Battle at the Asteroid Belt

This story was one written specifically for my student teacher class, a bunch of lovely kids. The boys loved this passage, but the girls had that glazed look in their eyes. No space opera for them I guess.

Admiral Edward peered out the bridge of the Starflight into the murky blackness outside. The glass-like material separated him between the cold of the 12-degree Celsius interior, and the certain chill and deadly touch of the darkness that stared back at him. And out there were rocks. And more rocks. The only features that marked the Asteroid Belt.

“Something to warm you, sir?”

The voice of his personal assistant, Julia, broke his train of thought. He turned to face a cup of warm coffee, its sweet aroma welcoming him.

“Thanks a lot, Julia – you are a lifesaver!”

The many lines and scars that showed on his smile were the tell-tale sign of the many years, both of his age and of his service in the Terran Defence Force. This was the man that had always held the crew in awe – a legend himself among the service. Julia had considered herself privileged to be able to serve under this great man.

What Julia never understood was how this great hero ended up the captain of this insignificant cruiser. He should have been out there captaining the best ships the service had to offer. He had never talked about it, and nobody dared to ask. Perhaps today, while the captain was in a more relaxed mood? Perhaps just today she could know more about the man she practically worshiped? She took a deep breath and prepared to speak.

“Contact at Sector One-Four-Sixteen, Sir!”

“Two contacts at Sector One-Four-Eighteen, Sir!”

“Jamming signals detected – we are attempting counter-measures, Sir!”

Tense faces stared into the many panels and displays, as each awaited further instructions from the man who would decide their lives.

“Radio Officer – get the frequency right and send a message to the Command Centre. Ask for reinforcements.”

The Radio Officer could not believe the captain could be so calm. They were right in the middle of possible overwhelming hostile forces – already he could feel himself shaking as he attempted to contact the Command Centre.

Captain Edward took the microphone and spoke into the ship piping system, in his eerily calm manner. His voice echoed throughout the ship

“All crew to Action Stations. The enemy is coming within engagement range. We are most likely outnumbered.”

Captain Edward paused for a moment. “But we will win this battle.”

The crew cheered. All signs of the nervousness they had were now gone – the legend himself was leading them into battle! Surely they would win!

The images that flared up on the myriad of displays showed him the seriousness of the situation. Three Standard class cruisers, and while they were still recovering from the space jump, it would only be a matter of time before they got their firing solution.

“The scouting squadron….”

The words left his lips silently, caught only by his personal assistant. She knew what that meant – the invasion force was going to be following behind. And the Starflight was the only combat vessel in the vicinity.

“Firing solution achieved for Contact One, Sir!”

The Gunnery Officer awaited the order to fire. This would be his moment of glory.

“Gunnery Officer, change your acquisition for the asteroid at Sector One-Four-Seventeen. Use Neutron Torpedoes instead.”

“What? Sir – we have got a good target….”

“Trust me, Lance. Trust me.” The Gunnery Officer was cut off before he could finish. Still confused, he turned to the men and women manning the weapons.

“Reacquire for Neutron Torpedoes, Sector One-Four Seventeen. Target the big mean rock you see there, and get me a firing solution fast!”

Amidst the tense motion of trackballs, Admiral Edward suddenly barked out, “Defence Officer – set the shields to starboard maximum, now!”

The Defence Officer had learnt never to question the captain’s urgency. The ship rocked as multiple blasts of pulsed lasers struck it where the defence shields had just been set up. A second late and the whole ship would have been ripped apart.

“Firing solution achieved, Sir!”

“Good – let the babies go”

“Let the babies go!”

Four silver fish-like objects burst out and inched painfully towards its target. With the precision of 22nd Century engineering, the torpedoes hit true, exploding their target, and creating a powerful magnetic field as the explosions interacted with the magnetic ore of the asteroid it just destroyed.

Now Lt Lance could see why the captain had ordered that. The sensors began to go crazy as it registered contacts after contacts. An entire armada just space jumped into the sector!

And they space jumped right into a trap – the magnetic field interfered with the space jumping process immensely, and multiple explosions occurred as time and space collided with each other. This was a move that was never taught in the Space Academy!

Lt Lance looked away from the display to the man he called captain. A new awe and respect swept across him, and he found himself at a loss for words.

Admiral Edward caught his gaze. For a moment, Lt Lance thought he saw a fatherly smile. Then the familiar commanding voice boomed out.

“Gunnery Officer, you had better prepare for a reacquisition – we have still three more targets to deal with!”

Adventures of Gladiola Silvermoon


My character for this game is Gladiola Silvermoon, Enchantress Princess of the Elven people of the Great Silver. I made the decision to stop participating in the game as I really have to devote my time to the other two games I am currently DMing. The game is DMed by Richard Mullen. Other characters, and their players, include: –

Shade of Misthaven, played by Todd aka Murky Way.
Arconde’ly Mylaen, played by Jason Whitson.
Felarion Wildblood, played by Charles Martin.
Kertai Moonwarden, played by Nimroko, Skynight.
Fleetfoot aka Einier Troy, played by Chuck.
Gravel Glovehammer, played by Philip Ramus.
Squeek, played by Dave Dudley.
Sean, played by Blaine Williams (out of game currently).
Sorelon al Kamar, played by Scott Johnson (out of game currently).
Cincinatus, played by Ray Woodbury (out of game currently).

Chapter 1: Gladiola Silvermoon

During the few years since the Goblin wars and the loss of her betrothed, the Goblin threat had diminished… or had it? Just a few days ago Gladiola’s long time mentor, Malconalith Winterborne, encouraged her to set out on her own. Not long after her father had come to her again for the sake of “the people”. He had called her into his study, closing the door behind him.

“Gladiola, my gentle breeze, I’ve asked you to go among the Humans before to seek help fighting the Goblins, and in doing so, great pain has been brought to your heart. I am asking you to go again to the human lands. Take heart, for it is not to seek out Sir Fharmot. I ask that you go among them as one of them seeking adventure but with a specific task in mind. Rumours have been brought back that the Goblins have not forsaken the wars. In actuality, they are seeking to gain allies with other races. They were driven back to ‘The Wall’ (the great mountain range to the west). I wish you to go with these adventurers and prove whether this is true or not. I have spoken with Malconalith and he has prepared a book for you. He is a great one among our people and wise to the ways of the humans.

“Daughter, I cannot give you the solace you seek in your heart, but I can help to give you focus. Do not be afraid to dream again. What you are, is the best of us all. All that is good about our people, you personify.

“I have asked the spokesman of the Fremlin race to send a volunteer with you. His name is Squeek. I understand he is of the noblest of blood. Go to the village of Oakendale as the Spring Festival is taking place and there should be many willing adventurers there. Go now and prepare.”

As she turned and left then a million thoughts were going through her mind. She had only heard tales of the little winged humanoids called Fremlin. What was this book her father spoke of? How was she to locate these adventurers? She sighed as she went back to her study. Elves do not sleep. Sometimes she wished she could be like Sir Hectar. It was a blessing to be able to just sleep and forget everything. Each time she sat down to meditate, the past, her love for Sir Hectar returned to haunt her.

But she knew what she had to do. And Malconith would probably be wise enough to tell her more. Her mind drifted to the man. He had always joked that he was one thousand years old, but it seemed none of the elven children know his true age. Even her father would joke along whenever she asked him, back when she was a tender young elf. She had now shared in the joke as well whenever the elven children asked her.

Her thoughts returned to more serious matters. This was her second trip outside the elven lands. She wondered how things had changed over the past five years. Things had not changed much in the forest but she knew humans change very, very fast. She definitely needed some advice. Yes, she would see Malconith the next day. She sighed as her mind drifted off to think about her days with Sir Hectar.

A week before Gladiola’s father spoke to her the “Spokesman” of the Fremlin clan had called for a list of volunteers to assist the elves and humans on an adventure perk. After sifting through about 83 applicants (close to the population of the specific clan), one name was chosen – Squeek. He was told bout the quest by the Spokesman.

“You are chosen to accompany a young elf maiden on a quest for her father. She will be trying to get the assistance of others in the matter. You are to be her companion through this. Meet her on the road just south of Oakendale. Her father is a member of the royal court in the Great Silver.”

It took him about a day to get there. Seeing no one about, he took his hammock and took a ‘nap’.

The next day at midday after saying their farewells, Malconalith handed Gladiola a small book.

“On the third full moon from now, read this book. It will help to prepare you for what lies ahead. Place one hand on this tome and the other on your own spellbook and it will be revealed unto you. Do not do this until the third full moon.” He motioned for her to step back into a circle of silk rope. He made an intricate movement with his hands and said something in the spidery language of magik. Gladiola felt her heart jump into her throat as the world she knew spilled wildly around her. She felt dizzy and almost stumbled but soon regained her balance as her vision cleared.

Squeek saw a young elf maiden materialised out of thin air. She had golden hair and deep brown eyes. Her face was strikingly beautiful. There was something of a sadness in her eyes but he might just be seeing things. After all, he had been sleeping all night just waking up about 10 minutes ago.

Gladiola looked at her surroundings. She was standing at the north edge of the “Great Silver” forest she call home (it was called the “Great Silver” because of the mixture of Aspen, Spruce, and Silver Maple trees which were the main part of the forest). She soon recognised the area as the road leading into Oakendale. All the equipment was about including a small pony saddlebag…but no pony.

Meanwhile, back at the room, Malconalith rubbed his chin and muttered to himself, “I really must work on that teleport spell to send more than one living entity at a time… oh well. I’m sure Gladiola is alright.”

Squeek looked down at her from the limb he used as a hammock and said, “It’s about time you got here!”

She looked up to see a tiny little man with wings. He had brown hair and brown eyes. At closer inspection she faintly saw specks of green in them. He had a pleasant smile and seemed very friendly.

Gladiola smiled and curtseyed. She looked up at the creature. She wished he had not borne such a resemblance to goblins. Still, he looked like one of a good heart, and she would love to have a companion from the forests along the journey, to dispel the loneliness of being among the human lands. Perhaps then she would be able to keep her heart on the mission, and prevent herself from falling in love like she did the last time.

“Yes, it is about time indeed, little one. You must be Squeek. I who speak am Gladiola Silvermoon,” She smiled warmly, her soft melodious voice filling the air, “And she would love to have your company for this trip. Come, little one, let us be on our way to the human lands”

Looking flabbergasted, Squeek peered down at Gladiola. “Well, uh, that has never really happened before.” He said in a voice that ground like fingernails on a chalkboard. It’s obvious now where he got the name ‘Squeek’ from. Standing up on the branch to his full majestic height of about a foot he uncurled thin dark wings from his back. He showed off his naked little body without a second thought and tucked a small pack over his shoulder. Over his other shoulder and around his torso appeared to be a thin piece of rope or twine.

He fluttered down and around Gladiola checking her out as he continued speaking, almost too fast to understand, “I have met many a people type person and sometimes they scream or tries to eat me but I don’t thinks that I have ever had any one say they actually wanted to travel with me.”

At this close distance his most prominent feature, a huge gut, bounced around joyfully. Unfortunately the smell was not far behind.

Squeek landed tentatively on Gladiola’s shoulder and started picking through her possessions. “You wouldn’t have a bit of food I could borrow, would you? I haven’t had a bite to eat since before my nap and am a bit peckish.” Squeek continued to search until he found some of the fruits she had packed for a snack.

Gladiola squealed and squirmed a little when the overpowering smell came close to her. Trying hard not to hurt the little one’s feelings, she tried to look for some fresh flowers about to counter the smell. She smiled weakly at the little one and said, “Squeek, it would not do us any good to enter the lands of the humans with that smell. Let me see…”

She spotted some jasmine growing by the grasses off the path, and moved over with ease and grace, picking up the sweet-smelling flowers. She proceeded to stick a few on her hair, and attempted to stick them on the little one as well!

“You should take a bath, little one…” She said, trying to suppress a giggle.

Sean looked about in the town of Oakendale. Their Spring festival had just ended and there were still remnants of festival-goes. A few tradesmen were still in town preparing to make their way back to their homes. For the past two weeks he had not had to pay anything out of his own pocket to stay in town as he was able to entertain patrons at the local taverns and inns in exchange for room and board. He had thought about leaving but a rather beautiful young elven maiden had come into town and rumours had it she was looking for a few adventurers to help in her travels. As beautiful as she was, he thought, it’s definitely worth looking into. Shortly after her arrival in Oakendale, a call was put forth to all within the Barony for those stout of heart and honourable to answer the call. Sean waited for this woman at the “Pickled Newt” Inn, picking at his food.

Felarion too had wandered about the Festival grounds for the past 2 days watching the last of the merchants packing. He had seen many sights in this town called Oakendale. There were plays performed by actors out on the moors. There were challenge courses to test even the most agile and tempered of warriors. There were jugglers and fire-breathers and jesters and some of the most beautiful women he had ever laid eyes on. He was even amazed at a young man in black silks, not much older than yourself, juggling knives, swords and putting on such a display of precision swordplay, he could swear he could skewer a fly from the air.

He plucked a dagger out the air as it was hurled towards his heart. The thing that struck him about this person was the similarities in the way they look. He had the slight point on the ears but the heavier body frame of a man. His eyes were slightly almond-shaped and moved with the grace of a cat. At noontime Felarion decided to head to the “Pickled Newt” inn for a quick lunch and see what the town crier had to offer.

After 2 weeks of performing in the Spring Festival Shade was ready for a few days of rest. As he headed into town, a strange couple seemed to be making their way towards an inn. The young lady was obviously an elf but he had never seen that other creature before. There might be an interesting story there. He decided to follow.

Cincinatus had been watching the festivities for the past week and finally decided that since the Spring Festival had ended, that that would be an ideal time to start on that path to greatness. Since he had inquired and found no Warrior’s guild in Oakendale to possibly find work, he figured the next best thing would be to check the taverns or more importantly, the inns. He ordered and sat down to eat the midday meal at the “Pickled Newt” Inn.

The companions Arconde’ly had been travelling with left for Sotevag three days ago due to the Festival winding down. Several of the merchants needed guards and they saw it as a way to make a couple of quick gold and get their meals free on a journey they were going to make anyway. He said his farewells and had been just looking around town for the past three days watching the last of the merchants and gypsy performers leave town.

He had spent the last day in his room at the inn seeking inspiration through prayer and fasting. A vision of a young elven maiden with beautiful golden hair had been plaguing his mind. But he had not seen such an individual around here. She had a companion whose features are indiscernible but he could swear it had wings. His visions had made it clear that his destiny lay in the same path as the elven maiden.

Since journeying from his homeland far to the east in what the locals called the “free lands”, he had seen the remains of farms and smallest villages abandoned with no explanation except possibly mass migrations to the west. Most of the villages had been totally looted with the little exception. Satisfied that his prayers had been answered, though rather cryptically, he headed downstairs to the dining area below in the “Pickled Newt” Inn.

The light of the midday sun shone against her pale skin as the beautiful elven maiden entered the inn. Tall for an elven woman, and slim of figure, she walked with a practised grace, her steps measured and smooth. They seemed to float on the air, making gentle swishing sounds as they moved against the hem of her dress.

She was dressed in the whitest of whites, the capped sleeves of the simple dress showing off her beautiful arms and hands. The dress reached down to the ankles, revealing riding boots which framed nicely formed feet.

She looked around for a table in the inn. Her beautiful brown eyes seemed to gaze and absorb all things beautiful. It seemed like a fountain had made its home in her eyes. Her very soul and loveliness seemed to speak forth from her face. She turned, her luscious golden hair waving and settling down again. There was a kind of regal bearing about her, something nobody except possibly her own people could explain.

Arconde’ly turned towards the door as he heard the footfalls of someone entering the room.

“It’s you!” Arconde’ly approached the elven maiden slowly but excitedly.

“I saw you and your companion in a vision from my god. Oh, your companion…” Arconde’ly wrinkled his nose a little, and muffled a cough. “I’ve never seen anything like him. It is a him, right?”

The elven lady looked at the little one, and could help but give a quiet laugh. Her movements were refined and steady, not the boisterous laugh of a barmaid, but one worthy of a noblewoman in the realms of the humans. It seemed even all the jasmine I had planted all over me did not help! She thought to herself.

“Little one, Gladiola realised she also does not know if you would be male or female. Please enlighten us, for she too, had not seen much of your kind in her century in the forests!” There just was that charming and captivating quality in her voice. It seemed like a gentle tinkling of the rain, the singing of the birds, and the quiet of the stream. It was beautiful indeed.

The graceful lady turned to face Arconde’ly. There was a seriousness in her voice as she spoke, “Sir, if truly there be a vision from the gods about her, then mayhaps you may the one whom she seeks.” She smiled at Arconde’ly, glancing about the inn for a place to rest her legs from the journey.

Felarion watched the young lady enter, and thought to himself that there seemed to be a nice selection of women coming in today, perhaps for once in his life he might have a chance. Felarion then realised his mind was wandering, and he brought himself back to reality, scanning around the room for other occupants of the tavern.

A rather stylishly dressed fellow who had been sipping a glass of ale quietly in the corner perked up a bit as the elven lady entered. He swivelled around on his barstool and watched the activity from the bar.

His eyes were a bright blue, and his bright blond hair tossed slightly around his shoulders as he swivelled around. He had handsome, chiselled features.

His clothing was very stylish, yet, somehow not so stylish as to look like a fop. He had a blue, wide-brimmed hat complete with a large feather adorning it. He wore a blue and white silk doublet with ruffles at the sleeves and chin and bright shiny brass buttons. His pants were a darker hint of blue and he wore a pair of apparently new leather riding boots. Cast over his shoulders was a short, dark blue cape, which had a bright yellow family emblem on the back.

Dangling at his waist one could see a shiny basket hilt, attached to a gleaming sabre (sheathed). On the opposite side was sheathed a main-gauche with an identical hilt.

He watched the goings on with much interest, and smiled playfully at the appearance of the Fremlin. He looked anxious to say something… but remained silent for fear of interrupting someone.

As the female elf entered and began to speak he furrowed his brow slightly…but the look passed just as quickly…

“Forgive me, my lady. You’re weary. Please, let’s sit.” Arconde’ly beckoned her and her companion to sit at a booth in the far corner of the inn. The light streamed in warmly through the glass. Her companion, so small, fluttered to the window ledge, basking in the heat.

Gladiola smiled and curtseyed, before moving over to the table with Arconde’ly. She hesitated a little at the benches set at the table. She sighed and thought to herself, Why must they design all those benches for adventurers? It is so ungraceful to have to pull those heavy things out just to sit on them. Selecting carefully on edge of the bench, she sat on it gingerly, smoothing her dress as she did so.

As the elven maiden and her winged companion moved to the back table, Arconde’ly noticed another person standing behind her and to the side.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you travelling with her as well? I’m Arconde’ly Mylaen. And you’re…”

“My name is Felarion, nice to meet you, and no I am not travelling with the young woman, or at least not yet.” Felarion replied.

Cincinatus looked up as the elf entered the inn. Involuntarily his jaw dropped, partly due to the fact that he had rarely seen an elf but mostly because he had never seen the fantastic creature resting on the woman’s shoulder. Sensing adventure he bolstered his nerve and strolled confidently over to the table. “Excuse me, fair patron, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Cincinatus….”

“Cincinatus, I am Arconde’ly, and this is…” Arconde’ly paused for a moment. “I… I never did ask your name, fair one. Would you mind gracing us with your name? Does your companion have a name?”

Arconde’ly turned to the little winged creature, who almost fell asleep in the warm heat from the window. “I’ve never seen such a creature as you. But I feel that we have all met for a reason…”

“It is a pleasure to make all your acquaintances. It seems rather curious that we are all here, at this moment in time. We are all aware of you, fair maiden, you who are so far from your home. There must be some reason for you leaving the elven lands. I would like to know why you have fled the safety of your forests and trees, to be among the humans?”

The winged creature looked up from under his wing, and fluttered to the centre of the table…

Gladiola nodded her head and smiled. She looked beautiful, her eyes speaking unspeakable volumes of graciousness. She replied, “This is Gladiola Silvermoon here. She sees that there are many of you adventurers here. Gladiola has need of help – perhaps you could be the ones who can do so.” She smiled again at Cincinatus and Arconde’ly.

Shade moved quietly to the bar and after retrieving a glass of mulled wine, sauntered over to see why everyone was gathering about the young elf and her pungent friend. He stood a little ways back, watching and listening as the scene unfolded. It seemed as though everyone was talking at once but he tried to take it all in as he sipped his wine. He moved silently around to the window side of the group so as to stay “up wind” of the Fremlin. It would be a shame to ruin a good mulled wine with the fumes from the “little friend”.

The Elven lady nodded and smiled at Shade, to acknowledge his presence.

Felarion noticed the young man that had been performing with swords and daggers during the festival approach from the side and was intently listening to what was going on in the group. He listened to the elf speaking, while keeping a careful eye on the newcomer in the back, not replying to the elf until he heard more.

Gingerly sniffing the air Squeek gave a shrug. “Ya know,” He started quickly, “I don’t really smell nothin. But then again there seems to be a smatter of meat cooking around here somewhere.” Fluttering around the inn he found the kitchen. Quickly he disappeared through the door and just as quickly came back out looking for something else to play with.

Scratching himself (and flaunting his male attributes at the same time) he fluttered back to Gladiola to give her a quick peck on the cheek. He then flew around the group giving handshakes and food searches with equal motivation. Grabbing a piece of meat from whatever was close he continued while stuffing his mouth, “Glad to meet you, and you and you and even you.”

“I’m Squeek, the one and only as far as I know that is since there really could be more called Squeek but I have never ever met one myself butch you can’t really know that can you?”

Quite a few thoughts were running through Gladiola’s mind as she saw the Fremlin flying about, and generally making a nuisance of itself. Father, why are you sending me this companion! Even the jasmine still cannot hide his smell (though she was glad they did hide his smell from her!)! For once in her life, she was starting to wonder if her father was as senile as Malconith. She made a mental note to gather more flowers along the way, and to have a talking to with the Fremlin about taking a bath. She was also starting to wonder if the little thing had dirtied her dress somewhat.

The Innkeeper looked up and yelled over to the group gathering around the small table in the corner, “Hey! Git that feller of the table! People hafta eat off that y’know!” Squeek jumped in the air with surprise and darted under the closest table. He picked up a ceramic mug and started drying it with a dishtowel.

Cincinatus signalled the barkeep, “You there, I’ll take a flagon of ale. And some mutton. And not that slop I’ve seen you serving. I want real food.” That said, he returned his attention to the table taking a seat after adjusting the scale-mail skirt of his armour and placing his helmet on the table.

Arconde’ly stood up from the bench and looked at the young elfin maiden intently. “She is weary from travel,” Arconde’ly stated, “But the look in her eyes is not only one of weariness. Pray tell, fair one, what brings you to the lands of the humans? Perhaps we…” Arconde’ly glanced at the growing party, “Can help in some way?”

Chapter 2: Fire at the Inn

Gladiola looked about the inn, at the men gathered about her. She smiled gratefully at Arconde’ly, and began to sing. The air seemed to smell of the sweetness of jasmine, and of pine. It seemed that even the birds and the trees, yes, the grasses were listening to the beautiful melody that rang forth from her lips.

In the flashing of the years,As the time of death do near.


The elves, harmony and nature,

Do live their lives in peace and sure.

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

Soon and quick the darkness draws,

Powerful and bloody the goblin wars.

Many are they the evil race,

More than what the elves could pace.

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

With love will come a human hand,

With him shall come a human band.

Powerful and quick is the alliance,

Wither and died the goblin defiance.

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

And so in the days of the end,

A brave soul, oh treacherous was he sent!

An ambush, a fight, an arrow inside,

His eyes shall die, without his lover beside!

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

And so the goblins the battles do flee,

Back to The Wall, for so the elves see.

And peace shall come throughout the land,

No more shall evil defile the sands!

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

Yet ominous rumours do they rise,

With all the death and woes he cries!

Arise! Arise! Oh maiden of the people!

It is time to arouse, for time is little!

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Would all the outcome ever be right?

Oh peace, oh war, why do you fight?

Must all the ways be settled in might?

The elven lady seemed nearly in tears as she completed the final two stanzas of the piece. It seemed to have a personal significance to her, almost as if she was singing her life. She curtseyed and sat down at the edge of the bench. Her hair flowed and bounced about a bit, before settling down on her shoulders.

She looked about the bunch gathered with her, “Rumours abound that the goblins are reforming, and are seeking new allies to avenge of their defeat. Gladiola is on her way to The Wall to see if this be true.”

She paused a while, seemingly to find something to say. She continued with imploring eyes, “Gladiola could offer you nothing except the gratitude of the elves of the Great Silver Forest, and perhaps great adventure to be found. She could only hope that there were honourable men willing to go with her. She fears if the rumours be true, it will not only be the elves they will seek. All that stand before them shall be vanquished – such is their ruthlessness.” She stopped and looked at the party gathered before her.

Shade gestured toward the Innkeeper, “Joel, please, prepare these good people a fine meal. A meat platter and some potatoes will do nicely.” He seemed to glide into place beside the window. As the growing group turned to Shade, he added matter-of-factly, “Don’t worry… it’s paid for. By the way, my name is Shade. I saw you, my lady, as you entered town with your companion here. I’ve not seen a person such as this one that is in your company. Oh! Sorry. Please… don’t let me interrupt.”

He paused, as if for dramatic effect, then continued, “Please go on with your discussion!”

At closer inspection, this Shade fellow seemed quite a striking figure. He seemed to move with cat-like grace, showing confidence in even the slightest movement. His frame was rather muscular but not overly so. A person might not notice how powerfully built this person was because of how he was dressed. He wore tight shiny black trousers and well oiled black boots. His black silk shirt had a flare of a seagoing type. His waist was adorned with long burgundy sash. A long thin blade hung from his left hip. Its hilt was polished to a high shine. The blade almost seemed to glow from its brilliance.

His wind swept black hair and steely grey eyes contrasted so deeply they were almost hypnotic. But his stature and eyes also gave away his heritage. The slight almond shape of the eyes, the lyric sounds of his voice, and the slightest tips of his ears peeking through his hair on the side, were obviously elven. On the other hand, His muscular frame and a hint of a moustache gave away his human ancestry.

Gladiola finished her song and Shade made a note to remember this ballad. “I too have been dealt ill will by the treacherous goblins and the worgs upon which they ride. Some day I might entreat you to that tale. I cannot vouch for the honour of all here, but you have my word, if you wish to somehow thwart the creatures, I am at your service.”

Shade’s eyes focused on the wall as if watching a scene unfold before him, remembering the horrible atrocities inflicted upon his own family.

Felorian addressed the lady, “My lady, I may not be the most honourable of people, but I do have some. I would happy to help, in any way I can, this possible threat to everyone’s well being.”

“Yes! A threat to the elves will become a threat to us all if we do nothing about it. My lady, I am at your service.” Arconde’ly rose from his bench and bowed his head and hand in a sweeping manner. “My family is far to the east from here, but there was a rumour of large gatherings of humanoids in the west going to make war again… If this be true, no one is truly safe.”

The stylishly dressed man who had been listening to things for some time listened intently to the song of the elven lady. After it ended a long sigh escaped his lips. A wave of almost tangible sadness washed over him… as if something long lost was felt for a moment… then gone again. As quickly as it came the look passed.

The man continues to listen as Gladiola explained her fears about the goblins… Upon the completion of her pitch, he stood from his barstool and strode confidently towards where the rest of the group had gathered.

Standing in front of the elven maiden he removed his hat and stepped back into a deep bow, bright blond hair tumbling out from beneath his hat and falling over his shoulders. His ears, now visible, revealed his true heritage, being ever so slightly pointed.

“Milady… my name be Sorelon, Sorelon al Kamar….” He stood and replaced his wide-brimmed hat.

“I see thou be needing someone to travel with thee to this wall to see if the goblins are pitching a fit…” He grinned widely.

“Well, not having any excitement round these parts since my last excursion, I’d be happy to run along with thee. ‘Tis not every day one gets to travel the land with a lovely being as yourself…” He spontaneously took the elven maid’s hand and kissed it gently… then winked playfully, simply oozing charm.

Gladiola smiled and nodded, her hand a little limp (as of one born a noblelady) as she accepted the kiss from the dashing half-elf.

“My blades be at your command milady. Na’er a goblin hand shall fall upon thee whilst this steel still sings.” He pat the hilts of his sabre and main-gauche.

He turned to the rest of the group who has not yet answered, “So who else shall be joining our merry band? Surely you all have fiery souls, eager to give these vile little creepies a good kick in the arse should they need it? HAAHAA!”

He gestured about passionately as he spoke, eyes glimmering with enthusiasm in the lamplight of the tavern. His brightly coloured clothes were a stark contrast to the normal tones most folk around there wore.

Cincinatus spoke to the elf maiden. “I know little about goblins, but I am versed in the ways of warfare. My honour will not allow me to do less than everything in my power to stop the massacres the Goblin horde plans for the children of the woods. I am yours to command, m’lady. But what will our first action be?”

After quickly darting under the table, Squeek peeked up over the edge, and seeing that no pots or pans were being thrown, he quickly jumped up onto the table. Being surprised by the Innkeeper, and not liking it, Squeek attempted to cast a spell on the floor in that general direction, trying to get it under the Innkeeper. If it got the new person too so much the better, thought the little fremlin with an evil grin. His eyes darted around and started making a few motions, speaking in a kind of language few of the party had ever heard.

Gladiola recognised it – it was the sound of magik, possible of the spell form calling forth a thin body of slippery substance. The Innkeeper screamed, “What? Not in my place you’re not!” And started reaching for something behind the counter.

Gladiola was caught a little off-guard at the turn of events. Still seated at her bench, she was thinking – father, your little companion to me is causing me more grief than it is worth! She made another mental note to suggest better companions the next time she ventured out of the forest.

But for now, she had to do something. “Squeek, stop it! You are ruining the mission!” She spoke, trying to speak as civilly as she could, her voice quivering a little. It seemed to be hovering on the edge of a wild scream. Only her conscious effort to remain graceful stopped that from happening.

Sorelon chuckled softly at the antics of the little winged fellow… and laughed out loud when the lady elf began to chastise him…

Shades eyes grew wide and he took a few steps backward to the wall! Felarion simply backed up, watching the tiny creature, and taking a quick look at the bartender, rested a hand on one his daggers, and shook his head, “No hold on a second, if the little fellow damages anything, I will pay for it.”

Seeing tension begin to rise in the inn, and seeing opportunity unfold before him, Sean stepped away from his table and walked towards the centre of the room. He began to sing the same song as the elven lady, with almost as much skill and beauty, pausing for a second, then bringing out his flute and improvising a melody to go along with it, every other verse.

As the spell took effect, a translucent brown substance seemed to fly away from the impish little fellow enveloping almost the entire far wall with its slippery goo. Joel, the innkeeper, slipped down behind the counter, hitting his chin as he fell. Gladiola heard a sharp yell as the enraged Joel tried to pull himself up from behind the sludge-caked bar.

As his head emerged above the bar for just a second, Gladiola saw blood coming from his mouth. A man came running out of the kitchen. He slipped on the effects of Squeek’s spell and went sliding, feet first into the closest table. Joel managed to right himself for a second and yelled to the other man.

“E’ie, ge’ a conkable!” He screamed as he spitted out blood and part of his tongue. “Go! Now!”

The young man scrambled trying to get a frantic foothold. Finally getting to his feet past the slick substance, he darted for the door.

At the other end of the bar, not covered in grease, a lone figure in a dark grey slicker and black wide-brimmed hat laughed. “Ha-ha! I’ve been waiting to pay you back for quite a while, Joel.” He hissed through clenched teeth. With that, he shoved a lit oil lamp down the bar.

Joel tried to grab it as it slid by and hit the floor, shattering. The room erupted into flame from the kitchen door to half way down the bar. Joel was covered with grease. He wouldn’t stand a chance…

The dark figure turned and seemed to walk right through the wall as a shadow might disappear into the night.

Seeing the man slid and fell Squeek burst into laughter. He even acted like he slipped on the table landing flat on his back, which brought another eruption of laughter. “Oh its too good, too good.” He said slapping his knees.

Just as quickly his laughter died as he saw the man throwing the torch to the grease. “Eeek” He screamed and dived from the table towards the Innkeeper. He grabbed Felarion’s tunic by the shoulders and flapped for all his little wings were worth, trying with all his might to slide the man out of the grease and fire. Arcondely could see that this was causing the flames to be fanned.

Felarion, seeing as how he was probably the closest to the barkeep after having backed up to keep him from drawing a weapon on Squeek, quickly drew 2 of his daggers. He stabbed them into the top of the bar to keep himself from falling, slowly made his way over to the barkeep, to try and get him out of the fire. Joel’s legs and right side seemed to be engulfed in flames and he was thrashing about violently. It’s hard but Felarion managed to grab him by the back of the collar. He tried to get close to the door, drawing his daggers free from the bar as he rounded the other side of it, and free of the flames.

Gladiola was a little stunned at the turn of events, and sat down on the bench looking a little dazed. No! She thought, this can’t be happening!

Seeing the bar ignite, Cincinatus scooped his helm from the table, “Perhaps now would be a suitable time to start our journey.” He smirked as he headed for the door. The dozen or so patrons that were in the Inn besides the group bolted for the door along with Cincinatus.

Arconde’ly, eyes widening at the predicament the bartender was put in, jumped from behind his bench, traversing across the inn. He stopped just shy of the slippery, foul-smelling substance, and pulled out his 2-handed war hammer to hand to Felarion.

“Felarion, do you have the bartender? I can’t tell from…”

The only way Felarion would be able to make his way through the slippery flames was to grab hold and pull with one hand while holding onto Joel with the other.

Shade bounded past Arcondely and ran straight for the grease. Just before he reached the grease he dived for the kitchen door and into the kitchen, tucking and rolling to regain his footing inside the kitchen. He was unaware, however, that the kitchen floor was also greasy from countless days of food preparation and slammed into large table inside the kitchen. Gladiola could hear pots and pans crashing to the floor but he seemed unhurt as she saw him struggle to his feet. As he came up out of the roll, he started looking around for some flour and towels and water.

With Squeek’s help Felarion was able to reach Arcondely’s warhammer and pull free of the burning grease.

Grabbing a large bag of flour, Shade rushed to the kitchen door to see if he could smother the flames with the flour. He whipped out a dagger from nowhere and without even thinking that he’s doing it, it twirled in his fingers and he brought it down in an arc across the top of the bag. He hefted the bag up and started trying to douse the flames.

Already pulling Felarion and the fallen innkeeper free from the oil and flames, Arconde’ly dropped his hand and ripped the tablecloth from a nearby table. He turned and saw Shade bursting from the kitchen door, lightly dusted in flour.

“Hurry! Throw the bag over here!”

Once outside, Cincinatus grabbed a bystander. “Quickly Sir, get the constabulary here and tell them to make it fast, before the fire inside gets out of control.” Then he entered the tavern again and yelled “Clear out! The constables are coming and I sure as Hell don’t want to be here!”

The half-elf Sorelon seemed a bit stunned and was unable to act as the flurry of motion erupted all around him. When he finally caught on to what was going on he quickly turned to Gladiola and said, “Milady I do believe that it is time for us to depart this place before someone arrives who might not think that all this was simply a misunderstanding and slaps all of us in irons…”

With that said, he winked conspiratorially and peeked out the door, waiting to make sure everything was all right before he led the elven lady away from that chaos.

Gladiola surveyed the scene before her. Smoke was filling the room, hurting her delicate eyes, but she tried to see if everybody was fine. She tried to call out, her refined manners making her voice soft and gentle, “Felarion, Arconde’ly, Shade – is everything all right?”

She looked at Squeek, and shook her head. By Sylvanus! She thought, I had better have a good talk with the little one, lest he jeopardise the mission. Whatever did his elder see in him anyway, to send him with me?

Felarion got Joel clear of the flames, and removing his cloak, quickly tried to smother the flames on him, and then the ones on his boots, thinking to himself that he was now going to have to replace both his boots and the cloak. Replacing his dagger, Felarion heard Gladiola’s question and responded, as he brought Joel outside, “We are all fine, just a little toasted is all, though I can’t say much for the tavern.”

Arconde’ly looked around, and heard the sounds of hooves beating the ground.

“Sounds like we’ve got company on its way. Let’s say we make our way to a more “private” area. I don’t like the idea of being shackled in irons just when things are getting interesting.

“Joel, you have our sincerest apologies for this incident. For now, we need to just go somewhere away from here.”

Gladiola nodded in agreement with Arconde’ly, and graciously accepted Sorelon’s outstretched hand leading her out of the tavern.

A large crowd was starting to gather and a bucket brigade was already starting to form. A young man ran for the front door of the Inn just as Gladiola and Sorelon were exiting the building. The young boy, Sorelon, and Gladiola went sprawling with the contents of the buckets drenching Gladiola to the skin. The white dress was soaked. Gladiola seemed somewhat stunned. The young boy looked up and his face immediately turn a bright crimson as he gazed upon Gladiola and her womanly assets showing through her wet dress.

Sorelon looked up from the floor, where he sat with the pail hooked on the toe of his boot. He got up and took Gladiola by the hand and swiftly lifted her into his arms and rushed her out of the Inn. Cincinatus seemed to be barking out orders in front of the Tavern. Gladiola could see a larger group of people gathering and actions being taken to save the small inn.

Another couple of men rushed into the Inn with buckets of water. Felarion dragged Joel to the centre of the street. Squeek was flapping frantically trying to help Felarion drag Joel outside.

Meanwhile, inside the inn, Shade tossed the flour to Arconde’ly. Some spilled out of the top where Shade had cut it open a mere second before. Arconde’ly started throwing the flour around trying to smother the flames as Shade rushed back into the kitchen. He emerged seconds later with soaking wet towels which he threw flat onto the bar dousing most of the flames.

“I’m right behind you, brother!” Shade said as he directed the incoming pail-bearers.

The first things that came to Gladiola’s mind were her precious books! She tried to check out their condition even as Sorelon lifted her away. There was a sigh of relief – the oiled leather satchel containing her books remained waterproof.

Feeling somewhat self-conscious, she tried to make the dress look less of a second skin by pulling certain parts away from the body. It looked awkward, and it definitely felt awkward. She looked like she was nearly in tears, red-faced as she was. She hoped the half-elf would not notice how her heart was thumping at the close proximity.

“I think our duty is done here. Let’s say we vacate these premises and see how the innkeeper and our new friends are doing, shall we?” Arconde’ly spoke to Shade as he attempted to dust off himself and his companion of some of the flour, but sweat and smoke just seemed to make it cling more and more. Arconde’ly let out a laugh. “We could use a good cleansing, too…” They exited the inn together, avoiding the men charging in to douse the smouldering flames.

Felarion set Joel down, making sure he was alright, and then scanned the crowd for the others that were with him inside. As his eyes came across Gladiola, and her predicament, his eyes started to linger, but he recalled that there were others with the group, that were as of yet unaccounted for. Realising that some of the group were still inside, Felarion started to head back to the door, to make sure everyone was out or was getting out.

Outside the inn, Squeek continued to pull valiantly on the body, flapping his little wings and digging his heels in. He kept speaking to the Innkeeper, “Couldn’t believe that a person thing would do sucha thing, ruining a perfectly placed batch of grease that is, since everyone knows fire and grease should have nothing to do with each other but then again not everyone thinks as quick as me do.

“Now next time maybe you will be a little kinder like to your guests and these little mess ups won’t happen ‘cause nice peoples like ourselves might not be around to getchya out.” On he went instructing the man in everything from how to walk on slippery surfaces to baking chicken just the right way. A short time later, he looked around and queried, “Did all you see that thing that disappeared? That was a great trick and I wonder if he could teach it to me, disappearing into the shadows, Wow what an exit.”

Chapter 3: The Beginning of the Fellowship

While carrying Gladiola away Sorelon, thankfully, was enough of a gentleman not to glance at her figure. Sorelon cut into an alleyway, finding a safe out of the way spot, and set the elven maiden down safely on her feet. Now moderately wet himself, he brushed at his silk doublet.

He turned to Gladiola and spoke with a sigh, “Does that little imp-friend of yours always cause so much trouble? Ah well… you should be relatively unseen here milady…should give you time to dry off. I can possibly go fetch some towels, as well as round up the rest of…. those people… if you wish…” He grinned slightly to himself.

“Although I must say I do derive a certain satisfaction from being alone in the company of such a lovely lady as yourself.” He accented that last comment with a slight bow and a playful wink, then poked his head around the corner.

“I think the fire is under control… I see a few of the others in the street… including the imp.” He said the last few words with a groan. He turned back to the dripping maiden, pausing briefly as he caught a good look at her.

He quickly recovered though and continued, “Must he…she…IT… come along with us? The others seem alright… but that little thing… just set an inn on fire… enough said.”

Gladiola blushed a little, aware of the sudden attention of the handsome young half-elf before her. She quickly took out a cloak, and wrapped herself round in it. She really was starting to have second thoughts about the companion her father has given her. But ultimately, he was still a child of the forest, and he would feel lost in the lands of the humans.

“Maybe you can let Gladiola talk to him once she have the chance. Mayhaps if he really proved himself to be a creator of much mischief,” She paused a while, thinking, before continuing, “Then will she ask him to leave.” She hoped against hope, in her heart, that she would not have to come to that.

Squeek flew over to the rooftop, landed at the edge, and could overhear the conversation below. His little brow furrowed at the Sorelon’s words and was saddened. He had not meant to do harm to the innkeeper person. He was just try to have some fun with him because he was such a grouch potato.

Shade turned to Arconde’ly and exited the inn with him. They made their way to the centre of the street where Joel was laying. He slapped Arconde’ly boldly on the back, causing flour to billow up around him and his new friend.

“You better go see if you can lend any assistance with Joel. He won’t be in a very good mood if we just try to duck out of here. He might even think we were in on it. If you have the healing art that most priests do, it would be wise to use it on him. Then we can see about getting out of here. Maybe we can hook up with that pretty little elf. She seemed to need some assistance against the goblins. That sounds like a trail we both might trod.”

