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The Mystara Chronicles II: "The Night of Fire"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
"Shall we stop for lunch?" Fyodor was learning the lessons of the road the hard way. Although he was strong by the grace of Halav and sturdy from long hours spent in the fields, the armour and travelling gear that he was wearing proved to be more of a burden than he had expected. These new trappings were recently received, gifts given to him upon the occasion of his Shearing. After the feast, which was well attended by the neighbouring farm communities, Fyodor's parents solemnly dressed their son in travelling gear. Having finished, his father drew his sword (the first time he had done so in many years) and slashed Fyodor's cloak, shearing off the bottom. It was done: Fyodor was no longer bound to the authority of his parents. He had no choice now but to seek his fortune away from his family.
Thalaric, who had attended the ceremony at Fyodor's invitation (and what a scene there was when his presence was discovered!), was very interested in the rite and asked many questions concerning its meaning. The young Traladaran explained to him that the Shearing ritual was an ancient one, long in use by his people to mark the transition from youth to adulthood. In the ceremony, the cutting of the cloak represented both the separation from one's family and the impoverished nature of the traveller. So in his case, Fyodor explained, from now on he would only be considered a nominal member of the Grygorov clan; it would not be until after he had achieved some level of success on his own that he would be able to be fully reinstated into the family. But this time, he would be considered an adult, worthy to call himself a Grygorov.
The elf was interested in the ritual, although he had a hard time understanding the peculiar significance that the Traladaran youth seemed to put on his family. As Thalaric explained to Fyodor, the Vyalia did not reverence the family in the manner of humans, a point that struck the youth as very odd indeed. Instead, the elf continued, the emphasis that Fyodor and his people seemed to put on family was mirrored in the elvish loyalty to clan. This, at least, seemed understandable to Fyodor; his pride and love for his family was matched only by his pride and love of his people, the Sons and Daughters of the Traldar. He was hopeful that he and the strange Thalaric would be able to find other things about each other that they held in common.
After the ceremony was completed, Fyodor was given gifts from his relatives and neighbours for use on his journey. He had made it clear that his intentions after his Shearing were not to build his own farm somewhere or to start a trading company, that his heart lay instead in wandering and exploration. His family and friends made due note of this, and refrained (under some protest from some of the more practical-minded among them) from buying Fyodor a new plough or a wagon in lieu of other, more exotic presents.
Fyodor's family, and those others who lived in the area, were not wealthy by any means. He expected nothing more than the most modest of gifts: a new dagger, perhaps, or some tough-soled boots. So, it was with some surprise that Fyodor was given his father's old sword. The blade was aged but well crafted, and he was overjoyed when his father helped him strap it to his side. Although he had held the weapon many times, it felt good for him to do so for the first time as his own.
But as touched as Fyodor was by this, it was nothing compared to the next gift that was offered to him. A group of the farm children, giggling excitedly, hastily unwrapped a large blanket that lay in the corner of the room, and there, revealed to Fyodor, was the most spectacular thing. Lying upon the blanket was a chainmail shirt with vambraces, rerebraces, and a breastplate arranged around it. Alongside these items were a leather-wrapped shield and a small helm. Fyodor was speechless. Granted, the armour had seen better days; even an inexperienced eye such as his could note the nicks and discolourations in the metal and the fact that the vambraces and helmet clearly did not come from the same original suit as the breastplate. But nevertheless, there it was, a genuine set of armour arrayed on the floor of his family home.
At first, he did not want to accept it. "How many royals have you spent?" he demanded. "We can't afford this!" Fyodor's concerns were put to rest somewhat when he found out that his parents and the surrounding farm families had been saving up for years in anticipation of this day. Fyodor was to be their Halav, they said, a compliment that drew tears from the boy.
But as beautiful as that day was, how much more beautiful was the beginning of their journey! All four were exceedingly animated that morning as they prepared for the trip. Fyodor took great pleasure in donning his armour, performing each step slowly, almost ritually. First, he pulled his quilted gambeson over his tunic, and then, with the aid of Thalaric (who wore his own armour with a comfortable assurance), donned the mail shirt and strapped the armour plates in place. It wasn't as heavy as he had thought it would be (although after a morning of travel he was to change his mind about this), and he was able to move in it quite freely.
In addition to his armour and his father's sword, Fyodor carried his old dagger at his belt. He packed in his beaten leather backpack his spare sets of clothes as well as some other items he thought might be useful along the way, like a length of rope and a small hammer with some iron spikes for tent-making. His preparations, which included cutting one good stout walking stick for his use and another for Varis (he would have cut more for the others, but they politely declined), took more of the morning than he had anticipated. If Fyodor had known then how exhausted he would be after only a half-day's travel, he might have organized his time better, so that more of his morning could have been spent in rest and relaxation rather than with making preparations for his journey.
