The fire crackled merrily and licked at the bottom of the pot of juices as I stirred it with a wooden spoon. The brace of coneys spited upon the iron rod I gave another turn to even the roasting on the other side. I didn't want one side to be half done and the other overcooked. That wouldn't do at all and Ash, the Mage needed the meat full cooked stark white without a trace of pink or blood throughout before he would touch it. Using a fork, I slid one of the rabbits I had taken with my sling earlier on the trail out of the fire. The Dwarf likes his meat rare. Well, truthfully, raw.
Grimgar tipped his cup back, sucking the last of the ale from the bottom and lamenting the end of the keg. There was only one more on Big Nate and then they would be forced to drink.... No, he didn't want to think of it. No self respecting Oakenhand Dwarf should be forced to drink water. Water was for peasants and the forging of weapons. He couldn't stand the idea of the tasteless stuff and who knows what had been floating in it? He shook his head and sucked the end of his mustaches, getting the last drops of golden nectar from them, savoring every drop.
Grimgar was intent upon milking his beard when his hand unconsciously drifted toward the handle of his axe, slipping into the binding strap of the handle, as the hair on the back of his neck prickled with alarm and his danger sense tingled, his breathing deepening as his chest began to come in deeper breaths, his blood coursing into his veins. "Trouble, I think", he said softly and he pivoted toward the northeast, his night vision gazing deep into the woods. Dayne took up his short staff and made a motion with his hand for Rissa to come behind him in a gesture of protection. Ash had already stepped back from the fire ring and was muttering the beginnings of the incantation to turn Invisible. I, of course, still stirred the pot and watched with slotted eyes but my left hand worked the hilt of my small sword to insure it rested loose in the scabbard.
At the edge of Grimgar's vision, a figure emerged in the trees, his right hand holding a bow down at his side and his left hand up, palm out, in a universal gesture of greeting and piece. Leather boots and breeches girded his legs, a belt with a knife around his waist, the tunic of some military origin of green and blue with a white cross small upon the right breast, and a floppy brown hat with the right brim trimmed short and upturned so as not to interfere with the drawing of the bowstring.
"Hail! Your fire is large and welcoming. May I come to it and share some time with you?" the man said as he slowly came closer to the group, his steps gentle and silent, soft on the forest floor. His eyes cast upon each of the figures in the party but never tarried long away from the Dwarf, who appeared the most dangerous.
I tried to break the ice. "Yes. Come. Sit and eat. The coneys are done and the soup is warm. We have oat biscuits that are not completely weevilly yet and they can be soften in the soup." I spooned some soup into one of our wooden bowls and held it out in welcome. He came closer, kneeling, placing his bow across his legs as he took the bowl from me with his left hand and blew across the surface of the soup. He glanced sideways at Grimgar as he said, "I am Testtelo, a Centurion of the Order of the Queen's Will. We are a ranging company who patrol the forests and enforce the Queen's laws within the forests and lands of the Queen. This badge," and he touched the small silver embroidered five pointed cross stitched into his tunic with the wooden spoon' "marks me as one."
Dayne jerked a hind leg of rabbit off the brace remaining on the spit and gnawed some of the meat off the bone. "You should know your way around here, then. Do we have much farther to Falcon's Hollow?"
"No," said the archer. "It is only a few leagues farther to the west. The Hollow is to the south of the main city of Lower Kinnerton. It is a nautical ville of Lord Claverton’s main city that is based mostly to shipping and fishing, filled mainly of sailors and ship's crews between voyages, inns and brothels, well set for travelers like you."
Dayne paused for a moment, thinking. He finished the last of the rabbit he held, sucking the meat and juices off the leg he held before flipping the bone into the fire as Ash settled back into his seat across from Clarissa, the Druid. She snuggled cross-legged with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders; her hands holding a sprig of brush as she examined the leaves, perhaps for some hidden medicinal properties.