Felarion greeted Shade and Arconde’ly as they made their way to the centre of the street.

Cincinatus saw the elven maiden and the half-elf in the fancy clothes sneaked around to the side of the building. They seemed relatively unharmed. He could have sworn they were wet though. I wonder how that happened, he thought to himself, as he eyed the impish little character that was jabbering away in Joel’s ear.

He pushed through the crowd and entered the alley. Cincinatus stopped smartly in front of the wet pair. “Sorelon, Gladiola, the others are out front of the tavern. I shall fetch them so that we might make a tactful retreat from this unfortunate situation.”

Sorelon nodded and said, “A very prudent idea my friend… let us gather the troops and find somewhere else to discuss this goblin problem…”

Cincinatus moved to the end of the alleyway and signalled to the others with a sharp whistle. As he turned to re-enter the alley Cincinatus made a mental note to come back some day and pay for the damages inflicted on the poor bartender.

As Felarion heard the whistle and looked up to see Cincinatus standing in the alley, he checked on Joel to see how badly hurt he was. He looked up to see how the locals were handling the fire, hoping that the inn could be saved. Felarion managed to get a look past the multitude of helpers and saw that the damage to the inn was actually minimal and should take very few repairs to restore it back to it former beauty.

Most of the fire was actually the grease burning. He estimated Joel would lose maybe two days’ business. There would also be a lot of cleaning-up to do.

Shade hurried to Joel’s side. It looked as though he’s not burned too badly but he still needed help as he was in quite a bit of pain. Shade tried to comfort his old friend.

“It was Cynder, wasn’t it?” Shade asked his portly friend, “It’s OK, we’ll see that he gets what is coming to him.”

Shade looked up to Arconde’ly and said, “Do what you can for him.” He let Joel rest back on his elbows upon the ground and rose and looked towards the alleyway. Seeing his comrades, he made his way over to them. He explained to the three of them that the culprit behind this deed was none other than Eddie Cynder.

Arconde’ly nodded and said, “I’ve got him taken care of, Shade. Let everyone know I will be there momentarily.”

Arconde’ly glanced at the group of people he had just met, then looked to Joel. He said, “Joel, I know this isn’t much right now, but it should help to ease your pain.”

The priest laid his right hand upon Joel and clasped his holy symbol with the left briefly closing his eyes. He reopened them only a second or two later and a glow escaped from between Arconde’ly’s fingers. Joel let out a sharp gasp and then settled, the pain easing a bit.

“Joel, we will find out who this ‘Cynder’ character is, and have a reckoning with him. Rest assured, things will be taken care of.” Arconde’ly smiled at Joel as 2 other passer-bys arrived. One of them was a constable. Arconde’ly informed them of what transpired briefly, then headed to his companions. Joel’s wounds were almost completely taken care of and all he would need was some rest.

Felarion saw Arconde’ly talking to the constable and started to make his way over to the others, just in time to hear the name Eddie Cynder, and spoke up.

“Who is this Eddie Cynder character? Would it happen to have been our mysterious walk through walls visitor? ”

Making his way across the way to his new-found companions, Arconde’ly said, “Joel will be just fine. He just needs some rest.”

Shade looked from one person to the next as all seemed to be asking the same questions. He made his way over to the wall Cynder would have went through and sure enough, tracks seemed to walk away from the wall as if someone had just walked through a door. He turned to the small gathering and started to explain.

“Eddie and Joel had a “disagreement” a few years back. I’m not sure about the particulars but Eddie swore revenge to Joel but Joel, I guess, never took him seriously. I guess today was the day Eddie decided to take his revenge.

“See, Eddie was burned severely a long time ago. Some say it was when he was a kid. I’m not really sure when, but he is terribly scarred on the face and head.” Shade gestured toward his own face, “He doesn’t have much hair. That’s why he’s always wearing that wide brimmed hat, to hide his burns in shadow. He wears the slicker to hide his weapons. I’ve never tangled with him, but I hear he is one tough customer.

“It’s rumoured that he is working for Zarcodius, the mage supreme residing in Vernain, up north. Little is known of Zarcodius personally because most people have never seen him. Some say he doesn’t even exist. I know he does. I caught a glimpse of him once when our troop was performing at a festival in Vernain. That’s about all I know about him”

While Sorelon was listening to Shade speak, Gladiola looked about for the little one. Her eyes came across the figure sitting by itself at the rooftop. She smiled a little. He was after all the only reminder of the forests she had left behind. No, she would not have the heart to send him back.

“Squeek! Can you come down? I think we need a little talk!” Her soft gentle voice spoke out again, in contrast to her near exasperation moments ago.

Sorelon reclined easily against the alleyway wall as everyone finally began to assemble, and tossed an uneasy grin at Gladiola as she summoned her little winged friend down from the roof.

He then turned to the others, “So…this Eddy guy is mad at Joel because of some childhood accident and so he tried to burn us all to the ground? Oy!

“Well seems to me this Cynder fellow has bitten off a good deal more than he can chew, now that I am here anyway heh, heh, heh!” Sorelon flashed a charming grin.

“Perhaps I shall meet this man AFTER we help the good lady here with her goblin problem aye? So let us gather the troops so to speak, and find somewhere to discuss our strategy and travel plans, yes?” Sorelon continued.

Felarion nodded, “Sounds like a fair idea. I assume we are all agreed to help the lady? Though I would recommend that we not linger in this town too long.”

Cincinatus absentmindedly ran his thumb up and down the edge of the cruel blade mounted on the end of his spear, “This man Cynder must not be allowed to continue to threaten the local population. We must either stop him ourselves or ensure that the proper authorities are informed. He is vermin and must be removed from society since he disrupts the order that good folk try to maintain.”

Squeek gave a big grin after receiving some attention from Gladiola. Flapping his wings he made a not so nearly straight line down to her and landed on her shoulder. Then after letting out a loud belch he cuddled up against her head. “You wants I should go do somethings for you Gladdy?”

Gladiola sighed and looked at the disgusting creature that just belched so ungracefully beside her. She said, “Squeek, you will have to promise Gladiola a few things if you want to go with her. She really is having problems putting up with you…”

She paused for a while, trying to think of ways to put her words without hurting the little one. She continued, “For one thing you have to stop belching all over her! And please, please, refrain from getting us all into trouble.” She tried to smile as she said this to the little one.

Shade looked down the alleyway in the direction the tracks started to go but turned back to the others. “Cynder is probably long gone by now. I say we gather our things and see if we can help Miss Gladiola with her problem. Maybe if it takes us towards Vernain we can take things up with Cynder when we get there.”

Shade started making his way to the front of the inn, “I’ll just get my things out of here and I’ll be ready.”

Upon his return he said to those present, “We should be able to make a it quite a ways, as the weather has been pretty good for the festival. If it is westward we are to go, we can probably travel by the road to Sotevag for the rest of today and most of the day tomorrow. Sotevag is another half-day’s travel from there but if the escapades of today have taught anything, we might want to avoid towns… or at least inns,” He said as he stole a sidelong glance at Squeek.

He gave the little guy a quick wink to reassure him, “The goblin lands start to the west of the Lake of Facets. The lake is about four days travel… five if you go by way of Sotevag.”

Felarion nodded, “Sounds like a good enough plan, let us make haste then, before our little friend there decides to throw some more grease balls.”

“Yes, I agree,” Arconde’ly piped in, “This is ideal weather for travel, and the sooner we can get to the goblin encampments the sooner we can help the elves, and maybe these lands as well.”

With that, Arconde’ly took Gladiola’s arm, and said, “A goblin seeking we will go — I know you’re weary. We can stop early along the way and let you get some rest. I must commune with my god and ask a prayer for godspeed and good luck. We’re going to need it…”

Shade smiled and wondered to himself what kind of incense Arconde’ly had been burning.

The elven maiden smiled at Arconde’ly, before disengaging her arm from Arconde’ly’s hand. In the same fluid motion, the graceful movement of the elven people, she put her right hand around his arm. She said, “It looks like Mr Arconde’ly has much to learn in treating a lady!” Her smile could light a thousand candles, and it was probably making Arconde’ly a little weak about the knees.

She looked at the rest of the group, her cloak occasionally fluttering in the wind. By now, some parts of the dress had started to dry – the wet parts were hidden by the cloak. She took a look at Squeek again, before answering, “Gladiola would think it wiser if we travel and rest by more civilised areas. Unknown dangers lay in these parts. Still, the sylvan creatures would not harm an elf – so Mr Shade may have a point there. What does everyone else think? Do we travel by the towns, or by the wilderness?”

Cincinatus spoke up, “The route that suits our needs shall be the one we take. If stealth be our purpose, the woods will be our path. But if speed be required I suggest the road. There are other considerations but I believe these be our primary concern. Whatever our choice, let us stop being idle and make haste to our foes!”

He turned to Gladiola, “M’lady, perhaps you might shed some light on our situation?”

Gladiola shook her head as she tried to think of anything she might have missed. Did her father tell her anything? She suddenly realised she had no idea what she had to do save that she had to investigate the rumours of goblin plans in the west.

She looked sheepishly at Cincinatus, then at the rest of the party, “Gladiola is a child of the woods – she fears she have not been much in the lands of the humans. Mayhaps one who knows these parts will have to guide us?” She looked around at her companions.

Shade looks around and said, “Well I do know something of the area, but the straight path between here and the Lake of Facets is mostly prairie land with a few sparse wooded areas. I can see some pros and cons to either way. The quickest is over the prairies. It is also the most dangerous. Although the grasslands appear to be serene, they can pose quite a number of threats. On the other hand, the road to Sotevag and then on to Misthaven will certainly have tax collectors and possibly bandits. I, for one, am willing to take the overland route as I have avoided paying taxes for five months.” He said with a sly grin, “I have no intentions of increasing the ‘Mad Mage’s’ wealth and holdings just because he has the power to do so. We’ll also attract less attention going across the prairie. I’m not much of a scout, but I can get us to the lake.”

Changing his mood from down and depressed at a moment’s notice, Squeek smiled widely and said, “Yes lets get moving on now down the road we should be going. Oh no, no, no, though dangerous is not good so isn’t there another’s way to be going?” Then when bandits and tax collectors were mentioned he continued, “Ah-ha, I see said the blind mole to the Frost giant. We don’t really want to be going that ways either. Ok, I can go prairie but I won’t be swimming my good friend.” And emphasised it by landing on Shades’ head.

Somehow Gladiola could not decide whether to be glad the little one had become its cheerful self, or to be worried. But yes, she was happy to see that Squeek had returned to the free nature of the creature of the woods. She mouthed a silent word to Silvanus to watch over that little imp of a creature.

Shade coughed a bit at the stench the little creature wafted but decided not to say anything about it right then. He did duck down at the additional weight placed on his head, however, “Do you mind not sitting there? On the pack is fine but I don’t like walking around with an additional thirty or forty pounds on my head. It makes it hard to see anything but my feet!”

Sorelon listened to the travel plans before chiming in, “I think we should take whichever route will get us there faster. I’d hate to end up lollygagging round some forest glade while the towns of the area are getting sacked by hordes of nasty, short little things with sharp teeth.”

Sorelon flashed a grin to the party, before continuing, “Plus I am eager to test my skills against a worthy foe, but in this case some goblins will suffice hahahahahah.” Sorellon pat the hilts of his sabre and main-gauche.

Felarion replied, “I agree, that the shortest route would be best, and as Sorelon says, perhaps we might see some action.”

Shade looked from Sorelon to Felarion, “What? Test you skills? See some action? Are you LOOKING for trouble?” He looked to Gladiola and said, “I was under the impression everyone had already done something like this before. I mean, I can tell Cincinatus has had some military training just by his bearing. I’ve had some past encounters with goblins and was hoping all of you had had some too! Anyway, aren’t we just supposed to be gathering information? That doesn’t sound too hazardous to me. I can do that in my sleep.”

Felarion replied, “Sorry to disappoint you, but it is true I have no actual field experience in battle, but I figure if we are just gathering information, then we should not meet to much opposition, which should give us some easy learning experience, right?”

Felarion knew this half-elf to be the one doing all the swordplay and juggling during the festival. He was very precise with his blades and showed amazing skill and accuracy with them. He spoke, “I saw your work with your blades during the festival, and you handle them very well, but we might just surprise you with what we can do.”

Shade continued, “No offence meant. I’m sure you’re quite skilled and guess we all have to start somewhere. Here, I guess, is as good a place as any. Although,” Eyeing Sorelon up and down, “We might want to dress a little less ostentatiously. You know, to attract as little attention as possible? Sorry, but you do stick out in a crowd.”

Sorelon hummed to himself at Shades’ comments, “I think you underestimate me sir. Just because I dress like this when I’m out carousing at a bar does not mean I am incapable of stealth. In fact I think you’ll find me quit apt in that department.”

“Well then… let us set off!” Shade said lightly, as he slung his ruck across his back and stepped past the others heading down the alleyway, to the west, “I figure we can get any provisions we might need on the way out of town.”

Felarion shrugged, and turned to follow Shade, “I must say I am new to this area also, so whatever the more experienced person of this area suggests, I am more than willing to go with. I do however agree with avoiding the roads.”

“Let us make haste then.” Arconde’ly, with Gladiola on his arm, looked to her, “For the sake of all. Tymora, blessed She be, bids we move with haste.”

He turned to speak to Gladiola, “Forgive my ignorance. I’m not very, um, skilled in the ways of treating a lady. Mayhaps I will learn in time.” Arconde’ly blushed lightly when Gladiola’s eyes rested upon his. He smiled back.

“Well then, let us be off to the prairies!” For once Gladiola was glad the party was taking a route away from the hustle and bustle of human living. Even until this day she had problems understanding why the humans liked such crowded places.

On the way out of town, they passed by the marketplace. Most of the shops were full of newly made or purchased items as the peddlers from the festival sold a lot of their wares to the shopkeepers prior to leaving. There were some harder to find items, such as silk rope due to the time of year, but clothing, armour, weapons, and rations were plentiful. Harder items might be located at “Ollies’ Oddities” in the north side of town about 20 minutes’ walk – Oakendale was fairly large.

Shade purchased a week’s worth of iron rations and 2 pieces of heavy waterproof oilcloth material 10ft by 10ft. He rolled that up into a roll and tied it to his ruck. With determination in their eyes, the party moved out of town.

Chapter 4: In the Wilderness

In the early afternoon the group set out for the Lake of Facets on foot. As the group set out across the plains, Shade spoke of some of the places he’d been and some of the things he’d seen (by now, Squeek had already got off his head, and settled on his pack). He talked of a half-ogre named Maug… his two Dwarven buddies, Shotput and Crowbar, the infamous Dain Blackthorne and his cronies. He even related a limerick about the half-ogre…

There once was a half-ogre named Maug,

That fought with a dwarf and his dog,

And as for that runt,

Old Maug gave a punt,

And sailed that poor dwarf to the bog!

After about an hour of passing by farms surrounding the city of Oakendale there was a small patch of trees and then out to the prairie lands. The going was very mild and not too muddy. The grasslands were not totally flat. There was a pleasant roll to the terrain which seemed to break the monotony as the party wondered just what was going to be beyond the next rise.

A shadow quickly moved between the party and the sun. As the few people that braved the sun’s glare peered up into the sky, they realise this was no bird or cloud. A large winged creature glided in a semicircle over them and moved on. Even though the creature was several hundred feet up, they could still make out the distinctive mixed features of both lion and giant eagle.

Gladiola felt shivers down her spine. She now knew that the party was out there with nothing but their own wits to save them from whatever they might encounter.

The rest of the evening was relatively uneventful. The party settled down for the night atop a grassy knoll with two trees as it gave them a fairly plain view from each direction. The wind was light and cool as twilight and finally darkness started to take over the sky. Brilliant hues of red and purple danced off the few wisps of clouds and the grasslands turned from a greenish gold to a fiery crimson as the sun took its last breath and sank below the horizon.

Shade said he’d take first watch if nobody had a problem with that and started rummaging through his rucksack for a water-skin and portions of his rations. Felarion nodded, “You can have first watch, that is fine with me, and I will take second, unless someone else prefers it. Either that, or I suggest we set up 3 or 4 watches, of two to three of us, in which case, I will take the first watch with Shade. I would also suggest that we try to build a small fire, whereas it will probably attract something, I feel it might be too cold without one.”

Cincinatus stretched and removed his armour, revealing a well-muscled body.

“I’ll take the last watch. I don’t think we need to attract attention by lighting a fire at night. If you leave food out for me I will cook your breakfast when I light a fire in the morning. Bundle up though, it looks to be chilly tonight.” He then proceeded to stretch and do some light exercises before turning in.

Shade looks around to the others. “Let’s let the spell casters get their sleep. We’ll split up into four shifts. I’ll take the first. Felarion has second. Cincinatus has asked for last. We need one more volunteer. Sean! How about you? Sorelon?” He was nowhere to be found.

As the party prepared to camp for the night, Sorelon wandered off a bit from the group, having left most of his gear lying near his bedroll. He stood atop the knoll, staring off into the fiery sunset. Almost imperceptibly a sound arose – an almost silent note that crescendoed so slowly that it took a moment to recognise the true source.

Soon it is apparent that the sound was coming from Sorelon. He stood, eyes closed, as a graceful melody escaped his lips. Gladiola recognised it – an elven song, a slow, sad ballad of love lost. After some time the notes faded, and Sorelon returned to the camp. He seemed not to have realised if anyone had heard him.

Arconde’ly, sure that his companions had settled in close by, left the company of his friends — to collect his thoughts. As he was away, he heard a sweet song begin, and walked towards camp again. He saw Sorelon in the distance, though it was difficult to judge with the darkening sky. Though Arconde’ly did not know the elven language, he could tell that it was a sad song, sung in a minor key to a tune of soft flutterings.

Arconde’ly stood there, waiting for Sorelon to finish. As Sorelon headed back into camp Arconde’ly walked over to him.

Felarion listened to Sorelon’s song, and Gladiola could see a single tear come to his eye. He quickly wiped away. Indeed the song reminded him of the father he had yet to know.

Gladiola gazed at the figure of the half-elf. He had indeed the bearings of his elven heritage. She could see the effect his song had on the rest, and even upon herself too. It brought back memories, many of them wonderful, and some of them – painful. She had wanted to so much to talk to him, but Arconde’ly was now with him. Another day perhaps, thought Gladiola as she turned in to sleep.

Sorelon seemed his usual gallant self as the camp prepared to set up watches. “I’ll take whatever watches you all would prefer, it matters not to me. I can see a bit in the dark so it might be best to wait till the dead of night to have me on watch.”

Sorelon smiled at the others as he unfurled his bedroll and prepared to bed down, “That way I’ll get at least a couple of hours rest before I will have to get up!”

As night descended, the group of travellers settled into their bedrolls. The night was a cold camp, to attract as little attention as possible. Shade wrapped up in a heavy wool cloak as the night air cooled down dramatically. A blanket of clouds started rolling in from the west giving promise that there would be no frost that night.

The sounds of night began their chorus. Crickets were chirping and there was a distant sound of a hoot owl. As the night darkened and the cloud cover became more prevalent, as a cool breeze floated through the canopy provided by the trees.

Shade realised something was amiss. The sun went down some time ago but the distant western sky still showed some sign of light. Then it hit him! The light was coming from the ground and reflecting off the clouds! He moved silently over to Gladiola and softly lay a hand to her shoulder but she seemed to wake just before he touched her. It must be an elf thing he mused to himself. As she turned to her back and looked up at Shade, he softly said to her, “Help get the others up. Something is not right.” He then made his way over to Cincinatus and then to Sean.

Arconde’ly awoke to Shade gently shaking him, “Huh? What? What is that?” Arconde’ly pointed to the lightened sky, “We’re not that close to a city are we?” Shade just pointed to Arconde’ly’s belongings, “Gather your equipment. We’re heading out shortly.”

Arconde’ly was still groggy, but still took the time to commune with Tymora in prayer, asking that She grant him the strength and wisdom to help his new-found friends. “I have a bad feeling about this…” He muttered to himself as he looked to his awakening companions, and donned his armour.

As the group roused from their slumber, Shade explained about the light. He’s seen something like that when approaching a city at night but they were half a day’s travel to Oakendale and that was to the east. “There are no towns around this area, at least none that I’m aware of. We need to find out what this is before we can allow ourselves to rest comfortably.” He looked around to the others, “Any suggestions?”

Cincinatus stood and stretched. He pulled his scale mail shirt over his head. “I have seen that light before. This may be caused by the same thing or maybe not.” He paused to strap on his long sword and mace, “The last time I saw such a light it was the result of a thousand fires.” He stooped to pick up his shield and spear, “A thousand campfires.”

A frown crossed the soldiers face, “I didn’t think though, that the goblins would be so close. It must be something else. Whatever the cause, perhaps we should take a look.” Cincinatus began to neatly fold his equipment and stuff it into a ratty rucksack. He stared at the horizon, lost in thoughts of the past.

Gladiola spoke out after Cincinatus, “Gladiola thinks it is good for us to take a look. But let us take caution – perhaps there could be one to seek out the source ahead of us, while the rest stayed some distance off to avoid drawing attention to ourselves?”

Gladiola could not help but remember that was how Sir Hectar used to deploy his men. She may not be a fighter at heart, but she hoped to contribute as much as she could from what she remembered of the man. Think, Gladiola – how would your beloved do that? She thought to herself. An idea struck her as she started looking for the little one who had accompanied her from the forest.

“Squeek, where are you? Gladiola would like to talk to you.” She spoke sweetly. The air seemed to rustle with her voice, the crickets providing the harmony and the chords to complete her notes. Her beautiful eyes started to search for the fremlin.

“Ohs heres I be lady. Was there something specials yous needed or you just wanted to looks at me beautiful face?” The fremlin replied.

Cincinatus turned to Gladiola, “I can go take a look. I am an endurance runner and could make the time as fast as a man on horseback. Maybe one of our sneakier fellows should accompany me to take a look. If he can keep up.” The warrior removed his shield and mace, “Would someone watch my gear until my return? I need to travel light to speed my journey”

Felarion roused from his slumber, as he heard the movement around him, and quickly assessed what was going on, and upon hearing Gladiola’s idea, commented, “While I agree with your proposal, I think we ought to have someone besides Squeek leading the scouting. We might end up in a worse situation than last time. Whatever we do, I suggest we decide now, and do it.”

Squeek, trying to feign offence but failing, commented, “Hey! Just what are you implying? I can do the job as bestus as anyones of you. Just you watch.” And started flying in the direction of the lights.

Gladiola could not get a chance to speak to the little one before he took off in a huff. Gladiola sighed and turned towards Felarion. She spoke, “Felarion, Gladiola understands your feelings about her companion, but please do consider the little one’s feelings.” She looked at the fast disappearing little flying thing and continued, “Gladiola prays that Silvanus will watch over the little one – may he grant him wisdom not to do foolish things!”

“Someone needs to catch up to Squeek before he really runs into some trouble out there. Who thinks they can catch up to him?” Arconde’ly looked at the group, and continued, “We’ll follow at a slower pace.” With that said, Arconde’ly gathered his backpack with his belongings, muttered a slight prayer to Tymora, and then drew his two-handed war hammer. “We must see what is happening.”

Felarion agreed, “I suggest we all follow at whatever pace we can.” With that said Felarion followed Squeek, moving as quietly as he could without losing too much speed. Shade picked up the pace and fell in behind Cincinatus.

The group gathered their things and headed off. Squeek took a substantial lead as he flew, even though Cincinatus and Shade did their best to keep up. Shade spoke to Cincinatus haltingly in a low voice, “The others will be left behind at this rate. It would not be wise to have the group scattered out.” He then slowed his pace to make sure the others could keep up.

Cincinatus looked back over his shoulder, “Keep an eye and an ear open for ambushes. If that is indeed an army to our front there should be skirmishers and scouts leading them. The last thing we want is to run headlong into a large patrol. Perhaps if things go wrong and we get dispersed we should rendezvous back at our camp. If we can manage it we should capture one of the little beasties for some information.”

Gladiola was finding it hard to catch up with the rest of the party. Given a choice, she would have preferred her pony to be about. She sighed, again reminding herself to talk to Malconalith when she returned. He would still need to work on his teleportation spell. As things were, she was trying her very best to walk fast, her silent steps making little sound during the night.

Shade looked over at Cincinatus upon his last remark, “You think you could find our cold camp in the dark? I don’t think I could and I can see a little better in the dark than you. Hmmm. I don’t think the others heard you. If we don’t stop, we’ll lose Gladiola and the others. Let’s pause a bit. If it’s an encampment, the Goblins won’t be moving this way. We can make a more stealthy approach.”

Shade looked back into the darkness and said, “I’ll go see what is keeping the others. Wait here!”

Cincinatus waited until the party caught up. “I am beginning to doubt whether the odd light we see is an encampment or not. While I still think it is, that would be the largest army I have ever seen. Thousands of troops. I believe there have not been that many of the little wretches gathered for over twenty years. Stealth should not be a problem as they are likely to be too busy fornicating to notice us.”

Gladiola spoke up, “Gladiola thinks it may not be goblins. Goblins do not need a campfire at night, just like us children of the woods.” Her slim wrist flicked itself as she started to pound at her tired calf muscles, sitting down conveniently by a rock.

Sorelon had by now changed. Dressed in dull grey with a long hooded cloak, he seemed not nearly the gallant figure Gladiola first met. In fact this simple change of clothes seemed to have evoked a sinister sort of aura about the half-elf.

He looked out from under his cloak, “Lets catch up to the flying rat shall we?” He said with a sly grin.

As the others paused, Squeek came flying by at incredible speed! Realising he had almost passed the party in his retreat he tried to make a hasty stop. Not only did he flap harder to reduce his speed but he almost seemed as though his little feet were trying to back-step.

He gasped for breath! “Fires!” *gasp* “Big!” *gasp…gasp* “Huge!” *gasp* “Must go!” *wheeze* “Grass! Big fire!”

Cincinatus, Sorelon, Shade, and Felarion now realised the faint smoke smell they had smelt was not just a campfire. It was grass burning. Squeek tried to calm down some but was still out of breath his little lungs burning from the exertion of flying as fast as his wings could carry him. He squeaked out, “Fires all to north, little to south. We’s hurry! *gasp* Fires gets bigs!” He flew up about twenty feet. “This bigs! Must go! Hurry!”

“A Prairie Fire! How could we have been so stupid? Look, the best way to get away from fire is to run even with it until you find the end. Squeek said the fire was little to the south. I say we go there! We’ll never outrun it otherwise.”

Shade looked around at the others for any comment and his gaze fell upon Gladiola. “You had better learn to run now. I’m not going to nursemaid you this entire trip. You’re not in your father’s courts now. This is as real as it gets, little girl. Time to get off your rear.”

At that Shade started moving southward at a good pace.

A stunned Sorelon nodded emphatically at the little winged one. “Damn, what an idiot… wish I had paid more attention to mother’s teachings…” With that he took off with the rest of the group.

“Hey, ” Arconde’ly spoke out to whom he thought should be Shade, “We must hurry! If what you fear is true, whoever is responsible may still be nearby. Or worse…” Arconde’ly’s tone turned more serious, “Perhaps some people are still alive and hurt and need more help.” With that, Arconde’ly did his best to sprint ahead, but he knew he couldn’t possible pass Shade who ran up further ahead.

Gladiola gave a sigh. While she had run fast before, that was during the days when she was a little elfling (about 50 years old). With a determined nod to Shade, she got off the rock. Pinching up the skirt of her dress to clear it a little off the ground, she looked to the others, “Shall we?”

Not liking to leave a fire burning, and destroying the land, Felarion nevertheless stood to depart, after a short rest from running, “I hate leaving such a thing to do as it pleases, but I see nothing that we can do about it, so let us depart to the south.”

Squeek glanced up at the sky and then, between gasps for breath, said, “Me oh my oh me, we’re going to be late, late, late I say. Can’ts yous moves any fasters, too much talks and nots enough movings I say.” Whereas he fluttered backwards while chatting some more and promptly went smack into the back of the running Shade.

He then did a graceful spiral dive to land in a beautiful belly flop (and flop it does) in the midst of a patch of dust. His mouth then did what it did best (and without any help from his brain which was busily working on trying to figure out how that wall moved into his way) and tried to take in a bite full of dust.

Sputtering it out he looked up chagrined and silently started flying the way of the party, just a bit higher this time.

The party made their way southward as the night sky got brighter by the second. They topped a hill and could see to the west a wall of flame extending south another half mile. The fire seemed smaller at the south end as it had not had time to catch as great.

Shade, Cincinatus and Felarion were ahead of the other about a hundred metres. They could see something ahead of the fire, trailing a lighted torch or rag or something like it. They could see by the light of the fire that IT IS A GOBLIN! It had not seen them yet. It was probably expecting no trouble.

Felarion looked at Shade, and Cincinatus, and commented, “Shall we?”

Shade responded, not taking his eyes off the goblin, “I only see one. Do we take him alive?” He swiftly removed a throwing dagger from somewhere hidden behind him, “I say, No!”

Cincinatus growled, “Hold your blades, let us overpower this wretch and then use whatever force is necessary to find what it knows that may be of use to us, then silence it so that it’s comrades will not be alerted.” So saying, the warrior poured every ounce of his muscular body into overtaking the doomed creature.

Felarion looked at Cincinatus, “You are perhaps, right.” Felarion then forewent his daggers, and removed his whip from his belt, then advanced on the goblin.

Cincinatus and Felarion, just a half step ahead of Shade, noticed the dark clad half-elf did a stutter step and released his dagger at the back of the unsuspecting goblin. The small goblin shrieked as the dagger pierced the back of its leg, sending it tumbling to the ground. The lighted oilcloth it had been dragging was burning not six feet away.

Cincinatus and Felarion got to the goblin first. It was rolling on the ground clutching at the nasty wound on the back of its thigh. The others had by then arrived at the scene.

As Felarion reached the goblin and saw that it was busy clutching its wound, he moved past it, and went to the burning cloth, proceeding to scoop up some dirt to throw on it to put it out. All the while he made sure he kept an eye on the goblin till his friends reached it. When the cloth was put out, he moved back to the goblin.

“Gladiola, let’s keep an eye out for more goblins as we approach closer.” Arconde’ly began heading towards his companions in the distance, a little slower, looking for other signs of trouble.

Sorelon watched the others deal with the goblin dispassionately. A soft sigh escaped his lips, as he turned towards Gladiola, “I am not one to attack the unsuspecting… Would have preferred a fair fight… ah well… Milady Gladiola, shall we investigate?”

Gladiola nodded as she continued onwards, forgetting the aching feeling on her legs at that moment. She waited a while for the rest of the party to subdue the evil creature.

Squeek flew up and landed on Gladiola’s shoulder. Wrinkling his nose he said, “Ewwwww a goblins. Don’t touch it, you don’t knows where it has been.”

As Felarion stepped past the thrashing goblin to extinguish the oily rag, Gladiola could see the goblinoid reach under his belt and pull out a crude dagger, lunging for Felarion!

Chapter 5: The Goblin

Felarion felt a sharp pain in his left calf as the point of the dagger just grazed him. Apparently the goblin was not as hurt as it had pretended to be. Felarion nearly fell over as he turned on the goblin, the dagger throwing his balance off for the moment, and kicked out at the goblin, hoping the dagger that grazed him was not poisoned or anything.

“Eeek!” And with great speed the naked winged one left hiding behind the closest party member. “It’s still being alives!”

Arconde’ly ran to take care of the goblin. He struck at the hand holding the dagger, attempting to smash it into the ground with his two-handed war hammer. Shade jumped and tried to kick the goblin away from Felarion. He said as he kicked, “Old Maug gave a punt…”

“Little bastard….” Sorelon mouthed under his breath as his sabre slid from its sheath with a flourish. Stepping forward quickly he attempted to subdue the little beastie by positioning his sabre across his neck… without dealing a killing blow.

Cincinatus dropped his spear and tried to pounce on the creature and pin the wretched thing to the ground. “We need to capture it alive so it can tell us what it knows.” He said.

Felarion and Shade seemed to react as one as they both turned and strike out at the goblin with their booted feet. Both connect and the sound of bones breaking filled the air as the goblin shrieked again, Felarion’s foot catching the nasty creature on the side of the head and Shade kicking him squarely in the side. The little wretch started to fly upward just until Cincinatus and landed on its back, coming down hard onto the ground with tremendous force. Sorelon, having drawn his blade, came down in a graceful arc to rest just inches from Cincinatus’ and the goblin’s heads. Arconde’ly swung wide and his mighty hammer came down mere inches from the subdued creature’s hand.

Gladiola stood and stared at the ferocity at which her companions had attacked the vile little creature. She could understand their feelings – if she were the one wielding the weapons, she would have done the same. Squeek peered, perplexed, over Gladiola’s shoulder, hoping the goblin would not get up and start slashing everybody to pieces.

As the dust settled, the party saw no movement coming from underneath Cincinatus. He slowly got up and found the goblin quite subdued but unconscious. It was barely breathing but seemed to be alive for now.

Felarion, seeing that the goblin was under control now, tried to check out the back of his leg, to make sure there was no poison or need of bandaging. While doing so he spoke, “Well I think the goblin won’t be troubling us for a little while, though from the looks of him, he isn’t going to be talking for a little while. Might I suggest we move and get away from this fire?”

Felarion closely examined the back of his leg and thought to himself, if that knife cut had been a little deeper, he would have been crippled for life. The dagger did not seem to have any foreign substance on it except maybe some rust. The cut actually seemed more like a scratch now that he thought about it.

Arconde’ly, pulling his 2-handed war hammer away from the goblin and his friends, stepped back, “I agree. Two of us need to carry the beast to an area safe from these flames, and then bind and gag him for questioning. I hope there were no people living in these parts. Let’s be wary for others…”

With that said, Arconde’ly scanned the area, looking for other humanoids and anything else out of the ordinary. He noticed that about thirty meters to the west there was a partially dried riverbed (there used to be a small stream running through the middle of the riverbed). That was what was keeping the fire from spreading to the west.

Cincinatus stood and examined the poor creature suspiciously. He carefully searched the little fellow for items and to determine whether his wounds were life threatening. The little creature was in pretty bad shape. He looked like he may not live through the night. After a moment of looking through the grass, Cincinatus spotted and retrieved his spear.

“Now then, does anyone actually speak Goblin or did we just thrash this runt for nothing? I agree that it is time to move on.” Gingerly, the warrior picked up the bedraggled goblin and lugged him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, “Shall we?”

He started making his way to the other side of the stream since it appeared to be safer. There seemed to be no threat from the fire over there.

Felarion grinned as he looked at the others, “Not me, but I was not the one who suggested saving him.”

Arconde’ly, looking at the wretched creatures closer, looked to see if he can notice any bleeding wounds, “If he’s going to die, let’s at least try to save his life long enough to get some helpful information out of him. I will try to bandage his wounds.”

Felarion commented, “I agree, after all the trouble we went through to not kill him, don’t let him die now.”

Shade inspected the nasty little thing, and announced, “I speak a little goblin. We had to with the circus and my time fighting these foul things helped me to pick up a little as well. I understand more Goblin than what I speak, though. Their language is hard to speak with all it’s grunts, growls, and coughs. Someone speaking goblin would sound like they had the worst cold in the world. A lot of their language is hand and arm gestures. I’ll do what I can but I can’t guarantee anything.”

Shade volunteered, “I think I will keep watch for another hour or so but I think the goblin should be bound and gagged.”

Gladiola was by herself, thinking. The presence of the goblin might not signal anything – after all, they range the land, hidden in forest and underground lairs. She just hoped that Shade might be able to find out something from the evil creature of the woods. She could not help smiling to herself as her mind went through the way the party had handled the goblin. Their moves really reminded her of someone close to her…

She shook her head, getting herself out of her reverie. She turned around, and noticed that Sean was missing. She frowned, her beautiful features standing out even more so, and asked the party, “Has anyone seen Sean?”

Felarion replied to Gladiola, “No I have not seen him, when did you first notice he was missing?”

Her mind raced through, trying to remember. She shook her head, looking a little worried, “Gladiola really don’t know, but the last she remembered was during the fighting…”

Squeek looked around quickly and said, “Justs don’t be looking at me. I didn’t dos anything with him.” He peered around cautiously as if expecting a horde of Goblins to descend on them any second.

Cincinatus shrugged his shoulders and said, ” I was too busy with the capture of this goblin, and was not even aware until Gladiola mentioned it that Sean was gone. I hope for his sake he was not captured. Are any of you perceptive enough to look for his tracks?”

Felarion replied, “I could give it a shot, unless someone else in the group feels better qualified? Though I think we would have to backtrack some.” Felarion took a look over the way they had come, to see how far the fire had traversed.

The former soldier turned to the goblin again after Felarion had spoken, “Indeed, it would not do to let the little fellow die now, so bandage him. I will keep an eye on this one so that he does not vanish like our companion.” Cincinatus stood near the goblin’s body with his spear poised, ready to strike if necessary.

Shade looked around for Sean, “I hope he didn’t try to outrun that fire and warn the folks in Oakendale. He wouldn’t stand a chance of beating the fire to town. It’s probably half way to Oakendale now. May the luck of Tymora be with him and our friends in Oakendale.”

Shade glanced down at the goblin, “He can die for all I care. I ought to smash his skull in with the heel of my boot, but since you people are so intent on interrogating him, I’ll save that honour for Gladiola.” He turned and started to go off to himself, mumbling, “Probably won’t get any information from him anyway.”

Gladiola smiled sheepishly as she looked around, “Gladiola does not know goblin…”

The Goblin bled slightly from its wound on the back of its leg. He bled a little more when Shade removed the dagger. His breathing was laboured but he made it through the night. Shade took another watch, letting Felarion take second shift and last shift going to Cincinatus.

The rest of the night went fairly uneventful. The goblin was still unconscious at daybreak as the group rose from its restful slumber. Shade was the last to get up.

Felarion addressed the group, “Well I suggest if we are going to question the goblin, that we do so, and get going. From the looks of him, I think we are going to have to heal him to get any information out of him.”

Cincinatus answered Felarion, “Yes, I too believe we should heal the goblin. Normally I would not suggest such a misuse of powers, but we cannot waste our time waiting for it to heal.”

Shade shook his head, wondering if he was still dreaming, “Are you guys crazy? Heal a goblin? I for one have seen too many human AND elven children killed by these vile creatures to even consider it. I’m sure the priest would REALLY be in favour of healing it just to kill it after we’ve forced a few lies out of it. Do you people think you can get any useful information out of this thing other than ‘Grom set fire! Fire do good! Me hungry! Hack! Spit! Burp?”

Shade pulled a dagger and got up to walk over to the goblin.

Cincinatus stepped between Shade and the unconscious goblin, “Hold firm my friend. While at first thought it may seem foolish to save this pathetic creature, in the grander scheme it is wise. If we can manage to get any useful information from it we can stop them all and save many more lives. As for extracting information, I believe the creature’s cowardice will be its undoing. Being surrounded and obviously in dire circumstances it should be willing to tell us anything we want to know in exchange for the privilege to continue to breathe. I realise that we can not put faith in what it tells us, but we also cannot afford to dismiss it outright. Put away your blade for the time being.”

Sorelon stood and turned to the others, “Do what you will to the goblin. I feel it is my duty to see that no harm has come to our friend Sean. The fire has burned eastward. I’m going to try and backtrack. It will be almost impossible with the fire burning everything. I’ll return to Oakendale and see how they faired against the fire. Gladiola, If any of your kinsman are in Oakendale, I’ll send word to your father that you are OK and are continuing on westward. I hope we meet again soon. Until then, fare thee well.”

Sorelon gathered his things and started eastward across the charred landscape. His boots barely kicked up even a whisper of dust.

Gladiola looked at the departing Sorelon with not a little sadness. Already the mission had started with the party losing two members. She shook her head and gave a silent prayer to Silvanus – may he watch over the mission.

Arconde’ly, too, was upset at what had transpired – Sorelon heading after Sean and the goblin setting fire to the forest – headed over to the vile creature.

“I will heal this creature only because of necessity for more information. After we have received this information, Tymora willing, the goblin’s life must be ended in order to keep them unaware of us and of our mission.” Arconde’ly gestured to Shade, “When we’re done, you know what must be done…”

Two smoke-streaked tears escaped Arconde’ly’s eyes, “We’d better hurry.”

Shade held at Cincinatus’ words but eyed the helpless goblin anyway.

“I still can’t believe you’re going to heal it just to kill it later. You know we won’t be able to trust anything this creature says. It lives to lie. Even with its limited intelligence, he’ll know we won’t let him live.”

Shade turned to Arconde’ly and said, “Do what you want, but if you heal him… you kill him.”

Arconde’ly bent to one knee at the side of the fallen goblin. He raised a hand skyward and placed the other upon the goblin’s chest. As the words of his prayer to Tymora were spoken, his hand travelled to the goblin’s side where Shade had kicked him. The goblin lurched upward in a spasm of pain and then settled back peacefully. The glow from the priest’s hands ebbed as he stepped back away from the goblin.

The goblin’s eyes fluttered open and seeing the party gathered around, instinctively went for his absent knife. The little creature winced in pain as the bones at his side did not knit together during the healing, and he fell back against the ground.

Felarion addressed the goblin in Common, “if you’re looking for your little knife, it is back there in flames.” Felarion gestured back to where they retrieved the goblin from, “How about telling us why you set that fire?” Felarion rested his foot against the side of the goblin, creating a little pressure as the goblin failed to answer.

Cincinatus raised his spear threateningly, “Speak, little fellow, and answer the man’s questions. If I think at any time you lie to us, your life will be at an end.”

The goblin let out an ear piercing scream as Felarion applied pressure to its broken ribcage. Trying to compose himself he looked to Cincinatus then Felarion then past them to Gladiola. His eyes finally fell on Shade standing some ten meters away. He muttered something in Goblinspeak, “Grtzel toog larbeesa cho”.

Shade quickly turned. He’s no longer twirling the blade in his hand. It was poised ready to throw. A look of utter hatred in his eyes, Shade said back to the vile little creature, “Cho nokzt Grtzel? Lae yu wy chee, dae dow chok Grtzel krayzokr?”