"Tired?" asked Alexander, grinning wickedly at Fyodor. He had teased Fyodor as well as the others about the weight of their armours all morning. As for himself, he was wearing the leather armour that Fyodor noted on him at their first meeting and carried a sword at his side and a light crossbow, the kind that could be fired with one hand, slung over his shoulder. On his left hip was a quiver wherein quarrels bristled, numbering at least a score. He carried his arms with an unselfconscious calm, seeming to tacitly acknowledge the necessity of these devices when facing the harsh reality of long overland travel without drawing undue attention to their array.
"Yes!" said Fyodor without a trace of petulance. "I'm sorry, I'm not used to travelling with all of this gear."
Thalaric put down his pack. "It is a good time for some refreshment. I am sure that we will still be able to reach Stallanford if we allow ourselves some time to enjoy the weather." It was the last day of Klarmont, and the heat of the past week or so had begun to back off somewhat under the slightly cloudy skies.
"No doubt," said Alexander. "Then, let us break." He slid his pack off his back, removed his leather cap, and took a swig of water from his skin. It was his idea to head north up the Duke's Road. The wealth of Darokin attracted him, and he knew that the foursome could easily find work escorting a merchant caravan somewhere in that great nation. This seemed to him to be the best plan. After Darokin, the group would be able to see Ylaruam and Thyatis, maybe catch a riverboat down the Streel to either Minrothad or Ierendi. The party might even have found a small caravan heading out of Penhaligon, but Alexander didn't want their first day out of the city to be as part of a merchant train. He was relishing the freedom of the road, and he hoped that he would be able to keep the group travelling independently for as long as possible.
For now, their first destination was Stallanford, a village twenty miles north of Penhaligon. Alexander had passed through this town on occasion in the past. The journey between the two towns was perfect for a day's travel, and, besides, after Stallanford there was no further population center until the Duke's Road Keep, an army barracks and waystation at the Karameikos-Darokin border about thirty or forty miles distant from Stallanford, in the Steach. If all went according to plan, this would be their last night spent in a Karameikan village.
After a lunch of dried meat and waybread (which Fyodor ate enthusiastically, not because of the great flavour of the food, but rather because he wanted to get into the spirit of the journey as much as possible), the four continued their travel up the Duke's Road. Traffic was light yet steady. The armour and weaponry that they carried attracted no undue attention; it was well known that the Wufwolde Hills that rose only a few miles to the east were home to goblins and orcs and other fell creatures that did not acknowledge the laws and ways of men. Even Varis bore arms, to Fyodor's surprise. In addition to his chainmail, he carried a metal-bonded shield and had a mace hooked to his belt.
Yet the day's journey passed with little incident, and the four, weary from their travel, arrived in Stallanford in the early evening. Stallanford was a real frontier town in every sense of the word. Penhaligon was situated in the north of the Duchy, and was considered somewhat remote by residents of Kelvin and Specularum, but Stallanford was more northern still. After the town, it was but another day's travel until the pine-covered Wufwolde Hills made way to the Steach. Over the Shutturga, which the village was built adjoining, and but a few miles distant were the Black Peak Mountains, those peaks that guarded and defined central northern Karameikos. Despite its location in the wilds of Karameikos, Stallanford managed to remain a thriving, albeit small, village, not the least reason for which was the steady influx of merchant traffic that plied the great north-south route from Selenica in Darokin to Specularum.
Fyodor had never seen another town besides Penhaligon, and he was a might bit disappointed; Stallanford was smallish and not particularly inviting. Oddly enough, these were the very same characteristics that endeared it to Alexander. The four entered the town, where many residents appeared to be preparing for the Night of Fire, and immediately began to look for an inn. All were tired from their day of travel, even Alexander, although he would not admit it, and they quickly settled on a tavern named the Hungry Halfling. It was not as upscale an establishment as Oliphant Smeaton's back in Penhaligon, but it was boisterous and busy, and the smell of cooking meat and warm bread easily determined their course of action. Relishing the prospect of a warm meal, the companions entered the inn.
"Well now, come in, come in! Don't be standing in the doorway!" The sound of an oddly accented voice came to their ears. It took the four only a moment to recognise that the voice issued from the mouth of a halfling; based on the name of the establishment, most probably the owner. Fyodor had not often seen members of this race, and on the few occasions that he had been in contact with them (when, for example, he had visited the Wanderer's Rest) they had always seemed quite odd to him. About three feet tall they stood, with ears that sloped ever so slightly upwards. Most odd to Fyodor (and many other humans besides him) was the fact that the halflings never wore any shoes upon their feet. Rather, they went about barefoot, and Fyodor had even seen them doing so during the winter months in Penhaligon. The feet of halflings were covered with a sort of furry hair on the tops of them, a most disgusting fact to the young Traladaran, and a fact of halfling existence that commanded his attention now as he stared down at the innkeeper.
