Panting loudly and shaking the fatigue out of his trembling arms, Edric made his way over towards the cringing, tattered figure that was – surely – Brythunia’s King Barus. It cowered away, weeping quietly. He could tell the man was terrified.
Attempting to give Edric space, the others fanned out across the broad, smooth-flagged tower top. Vorel stepped to the south-east side, the anchored rope to his left near the small, conical-roofed turret. From here he had a good view of the valley, though the camp had been placed out of sight of this point.
Celo searched the tower roof. There was no sign of how the king kept body and soul together: there had to be some type of living quarters inside the tower. The turret’s inward side featured a frowning, heavy portal fashioned of a material that Celo could not place. He began searching it for some type of latch or lever.
“There’s some kind of movement in the forest,” Vorel called. Bardic strode over to his side, but could not immediately see the same warning signs that Vorel had. The pine-tops stood up close-packed like miniature serried peaks, allowing no sight of the under-canopy or floor. “I noticed some birds fly up, one flock after another, in a line from there” – the Bossonian gestured – “and there” – gesturing towards a different compass point. “Whatever it is could be making for our camp!”
“We need to get back fast!” Bardic growled, striding over to the rope. He peered over, trying to work out a simple, fast and safe method of lowering a shambling loon and a couple of less-than-expert climbers. His pondering was not made easier by the others, debating this and that.
“Celo – leave the door alone – we’re being paid to get the king, not loot some evil tower!” Morath advised, noticing that the Tauranian had been lingering for some time there. At Morath’s voice, Celo seemed to shudder and come to himself. He stepped gingerly away from the door, wiping sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
“Stay away from that door! I think there are warding runes on it! I had the sudden urge to run and throw myself off the tower!”
“Runes?” Edric asked in the peculiarly excited tone he got when arcana were mentioned. With some reluctance, he dragged himself back to coaxing Barus. The crazed monarch was as biddable as a child, when spoken to gently. Seeking solace, he leant his filthy, matted head against Edric’s shoulder and wept. But he seemed worried about two people: “Sir Cereus” and “Brano” the latter apparently a faithful retainer. His speech wandered back to them each time Edric tried to prepare him to leave.
Bardic outlined a plan which, though it took some time to implement, proved safe and reasonably untaxing. Last to begin the descent, the Cimmerian landed before Morath, who was lowering himself at a more prudent pace than the hill-man’s fast rappel. Edric was having trouble with Barus again.
“But, Majesty, where are your friends? There’s nothing here…”
“They are here… they’re with me always… I had to…” whimpered Barus.
“What made you do what?” Morath asked impatiently, adjusting his gear after the climb.
“I had to EAT THEM!!!” Barus shrieked, the veins standing out on his head, his eyes all horror.
“Let’s push on – the sooner we turn our backs on this accursed place the sooner the memories will fade,” Bardic growled, sympathetically enough.
A further hour saw the six descend the last rocky incline to the camp. Their four retainers, Darius, Kilp, Quinn and Theodora, greeted them with some relief: apparently sounders of boar had trotted through the pines nearby the camp.
Pig Peril at the Pass
Celo put his best foot forward, and recalled, as best he could, the mistakes he had made navigating the thick pine forest valley originally. And barring a small detour around a steep-sided stream on the valley floor, the return march was much more successful. Before nightfall, the caravan halted at the same campsite, below the north end of the Pass.
At Morath’s suggestion – which all the retainers now treated as an order – the watch was increased to threes rather than pairs. But other than a flash of light across the dawn sky, which could have been a falling star, the entire night passed uneventfully.
“A falling star, let’s hit the saddle,” Bardic suggested forcefully, rubbing the water out of his hyacinthine locks as he returned from his crude ablutions.
“I have finished communing with Mitra. It might be best to skip breakfast,” Edric agreed.
“Hold the skipping and order a rasher of bacon: boars attacking!” Morath yelled from the down-road side of the trail. Up-road, Celo jogged and scrambled upslope to gain a clear line of sight. Though most were concealed by the pines and the slope dropping away into the valley, he saw, with a chill, that the lead few boars were huge in size: their eyes glowing with spectral fire, their jowls drizzling glowing ichorous foam.
Down at the roadstead, where behind them Darius and Kilp struggled vainly to bring the heads of the horses around and get them moving up trail, Bardic and Morath were reaching the same conclusion. In an act that spoke as much of his confidence as his courage, Morath slid down the carpet of pine-needles, cutting left as Bardic cut to the right of the biggest, meanest boar. Their blades cut deep! Then Morath was all but crushed underfoot as the other boars surged into him. Both he and the Cimmerian felt vicious tusks goring into their armor. The Cimmerian’s battered mail shirt held, but Morath’s jerkin was quickly shredded.
“That seven talents of gold is starting to seem like short pay!” he gasped, extricating himself, cutting left and right, as the mighty double-hander sword of his ally rose and fell. Looking over to the horses, a sulfurous curse seared from his tongue: the retainers had not gotten the horses moving, and boars had tusked his beloved mount Pango, the dark gelding.