A sly grin came over the goblin’s face as he looked at Shade and said in Common, “You can do nothing to him. Him much power. You little stirge on back of Dragon.”

Shade grew impatient and stepped toward the goblin, hissing in the vile language, “Cho nokzt?”

The goblin looked at Shade defiantly then winced as Felarion applied a little more pressure to its side. It looked from Shade to Gladiola and the others as he said, “Zarco, co Vernanin.” Then spitted at Felarion. Shade looked at Arconde’ly and said, “Now kill him.”

Gladiola’s heart skipped a beat as she heard that from Shade. Who was this man, who carried much hatred with him? She too hated the goblins. Her father had told her of the evils of the goblins, how there were irredeemably evil, of the atrocities committed by them and their evil gods. They had taken away many of her friends, and even the man she loved. But the hatred from this one seemed to be even greater than the elves’ hatred for the evil of the woods.

Her beautiful eyes looked at Shade intently. The morning sun brought a shine to her face, and she tried to look and guess how Shade really was. Her years out of the forests had not been many, and she really could not understand how the humans think sometimes. Her eyes turned to look at the goblin. For a moment, she felt a tinge of pity for the creature held at the party’s mercy.

That moment passed quickly as she remembered again the painful memories. Memories of Sir Hector’s soul fleeing from his body as she held his hand, his head on her bosom, watching the life fade away. Memories of the tears that flowed endlessly for hours, until her eyes could summon them no more. She turned away from the creature, not wanting to look at its final moments.

“It is unfortunate that this creature is what it is. Though it saddens me to have to take the life of a defenceless creature, I do so now for the sake of necessity. We can not afford to let this creature exist, as it has the knowledge now that we exist.” Arconde’ly motioned for the others to move aside, never letting his eyes stray from the creature. His war-hammer, feeling heavy in his hands, rose in the air and pummelled down towards the goblin, seeking to end the creature’s life.

Felarion wiped the spit off himself. He then pulled his foot back, kicked the goblin squarely in the side, causing the creature to shriek in pain. He then walked over to shade, “So what did it say?”

Shade stepped a step towards the helpless creature watching as Arconde’ly’s hammer fell upon the goblin’s skull. All present, even the militarily trained Cincinatus, seemed to flinch as the priest’s war-hammer shattered the skull of the goblin coiled up in a pain-wracked foetal position. All but one.

Shade let out a slight sigh and almost immediately seemed to take a more relaxed stance. He turned to Felarion and said, “We’ll need more than an army to get to the person behind all this. I don’t suppose there are any Arch-mages in this group, are there?”

The half-elf turned to Gladiola, “It gave a name. The little bastard almost laughed when it said it too.” Shade paused for a second, “It said ‘Zarco, co Vernanin’ which means Zarcodius of Vernain. The arch-mage, ruler of the northern city of Vernain. A cruel, heavy-handed, human mage set himself up as the ruler of Vernain and no one has dared challenge his power. Still interested in pursuing this course of action, Milady? After all, this did come from the mouth of a goblin.”

Felarion replied before Gladiola could say anything, “Sorry Shade, but I do not think any of us qualify for that level of experience. I see no reason not to trust the goblin’s information, he had nothing to gain by lying. I feel we should continue our original path, unless Gladiola has changed her mind?” Felarion looked directly at Gladiola after saying this last.

Arconde’ly wiped the end of his war-hammer off with a rag, which he then discarded. The stench of goblin blood was something he would rather be rid of. He turned to Gladiola.

“Milady, it is a harsh world that we live in, and though I regret having to end the life of a creature that was defenceless, that too is a part of life. Tymora understands such things. But I do feel that we need to gather more information before making any grandiose decisions. I feel we should continue on as planned, then decide from there.” With that, Arconde’ly looked to the trees and the overhead sky, a determined look in his eyes.

Shade stepped over the slain body of the goblin and turned to face the others.

“I hope my treatment of this dung-ball has not offended you. Its name was Grtzel. I didn’t know it… but it knew me… from a time that now seems not so distant.” Shade’s shoulders seemed to droop and he seemed very tired.

Cincinatus began to gather grass to cover the creature’s body, “I feel remorse that this goblin was unable to die honourably, but I know that in life it failed to in such a manner. As for the tales it told us, I cannot verify the truth in it. Perhaps we should continue onwards and see if we can gather further information.” The corpse was covered to his satisfaction, Cincinatus looked to the horizon, “If the little beast was truthful, we have a long journey before us.”

Felarion nodded in agreement, “Aye, I fear you are right, so we best get going.”

Shade looked to Gladiola and shrugged his shoulders. He turned and started to walk westward in search of the Lake of Facets. He said as he passed Cincinatus and Felarion, “We may have to turn north when we reach the lake. There’s a village at the north end of the lake. If the goblin’s reach has extended this far out into the wilderness, It may not be a pretty sight. We’re still a good day and a half from the lake. Let’s move as fast as possible without losing the others. It wouldn’t do if we came out here with Gladiola and then left her behind because she couldn’t keep up.”

He looked back to Gladiola and Squeek, “Well… let’s move it. I don’t want to be around here when this thing starts rotting.” Shade sheathed his rapier and started out across through the tall grass of the plains.

The party travelled westward for most of the day. The wind blowing softly, they had almost forgotten the tragic events of the previous day. Shade, Felarion, and Cincinatus kept a tremendous pace and the slight elven maid was starting to show signs of fatigue. As the party stopped briefly to rest and partake of a cold meal, a group of horsemen appeared over the hill to the south. Seeing a group of travellers out on the prairie was uncommon, especially considering the circumstances that they left just that morning.

The group of horsemen saw the party as well and spurred their horses towards them. There were about five or six of them. No visible signs of colours were seen and no leader was apparent. The party was very much out in the open with only the grasslands around them. The sun was lower in the sky as it was late afternoon.

Felarion cursed under his breath, not liking the way the group spurred their horses to reach them, “I recommend we wait for them, for there is no place we can hide or use for cover.” Felarion placed his hand on the hilt of one of his daggers, as the horsemen approached.

Arconde’ly muttered a short prayer under his breath, his brow furrowing at the oncoming riders. He drew his 2-handed war hammer, and said to the group, “We need to stay in pairs, in case these riders mean us harm.”

Cincinatus shouted to the riders. “Ho there. Be ye friend or foe?” His war-spear was planted firmly on the ground and his muscles tensed in anticipation of the throw.

Shade took the knots off the hilt of his rapier and reached behind him, pulling two throwing daggers from under his belt. He palmed them and waited for the riders to advance.

Chapter 6: The Horsemen

As the riders advanced they slowed their pace to a trot and then finally a walk towards the band of weary travellers. Nearing the party to about fifty feet, they came to a halt. A man with a dark beard and black cloak moved a step or two closer and said, “No need for weapons. My name is Dain… Dain Blackthorne. We only ask what business you have here and to see that those that have not been taxed, pay their taxes.”

With that he reached for a rolled up piece of parchment at his belt and held it high, “By order of the Duke, himself!”

One man at the back of the group stepped down from his mount and started checking its left rear hoof for a stone.

“Please put away your weapons and let us approach!” The man in the black cloak stated as he moved slowly toward the group.

Felarion relaxed a bit, keeping his dagger sheathed, but with his hand not straying too far from it. Arconde’ly also relaxed a little bit, putting his 2-handed war-hammer against the ground, but still in one hand, just in case.

Cincinatus addressed the man on horseback who demanded coinage from the party, “What is the price of this tax? We are but poor travellers who make no demands of your government. We mean to pass quickly and quietly through this land in order to thwart the goblin invasion that comes. Would you tax such a noble cause?”

Shade quickly glanced at Cincinatus almost in disbelief and shook his head silently. Shade looked to the group of approaching men and yelled, “The tax collector, alone may enter our camp. You others stay where you are!”

The man in black approached alone as the others stayed behind. One man notched an arrow to his short bow and lay it down across his horse’s shoulder in a non-threatening way. As the man drew nearer Gladiola could see his features. He was a very handsome man with dark hair, moustache and goatee. A very elaborate pin held his cloak back away from his tunic and he sat rather high in the saddle. There was an air of importance and confidence to him as he approached. He let his mount bring him within about twenty feet and came to a halt.

He cleared his throat and said, “By the authority of His Grace, Duke Morgill of Burgundy, I have been dispatched to collect taxes from all those within the boundaries of the realm.”

After stating his calling he lowered his eyes to Cincinatus and said to him seemingly annoyed, “Even those on world shattering quests.”

“I will have each of your names, birth town, and each of you will be taxed one gold drake unless you can prove you have paid your taxes within this past lunar cycle.”

Gladiola’s eyes gazed upon the man intently. She was not feeling too comfortable with Cincinatus’ outburst but she kept it to herself. Now these men would have knowledge of their whereabouts as well. If what she heard from Shade about the goblin was right, then they might just be in cahoots. Her heart was heavy – it might mean more evil, and greater deaths if the humans were involved in this affair.

Gladiola’s smiled at the man’s moustache and goatee. She had always found them fascinating, for elven males did not grow such things. It reminded her of Sir Hector – he had a nice wonderful beard which made him all the more endearing to her, as she would lay down on his lap and twirl the strands playfully in her hands during the days of the courtship.

She reminded herself again of her mission, and returned to the present. Gladiola remembered her father telling her before, that the elven lands were never taxed by the humans, under a treaty many, many years ago. She wondered if this law applied to elves out of the elven lands. She suddenly realised too that she was one rare elf out of her homelands, and shifted uncomfortably – as she did when she first entered the courts of Sir Fharmot.

Felarion shrugged, and then spoke, “Very well, my name is Felarion Wildblood, born in the elven forest, and I have no qualms about paying such a small price for the Duke. Despite my companion’s harsh words, we are on a mission we feel important, and just wish to be on our way.”

Cincinatus appraised the tax-party and seemed to reflect inwardly for a moment, “My name is Gilthan, and I will pay the duke his rights. If such be the price of duty, so be it. ” Cincinatus passed the man a gold piece and secretly hoped that his military bearing and equipment went unnoticed. Slyly, he looked for any signs of loyalty on the equipment of the taxmen, being somewhat familiar with the regimentalia of local armies.

Arconde’ly seemed relieved yet is still uncertain if he should trust this man or his companions.

“I am Arconde’ly MyLaen. If all ye need is a gold crown for us to be on our way, then I will pay my share, and any in my party who can not.” With that, he drew forth a small leather pouch, “Although, as I recall, you do not take taxes from those of the cloth, do you?”

Shade removed a gold coin from his pouch and handed it to Felarion to take to the man.

“The name is Shade… of Misthaven. And where might you be from?” Shade asked as Felarion approached the dark-haired man.

Having accepted Shade’s coin, Felarion carefully approached the man in black. With the coins in his left hand, and his right near his sword hilt, Felarion handed the coins to the man, glancing over the man’s shoulder as he did so, to see what the other men were doing.

Dain leaned forward to collect the coins from Felarion and looked at the others. “I’m sorry Gilthan, I didn’t catch where you were from.”

Turning his eyes to Arconde’ly, he just raised his hand and shook his head. He then turned to Gladiola and said, “And do you and your bat-imp friend have names or do you wish to just stand there and look sheepish? It matters not your race. If you are crossing the lands of the Duke, you must be taxed.”

Gladiola nodded, and looked into Dain. The late afternoon breeze blew across her cheek, and strands of her luscious golden hair fluttered about. Adjusting her pin, an action which showed off her beautiful wrists, and putting the rogue strands of hair in place, she stepped forward with the coin. Her beautiful eyes gazed into that of Dain, as she curtseyed before the man.

“Gladiola Silvermoon, daughter of the Great Silver forest. The gold piece, as requested, my lord.” She looked about for Felarion, to help her pass the coin to the handsome man riding in the horse. Felarion moved up to assist her with presenting the coin.

“Moneys? I don’t have any of those shiny things.” Squeek answered, sounding even more stupid than normal, to the request for taxes. Pulling his pack off his shoulder he started sorting through it and continued, “I for having string thats you could takes, or how about this nice rock?”

He then paused to scratch himself and then continued listing all the most worthless things that he was carrying. He stopped short of listing off things like his spellbook or anything else valuable.

Since Shade had paid his tax, he stepped back to where he could keep an eye on the rest of the tax collector’s party. He was intent upon the man with a readied bow. It made him a little edgy.

He tucked one of the daggers up his wristband and let the other fall into his grasp as he started twirling it between his fingers as if it was a small twig, never once cutting himself. He let the reflection of the sun flash across the eyes of the horse the man holding the bow was riding.

Dain turned to the young elven maiden.

“I perhaps thought it might be you, Your Highness. Tell me this… Do you always keep company with such ruffians and rabble?”

With that He reached beneath his cloak and withdrew a loaded hand crossbow and the bolt flew true to its mark, striking Cincinatus in the left thigh. Cincinatus’ leg almost gives way but he pulled his wits together and revelled in the pain. ‘Combat’ had been drawn to him.

“Kill them all but the girl. We’ll take her with us.” The hand crossbow dropped from his hand but was tied to a leather thong attached to the saddle. Dain reached for his sword.

Half expecting such a manoeuvre, Felarion’s hand was already gripping the hilt of his sword. He pulled it free as he saw the appearance of the crossbow. Too late to stop the bolt, Felarion swung his sword at Dain, hoping to catch him before he pulled his sword free.

Shade suddenly realising they were under attack wheeled around releasing not one, but two daggers, one from each hand towards the man with the bow.

Gladiola was a little confused as she took a few steps back into the safety of the shelter. The elves of the Great Silver did not mix about much with the humans, preferring to stay within the sanctity of the forests. The man Dain had called her ‘Your Highness’. He was no elf. There was no way he could have known.

“Sir Hector…” Her graceful voice quivered as she spoke softly under her breath. She had to do something fast. The party was clearly outnumbered by the men. Perhaps if the man’s underlings were fallen, he might cease the battle, Gladiola thought hopefully to herself. She closed her eyes to block out the memories that had rushed back to her. Memories contact with humans always brought about. Memories fighting always made worse.

She raised her hand and felt the touch of magical energies in the air about her. The swirls of power, the cries of the birds, the calls of the wind as it rushed its way through the forests – all these called out to her as she moved her right hand to her pouch. Taking a pinch of something from it, she rubbed her thumb and finger together as something that looked like sand began to fall from her fingers. She opened her eyes and pointed towards the men at the back.

Arconde’ly, noting that the rider up front was being disposed of as was his due, stayed near Gladiola, to deflect anything that might come to try to stop her from completing her spell. Arconde’ly played defensive. He waited for the moment any of them came near, to charge in and wreak havoc with his warhammer.

The group of horsemen tried to scatter at the signal from Dain except for the man with the bow. Shade and Gladiola seemed to act as one. An eerie feeling filled the air at a mage’s spell-casting at such close a range. Two men slumped in their saddles and a third let fly prematurely with an arrow as he was struck with two daggers at once. The bowman toppled backward off his horse. The arrow barely missed the little Fremlin as he tried to dart behind Arconde’ly and Gladiola.

Cincinatus tensed and threw up as pain and a burning sensation ripped through his thigh. His eyesight seemed to be getting worse and he stumbled to the ground. He was blinking and shaking his head as if trying to clear his eyes.

Felarion made a mighty sweep of his longsword and reached the black-bearded man as Dain grabbed the hilt of his sword. Felarion realised there was a strange magic protecting this man as his blade came down across his leg, glancing off as if he were wearing platemail. The deflected blow did catch the cinch strap of the saddle and the saddle started to slide off the other side of the horse carrying Dain with it.

The two remaining horsemen spurred their mounts in towards the fray. One headed for Felarion and the other towards Shade. One man engaged Felarion while still on horseback. The other vaulted from his horse in front of Shade keeping Shade between him and the priest. Even though he had the opportunity to strike at Shade he seemed to be studying him.

Shade drew his rapier and with a quick shift of the hilt he slid one half of the sword up as if it were split in two and whirled not just one rapier but two rapiers around himself like a lethal shield.

Felarion shook his head, and irritated that he failed to wound Dain, he turned to take his frustration out on the man that charged him. Swinging his sword, Felarion attempted to teach the man a lesson.

Shade saw the wary adversary approach cautiously and decided to take advantage of his seemingly lack of courage. He pressed the attack continuing his offensive spin and laying into the man as if he was so much cheese to be sliced.

Gladiola looked about her. Arconde’ly stood in front of her like a sentinel, ensuring that nobody touched her. Somehow she was glad of the man protecting her. She turned to look at Dain. Her hair flew and twirled about, before settling down again. There was a determination in her eyes.

She took a few steps, as gracefully as she could muster. Brushing by Arconde’ly, she called out, “Dain! It is I. Who are you actually? Why do you seek after me?” Her head was held high, and she did not flinch at the battle about her. She knew she was exposing herself to possible danger – but she just had got to know. He had called her ‘Your Highness’. He had intimate knowledge of the elves of the Great Silver. And few humans had dealings with them.

Dain somehow landed on his feet as he came down off his horse. Seeing how he had underestimated the abilities of his foes, he vaulted to the bare back of his horse and tried to flee. His men at arms seemed to realise he was retreating and the one on horseback tried to take off as well.

Felarion, however, had other thoughts on the matter. His blade came down across the back of the rider’s ribs and he fell to the ground with a sickening thud, blood flowing freely from the nasty wound. He gasped twice and his eyes looked as though they were looking a million miles away. He was dead.

Shade advanced on the lone man standing to fight. Both his rapiers slashed and plunged in graceful arcs toward his victim. He feinted slightly to the left, and catching his opponent off guard with the feint, sank one rapier to the hilt in the man’s abdomen. A split-second later, the other pierced the man’s throat. Shade almost seemed to kiss the man before he withdrew both his blades. The man slumped to the ground a full second later.

Dain looked down at Gladiola, smiled, and said, “Until we meet again, Your highness…” He turned his horse around and spurred it into a full gallop. The lack of a saddle did not seem to bother him one bit.

Gladiola looked about her. Cincinatus was down but not unconscious. There were still two riders asleep on their mounts. One of the horses seemed to be asleep as well. Dain had gone about 50 yards away and was riding fast to the northwest. On the ground lay three dead men.

Felarion’s eyes followed the retreating form of Dain, before they suddenly turned on Gladiola, and he raised his eyebrows questioningly. Seeing no answer forthcoming, Felarion proceeded to go through the man’s things, the one that he felled, before the blood soaked in too much.

“I suggest we grab those other two, before they wake up.” Felarion searched the saddlebags and other things on the man’s horse.

Gladiola was not listening. She had to do something! She looked at the form of Dain moving off, and immediately ran to the horse that the man felled by Felarion had ridden. She nearly tripped over the hem of her skirt, but composed herself, grabbing a pinch of material with her left hand. She reached the towering form of the horse – and paused.

She turned towards Felarion, the nearest man around, and spoke out urgently, “Gladiola requests that Felarion help her up the horse! She has to seek after Dain!” Her eyes flashed and burnt with a thousand unanswered questions. Dain knew something. Who was he?

Felarion shrugged and helped her onto the horse.

Arconde’ly, watching Cincinatus dropped with an arrow wound, rushed across the melee to reach him. “Everyone, we need to grab those two men still sleeping on their horses, bind and gag them, then interrogate them for some answers.” He called out.

Timidly Squeek answered, “I’s think I can helps there.” And started tying a small rope in complex knots around their extremities.

Shade whipped around at Gladiola’s request. “You’re NOT going after him, ‘Highness’,” He boomed in a loud firm voice. He knew leaving the ‘Your’ off of the title could be interpreted as insubordinate and even rude but right now he didn’t care. “Felarion! Don’t let her go! Dain wanted HER alive and us dead. We can’t just let her go chasing off after him. That’s just what he would want.”

Felarion nearly smacked himself, as he realised he almost did exactly what Dain wanted, and tried to pull Gladiola back down from the horse, saying as he did so, “Sorry, but Shade is right, that is exactly what Dain would want.”

“No, unhand me, Felarion! Gladiola needs to get him!” There was an added urgency in her voice as the form of Dain began to move further away. Gladiola struggled to get the horse under control, trying to spur the creature on, pulling the reins away from Felarion with her feeble wrists.

Felarion reached for Gladiola and caught her on one wrist and around the waist and quickly hauled her down as the horse whirled around. Felarion was almost taken aback by how strong she fought back considering how slight of frame she was. But, even as strong as she was, she was still no match for the warrior. He could not help but feel a tingle of excitement as his heart raced at having this beautiful young lady so close in proximity to himself. Her hair smelt of wild roses and her skin felt soft as satin. Felarion, noticing his emotions starting to sway, quickly clamped down on them before he got carried away.

Shade reached the two struggling just as Felarion pulled her free of the saddle but she clung to the reins ferociously, not wanting to let this chance to question Dain disappear. Shade took the horse by the bridle and tried to calm it.

Arconde’ly knelt at Cincinatus’ side holding his glowing symbol of good fortune with one hand on the warrior’s leg. He had already removed the bolt and the wound started to close. He was certain Cincinatus had been poisoned but it was not fatal as his breathing had returned to normal. He remained unconscious though.

Meanwhile, Squeek had managed to tie the two remaining highwaymen’s hands in front of them but he somehow tied one man’s right foot to the other’s left, unwittingly. “Oh well, they’re tied aren’t they?” He thought to himself.

As Shade brought the horse under control, he looked at the Gladiola’s struggle and a slight smile escaped his face but he soon brought himself under control again. He could see the white of her knuckles as she strained to keep hold of the reins.

“Why are you so intent on letting this man capture you? In fact… I think you owe us some explanation.” Shade shot the question over to Gladiola. He looked to Felarion, and said, “You can release her now. I have control over the horse.”

Gladiola looked at the disappearing form of Dain in despair. Slowly, she began to compose herself. Gladiola looked over at Felarion, still holding on to her wrist, and said quietly, “Please let go of me, Felarion. You are hurting me.”

Felarion let go of Gladiola’s wrist, saying only, “Sorry, but we could not let you go after Dain alone.”

Arconde’ly, watching the commotion between Gladiola and Felarion, looked back down at his fallen companion. “Everyone! He looks better, but still won’t wake up. I think those crossbow bolts were poisoned somehow. Search these other two ‘sleeping beauties’ for hopefully some kind of an antidote!”

Gladiola looked out wistfully over the horizon, rubbing her wrists still red where Felarion had held on tightly to her just moments before. The handsome rider was nowhere to be seen. She sighed and turned to face Felarion. Her eyes seemed to carry some sort of sadness, weighted down by the thoughts of many burdens. She bit her lip and said, “Gladiola apologises for her behaviour. She was not thinking when she did what she did.” She looked somewhat pale and tired out – perhaps from her struggles with the two men.

Felarion relaxed a bit as the struggle was over. “Do not worry, for I get the impression we will be seeing him again. Now let us see if any of the rest of these have anything interesting on them or can provide us with any information.” Felarion then began helping in searching bodies.

Arconde’ly helped Squeek bound the two men and looked through their belongings for anything that might be considered an antidote but found nothing. Both men woke up as Arconde’ly pulled them to the ground from their saddles with a “thud”. Startled, they tried to get free of their bindings but the struggling only made them tighter and they soon stopped writhing about as they were still trussed together. They cursed to themselves but said nothing to the priest and the Fremlin just above them.

Shade gathered the reins, vaulted up onto the horse, and after a few minutes, had the other two dead men’s horses next to the two belonging to the men on the ground. As Shade spurred the horse after the others he looked to Felarion and said, “See if you can get any information out of those two.” He then turned and rode after the furthest horse.

Chapter 7: The Interrogation & The Lake

Felarion approached the two men on the ground. He asked, “Why did you attack us? And who sent you?”

Arconde’ly turned to look at Felarion questioning the two men, and said, “I’m not sure what to do about this poison. We need to interrogate these two and find out some answers. It’s hard to tell how much time he has left.”

Arconde’ly stood, and drew forth his 2-handed warhammer, gleaming in the sunlight. “What were you using on these crossbow bolts? Answer me, or your life is forfeit! By Tymora’s Grace…”

As Arconde’ly raised his hammer both of the men flinched but one of them blurted out, “Wait! Wait! It’s only…”

The other man jerked violently on the ropes binding their hands and the first man shrieked in pain. “Shut yer face or Dain will string us up by our entrails.”

The first man blurted out again, “It’s sleep poi…” The second jerked again and the first finally stopped his whimpering and held his arms above his head waiting for the hammer to fall.

Felarion looked at the others. “Sleep poison? Do any of you know anything about such a thing?” Felarion then started to search the men looking for a possible antidote as well.

Arconde’ly roared, “When would the effects of the sleep poison wear off? How long? Dain isn’t here to help you on this one, and I wouldn’t be worried about him stringing you up by your entrails… that’s next, if you don’t tell us how Dain knew our elfin companion, and why you were attempting to kidnap her. I’m a patient man when I get the answers I need to hear, but by Tymora’s Grace, if I don’t get the answers I need to hear… well, enjoy meeting your Maker!”

Arconde’ly was upset at not knowing why this Dain character was after Gladiola. He would ask her if she recognised Dain, after the questioning.

As the questions were being asked, Felarion sat down next to the first man, and took out his daggers, testing their edges, laying them on the ground one at a time. Finishing with the daggers, he looked questioningly at the first man, to see if he had anything to say.

The cowardly man looked over at the other and paused. The second man said to him in a low voice, “You tell him and should we live through this, I’ll deliver your corpse to Dain.”

The coward responded, “If we don’t tell them we’re both corpses anyway. I’ll take my chances with them.” Turning to Arconde’ly he said, “The poison should wear off in an hour or so. I don’t know why he wanted the girl. He just hired us to take care of the guys with her. Honest! We were just hired to kill you guys and capture the girl. Dain doesn’t tell us anything.”

Shade rode up with the other horses, dismounted, and approached the group. As Shade approached he heard the last of what the man was saying. He calmly walked over and squatted down between the two men. He pulled a dagger from the back of his belt and twirled it between his fingers of his right hand.

He glanced up at Felarion and Arconde’ly and said, “You’ll never get any answers out of them that way.” He looked straight at the cowardly man and grinned. “Tell them what they want to know,” He said, and with that he lifted the dagger up and brought it down in its deadly arc…directly into the thigh of the other prisoner.

“Or you’ll suffer worse…” He continued.

Felarion shook his head. “I don’t think they know anything else Shade, they’re too stupid to be trusted with any more information than that. We need to get a hold on that Dain character.” Felarion then motioned for Shade to keep that dagger handy and addressed the first man, “Where can we find Dain? Where will he go to, since he lost this fight? I suggest you come up with a good answer,” Nodding to Shade, “For my friend here is not quite as lenient as we were.”

Gladiola watched and flinched as the dagger made its way into the thigh of the prisoner. Her eyes saw the merciless face of Shade as he did so. She trembled a little and looked away, avoiding the look on the eyes of the victim. She still wondered within her heart – what made this man learn to hate so much? Perhaps as time went by she would know. Perhaps.

She called out to Felarion, “Felarion, Gladiola thinks our mission has been compromised. Somehow, somebody has been observing us, or why would this Dain be ready with these hired help? But why me?” Her features turned on a troubled tone as she looked at the rest of the group.

“Gladiola knows not why these men are going for her. Unless they intend to stop her from bringing the news of the goblin rising back to the forests. But who could have known? Who could have given them the information? And who is this Dain?”

Those were questions she herself could not answer. Dain…the name seemed familiar, but she just could not place it anywhere. She struggled a little to remember – but it simply eluded her. She had just pushed those painful memories too deeply away. She bit her lip in frustration. Gladiola was one woman who still looked beautiful without her smile.

Felarion replied, “You could be right, but I see nothing we can do about it now. This Dain obviously knows you, and who you are. You may even know him, he may just be disguised somehow, though we will be better able to tell once we find him again.”

Shade remained oblivious to the suffering of the man as he looked at Gladiola and spoke up, “If you are who this man says you are, there are plenty of reasons, two of which are apparent to me. One… it would be days maybe weeks before another party is sent out, if indeed you were the only one sent. And two… with you as a hostage there might be less of a chance the elves would ally themselves with the humans again if Zarcodious is behind the goblin alliances. And my guess is that Dain works for Zarcodious.”

The coward’s eyes widened as the dagger plunged deeper into his comrade’s leg bringing a shriek of pain from the man’s lips. His trying to pull free only worsened the pain and he stopped thrashing about as a dark stain soaked into his breeches. Gladiola’s wincing did not go unnoticed by Shade.

“It’s true! It’s true!” The coward stammered, “I don’t know anything about this Zarcodious fella! Dain just hired us in Misthaven!” He whimpered, “Wait. Wait! There was another guy there! I don’t know who he was but he had these awful burns all over his face. He wore a dark cloak and had this wide-brimmed hat. A really scary-lookin’ guy!

“Please let me go. I can’t go back to Dain. He’ll kill me. Please, please, let me go. I beg you.” The man pleaded as he looked into the eyes of the priest. “By Tymora’s grace I will do you no more harm.”

Shade studied the man for a second then said to Felarion, “Does that description fit anybody you’ve heard of… perhaps in Oakendale… at the Inn? I’d say we’re on the right track. Dain will probably make a hasty retreat to the nearest town to get some more thugs. He’s headed westward towards Misthaven but there’s another small town on the east side of the lake. He could have gone either way from here. I’m not a tracker. I won’t be much help in telling which way he went. Cincinatus might be able to help as soon as he wakes up.

“As for letting these guys go, I say we strip them and leave them here naked. Let the predators have them if Tymora’s grace is NOT with them.” He finished off his statements.

Felarion nodded his head in agreement, until the talk of what to do with the men came up. “I recommend we let the one who talked go, but as for the other one, I would say do as you wish with him.” Looking down at the second man, he continued, “Co-operating sometimes pays off.”

After saying that, Felarion pulled Shade away from the men, and whispered to him and the others, “So what do you think, shall we go after this Dain?”

“If one of us is a tracker, I’d think about it, but since it would take longer to track him than it would to reach our destination, I say we continue on to the west. If we come upon him again it will be because he has had to chase us. We now know to be watching for him.” Shade replied.

Gladiola had been looking at Shade all the while, listening to his words. She could not help but wonder. Seemingly deep in thought, she spoke gently, “Gladiola thinks Shade seems to know and have much against this Zarcodious. Shade seems to know the going-ons of Oakendale well, and even its people. Who exactly are you, Shade? Why do you follow us? What manner of dealings have you with this Zardodius?”

“It seems we all have secrets,” Shade replied, knowing this remark will strike home, “But since I have no secrets I am not willing to share with you, I will tell you… as we ride on.”

She paused a while, considering Shade’s words. She looked at the rest of the party, brushing aside a strand of hair. She adjusted her dress a little and turned to look at the direction Dain had gone. Her other hand absentmindedly rubbed at the bruise on her wrist, the pain reminding her of the struggle she had just now. Her soft voice, the words from cascading waterfalls, spoke out, “Gladiola could not be sure, but she feels as if someone knows of our going-ins and our going-out. Mayhaps someone had seen the gathering at the inn.”

“Of course someone saw us at the Inn! Cynder saw us! Everybody in the Inn saw us pack up take off together. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. That’s the only way Dain could have had knowledge of us and since I was in Oakendale for a couple of weeks before you showed up and spent time with those people at the inn I could tell most everybody in there was townsfolk except for Cynder.” Shade replied.

Gladiola stopped at his words. She did not dare tell the rest of the party what the rest of her thoughts were. Could a wizard, one great and mighty, been scrying upon them? Or…she pondered another possibility. A treacherous one in their midst. No – no matter how evil one could be, surely one would not do such as to betray his companions? Surely no one would?

She had thought her father’s task was something easy – just get some companions to look for signs of goblin activity. But now? Someone wanted her. Maybe she should go back to the forests now. But how would she answer to her father? And Malconith?

Malconith. She looked back at the bundle on the floor where she had discarded it to prepare for battle. She was foolish to do that. She might just have lost something valuable. What was it that she had to wait to open? She resisted the temptation to open it right then, to see if some answers could be found to the many things she wanted to know. But she knew one thing she had to do.

She turned back, her hair making swirls in the air. She spoke resolutely, “Gladiola says we make haste on the horses and check for the goblins. She does not know if the humans would believe any one of us if we were to bring news, but the children of the forests will!” And at least one human land, she thought to herself.

Felarion looked at Gladiola. “Are you now proposing that we give up on the humans? And let the goblins have their way?”

Gladiola looked puzzled. She did not understand what Felarion was trying to say. She finally said, “Gladiola thinks Felarion misunderstands her words. Mayhaps the humans will listen to you after we have ascertained the truth of the goblin gathering. But Gladiola knows the children of the forests will believe her. Mayhaps from there something could be done to thwart this new evil. But nothing moves unless Gladiola has some confirmed sightings of the goblin gathering.”

She looked away from Felarion, towards the west, saying seemingly to herself, “And perhaps some insight as to the reason and the manner of their gathering once again.” She turned back towards Felarion and gave a smile again. The smile that could light up a thousand candles.

Arconde’ly, watching and listening to Gladiola and her companions, approached them. “Dain most likely will find us again, no matter where we go to. It makes sense for us to seek out the goblin activity, as was originally agreed upon, swiftly but diligently, then report the findings to the towns and villages along the way.”

“And as for these two…” He motioned to the two thugs still bound and roughed up. “They should be allowed to keep a small knife each, but that is all. All other belongings should be confiscated. We’ll drop the knives off about 200 feet from our position. They can wiggle and roll their way over there and free themselves. By then, we should be well on our way.”

Shade turned to Arconde’ly and said, “Fine, but I’m taking their boots. They don’t need to travel too fast.”

Felarion answered Gladiola, “I see, indeed I did misunderstand you. Let us go then and see about these goblins.”

He then nodded at Arconde’ly’s suggestion. “Sounds like a fair chance, given the circumstances. They deserve nothing more, and for helping us with some information, they deserve this little bit of a chance anyway.” Felarion looked over at the horses that Shade gathered, to see if they might all be able to ride.

After about fifteen minutes Cincinatus groggily woke and within another fifteen minutes he was fit to travel. Shade, in the meantime, was able to round up a total of five horses for all to travel on. As the party continued westward on horseback, Shade related his story now that he was out of range of the thugs.

Shade began, “I was born and raised in Misthaven by my mother until I turned the age of five winters. My father loved my mother but could not leave the Great Silver and my mother would not have been welcomed to live among ‘the people’. The goblin wars came at that time and she was killed. My father never came to see me after that.

“I’ve travelled to many different places but Misthaven and Oakendale are the places I call home. You see, I am a performer. There is not a feat I cannot do with a sword or dagger. I am a storyteller and poet. I chose to travel with you because you were out of the ordinary for Oakendale and I knew there would be story to be taken from this adventure. All of you will live forever in the tales I will tell future generations. I am a bard of sorts but also I have had to learn the ways of a warrior so as to protect the carnivals I have travelled with. The story I told you about the half-ogre, Maug, is a true one.

“As for Zarcodious, he is a cruel, merciless, and yes, powerful ruler of Vernain, the great northern city. I have no love for the man as he inflicts his will upon any man, loyal or not. If Dain works for Zarcodious, you can be sure there is a good reason. Any ruler will only employ those that can get the job done and done quickly. You can bet Dain will not be so easily thwarted next time.”

Shade stretched in the saddle and continued, “As for my actions with the highwaymen back there, it was simple. You weren’t going to get any information out of that one fellow. If you play to the fears of the coward and show him what will become of him, he will gladly tell all. Besides, they would have done worse to us without blinking an eye. I hope that satisfies your curiosity. If you wish to know more let me know.”

The party travelled for about an hour and the horizon gave way to a tree line and soon they reached the edge of the forest. Dangerous dark clouds loomed to the west and the smell of rain was in the air.

Shade turned to them and said softly, “We’re only a hour away from the lake. We’ll have to take it a little slower now. At least the rain will wipe away our tracks if Dain tries to follow us.”

Felarion replied, “Somehow, if he is as persistent as you seem to think, I doubt that will delay him for long, but as you also said, we know to expect him now, and will be ready. These trees would provide good shelter from the rain, but I think we should continue riding for now.”

Arconde’ly, had been listening to the story, and discovering a little more about his newfound companion, watched Shade and Gladiola, looking at each intently. “I am sorry for your loss, friend Shade. I, too, know of such pain. Your actions and words speak as clearly as a springtime rain is pure. We all have something that we don’t necessarily want everyone to know, and other things should be shared if they are known. Gladiola,” Arconde’ly turned his head to her, “Lady of the forest, you seem quite upset at Dain and his actions. It is obvious that he wants you for some reason, and wants the rest of us dead. I only wish I knew why…”

Arconde’ly sighed a little. “I was drawn to you, Gladiola, by a dream given to me by Tymora. I am to accompany you, and to take part in whatever lies ahead with you. By Tymora’s Grace, She will guide us straight and true.

“I am also a man of honour, but only to those deserving of such honour. Shade, we are very similar in our thinking. There is few in life I call ‘friend’. I would like to extend this honour to all of you, as it is apparent that we are together for a reason. I would like to fight along beside you, protecting what is dear and precious: life and our way of life. By Tymora!”

The party entered the canopy of the forest and soon the sounds of forest birds, frogs, crickets, and other sounds filled Gladiola’s ears. To some, it was just sounds. To the elves it was the sweetest of ballads. It was only five minutes into the woods when it started to rain. It was soft at first, but it got heavier until a steady downpour rushed in.

Where the trees were providing some shelter from the rain, it now seemed as though the trees themselves were pouring the precious liquid onto the party. It was not long before each of them was soaked to the skin. It felt good as it was a rather warm rain and refreshed Gladiola. The rain had made it harder to travel as the soil did not soak up the torrent as fast as it fell. The horses slipped a few times.

With the dark clouds overhead it was hard to see and sometimes difficult to determine which way the party was travelling. But as the companions made their way west the rain eased some – though the sky had started to darken. Almost without warning, the trees gave way to a clearing ahead and it abruptly dropped off into a cliff. Some one hundred feet below the lake stretched before the eyes of Gladiola. She could barely make out a treeline to the southwest. To the northwest she saw nothing but water for as far as she could see.

Shade spoke, and there was a solemn tone to his voice, “There is a settlement just north of here. I wasn’t sure where we would come out at the lake but I know exactly where I am now. We will have safe shelter for the night and fresh food in our bellies before we sleep tonight!” A smile crossed his lips and he started to whistle a light-hearted melody.

Felarion replied, “Then lead on friend Shade, so that we might find a place to rest for the night.” Felarion’s eyes strayed to the beauty of the lake, and the thought, that this would probably be another thing of beauty destroyed by those whose hearts were evil, strayed through his head.

The sky seemed to be clearing some and only patches of clouds remained. The sun was starting to set and only half an hour of sunlight would touch the east side of the lake. The sun glanced off the water as if passing through a prism and the trunks and leaves of the trees seemed to glitter and sparkle with light. It was no wonder why the lake was called “The Lake of Facets”.

Gladiola was wide-eyed, taking in the sight of what she saw within the forest, and now the spectacle that was present before her. It was beautiful, more beautiful than any crystal she had seen, than any of the precious stones that she had seen in the human lands. Secretly she told herself that one day, when the supposed goblin threat was taken care of, she would return to play and laugh by the lake. One day.

Her eyes turned to look at Shade up ahead. Her thoughts went to what he had spoken just a few hours ago. It was disturbing that they shared a common heritage, though he was not fully a child of the forest. She too, used to think little of humans. They were like little tinder flares that burnt quickly and were extinguished, consumed by their driving desire to achieve something great in their short life.

The children of the forests were sustained by the land itself, were strengthened by their ties to life, were uplifted by the very hand of Silvanus himself. They were like glowing embers, giving out warmth for an eternity. Well beyond the petty squabbles of the humans who had encroached upon their land, taking away the forests, building for themselves houses of wood and mud.

Then of course, there was Sir Hectar. She really could not understand how she had come to be so besotted by this human. Perhaps it was in the gentleness he treated her. Perhaps it was in the beautiful manner of speech when he called out her name. Perhaps – perhaps it was just simply something she herself could not explain.

Perhaps it was good that Sir Hectar went as he did. If they had both joined in the union of marriage, their children would be like Shade – unaccepted by both societies. But there again, they were both of noble heritage. Things might have been different. But it was useless to think upon that now. She looked away from Shade, and ahead of her.

The party came to a small town, approaching it from the south. Shade told the party the name of the town – Socktaw. Shade decided to find them shelter in the back room of a stable as the inn might attract too much attention.

Felarion said, “Finally, we can stop. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am glad we finally have arrived somewhere where we can relax a little bit, though we might still wish to post a guard.” Felarion quickly plopped down on some straw in the corner.

Arconde’ly was busy unpacking his bedroll and other minor belongings. While unpacking, he turned to Shade, and asked, “Shade, you seem to know a little of this town. If there were ill dealings from the west by the goblins, would someone here hear about them? Mayhaps there be a rumour or two floating around. We may be weary from travel, but if Dain has come through here, he is one step ahead of us, and could be planning another attack on our fair lady here. Mayhaps we could learn if someone has noticed him here as well…”

Arconde’ly surveyed the stable. How many entrances and exits are there, and any windows and chimneys and hatches in the floor? He thought to himself.

Shade turned to Arconde’ly. “I do know a little of this town and have spent some time here in my travels. I’ll check around the inns and taverns this evening to see if Dain has been around here and ask a few questions about local rumours of goblins and such. I’ll see what I can find out.” With that, Shade slipped out into the darkness of the small town of Socktaw.

Arconde’ly watched as Shade slipped out silently through the stable entrance. The smell of horses was not too strong, as the stable boy seemed to keep the place well-cleaned. He noticed that there was a slight breeze blowing in from off the lake, and took a deep draught of the fresh air. He then turned to the others.

“My lady, try to get some rest. It may be a while before we see a town again, and be protected from the elements as we are.”

Gladiola nodded and started looking for a comfortable place to rest. Soon she had dropped off into the silent sleep of elves, the memories running themselves in her head, the many things of the past and perhaps even of the future keeping their vigil.