"We are in search of a vessel," Dayne finally said. "It may be that we will find something that we need in ... What did you call it? Falcon's Roost?" Testtelo corrected the other Mage, "Falcon's Hollow. Try the Orchid and Cat tavern. There are always captains and mates hanging out there." I had been following the conversation from the side, concentrating more on the coneys and the soup, slipping the oat biscuits against the flat rocks to toast them but not so as to burn them, occasionally flipping them with an iron fork. Then I looked up, realizing that one of our group was missing.
Grimgar stood near the edge of the fire, staring into the darkness, his right hand clenching and unclenching the handle of his axe. I noticed he had slid the shield on his back into its battle position high upon his left arm and he'd dropped his battle helm over his face, his beard and the braids with their beads on them jutting out from underneath.
A long line of figures emerged into the light as they slowly stepped forward, their sword arms swinging back and forth. The gray-green face of one of them cracked in a snagged toothed smile as the apparent leader of the new group grinned. He patted his rusty sword in his palm and said, "Good evening. You enjoy the evenings, are you? You be in the territory of da Pimple Heads." Grimgar saw in the dim light that the leader’s head and some of the other had small yellow and pink lesions and pustules covering their heads, some oozing with slime and fluid. "We take you gold. We take you jewels. We leeb you silber cuz we doon wan uz to tink bad ob da Pimple Heads!"
The Dwarf clinched his axe, rolled his shoulders to get the kinks out of the muscles, turned his head slightly over his shoulder and said, "The Fight's On!" He began to shuffle toward the dark figures that moved toward him in the edge of the light. The Orc leader grinned and said, "Oh, goody. Day's gonna fight. We gets to keep it all." Arrows with scraggly black and white feathers flashed past, one thunking loudly into Grimgar's shield. He swiped it clear with a sweep of his axe, the shaft shattered, the head buried deep in the oak. Orcs!
Dayne muttered with a frown, "Always interrupting supper," and grabbing two of the logs from the edge of the fire, he twirled and flipped them toward the line of a dozen orcs that advanced from the tree lines, snarling and growling. The two branches arched through the air, a line of sparks tracing the path as the logs arced toward the skirmish line, one of the logs exploding into a cloud, motes of light as it struck an Orc and fell to the ground, mostly extinguished. The other branch flew to the base of the tree, falling into a large spread of fallen leaves, igniting them and casting light upon the combatants.
Clarissa, the Druid, jumped to her feet, the blanket flying from her shoulders and she shrieked "No!" and she ran for the torch, the flames now had begun to spread and started burning up the trunk of the tree. She ran forward, ignoring the Orcs, stomping on the burning leaves, trying to extinguish the fire that threatened to consume the tree and potentially, the forest. Arrows flashed past her into the darkness beyond as a few of the Orcs closed on her, some of them still speechless and staring at her as she danced on the flames.
I realized a fight was coming and started throwing the soup on the fire, putting lids on the pots, throwing the oat biscuits into a pile on a sheet of cloth of save them and then realized that Big Nate, the Mule, was tied to the tree. If something happened to us, at least he would be free. Drawing my small sword as I crossed over to the small tree Big Nate was tied to, I quickly swung my sword and sliced through the rope that snugged Big Nate's bridle to the tree. He jerked his head back, parting the last few strands of remaining rope then stood still like the well-trained mule he was.
Grimgar pitched into the line of Orcs, the foes quickly enveloping him, the Dwarf bouncing back then diving in, hacking and chopping, never stopping, his breath coming in deep gasps as he sang the Dwarven war-songs that evoked the Dwarven Gods of old to support his combat. Orc blood flew as he slashed the Orcs with his war-axe but there were so many, when one Orc flagged and stepped back to catch its breath, another would step into its place. Grimgar knew that if the fight continued much longer, his friends and he were in trouble. He already carried two arrows imbedded in his shield and a third had made it through his plate mail and the tip had pierce his shoulder about an inch, irritating the muscle every time he swung or parried.
After flinging the branches from the fires and seeing Clarissa running after them into the line of Orcs, figuring that she knew what she was doing, Dayne turned to tell Ash about the attack. But Ash was gone. Vanished as if in thin air, Ash had finished the Invisibility incantation he had checked and stepping carefully so as not to disturb the ground cover and reveal his presence, he began to work his way around the flank of the Orcs, his staff held to strike an Orc as he got close to one.