Over the other side of the roadstead, Vorel’s mighty Bossonian longbow thrummed until boars rushed up the slope, then drawing longsword and shortsword he stood firm against the tide. Beside him, Theodora and Quinn joined the battle-line. Celo’s powerful hunting bow sounded its higher twang from up-slope. One great boar rushed him: its breath fetid, redolent of the ichor of graves. Vorel danced to one side: his blade swept up: the boar went crashing down! Then another breasted the rise to the campsite and charged into Quinn and Theodora, cutting Quinn down and sending Theodora reeling. Before Vorel could reset the line, Quinn’s body was crushed under a welter of many boar trotters and slashed to ribbons by many tusks!
It was cold comfort that once the sorcerous beasts were slain, the other boars fled. Bardic laid Quinn’s body out – the once handsome face barely recognizable. There were barely enough loose rocks in the area to weight some pine branches down over the corpse: a meager burial indeed.
“There’s little chance of finding his next of kin,” Morath ruled pragmatically.
“He came from the south, is all I know,” Darius agreed.
“Then it’s a straight divvy up. Draw lots: first pick gets the pretty sword, second gets the bracers and headband, and third gets his coin pouch.”
Plagues and poisons
Edric was checking the bindings on the last of the mounts. Pango had been worst hurt, but again, between Mitra’s healing mercies and practical bandaging, was fit to limp along. Makeshift bandaging had now gone right through all spare garments and was now using strips of the last tent.
“It looks like fog might delay us more: look at the stuff creeping up!” Celo commented.
“That’s no ordinary fog!” Vorel cried. “It’s rolling towards us as if it means to attack!”
Ghostly tendrils wrapped themselves around the caravan. All save Morath and Celo – and Theodora, for some reason – felt their wills grow weak and their minds fill as though with feather down.
“There’s poison in the fog!” Celo screamed. He could see sickly yellow-green clouds rolling in behind the paler fog. Vainly he, Theodora and Morath pushed and yanked the horses and their comrades towards the far end of the Pass. More yellow-green fog rolled in from the other direction!
Edric tried to shake off the feeling of lethargy, and with numbing fingers, fumbled through his herbalist kit. Apart from the herbs and the pint of prepared remedy against poison, he seemed to have nothing to use against this deadly poison. Hang on: What?
For the next several seconds, a fraught race against time was acted out, almost in dumb-show. The three who were alert swigged immediately after Edric and then the Friar was able to try to prioritize. Darius was down and choking his life out. Using his healing skills, Edric forced him to swallow the antidote. The tough Brythunian came to: but only enough to cling to a stirrup and stumble along. Then the horses , Barus and Kilp, then finally Bardic, who had shrugged off the worst of the poison anyway. Tending to Darius and helping back into the saddle, the caravan assembled and began pushing through the Pass.
Another faithful servant departs
Morath’s horse Pango balked and shied slightly and the Zamorian jerked on the reins irritably. That was the second time that day! He was about to remind Vorel of his promise to look over the beast, when the ground roiled under Pango and Morath lost his balance as the gelding toppled under a small mountain of stone and soil. In an instant’s clarity just before his back smashed into the ground and a slab of rock smashed into him, Morath realized that the eruption had taken on a vaguely manlike shape and a near-featureless head-like outcrop had turned its blank eyes on him. Desperately kicking himself free he avoided being trapped under Pango and rolled clear as another boulder-size fist smashed stunningly into him. Pango’s last shrill screams were stifled as the rocky creature surged over it and into the midst of the caravan!
Up-trail, Celo had kicked out of the stirrups and hit the ground shooting, driving arrows deep into the creature’s flank. Immediately behind him, King Barus, screaming, thrashed his mount into a gallop, stranding Kilp uncertain as to what to do.
On the far side of the sorcerous summoning, Vorel proved as ready as Celo, slamming clothyard shafts deep into it. Even before Bardic could get his mighty blade into action, the creature had ebbed back into the ground, leaving only churned-up soil and the dead horse.
Vaulting back atop his own gelding while slinging his bow, Celo dug his heels in and crouched low over the horse’s neck. “On, boy! We must catch the king!” he urged. The gelding flashed past Kilp, who had begun the pursuit, and down onto the forest road to K’markor. Its breath came in deep bellows-like movements as Celo urged it faster, and still faster: cutting away the last of its fodder and his saddlebags. He caught up the king, and after some attempts to calm both rider and mount, caught the halter and rode to a canter, trot, then stop. He judged that the chase had taken him half-way to K’markor. But keeping to best principles, he reined about and they rode back to rejoin the main party.
The Final Attack
“Now, that seven talents is really looking meager. Ah well, such is life,” Morath pronounced.
“I can jog along, fairly comfortably, if you want a mount,” Bardic volunteered.
“Thanks! I’ve been in better health, though I think that berry Edric gave us is making me feel better,” Morath assented. He stripped off the last remnants of his once-fine jerkin. The thin shirt beneath did little to disguise the muscles that roiled and rippled like steel cord on his lean frame. He noticed Theodora staring: she jerked her gaze away, reddening.