Arconde’ly then turned to Felarion, who was busy tending to his personal belongings, yet watching the doorway intently.

“Felarion, I know that you must be weary after staying up for watch, then trudging through a burning forest in the middle of the night. I will take a watch with you. I want to pull my weight with guard watch as well.”

Felarion replied, “I thank you, for despite my weariness, I would never forego my duty to watch our backs.”

Chapter 8: The New Party

It was late evening and the clouds from the earlier shower had dissipated some. The lights reflecting off the lake danced upon the western walls of the village buildings. Almost every wall facing the west had been painted white to enhance the beautiful lights giving the town an almost magical glow if approaching from the north or south.

As the sun settled below the surface of the lake to the west, the residents of Socktaw started to make their way to their homes and inns. Shade slipped out of the stable and wound his way through the few small streets made his way to the “Pickled Gnome” tavern and eatery. As he entered, a few old acquaintances of Shade’s waved a hello. Shade, with a smile on his face, strutted up to the bar counter and said to the keep, “I’ll take that mead you owe me, Landon,” and winked to the barkeep.

“Well I’ll be tied to a stake and licked by the dragon. I thought you’d be worm food by now you misbegotten half-human!” The burly brown-haired man behind the counter roared as he poured the half-elf a tankard of the thick honey-coloured liquid. “Where have you…”

Shade quickly lifted a finger and stopped his friend from continuing. He looked around and after spotting an old dwarven friend in the corner, turned back to the barkeep and said loud enough for all to hear, “I thought I smelled a Glovehammer!” Shade then turned to his old dwarven buddy and lifted his tankard! “Keep the hair on your chin and off of your toes!” And with that Shade drank deeply.

Sitting at a table by himself was a fairly tall, thin man. He had long black hair and startling green eyes. His pale complexion contrasted greatly with the dark black clothing he wore. The only bit of colour on him was a seemingly plain long sword at his waist. The man’s clothing was simple but finely made. Sipping from a glass of wine, the man listened half-heartedly to the conversation. He laughed not once at the jibes the dwarf and the man made.

Besides him, Fleetfoot also watched the half elf enter with interest, and took a quick look around to see who else was watching this exchange between the half elf Shade and the dwarf named ‘Glovehammer.’

Gravel looked up, a bemused look on his face, “You’re telling me to keep me hair on my chin. Maybe you should start to grow some on your own chin. That way you would look older than 12 and might have some luck with the ladies.”

Gravel wore splint mail armour and carried a shield with a beer mug emblem on it. He had long blonde hair that was braided on the sides. Topped off with a horned helmet he looked like a Viking warrior. He carried a battle-axe and a War Hammer at his side and had his equipment in a backpack.

Gravel’s head and stomach started to bob because he had broken into a fit of laughter. The only thing Shade did manage to hear was “Ale boy, get me some ale before I die of thirst”.

Shade looked at the funny little dwarf and said to the barkeep, “Landon, if you don’t get this ugly, hairy, little halfling an ale, you’re liable to get the whole placed cursed!” Shade placed a gold piece on the bar.

“You calling me a hairy halfling, the cheek of this lad! At least I be old enough to grow some hair lad, I bet your still as smooth and bald as nippers back side down below!” Gravel then let out a hearty laugh before leaning forward and clasping his friend on the shoulder.

“How have you been old friend? Squashed any goblins lately… and if not, why not?” Shade waited for his reply and decided to press the issue of maybe doing it again.

“I’ve been good lad, though I have not done much squishing lately as all them bad guys been staying out of my way!” Gravel replied.

“You know, I have some friends that are wanting to do just that sort of thing. If you’ve a mind to get a little messy, then I know how you can quench THAT thirst.” Shade kept an eye out for anyone taking an uncommonly strong interest in the dwarf and his conversation, noting them down in his mind.

“Well I am defiantly up for some squishing as I am suffering from withdrawal symptoms, if ya know what I mean. Not only that TEMPUS demands blood, and I shall give it to him!” With that said Gravel took a large swig of his ale, “When do we leave lad?”

Landon laughed at the mirth the two old comrades seemed to share and pulled each of them their desired drink. Shade noticed a person of mixed blood watching intently as he and the dwarf exchanged good-hearted insults and calmly nodded to him acknowledging his presence. He turned back to the conversation at hand.

“Well, do you think you’re up to a little rough and tumble with those skanky little vermin… not that I would need the help of a warrior as poorly trained as you obviously have been.” He snickered out the side of his mouth.

At a table by himself, the tall dark-clad figure looked at shade. His green eyes had a piercing, discerning look to them as though he had little trust in the fellow at the bar. The man’s thick black hair swayed slightly as he lifted his head and began to speak in a sturdy sure voice. “You there, at the table. Tell me of the goblins of which you speak. If they trouble the people I shall rid the world of them and make all safe for the defenceless.” Kertai eyed the rogue carefully as he slowly took a sip from his glass of wine.

Shade looked from his friend, Gravel, to the dark-clad figure and said wryly, “Well, if you’re planning the Goblin genocide, then you’ve come to the right place.” He looked back to Gravel and gave him a wink.

“Do you plan to do this by yourself, or are you looking to accept a little help in the demise of the Goblin race?” He asked matter-of-factly. “If you have planned on it alone then we have a problem, because Gravel and I have already called Dibs. If not, you must swear an oath of alliance with us.”

“By the way, I love your tailor.” Shade brushed aside his own black cloak to reveal the black silks he wore beneath it. The hilt of his long thin blade gleamed at his side.

The dark-clad warrior stood and walked toward the man at the table. At his belt was a seemingly plain, but well-made sword with a worn leather grip. Small burn marks could be seen on the hilt. The man had the stride of a warrior and the peculiar gait of one accustomed to riding horses. Finishing his wine, the man set the glass on the bar and sat next to Shade. His fierce green eyes sized the man and his companion up.

Turning to Shade, the warrior spoke. “I am known as Kertai Moonwarden. Your companion over there seems reliable enough and if he can tolerate you I assume that I can as well. Please, let us go to these goblins and take care of them.” Kertai’s face retained its stern look as he sat at the bar.

Shade rested his arm upon the bar and sized the man up intently. “It takes more than a quick sword. You are willing to die for this? How do I know your words are not mere words? I’m not familiar with your name, though I am familiar with your bearing and dress. I’ll not question your honour or loyalty once it is given so what makes you want to do this?”

Kertai spoke calmly to Shade, slightly pleased that the man noticed him as a man of status. “On the day that I was knighted I swore an oath to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Should these goblins be troubling people they must be taken care of. Besides, not all knights are lucky enough to have a storyteller along to tell of their deeds. Even less often is the storyteller able to take care of himself in the battle as well.

“I give you my oath as a knight that my objective in ridding the land of these goblins is to make the world a safer place for those who cannot do it themselves. I would be most pleased to travel with you, Shade the Blade. Forgive my mocking of you for I did not notice you at first.” With that Kertai ordered another glass of wine. “When shall we be off to take care of these villainous beasts?” Kertai asked in his usual stern manner.

Shade smiled widely at Kertai’s knowing of him and his stories. “No offence taken, young knight.” He turned to Landon and proffered another gold coin for Kertai’s wine and turned back to the knight. “The night is early and we have need of rest. I also have business with Landon, here. Please have a seat and enjoy a meal.”

After listening to the exchange between Kertai and Shade, Fleetfoot stood, and grasped his bow and back pack. He slowly approached the three fighters, set his pack down and with a nod and a slow smile and quietly stated, “Greetings, my name is Einier Troy, called ‘Fleetfoot’ by some. If you are serious about eliminating the goblin scourge, you will need the skill and knowledge of one familiar with the forests. I grew up in the forests and have a strong arm to lend to your cause. I too would gladly fight with stalwart comrades to reduce the threat of the vermin.”

As he finished his outburst, he held his right hand out to Shade for a handclasp, and Shade could see that his green eyes had turned hard and his smile mischievous.

As he rested his unstrung bow in front of him, Shade could see that he wore bracers on his wrists, and the symbol of Mielikki hanged from a leather thong around his neck. He wore a green headband, which matched his cloak and his black hair was clean and combed back into a long ponytail. There was the slight smell of the forest about him.

Shade turned sharply to the new face and introduced himself. “And I am Shade,” turning and winking at Kertai, “‘the Blade’, a pleasure to meet you. I take it from your garb that you are a ranger or woodland warrior.”

Shade extended his hands and clasped forearms with the half-elf in the manner of warriors. “That was quite a speech. Most rangers I known don’t talk that much, but, to each their own. Yes, you are right, we are in need of one with knowledge of the local forestlands and the creatures that live there. I grew up around here and I am aware of most of these nasties but if you can track and cover tracks then you will be a useful ally.”

Shade motioned toward a table, “Please have a seat, I’ll be right back.” He then turned and moved behind the bar and back through the door to the kitchen area, motioning for Landon to follow.

Shade was gone for about fifteen minutes and then returned. He looked to those gathered around the table and said it was time to leave. All had a fairly decent meal. Shade was carrying a large sack that smelt wonderful.

Shade led them all out the front door but soon cut down a back alleyway zigzagging his way to the local stable. He made a mental note to speak to Kertai and Gravel about trying to silent their armour or not wear it in town.

As Shade stepped through one of the side entrances of the stable Felarion’s greeting almost surprised him. It was with a sword near his throat. Seeing that it was Shade, Felarion lowered the blade and let them all enter.

Felarion said, “Well it is about time you returned. Enjoy yourself did you?”

“I have news of the area but introductions should come first.” Shade replied. In turn, Shade introduced the newcomers to the enchanting Gladiola, the pious but stalwart Arconde’ly, the brave and clever Felarion, Cincinatus, the noble warrior, and the shy but annoying Fremlin named Squeek.

“This is Sir Kertai Moonwarden, Knight of the realm,” acknowledging his rank and status first as was customary. “Gravel Glovehammer, a good friend and cleric of Tempus, and this is Einier Troy, also known as Fleetfoot, a ranger and woodsman.”

Fleetfoot followed Shade, Gravel and Kertai out to the stables. At the appearance of a sword at his new companion’s throat, he tensed up momentarily, but relaxed when it was withdrawn. He nodded and eyed the new group of people he had been introduced to, smiling at each, or clasping hands.

Upon seeing Gladiola, he blushed slightly, and looked down quickly so as not to stare at the forest elf’s beauty. At the introduction of Squeek, the Fremlin, his eyes got round and he smiled as he looked at the tiny humanoid. At least not all of his companions were city bred!

Gravel stood with his arms crossed over his chest eyeing the new comers wearily. Gravel stayed silent for a few moments before glancing at Shade and then to the new comers. He then dropped his hands to his sides and spoke, “Well met, if ya be friends of Shade then ya be friends of mine as well.”

Felarion nodded as each one of the people was introduced. “Welcome to our little band,” turning back to Shade, “I hope you brought some food back with you.”

After the introductions, Shade unpacked the wonderful smelling food prepared by the folks at the inn. He said, “Enjoy. This may be our last hot meal for a while.” Felarion said in response, “Thank god, I am starving.” He then took a portion of the food and began eating.

Fleetfoot sat with the others and ate sparingly of the food offered to him, having already eaten and preferring fruits and vegetables to meat when available.

Kertai’s green eyes sized up each person as they were listed off, giving an odd look at Squeek. As his own name was spoken, Kertai nodded his head slightly. The long, thick, black hair on his head barely swayed. The black-clad warrior looked about the room cautiously, seemingly expecting an attack. Despite this, the rest of his body seemed relaxed as he stood in the stable.

Gladiola got up upon seeing Kertai and curtseyed. It was a practised curtsey, gentle and refined yet majestic, one taught to all noble girls by their mothers. Except this was no human woman. She was an elf, her fair skin and sharp features, as well as her ears, betraying her racial heritage.

She smiled at the new people before her and silently wondered at Gravel. In her century of life in the Great Silver, she had never met a dwarf before, though she had seen one when she was very young, supposedly a friend of one of the children of the forest. Which in itself was rare, for dwarves and elves had never really had much in common.

Arconde’ly, dressed in a tunic covering his chain mail armour, and his two-handed war hammer by his side, rose from his bedroll, and approached the group.

“I am Arconde’ly MyLaen, a seeker of truth and wisdom, and a devotee to Tymora, Blessed Goddess. If ‘The Blade’ trusted you enough to bring you here, then so can I trust you the same. I extend my welcome to you all.”

Arconde’ly looked at each man in turn, then extended his right hand in greeting. “May the blessings of Tymora be on us all!”

Kertai greeted the priest courteously, shaking his hand. “I am most pleased to meet you good priest,” he said, nodding his head slightly, “I am glad to see that one of your calibre is with this group.” Kertai then leant back against a wall and watched the party somewhat silently, once again sizing each person up.

Arconde’ly turned to Shade, a look of concern in his eye. “Friend Shade, any news on our would-be assassin and his hired help? I don’t believe in living in fear of any man, only from judgements of the Immortals. But, a man who knows more than he should about our companion, is a man to be reckoned with. What say you, Blade?”

Shade revealed that through his contact he had heard of the goblin armies to the west, but that since the goblins were driven back only about twelve summers ago, it would be unlikely that those rumours were true. Shade had told his contact that the goblins were allied with other races such as ogres and hobgoblins and might be moving this way. His contact had said he would advise the town council. Shade told him that they were heading to Misthaven, just north of the place about a day’s travel and he would warn the people there. His contact had heard nothing concerning the involvement of the northern city of Vernain, nor had he heard anything about the presiding ruler, King Zarcodious, but would not put anything past the that unscrupulous tyrant. Shade said that was all he had as far as information went from around there.

After a long night and a more restful sleep than should be warranted, the group gathered their things about them. Kertai made his way to the inn the night before and gathered his belongings and held a silent vigil along with Cincinatus and Shade. He had decided if he was to belong to this group, it would be in his and their best interest if he were to do an equal amount in the duties of all in the group. It had not been that long ago that he had been only a squire, himself, and all of the unpleasantries fell upon his shoulders.

Even after the night’s events and the many questions that were going through each person’s mind, rest finally came to even Squeek. The little Fremlin was most intent on studying the young knight. The knight seemed very angry but Squeek did not know how to approach him and was indeed, a little scared of the stern-looking man.

Upon the coming of the morning, Cincinatus talked to the beautiful princess, and told her that runners should be sent back to the east to warn the folks of the impending danger. As Squeek was able to move quickest, he should be sent to the Elven forest, and himself, to the human lands to the east, including Oakendale and the lands far to the east where Arconde’ly hailed from. He stated that he would leave his mount for Gravel Glovehammer to ride with the group to expedite the gathering of information.

Shade looked to Gladiola and said, “We need to get on the road soon. Our mounts are ready.” Shade then looked to Cincinatus. “You can probably get a decent mount from Landon, at the inn down the street. Mention my name and that the matter is urgent. He should be able to do something.”

With that, the young warrior turned and headed for the door. Squeek took his instructions from Gladiola to fly straight to the “Great Silver” and warn her people of the news. She wrote it down on a piece of parchment and sealed it, then wrapped the parchment in an oilskin to protect it. She then placed a seal on it with a pendant she retrieved from her pack.

Felarion looked to Squeek and Cincinatus and bid them good luck, before turning back to the others “Let us get going then, I feel much better after a good night’s sleep. I suggest we allow someone who is decent at tracking and fighting to take the lead, while some of us fighters take up the rear, allowing those who use magic to be guarded in the middle.”

Fleetfoot gathered his gear and selected a short sleeve shirt of a deep forest green to wear. He then sat down to inspect his arrows for loose fletchings and straightness of his arrows, making sure all were well with his equipment. He stated, “I have no mount, but if someone can take my gear I’ll scout ahead on foot.” Fleetfoot then got an extra bowstring from his pack, and tucked it in a pouch. With bow in hand and his sword on his hip he waited for the rest of the party.

In the early morning, Kertai awoke and moved to one of the horses in the stable. “Good morning, Midnight,” he whispered to the huge night-black horse, petting its muzzle. Noticeable in the stall with the large, muscular horse was a long black lance with a black pennon on the tip. Some sort of device was on it, but was difficult to discern. Feeding the horse a carrot that he had saved from his meal at the inn the night before, Kertai softly brushed the horse’s sides until its coat shone, smiling all the while.

After the horse was brushed, he laid a dark blanket across its back and attached the saddle and bags, tying a bedroll to the back. Finally he attached the bit and bridle and led the horse from the stall. The creature stood tall. It moved almost gracefully for such a large well-muscled creature. Its coat and the gear on it shone with care.

After caring for his horse, Kertai moved over to his gear and began setting out an exquisitely made set of pure-black plate. Then, as if to anyone listening, the dark warrior asked, “Would someone be willing to assist me in suiting up?”

Shade, taking the last watch for the night, had already sharpened all of his daggers and his rapiers. He took special care in shining them to a brilliant spotless shine. Even a silver mirror would seem smudged in comparison. He ate what the Fremlin had left from night before and had cleaned the area where the companions slept, careful not to disturb anyone.

As the others gathered their things to leave, Shade assisted Kertai with his armour. He slipped a couple of times with the armour but managed fairly well as his eyes wandered to the beast just a few paces away. He composed himself and said to Kertai, “You have a truly magnificent mount Sir Kertai. Rarely have I seen such a powerful and spirited beast. One day, I too will have such a horse, but I have not as yet taken the time to learn to actually commune with an animal and make it truly mine nor me, his. I am familiar with horses and training them and I can tell he is steady.”

First, Kertai tied back his long black hair into a ponytail. Carefully Kertai pulled on a suit of thin, dark leather. Then he donned a suit of black chain. After this was completed, the dark warrior began strapping on jet-black pieces of plate, with dark leather straps.

Finally suited up in his black platemail, the warrior strapped on his black belt and sheathed his ordinary-seeming sword in it. Kertai then pulled out a cloak, seemingly made from the night sky. Stars covered its black surface and he held it on with a silver clasp that looked like the crescent moon. As his last step the warrior donned a black helm with a visor.

Kertai chuckled slightly at Shade’s words. “Actually, good Shade, SHE is quite steady. Thank you for the compliment. Not all can appreciate a truly great mount. I did train Midnight myself.” Pausing momentarily, Kertai continued, smiling slightly speaking of his mount, “The truth be known, she trained me as much as I trained her. Over a year it took me to get her to even let me ride her, and longer than that to put a saddle on her. Still have failed to convince her to allow another to ride her, should I not be there. She truly is a spirited beast.”

His armour readied, Kertai looked to Shade, his dark mood seemingly returned. “Thank you for your aid. Should you want assistance learning the ways of horses I would be agreeable to teaching you. Also, I shall keep my eye out for a horse of high calibre for you.” With that Kertai moved off to his horse.

Grabbing the lance from his horse’s stall, the pennon unfurled to show a bright crescent moon. Kertai leant the lance against the stable wall and mounted his horse. Now, he truly looked the knight he claimed to be. Kertai’s black armour shone, as did his mount. “I am ready to depart,” the warrior stated matter-of-factly, grabbing his lance.

Felarion just shook his head at the knight, wondering to himself why anyone would waste so much time with such bulky finery, and commented, “Well, if we have need of an anchor or something, then we will know who to turn to!”

Kertai looked with scorn at Felarion. His green eyes shone with anger from below his raised visor. “If you wish to challenge me, you shall see the usefulness of a knight’s accoutrements. Otherwise, you had best not mock me so.” the knight said. His words were calm and straightforward, but in no way kind. The knight loosened his sword in its sheath and looked at Felarion, waiting for a reply. The dark horse below him shook its head and snorted, seemingly sensing its rider’s tension.

Chapter 9: Towards Misthaven

Felarion simply waved the knight off. “Fighting amongst ourselves is not what this group is about, that attitude of yours could be dangerous to us all. Loosen up a little.” Felarion simply turned his back on the ‘tin can’ and got ready to leave. Kertai was about to inform Felarion in the higher points of honour when Shade interrupted him.

Shade gave a quick glance to Felarion and shook his head at him as if to say “Don’t provoke him,” but it seemed to go unnoticed. He turned to Kertai. “Not all of us are versed in manners of etiquette, but what might be said in this instance is… Here we are all equals. No one person outranks the other in this band though we do this for the lady Gladiola and her people. It matters not whether she is a princess or not. Here, she is one of us just as you, a knight, have sworn to help us in our cause.”

Shade looked to Gladiola. “I have come to this knowledge after much contemplation on my own after the events of the past few days. Forgive me for my rudeness, My Lady.” Turning back to Felarion, he continued, “And your treatment of Kertai is much the same, Felarion.” With that said, Shade asked to be excused by Kertai and returned to his own mount and readied it.

Gladiola was busy reading her books and studying the many arcane symbols etched upon its pages. It looked like a treatise on certain matters of sorcery. With her eyes closed, her beautiful hands turned each page and touched each symbol carefully. The sounds of the forest, the cries of the birds, the chattering of the squirrels, the sounds she loved and enjoyed so much just ran through her, and the magical energies surrounded her, bathing her in its glory. If she had heard Shade, she did not show it.

Felarion turned as he heard Shade addressing him, and shrugged. “Then, so be it. Those who cannot take a jest, aren’t worth getting to know, and I only act respectful to those that I have seen earn it.” Done speaking, Felarion turned away.

Shade just shook his head sadly and turned to his friend, Gravel. “I hope you don’t mind riding. It is quickest right now. I’ll help get your mount ready.”

Gravel looked at Kertai and then Felarion and shook his head. Looking up at Shade Gravel mumbled “This is all we need, bickering amongst ourselves and we haven’t even left yet damn it. Where’s the me mount lad I’m setting off.”

Gravel then turned his head to the rest of the group. “Are you lot coming or what?” Gravel then stomped off with Shade.

Arconde’ly gathered his personal items in silence as he listened to the conversation between his friend and the newly met knight.

“You know,” he said to all in the stable, “it is a great honour for me to meet some people I now consider friend, and to meet others whom I will come to know as time passes on. It is, however, quite a drawdown on my spirit to hear the lot of you make comments to others that are simply unnecessary. Sir Kertai, your bearing is an inspiration, but the choice life you live may not appeal to others in this group.

“Felarion, you have proven your devotion to our cause with strength and good wit. I pass no judgement save this: If it harms none, then do what you will. If you cannot respect this, then I say fare thee well, and part in peace. If, on the other hand, one can respect what another does, even if they do not necessarily agree with it themselves, then may the blessings of Tymora and all Immortals go to thee.”

With that said, Arconde’ly headed to the stable entrance, belongings on his back, looking to the street ahead of him.

Felarion heard Arconde’ly’s comment, and shook his head in disbelief, as all his companions suddenly turned against him, thinking he was in the wrong for some reason. Turning to Arconde’ly, he said “I said nothing about not respecting what the knight does, or even simply how he does it. I simply made a jest in good humour, and was responded to with anger and a challenge.

“If,” addressing all his old companions, “all of you feel somehow that I am in the wrong in some way, then I will leave now and trouble you no more. Never have I been held in such accusation over a simple jest.” Felarion then remained where he was, until someone responded to his statement, no longer willing to continue as if the conversation never happened, as he was originally willing to do, with everyone acting as if he killed someone in cold blood.

Seeing the bickering among his new companions, Fleetfoot watched with some trepidation, as he had never associated with many people at one time and was now apprehensive about what was to come. The stories his foster parents told him, as he grew up, never indicated that the members of the same party would fight. He always thought, that as a group, the adventurers would become more than just friends. He had also hoped he would get a chance to get to know and learn about the Fremlin Squeek, but it did not look that way now.

He felt a little disappointment and he hoped the minor bickering would resolve itself, without bothering the beautiful elf, Gladiola. She seemed to have much on her mind, what with the goblins, wizards and assassins…crap, assassins. Oh boy, is this how a grand adventure is supposed to start?

He sighed silently as he grasped his bow and donned his pack. He followed Shade and Gravel, looking back to make sure everyone was joining them, and nothing was left behind. He wondered if he should ask the dwarven cleric to carry his pack on his horse for him, and decided to ask, “Gravel, I can scout ahead for the group if I’m not too encumbered, have you room to carry my pack on your horse?”

Waiting for a reply, he smiled a half smile as he remembered he would be well in front, seemingly alone, and would not have to feel the tension of discord among his companions. Once again, he would be able to do what he loved most, snooping around the countryside. Only he would not be ‘playing’ at defeating the goblins…or assassins.

Irritated at himself for letting the knight get under his skin, Felarion tried to make an effort to make the new members feel welcome to the group. Hearing the request made by Fleetfoot, Felarion replied, “If you like, I can carry your pack on my horse for now.”

Fleetfoot turned to the voice and smiled to himself as he realised it was Felarion that had made the offer. With a nod he handed his pack to Felarion and let him tie it to his horse. He looked Felarion in the eye and with a wry smile said, “Thank you, my friend. I hope it doesn’t cause you trouble.” He patted Felarion on the shoulder as he quietly stepped away, truly looking forward to getting on the road with his new friends.

Felarion responded, “Not a problem, glad to help.” Felarion then turned in the direction of the knight, as he saw him approaching. Kertai rode over to Felarion and took off his helm. Dismounting, Kertai began to speak to Felarion in an unassuming and non-hostile manner.

“I apologise, Felarion, for my quick action. To a knight, his armour is a part of him and tied to his honour. My honour is the most important thing I have and I take no thing lightly which seems to mar it. If it were a knight who would have said such a thing, he surely would have wished to challenge me. I know now that you meant nothing ill by your remark and I wish to put it behind us.” Having said that, Kertai put out his arm to shake Felarion’s hand.

Felarion relaxed. “Thank you, and I too apologise, for I did not understand that in joking about your armour, I was actually offending you. It seems we have gotten off to the wrong start here, and I agree that we should just put the matter behind us, if you are willing to do so. Again my apologies, for I did not understand the true extent of the meaning of the armour, or I would not have made such a jest.

“Making jests is merely my way getting to know people, but I will try not offend you in the future, fair enough?” Felarion extended his own hand atop the knight, so they shook, and went on. After shaking Felarion’s hand, Kertai re-fastened his helm and re-mounted his tall, black horse.

Arconde’ly, watching Kertai and his friend make amends, beamed a smile towards the group. “My words were harsh, my friend. This incident was taken a little too seriously. Let us make speed, for the day is already here!” Arconde’ly let out a laugh. “Felarion, I never knew you had a sense of humour, with that serious face of yours. It is good to know it is there…”

Felarion grinned. “Too much seriousness can make a life dull.” Felarion then headed to the back of the group, to protect the rear, seeing how most of the other fighters were up front. Arconde’ly moved to travel in the middle, staying near Gladiola, in case he was needed to defend her from attacks that might get through their defences.

Kertai moved his horse over to the fair Gladiola and dismounted. He was glad that his features were hidden by the helmet as he heated from looking at her beauty. “My lady, dost thou have a ride? I would be most willing to share my mount with thee if you approve.” That said, the young knight sat before the maiden, awaiting her answer.

Gladiola opened her eyes, the magical energies rapidly dissipating from her as she heard the voice of a human. She opened her eyes to see the human knight before her. His dark armour hid his features, and she could not see his eyes and his face. For a moment she was startled by the dark figure before her, but she remembered the Kertai from the night before. She nodded her head and stretched forth her hand, for the knight to support in getting up form her sitting position.

“Milord, Gladiola would be pleased to ride upon your beast.”

The knight grabbed his shield from the cantle of his saddle and his lance from up against the wall. “Let us be on our way then,” he said in a calm voice, as he raised his visor. The knight then moved out after Shade.

The black-armoured warrior led his large horse towards Shade. His lance rested in his stirrup, the black pennon moving gently in the breeze. The black horse Kertai was leading was at least a hand taller than any other and moved with grace despite its burden. As Kertai approached Shade, he began to speak. “Shade, I would prefer it if I knew more about this goblins that I have sworn to destroy. Where do they come from, what are their numbers, have they aid from any other creatures, what sort of defences do they have, and what brings this group together to face them?”

Kertai waited patiently with his visor raised, looking about the countryside and wondering how many goblins he must slay. He hoped there would be foes more worth his effort, perhaps an ogre or a giant.

As the newly formed band of adventurers headed north out of town, Shade informed them that there was somewhat of a trail to Misthaven along the east shoreline of the lake, off the beaten road that wound north through the woods. It might be less conspicuous to travel the less travelled trail as mostly just the locals know of it.

Shade started telling Kertai about the goblins. “Actually, Kertai, we are on more of a reconnaissance mission of sorts as the questions you have brought to me are the same ones that we are to find out. It was Gladiola that brought this news to us.

“There were rumours that the goblins had form some unholy alliance with other monster races in an attempt to drive the humans and elves from this land. It was not until recently that we have found out that there may be another behind this. It has been rumoured a certain man of nobility has allied himself with them. We need to find out the truth of this.

We know not their numbers, but as for their defences, goblins usually depend on their vast numbers to turn the tide of any battle. I’m just worried if the hobgoblins, ogres, gnolls, and orcs are involved. Ogres give them strength but hobgoblins and orcs give them intelligence, though limited, and that can be dangerous. It’s easy to out-think a goblin… but add other races that use tactics and we could be in for a long war, a war that will scar this land for over a hundred years.

“It is said they come from the west, from the vast mountainous region called “The Wall”. It is a week’s journey from here. We are going to Misthaven to warn them now.” Shade paused to let the facts sink in and to give Kertai a chance to respond.

Kertai rode along listening to the words of Shade while keeping a lookout for any trouble. The dark knight carried himself with the true bearing of a knight. The warrior nodded several times while listening to Shade’s words. “We shall find out what these goblins are up to then. Should some noblemen be involved, I shall challenge him myself.” Kertai paused for a moment, thinking, and then continued, “What do we know of this town Misthaven? Are there any noblemen around the town?”

Kertai continued on, listening to Shade’s reply. The knight’s black armour gleamed in the sun. The plain sword he carried contrasted greatly with Kertai’s fine armour and weaponry. The plain brown leather hilt was marred by several burns, but it was as finely kept and cared for as the rest of his equipment.

Fleetfoot’s spirits had been high all morning. With the reconciliation of the noble Knight Kertai and Felarion, his outlook for the companions’ future was high. The start of the journey had been beautiful, so far. Following a little known northbound trail that bordered the lake, Fleetfoot enjoyed the fresh smell of the forest and the birdcalls that surrounded him.

He wondered about the dwarf Gravel, his religion, and how his people live. He had never met a dwarf before and vowed to learn as much about him and his people as Gravel was willing to tell. There was so much he wanted to learn about his companions, and he realised that he would not be able to learn it in an instant.

Having travelled the early morning, he decided to get a cool drink from the lake and splashed his face. As he wiped the cooling fluid from his face he glanced back to the South, in the direction of Socktaw village. He saw a huge cloud of what could only be smoke. But wood smoke was white, and this smoke was black! Buildings in the village of Socktaw were burning!

Realising this was not any ordinary wood fire, he quickly turned about and began running back the way he came, wanting to inform his companions of the fire that was apparently coming from the village of Socktaw.

It took only about five minutes for Fleetfoot to come vaulting back towards the group of companions and soon informed them of what he had just witnessed. Black smoke, not white, came from the village where they had been just an hour before. Large billowing streaks across the southern sky were evident as the group looked back above some of the treetops.

Shade looked to Kertai. “I know most of those people back there in Socktaw. There is trouble, I know it! The fire is too big.”

Shade turned to those following and said, “You do not have to go, but I ask you to. Help me help my friends.” Shade whirled his horse around and started for Socktaw at an unbelievable pace, especially through the forest.

Felarion quickly brought his horse to a halt, and changed direction back to where they came from. “I am right behind you Shade.” Felarion then headed after Shade back to the village.

Fleetfoot, not wanting to be left behind, called out, “Hey! Anyone got room for me?” He anxiously waited for a reply and looked to see who turned to him, hesitating with an inviting look.

Gravel looked down at Fleetwood from his mount. “Come on lad you can double up with me.” Gravel waited for Fleetwood to jump on, the dug his heels into the horse and charged after the rest of the party whilst at the same time chanting some kind of war song to Tempus, Lord of Battles.

Arconde’ly, seeing his friends whirl around and head back down the trail they had been taking, turned his head around, and saw black, billowing smoke, snaking into the sky above.

“Lady Gladiola, as much as we need to get to the next town, this one needs our help NOW! I must go after Shade, Felarion and the others. Please join me.”

Gladiola sat atop Kertai’s horse, a worried look on her face. She nodded at Arconde’ly. Her eyes betrayed her concern as she turned towards Kertai. Her voice was steady even amidst the preparations for the emergency, and she spoke softly, “Sir knight, Gladiola understands the need for you to have the horse for yourself. She will ride with Arconde’ly.”

Gladiola dismounted from the horse and waited for Arconde’ly to give her a hand up his horse. She turned to Kertai and smiled. The smile that could light up a thousand candles. This was one woman who knew the connection between a knight and his mount.

Seeing the huge spire of black smoke, Kertai turned his huge mount back around and galloped toward the city. The strong black horse moved quickly for being so large and carrying so much weight.

As the companions drew closer to Socktaw they could now smell the smoke from the village and it was certainly not the smell of wood burning from fireplaces or stoves. Moving over the small crest in the woods just north of town, the dramatic scene of chaos unfolded.

Several buildings were burnt almost to the ground and others were burning with full force. Bodies lay upon the ground as others run frantically from their pursuers. The cause of the fires was now apparent. Goblins, Orcs, and Ogres filled the small streets of this once lustrous village.

Several of the town’s people were still combating the creatures but it was certain the townsfolk would not last long. With the sheer brute force the attackers had hit and with the surprise of the attack, they had taken many lives. Women and children lay dead in the streets or by their front steps. Their fathers either lay beside them or stood fighting protecting their already slain families. If it were not for the stinging smoke already bringing tears to the party’s eyes, the scene lying before would.

Shade, Felarion, and Kertai hit the edge of town first, about 400 yards ahead of the rest of the group, as the rest of the group was just now cresting the hill to view the carnage below.

Tears streaming down his face and the reigns in his teeth, Shade looked briefly around as he entered the fray and charged the largest ogre he could find. He vaulted from his horse, both his rapiers in his hands, trying to impale his target before it got the chance to strike. Only Felarion and Kertai were close enough to see the rage in the half-elf’s eyes as he attacked the ogre like a man possessed by demons.

Pausing only long enough to cast a simple spell of protection upon himself, Felarion followed Shade into battle, drawing his sword as he went. Felarion jumped off his horse as he got closer, and searched for the nearest enemy, trying to sink his sword into its flesh.

When Kertai reached the city, he looked about at the carnage before him for a moment. Then, lowering his visor, the black knight charged toward the largest, nastiest looking ogre he could find. Lowering his lance, Kertai headed straight for the huge creature, ignoring any smaller foes that did not get in his way.

Shade leapt from his horse with one rapier in the left hand and another in the right. The ogre he leapt towards seemed to have heard his horse bearing down on him and stood to face its assailant. The huge ogre swung a mighty fist three times the size of Shade’s head at Shade but only managed to rip a nasty hole in the silks Shade wore over his armour. The silver studs of his armour now showed as he whirled and feinted to one side. He plunged both rapiers to the hilt into the monstrous creature.

The rest of the companions were starting to enter the fray now and they saw Shade’s lethal move and the rapiers’ points protruding from the ogre’s back. The ogre was lifted off its feet with the strength of Shade’s thrust and the sickening thud of the enormous body was heard as it struck the ground. Shade withdrew the narrow blades and headed straight for his next victim.

Kertai, visor down, launched his own assault to the ogre only ten paces from the one Shade was engaged with. The large ogre roared his challenge and ran straight for the ebony-clad knight. Kertai’s aim was true and struck the creature in the chest, slowing his forward motion. As the ogre chieftain slid onto the lance, the knight’s magnificent steed’s right hoof caught the ogre’s left knee, shattering it. In a last attempt, the ogre swung a large club at the knight. It but only glanced off Kertai’s black armour before it then slumped over, its last breath gurgling from the red foam at its mouth.

Felarion also leapt from his horse only to come face to face with two rancid smelling orcs that only smiled their nasty stained yellow smiles and attacked Felarion. He seemed to be struggling to gain his balance after leaping from the horse. Felarion’s ploy worked to draw them in and his long blade swept through the creature’s ribs and nicked the other across the cheek.

The first orc shrieked as the pain of shattered bone registered in its primitive brain. It dropped to one knee trying with all its might to strike at his attacker. The second orc stood amazed at the swiftness of his new enemy for a second and then roared an inhuman howl and swung a rusty nicked longsword at Felarion. The rage of the beast caused it to swing wildly and miss but it regained its composure and stood to take Felarion’s next thrust.

Felarion caught sight of the others coming up over the hill, as he finished off the first orc, and quickly brought his sword back around to the other orc so he could finish him off. Hoping the others would hurry down there, so they could organise an assault on the enemy, Felarion grinned evilly at the orc, hoping to shake its confidence.

Kertai slid his black lance from the bleeding ogre’s chest. Turning his head about slightly he looked about for the remaining creature of might. Steering his mount with his knees, the knight headed out for the huge beast.

Fleetfoot was stunned by the carnage before his eyes. Entire families lay slain outside their homes, men, women and children alike. The rage started to build as he saw goblins, ORCS and ogres. The same evil races responsible for his mother’s death!

As he and Gravel approached the town, he started to scan the area for townsfolk hard pressed by the evil attackers. He told Gravel of his plan to support the defenders with missile fire. He tried to direct Gravel to an area he could do the most damage with his bow, perhaps from a rooftop. He dismounted from the horse and began to shoot, scan and shoot again. His goal was to support any hard pressed townsfolk and companions with well aimed shots of his bow, giving them a better chance of surviving the assault.

Gladiola dismounted from the horse as she surveyed the area about her. The dark denizens of the forests, together with other evil creatures, in cohorts. She had fought alongside Sir Heshtar back in the days of the goblin wars, and the sight of Sir Kertai fighting reminded her much of the man she tried so hard to forget.

It had been so many years, father, she thought to herself. So many years since we had to face the goblins. So many years since he died in my arms, father. Why does Gladiola have to face this again? Deep within her heart, she feared for the lives of her companions – she had lost so many loved ones during the goblin wars. Would she lose her friends again? Would she?

She bit her well-formed lips, its pale pink against her fair skin. The action brought a fresh circulation of blood to her mouth, and it became redder. Gladiola fought back the tears, fought back the memories that rushed back, that seemed to cripple her each and every time she faced decisions. No, she could not fail her companions. She had to focus, to remain in the present. To forget.

She gazed about, looking for perhaps the leader of the ogres. They were the biggest, and normally they would be the ones who bullied the orcs and the goblins into fighting for them. Get them to lose the will to fight, and the battle would be won. She tried to recall the magical incantations but stopped as she remembered something. The spell could not work against ogres. They were too big.

Her fists were tightened in frustration. She hated decisions. She longed for the days when Sir Heshtar was around. He had been a man of boldness and seemed to know just what to do. She had fought alongside him, and his military genius helped turn the tide of war.

She realised that she had allowed her thoughts to drift again. Gladiola! She chided herself. Concentrate! Her beautiful eyes gazed upon the largest ground of orcs running about. There was only one thing her meagre magical training could do. The orcs were quite far away. Her spell was not within range. Turning to Arconde’ly, she said, “Sir, is there any way we could lure a group of orcs towards us?”

Chapter  10: The Fight at Socktaw

Arconde’ly dismounted beside Gladiola and said, “I don’t think we’ll have to go to them. It won’t be long before they’ll be upon us.” Arconde’ly quickly laid his hands upon Gladiola’s shoulder and she started to feel a warmth running through her entire body. “That should give you some protection against these foul creatures.” He then turned back towards the oncoming rush of three goblins.

Gladiola looked up towards the oncoming goblins. They would soon be within range of her spells. With Arconde’ly staying behind to protect her and not rushing to meet them, they would have the advantage.

Kertai slid the limp ogre from his lance and prepared for another charge on one of the two ogres that seemed to have a small problem…Gravel! The short fellow seemed to have two of the ogres swatting the ground trying to get to the annoying dwarf that seemed always to be just out of reach. Gravel also seemed to be having just as much trouble attacking them.

A lady nearby screamed as her child was plucked from her arms by another ogre. It lifted the child above its ugly head and prepared to use it to beat the lady down. Suddenly facing the scene of a child about to be killed by the ogre, Fleetfoot let fly with two arrows, one right after the other. An arrow pierced the ogre’s throat. Then a second hit deep into the ribs of the ogre and the baby fell to the ground screaming, its own mother breaking its fall. The ogre gurgled a defiant scream and headed for the source of the arrows.

Seeing the child fall safely into its mother’s arms, Fleetfoot felt a grim satisfaction that he had made a difference in at least one young life. Only about fifty feet away, Fleetfoot stood, already drawing his sword to try to defend himself. But the ogre’s rage had overcome it. As Fleetfoot tried to side step the ogre’s charge he was caught by a glancing blow from the ogre.

Pain shot through Fleetfoot’s entire left side as the ham-sized fist connected with his shoulder. Feeling the force of the blow and the pain it inflicted, he resolved to keep out of the range of its mighty fists. Fleetfoot regained his composure and whirled to face the injured ogre. Waiting for the pain to subside a bit, he watched intently for a chance to get a swing in without allowing it to get a full forced blow in.

Shade saw the onrushing goblins heading for Arconde’ly and Gladiola and, dropping one sword, spoke a brief spidery incantation. Two daggers of light streaked from his outstretched hand. The first goblin fell face first before Arconde’ly and the second, caught off guard by the attack from behind, staggered and tripped over the first.

Felarion unleashed a violent attack on the second orc as his blades caught it across the shoulder onwards and it fell to the ground.

There was more action down the street but the majority of the monsters about them were either engaged or slain. They had gone straight into the midst of them and totally butchered them. Even now some of the goblins were starting to run.

Gravel reigned his mount to a stop and leapt off. His legs pumped furiously away underneath him as he charged a group of ogres, waving his battleaxe about and screaming out, “TEMPUS I HONOUR YOU WITH THE BLOOD OF MY ENEMIES!” Gravel constantly moved around the ogres and through their legs, keeping them confused.

