing his scan.
Pondra stepped forward into the circle.
“Anyone need help?” he asked.
”’Less you can smash these here rocks into little bits, I think we’ll live,” replied Jacques acerbically. “For a while.”
He wondered how long they had before the wildman and his cohorts returned. Not very long, doubtless, but with luck it’d be long enough. He drew a long, red handled knife from a pocket and balanced it lightly in his hand. Anyone got too close trying to take his blood was in for a surprise.
Then he considered a little, and withdrew a cloth surgical mask from another pocket. He wasn’t going to be caught the same way twice.