With shaking hands, Morath finally got the lantern lit: just in time! Limned by the feeble light across the forest trail, two ghouls rushed toward the party’s rearguard. Panting with weariness, Bardic raised his sword in a two-hand stance while Edric, pale but determined, stepped forward beside him, swinging his quarterstaff lustily – and to no avail!
Seemingly off-put by the light, the lead ghouls checked, clawing nigh-ineffectually while two more gaunt grey shapes slid past them to close with Vorel and Morath! Vorel’s clothyard shaft hammered home as though into teak: unfazed, his adversary reached its claws out, gouging great runnels into Vorel’s jerkin and leaving him bruised and reeling.
Morath slid aside from his opponent, slipping behind Vorel’s tormentor and stabbing deep into its back. Bardic slashed sideways at the same beast. Clearly damaged though insensible to the pain, the thing attempted to finish Vorel, who stepped away and sent another arrow into it. It slumped down: Vorel, buckling at the knees, staggered a step back to the donkey-cart and grabbed a flagon:
“I’d hate to die with a parched throat!”
In hindsight, Edric mused as he swung uselessly yet again, it had been rash to leave the tunnels the same night, just because Vorel and Bardic heard the pattering of feet. Vorel pulling the donkey’s harness, Verus and the children and a few choice items of loot atop the cart, they had made it away from the ruin itself and into the first scattered forest copses. The darkness of the night, useful for escaping any remaining banditti, nearly proved fatal with ghouls on the trail. Luckily the wolf-like hearing of the barbarian had detected the muted meeping and glibbering of pursuers!
Ignoring Edric, the ghoul sped past him – and past Bardic’s rending blade – and leapt up onto the tailgate of the cart. Its muzzle lunged forward, seizing a great bite of Verus’ most tender parts! Verus’ eyes snapped open – briefly, as though from some night terror – then glazed into acceptance and death. The children, crouching forward of the fighter, wailed in terror.
The fiery liquid burned down Vorel’s gullet and warmed his gut. His got his second wind: once again he found the strength to pull on his mighty longbow, and directed another shaft at a third ghoul. Beside him, Bardic, Edric and Morath, and Celo from a prudent distance, slew the feasting ghoul. But as Bardic for one realised with ice-cold certainty, two fully fit ghouls remained, and they simply had no reserves left to draw on for any further defence!
“It’s Verus’ last service to his comrades!” Bardic shouted, hauling Verus’ disemboweled corpse flopping from the shattered tailgate, to splatter wetly across the trail in front of the two remaining ghouls. They turned their muzzles to the immediate feast.
“He always was a real chum!” Celo punned as the five hastened the donkey-cart away from the now-distracted ghouls, and northward toward what some of them fondly imagined to be safety.
A few hours down the trail, Vorel was exhausted and the others tiring. The cart was now showing three lights. The trees, previously fairly dense, were thinning out, hinting that the trail neared the outer barrens around the charter town. From time to time the Shirki could be heard off to the right.
The two remaining ghouls, not satisfied with Verus, were intent on repaying themselves for the long years of enforced fasting. Once again they closed in, but this time the five were better organized. As the last relatively unhurt man, Celo took his place in the front rank beside Bardic, dagger in each hand. Edric and Morath waited off to the flank, while Vorel knelt atop the donkey-cart’s seat. The fight was savage but Morath’s unerring skill with the back-stab proved decisive.
With first light came the debate about final direction. The majority agreed that only trouble waited in the charter town. The donkey was fare-welled and set loose, the children picked up by those that had some energy left, and the remainder staggered with the few items of loot, all roughly east toward the river.
The glint of silver attracted one of the town’s early-morning fishing-boats, and the party was ferried over into Poitain. There, it was not too long before they were accosted by a routine patrol. Cablato, one of the four patrolling, greeted them with favor, and sent word of their return back to the Valanus keep-tower.
* * *
Five days of solid rest later, the five comrades concluded their leisurely planning of the re-looting. Very little was left to chance: only daytime forays were to be made, and plenty of light was to be kept ready. Word had been sent back to the charter town and to Dimas of the mission’s success, and the two children were in the care of Eforwen, the rosy-cheeked Brythunian confidant of the keep’s mistress. The only real distraction was a prolonged punch-up between Galpa, the ill-mannered keep smith, and Vorel. The fight concluded with both exhausted and battered, honor even.
* * *
The first day’s foray revealed that two bandits – clearly expert fighters – had retreated to the river-trail, fighting off and slaying four ghouls, all by night. Unimpressed, Bardic identified one as Cadwal, grinning hardily as he detected signs of much blood-letting from his rival. The other, judging from arrows left lying, would have to be Attalus. They had, presumably, reached the same mooring they themselves were using. And collected by who?
“Captain Seadog the Gigantic Penis, that’s who!”
The logic of the connection between the galley and the kidnap gang reinforced again, the five pushed on.
In the tunnels, most of the crossbows and the remaining better weapons were packed up and carted back out. Edric sorted through much more of the paperwork in Xaphur’s chamber.
The second day, the carpets, paperwork and couple of saleable pieces of armor were transported out. As they arrived again at the Shirki, the top of a ship’s mast was glimpsed to the south!
Alert to the likelihood of the mysterious Zingaran galley, the party hid back in the forest. Sure enough, the galley moored right there where they waited. Morath and Bardic could only glare in frozen frustration as they recognized the Instigator – and Captain “Seadog G. Penis” – but in the face of a galley full of arbalest-wielding crew could do nothing. Luckily, none of those aboard were woodsmen and did not think to search for tracks. Instead, the galley lingered for some hours as though waiting, then made off south once more.
* * *
Galpa gave a meager return on the equipment, save for the best of the swords. All in all, not a famous trove, but a lot better than the very small original fee!
“So it’s off to Culario!” Edric concluded.
“I’ll miss you, Edric,” Eforwen sighed. “Don’t worry about the children – it will take time, but we’ll find their families or some other good souls glad to take them in. And I’ll send any further word I hear of Kova’s galley, and that instigator you described. But be careful! Kova’s power is great, even here in Poitain… So you mean to join the priesthood?”
“Yes, Mitra has long called me, and I feel ready now.” Indeed, Edric mused privily and somewhat smugly, with a couple of extra sorcerous spells gleaned from Xaphur’s paperwork he could say he was more than ready.
“And your friends?”
“Oh, they’ll have a famous time of it in Culario! And I’m sure if the time is right, they’ll look me up for more… hmm…”
“Yes. To be sure, good deeds.”