The smoke and ash swirled around Kertai and his mount, grey on black, as he charged the ogres. The pennant at the end of his lance now hung limp and wet with blood. Noticing the child taken, Kertai paused for a moment. As the arrows sliced into it and the baby was caught by its mother, the black knight continued his charge at the ogres attacking the dwarf.

These beasts shall pay for their crimes, Kertai thought to himself as his steed’s hooves pounded the ground below them. Moments before it should strike, Kertai lowered his lance and aimed it at the closest ogre.

Sword dripping with orcish blood, Felarion scanned the scene looking for trouble spots where he could lend his aid. Gravel and Kertai seemed to have the ogres all right, and Gladiola, Arconde’ly, and Shade seemed to be handling three goblins well. Fleetfoot, on the other hand, looked like he might need a hand. Sword in hand, Felarion moved to aid Fleetfoot with the ogre, hoping to come on it from behind while it was trying to get Fleetfoot.

After casting his spell, Shade reached down and snatched the rapier from the ground. He turned to advance upon his next unfortunate victim. The look in the half-elf’s eyes was cold and undaunting. It was as if he was in a trance and had become untouchable. He swiftly strode down the centre of the street towards the next group of monsters.

His rapiers arced and sliced through the air making a high pitched whistling sound. The sound grew louder as the display of unerring swordsmanship drew the attention of several goblins, orcs and a couple of ogres. His silver blades were already coated a bright crimson from his hapless victim. He turned to the next group and advanced suddenly. With such speed and precision, the nasty humanoids knew they had no chance against such a skilled and fearsome warrior.

The offensive weapons’ display was a bard’s song of battle. That was a Blade’s song, Gladiola realised. She had seen some of the children of the forests moved about like that before, and it was a beautiful and enchanting display of sheer martial powess. As an elfling, she had always been entranced by such a display by an uncle of hers – Quintellon Dandalas. For a moment, she was distracted.

Arconde’ly glanced around to see if any more beasts were heading his way. He turned to crush the fallen goblin near him with his 2-handed war hammer, before turning to Gladiola.

“Lady, let us make haste to help Fleetfoot and Gravel. One of your spells should help out quite well. I’ll check on Fleetfoot while I give that ogre a splitting knee cap it won’t soon forget.”

A smile came across Gravel’s face as he realised the ogres were getting angry because they could not seem to keep up with him. Gravel let out a cry to TEMPUS while at the same time trying to hamstring one of the ogres with his battleaxe.

Gladiola’s constant distractions proved her undoing. One last goblin zipped past Arconde’ly to get to Gladiola. It swung a vicious thorned club at the elf maiden, scratching her delicate skin and tearing her dress from her hip all the way down to the hem of the garment.

Arconde’ly was somewhat surprised by the goblin’s actions, expecting the creature to attack the closest being to it but in attacking the princess, it left itself wide open to an attack from its flank. Arconde’ly swung his mighty warhammer and a bone crushing crunch was heard as the bevelled edge of the hammer hit directly on the goblin’s spine. The injured goblin that fell at their feet just seconds before rose to its feet and took a defensive posture against the imposing priest. Its eyes flashed red as it viewed the elf and her protector.

Inspired by Shade’s display and how the tide of the battle had turned so dramatically the group pressed their advantage swiftly. Shade advanced so swiftly he disappeared into the smoke. Guttural screams could be heard coming from within the clouds of smoke.

Felarion came to Fleetfoot’s aid and the ogre could not press the new half-elf’s back against a wall without leaving its own back exposed. The ogre, still enraged by the arrows protruding from its body, swung violently at Fleetfoot. Fleetfoot almost reeled from the stench of the huge creature as its meaty fist came within inches of his head.

Seeing the ogre off balance to protect itself, both Fleetfoot and Felarion struck at the ogre. Fleetfoot stuck true into the abdomen of the enormous beast as Felarion struck the inside of its left leg severing an artery. Blood pulsed from the ogre’s gaping wounds as it fell, breathing its last breath. Its eyes were clear for only a second and then became vacant.

The two ogres, infuriated with the stout little dwarf at their feet, never heard the dark knight coming. Gravel was taken aback for a split second as he saw the knight appear like a demon through the clouds of smoke and where there had been two ogres, there stood only one now. The end of the deadly lance drove through its unsuspecting victim, pushing it back about thirty feet before Kertai brought the ash covered mare to a halt. It would take Kertai quite some time to disengage the lance from the ogre, from what Gravel could see.

The dwarf himself was faced with one of his deadliest enemies. Glovehammer, knowing it was just him and the huge ogre alone, gritted his teeth and swung. Sinew snapped and bones shattered as the dwarf struck into the side of the ogre’s leg, severing the tendons around the back of the leg. The ogre howled in pain and defiance and brought its club around just above the ground catching the dwarf full in the side. Gravel had expected a furious attack but not one quite so unerring in its placement. The dwarf sailed about twenty feet and rolled to his side. He forced himself to stand, defiance in his own eyes.

Felarion grinned at Fleetfoot. “Another one down, shall we go find some more?” With that said Felarion turned and looked for his companions, at which time he saw Gravel hurtled through the air, and searched for his opponent. Seeing the ogre, and hoping its attention was focused on the dwarf, Felarion tried to circle around the ogre, in hope of aiding Gravel by catching the ogre off guard in the back.

Fleetfoot saluted and grinned in response and thanks to Felarion’s aid and remark. After seeing Gravel hurtle through the air, and the quick response by his companions, he scanned the scene before him before continuing the battle with his evil opponents.

His lance driven deeply into the ogre, the dark knight released it. Kertai and his mount now looked grey from the ash swirling about them. As the dwarf went sailing through the air, Kertai drew out his plain-looking long sword. The warrior and his steed stood ghost-like in the smoke, oddly silent. The warrior directed his horse soundlessly. The two approached the large ogre together, each attacking. Kertai’s sword swung out at the stinking ogre as his mount kicked at it.

The pain shot through her, as Gladiola felt the separation of her flesh, the screaming inside her head waking her up to reality. Her mind returned to the goblin dead before her. She vaguely remembered the cries that came from Arconde’ly, the sounds of crushed bones, and the cries of pain from her assailant. An ancient hatred and an ancient feud. Until the day evil was crushed, there would never be any peace between elves and goblins.

Her right hand went slowly, almost in a daze, to the blood that flowed and stained her white dress, right down to the petticoat within. The wound was light and probably inconsequential, but she had never ever seen her own blood flow in battle before. There had always been someone around to protect her, to shield her. To take the eight arrows meant for her. The eight arrows meant to kill her that fateful day when the man she loved lay dying in her arms.

Gladiola tried to think, tried to clear her mind of the confusing thoughts going through her head. Focus, Gladiola. Think. She gazed at the goblin rising up to challenge the priest, and for once she was glad of her protector. If I stay around, I would hamper Arconde’ly, she thought to herself and moved behind the priest where he could easily fight the goblin without being distracted by any movements of the vile creature towards her. That would be what Sir Heshtar would have me do, she thought to herself with a smile.

Gravel came to a halt and rolled to his feet, bloodied axe in hand. He paused for a second revelling in the glorious pain of battle Tempus had blessed him with and charged, axe held high, towards the crippled ogre.

Gladiola was careful to keep the young priest between herself and the goblin this time. Images raced through her mind of Sir Heshtar standing between her and the dangerous goblins years ago.

Arconde’ly’s warhammer came back and he pressed the attack, but the goblin was a little quicker with the mud and blood encrusted shortsword he brandished. Arconde’ly’s hammer came down across the shoulder of the goblin, crushing it to the ground before him. It was then that Arconde’ly realised the goblin’s swords protruded from his own side.

Gladiola was taken aback at the sight of the shortsword poking through Arconde’ly’s vestments to the side of his back. If that had been her, she would surely have perished.

Kertai let the lance slip from his grasp and pulled the rather plain-looking sword from its scabbard. He lifted it high. A few glints of sunlight reflected off of its highly polished blade as the knight charged on into the fray passing within yards of a fleeing goblin, straight to another ogre. That huge being ambled forward with a grotesque hunched over, half walk, bracing itself with one long arm to the ground in an ape-like manner. In the other hand he held what was once one of the front porch posts of the inn where the companions had met just a few hours earlier.

He grunted as drool and phlegm strung from his hideous face and took Kertai’s charge swinging…not at the knight, but at his mount as Midnight reared to attack the ogre. Kertai swung his sword downward in a graceful but deadly arc, catching the ogre across the shoulder. Midnight thrust his metal-shod hooves toward the ogre at the same instance the giant beast brought his club down across the broad of the chest of the massive equine. Midnight faltered but a split second before another hoof slammed into the ogre’s chest sending it stumbling backward.

As Fleetfoot and Felarion started their journey up the smoky street, a band of four orcs burst out of a shed door. A young girl lay battered and bloody by the doorway, her dress ripped to shreds, two of the orcs adjusting their belts as they exit. The first two orcs saw the half-elves and lifted their blade. They rushed them only to find the two heroes not quite so easy a target as the one whose life they had just shattered.

Fleetfoot, seeing the orcs and what they had done, screamed and swept his longsword across the neck of the first orc. It stumbled, then fell, its head rolling away from its body with a look of disbelief on its gruesome face. Felarion quickly half-parried, feinted, and ran the other orc through before it had a chance to strike leaving the two remaining ones drawing their swords to defend against these two warriors.

Cries could be heard all throughout the village as fire licked skyward from a dozen buildings. If Socktaw survived this onslaught, it would be scarred for years to come. Shade was nowhere to be seen. He had rushed into the smoke moments before but no sign had been seen of him since.

“No!” whispered Gladiola silently to herself as she hurriedly moved over to Arconde’ly’s side. The layers of petticoat were visible as she stepped next to him, but she did not notice it. Her mind was elsewhere, upon her companions, upon her friends and the danger they must be in.

“Arconde’ly, are you alright?” Gladiola seldom called her companions by name, preferring to keep to court etiquette. It seemed like she had forgotten that. She gazed intently at Arconde’ly, hoping for some reassuring answers from him.

For the first time in the battle, the black knight made a sound. “For that you shall pay,” he yelled in a stern voice at the ogre. The smoke and ash swirled around him and his huge mount, the rage Kertai felt hidden behind his armour. Kertai petted his horse’s neck comfortingly with the back of his steel gauntlet and then urged his steed towards the huge ogre with his legs. Swinging his long sword, now covered in blood, at the ogre, Kertai fought with cold rage.

As the two remaining orcs were drawing their swords, Felarion’s eyes again strayed to the body of the woman, wondering if she was still alive after the orc’s disgraceful act. Turning back to the orcs, Felarion had a fierce rage in his eye, as he moved forward to confront the orcs, ready to show them no mercy for what they had done to the young woman.

Fleetfoot hardly noticed as the orc fell to the ground in two pieces. His attention was already fixed on the next victim of his merciless justice. His foremost thought was to end the despicable creatures’ life. With a righteous yell of “BY MIELIKKI”, Fleetfoot attacked one of the remaining orcs, knowing his friend, Felarion, was right beside him.

Gravel rushed forward and let out a blood-curdling cry to Tempus. Blood dripped from the double bladed axe as he prepared to deal the killing blow to the ogre.

Arconde’ly staggered a bit when he saw the short blade protruding from his side. Tymora was truly with him. If the blade had been two inches to the left, it would probably have killed him. He looked to Gladiola and tried to smile but it appeared more as a wince than a smile.

“Thank you. If you could pull it from my side it would help. It appears it has only pierced the muscle. I don’t think anything inside is bleeding. Be careful to pull it out straight.” Arconde’ly winced again as he tried to cut some cloth from the bottom of his cloak while slowly sliding to the ground. Kneeling now, Gladiola looked at the nasty wound. It had entered the front of his side and exited maybe four inches to the rear. Arconde’ly was probably right in thinking it was only a flesh wound but she had not had to look upon this sort of thing in years and it made her uneasy knowing he had taken this blade for her.

Gladiola could feel herself nearly fainting at the close proximity to the wound. She quickly sat down and propped her hand against the ground, to prevent herself from losing control. Her body trembled as she gazed, first at the wound, then at Arconde’ly. He wants me to pull out the weapon, she thought to herself.

In all of her life, Gladiola had never had to fight. Her brothers did all the fighting, and both her father and her uncles were accomplished swordsmen who had seen blood many times. She had also sat down, helpless and crying, when Sir Heshtar lay dying in her arms, arrows protruding all over his body. She had lost control of herself then.

No, Gladiola – be strong this time, she thought. You have got to overcome it this time. Your friend’s life may be slipping away even now.

Gladiola bit her lip and spoke, “Gladiola will try, Arconde’ly. She is not strong, neither be she one who handles such weapons. But she will try, my friend. She will try.” Her voice trembled at the thought of what she might be doing as she grasped the weapon. It felt strange in her hands, so different from the magical energies she had touched in her life. She closed her eyes and pulled at the weapon.

Fleetfoot’s scream of power for his god over-powered the indistinguishable war cry of the orc he faced as the blood-splattered half-elf swung his mighty longsword. As the longsword exited its victim, felling it to the ground, the lone orc attacked the injured Felarion. Its rusty longsword swept close to Felarion’s neck and caught the collar of his tunic. Knowing he must do something soon, Felarion countered the orc’s attack with one of his own. The fiendish orc screamed as the blade crossed downward across its chest but the orc remained standing, ready to attack.

Gravel charges the kneeling, crippled ogre. As he reached the ugly beast, the ogre swung out but hit nothing this time. Gravel ducked under the punch and brought his double-bladed battleaxe around in a horizontal sweep, burying the blade of the axe in the belly of the ogre all the way to the ogre’s spine. The ogre looked down at the weapon being pulled from its body and its eyes became vacant. The ogre fell face forward to the ground, causing a small cloud of dust to rise around the dwarf.

Kertai spurred his noble mount straight to the expecting ogre. The horse’s broad muscled chest caught the ogre’s right shoulder as the knight ended the life of the cruel creature. Most of the other attackers had by now realised that their numbers were dropping fast and were now retreating in a hurry. Only a couple of goblins were fleeing. No other creatures were near as far as Gladiola could see, because of the smoke. Only the lone orc continued to attack Felarion. He now wished he had left when he had the chance.

With grim resolve, Felarion lashed out with his sword once again, trying to rid the world of this abomination, after only injuring it in his first attempt.

Seeing the ogre drop, Kertai wheeled his horse about, looking for any other of the vile creatures about him. With none of the monsters about him, Kertai moved his horse off into the smoke, listening for screams, or cries for help. The smoke swirled around him as he disappeared into its depths.

As Kertai melted into the smoke and passed through an alley to the back of the buildings the smoke cleared for a minute and he saw a lone figure standing, head down, shoulders slumped. The points of his rapiers touched the ground. He could tell that person only by the remnants of the shredded clothing hanging onto his armour. The smell of smoke and blood filled the air as he approached. As the smoke cleared away a bit more, it was only then that he saw the entire scene for what it was. Around the half-elf, in a full circle, lay more than a dozen goblins.

At the sound of Kertai approaching Shade whirled around, both rapiers raised in defence. Kertai could barely make out the half-elf’s features through the blood on his face, hair, and clothes. Upon recognising Kertai, he lowered the points of his swords back to the ground. Kertai could swear he saw tears streaming from his eyes, yet no emotion showed on his face.

Shade said not a word and turned and walked away, toward the back of the nearest building. He knelt down and picked his friend’s body up and started to carry it down the alley from whence Kertai came.

Fleetfoot watched the orc fall, and felt the rage begin to subside. With a sense of relief that the evil orcs were getting what they deserve, Fleetfoot turned to aid Felarion. Fleetfoot, with what could only be considered an evil smile, casually remarked, “Come on Felarion, we’ve no time to play around. Shade is out there somewhere and may have need of us.” Fleetfoot, almost feeling like himself again, moved in to aid his companion.

With a scowl to Fleetfoot for his remark, Felarion commented, “One moment, be finished in a sec,” never once taking his eye off his opponent or letting his sword hand falter.

Gravel hefted his axe out of the ogre as blood sprayed into the air from the wound, covering him. Gravel raised his axe into the air and screamed out triumphantly before seeking a new enemy to slay.

Arconde’ly gasped as the sword started to move slowly and Gladiola stopped. Bracing himself to endure the pain, he nodded to Gladiola to continue. She felt the ground gave way under her feet but regained her senses by closing her eyes. The blade slid out, covered with Arconde’ly’s blood. He held his breath until the blade exited from its entry point and another gasp escaped his lips. Gladiola immediately dropped the weapon that felt so cold to her grasp and attempted to steady Arconde’ly.

Arconde’ly felt heavy in her arms, and Gladiola strained to hold on to the armoured man. Again, she felt the light-headed sensation as the blood began to flow onto her dress, staining it a crimson red against the purity of the white within. She felt like she was living the nightmare again. That day her dress was drenched in the blood of her beloved.

“Sir…” she spoke with trembling lips, but she seemed to have got some form of control within herself, “Have your gods been with you? Do you still hear Gladiola?” The blood was warm, but Gladiola knew how deceptive it could be. She had felt her beloved’s life slipping away even as his warm blood had soaked her. No…it must not happen again…

She looked at the hem of her torn dress. She would not be looking very pretty with the blood-soaked dress anyway. Laying him down on the ground, Gladiola tore up a section of her dress from the hem, and began to wrap the wound…around the armour.

Not fifty yards away, the squat form of Gravel Glovehammer stood triumphantly in front of a slain ogre. No orcs, goblins, or ogres were within sight but the sounds of mourning filled the air. The young girl that was brutalised by the orcs lay still except for the faint rise and fall of her chest. She was alive… barely.

Chapter 11: The Scars of the Battle

Upon looking around and seeing the young girl, Gravel snapped out of his rage. And dashed towards her. Gravel then took a quick look around before laying his axe on the floor and placing his hands on the girl’s chest. Gravel quickly fell into a trance-like state while at the same time chanting a prayer to Tempus. A red glow appeared around Gravel’s hands that then moved to the girl’s chest.

As the light touched the girl’s chest it got brighter and it disappeared inside her body. After a few seconds the light vanished and the girl’s chest seemed to move more freely. If the girl awakens, Gravel thought to himself, I will try to comfort her while at the same time keeping an eye out for anybody that might need my help.

Fleetfoot watched on as the orc turned to run and Felarion brought its life to an end from behind. Felarion turned to Fleetfoot as the rage began to settle. “See I told you it would be just a second.” He started to grin again, when his eyes settled on the form of the young woman, and the grin disappeared once again. He scanned the town for any more signs of trouble. Finding none, he looked towards the smoke where Shade and the Knight disappeared. As he turned to yell for Arconde’ly to help the young woman, he saw that his companion had been seriously injured.

Turning to Fleetfoot, he said, “Since you are already hurt, you might go help Arconde’ly back, while I go see what happened to Shade and Kertai.” With that said, Felarion headed into the smoke looking for his companions.

There was no sign of Shade or the young knight. Smoke obscured most of the buildings though some were not badly burned thanks to the recent rain. They could see a few townspeople rushing to and from other buildings.

Kertai watched the rogue move past him in the smoke. Removing his helm, he motioned his horse closer to Shade. “I am sorry,” the black knight said simply, allowing Shade to pass by. Thinking about

Shade’s loss and the loss of the people of the town, Kertai looked about for anyone still living, or any evil creature daring to be in his path. Kertai hung his helm on the cantle of his saddle and rode through the village searching, his sword across his lap.

Fleetfoot, realising Felarion was right, watched as the warrior ran off in search of Shade and Kertai. He turned in time to see Gravel run to the wounded girl and began the miraculous physical healing that was only given to one favoured by the Gods.

Reassured the girl would survive the attack, at least physically, he looked back to where Gladiola was working on the wounded Arconde’ly. He grimaced as the beautiful elven princess pulled the sword out of the priest’s side.

Remembering Felarion’s parting words, he sheathed his sword and returned to Gladiola’s side. With a smile he said, “Here lady, are you wounded?” Gladiola shook her head. He then turned to the valiant priest and, and tried to remove Arconde’ly’s armour to bind his wounds.

As he removed the priest’s armour, he noticed that the pain in his shoulder had returned in force. “Heck,” he muttered to himself, “this ain’t gonna feel good in the morning!”

As Felarion started toward the alleyway where Shade was last seen, he saw a lone figure emerge from the smoke carrying a body. The lone figure was barely recognisable with all of the blood, dirt, and ash that covered him. It was Shade. There was a vacant look upon his face. He carried the body over to where Gravel had just tended to the young girl. There was still no sign of Kertai.

Looking down at the young girl, Gravel realise this was the daughter of his friend, Landon, the innkeeper. Gravel pulled away from the young girl as her breathing eased. Her eyes fluttered open and she screamed and started to scoot away, back into the small building where she had lain.

Her eyes were wide with fear and her body was trembling. Gravel tried to calm the girl and as she saw the figure before her now was not as those before, she calmed a bit, but did not come out. She was exhausted.

Arconde’ly could only nod towards Gladiola. He winced as the bandages were pressed into his wounds, then motioned for Gladiola to set him down. Gladiola and Fleetfoot pulled back the layers of armour to expose the nasty wound and staunch the bleeding as Arconde’ly prepared his prayer to Tymora.

“Tymora, blessed Goddess, thank you for sparing my life that I may continue to serve thee. Heal me now, that I may help these townspeople and my companions.”

They stood back as the priest put a hand upon the wound and bindings and soon pulled away the bloodied bandage to reveal only a minor scar. Feeling better equipped to help those around him now, the priest looked around and got a hand up from Fleetfoot.

Rising to his feet, he scanned for his companions and any other fallen villagers in the area. “There are others here in need of my help. Show me to them.” Arconde’ly said as he tried to wipe some of the blood from his vestments.

Felarion, having passed by Shade, travelled down the alleyway and saw a lone figure riding away from him on a huge horse. “That has got to be Kertai.” he thought to himself, and raced after him, soon catching up. Together they patrolled what was left of the small village, noting the injured. They returned after only a couple of minutes with the news to the rest of the group.

Shade made his way toward the dwarf kneeling at the doorway. He laid Landon’s body next to the doorway and looked to the cleric pleadingly. “Help him. His family needs him. Bring him back. It is not right that he die this way.”

Seeing the still form of her father at the side of the doorstep, the young girl whimpered and with a raspy voice she whispered, “Daddy? Daddy!” and she crawled to the doorway to be with her father.

The dark knight rode from the smoke, Felarion at his side. Kertai’s armour was caked in ash and soot. His helmet lay on the cantle of his saddle, his long dark hair grey from soot. The knight’s eyes held a sad look as he viewed the carnage about him.

As Felarion returned, and saw the sorrowful sight before him, he shook his head at such senseless loss. Turning to Kertai, he said, “It is a sad day when we have to witness such things as this. Someone will pay dearly for this.”

Kertai only nodded his head sadly in response. Riding slowly, he moved towards one of the dead ogres and dismounted. Once on the ground, Kertai tugged free his lance from the huge creature’s body. He rested the lance over his shoulder and walked back to the rest of the group, leading his horse.

Seeing the torn clothing of Gladiola, the knight leant his lance against a nearby tree and removed his cloak. Draping it about the small elf’s shoulders he said, “M’ lady, if I may?” The knight then stood silently, petting his mount’s neck and inspecting its chest, which was somewhat bloody.

Gladiola nodded silently, a loss for words at the scene before her. Just a decade ago, she had cried over someone she loved, had cried until there were no more tears to cry. Somehow she could feel the same thing the girl was feeling – the helplessness, the sense of loss, the sense that things would never be the same again.

She was glad of the cloak, as she felt the draught on her exposed thighs. She wrapped it tightly around her, to keep as much of her modesty as possible. She too turned towards Arconde’ly. Her most gentle voice made its appeal, “Sir, Gladiola has seen your healing powers, the powers given by the gods themselves. Gladiola, too, begs you to do something. Please…” She was so sure, if there were to be one with the healing powers with her that fateful day, that things would have been different. Things would be different now that Arconde’ly was around.

Fleetfoot watched as Arconde’ly healed himself, thinking how handy that power would be, on his own in the forests. Looking around for his bow, he surveyed the carnage and destruction in the village of Socktaw.

Shocked at the damage done by the evil humanoids, anger once again began to build in his chest. Looking in the direction the monsters retreated, he stated aloud, “Perhaps I should go check to see where the monsters went to.” While waiting for a reply from his companions, he retrieved his bow, and inspected it for damage.

While the others were busy with healing, Felarion took the time to wander among the fallen enemy. As he went through the corpses, he searched for some signs of any of the creatures that stood out somewhat in appearance from the others, especially the ogres. He looked around for anything that might give them a clue as to who sent them, or some means of communication from a distance, or perhaps a letter or something. They must have had someone or something to bring them together to attack.

Seeing that the lady was covered by his cloak, the black knight’s face looked somewhat less grim for a brief moment. Wiping the grime from his face, Kertai addressed the group near him in a calm voice, with only a slight hint of the horror around him.

“I know that I am new to this group, and have sworn myself to your cause, but we must stay here this night. These people need assistance and protection should the evil creatures return.” The dark warrior’s hair was damp with sweat and grime, his armour stained with blood and soot. The shine of his armour was lost under the ashes and the stains of battle. His request seemed almost one from the people, rather than one from a knight of the land.

Felarion looked at the knight and responded, “I agree, it would seem reasonable that we at least stay here for the night, and help out as we may.”

Gravel took the girl’s hand for a moment and looked her in the eye. “Don’t worry lass ye father has not gone yet,” was his reply. Gravel moved himself so that he was at Landon’s side and placed his bloodied hands on the man’s chest. As he did so Gravel took a few controlled breaths before falling into a trance-like state.

Gravel began to chant incomprehensible words to Tempus, and after a few moments a red glow appeared around Gravel’s hands and then slowly moved towards Landon’s chest. The red light then burrowed into the man’s body and spread up towards his head. Gravel soon came out of the trance-like state and looked down at Landon to see if his healing had any effect. While watching he took the girl’s hand in his and held it.

Looking at the dead and wounded around him, Arconde’ly felt sorrow and anger for these people.

“Lady Gladiola, walk with me while I seek out other wounded townspeople. Whatever favour I can do for you, I will do if it is within my power to do so. Tymora has favoured me thus far.” He cast a grim smile at her. “Whoever is the head of this tragedy will pay dearly for the order. By Tymora I swear it!”

Gladiola tried to smile back. The smile that lit a thousand candles was strangely absent. Death and tragedy. Destruction and evil. She had never had to feel much of it, even during the Goblin Wars. But she was seeing it all over again. The smoke that rose up in the air reminded her so much of the burning of the forest home. She thought she would never see that again.

Numbly, she followed Arconde’ly, surveying the pyres that burnt both houses of wood, and houses of flesh. Yes, even the houses of the heart. She just could not take it anymore. Gladiola collapsed on her knees and wept.

Shade looked on as his old friend called upon Tempus to restore this man back to health. He took the young girl into his arms and rocked her slow, holding her tight. He remembered holding her when she was no more than a year old. He cradled her to his chest just as he had done all those years ago.

Gravel looked on the form of Landon, his old friend from the inn, and sighed as he pulled his hands away. He looked to Shade and shook his head and said, “He fought the valiant fight and gave all he had to protect those he loved most. He is with Tempus and has received the highest glory and honour Tempus can bestow. He is meant to stay in the other realm.”

Shade’s eyes turned almost black with the words coming from the dwarf and he pulled the girl to him. He stroked her long dark hair and whispered something into her ear and she held on tighter around Shade’s neck. He looked back to Gravel and said, “I am Kryssa’s chosen one. She will come with us when we leave. We will stay the night but cannot afford to stay longer. I fear for the same safety of Misthaven.”

A few paces away, Arconde’ly was comforting Gladiola. Her weeping tugged at his heart for no man liked to see a woman cry. Gravel turned to Fleetfoot and saw that he too was badly wounded. Gladiola saw to caring for the wounded as well as Arconde’ly and Gravel. A vacant look of horror and sorrow rarely left her beautiful features. Tears welled up inside her as she tended to the children.

Kertai and Felarion saw to the building of a makeshift defensive wall of wagons and broken down buildings to give the inhabitants some protection should the humanoids return. Shade took the young girl, Kryssa, and took her father to his resting-place.

Kertai moved about the village, readying it for another attack. His soot-stained armour clanked slightly as he moved. The dark knight carried a solemn look on his dirtied face as he moved about the village, pulling wagons close to buildings with the help of his tall dark mount.

The warrior said almost nothing. The only words he uttered were occasional instructions to the villagers around him. Usually though, he instructed those around him with nods and gestures. Kertai’s long black hair hung limp with sweat and grime. ‘None deserve such as this,’ he thought to himself. ‘I must stop these creatures from harming anyone again.’ As he worked, the black knight’s face moved from solemnity, to anger.

Shade prepared the body of his friend and took him to the gravesite of Kryssa’s mother who had died two years earlier from pneumonia. He lay Landon in a crudely made box, just long enough for his body, and placed the box in the grave beside his wife. Kryssa’s tears were flowing freely as were Shade’s.

The only difference was in the racking sobs coming from the young girl. When the last shovel of soil in tamped down on the grave, Shade walked over to the girl and knelt beside her. Through the sniffles and tears Kryssa looked at Shade. She reached for him and they embrace.

Shade petted the top of her head soothingly and said, “Today, your father has placed you in my care. I’m sure he would have wanted to see you grow into a beautiful woman and live the life that you choose, but Kryssa, destiny has chosen a path that is for the strong. You are strong, just as your father and mother were strong. You will be with me for the next three years unless something befalls me. But, As your father has entrusted you to me, you must follow my guidance to the letter.”

The girl, in appearance, might be fourteen years of age but seemed to have learnt many things as a caretaker in the inn and had become acquainted with many types of people. Her long dark hair and dark brown eyes contrasted greatly with her fair skin. She looked up at the half-elf and with tears still in her eyes, spoke softly, “Teach me. Teach me what you know. Show me how to become a great warrior-poet.”

Shade looked at her with loving eyes and said in a whisper, “I will or I will die trying.”

Felarion’s search of the bodies had turned up very little. No written notes, as if ogres could read anyway, or signs. The ogre chieftain did have a crude silver amulet. It was polished on one side, and on the reverse was a rune of some sort. All of the weapons were of crude orcish or goblin make.

Fleetfoot suddenly realised something. NONE of the enemy was using bows. Not even the goblins, which was highly unusual.

Felarion recovered the amulet, and returned to the others to see what they make of it. Wishing his magic was not used up for today, so he could try to determine what the amulet was, he commented to the others as he returned, “I found this on one of the bodies, and am wondering if it might be a communication or controlling device of some kind. However my magic is exhausted for today. Can any of you cast a spell on it possibly to determine its nature?”

Fleetfoot, after listening to Felarion reveal his findings, asked, “Did anybody see the orcs or goblins using bows?” Felarion stopped and considered the question. “Since you mention it, I don’t recall them using them. Why? Is that relevant? Do they normally do so?”

Checking over his bow and sword, Fleetfoot was careful to stretch his shoulder and side so as not to let them tighten up on him.

“Yep, the cowards usually use bows or crossbows and throw spears before attacking with hand weapons,” Fleetfoot mused. “I can’t think why they wouldn’t stay with their normal routine. I should really see if I can track them to see if they are really retreating or just regrouping for another attack. I don’t want to be surprised in the middle of the night. Anyone care to join me?”

Felarion replied, “I will join you, since I am relatively useless when it comes to healing.”

“This day is truly a day of sorrow for these people of Socktaw.” Arconde’ly surveyed the broken families, the injured, then turned to his friends. “Shade, I feel the loss of your friend. Kryssa, dear Kryssa, though we do not know what lies ahead, we welcome you to our company.”

Arconde’ly looked to the group, a tear rolling down his cheek. “I fear for the lives of these townspeople if we should leave them here. The beasts that attacked came without warning, and I fear they may do so again. I feel that no one is safe here.” Arconde’ly then turned to Gladiola. “Others here have known sorrow in their lives, and have rebuilt from the ruin. My heart tells me to ask if these people wish to travel to Misthaven under our protection. I…” Arconde’ly bent his head in sorrow.

Looking to Arconde’ly, Shade said in a soft tone, “I believe taking the survivors to Misthaven if they wish to go. But if I know these people as I think I do, most will choose to stay and fight for homes they have built rather than abandon them to the goblins and orcs that have tormented them. They have lived with orcish raiding parties and goblin attacks for many years. I fear most will stay. We can ask though.”

Shade lay a comforting hand on Kryssa’s shoulder. “Come, Arconde’ly, we will ask the townsfolk.” Shade, Arconde’ly, and Kryssa made their way to the well-house in the centre of town. Kryssa ran up and rang the triangular bell and the people stopped what they were doing and gathered around the three of them.

A burly man with an arm in a sling stepped forward. “Why do you ring the town bell? We have things to do, dead to care for, and a barricade to build.”

Shade stepped forward. “I know you have a lot to do, but we have to ask. Are there any of you townsfolk that wish to travel to Misthaven with us. We are in hopes that you might for your own safety. We do not know if the ogres and orcs will return. If they do, I fear you will not fare so well. Arconde’ly and I wish to welcome those that wish to travel with us for safety.”

The burly man said solemnly, “We have seen worse than this. We will stay. If there are children left homeless, we will take them in. We had plans for a great wall to encircle the town to the north, east, and south. We will rebuild. This is our home and we will not be driven from it by orcs or ogres.”

Hearing the inspiring words of the burly man, Gladiola’s heart was filled with hope for these people, but also fear that they might never see their dream of Socktaw in its former beauty.

“I had thought you would stay,” the half-elf replied, “but Kryssa will go with me. Her father asked me when she was born to be her ‘chosen’. I will honour that. You need not make arrangements for her.”

Fleetfoot and Felarion set out together on the trail of the retreating humanoids. Neither said much as their path took them deeper into the woods south of town. There seemed to be no organisation to the retreat and all appearances and signs pointed to the humanoids scattering to the winds without their leaders.

Kertai paused and watched silently as Shade invited the townsfolk to accompany the party. Even as the cleric asked, Kertai knew that the people would stay and rebuild. A home is a difficult thing to give up, the dark warrior thought to himself. With the man’s response, Kertai nodded approvingly, particles of ash falling from his hair with the movement.

Kertai put his shoulder up against the wagon he was moving and pushed the few feet more into place. Wiping the sweat from his brow, the black knight noticed that much of the smoke was gone from the air and that the building of the barricades was going well. I need to remove this armour, he thought to himself.

Leading his horse to a nearby tree, Kertai surveyed the town once again. Reaching it, he removed the saddle and saddle bags from his huge black mount. “That better, Midnight?” he asked in a soft, pleasant voice. The warrior then removed the bit and bridle and began to unfasten the many straps holding his armour on.

With a huge assortment of metal plates and pieces of chain neatly laid beside him, Kertai stood in only a simple pair of wool shorts. Rivulets of sweat moved down his body, carrying ash and grime with them. He was thin and well muscled with multiple small scars all over. The warrior pulled out the simple black clothing he wore when he first met the party and put it on quickly. He then fumbled through the saddlebags, now lying by the tree, and pulled out a brush. He immediately began to use it on his tall, black mare.

Once all the ash and grime was removed from the horse’s coat, the warrior replaced the brush and pulled out a small cloth and a wire brush. “Sorry girl, I’d give you more attention, but the people here need help,” Kertai said to his horse, patting it lightly on the flank. The knight then began to remove all the grime from his armour in a quick and practised manner. If only metal don’t go to rust so easily, Kertai thought to himself as he finished with his armour and headed to once again help out the citizens of Socktaw.

The townsfolk, having accepted what Shade had said, started making their way back to what was left of their homes. Most would be staying in the stables that night for shelter. Shade looked at Arconde’ly and said, “These are a proud people. This is their home. Most would rather die here than anywhere else.”

Arconde’ly lowered his head and shook it slightly, and offered up a short prayer to Tymora to watch over these people and bring good fortune to them. Gravel was kept busy tending to the wounds of the valiant few that were unable to attend the town meeting. It appeared that the ones that were treated in time would live thanks to Arconde’ly and Gravel. Had the companions not returned to Socktaw, it surely would have all burnt to the ground and not one person would have survived. About forty people in all survived the would-be massacre. The companions felt a little comfort in knowing that, but the losses were heavy and Shade felt the burden of those lost when he placed his long-time friend in the mossy ground next to his wife.

Chapter 12: The Cliff

As Fleetfoot and Felarion travelled deeper into the woods tracking the marauders, Fleetfoot was very wary of coming upon bands of stragglers. In his current condition he did not want to have to fight again so soon. Especially any smelly old Ogres! Fleetfoot rubbed his side in remembrance of the viscous blow he took from the mammoth creature’s fist, and vowed to practice more of the art of evasive tactics.

Keeping his eyes and ears alert for anything out of the ordinary, he occasionally picked up pieces of fallen trees or shrubs and rubbed them on his clothes and hands. The first time he did this, he looked towards Felarion and winked.

Felarion, unable to help himself, felt compelled to ask, “Alright, what is this with rubbing the branches and dirt on yourself like that?”

“Oh nothing,” responded Fleetfoot with smile and shrug, “I just love the smell of the forest, besides, I want to cover up the smell of blood a little.”

Fleetfoot whispered to Felarion, “I don’t want to get too far away from the town. And I definitely want to get back before dark. We’ll be no use to anyone if we get mistaken for orcs in the dark!”

Felarion nodded his head in agreement, whispering back, “I agree, we should just go far enough to make sure they are actually gone, and then we can return to the others.” Fleetfoot added as he bent over to pick up a lump of moist sod, “I know the forests to the north-east of Socktaw well, as I was raised there, but I don’t know the southern range as well.”

Felarion replied, “Sorry, I am afraid I am unfamiliar with them as well.”

“We can continue on for about another half hour, then we should return.” Fleetfoot replied.

As they travelled, Fleetfoot tried to remember the best places for the retreating creatures to gather. Also, while tracking, he looked for signs of the direction the largest concentration of orcs and goblins had gone. And he was especially careful to point out any ogre tracks he came across.

Without their leaders, goblins and orcs were a contentious lot. That would explain why they broke up into smaller bands when they retreated. But what would cause the creatures to forsake their favourite weapons? Was there magic powerful enough to make so many attack in such a haphazard way? Fleetfoot was beginning to believe that it was very possible for the leaders of the war band to have been enspelled. By whom or why was beyond him. Maybe one of the party members could figure it out.

Fleetfoot idly wondered if his foster parents were well, then with a shake of his head, he dismissed any concerns. With the information network they had, he was sure they would not be taken by surprise. Besides, for now the survival and protection of the villagers must come first, later…Revenge for Socktaw!

As he followed his companion along, Felarion heard a soft chuckle from just in front of him! Hearing Fleetfoot’s chuckle, Felarion’s body went tense, wondering what had caused his companion to laugh. “Something wrong up there?”

“Nope,” whispered Fleetfoot over his shoulder, “just thinking how sweet revenge will be. My foster father once said that Revenge is a dish best served cold. I’m hoping I’ll find out how sweet it is real soon.”

Fleetfoot and Felarion were taken by surprise as they found the trails they followed all leading to a cliff-face. The two found no trace of the marauders. It was as if they vanished into the side of the solid rock cliff. Even after examining the cliff-face, they found nothing except that all the trails seemed to converge at that one point. It would be dark soon and not wishing to get caught outside the village after dark, they hurried back with their discovery.

As they were travelling back to the others, Felarion voiced his suspicions to his companion, “I suspect that group of goblins, orcs, and ogres, was brought here by magic, and taken away by magic. I suspect some wielder of magic is using it to control groups of goblins and the like, to try and to destroy all the villages and towns around. I see no sense in this, but it disturbs me to think of the amount of magic it would take to do such a thing.”

Fleetfoot listened to Felarion’s theory, and nodding his head responded, “I agree, but that’s not all that disturbs me. If the wizard or whoever is doing this can open a doorway here, what’s to stop him or her from opening another doorway at another town?”

Fleetfoot was disturbed by their discovery, and was at a loss as to how to deal with it. Even worse, how could the people protect themselves, when they did not even know if an attack is coming? Or from which direction?

Fleetfoot led Felarion back to Socktaw at a furious pace. If their suspicions were correct, they would need to warn the inhabitants of Misthaven and the other towns as soon as possible. Felarion followed, increasing his speed as the urgency of the situation took a firm hold of his mind.

After attending to all the wounded Gravel slumped down somewhere looking quite exhausted. After a few moments Gravel began to remove his own armour. After removing his breastplate he let out a little groan and looked down. He tried to patch up one hell of a nasty wound that he received from the ogre. The fair amount of the blood that was on his armour probably was his own blood, not just the blood of the ogres.

Felarion and Fleetfoot made it back to town as the sun set across the Lake of Facets. Even with the small town almost in ruins, Fleetfoot and Felarion found the lights bouncing off the lake and the trees around town breathtaking. It seemed to lighten the mood of all those around, even in the midst of the burnt buildings and mourning families. Hope began to spread as the people realised their world had not ended, but merely paused a bit.

Night finally came to the small village of Socktaw. The fires were out and a makeshift wall was erected for protection. Half a dozen men kept watch. The companions listened to Fleetfoot and Felarion relate their findings

Felarion looked to Fleetfoot as he relayed his findings, “We followed the trail of the fleeing force, and came across some disturbing news. The trails of all the fleeing goblins and orcs, converged and ended at the face of a cliff. Despite our best efforts, we could find no trace of a hidden passage or the like.

“We have come to the conclusion that the force was aided by magical means, and some kind of door must have been opened magically. We fear that this method may be being used to invade all the towns, to transport the armies quickly and provide no warning of an attack.” Felarion finished speaking and looked to his companions to gauge their reactions.