Then she cried in alarm, pointing back towards the Pass: trees had begun to sway violently, as though in an earthquake!
Celo rode first, then Barus and Kilp, Edric and Theodora and Morath, and Vorel and Bardic jogging along last. Around them, the trail ran fluid and churned like porridge. The hills seemed to leap up and down. Trees waved like wisps of grass in a whirlwind. Water from a spring arched hundreds of feet into the air. Lightning flashed and thunder roared! Then to his horror, Celo realized that the trail ahead had become a mountain, a tidal wave of earth that would crush them all into powder!
Jockeying their rearing, screaming mounts around as swiftly as they could, the nine rode away from the vast landslide as quickly as they could. Glancing back Celo breathed a sigh of relief: the earth-wave did seem to be falling into its component boulders and ebbing back.
Then the next wave struck.
The air howled with sleet while on either side of the trail, the earth rose, towering, sliding towards the pounding caravan. Bardic found himself more apt of footing than Vorel on his superb gelding: the sleet was swiftly making footing very treacherous. He shielded his eyes as he ran, attempting to pierce the storm. In one direction, a jumble of tree-trunks, boulders and earth showed no possibility of escape from the driving, biting sleet. But on the other flank, he could glimpse an exposed rock ledge. Surely the very bones of the mountains offered at least the chance of escape!
“Over there! Follow me!”
He ran closer, barely able to keep his feet and scarcely able to see two body-lengths in the dense storm. Then lightning flashed again: Bardic glimpsed, in its white revelation, a robed figure limned by the sheet lightning against the hillside: standing on the very ledge they were making for! His arms raised, he seemed to be chanting arcane, sorcerous commands!
Bardic gritted his teeth, drew his sword and charged! His experience fighting on tricky surfaces aided him keeping his balance: he rushed and leaped high, grabbing the ledge’s lip and vaulting up. As he swung the sword up, gripping two-handed, he realized that the man looked a lot like an older Edric: the same warm, friendly eyes that looked deep into his own: but continuing his action, Bardic sent the great blade slicing horizontally into the man’s flank!
“You think that will stop me?” the sorcerer sneered, his palms opening to call down more evil on his assailant.
Two arrows flashed past Bardic, slamming into the sorcerer like hammer-blows. Glancing back down, Bardic realized that Vorel had found footing and an angle to shoot from. The sorcerer groaned, whatever spell he had attempted lost. Taking his opportunity with both hands, Bardic raised his brand on high and slashed again: the sorcerer’s head leapt from his gore-spouting neck: the body tumbled down, blood washing freely over the rock even as the blinding sleet diluted it.
Reward and Remorse
“So the name “Indri” means nothing, madam?”
“No,” the young Duristan widow assured Bardic, “It’s no-one I knew. My thanks again for avenging my husband.”
“No, my thanks. Your goddess gave me strength.”
Turning to the three surviving retainers, Bardic allowed a small grin to crease his face. “Your luck’s in: split the purse three ways,” he said, tossing the 20-gold-and-change to them.
“Thanks’ cap’n,” Kilp cried, clearly delighted. “With this, we can afford mounts of our own.”
“We’ll be going up in the world,” Darius joked, then realizing it was the kind of joke Quinn would have made, fell silent in sober reflection.
“He’ll be missed,” Theodora agreed to the unspoken sentiment. Then more practically: “It’s late in the year. We could winter here, then head west to one of the big hiring fairs.”
“Yes, I’ve had a feeling for a few days that I should have gone west when I was dismissed in Nemedia. But we’re alive and it’s not too late.”
“Sounds good,” Darius agreed, “with a horse between my legs I can earn some real coin, and my options will be the greater. What about you, Kilp?”
“Duristan isn’t my kind of place – especially with K’markor so close – but if I can’t get south then I’m in accord with you.”
The horror of K’markor, where the hamlet’s children had all been found sacrificed and the adults crazed with grief, was slowly lifting from the party. Theodora seemed inclined to change her mind at the reminder: the atrocity had hit her particularly hard. The three hirelings bade farewell to their erstwhile employers, uncertain as to what to do next.
The five heroes, with King Barus, traveled south in rapid stages, guided by local word as to the whereabouts of King Ioplathes. As expected, they found that his court was wintering at one of the great estates of the realm, in the south-east, fairly close to Zamora. Barus, by this time much saner, was reminded by Zamora’s proximity:
“Morath, you asked about the Merchant Avron Nistarin. At the time I may not have been clear. Yes, it does seem to me that the Merchant was in league with the sorcerer Kozrath. I saw him watch the slaughter of his own caravan, then hand over something to Kozrath: a small box, or tube perhaps.”
Four hundred pounds of gold is quite small in volume, but troublesome to carry. Nonetheless, the five heroes decided not to stay over-long at court. It seemed that the scandal attached to Barus’ desertion and madness brought an unwelcome taint to it. And so, heeding the proverb, they decided not to test the duration of Princely gratitude, and traveled west, bound for the markets of Nemedia and so north to return to Border Kingdom by the New Year’s spring.