Clarissa continued to stomp at the fire in a vain attempt to extinguish the growing flames. The slavering Orcs, grinning widely, skittered forward, edging to within fighting range, weaving their weapons back and forth. She mumbled an incantation under her breath and pulled her feet close together, her mouth voiced the words for "Walk Through Earth." The Orcs eyes flared agog and their mouths dropped open as 'Rissa dropped into the earth beneath her feet, disappearing beneath the carpet of burnt and charred leaves. The Orcs, stunned at first, edged forward, fear in their eyes, poking their swords among the leaves, trying to locate the Druid amongst the smoldering ruins but finding no trace.
Dayne moved toward the advancing line, thinking of what he might do, when he saw one of the largest Orcs headed right toward him, swinging his sword back and forth, a gleam in his eye as he targeted Dayne. But just as he raised his sword to slash at the Mage, the big Orc was left with a pile of chain mail as the Mage vanished downward into the earth, disappearing out from underneath the pile of mail, floating through the dark earth. Time and the closing Orc had not allowed a "See Through Earth" spell to follow so Dayne moved blindly toward the flank of the Orcs, moving as far as he thought their edge might be before he came up, concentrating on the words that energized the lightning he planned to use.
Grimgar slashed into another Orc, his axe biting deep into the Orc's arm and lodging in the bone. He kicked at the Orc's shin to free the axe and this caused him to stumble back, the axe in pulling free stretched the Orc's arm out, the slash from the opponent next to the struck Orc that had been aimed at Grimgar now intercepted the forearm of the first Orc. The unfortunate Orc now had a missing limb to worry about in addition to the deep wound he had just received from the dwarf. Grimgar barked out a short laugh as the new opponent looked down in amazement at his rusty sword and the stump of the forearm, the hand lying upon the ground still grasping spasmodically clutching at the air.
Clarissa carefully poked her head above the level of the earth, her head covered by charred leaves and twigs, camouflaging her emergence. Ahead just within arm’s reach, she saw the back of one of her attackers still thrusting amongst the leaves with the tip of his sword. She murmured softly and reached her hand out, gently touching the calf of the Orc ahead of her. The Orc, stunned at first, immediately stiffened and looked around, his two friends staring at him as blue magical light shone from the Orc’s eyes and his spine arched, his head jerking back. His Orc buddies were amazed as the very bones of his skeleton glowed through his skin as if shining by a bright light from within and the Orc slammed to the ground quickly, his body twitchy and jerking as his insides cooked from within as the magical lightning consumed him. His two friends raised their swords as they twirled around, looking for their adversary as ‘Rissa settled back into the earth, plotting her next move.
The Orcs on the right flank had passed Grimgar and the treeline and moved toward Testtolo as he moved to draw an arrow. He had failed in his attempt to draw it quickly, attributed to nerves, and he concentrated on drawing the arrow, slipping the nock onto the string at the nock point, and drawing the arrow back to the underside of his chin, he settled the point on the chin of the Orc charging him and let fly. The arrow hurtled across the fifteen yards between them and he watch the arrow’s flight, cursing when he realized he had not waited quite long enough on the release. Flashing straight but true to its aim, the flexing arrow in the throes of the archer’s paradox, lanced toward the target and its broad head tip struck upon the armored rim of the Orc’s helm, glancing off the helm with a clang, the helmet knocked askew over the one eye. The target reached with his free left hand and pushed the helmet back into position and the other Orcs, who had paused their rush for a moment in anticipation of the other Orc being skewered by the arrow, laughed uproariously at their partners good fortune as the other Orc shook the cobwebs of the war-arrow’s blow from his head. Testtolo took the moment and turned, running back toward a tree directly behind him and swinging up from the bottom branch, climbed upward into the higher branches, and readied his bow for another shot, again following his training; draw the arrow, nock the arrow, ready the shot, pick the target, aim with string-tip-target.