Gravel looked up at Fleetfoot while putting a little pressure on his wound with his hand. “Maybe I stand a better chance of finding the door if there is one. Us dwarves have quite an affinity with stone. Or we could try and use spells of detection on the cliff wall.” Gravel then paused a moment. “Maybe we should checks the dead bodies, it’s possible that one of them may have some sort of key on them that triggers the doors opening.”

Wincing as Gravel pressed against his side where the behemoth’s fist smacked him, Fleetfoot silently agreed with the dwarven cleric. From what he had been told of the solid demihumans, and their affinity with stone, if anyone could find a hidden door in the cliff wall, it would be one of their kind.

Arconde’ly eyes opened wide in disbelief upon hearing about the discovery. What power it must take to create a magical portal that disappears after its use! He thought.

“Gravel, you may be able to aid in searching for a hidden doorway in the cliff face, but you seem to be in difficult shape for the journey.” Arconde’ly began a spell of healing upon the dwarf, calling upon the power of his deity.

After healing Gravel, Arconde’ly addressed his friends again, “I believe our best course of action is to head to Misthaven immediately. We can try to enlist the help of someone who can mayhaps dispel such a magical gate, or help us in determining if there is more to that cliff face than meets the eye. And, we can warn the townspeople of what has transpired here at Socktaw, and tell them to prepare for an invasion.”

Gravel looked at Arconde’ly. “I thank you my friend for your aid. This will give as much healing for the morrow should we need it. Now about this amulet that has been found, it could be magical and it could also be a key that opens the doorway in the cliff’s face.”

Felarion slapped himself for his lack of thinking. “I never even thought of trying the amulet to see if it worked. Though the creatures managed to escape without it, so it probably has nothing to do with that.”

Gravel looked over at Felarion. “Maybe they had more then one amulet, if the amulet is the key of course. I think it is still worth a try if the amulet turns out to be magical. I know it’s a long shot but we don’t have many options left.”

He continued with a comment, “We could take another look at the cliff face in the morning, if you like. I suggest we rest and recover for tonight, and then check the cliff face in the morning, and then proceed to Misthaven. No offence to you guys, but I doubt you will find at anything at the cliff face.” Felarion then looked for a place to get comfortable for the night.

After hearing of Felarion’s and Fleetfoot’s venture into the woods, Shade pondered a moment before speaking, “I also think we should check the cliff before moving on to Misthaven. It shouldn’t take too long.”

Shade took Kryssa to her home and packed a pack and bundle for her. Her father’s sword hilt stuck out of a blanket wrapped around it and she wore a light grey shirt and black tunic over her black breeches. She had on low leather boots and carried a dagger at her side along with a belt pouch.

After Shade had returned with Kryssa, he asked Felarion, “Was it you that said they found some sort of medallion on one of the ogres?”

Fleetfoot asked, “Has anyone been able to determine if the medallion Felarion found is magical? What about the rune on the back? Does anyone recognise it?”

Felarion produced the aforementioned amulet. “This is the one I found, though right now, I can’t tell too much about it, as I am depleted of spells at the moment.” Commenting on the watches being set up, he said, “I will help with one of the watches, as I was uninjured in the battle. Someone just wake me when I am needed.”

Kertai listened with disbelief of the tale of the disappearing creatures. A great foul magic would be needed for such a thing, he thought to himself. The warrior listened as each person gave their ideas on what should be done.

Then, with his dark green eyes alight, he spoke, “I do believe that it would be best to travel to the cliff face in the morrow. It is far too late to discover anything now.” Pausing for a bit, he looked about and continued.

“I will volunteer for first watch this night. The rest of you should get some sleep and we will tend to things in the morning. A long day this has been.” With that, Kertai looked about again for a good viewpoint to watch the entire area from.

“I agree, leaving in the morning would be best, besides I’m beat.” replied Fleetfoot. Gravel had by then finished his prodding and poking. Fleetfoot began to look for a comfortable spot to sleep for the evening. He thanked Kertai for taking the first watch and would volunteer for one of the dark watches.

Gladiola had had time to release the pent-up tension and was seeing to her pack. Gravel rested uneasily. Heavy rags were wrapped around his ribs. A dark stain showed slightly but had not spread. He was going to hurt in the morning, but Tempus willing, some of that pain would ease.

Kertai gently brushed his injured mare. He had found an ointment and placed it on Midnight’s chest. Luckily it was mostly just bruises and nothing broken.

After his watch, Kertai slept near his horse, rolled up in his bedroll. He tossed and turned often as if some sort of bad dreams plagued him.

A little before dawn, the black knight awakened and began his morning ritual. First, he took out his sword and made sure it was clean, sharpening it a little where it had dulled from the battle. Next he brushed his horse until its coat gleamed in the now-rising sun. Kertai was very careful in the area of the creature’s chest where it was hurt before. While brushing his tall mount, the warrior spoke softly to it in a soothing tone, the words indecipherable.

Next, the warrior brought an oiled cloth from his saddlebags and rubbed the leather of his saddle to a gleam, cleaning off all the ash and grime from before. Then he placed the saddle upon his horse’s back, along with the rest of his gear. Finally, the warrior donned his black armour, double-checking to make sure that all the buckles were adjusted exactly right.

Morning came after a long night of restless, uneventful watches. Arconde’ly rose early in the morning, when he heard Kertai moving in the distance, pulling out his armour. He turned to look at his companions, then to Kryssa. Arconde’ly still questioned if Kryssa should come along on such a dangerous mission, but since Shade was her chosen, she would go where he went. He only wished it were under better circumstances.

Moving out into the morning light, Arconde’ly could hear the quiet bustling of Socktaw. Even this early, men and women alike were up working on fortifying their defences, gathering what resources were not destroyed in the battle. Some of the older children were helping as well, and some were babysitters for the younger still. Arconde’ly was truly amazed at how devoted these people were to their land and their home. His own homeland, far east of here, he missed sometimes.

He found a small clearing near the stable, and pulled forth a water flask. He washed off some more of the grime and ash from the night previous, and noticed just how tattered his appearance is now. Torn cloak and tunic, and his chain mail punctured where the beast had stuck him at, made for an awful sight. Mayhaps it would help the people of Misthaven realise what dangers were coming their way when they see and hear him.

Arconde’ly knelt to the earth, and looked skyward. It was the light of dawn, just crowning over the treetops, and setting the wood aglow. This beauty set Arconde’ly’s spirit aglow, as he felt his goddess’ presence in him. Arconde’ly meditated and prayed to Tymora to watch over his companions and to help them to discover the power behind these attacks, as well as the gathering of humanoids throughout the land. And he also prayed that the companions would be able to warn the citizens of Misthaven in time.

The companions made ready for travelling as Kryssa watched intently. An hour after rising the group was ready to set off towards the cliff. Kryssa rode behind Shade.

Just as the party was about to leave, Squeek swooped down from above the tree line and alighted softly upon Gladiola’s shoulder. “Hello! My! What a mess! Me hasn’t been anywhere near here! Really! So don’t blames me for this one. Eeeewe! What’s that smell? Smells like that goblinoidy thing we killed when we were next to the big fire!”

With a flourish Squeek planted a big smack on Gladiola’s cheek before fluttering off again. He flew around the group members and spoke in his usual high pitched, fast voice, “Soos did ya miss me? But don’t speaks all at once since I know theres could be no way you could expresses such emotion in so little time. So where are wes going anyhows? I hope it is to find some rich treasure, my treasure being something to eat that is, which reminds me have we eaten yets this morning?”

Taking a breath, the only one that was noticeable during his tirade, he continued, “I saws the mostus interesting things while I was gone. Didja know that a baskalisks roasted over burning rose petals tastes

absotutely wondersful. Of course the things was dead when I found it already so don’t worry about me, oh, and whats was I supposed to be doing when I left?”

Gladiola smiled at the little fremlin, the creature of the forest that had first accompanied her. There was much that happened the night before, but the talkative little thing seemed to cheer her up somewhat. The smile that lit a thousand candles had returned, but it was obvious she was tired.

“Squeek, how has Gladiola’s father been? Did you get to see Malconith? What does the children of the forests intend to do now that we are quite sure of unusual activity round about?” There were so many questions, but all were spoken gently and beautifully. Her voice was just so enchanting.

“Squeek, any news from the elves? Are they okay? It is good to see you again!” Arconde’ly beamed a smile at Squeek, and noticed Kryssa looking at Squeek intently. “He is an old friend, young one. Though he did make quite a mess at an inn one time…”

The black knight mounted up and sat upon his black steed. His pennant and lance now shone oddly in the morning sun, stained with the dark red blood of his foes. Despite the fact that his face was hidden by the black visor of his helm, the warrior’s annoyance at the return of Squeek was still apparent. The warrior remained silent, hoping the creature would not harass him again, but knowing it would happen again eventually.

Shade watched the fremlin bounce from person to person in his annoying but strangely comforting little way. He own spirit lightened as he listened to Squeek chatter his nonsense. He leant toward Kryssa and said, “He’s a funny little fellow, isn’t he? He comes from the same forest as Gladiola, over there.

“Squeek, my friend, did you contact the Elven court? That IS what you were sent to do. You know, to warn them of the goblins. Please don’t tell me you forgot.” He asked.

“Forgets? Nos I don’ts forgets, now lets see, Goblins, what Goblins? Oh thats what I was doing wasn’t it.” Squeek looked brighter and continued, “Now lets me see, I started off heading backs home and stops offs for a bits to eat, and then I went over to Billy’s, good ole’ Billy, do you remember hims Gladdy? No, no of course you wouldn’ts since you have never met him, but he fed me real well, and now come to think of it maybe I didn’t know him for sure either, or was it a she. Anyways I did make it back and talked to Glad’s dad, heh that ryhmes too, Ode to Gladiola and its so happy sounding to, Sos I tell him alls about the ugly goblin thingys and he tells me, right after a bit of food that is, that ‘Willy Bees’ Carpe’. Nope, nope that just doesn’t sound right, now was it ‘Walleyed compared’? Has anyone gots any food, sinces for some reason I seem to be hungry now.”

He took a moment to scarf something down and then paused. “Aha, I remember it was ‘We will be prepared’, thats what he said, I am so sure of it now, sees I knews you could be for trusting me to dos important things.”

Gladiola smiled and tickled the fremlin resting on her. Yes, the children of the forests would be prepared.

Felarion and Fleetfoot guided the way through the forest to the cliff-face. Felarion took out the amulet and the rune behind it started to glow. A symbol on the side of the cliff also started glowing.

“Wows whats a pretty trinket. Cans I sees it please?” Squeek asked excitedly. Felarion looked back at Squeek, and commented, “Let me try this first, and then you can look at the amulet, fair enough?”

When the group reached the cliff face and rune began to glow, Kertai’s eyes widened momentarily in surprise. He had never had much experience with magic, and such things astonished him still. What does this mean? He thought to himself, loosening his sword in its scabbard. Certainly, nothing good, he decided.

Felarion turned to Gravel. “It appears you may have been right, shall we proceed?” Felarion began to press the amulet against the rune on the cliff.

As the group arrived at the cliff, Shade watched as Felarion pulled out the medallion and the rune on it glowed, as did the previously invisible rune on the base of the cliff. He watched and then burst out with, “Wait! You got that off of an ogre, right? What do you think is behind that door… the fountain of good fortune? I don’t like this and if we are going to do something rash, I want to be prepared.”

At the mention of ‘Ogre’ Squeek looked around swiftly and flew back to hide behind the last person. “I wills watch overs yours back oks?” he commented.

“It was a lucky guess lad,” Gravel replied. Before continuing any further Gravel turned to Fleetfoot. “Come here lad, give me a look at your wounds.” Gravel then proceeded to examine the wound. He then placed his hands on Fleetfoot’s wounds and began a strange chanting. After a few moments a red glow appeared around Fleetfoot’s wounds and they slowly began to heal.

As the healing powers from Gravel began to repair the damage done by the ogre’s fist, Fleetfoot felt the familiar warmth that he always associated with his foster mother. “Thanks Gravel, you’ve done me a service this day.” Fleetfoot said with a bit of embarrassment. Healing always felt so personal to him before, that to feel such closeness to a near stranger would take some getting used to.

Felarion stopped, amulet in hand, as Shade started to go into a fit. “Do you wish that I not try it? I doubt there is anything directly behind this, I would say it is merely a passage, but whatever the rest of you think.”

Shade raised an eyebrow and said, “All I am trying to say is some of us, such as Gladiola, Kryssa, and Squeek should be at the back if there is trouble waiting.” Waiting for the mentioned individuals to gather near the rear of the party, Shade drew his rapier and then motioned for Felarion to continue.

Gladiola’s heart pounded madly as she stepped back. Her hand rested on Kryssa’s, and she smiled at her. Her lovely voice began its notes again, as she said, “Come Kryssa, it would be safer a little further off, lest there be evil protecting the door.” The fair hand grasped Kryssa’s as she watched the door.

Kryssa moved to the back of the group as the warriors took a stance in front of the cliff. She flinched slightly as the elven maiden touched her hand then relaxed a bit as she welcomed the comforting touch. She squeezed Gladiola’s hand in response then pulled her hand away and pulled the shortsword Shade had fastened to the baldric on her belt earlier this morning. It felt awkward in her hand, but if she had to use it, she would.

Seeing Felarion about to touch the rune to the cliff face, Fleetfoot drew his sword and waited for the non-fighters to move the rear of the party. As the others moved positions and drew weapons, Felarion drew his sword with his one hand, and held the amulet in the other. “Everybody ready?” Felarion asked as he prepared to touch the amulet to the stone.

Chapter 13: The Cave

Before Felarion could get within two paces of the cliff wall, it seemed to dissipate like the wind blowing away the fog. An entrance appeared. It appeared as a large oval, twice as tall as a man and as wide as a man was tall. It shone a gold and silver colour and gave off a golden glow at first then the light lessened. The party saw a wide dark passage going off to the left. About ten paces down the wide rough-hewn corridor on the far wall was a crude torch made from the leg bone of some large animal. It had been shoved into a hole in the wall to keep it upright.

The light emanating from the torch was dim but the party could make out that the passage was more like a cave than a tunnel dug by hand and led off to the right around a corner from the torch. The floor was rough and uneven and stalactites hung from the ceiling twenty feet above. The smell of offal permeated the air as the first of the group drew nearer the entrance of the cavern. The stench of dung, rotting flesh, and urine billowed forth from the magically created hole. It brought tears to the eyes at first.

There is room for the horses to go but Midnight was visibly uncomfortable. Due to the amount of discipline Midnight had had in battle and her trust in Kertai, he knew Midnight would enter with him, but the others were balking. The smell of death was in the cave. Kertai noted that the floor of the cave was hard limestone and would be slick and extremely noisy if a horse entered.

Squeek looked impressed as the wall disappeared. “That is pretty good,” he said and fluttered over to the wall to take a closer look. He studied the surrounding rock intently, the most the party had seen him concentrate on besides food.

Felarion started to head forward, commenting over his shoulder, “Shall we check it out?” Felarion headed about 5 feet in, then stopped to wait for the others.

Gladiola tried to peer into the cave, but the light of the torches within interfered with her ability to see in the dark. Gently, she called across to the rest of the party in front, “Sirs, if possible, some of us who could see in the dark could try to look ahead. If there be places without torches ahead, then the advantage may be ours.” She had learnt so much during these days.

Felarion just shook his head to himself, as he heard Gladiola state the obvious.

Holding his sword at the ready, Fleetfoot entered the tunnel behind his companion. Noting the smell of offal and urine, Fleetfoot’s stomach began to tighten up, threatening to empty its contents all over the already slick floor. Determined not to show any weakness to his relatively new companions, he clenched his jaw and peered intently ahead.

Gravel looked around at Fleetfoot. “Told ya it was a long shot, but them long shots are worth a try once in a while.” Gravel then removed his axe from his belt and proceeded into the tunnel, every once in a while Gravel turned his head to make sure Shade and the little one are ok.

Kertai watched the cave open with amazement. Astonishing, he thought to himself. Realising that most horses would not enter such a place and that they probably should not even if they would, the black knight spoke up.

“Perhaps it would be best to take the horses back to the village if we are to enter this place. They will not do well on their own and it would be unwise to split the group up to guard them.” The knight’s green eyes looked deep into the cave from under his lifted visor.

Arconde’ly looked to his companions and noted their reactions as the appalling smell hit them. He muttered a quick prayer to Tymora, holding his talisman in his hand, then tucked it under his tunic. He then drew his 2-handed war hammer, gleaming dully in the torchlight.

“I don’t like the feel of this place. It feels of death and decay. If we must venture forth, then I must agree with Sir Kertai with taking the horses back to Socktaw, then venturing into this place of evil.”

Shade looked at Gladiola then to Felarion shaking his head. “She has a valid point, but some of us warriors do not have that luxury and as we can see almost as well in torchlight as without, I say leave the torch be.”

Shade realised that Kertai would never want to consider himself a liability, and he quickly added, “I would rather have the advantage of Kertai’s sword arm. As far as the horses go, if we leave them here, we will have fast way to leave if retreat is necessary. We can always come back for them. I say we leave them for an hour. An hour should give us plenty of time to see what is in the cave and whether we can overcome it. It will probably not even take that long.”

Felarion nodded his head in agreement with Shade. “That sounds reasonable enough. We should be able to tell enough in that time. If after that time we wish to proceed further, we can come back and take the horses back to Socktaw, and then return here and proceed. If however in that time, we find the tunnel leads to nowhere important, then we can return and proceed to Misthaven.”

Shade turned to Kertai. “This decision is up to you. Our mounts are property. Yours is your companion. I will abide by your ruling on this one. Just keep in mind it is only an hour and they will be tied up.”

Kertai looked to Shade, patting his mount lightly with his gauntleted hand. “Midnight and the rest of the horses should be able to take care of themselves for an hour.” The knight paused contemplatively. “Any more and I will need to find some sort of care for them.” With that, Kertai slowly dismounted from his horse, ready to enter the cave.

The others dismounted and tied their horses to a low-lying branch. Felarion and Fleetfoot started making their way into the tunnel. The pair got no more than ten to twelve feet into the cave and it suddenly flashed and the magical portal disappeared with the two companions left inside the cliff.

When the group saw the flash the little fremlin was flapping wildly to get away as it almost took the hair off of his round little belly. Shade rushed toward where the cave used to be yelling at the fremlin, “What did you touch?”

Looking around somewhat guiltily to make sure that he really did not do anything Squeek said, “I didn’ts do anythings. Reallys it just happened by itself whens I was looking.” He then flew further away from the wall.

The cliff wall suddenly flashed once again and Fleetfoot and Felarion stood in front of the rest of the party only six to eight feet inside the entranceway. Shade was startled and as quickly as the door opened, a dagger appeared in his hand. He lowered it when he recognised his two comrades. A sigh of relief escaped almost everyone’s lips as the portal opened to its original size.

As the portal reopened Squeek was just as quick to fly back up to it. “Sees, I knows it would open again. Its is only magics and I knows all der is to knows about magics.” He squealed and somewhat looking at Shade continued, “Ands I evens knows how to turns peoples intos toads and such but they’re sos squishy and nots good tasting so Is don’t likes to that much.”

“Don’t do that again, please,” Shade said to his two eager companions, “We’ll need to all get into the cave before this thing closes again.”

Felarion looked at the others as the entrance reappeared, and addressed them, “I suggest if you guys wish to come with us, then you better get in here. It appears that I can only go so far away from the entrance with the amulet before the magic fades.”

Shade turned and motioned for Kryssa and Gladiola to step into the cavern opening, then waited for Arconde’ly, Kertai, and the troublesome Squeek. Shade wondered if the little fremlin had anything to do with the gateway closing but decided to keep that to himself.

Gravel did not hesitate this time and moved quickly inside the cave. “Come on,” he snarled, “lets get going down this damn passage and kill some scum.” Arconde’ly too quickly hurried to the entrance, saying, “Let’s get going. We have already lost precious time in getting to MistHaven, but this may prove to be important.”

Kertai patted his horse softly on the neck and whispered to it, “Take care of these other horses, Midnight.” With that, he drew his sword, readied his shield and moved forward towards the cave entrance. His black armour clinked slightly as he moved steadily towards the entrance. I hope the horses will be ok, he thought to himself.

Fleetfoot moved on ahead about twenty feet allowing room for the others to go past Felarion. Gladiola gagged slightly as she entered but regained control of her stomach for the moment. Even Squeek wrinkled his nose at the stench that overwhelmed the party. He took up residence on Gladiola’s shoulder as usual. Kertai stayed behind to protect the women as did Arconde’ly. Gravel and Shade closed in behind Fleetfoot as Felarion took his place beside the ranger.

Squeek could be heard in the back whispering, “Whats do they sees? Whats do they sees?” Gladiola tried to quiet the little fellow but his curiosity had been perked. Kertai glanced down at the young girl and the shortsword she was carrying and just a hint of a smile went unseen by the party as his heart filled with pride at the courage this child showed.

Gravel grumbled at his place behind Felarion. There might be some room to fight three abreast if the going got real tough, he thought. His ever silent partner, Shade, seemed to move like ink across slick rough floor. No sound escaped him or his clothing.

The party was about 20 feet from the torch when the passageway turned to the right. As they reached the corner and Fleetfoot and Felarion peered around. They saw another torch on the wall about 25 paces away. The area that it was in seemed a little larger than where they were. Most of the room was off to the left, but there was a small passage to the right. Gravel noticed that the passageway sloped downward slightly.

“The stench is awful!” Arconde’ly muttered to Kertai. “Whatever we do, we should stay close together so as not to get separated. I’m not as worried about anything coming up behind us, as I am it waiting for us in the caverns beyond.”

“Ohs me ohs my whys do we comes into such a place.” Squeek said with a whine. “And suches horrible smells too, its almost makes me not want to eat, well almost.” Looking nervous he absentmindedly reached over and grabbed a couple strands of Gladiola’s hair. Placing them in his mouth he began chewing on them slowly.

Felarion commented to the others, without turning around, “So what do you guys think, shall we take the small right passage? Or the larger left? I myself vote for checking the smaller one to the right, first.”

“It don’t matter to me, but let’s ask the others what they think,” replied Fleetfoot. Relieved at not having to traverse this tunnel without his companions, and feeling more confident, he turned to Gravel and asked, “I’ve been told dwarves feel a connection to caverns and the like, what do you think of this place?”

Gravel stopped at the intersection and looked about for a moment. He then turned towards the group. “The passage that we are heading down at the moment will take us further underground as it slopes downwards.”

Gladiola pulled the strands of her golden tresses away from Squeek and ran her fingers through them, trying to get the saliva out. She said quietly to Squeek, “Gladiola wishes you would please try to control your urge to chew on her. It is quite unpleasant as well as distracting.” She gave Squeek a stern look and pulled her hair to the shoulder opposite that which the fremlin was perched.

Before Squeek could start in on a new subject or continue with an old, Shade looked back over his shoulder and put a finger to his lips, hoping this would quell any further outbursts from the little fremlin. He then looked at Kryssa, her shortsword at the ready. As she looked at him in return, he gave her a quick wink and turned back to face forward. He waited to hear what Felarion and Fleetfoot had to say about what lay ahead.

Squeek looked at Shade with indignation and looked like he was ready to say something. Thinking better of it he shut his mouth and pouted quietly.

Gladiola looked at the exchange between Shade and Kryssa with much thought. She had not been often among humans, and she had no idea what this “Chosen One” meant. Could it be love, the same feeling in the heart that had her chose Sir Heshtar to be the man who owned her heart? If truly it is, she thought within herself, Gladiola would do her best to make sure this love will survive where hers have not.

The torches were interesting. She knew that goblins and orcs could see in the dark. Why the need for torches? Her thoughts went to the wizard Zarcodius. If indeed there were humans, creatures who need light in dark caverns, then her friends might be in greater danger. Humans, unlike goblins and orcs, thought a lot more. She gritted her teeth and focused ahead. She sighed as the torches ruined her night vision. She would have to depend on her normal sight.

As the party entered the area where the second torch was, they could see another passageway to the left. Gravel had finally got his bearing and swore the left passage went west, and the right passage went north. He said something about a slight magnetic something or other but it sounded like gibberish to Gladiola. There was a faint light down the northern passage and the party could see a torch at the end of the west passage.

The walls seemed covered with a dampness and an occasional drip from a stalactite dripped on their heads. The smell of mildew mixed with the other unpleasant smells of the cavern and again they found themselves wanting for a breath of fresh air.

The party could hear noises coming from the west passage. They were faint and indistinguishable. The passageway seemed lit a bit better coming from that way as well. To the north the light flickered against the only visible wall.

Fleetfoot stepped in a small puddle of water that had dripped from the ceiling. The rough floor had become smoother but was still uneven.

Kertai lifted the black visor on his helmet to better see in the gloom of the cavern. His black armour, covered in blood the day before, now shimmered slightly in the flickering torchlight. The black warrior continually looked around the cave for anything unusual, a marking on the wall, a stone that did not match the surrounding rock, anything that could him a clue, or a hint of a trap.

The black knight then nodded at Arconde’ly’s comment a while ago, his green eyes meeting the priest’s for a brief moment. I do not like sneaking through dark caverns, Kertai thought to himself. There is no honour in such a thing.

The warrior remained silent except for the occasional squeak of leather or clash of metal. His face was stern and his dark green eyes hinted at an alertness that only a warrior could possess.

Arconde’ly tried to look around Gladiola and the fremlin to see why the party had stopped. Noticing that even Squeek was silent now, Arconde’ly turned to Kertai, noting that the tall knight was looking at Shade, holding his hand in a motion to stop. Arconde’ly looked ahead warily, feeling danger in the air.

Felarion turned to Fleetfoot. “What do you think?” he asked. As he continued speaking, he talked a bit louder so the rest of the group could hear, “I have a feeling our enemies lie down the left passage, and that the right passage leads outside somewhere. Therefore I recommend we check the right passage to see where it goes, and then come back to the other. Any thoughts on this?”

“I agree,” replied Fleetfoot, “I would feel much better knowing we had an escape route open to us.” He turned back towards his companions and took note of where everyone was. “Watch your footing, it’s wet and uneven. And please, our ears are one of our best assets down here, so let’s try to keep as quiet as possible.” That last statement was for the Fremlins’ benefit. Fleetfoot gazed around him looking for anything unusual. He peered intently at the floor looking for any scuff marks.

Gravel examined the area for a few moment before speaking, “Well lads and lasses, the floor here slopes downward to the north passage but then starts to rise towards the west passage. These damn stench ridden passageways have been heavily used as well – the floor shows signs of very heavy traffic and the walls have several nicks and gouges knocked out of them.

“I don’t think it matters to much which way we go as we will run into trouble soon enough and that suits me.” The last sentence was spoken with a big grin and a gleam in his eyes.

“I agree that we should know our escape route. But, don’t forget, we can still get out by the way we came in. We can use this to our advantage, setting up an ambush for these creatures, and mayhaps being able to learn more from some of them what their intentions are, who they’re following, and other information. Anyone good at setting traps? Mayhaps a trip line or two?” Arconde’ly grinned to Gravel. “Or Gravel can just cut their legs off at the knees if they pursue too closely.”

Felarion replied to the question, “I can set snares, but I currently have no rope, and I fail to see anything to attach the rope to. Whatever we are going to do, I suggest we do it.”

Perking up, Squeek forgot all about pouting and took to the air. Flying over in front of Arconde’ly he grinned widely. “I cans be setting up some nice surprises for those who would comes after us,” he said in an excited voice, “Just points me to wheres you want them and stays back when the time comes.

Arconde’ly continued, “I was thinking of the time at the inn we first met at. You know, that Grease spell…and mayhaps we could ‘accidentally’ cast it in the direction of the enemy and ‘accidentally’ set a torch to it as it slid underneath the enemy…what do you think? I’m sure we could spare a creature or two to interrogate further.”

Arconde’ly then turned to the rest of the group. “The citizens of Socktaw didn’t have a chance to react to the overwhelming forces that hit them before the enemy was already upon them. I say we return the favour.”

Clapping his little hands together with joy Squeek fluttered around the group. “Ohs I just can’ts wait to gets started. Lets me see….” he left off muttering to himself and flew about looking for someone to point out a place to him.

Felarion and Fleetfoot started edging down the north passage, with Gravel and Shade close behind. Kryssa visibly flinched when Squeek flew up to talk with Arconde’ly. The little fremlin almost forgot he had a strand of Gladiola’s hair wrapped around his fingers. The sound of his wings flapping reverberated off the cavern walls. He landed on Arconde’ly’s shoulder as the others quickly glanced around at him. Squeek just thought everybody was truly interested in the plans he had for the enemy, not the fact that he was creating such a commotion. Gladiola was just relieved at the weight off of her shoulder.

Kertai, uneasy about skulking around in the dark, sighed heavily as he knew danger lay behind them, and leaving it there to plague them later bothered him immensely. Thoughts of Midnight crept into his mind. Never had he left the huge mare with no care. He knew she could take care of herself if need be, but she was tied up. That could prove a deadly problem, even to a war-horse.

Gravel was anxious to get the battle underway. More than once he tried to get up even with Felarion and Fleetfoot. In the opening of the passageway into the room, he quickly stepped up next to Felarion’s side. If it were not for the smell, he would feel almost at home in this little cave. Even hill dwarves loved the ground and what it held.

The passage opened up after about 20 feet into a larger almost triangular room with a passageway on the south-east corner and another at the north end of the room. Another lit torch was jammed into a groove in the east wall. The passage from the north doorway turned east. Both doorways were dark with no signs of movement or sound.

Felarion commented to no one in particular, “I could have sworn I saw daylight coming in from here.” All his thoughts were screaming TRAP at him. “I don’t like this, something is wrong here.” Felarion drew his sword, and went to look inside the south-east passage, but not really entering it.

Fleetfoot, taking his cue from his partner, held his sword at the ready and moved to the north passage, listening for any noise, and hoping for the smell of fresh air.

Gladiola turned to take a glance behind her. She could not explain the feeling, but she saw the glances the dark knight took behind as well. It made her uncomfortable. She had always hated the confined places of human cities. This cavern was no different. She edged closer to Kryssa and gave a squeeze to her hand again – the universal symbol of bonding between women. Holding on to her hand, she cast one last look behind her again.

Chapter 14: The Dwellers of the Cave

Fleetfoot slid up next to the north doorway. He lifted a wetted finger to detect air movement and found very little but definitely some. The darkened passage had wisps of what might be fresh air. The dim light of the torch did not help in revealing anything within the passage but there were dim outlines of a distant turn in the passage, letting him know there was some kind of light coming from that direction. Faint indistinguishable sounds almost like that of a rooting hog came from that direction.

Felarion edged to the south-east passageway opening. After a quick check of the doorway, he found no hidden trip wires or traps. It would be hard indeed to conceal those types of things in this type of setting. He inched forward and as he passed into the shadows of the passage, his night vision was restored in only a couple of seconds. He sensed no heat signatures of a living being but only sketchy outlines of cold objects lying about the floor and against the wall. The varying hues of blue and black made it hard to discern what these things were

He realised he was in a small room with no exit. His foot brushed up against something and it made a slight grating sound as he stepped back. He looked down to see and could barely make out the outline of a long metallic item like a sword.

From behind the group, Squeek was busily flitting back and forth. He spoke a brief word and there was a sound not unlike someone trying to pull their foot out of the mud. The same sound that was heard in the Inn just a few days ago. Arconde’ly watched intently as the little fremlin did his thing, amused at the look on Squeek’s face as it almost beamed. He could hear Squeek giggle now and then.

Arconde’ly pulled from under his tunic a silver symbol hanging from a silver chain. He gingerly rubbed it in his hands, feeling the warmth that his goddess bestowed upon it, letting Arconde’ly know that She was near.

At the back of the group, Arconde’ly, Kertai and Gladiola heard something at almost the same time. A noise like footsteps. Large footsteps were coming from the direction they had just came from. They heard that over the flapping of the fremlin’s wings and the “tink, tink” of a small hammer as Squeek started to tap his pitons into place for the trip-rope.

Arconde’ly seemed to jump a little, as if startled for a moment. He shook his head and strained to discern if the footfalls were moving rapidly or slowly closer to their position.

“SHHHH! Squeek, hurry!” Arconde’ly spoke to Squeek softly. “Someone, or something, is approaching.”

Arconde’ly then turned to Kertai and Gladiola, noting their actions. “I suggest we fall back to our companions. Squeek should be able to slow whatever’s approaching. We can act with the element of surprise.”

Shade was only a step or two behind Felarion. Gravel had positioned himself right behind Fleetfoot.

Fleetfoot turned to Gravel and whispered in his ear, “There is light and some noise coming from down this passage. I’m going to go see what it is. Keep alert.”

Keeping his longsword at the ready, Fleetfoot crept down the passage making as little noise as possible. As he neared the turn in the tunnel, he stopped and listened intently for any hint as to what it was he heard. He kept alert for any change in the smell or feel in the air. Keeping his head low to the ground, he peered around the bend in the tunnel to get a glimpse of what was making the ‘rooting’ noise.

Shade tried to peer around Felarion but could not see very much with the torchlight in his eyes. He wondered why Felarion had stopped but waited patiently for him to continue. Glancing back, he was also suspicious of why the party members were shifting positions with Kertai moving toward the passage where they came from. And with Arconde’ly rubbing his holy symbol, that could only mean one thing – trouble.

Shade reached out and tapped Felarion on the back, and whispered, “I think we may be getting company back in the other room. Let’s get back there.” With that, Shade slipped back into the room with the others.

Upon hearing Shade’s words, Felarion increased his pace somewhat, and followed Shade out, picking up and holding the new item in his hand until they reached better light.

Fleetfoot made his way down the passage at the north end of the room. He travelled eastward along a rough wide corridor. Gravel edged into the passageway impatiently, hoping to have some reason to hurry down to his new friend. As Fleetfoot peered around the corner at the end, he saw more daylight coming from up ahead to the left (north) about 60 or 70 feet. The tunnel twisted and turned slightly but light could still be seen. The noises he heard were still there and a growl or two could be heard as well.

Seeing Kertai tense, Shade moved to his side as Arconde’ly moved back next to Gladiola and plucked the torch from its groove in the wall. Shade’s rapier slid noiselessly out of its thin scabbard and the two stood side by side as an enormous ogre stepped into view at the end of the hallway. Squeek looked up to see Kertai and Shade standing defensively in front of him and looked at them quizzically, tilting his head to the side a bit.

The cavern was filled with a deafening roar as the ogre bellowed out its charge and headed down the hallway. Squeek was totally taken by surprise and at the sound of the roar he darted past Kertai and Shade, his eyes wide with fear. Arconde’ly had meanwhile pulled the torch from its groove in the wall and hurled it past the two warriors.

The ogre charged into the hallway and slipped at its first step. The ogre let out another deafening roar of rage only to change to that of pain as the hallway erupted into flames. The flames thrust outwards towards Kertai and Shade and the smell of burnt hair filled the air. The heat drove the party back into the room and a noticeable draft could be felt as the fire gasped to breathe.

As the fire leapt up into the face of Shade and Kertai, Shade sprang back, almost stumbling over Arconde’ly. He grabbed Kryssa, and shielding her from the heat, made their way to the doorway where Gravel waited behind Fleetfoot. Even now the smoke and heat were starting to get to him and he coughed.

Realising that he must get out of this area, since the fire was consuming the oxygen, Felarion started to head for the other tunnel, hoping his companions had some luck in finding an exit. Figuring that they would have to come back later to check the storage room, Felarion called to his companions and headed for the passage Fleetfoot and Gravel entered.

“May the justice of Tymora be upon you!” Arconde’ly yelled to the fallen ogre. He kissed his holy symbol tenderly, then turned to follow Gladiola, Kryssa, and Shade out of the tunnel. Arconde’ly noted Kertai’s protective stance nearby.

“Hurry everyone! I don’t want any other beasts following us out of this tunnel without all of us being ready for an attack! Kertai!”

The heat and smoke stung Gladiola’s eyes, and created a lot of discomfort. But she gritted her teeth and, picking up the folds of her long skirt, began to follow the others out of the tunnel. She knew Shade was protecting Kryssa, but she still kept her gaze on her. Just in case.

Kertai lifted his shield to protect his face and backed from the cave, keeping everyone behind him. Hurry up and move out of here, the black knight thought to himself as the flames roared before him. Kertai turned once to make sure everyone was getting out of the cave and shouted back at them. “Hurry, we must leave this place now.”

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, Fleetfoot turned to his comrade, Gravel, and gave him the thumbs up sign. Listening intently, and moving down the tunnel slowly, he tried to identify the maker of the growling noises.

His mind quickly went through the alternatives. If the creature making the noises was of the forest dwelling variety, he would attempt to befriend the creature. Right now, he was eager to find out where the tunnel led, whether it to the outside or not. As he moved towards the light, he drew his shortsword with his left hand, and kept his longsword in his right.

Seeing Fleetfoot’s signal, Gravel moved up towards his friend, but he still kept a small distance between himself and Fleetfoot.

He too, saw the light of the flames, and Felarion, Kryssa, Gladiola, and Shade pushing their way into the narrow passage. Kertai followed slowly behind, shield raised to protect them from the heat that momentarily blinded Gravel’s infravision. Gravel quickly turned and headed for Fleetfoot as fast as the treacherous footing would allow. Hearing Kertai’s shouted words of warning he yelled to Fleetfoot, “Move it or lose it, Lad!”

Gravel heard a flapping noise overhead and saw the little fremlin zipping past to get to Fleetfoot. The passage wound first to the left then the right then widened.

Hearing the noise and the loud footfalls of his comrades, Fleetfoot realised the time for stealth had passed and haste was now the priority. Squeek came flapping up fast behind him and could make out the form of Gravel almost running through the cave and then Kryssa appeared as well, followed shortly by Gladiola. They were all scrambling quickly to exit the small tunnel.

Kryssa slipped and fell to the ground and Shade and Gladiola lifted her to her feet while making their way forward. They made it another 20 feet and Gladiola slipped, twisting her ankle. Shade effortlessly slipped his arm around her waist, in mid-stride, and lifted her as though she were a handful of flour.

She was taken aback by the strength that Shade possessed. She remembered the strength that Sir Heshtar had in his arms and never had she felt so weak in comparison. This half-elf, she thought, was as strong or maybe stronger though in size he appeared four or five inches shorter than her beloved.

Something about this person she had placed her trust in was special. The strong personality and moral unbending reminded her of someone. His strength and courage and even his brooding nature at times was familiar. But his devotion to someone and something he had known about for just a few days was intense and she felt herself admiring him. This half-man, no – half-elf, whose elven ancestors would had shunned because of his mixed blood, was a truly noble person.

She knew, of course, that Kertai was of noble birth just by his bearing. His training had taught him honour and justice. There was also much about Kertai that reminded her of Sir Heshtar, but this rogue, Shade was intense about everything and she cherished life and its blessings, but she found herself longing for his passion for life. She would have to watch him…learn more about him.

Kertai was at the back of the group struggling to keep his breath while making his way down the tunnel.

Fleetfoot made his way down the tunnel and just as the light of day began to touch the entranceway to the cave, a looming figure stood before him. It was a huge ogre, standing just over ten feet tall. The creature had a large knife in one enormous fist and what appeared to be the rear leg of a horse, in the other. At the appearance of Fleetfoot coming from the cave the monster roared its challenge and lifted the shortsword-sized knife to strike at Fleetfoot.

Squeek looked up at the ogre standing in front of Fleetfoot and started back peddling. “Yoiks!! Gets me away! Away!” he yelled and headed back into the cave.

The black knight gasped for breath as he backed out of the tunnel, chased by fire. Yearning for air and unable to breath, Kertai looked back just in time to see Squeek yelling and moving back into the cave. More trouble? Kertai wondered to himself. Noticing that the rest of the group was near the entrance, the warrior turned and headed toward whatever frightened the little winged thing, prepared for anything.

Shade instinctively ducked as the fremlin swooped in and behind him. Seeing the trouble up ahead he set Gladiola down gingerly as Kertai stepped by him. He looked at Gladiola, his eyes lingering a bit longer than what might be comfortable and then seemed to blurt out, “There should be enough air getting in this far to keep you from harm. The fire is about fifty feet back so it should not burn you but keep low and shout should anything make it past the fire.” His eyes fastened on hers for an instant more then he turned to follow Kertai.

Gladiola was too stunned by the speed of the events happening about her to really react. She nodded her head at what Shade said and propped her hand against a wall. Her ankle hurt a lot, and she winced in pain as she bent down on one knee, her hand beginning to rub the injured area. She watched the form of Shade as he moved with Kertai, beautiful and powerful, just like the man she had remembered decades ago.

She shook her head, and thought to herself, silly Gladiola, concentrate on the events at hand. Dream no more! In any case…she looked to Kryssa as her thoughts began to overwhelm her again…in any case, he is already Kryssa’s Chosen. Gladiola had never come across the human custom of ‘Chosen’ but she guessed it probably mean something like betrothal. She bit her lips at the sudden pain that came about as her hand massage a sensitive part of her ankle.

Felarion looked to see the huge creature blocking the entranceway, and quickly putting the sabre he found away, he drew his trusty longsword and moved in to help Fleetfoot.

Shade dashed past Arconde’ly, a light seeming to glow from his hands. Arconde’ly remembered this spell from the painful night at Socktaw, a spell of powerful missiles. Arconde’ly moved in closer to his friends. He chanted in a low tone, “May the Blessings of Tymora be Upon My Comrades” and a soft glow appeared around his companions, the powerful blessings of a great power from above. He quickly charged towards the large ogre, his 2-handed warhammer gleaming from the sunlight through the doorway.

Hearing the urgency in his friends’ voice, Fleetfoot was not about to let a stinky old ogre stand in his way. Whatever was behind him, was surely more dangerous than what he faced now. Seeing the ogre lift its sword to attack, he prepared to swipe at the thing with his shortsword, and tried to tumble past the ogre if there was room, hoping it would be distracted by the appearance of his companions.

Gravel was still running as he entered the room and spied the ogre. Gravel clasped his battle axe and charged towards the beast, feigning a high chop and then dropping into a roll to come up behind the beast.

Trying to look brave, Squeek positioned himself by Gladiola. However there seemed to be more of her in front of him than behind him.