I grabbed Big Nate by the head and made myself as small as I could while holding on to Big Nate’s bridle (which is pretty small for a Halfling) as I watched two Orcs come toward the fire. They stopped when the smell caught them. The lead Orc bent over and lifted the lid off my soup pot and breathed deeply, a big smile upon his face and I cringed at the thought of the horrible teeth even touching my food. The Orc reached for a spoon and dipped it into the soup and took a big helping of the soup … and I would have almost been happy for the look of satisfaction on its face as it savored the taste of herbs and roots, flavors and spices, and the chopped vegetables that had softened in the juices simmering for the hour or so that it has been percolating. Almost … Except I was maneuvering Big Nate so his rear end was aimed toward the Orc. Nate must have dragged a hoof or switched his tail against the back of the orc for the Orc turned, his big googly eyes bugging out of his face at the sight of an enormous mule tuckus staring him in the face. I softly grabbed Nate by the ears and yanking, said, “Kick, Nate! Kick!” and Nate, being the obedient mule he is, lifted his hind legs in the air, the Orc realizing in an instant the inevitability of what was going to occur, and Big Nate did what mules do naturally, planting his two hoofs into the mid-section of the Orc, his sword blade catching the right hoof, bending it almost in two, eleven hundred pounds of mule being not an inconsiderate weight, and the Orc became airborne, already lifeless so he never felt the flight of 8 yards nor his final impact 7 feet up a tree trunk or the rough slide to the ground. His partner turned and stared in stupefied silence at the flying Orc pin wheeled, passing him at head height in the half light of the campfire, trying to figure out how his friend had achieved flight, and he trotted over to check him.
Grimgar was tired. His right arm was like lead and irritated by the arrow head high in the shoulder muscle. His left arm was numb and battered by the continued impact from the Orc swords that the shield had absorbed and deflected in his bid hold the center of the line. He yelled a Dwarven Curse as he stepped and smashed another blow into the Orc ahead of him. The Orc recoiled from the impact and another orc took his place. They never stopped coming, thought Grimgar, and he gave ground another step backward. He hoped the magic users were having better luck but he hadn’t seen them since the fight started. Pfft. Magic users, he spit and choked up on his axe, looking toward the Orcs, daring them to come in to him, glaring left then right, eyes gleaming. They never stopped reading their books and thumbing through their scrolls, he thought.
Dayne glided through the earth still, making toward the flank of the Orc’s skirmish line, unseen by Ash, who, invisible, closed on of the Orc archers who had just drawn a bead on Grimgar and had settled the tip of the arrow to release it toward the Dwarven fighter. A moment before the Orc’s gripped loosed on the bowstring, Ash lashed the hidden quarterstaff’s metal-shod tip toward the archer’s legs, not striking a full striking but distracting enough that the arrow zipped off into the darkness, clipping leaves as it flew. Ash cursed under his breath and ducked back as the Orc whirled and seeing nothing, cast his gaze about for his adversary, scratching his jaw with his next arrow in confusing. Ash wound up with his staff for the next strike, a measure blow to the Orc’s left side of his head, a blow that would surely stun him.
‘Rissa chose this moment to poke her head and eyes above the level of the earth and leaves. The combat had swirled past her, Grimgar backing away with several Orcs taking turns stepping in to try and strike the Dwarf, only to be struck by the axe-weilder and staggering back but still wearing the short fighter down and realizing that if they just kept it up a half-minute longer, they would be able to wittle the little oak tree down to size. The right flank had been hung up with a tree and a Ranger and were trying to figure out if they could grab a low hanging branch and pull the Ranger down or if they could just on the Orc’s axes and chop the tree down and kill the Ranger when he fell. They could always loot the body then. The Left flank and its archers were still trying to figure out first how one of the orcs had been vaporized in a flash of electrically blue light while the one of the swordsmen was trying to determine how his partner had taken flight from one side of the camplight to the other but had not yet emerged to ask him about it. He followed his companion’s flight path into the dark, not yet having found his partner’s corpse crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the oak tree. ‘Rissa’s eyes flared blue as she cast her gaze upon the nearest orc and the electric blue fire leaped from her eyes. She felt the energy channel through her feet and course through her whole body as the lightning flashed from her eyes, her head snapped back as the bolt lanced from her nostrils, and a blue blaze shot from her mouth. Her strawberry-blond hair singed on either side of her head as the lightning, which had severly overloaded due to high iron content in the soil, flowed out of her ears, charging the soil around her, the hair on the heads and bodies of the other Orcs standing upon end. The object of her attention exploded into flame, blue and red flame flashing from every body orifice, his greasy,dirty clothes bursting into flames, and the blue lightning leapt from him to the tree he stood underneath, igniting it. The tree’s bole burst into a fireball, the leaves off every branch flying away and out toward the other trees, carrying fire toward them.