The huge beast roared as it lifted its food above its head, shaking it violently, preparing to swing. Fleetfoot started to dive past the ogre but it appeared Gravel had the same idea and they collided as they vaulted to the left of the ogre before them. They both went sprawling and managed to get to their feet, with Gravel in front, as the ogre brought the horse’s haunch down hard across his shoulder nearly jarring the axe from his hand. Fleetfoot stumbled back, regained his balance, and braced for his attack.

Gravel quickly regained his balance, raised his axe and cried out to Tempus before charging the ogre again.

Both Kertai and Felarion emerged from the tunnel at the same time. Felarion went left to help Gravel and Kertai, right. Out of the corner of his eye to the right, Kertai spotted another ogre, then another – three ogres in all. The other two were about a hundred yards off.

Two flashes of blue light streaked towards the ogre from within the cave. Their unerring aim struck the massive creature in the chest and it roared in agony. Felarion struck first but with his footing unsure, barely missed the beast’s abdomen.

Kertai’s aim was true as his sword sank deep into the side of the ogre, causing the ribs of the creature to gleam white for an instant before the crimson of blood flowed over them. The spray of blood covered Felarion as the revelry of battle engulfed the knight.

The priest of Tymora’s cries were lost amidst all the noise and sounds of battle. Only one heard his cries and answered them as the group of companions felt that overwhelming sense of security and warmth took hold. It was a feeling only one blessed by the gods could feel.

Inside the cave the little Fremlin peeked around Gladiola’s shoulder. He smiled at her and shrugged his shoulders. “Those big ugly thingys are everywheres! I hopes they don’t come forms down there too!” he said as he pointed back down the hall where the heat of the fire could still be barely felt.

Even more than fifty feet from the blaze, the smell of burning grease, hair, and flesh, stung the eyes and nostrils of the princess. She knew, even though Arconde’ly and Shade were merely 30 feet away, that they were very alone right now. Indeed, it was not a very good thought, that Squeek, Kryssa and her were vulnerable right then. The little fremlin might be able to slow something down, but she could not expect him to fight, hand-to-hand, one of those huge ogres.

Kryssa moved away from Gladiola and slowly towards Shade. The look of intensity and wanting to fight alongside her stepfather urged her forward.

Gladiola looked at Kryssa inching towards Shade and she too, started moving in that direction. It seemed to her that Shade was quite adept at magic. He was definitely not a wizard. He relied too much on his swords to be one. Her life as a noble had sheltered her from so much. Shade was truly a puzzle to her. One she might find herself trying to solve. Her thoughts were in turmoil about this person and again she wondered what this “Chosen One” was. She would remind herself to ask Kryssa.

After he saw the spell take effect, Shade leapt from the cave entrance with the grace of a cat. He quickly moved to Kertai’s side, covering his exposed flank from the two charging ogres a few yards away. He did not think he would be able to attack the ogre Kertai already had engaged in battle so he took a defensive posture and waited for the ogres to close on the party.

Felarion nearly gasped as he was sprayed with ogre blood, and figured he was going to have to learn to get out of the black knight’s way in the future. Returning his sword swing from his miss the first time, Felarion swung at the ogre’s side again, hoping they could drop this large beast before his companions arrive.

Feeling the blessing of his goddess course through him, Arconde’ly was momentarily lost to what was going on around him. He then turned, seeing Gladiola, Kryssa, and Squeek approach him from the flames beyond.

“Hurry! It looks like there may be more trouble ahead.” Arconde’ly cried out to them. He then moved closer to his companions and the ogre ahead. “By Tymora’s Grace!” Arconde’ly yelled as he cast a spell of fear and charged the ogre, with his 2-handed warhammer gleaming in the sunlight.

Seeing the ogres out among the horses, and one carrying the leg of one infuriated the black knight. They shall pay for this, the knight thought to himself. Watching the blood from the ogre he had hit fly across the grass, Kertai moved past it toward the other ogres, keeping an eye out for his tall steed Midnight.

Gladiola’s eyes adjusted to the dim light within the cave. She saw Arconde’ly beginning to cast another spell and wondered what the gods would allow this time. She stepped to Kryssa’s side and put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. Not sure whether to go to the cave entrance and see if they could help in some way, Gladiola hesitated as Arconde’ly stopped casting, pulled his enormous warhammer over his head and charged out of sight.

The sounds of battle heightened from outside the cave entrance and Kryssa looked to Gladiola and said, “I cannot have them always protecting me. I must fight with them. If they die and I do nothing…” Kryssa whirled around and bolted for the opening, following Arconde’ly. Gladiola reached out to stop her but missed the young girl’s arm.

Squeek fluttered in mid air wide-eyed and mouth opened as the young girl streaked for the doorway. “Waits! Waits!” He turned to Gladiola and said helplessly, “Whata we do? Whata we do? We can’ts just lets her… Oh! er!” Squeek started spattering and sputtering and went into a speech about not being able to take kids anywhere.

“Kryssa!” Gladiola called out after the girl that just ran off. She picked up her long skirt and gave chase. Within of herself she was thinking hard. This Shade is Kryssa’s ‘Chosen’. Neither of them must die today, like Gladiola’s beloved that day. She was determined to make things different this time.

Somehow, Gladiola found herself feeling guilty about the kind of thoughts moving within her head too. She had confusing thoughts about Shade, about Kertai. But just a little more about Shade. But she must not. Shade was somebody’s ‘Chosen’. As if she knew what that meant. But what else could it be? She asked herself. She decided to concentrate on helping the companions. She hoped she could do something with her meagre magical skills.

Chapter 15: The Mountainside Battle

Outside the battle bloody battle raged. As the huge beast reeled from Kertai’s blow and screamed its rage he swung the horse’s haunch in a wide arc. A flash of blue light from Felarion’s shoulder assured him his armour spell was still in effect. Though the blow knocked him back a step, the damage was absorbed by the spell.

Gravel, standing at the ogre’s flank, swung his mighty axe and a sickening thud sounded as the blade sank into the ogre’s thigh, just a little off its mark. Felarion and Fleetfoot saw a look of total fear come across the face of the ogre as it turned to run leaving its back totally exposed.

Fleetfoot slashed the heavy beast lightly across the back but Felarion saw the opening he had been waiting for. He stepped upon a small boulder and leapt onto the ogre’s back, driving his sword to the hilt, between its shoulder blades. He rode the beast to the ground, his sword protruding from the huge creature’s back.

The two ogres advanced with startling speed. One headed for the group, the other headed for the cave entrance. Kertai moved to intercept the one charging the party and Shade quickly moved to keep the other from advancing.

The two warrior’s stances were dramatically different. Kertai calmly and coldly moved in and attacked. His first swing caught the ogre slightly off-balance and a crimson streak appeared across the ogre’s torso.

Shade’s attack was so full of movement it appeared he feinted twice and tried to strike twice before he actually stepped into range of the bewildered ogre. His constant movement and flashing of swords had the ogre confused and both rapiers struck home into the gut of the ogre. The chaotic display ended abruptly though, as the ogre connected with a wild swing of a ham-sized fist. Shade was knocked back against the rocks of the mountainside and the grotesque ogre stood above Shade with both of the half-elf’s weapon stuck in its side. Shade scrambled for his footing and reached for the daggers hidden within his boots.

Felarion pulled his sword free from the dead ogre, and turned to see how the rest of his companions were faring. Seeing Shade launched away by the ogre, and that Kertai seeming to be holding his own, Felarion headed for the fallen Shade. Felarion charged the ogre with his sword out in front of him, hoping to catch him off guard with his sword, while he was preoccupied with getting to the fallen Shade.

Kertai was slightly distracted by his missing mount. The black knight’s helm swirled back and forth as he tried to find Midnight, at the same time watching the ogre attacking him, and made sure that his companions were in no need of immediate assistance.

Seeing Shade fall, smashed by the huge ogre’s fist, Kertai almost moved to aid him. However, as the blade rolled to his feet, the black knight focused his attention on the ogre attacking him. Seeing the ogre stumble by him from his last slash, Kertai pushed his attack, swinging his long sword violently at the creature’s side at what he hoped was just the right moment.

Gravel revelled in the blood and gore of the ogre. Gravel then caught something out of the corner of his eye. As he turned he saw Shade go down with a blow from the ogre. Gravel quickly charged towards the ogre that was moving in on Shade and tried to distract him by letting out a blood-curdling cry to Tempus. Gravel charged straight at the ogre, battle-axe in hand.

“Ohs my whats shall I dos?” Squeek muttered. Seemingly making up his mind he flew out of the cave and tried to find a small ledge on the cliff, somewhere out of reach of the ogre, and prepared to cast.

Feeling the revelry that had been bestowed upon him by his Goddess, Arconde’ly charged towards the oncoming enemy. Reaching the mountainside doorway, Arconde’ly narrowly avoided Felarion and his fallen ogre, and dived outside. He turned just in time to see his friend, Shade, get battered by a nasty ogre up against the mountainside.

“By Tymora’s Wrath!” Arconde’ly raised his 2-handed warhammer and charged the ogre, hatred gleaming in his eyes.

Gladiola reached the mouth of the cave and saw the massive ogre towering over the fallen form of Shade and her heart leapt into her throat. She then saw him move, then crouch, like a wild cat waiting for its prey to make the wrong move and she released her breath. She dropped the hem of her dress and quickly ran through the spells she had memorised. Was there anything that might be able to help him?

As if in answer to her prayers, it looked as if the entire party was converging on the ogre preparing to smash Shade into the rocks. Felarion nimbly leapt behind Kertai and lunged, sword straight-ahead in a charge, and nicked the ogre on the hip. The huge creature swung a massive fist to bat the nuisance away. Felarion again felt the tingling sensation, as his armour spell absorbed another hit, and realised the spell’s effects would no longer protect him as he heard the slight sound of breaking glass.

Kertai found himself deflecting a blow from the other large beast with his shield and countering with another vicious blow across its abdomen. He heard a grunt from his left as the charging Arconde’ly brought his mighty warhammer down squarely on the creature’s breastbone. A thunderous crack was heard and the ogre crashed backwards to the ground, sliding down the hillside several feet before skidding to a halt.

Fleetfoot slid to the rear of the ogre that just struck Felarion. He barely missed the ogre with his shortsword, but the longsword struck home across the lower back. The ogre howled in agony and reared backwards leaving his stomach vulnerable. Gravel swung high as he stepped up and the blade of his axe buried itself in the bowels of the creature.

From above a form flew through the air. At first Shade and the others thought it was Squeek but soon realised it was too big to be the little fremlin. Kryssa had taken a running leap from one of the boulders nearby and now sailed through the air with the shortsword clenched in both hands like a dagger. As she descended on the ogre she brought the shortsword down in its deadly arc into the side of the neck of the ogre, as she crashed into its shoulder.

Everyone’s eyes widened in disbelief as the young girl clung desperately to the hilt of the sword. Dropping the daggers in his hands, Shade leapt for the girl as the mortally wounded ogre came crashing down mere inches from Fleetfoot causing him to leap to the side to avoid being crushed. The jolt from the fall was so forceful, Shade and Kryssa were thrown from the ogre’s shoulder, down the mountainside uncontrollably. They tumbled about thirty feet before coming to an abrupt halt against the base of a large rock.

Kertai looked around and realised this was not the same terrain and environment in which he left his horse. They had not been on a mountainside before.

Squeek swiftly flew down to Shade and Kryssa from above the cave entrance. He shouted up to the rest, “They’s not awake! Hurry!”

A knot suddenly appeared in Gladiola’s stomach as quickly as it vanished just seconds before. “It cannot be…” she whispered to herself. Paralysed at what she had just witnessed, she stood there. Tears started to flow freely.

Arconde’ly watched intently as Kryssa and Shade tumbled down the mountainside, unable to react. When they stopped rolling, he realised that they were not moving, Arconde’ly quickly bounded down the mountainside, intent on reaching them. Putting his sword away, Felarion also ran down to where Shade and Kryssa lay.

“Ohs whats will we do.” Squeek moaned as he flew down the mountainside. He tried to check to see if they were still alive but did not really know where to look on human type creatures.

“Kryssa! Shade!” Arconde’ly cried out. Reaching them, Arconde’ly quickly checked each of them to see if they were still breathing, if there were any protruding bones or such. He quickly began a Cure Light Wounds spell on each of them.

Jumping aside to narrowly avoid being crushed like a bug, Fleetfoot shook his head in disbelief at the young girl’s unbelievable tactics. Fleetfoot’s grin faltered however, as he saw Shade and Kryssa thrown from the huge creature’s shoulder, to go tumbling down the side of the mountain.

Concerned for his friends’ safety, he began to move in their direction, scanning the countryside for signs of more trouble. His attention however, was caught by Squeek’s cry for help for his fallen comrades. Turning back in the direction of the fremlin, with his forehead wrinkled in concern and his heart still beating wildly from the encounter, he saw the priest of Tymora bounding to their companions’ aid. Realising Arconde’ly was on his way with his god-sent powers, he slowed his approach so that he could continue his scrutiny of the surrounding area, and the fallen ogres, to ensure the party’s safety.

Startled at suddenly finding himself on a mountainside, Kertai looked about for a moment silently. How in the world did this happen? The black knight thought to himself. The warrior’s thoughts moved immediately to Midnight, hoping that she was unharmed. Realising that his sword was still drawn, Kertai sheathed it and removed his helm to get a better look around. Then, with a puzzled look and in a slightly raised voice the black knight asked, “Where are we?”

Upon hearing Kertai’s question, Fleetfoot looked around for any landmarks, near or far, and tried to discern if he recognised the area.

Gladiola’s concern was more for the man and the woman he was holding on to, lying at the bottom of the mountainside. Sometimes she hated herself for being so weak. Why should you be crying, Gladiola? She chided herself. Drying her tears, she looked down and asked, her voice still trembling, “Arconde’ly, are they hurt? Are they…please tell me they are still alive!”

Within her heart she was praying to the guardian of the forests, the great Silvanus himself. Oh please, oh please, let him…no, let them live! Gladiola was feeling somewhat confused. Yes, a part of her tugged at her, feelings for the half-man – but she wanted so much for this couple to make it where she had failed then! She peered, trying to see the couple’s condition over Arconde’ly and Squeek.

Arconde’ly bounded recklessly down the steep mountainside to his friends. As he stepped closer to them a movement could be seen as Kryssa started to push up on Shade. She pushed his shoulder up off of her and saw that it was Shade. Her eyes widened and tears started to flow.

Shade’s eyes remained closed and Kryssa started to panic. She scrambled out of the half-elf’s arms and her breathing quickened as her sobs started to rack her body. Was she destined to be left alone in this world? Her family, her home, and now her new “chosen” father. It was all coming too fast and she turned and ran straight into the arms of Gladiola.

Gladiola, taken by surprise by the sudden actions of the young girl could only hold her as she slumped to the ground sobbing uncontrollably. Gladiola found herself at a loss for words but tried to comfort Kryssa, stroking her silky brown hair. For the first time in what seemed like ages the thoughts of children come to her. She had not really thought much of her maternal side since the death of Sir Heshtar but the sight of this girl weeping in her arms made her feel like she was to protect her, nurture her, teach her.

Arconde’ly’s words brought Gladiola out of her reverie. “He’s alive. He’s breathing! I think he was only knocked unconscious from the fall. He has a nasty gash on the side of his head and it is starting to swell.”

Arconde’ly reached for his holy symbol and muttered a quick prayer to Tymora. As he laid a hand on the bard’s head, a soft blue glow appeared from within his hand holding the symbol and from under his other hand against Shade’s head. Felarion, now at Arconde’ly’s side, asked if there was anything he could do and the priest asked him to help get him to more stable ground. Up by the cave entrance would be good.

Seeing that Arconde’ly and Felarion seemed to have things under control, Gravel helped Gladiola get Kryssa up the slope as well. Kertai and Fleetfoot searched the surrounding area for other ogres but none could be seen.

Felarion bent down to help lift Shade, and brought him back up to the cave entrance. Walking slowly, carrying the bard, Felarion gently set him down once they reached the entrance. Not knowing what else to do, Felarion then waited as the priest did his work.

Making sure that Shade was taken care of properly, Arconde’ly and Felarion were careful not to move too quickly up the mountainside and risk dropping and injuring Shade further. At the top of the mountain, Arconde’ly set Shade down gently near the others near the cave entrance. A worried look crossed his face, and he looked to Kryssa, sobbing in Gladiola’s arms.

“His breathing’s steady and,” Arconde’ly stopped and looked at Shade, moving his head slightly in his hands. “It looks as if Shade will be among the living, after all.” Arconde’ly beamed a smile at Shade, who tried to rise then slumped back in Arconde’ly’s lap.

“Hold on, my friend. You took a nasty spill. Kryssa is fine…”

Kertai and Fleetfoot noticed something interesting. The mountain sloped off quickly to the west and as they investigated way further the smell of seawater filled the air. There was a cliff to the west overlooking the sea. A lone ship could be seen far off to the west, too far out to signal. It was probably a merchant ship.

Squeek fluttered nearby and floated after the two scouts, Kertai and Fleetfoot. He brought the boat to their attention.

Gazing out to the West, over the great expanse of the sea, Fleetfoot was lost in wonder at the smells and sensations previously unknown to him. What a wondrous sensation! To view that which was unknown, to mark the moment when the Unknown becomes the Known. Never again would he gaze uncomprehendingly at those who reminisce of the oceans and seas. What wonders awaited on the far shores? Or on the journeys to distant lands?

“Oh Gods, what a beautiful sight! Do you see, Kertai? Have you ever sailed the seas?” Fleetfoot asked his companion as they peered off to where Squeek had pointed out the ship. Overcoming his reverie, Fleetfoot looked to the sky to get his bearings. Noting that the sun was more southerly than earlier, he surmised they were farther north than when they entered the tunnel. Perhaps somewhere along the Northern coast, even farther north than Vernain.

Returning with Kertai and Squeek, to the rest of the party, he was relieved to see Kryssa awake and Shade starting to awaken. Though Kryssa was obviously distraught over her foster father’s plight, he knew she would be fine, with Gladiola there to soothe her.

As he approached the group he smiled and nodded at Kryssa and Gladiola. “There is a cliff and shoreline to the west of here,” he stated through his smile, “I believe we are farther north than we were when we entered the tunnel. Perhaps north of Vernain, somewhere along the coast.”

Shade’s eyes fluttered open and he sat bolt upright. “Kryssa!” he shouted as he looked around for the young girl. Seeing her in Gladiola’s arms, he relaxed a bit and even smiled. It was not often such emotion escaped him to his companions except in his stories. He looked up at Arconde’ly kneeling beside him and thanked him.

Shade held his arms out to Kryssa and beckoned her to him. “Come here young lady,” he said with obvious fake anger in his voice. As he took her into his arms he said, “How can I keep my promise to your father to take care of you if you throw yourself at ogres?” He smiled a caring smile and hugged her tight.

He then gazed up to Gladiola, standing a few feet away. “And thank you!” he smiled a half smile but his eyes showed more. There was a tenderness in his look that seemed to last forever or until Fleetfoot brought Shade out of his trance.

“Good to see you awake, Shade,” Fleetfoot said to his friend, “and that was quite a move you put on that ogre, Kryssa,” he said warmly to the girl, “But next time, I suggest you wait until a bard can watch, so that your name can be glorified in a proper ballad! I’d hate to see such tactics used and not chronicled for future story telling!” Fleetfoot said with a friendly smile and winked at his friend, Shade.

“Kertai’s got it right though, what do we do now?” He queried his friends in a serious tone.

Shade looked up at the ranger and said, “It’s good to be awake, Fleetfoot, and don’t worry, it will be chronicled. I wasn’t out when she jumped onto that thing. By the way, that reminds me. Where are my swords?” He started looking around him.

“Oh! They must still be in the ogre!” Looking at Kryssa he asked her, “Well, brave young maiden, will you please fetch to me my blades?”

Gladiola watched the loving hug between Shade and Kryssa and gave a small almost imperceptible sigh. She was right. Perhaps being the Chosen meant that they were to be together forever, liken to being ‘joined together’ as the children of the forests called it.

But she really felt uncomfortable at the gaze Shade gave to her. She felt good with that gaze given her, yet she knew something was wrong. Somehow it just did not seem right for a man joined together with another to still look upon her like that. But perhaps she was wrong. Perhaps she just misinterpreted the smile. Perhaps she was just being too sensitive. But she knew what she must do. The feelings that she was beginning to have for this half-man must go.

Her face showed briefly the determination within her thoughts, then relaxed as she thought of Kryssa in her arms. It was so interesting – in terms of absolute age, Gladiola would be old enough to be her great-great grandmother. But yet her years of living still gave her the looks and the wisdom perhaps of one same age as the woman crying in her arms then. Still, she remembered her promise to herself. Yes, she would take care of Kryssa too, to make sure she could be with Shade. Just like she really wanted to be with Sir Heshtar.

Shade attempted to stand. “I believe what you say is true Fleetfoot. This area is far from where we were, south of Socktaw. The smell of the ocean tells me that. If we’re north of Vernain, we could be in trouble. That is heavy ogre, and orc country. Giants are even known to live there along the coast. I say, if we can get our horses through that cave, we go back for them now and lead them through. At least get Kertai’s mount. Vernain is where we will find Zarcodious. If he is behind this, we should be able to find some information about this there.”

Felarion responded, “Provided the fire has taken its course, we should be able to return and get the horses, though I am not sure any but Kertai’s mount would enter the cave. I also would like to take another look inside that room I was in before the ogres came at us, though we will need some light in there.” Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed his newly acquired weapon from his belt, and tossed it at Shade. “Ever seen one of these?”

“I agree. Maybe Squeek would like to go check if the fire is still going.” Shade caught the thin blade by the hilt, and stepping away from Arconde’ly, twirled the sword around his hand, first across the back of his hand then across the palm, the hilt never leaving the blade-master’s touch.

“It’s one of my favourites. It is called a sabre, Used by many a swashbuckling sailor. The ogre probably claimed it from some poor man that came ashore near here. It has its drawbacks in my opinion because the blade is curved and therefore cannot be easily spun or thrown. My rapier is just about the same with the exception that the rapier is not a curved blade. If you wish, I can teach you to use it properly.”

Shade took a closer look at the weapon for any runes or symbols and wiped the blade to see if it was just grimey or if it had rusted.

Felarion thought about the offer. “Hmm, it might not be a bad weapon to use for myself then, since I do not use any fancy blade-work and rarely throw my weapon away. Perhaps then if we can find the time, I will accept your kind offer.”

Gladiola looked towards the ocean, and the lone ship sailing. She, too, had never seen the ocean, or how it smelt like. It did smell funny, almost pungent to her. She liked the smell of the flowers, of the trees of the forest. In her homeland, the elves were sensitive to the lives of the trees, and wove their enchantments around them.

Still, there was almost a kind of freshness to it. The sea breeze that she had never felt before in the forests of the Great Silver. Her hair rustled and settled down gently on her back. She smoothed out the wild strands, showing off her lovely wrists and beautiful temple, before turning to look at her companions. She had something to say.

“Friends, Gladiola wishes to say something.” She paused, as one who understood the place of women in the courts of the human lands. She continued, “She has heard much about this Zarcodius, and his lands. If truly the goblin uprisings were caused by him, then Gladiola fears we may not have the strength to fight him alone, for he would be one who controls a kingdom, small as it may be!

“Gladiola knows not why or how he may have his hand upon this. But she believes she could do better alongside the children of the forests. She would appreciate it truly if her friends could be with her, and help the children of the forests in preparation for the coming fight.”

Gladiola could not be sure this was the best idea, but she could not imagine her friends fighting an evil arch-mage. It would just be a needless loss of lives. And she would hate to see them die…especially Kryssa…and Shade.

Chapter 16: Weapons of War

At the words from Gladiola sank in, Shade felt his face flush. “What? How can you say that we seven people could make that much difference on a battlefield? You know I am no coward but if we fight against armies we will surely die, consumed by fireballs hurled at us by war wizards. I intend on living a long life and I believe we are out here on our own for a reason. We are the flies in the ointment per se. We are a hidden trap door that will send even an arch-mage plummeting to his death. I do not fear Zarcodious. I respect his power, but his power is as strong as those about him, just as the same with us.

“I look at each one of us and I see a single person but when I look at us together, I see the point of a lance in the hands of a mighty knight. If you see what you could lose, that is wisdom. If you live your life in such a manner though, you are a slave, bound by what fear of loss. Squeek has warned your father of the information we have discovered. Your father is a wise man, your highness. If he had wanted you to return, would he not have sent word with Squeek? I think we should continue on, if not from here, then from Socktaw. We are your father’s eyes and ears to the machinations of the human lands.”

Shade looked intently at Gladiola. There was almost a pleading in his voice. A brief but heavy silence followed as he awaited Gladiola’s reply. Tension filled the air like a thick fog as Shade’s words almost seemed to echo through the minds of the party. This was definitely a man of passion and spirit. But all seemed to hang on what the elven princess was to say next.

Kertai stood, moved by the bard’s words. The black knight’s green eyes shone with thought from beneath his long, black hair that blew gently in the wind around him. Seeing that no one else had anything to say at that moment, Kertai began to speak in a solemn, steady voice.

“Shade is correct. A force as small as this one would make little difference in comparison with the army of the elves.” Tapping one black gauntlet against the other to make a small pinging sound, the black knight continued, “Many of us would not even be well suited to a battle in the forests of Gladiola’s home. Our mission is to find out what we can of these goblin forces and report our findings. We should continue on, to learn more.”

With that small speech, Kertai waited to see what others had to say. His mind suddenly drifted to thoughts of Midnight, his steed, wondering what had become of her. The warrior’s eyes shone with a dark brooding.

Gladiola looked at the handsome knight, the helm held in one of his strong hands, then at Shade, and gave a sigh. The passionate speech given by both of them was somewhat expected, and somehow she felt there was no stopping them in their passion to overcome the evil that seemed to be revealing more of itself as the days went by. Silvanus, Gladiola fears the day when the companions around her would die, like those with her in the days of the Goblin Wars, she thought to herself as she prayed a silent prayer to the watcher of the forests. But if truly there is no stopping this, then at least let Gladiola be where she could be counted on!

Gladiola nodded and gave a courtly bow, before speaking in a quiet voice, “Gladiola understands, Shade. She gave her thanks to you too, Kertai, for your support. Come, let us be on our way. Who knows perhaps if the bite of a snake may prove fatal when the crushing blows of a man may fail?” Her smile was beautiful, and the eyes sparkled like the sparkles off the waves of the ocean just behind her.

“I agree Princess, the few of us would be of little help in a large battle,” replied Fleetfoot to Kertai’s speech, “Perhaps if we plan our actions right, we may prove enough of a distraction to tip the scales of war in our people’s favour. I, for one, know what the outcome of our actions may be. I believe that our cause is for justice, and am ready to make the sacrifice if needed. But,” Fleetfoot said with a smile, “I won’t give myself up without a fight and good cause.”

With this said, Fleetfoot looked to the condition of his swords and bow. If there were to be battle, he would be ready. Felarion then spoke up after him, “Well, if we all decided, then let us continue. Those that practice evil shall wish they never did, before we finish with them.”

Looking about at the group and seeing that everyone had agreed to continue the current mission, the black knight spoke up again, “Having decided to continue this course of action, we need next to decide in what manner to do so. Should we try and go on here, or make an attempt to return for our horses and equipment?”

The knight paused for a moment. Kertai’s mind ran quickly, trying to decide whether it would be best to continue from there, or return for the horses. Kertai thought hard about the horse that had been his companion for so many years. Finally deciding, the knight continued speaking, his green eyes dark.

“My preference is that we try and return for the horses. A knight is worth little without his mount, and one as exceptional as Midnight is difficult to find. I will, however, agree with whatever the party decides.” Having said his peace, the black knight nodded slightly and stood silently with a brooding look upon his face.

Shade’s eyes seemed to follow Gladiola’s every movement. Hoping for a hint of something… something… he did not know what. Turning back to the conversation he said, “I think we should return for the horses and try to coax them through the cave. I say this for a reason. Dain knows we are in that part of the country. If we leave from there, he will have some idea of the area we are in. If we go on from here, we are closer to Vernain and we have the element of surprise if speed is needed. We can also slip into the city unseen. If my guess is right, we are two days from Vernain. If we go back through Socktaw and Misthaven, our journey will be about a week and will be just as dangerous. Let’s try to get the horses now.”

Shade made his way up the short way to the cave entrance. Felarion fell in step behind Shade, and said, “Anyone got a light I can use? I wish to check out that room some more.”

Gravel and Arconde’ly seemed to be the first back to the entrance of the cave and did not hesitate to jump at the chance to get going away from all that talking. Felarion followed quickly. Men of action need not talk all the time and besides, if there was something to find in the cave, he wanted to be there. Squeek was right beside him not wanting to miss anything.

Shade followed Fleetfoot and Kertai into the cave. He wanted to stay behind in case trouble were to come from the rear. It also gave him a chance to watch over Gladiola and Kryssa.

As the party entered the cave, they could smell the acrid odour of burnt grease and flesh. The smoke was thick as they made their way down the narrow entryway back into the mountainside. It seemed further this time but that might be because they were in such a hurry to get out a short time ago. At the large triangular room where they had set the trap in the south-west passage a torch still burnt but beyond that was darkness. The small room to the south-east was dark as well. Shade took out his only torch from his rucksack and handed it forward to Gravel to light. The dwarf stretched to get the torch lit but managed and turned back to the smaller room. Gravel and Felarion moved to inspect the room.

As the light of the torch touched the room and its contents the two adventurers gasped at what lay about upon the floor and against the walls. Suits of armour, weapons, clothing, crates, and chests littered the floor of the cramped room. Gravel let out an oath, “Greystone’s beard!” and stood there gazing at the things about him.

Felarion quickly moved into the treasure room, looking for weapons he was familiar with using, or perhaps some other item that might appear to be useful to one such as himself.

Kertai inspected the far tunnel where the ogre was burnt and found another ogre body that tried to escape as well. Even for the knight, the sight saddened him some as he discovered the other fallen form to be holding two wrapped bodies of ogre children. “They are dead,” he said almost to himself, the dim lighting hiding his grim features.

Shade came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “It had to be my friend. They would grow to hate us and kill us if need be.”

The smoke seemed to be getting to Gladiola as she stood behind Shade and Kertai, listening to their conversation. Kryssa stood motionless behind Gladiola. Not a tear was shed as her only thoughts were of her father, and Shade carrying him to lie beside her mother.

Gladiola looked at the young woman next to her, deep in her own thoughts. Perhaps thinking of how her village had been burnt, and how her people had perished before? Gladiola sighed. When will all these fighting end? She wondered. Her forests and her people too had suffered during the wars just a few decades ago. As long as there was evil in the land, there would always be war. There was something within that told her things must be different this time. Perhaps with the destruction of this latest evil, the land would have peace for a few more decades.

Gladiola felt a little giddy just thinking and looking at all the carnage before her. She caught hold of Kryssa’s shoulder, trying not to faint, trying to stay strong. Gladiola, you must be strong! She thought to herself as she tried hard to cling on to Kryssa, turning away from the sight, but having no escape from the smell that assaulted her.

The black knight only nodded solemnly at Shade’s words of the ogre children. Kertai’s fist unconsciously clenched as his mind drifted to the time when the burn-marks on his sword were made. He thought of the small children he saw then, the suffering, the screams.

The others back in the larger room heard Gravel’s oath. Arconde’ly entered to investigate, preceded by Squeek. The little fremlin almost yelled, “Jumping jigsticks! Wow! Lookies at alls these things!”

Hearing Gravel and Squeek yelling, Shade leapt past Gladiola towards the other passageway hoping that his friends were all right. He quickly drew his rapier and stepped up next to Arconde’ly.

Arconde’ly saw what made Gravel cried out, and said, “If any of this armour is in good condition, we may want to look into improving our own set.” He looked down at his chain mail shirt, and his torn and bloodied tunic. “I, for one, can use something that will protect me a bit better. Perhaps Sir Kertai can help me with a good selection of armour.”

Brought back to reality by those gawking at treasure, Kertai turned and strode towards the rest of the group. His green eyes seemed deeply sad, but his face looked hard and emotionless. Seeing the horde of equipment, the black knight was slightly taken aback, his eyes widening for a moment.

“There must be much of use here,” Kertai said softly, unsure whether it was to himself or to the others. The knight then methodically began to search through the armour, attempting to find suits that would fit him or other party members.

Staying well back from his comrades as they inspected the crates, armour and weapons, Fleetfoot watched with trepidation, as his step-father’s words rang in his ears, “Beware of that which appears as a gift, things are not always as they appear.”

Deciding that there were few things he wanted more than the safety of the party, Fleetfoot drew his weapons and kept an alert watch on the entrances to the cavern.

Shade let his sword lower back to its baldric at his side and just shook his head silently, after seeing that Gravel’s oath was more from shock than anything else.

The party that entered the small room had crowded into a very small space at the room’s opening to the passage. The room seemed to be filled with all sorts of things. Pieces of armour, weapons, tools, chests, crates, and even bones were strewn about the room. Most of the things were just piled high to the cavern ceiling along the walls.

It would take hours to sort through everything. Arconde’ly mumbled a few words from the side and he started scanning the room. A rough estimate of items in the room brought was quickly made. Three large crates, one large chest, four medium sized chests, one small chest were on the floor. Over twenty suits of plate-mail armour and over twenty suits of chain-mail armour were scattered about. For weapons, there were over fifty long-swords, over fifty short-swords, almost a dozen battle axes, over twenty spears, over twenty bows, dozens of arrows and too many daggers and knives to count, over forty swords of various types, 2 crossbows and a dozen bolts and a lance with colours.

Other items included three banners, many rings, bracelets, and other jewellery, too many items of clothing and leather to count, a few scroll cases and books and other miscellaneous small items. This was a lot of stuff – these ogres must have been there a long time.

Among the littered room Gladiola spotted something that made her heart tremble – a set of chain-mail armour of Elven make. Gladiola did not know much about armour, but she knew enough of the hard work and years of dedication the Elven armour-smiths put into the creation of these suits. Forged by the beams of the moon, enchanted by the songs of the forests, and crafted by the ancient spells of the elves, only elves of noble character had access to such armour.

Gladiola could only guess at how the ogres got to have one among their possession. Gladiola loved jewellery, after being among the courts of humans, but the armour belonged to the elves, and to them alone. Her eyes turned to the man sorting out the armour and weapons, and she called out to Sir Kertai.

“Sir Kertai…there be one suit of chain-mail, of a make of silver metal, Gladiola requests that you bring it over, please?” There was a seriousness in her eyes, and this time her words carried more than just a simple request. There was something special this time.

Shade stood there with his mouth open unable to fully comprehend how many died at the hands of these creatures. He quietly said to those around him, “There are enough things here to equip a small army of men. We need time to thoroughly check this out. Kertai, I know you need to get back to Midnight but this can’t be ignored.”

Felarion agreed, “We should all at least equip ourselves as best as possible from this stuff. Perhaps we can gather what things we would find useful, and move them outside, while perhaps Kertai goes and retrieves the mounts and moves them to this other side of the cave. Then we can all look through the stuff we gathered outside the cave.”

Felarion then went through and gathered the long-swords, short-swords, daggers, rings, and made a pile of each. All the while he also searched for any whips, staves, bracers, or even the remote elven chain-mail armour. Once the piles were all complete, he got prepared to cast a spell detecting magic over the piles, to go through and separate what appeared to be magical and what did not.

As Felarion sorted through the items, he came across the lance. He took it up, and moving to Sir Kertai’s side, offered it to him.

After about 20 minutes of sorting, Arconde’ly finished his spell, and turned to his companions. “I have asked for a magic detection spell from Tymora to aid us in determining what is magical in nature in these items. I have detected several items of a magical nature within this room. There are 2 rings that are magical. Also, 2 books, 2 shortswords, 1 chainmail shirt of superior quality and very light, a sabre identical to Felarion’s, a large hammer, a long-sword, a medium-sized shield, and vestments with Tymora’s holy symbol on them. All other items in here are mundane. If no one objects, I will take the vestments of Tymora, the large hammer, and the shield. Gladiola should have the chainmail shirt of elfin make, for it rightfully belongs to the elves of the forests.”

Arconde’ly looked at the vestments with interest, wishing to learn more of them. Perhaps in prayer he would find the answers he sought.

“Also, I have noticed several items that are magical that you, my friends, are carrying. Felarion’s blade, Shade’s rapier and ring on his hand, the boots on his feet, Kryssa’s short sword, Kertai’s blade, and Gladiola’s books.”

Since his companion’s spell had revealed all the magical items, Felarion decided to forego his own. ‘I think we should keep the spellbooks as a group item, and all the other magic items, we should take with us as we return to the horses, and we can divvy them up based on what best suits whom or who wants what. I personally have no objections to Arconde’ly’s choices, and I personally would like one of the magical shortswords.”

Felarion then made his way among the many daggers in the stack, replacing any of his own with any he found to be in better shape, and also took a longsword.

Fleetfoot agreed with Arconde’ly’s and Felarion’s request, and he stated that he too would like the use of a shortsword.

While his companions were discussing their needs, he sorted through the bows and arrows, looking for any recognisable fletchings or well made bows. He quickly replenished his stock of arrows and claimed another 2 full quivers. He also looked for a serviceable knife and 2 daggers, especially throwing daggers.

Gravel looked around the room with an expressionless face before turning to the group. “Hurry up and sift through that stuff, I will keep watch.” Gravel paced about keeping an eye at all entrances to the room.

The black knight moved carefully through the various items in the room, examining those that seemed worthwhile carefully, but quickly. His gauntleted hands took special care examining the lance as his dark green eyes study its surface. Kertai’s view moved quickly to Arconde’ly when he mentioned that the sword he carried was magical. Soon after he returned to his examination of the equipment, but seemed slightly distracted by something.

At the mention of his magical items, Shade quickly turned his head and looked at Arconde’ly. He was not sure what the priest had intended by letting everybody know of his things. Shade said nothing at this intrusion of his privacy but made a mental note of it.

Kertai continued his examination of the colours on the lance after he quietly handed the chainmail suit to Gladiola. He was familiar with them. The silver sickle across the green and black banner belonged to a neighbouring lord near his homeland. It was possible that a knight sworn to this lord could have fallen at this site and never returned to his homeland.

Squeek swooped down and landed on one of the old crates and a board dropped to the cave floor from its side. Curiosity getting to the better of him, he took a closer look as he peered through the opening. He saw some old rags and decided to open the decaying crate.

As he tore through the old rags he hit something solid and as his little clawed fingers brushed the refuse away, the glint of gold appeared and revealed a golden statue of a unicorn. The horn appeared to be made of some sort of clear gem that sparkled with a fire of its own, an oddly cut diamond. The workmanship was beautiful and old in style.

As Felarion eyed all the loot around him, he felt something rub up against his leg from behind. He quickly turned, drawing his shortsword, and looked down.

Shade rummaged through the hoard of items and took a couple of daggers and as many items of jewellery as his pouch would hold.

The rest of the group started to gather things that they might need as well as the items Arconde’ly had said were magical. The coins were scattered all over and would take a while to gather.

Arconde’ly was surprised at the bounty discovered there in the caves. He did feel remorse for having killed the fleeing ogres and their children, but he also knew that if it had not been done, he and his friends would have surely become their next victims. He did wonder how this entire different assortment of items came into the ogres’ possessions.

“I am surprised to find all of these items enchanted with magic of some kind. It seems peculiar that there are so many different items of war here, old or no. I have a feeling that there are more such areas in the nearby vicinities, and that these may be areas for the humanoids to store some of their items in preparation of an attack.”

Arconde’ly knew that he was speaking his thoughts to no one in particular, but the whole situation that was developing had him worried about Socktaw, and other towns like it.

“We need to leave here as soon as we can. MistHaven was the next town that was near to our location, and I fear for their safety and preparedness for the atrocities that happened at Socktaw.”

After gathering the vestments of Tymora, a new chain mail shirt to replace the one he had, and the large hammer, Arconde’ly looked to Gravel, a sad look in his eyes. “I hope we make it to MistHaven in time to help them, my friend.”

Gladiola curtseyed and smiled at Kertai as he handed her the chainmail suit. Her smile was bright and beautiful, and had turned the hearts of many a man in the lands of the humans, and not a few elves as well in the Great Silver. Her people had chosen the right person for diplomatic missions indeed.

Her fair and beautiful hands traced the patterns of the moon silver, the metal that went into the manufacture of the intricate links of chain woven as much by magic as it was by the hands of the elven mage-armourer. She had seen her father and uncle don one of these when she was but an elfling, and her young hands had marvelled many a times then at the big mass of metal that even she could carry. Most of the wonder had since gone by her, but the feel of the links of chain brought back many memories.

For a moment she was undecided as to the use of the elfin chain. She had never wore any armour in her life, but the coat looked easy – probably she just needed to put it over her, like she would her dress. But she did not want the suit to spoil her dress. She would have to wear it within her dress, like what her uncle did. But not here, not with all the men watching.

She could not help but gave a giggle as her mind went to the time when she had to change behind the bushes while Sir Heshtar kept watch. She could tell then that he was uncomfortable, and kept asking when she would finish so he could turn around to see his beautiful wife-to-be.

Gladiola sighed and folded the armour delicately, putting it into the satchel she was carrying over her shoulder. She wished her pony was around – in her previous mission it was always around to carry her things. Now she had to carry all the heavy things herself. Her shoulders ached a little at the weight but she would not allow anyone to touch her precious books.

Her eyes turned to Shade, scooping the jewellery. She had seldom encountered them in her years in the Great Silver, and thus it was that when Sir Heshtar presented her with the beautiful pieces of glittering gemstones that he had won her heart over. But it would never happen again. Never.

Her thoughts returned to the present, as Arconde’ly’s words woken her from her thoughts. Her eyes turned to the mass of weapons at the cave, and his words had her worried indeed. She looked to Kertai, and said, “Gladiola thinks Arconde’ly’s words ring true. The horses would have to be taken through, and brought quickly to the next city. Indeed, she fears the evils of what too great a delay could bring.” Her beautiful eyes looked to her companions in the room.

Chapter 17: On the Road Again

Shade said to the priest, without taking his eyes off the hoard of items, “Ogres are not apt to use weapons such as these and they can certainly not use armour made to fit humans either. I would say, from the looks of things here, that this room was just a junk room. They may have been hoarding this stuff for possible trade to other races. Either that, or just didn’t know where to put the manling junk.”

After sorting through what Arconde’ly had announced as magical, Shade plucked a single ring from the pile. He looked it over and turned to leave.

As Shade turned to leave, he glanced at the lovely Gladiola. He could not tell her of his growing feelings for her. He could not understand why this was. Maybe it was the noble blood running through her veins. Maybe it was out of professional courtesy. He did know that he would not be able to go on much longer without telling her though. A lone tear slowly drifted down his cheek. He was thankful, if not partly, that the lighting in the cave was dim.

He was growing close to her and yet could not bring himself to endanger his comrades by clouding his judgement by such silly notions as love. His father and mother had loved each other. They had died for that love. Would he…could he do the same for Gladiola? His mind was whirling with these thoughts. Each step he took she was there. Each sidelong glance in her direction brought a quivering to his stomach and his heart felt as though it would burst from his chest.

He had to keep his mind on what he was doing. There was no time for love now. Now was the time for war or to douse it before it raged into an inferno that consumed all in its path. With his mind set straight again, he paused to be sure all the magical items were taken with them.

He sometimes wondered how a small group of people could turn the events of the world but thought of the stories he had heard and even retold of one or two people changing the course of cities or countries. It was his dream to be hailed in these ballads.

Startled at the touch of something on his leg, Felarion half jumped to one side, almost stumbling over Gladiola admiring the chainmail. When he and a few of the others looked down at what has startled the half-elf, they found nothing but a small wooden chest, bound in brass. That chest was like any chest Gladiola might see in a household that might contain quilts or winter clothing with one obvious exception.

That chest was moving, almost wagging, as though it was a small fluffy dog. Underneath the chest was what amazed everybody though. Dozens of small human feet seemed to lift the small chest from the floor about six inches. The small chest jumped a little towards Felarion acting again like a small dog wanting to play. Without warning, the little chest leapt up at Felarion and landed squarely on his chest, knocking the half-elf back again. Felarion had no choice but to catch it.

The weight of the little box was alarming. It was all Felarion could do to keep from toppling over. The group of companions seemed to just stop and stare. Kryssa’s eyes lighted up at the little creature’s antics and she could not help but giggle.

Shade turned to Arconde’ly and said, “I think you missed something with that spell.” Shade smirked to himself.

As the commotion died down a bit and the chest had made its rounds and “sniffed” everyone except Gravel out in the corridor, the group picked up the things they wished to take with them and made for the entrance, back in the cave, that went to Socktaw.

The only other things found were four other ogre children and five adult ogres. They were all dead. The fire had suffocated all of them, consuming every bit of oxygen left in the cave. With the fire out now though, the air had returned somewhat to normal. The companions did not realise the extent of damage their fire had caused until they had to step over the fallen forms of the ogres.

As the group exited the cavern at the point at which they entered, Midnight’s head flew up and a whinny came from the tall ebony mare. Kertai’s eyes showed his relief at the horses’ safety and he immediately walked up and stroked the mare’s thick neck. He tucked the banner he had recognised in a saddlebag and quickly mounted.

The little chest had now noticed Gravel and was trailing some six or eight paces behind the stout priest of Tempus. Gravel kept watching the thing and whenever he would stop, the chest would stop. Kryssa lifted her hand to her mouth to try a stifle a giggle but found it difficult.

Fleetfoot examined the area around the horses and found that all was well and nothing had been disturbed. No tracks other than those of the party and the horses themselves were near. He soon set out towards Socktaw with the rest of the group following on horseback.

“It seems we have a new companion among us!” Arconde’ly chuckled. He looked good in his newly replaced chain mail shirt, he thought to himself, though it was still a bit tarnished with dust and age.

The vestments of Tymora stood out in the sunlight, reflecting brightly. His 2-handed war-hammer now rested inside his backpack, the handle sticking out of one side. Arconde’ly knew that he was not used to using a one-handed weapon, but with the new challenges that would surely follow the tragedy at Socktaw, and now with the ogre’s den, Arconde’ly would undoubtedly need to become better skilled at fighting than what he was currently. Perhaps, Arconde’ly thought, Sir Kertai can show him a thing or two on fighting with a shield and weapon – when things were not so rushed.

“Lady Gladiola, let me assist in helping you board your fine steed.” Arconde’ly held his hand out for the beautiful elf, feeling a bit intoxicated at the closeness of her, the smell of her. “It appears we are on the move again. Let’s pray we get to Misthaven in time to be of help to them.”

Gladiola nodded, gave a smile to the brave cleric, and took his hand as she mounted the horse. She was one accustomed indeed to the ride of the horse, sitting on the saddle and easing the mare easily into a gentle walk.

Felarion, now mounted on his horse, kept an eye on the animated chest, commenting, “Any ideas on what that thing is?”

Shade laughed at the little chest creature as it followed Felarion out to his horse. He looked at Felarion with a wry smile on his face. “I’m not exactly sure what you would call it. It looks like somebody’s luggage has taken a liking to you. Maybe there are some nice dresses in there for you to try on.”

Felarion looked at Shade and gave a wry smile. “Ha, ha, very funny.”

Shade could not help but laugh again at the brassbound chest doing circles at Felarion’s feet as he mounted his horse. “Well Kertai, what say we get going to Misthaven. We should be able to make good time with favourable weather like this. We might even be able to make it half way up the east side of the lake if we start now. We can ride at an easy gallop and save the strain on the horses or ride hard for an hour and walk them for an hour, alternating. What thinks you on this?”

Kertai’s immediate joy at seeing his mount safe had died slightly. The black knight now seemed rather annoyed at the bouncing chest following the party. Nonetheless, the dark warrior mounted his huge steed gracefully, and looked around for a moment.

At Shade’s comment, Kertai nodded. “This sounds well, let us be on our way.” With that Kertai looked to see that everyone was ready and took the lead toward Misthaven.

Gravel eyed the chest suspiciously, whilst continuously grumbling underneath his breath. Whenever the chest got too close Gravel would spin on his heels and waved his axe menacingly.

Shade took a couple of minutes to inspect his mount for loose straps and shoes. After making sure all was well he climbed atop his horse and whirled it around facing the knight. He glances at each of the party members hoping for some input from them as well. Shade then went over to Kryssa and quietly asked if she had checked her mount and rig for problems.

As they continue travelling, Felarion commented, “I suggest we get the rest of these magical items distributed, so that they will be of benefit if we meet any other enemies.”

Fleetfoot listened to Shade’s suggestion somewhat distractedly. His eye was on the little creature that was at Felarion’s feet. He nodded to Shade, then smiled, and turned to him.

“Well, an easy gallop will be fine, just don’t let me fall to far behind!” he said with a laugh, “Say, does anyone need the other magical short-sword?” he asked inquisitively, “If not, I could use it with my long-sword.”

While waiting for the party’s response, he looked over his new bow, checking the condition of the bowstring and the quiver and arrows he picked up. He kept a bow in hand and ready to use as he began to lead the party back towards Socktaw and then Misthaven.

As Fleetfoot asked about the shortsword, Felarion commented, “As far as I am concerned, you can have the short-sword, if none objects to my taking the other sabre to go with the first one I found. They act like they would be a good pair of weapons to combat with.” Turning to Shade, he continued, “I don’t suppose I could talk you into showing me how to use this weapon, one in each hand at the same time?”

Fleetfoot placed his new shortsword and his longsword in their scabbards. With his longbow in hand and at the ready, he led the companions back through the forest to Misthaven.

It was just past mid-day and if the party hurry the mounts they should be able to make good time towards Misthaven. The weather was nice as there were no clouds in the sky and only a very slight breeze from the south. The temperature was comfortable for riding. If not for troubles in the land, they would swear this to be a perfect day.

The band of adventurers departed the cliff-side at a steady pace. The little chest had no problem keeping up with the horses, its little feet churning away, seeming to almost trot alongside Felarion’s horse as if he belonged there.

Kertai seemed to have taken the lead. Shade asked Fleetfoot if he wished to ride with him. Fleetfoot accepted Shade’s offer so as not to slow the group.

The sky darkened as afternoon turned into evening and evening into dusk. The woods north of Socktaw were quiet except for a few birds and the sound of wind through the leaves of the tarwood trees. The trees in this area were extremely large. Some were as wide as twice a man’s height. Some, only a few, were even larger. The tree itself did not burn very easily, but the sap could be taken and made into a coating for torches that would burn for days. The only problem with harvesting these trees for lumber – the sap was so thick and sticky, it would not allow a saw to be pulled through it.

Felarion stared at the chest as it followed him along, occasionally glancing down at the new sabres at his side. As they rode, he commented to Shade, “When we stop to make camp, would you mind showing me how to use these blades a bit?”

Gladiola was silent along the journey. There seemed to be many things upon her mind, but her eyes were on two persons. Shade the Blade, the half-elven man who had begun to stir her heart again somewhat. And Kryssa, the woman who had forced her to quench that stirring. She gave a sigh – perhaps it was a good thing. Her father had warned her many a times of the dangers of an immortal elf falling in love with a mortal human. She had disregarded him once.

Still, there were many things that intrigued her. Shade had spoken about his mother, and had mentioned that his father resided in the Great Silver too. Perhaps she knew his father too? And how was his mother like? She wondered. A woman who could steal the heart of an elven man would most likely possess the many good qualities of her race too.

She rode closer, and was about to ride on the other side of the half-elf, opposite Kryssa, when Felarion moved in next to Shade. She sighed and reined in her horse, moving back again. Perhaps another time. Perhaps another time.

Arconde’ly had always loved horses, and it felt good to be riding again. He knew that he and his companions were heading for Misthaven, and though it had taken so long to start the trek again, he knew that they were a little better prepared for what might lie ahead.

Then there was Gladiola, the elfin woman of the forests. He never thought that he would ever meet a pure elf, and a noble one at that, since they tended to stay to their forest homeland. The goddess Tymora had blessed him surely, he thought to himself. And though he was still learning, Arconde’ly was still unsure why his goddess would have him meet Gladiola, him just a lowly acolyte.

He watched as Gladiola started moving her horse to Shade’s side, when Felarion moved there instead. He might be young, but he knew that Gladiola was intrigued by Shade. With a slight nicker, Arconde’ly sent his horse closer to the lovely elf.

He just looked over to her and smiled. He knew that he would look after her even with an army breathing down their necks. And perhaps that was just what lay ahead.

Gladiola turned her gaze away from Shade, to the man who had just ridden up to her. She smiled at the man who had taken a blade meant for her that very same day. Her beautiful hair flew about freely in the breeze, and her lovely eyes danced about, but her thoughts were elsewhere.

Shade, Kertai, Arconde’ly. Sir Heshtar. It was so long since she was out of the forests, so long since she had told herself never to let her feelings stray again. She must stay fixed in her mission. Yes, she could not bear the pain of another one she loved dying upon her arms again. She must never let that happen to her again.

She turned back to look at the road ahead of her, and feeling the draught, adjusted Kertai’s cloak to cover up her legs peeking out from the torn hem of the dress. If there were any who saw the shapely thighs, it was only for an instant. It seemed like a goddess herself was upon the land.

Shifting a bit in his saddle to accommodate Fleetfoot riding just behind him, Shade glanced at Felarion but his eyes strayed subconsciously to Gladiola.

“I would be more than happy to teach you about those blades. I am curious though. Do you intend to wield both at the same time or one at a time. I’ve noticed your style to be mainly one handed and it may take considerable training to teach you to use both equally well. It would be best to teach one step at a time such as learning the weapon first, then learning to fight with your off-hand, then both together.

“I started when I was only seven years old and still feel I could use some improvement. I am a perfectionist when it comes to handling a blade. If that is what you choose, I will help, but you have to do exactly as I instruct with NO questions.”

Felarion nodded as he listened. “I can live with that. I would eventually like to be able to wield both blades at the same time, but I also understand that I must first learn to use the blade, and that it will take time. I thank you for any help you can give me in learning this.”

Fleetfoot listened in on Felarion’s and Shade’s conversation and spoke his own thoughts on the matter of 2-handed fighting.

“I would also like to work with both of you. Though I wield different blades than either of you, fighting with both hands demands a lot of practice in order to get to know your weapons.” he said with a grimace, remembering the cuts and bruises he inflicted upon himself.

“I have never liked the thought of slugging it out with my opponent toe to claw, so my foster father taught me how to use my agility to my advantage. And fighting goblins and orcs means fighting more than one opponent at a time.”

Looking at Shade, Fleetfoot said, “Your flowing style of fighting is similar to my father’s. Though he used a longsword and shortsword. I’ve grown so used to it in fact, that I find myself feeling naked without both blades in hand during melee.”

Fleetfoot fell silent as he remembered the times spent with his foster father, running through the forests and playing ‘Kill the Scout’. He rarely won against his more experienced teacher, but cherished the days he did win. He wondered idly if he would need those silent skills in the battle to come.

Kertai rode at the front of the group, his lance rigidly maintaining a slight angle. The pennant on its tip hung limp, still slightly stained with blood. The warrior’s black hair flowed back behind him. Both knight and horse seemed to work as one. Occasionally the black warrior looked back to see that everyone was doing well, often giving a slightly disgusted look at the walking chest, the rest of the time giving it a puzzled glance.

After riding for a considerable amount of time, Kertai dropped back to the rest of the group and asked, “Should we travel again through Socktaw, or should we avoid that place?” The black knight’s words were strong, but seemed slightly disconnected, as if his mind was on something else.

With Kertai’s comment, Shade responded, “I think it would be best for us to circle around Socktaw and try to make haste to Misthaven. The imminent danger to Socktaw is past and if we stop again, we will only be slowing our progress towards Misthaven.”

The travelling companions rode on towards Misthaven. After passing around Socktaw, the group headed northward along the east side of the Lake of Facets. Only Gladiola was aware of Kryssa looking back toward her once beloved home. Kryssa noticed her watching as Gladiola smiled understandingly. A slight smile crossed Kryssa’s lips and she spurred her mount faster to catch up with Gravel.

The evening slid gently into dusk and Shade advised everyone that a good rest tonight and an early start tomorrow would probably get them into Misthaven by nightfall.

As the group settled into their camp, thoughts of the day’s events crept into their minds. The battle with

the ogres, the lack of preparation of a plan of attack, and even the locating of a magical gate weighed on their minds. Questions about the ogre den and its contents drifted through the thoughts of all.

Everyone seemed to be looking over their new-found treasure and wondering about the magical properties held within.

Kertai took out the old banner and ran his hands over it trying to recall the name associated with the colours. The ancient writing on the banner read “Truth, Honour, and Love of Life.”

Felarion checked his mount, making sure it was brushed and fed, and looked for a small clear area away from the main camp. As he approached the area, he pulled free one of his new blades, and began swinging it around trying to familiarise himself with it. He started out using the techniques he knew with his shortsword, and trying to see if they worked as well with the new blade.

As the group settled in, Gladiola was aware of words spoken only a few days past but seeming like ages ago…”On the third full moon, you may open the text.” Malconith, her mentor and teacher. One who was as close as her father was to her. She smiled as she wondered how the absent-minded old tree of an elf was doing.

Abarr and Belarr had already shown their fullness the two nights prior. Lunarr shone brightly overhead in its full glory. It was time. Gladiola opened up her pack. Her shoulder ached from slugging it about all day, her body not accustomed to the weight of her books. She gazed upon the silvery metallic glow of the chainmail within, and her fingers traced the patterns of the links, feeling the magic within it. But that would be later. She would get one of her companions to keep a watch for her while she changed.

Shade heard all the volunteers for watches and asked Kryssa if she would like to share a watch with Gravel.

Gladiola looked at the companions before her preparing for their watch duties, calling out and volunteering for their watch. Everybody seemed to know what to do. Everybody except her. She had only stayed up the night once, to watch the stars with Sir Heshtar – and that had given cause for her to feel a headache the next day. Her many days with her companions had bonded her with them, and somehow, deep within her, she felt that she had to help out her new-found friends in whatever manner possible. After all, she reasoned within herself, Gladiola cannot help out much with the fighting – perhaps by staying up for one watch, it would help them to get more rest for the next day’s ardours.

“Perhaps Gladiola could share the watch duties?” She finally spoke out, “But Gladiola would not know what to do. She would have to have someone with her.”

Arconde’ly looked at his companions readying themselves for some much needed rest. He knew that he must commune with his goddess at first light, to pray for her strength, wisdom, and guidance, but his muscles ached from the day’s events, and being in the saddle the rest of the day had done nothing better for his backside.

“I’ll take watch with Sir Kertai, in the hours just before dawn. Lady Gladiola, if you wish to help with the watch, you may watch with us.” He beamed his smile at her, and tried to reassure her of her worth on the watch effort.

Gladiola nodded, and went to one side, away from her companions. She picked up the book given to her by Malconith, its covers glistening in the pale light of Lunarr. She wondered why Malconith had wanted her to wait till the third full moon. But she would know this night. With bated breath, she turned the covers of the book.

Chapter 18: Gladiola and the Book of Malconith

As she opened the tome a few tiny lights swirled about her and the book almost like Will O’ Wisps circling an invisible pillar. Suddenly, out of the swirling lights, a small transparent figure faded into view. It was Malconith standing at only a foot tall. He looked at Gladiola and a smile crossed his face.

“My beautiful flower, how you have grown. Undoubtedly, the perils of the land about you have given you want to be back in your homeland but do not fret. You are watched over by the Kings and Queens of the past and your path is set. You need only be brave enough to continue.

“No doubt, you are curious to the contents of the tome which you now hold. I have prepared a way for you. You have studied the semantics of these spells before you left. They were those that you were concerned you could not learn. Within the next few days you will learn what it means to truly be magi. Your comrades will look to you for protection and you will be able to give them just that. I have worked upon this tome of spells since you were born. It has been blessed by the Goddess Mystra herself and therefore ordained a permanent gift.

“My princess, I could love you no less than my own daughter, so I will give to you only one piece of advice. Live life to the fullest. In that I mean follow your heart. You have been taught well and I am proud of you.

“This is also a tome of sadness as well, I’m afraid. The high council has given the directive to have you continue your mission for one full year, at which time you may return home. Now be of stout heart. This is not meant as a punishment though it may seem so at first. It is to prepare you for the place you are to take when you come of age to ascend to the high seat. You must know the ways of the rest of the world to govern in it. Your father was sent on such a mission in his youth and you see the great ruler he has become.

“Now about this text within… read it without interruption even if it takes you all night. Some you will understand right away. Other parts will become apparent in time but do not stop until all is read. As I have said, Mystra herself has blessed this book so as to allow the reader to cast these spells as needed. You will be able to cast each spell once a day unless you memorise them further.

“Also note that if you choose to cast from these spells, your strength and stamina will decrease until you have slept and then it will be restored to you. Now read and learn for you are the “Chosen One” of our people.”

Lights swirled about her and the others took notice. Shade started to touch her shoulder, but Felarion stopped him telling him to let the magics take their course. To interrupt it could be disastrous. The lights formed into one steady light that affixed to the pages in front of her. She felt compelled to read and that was what she did.

It took her long into the night… past the second watch… and well into the third watch. As she read the last words of the text it started to fade from view and she began to understand some of the text.

The one thing that bothered her the most though was the one-year exile. With thoughts of that tears welled up in her eyes. “No, Malconith…it is not me…it is too difficult…” Gladiola found herself speaking as she finished reading.

Her thoughts ran wild as she felt the pulse of the magical energies surrounding her, vitalising her. Somehow this was different. But her heart was heavy. Heavy with the thought of what this all meant. To have her companions depend on her? It was too much for Gladiola. She burst into tears, drawing the attention of those at the third watch.

Shade had kept close watch over the lovely Gladiola. As she slowly came around and began weeping, he rushed to her side, almost afraid to touch her. He knelt down next to her and touched her shoulder lightly to get her attention.

Then being overcome with empathy towards the beautiful young princess, he tried to draw her near to his chest to comfort her. He knew not what she had witnessed but his only thought was to protect her. His feelings of helplessness as she sobbed brought tears to his own eyes and the tears fell freely from his almond shaped eyes.

Gladiola felt the hands of Shade upon her shoulder as she sobbed. She just could not help it – it was too much for her to bear. Her arms lay limp by her side as she allowed the half-elf to draw her towards his shoulder. A shoulder to cry on – it really felt so good to have someone holding her again. Her quiet sobs dripped dears upon the shirt of the handsome half-elf.

The sounds of Gladiola’s crying awoke Sir Kertai from his rest. Quickly the black warrior lifted his head and listened for the source of the sound. Moving quickly, the black knight rose to his feet and headed to Gladiola’s side, opposite where Shade was.

Taking the long black cloak he had used as a bedroll, Kertai placed it gently over the Elven maid’s shoulders. “My lady, if I may ask, what troubles you so this night?” The black warrior’s green eyes showed a mix of concern and fatigue. Kneeling beside Gladiola, Kertai looked about to make sure those on watch were still about and the trouble was not from an external source. Then, the black warrior’s green eyes focused on the Elf, listening to what troubled her.

Arconde’ly was on the outer edge of the small campsite when he spied the large knight, Sir Kertai, and Shade group around Gladiola. It had been an uneventful watch until now, Arconde’ly thought to himself. He took a quick glance around, making sure that there was nothing that might attack the party, then made his way towards Gladiola and the others.

He could see Shade holding her closely, and noticed her tears on Shade’s shirt. Sir Kertai had put his cloak around the elf maiden’s shoulders, as well, but Arconde’ly did not know if anything had been said or not. He took another glance around the group, looking for his other companions, and upon seeing the slight break of dawn through the large trees, he moved to awaken his slumbering companions.

The voice of Kertai awakened Gladiola to her surroundings, and she realised she was crying on Shade’s shoulder, his hands holding on to her shoulders. She shook her shoulders to disengage herself from his arms, and looked guiltily in the direction of Kryssa. Trying to turn her thoughts away from the half-elf who had held her in a half-embrace just moments ago, she made herself turn to Kertai.

“Gladiola is alright, milord. She…she was just missing her family in the Great Silver, that’s all,” Gladiola smiled, adjusting the cloak Kertai had placed over her. The dew of the night had begun to settle down upon her hair, and together with her drying tears, made her feel somewhat cold.

The draught was felt at her legs as well, and she suddenly realised that she was till wearing the dress, and it had parted somewhat, showing off her lovely thighs. And she was with two men! Quickly, she adjusted the cloak to give her some modesty. She held out her hand to Kertai, and said somewhat hesitantly, “Milord…Gladiola needs to change…would you be so kind as to keep watch for Gladiola over the clump of bushes there?”

She wanted so much to look away from Shade, and she was so relieved that she could actually look at another direction.

The black warrior nodded to the Elven maid’s request. “As you wish m’lady.” He offered Gladiola a hand to help her to her feet. When the Elf had risen, Kertai motioned for her to proceed. The warrior tried to keep a stern face as his eyes kept being drawn to Gladiola’s swaying form.

Shade watched silently as Gladiola pulled forcefully from his embrace and asked the knight for some privacy. His thoughts of Gladiola seemed all for naught. It seemed evident now that she was intent on only her mission. It might eat at his heart, but he would allow her to choose as she saw fit. He was only glad it was dark enough for his tears to escape detection by his comrades.

Gladiola quickly looked through her pack, taking the elven chain that she had lain hold of the day before, and a fresh dress the purest of white. Gladiola smiled. Sir Heshtar had always told her she looked lovely dressed in white. Moving behind the bushes, she waited for Sir Kertai to look in the other direction before beginning to change.

The chain felt just like a second skin to her. She sighed as she realised that what she had always believed as an elfling was true – the elfin metal was truly enchanted to feel like it was not there at all. She slipped her dress over the chain, and stepped out of the bushes. She gave a smile of gratitude to Sir Kertai, before moving to the campsite, to comb her long golden hair falling lusciously over her shoulders. She caught Sir Kertai looking at her again, and finding herself flushing, looked away in another direction. It was such a long time that she had men really looking at her again.

The black knight did his best to hide the fact that his eyes followed Gladiola, his will tested to the limit to guard her from his own eyes. Kertai’s green eyes showed a certain fire as he made certain that the elf was unseen. After she was finished changing, Kertai moved to attend to his morning tasks.

Kertai did his best to stay focused but from time to time became lost in his thoughts. The black warrior first groomed his mighty steed, Midnight, and saddled her. Next, he polished and cleaned his weapons and armour. Finally, the warrior donned his shining black suit of plate mail.

Upon being wakened by Arconde’ly, Fleetfoot began his day with sword exercises that loosened tight muscles, and focused the mind. After he had done with that, he inspected his weapons, ensuring that his bow and string were in good condition, and his sword edges sharp and polished. Finally, he looked to his own personal grooming, combing his long black hair, donning a fresh shirt, this one a light green with the symbol of Mielikki sewn over the heart in yellow.

As the sun started to rise from the east, most of the companions had already risen to their morning tasks. Though uneventful, the night was restless for all but Kryssa. Fleetfoot and Felarion were looking over their weapons and Arconde’ly prepared to commune with Tymora.

Despite her sleepless night, Gladiola seemed alert. Shade and Kertai noticed the slight puffiness of her eyes caused by the tears an hour earlier. She seemed preoccupied by something as she asked the tall knight to help her prepare her mount for the day’s journey. Words were not exchanged. They moved quietly and Gladiola’s gaze wandered from the horse to Kertai and back to her horse. Her eyes lingered on his hands as they caressed the animal, soothing and calming it, allowing it to breathe properly while still holding the saddle firm. His quiet manner calmed her and somehow gave her confidence as well.

She marvelled at those hands that calmed the horse and yet wielded that sword with such deadly force. She glanced up at the young knight’s face and was taken aback as she was almost expecting to see Sir Heshtar’s face where Sir Kertai’s was now.

Shade squatted a dozen paces away with his back against a tree, his eyes downcast toward the daggers he had tried to clean. It seemed that no matter what, the smell of blood never faded from them. He glanced over at Gladiola and Kertai. He watched as they quietly worked together rigging the horse.

Kryssa came over to squat down beside him. “Good morning, father,” said the young maid, “how soon do we set out for Misthaven?”

The half-elf was suddenly taken out of his reverie by the words spoken by Kryssa. It was the first time since her father’s death that she had used the term “Father”.

Gladiola could not help but hear Kryssa refer to Shade as “Father”. She quickly turned to see if she had heard correctly – she often heard humans refer to priests by this term – and wondered if Arconde’ly was there. Not seeing the priest near the two and seeing Kryssa kneeling next to Shade, her thoughts went wild.

Is that what was meant by “Chosen”? A foster father? An adoptive parent? For a moment, Gladiola’s mind was in a whirl, as she sought to get some bearings of the situation she suddenly found herself in.

Shade took the young girl by the shoulder and held her to him and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “And good morning to you, my daughter,” giving a pause to acknowledge the title which she had used. His eyes seemed to well with tears as he gazed upon her. “We’ll be setting out as soon as we’ve all eaten and as soon as you have practised,” he said pointing to her new blade.

“You fell asleep too fast last night for me to say anything about your practice. It’s probably better that you are rested and alert as you will need your wits today. Now go fetch us some breakfast from my ruck. The rations aren’t great, but they will suffice until we can find something better.” Shade continued.

Arconde’ly stirred from his meditations and looked to the others. Shade was teaching Kryssa with a shortsword, Felarion and Fleetfoot seemed to be going through their gear, and Kertai and Gladiola were packing one of the horses.

Gravel rolled over and grumbled something about all the racket in the camp sounding like a whole tribe of lizardmen. He finally got to his feet and shuffled over to his pack. He donned his armour and headed for Kertai and Gladiola.

He passed Kryssa and gave her a wink. When he got over to Kertai and Gladiola he picked up a small stone, turned quickly and hurled it straight at the back of the half-elf. Kryssa’s eyes widened as the nimble bard spun around and caught the stone as it was about to strike him in the head. Gravel smiled and grumbled something about someday being able to peg that show-off right in the back of the head.

Kryssa caught her breath and smiled at her foster father. “You are definitely going to have to teach me how you do that.”

The early morning events had Arconde’ly wondering about what might lie ahead for himself and his new-found friends. He knew that he had not known them for very long, but it was as if he should be with them.

He performed his morning rituals as usual. He washed and shaved his face, and went a little away from the group to meditate and pray to his Goddess. Tymora had certainly blessed him and his companions, Arconde’ly thought. The route to Misthaven would be long and tiring, with danger along the way, he was sure of it. She was aiding in preparing them for the travel and perils ahead.

After his prayer and meditation, Arconde’ly then went to his mount, a beautiful creature, though slight in build compared to Sir Kertai’s magnificent steed. He brushed the horse’s hair as best he could, trying to mimic Sir Kertai. He pulled from his backpack some trail mix, sorting out some items that he could give to the steed, and brought it some water as well.

Arconde’ly watched as Sir Kertai helped Gladiola with her mount, and the way she looked at him in appreciation, and maybe something more?

Before heading out, Arconde’ly drew forth the newly acquired large hammer and shield from the ogre’s den. Perhaps Gravel would know something of these rune marks.

“Gravel, my friend. What make you of the runes and workmanship of this shield and hammer? They are enchanted in some way, and I can’t understand the markings.” The sullen dwarf did not answer him.

Moving once again to his horse, Kertai mounted up and offered to scout around a bit before leaving that morning. The knight and his steed made a speedy circuit of the camp, easing the tension they both feel. Finally, Kertai was ready to depart.

Felarion finished checking his gear, occasionally glancing up at Shade and Kryssa, and Gladiola and Kertai, before glancing away once again. Satisfied that everything was in fairly good condition, and taken care of, Felarion gathered his things together ready to depart once again.

The group continued to break camp and soon they were northward bound with Kertai again taking the lead and Shade following at the rear. Felarion followed on his horse, quietly, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere, as their journey continued.

Gladiola too rode in silence, her world suddenly seeming to turn around about her. The words of Malconith. The handsome face and hands of Sir Kertai. The graceful moves of Shade. And the lovely eyes of Sir Heshtar. She sighed as she suddenly felt a strange feeling. It seemed as if a weight had been lifted and yet another weight had fallen upon her.

She deliberately slowed her horse, to fall back to Kryssa. She smiled again, thinking once again how strange it was that she had seen decades of years go pass, but she still looked physically the same age as this young human girl before her who had not even seen two decades of life.

“Would Kryssa have had a good night’s sleep?” She smiled as she spoke to the woman whom she would have been a great-great grandmother to, by the human’s reckoning. She almost wanted to ask her about her relationship with Shade, but caught herself just in time. It was a difficult question to ask indeed. Kryssa just nodded. Perhaps she was tired.

The black knight moved silently in the morning. While aiding Gladiola with her horse and once on the road he seemed trapped in his thoughts, not paying too much attention to what went on around him. The peculiar actions of the Elven maid had left the dark warrior somewhat confused. Once on the road again, Kertai felt better, the comforting sway of the saddle soothing him, but his mind still racing. After riding for a while, Kertai seemed to become surer of himself and focused on his quest. The warrior’s green eyes seemed to be a little more welcoming than usual.

Shade’s mind wandered as they rode through the narrow trails of his homeland. The smells and sounds always seemed to soothe his inner being. Kryssa had grown into a beautiful young lady. He did not like the fact that she was on this journey but had little choice at the present time. If the goblin’s words were true and Zarcodius was behind this, he would only have control over her protection if she were with him. He found himself at a place he did not like. To have another person rule his actions and reactions was disconcerting.

And Gladiola… his thoughts were just in a whirlwind about her. He was torn between wanting to hold her and care for her, and telling her to see the world for what it was. Telling her to wake up to the harsh reality that there were people out there that would do all within their power to take what she had, whether it be a few coins, or her freedom, and that she must fight for what she had and what she believed.

He felt something for her that he had not felt before. She had stirred something within him and again he felt that powerless feeling, only this time it was different. He was saddened that she had pulled away from him that morning. He had noticed her watching Kertai. He resolved that he would not interfere if that was her wish. The life of a bard was to wear his heart on his sleeve. It was only that he had never had it hurt like this. He was also confused and knew at this time he needed his wits about him. His feelings were a distraction.

He rode on in silent contemplation, his eyes watching the area and his surroundings but only catching the movements of the birds and small animals of the woods.

The groups slowed their pace for a bit and about midday the companions stopped to rest the horses and get a warm meal – Fleetfoot had managed to bring down a couple of forest hares he had seen minutes before on the trail.

Kryssa and Gladiola tried to rub the soreness out of their bodies, not being accustomed to long hard rides on horseback. Kryssa walked over to Gladiola and smiled.

“Are you as sore as I am? I can’t believe we’ve been riding so long. We must be getting close to Misthaven. I remember going there last year. It took us two days by wagon.” Kryssa said to Gladiola. She then stepped a bit closer and said in hushed tones, “I think he likes you. I’ve never seen him so quiet. He watches you a lot. Have you not noticed?”

Kryssa turned her head to make sure she was not overheard then leant towards Gladiola and smiled. “You’re very pretty. You must have someone special…” Her voice cracked and Gladiola looked up at the girl becoming a woman and at the tears starting to form at the corners of her eyes. Kryssa forced back the tears and smiled at Gladiola again.


The sound of Felarion barking out that single word brought everyone to their feet. In less than a second

Kertai, Shade, and Fleetfoot were at the ready, their meagre feast interrupted as they were finishing. Arconde’ly took a stance between Gladiola and the incoming horsemen. Gravel sat back down on a log they had used as a bench. His relaxed posture belied the fact his broad double bladed axe rested right behind him out of sight. Kryssa moved to stand beside Gladiola. Her stance was forward and deliberate, not aggressive yet not submissive. Shade’s confidence was already showing in the girl.

Fleetfoot grabbed his bow and a full quiver when he heard Felarion call out. Seeing nearly two dozen riders approach, he decided to move towards one of the nearby trees, one near Lady Gladiola, to scan the riders.

Kertai quickly moved to his mount, knowing he would be of more use on horseback than on foot. Shade’s hands moved slightly and Gladiola, standing behind him, saw thin-bladed throwing daggers slid into his palms.

The riders came within fifty paces and halted. “Hail, in the camp!” a man said as he alone urged his mount forward. There were about twenty riders. Obviously mercenaries. The man moving forward looked heavily armoured but drew no weapon. He moved forward only a dozen paces from the rest of his men and stopped.

Kertai faced him straight ahead. No mage were in sight. They all wore armour of some kind. Gladiola looked around. They were in a small clearing with few trees. A trail led north and south.

The black knight deftly mounted his huge steed and grabbed his lance from the nearby tree. As Kertai urged Midnight forward with his legs, the knight gave his lance a quick flick that unfurled the pennon at its tip. The silvery quarter-moon on black waved slightly in the wind. Resting his lance in his stirrup to show that he did not mean to use it as a weapon, the black warrior moved forward to meet the mercenary between the two groups, looking around for anyone else as he went.

Kertai motioned his steed to stop, with his legs. Resting his left hand calmly on the pommel of his saddle, his right hand holding his lance high, the black knight spoke in a calm strong voice, “I am Sir Kertai Moonwarden, knight of the realm. What business do you have with my companions?”

The warrior sat upon his steed awaiting a reply. His dark eyes seemed to glitter with eagerness, eagerness to prove himself in combat. However, the knight was resolved to avoid a battle, for the sake of those with him, and for the sake of his mission.

Gladiola had remembered well the encounter with Dain. This time there were even more of them. She fingered the fine powdery sand she had on herself. She had never had occasions to use her meagre knowledge of the magical arts until the goblin invasions. And even on this diplomatic mission, she had had her fair share of use of magical powers. She could not let down her companions. No, not when Arconde’ly stood ready to take another blade for her. She could not let that happen again. She would not have another lie dead in her arms again.

Felarion simply moved so that he was not too far behind Kertai, as he addressed the lone figure. Checking that all his daggers were in place, and making a mental checklist of spells on hand, he stood calmly awaiting the man’s next action.

Shade followed Kertai forward as Felarion did but stopped and let the bold knight move forward as spokesman. He watched the mercenary leader’s comrades more than the leader, to see if there was any sign of quick movement or aggressive action.

“Gladiola, Kryssa, stay near me. I don’t like the looks of this group.” With Felarion and Sir Kertai up front, and the other fighters near them but further back, Arconde’ly still though that it was better to be safe than sorry. He pulled forth a small vial of water he kept near his person, in a small pouch. It looked to be water. He muttered a few short phrases quietly, so as not to attract attention, and could feel his goddess’ presence with him.

The story, unfortunately, ended here, as real life caught up me…

Teaching Methods

This was an essay written to reflect my beliefs in teaching methods.

I believe very strongly that a teacher’s character and personality influence his pupils’ learning experiences immensely. A student under an unassertive teacher will not be inclined to learn, while a student under a hostile teacher will be too pressurised to learn properly. A teacher who cares, is friendly and yet firm, will ensure learning in his pupils.

I am also a teacher who tends towards behaviourist and direct teaching methods. I have used reinforcements and direct teaching effectively for six years, and my students (both soldiers in the Navy, training for electronics, and Primary Six students in Sunday School, learning Bible Knowledge), have shown signs of learning and retention even without all those constructivist learning theories. I must admit I do incorporate some elements and branches of constructivism in my teachings, but behaviourism is still by far the major stem and root.

To investigate if a teacher is effective in his teaching, we need to examine a few factors. We need to investigate how the teacher brings across the lesson, and how he motivates the students to learn. We need also to examine how the teacher ensures that the students learn, especially if they may have individual differences.

Personally, I believe a lot in teacher enthusiasm and animation. Our children are growing up in a generation where television and multimedia rules the world. They need to feel entertained, and it is surprising how much they can absorb when they are being entertained by the television. Animation on the part of the teacher gives a more entertaining lesson overall, and will result in more of the lesson being learnt. Lessons that are boring to the child will result in a lack of motivation to learn on his part.

In bringing across the lesson, enthusiasm was shown throughout the lesson. Enthusiasm is not something that can be faked, and a teacher’s interest in his lesson shows in the way he carries himself, in his tone of voice and his choice of words. Plenty of choral answers and shouting were expected, creating a “fun” atmosphere among the students.

It is very difficult to show how enthusiastic the teacher was from a written case study (as we can not hear the tone of voice). Perhaps animation is the best way to show enthusiasm in a case study. I “formed a woeful expression”, “waved two fingers in the air”, “raised an eyebrow”, “raised” my voice “in an expectant manner”, “rolled” my eyes “up with a look of mock despair”, and “winked and pointed to the ground”. When it is time to be serious and to learn, I assumed a serious expression. It can be very difficult not to learn when you have so many visual cues to focus your attention on!

Motivating the students to learn, especially those who seem not willing, can be a demanding task. Fortunately this was not a major problem with the 4F class. In general, the class was willing to learn, and the tasks were definitely well within their capability – this lesson should have been taught to them during Primary One or Two, according to the scheme of work.

In this case, motivation to learn to form up within 10 seconds was by reinforcements. In this case, it is not too clear what type of reinforcers push-ups are. To say it is a privilege to get the teacher to perform push-ups would be stretching the definitions a little, though it is clear they love to “beat the teacher”, to get the privilege of seeing him doing the push-ups instead of them for once.

Peer approval could also be one of the minor reinforcers for this case. Since success at avoiding punishment (or getting the teacher to do it) depends on everybody, and failure could get a student chastised by the rest of the class, the students are motivated to perform.

On further reflection, adult approval may also have played a major role as a reinforcer. It is interesting to note from the experiences of many teachers that students love to answer to the challenges of a teacher they love, to get his approval. Since the challenge in this case is to “beat” him by successfully completing the task, the motivation to achieve is there.

The cognitive learning needs are also motivators in this case. The students are challenged to “prove” they are able to achieve the learning goals, and to control their circumstances (“The teacher will do the push-ups, not us!”). These challenges spurred them to prove their ability.

The setting of attainable goals also proved a motivator. The goals are specific (form up within 10 seconds), immediate (upon the whistle) and moderately difficult (it only requires more teamwork and better strategies, and is within their cognitive ability). Since they are able to measure their achievement level each time, they are motivated to strategize to come up with better means to achieve by themselves.

To ensure learning, the classroom atmosphere is very important. As was mentioned before, enthusiasm and animation created an interesting classroom climate. In addition, the students were sure I would not scream at them for mistakes, since my admonitions were often made in a gentle manner (“berated her gently, with an upraised index finger”, “chided gently”). I was also free with my praises and smiles (they must be heart-felt – it is no use faking them!). All these contribute to a safe and secure climate conducive to learning.

My expectations of them were also very clear. I will not accept lack-lustre work (“I am sure you can do better than that”), and I set a clear standard within their reach. This was communicated to every one, including Darren. Acceptable classroom behaviour were reinforced (Lavaniah’s case – “I will call on you when it is your turn to speak”). The class has especially learnt to catch the nuances that tell them the level of acceptability of certain actions (folded my hands and waited, changing of tone, catching them in the wrong act and immediately admonishing them).

Another aspect of ensuring learning is the asking of questions and the eliciting of feedback. This was done in both choral and personal form. The choral answers emphasise the points to the class, without threatening those who may not have understood. When individual answers are required, I would make myself as non-threatening as possible, and to encourage for both correct and wrong answers (in this case study, there were no wrong answers given, but I do encourage my students to try and praise them for the effort if they were wrong!) It is possible, however, that the answers can be given without understanding, even for individual answers.

The best way of ensuring learning therefore, in this very practical lesson, is to get the students to actually perform the required items. When the students could not perform, feedback was given, and certain strategies were given to them in a direct teaching form. I do not let them “discover” the strategies for themselves, though if they do incidentally or accidentally discover some new strategies, I will not stop them from using them. If these discovered strategies are w