Like a crack of lightning in a clear sky to both friend and foe alike, everyone turned toward the tree for a moment, the humans stunned into immobility for a moment, the Dwarf in mid-swing, The Ranger in mid-draw, I was holding Big Nate by the bridle getting ready to get him to kick again, and who knows where Ash, Dayne, and ‘Rissa had disappeared to. The Orcs had mostly all turned to look at the tree exploding in flame, a look of terror at the display of power in their eyes, and suddenly, as if by a common thread, they all made the decision that they had somewhere else that they suddenly needed to be and didn’t need anything these pinkies had that badly. They turned away from the group, running in every direction.
Ash only checked his swing momentarily as the Orc he had targeted turned away from the tree toward him and began to run. The gray-green fighter only made it a step when Ash’s invisible body slammed into his and using his quarterstaff shucked him under the chin, slamming him backward onto the flat of his back. The Orc landed on his back, stunned, and would never have seen the invisible quarterstaff as it scribed an arc through the air and impacted the forehead of the Orc, his arms and legs twitching. The metal tip of the staff just missed Dayne as he emerged from the soil and lightning flashed blue from his eyes, slamming into the Orc, his body twitching in death throes as the magical energy seared his insides. Ash winked back into view as he turned toward Dayne and cracked a wan smile at him, glancing as other orcs fled into the darkness. Dayne chuckled, nodding, and said, “The only thing worse than a critical failure is a critical success”
I watched the nearest Orc as he was illuminated briefly by the flaring light of the tree and then he decided that, seeing his partner crumpled in a pile with two hoofmarks on his chest, to depart our little scene lunging and crashing into the bushes, disappearing in a cloud of leaves and dust. Grimgar crouched, weaving his axe back and forth as he saw his potential targets evaporating back at the edge of his extended vision and he realized the fight was over, several of his opponents down on the ground, some crawling to get away and Grimgar moved to them, delivering a finishing blow on the back of the skull with the pointed side of his axe. He saw Clarissa, standing under the burning tree, and Grimgar recognized the beginning of the Druidic spell for “Rain” mumbling from her lip. “Uh, Oh,” he thought. “We’re in for a soaking,” as he turned back toward the fire to search up his rain cloak. On his left, he saw the two mages talking low, move their hands animatedly as they re-fought the combat from their magical point of view and he saw the new Ranger swing lithely from a tree, two gray-green opponents disappearing in the woods. He could see the Ranger calculating if it would be worth taking a shot and then, pausing, his hands relaxed ad he returned the arrow to his quiver with a measured movement. “Hmm,” thought the Dwarf. “Something Elvish about that,” but he kept walking and soon arrived back at the fire. He smiled a blood-splashed smile at me as I came to him with a wet towel as the first drops of rain started to fall into the fire and hissed. “At least you stayed out of the fight and didn’t get in the way.”
I shrugged as I wiped the gore off of Grimgar’s face and wiggled the arrow that protruded from Grimgar’s right shoulder. The arrow was not deep but the barbs hung up on the mail and stopped me from just pulling it out. Twisting it with force, I finally pulled it loose and tossed the shaft into the fire where the fletchings flared briefly, consumed in the flames. I looked over at Big Nate and grinned. He looked back and gave the pair of us a big horse laugh …… well, a mule laugh.