It was Thalaric who spoke first. "My good hin," he began in the Traladaran tongue, "we are weary travellers who would appreciate some good food and a soft bed. Can you provide these for us?" Fyodor was surprised to hear him speak so, and was impressed with Thalaric's mastery of the Traladaran tongue. He wasn't sure what had made the elf speak in Traladaran as opposed to the more expected Thyatian; Fyodor himself, who grew up speaking both languages, had always assumed the traditional position when it came to communication: Traladaran at home, Thyatian in public. Regardless, the fact that the elf, who he did not yet fully trust, was capable of speaking the tongue of his people (and how beautifully!) served to dispel his fears somewhat.
The halfling as well seemed struck by Thalaric. He gazed up at the group, his blue eyes and childlike face wide with amazement at the sight of the elf. "It's filling up on account of the festival, but I think accommodations can be made! Now that will be five cronae each, if you please," he said, wiping his hands on his apron.
Five pieces of silver was a hefty sum for Fyodor to part with, not because the halfling was charging an exorbitant rate, but rather due to the poor state of Fyodor's purse. Nevertheless, this day of travel had proved more difficult than he had expected, and he paid willingly. Alexander, seeing his companions handing coins over to the halfling, was, despite this, confused about the proceedings. He spoke not a whit of Traladaran, a fact that embarrassed him greatly. Fearing that he would be discovered, Alexander handed over a royal, hoping that it would be enough to cover his bill.
"We should be more frugal in the future," said Thalaric, this time in Thyatian, as the four settled down around a table, removing their packs and leaning their blades up against the wall.
"I am down to my last handful of silver." Alexander concurred.
"But it is festival time," said Fyodor. "And besides, are you going to refuse this meat!" The halfling had brought out some fine roast beef, the same, most likely, that the four had smelled outside, and all doubts concerning their hasty decision were soon put to rest.
The party dove into the food, and it was not until after they had finished that Thalaric spoke. "I have been meaning to ask you a question, and it crossed my mind again when the hin spoke." (Is this the elvish term for halfling? Fyodor thought) "Under which circumstances should I use one of your human tongues as opposed to the other?"
Varis answered. "I would say speak in Thyatian unless you are spoken to first in Traladaran. Most of us Karameikans speak both tongues, at least partially, but Thyatian is dominant and ought to be used most of the time. Especially when speaking around Master Kantpatcalites here, who cannot speak Traladaran."
Alexander was shocked. "How did you know?" he demanded.
Varis laughed and ran a hand through his black hair. "Alex, I've known you for years, and I've seen that blank look in your eye whenever a Traladaran street hawker tries to get your attention hundreds of times! I'm sorry, though; I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"No matter," said Alexander who, despite his protestations to the contrary, was stung somewhat be Varis' remarks.
"Well, I will do my best to teach you," said Fyodor. There was something in the other's eyes at this moment, a weakness, maybe, that almost instantaneously won Alexander to him. "But now we must finish with our business here, for it is almost dark."
* * *
Tonight was the Night of Fire. The origins of this festival had been lost along with many other relics of early Traldar culture during the Dark Age, but survived nevertheless into present-day Karameikos as a curious celebration in Traladaran communities. Every year, on this, the last day of Klarmont, Traladarans from all walks of life spent the night outside, under the stars. With only the thinnest sliver of the waning moon providing light, they would wait with anticipation, for it was said that on this night treasure hordes, dating from perhaps as far back as the reign of Halav himself, would suddenly reveal themselves, marked by tongues of flickering fire.
Whatever it was that gave birth to this celebration, Varis found its continued practice to be not a little bit troublesome. Coming as it did right before Beasts' Day, the Traladaran festival held yearly in remembrance of King Halav's victory over the beast-men, the Night of Fire seemed to him to be nothing more than old-fashioned nationalistic hopes masquerading as a night of fun. To be sure, he had never met a Traladaran who viewed the festival as anything more than an excuse to spend the night out-of-doors and to scare each other with stories of feral wolves and vampires (for it was said that these beasts walked the land on this night as well). But Varis perceived something deeper in the festival's symbolism that the literal-minded Traladarans could never see.
As he saw it, the treasures that were meant to be found on this night functioned as a symbol, referring not to gold and silver, but to the glory of the Traldar past. The nosferatu, those blood-sucking undead who, it was said, walked undetected among the Traladarans, outwardly resembling them, Varis saw as symbolic of the Thyatians. It was oft muttered by Traladarans that when their conquerors came, it was to gain wealth and power at the expense of the native labourers, the farmers and fishermen, artisans and shopkeepers. Just as the vampire sucked the blood from its victims, so did the Thyatians, who walked undetected among the Traladarans, outwardly resembling them, suck the prosperity from the Children of Halav. And then there was the fire, the fire that revealed what lay hidden. This, clear as day, was a symbol of violence, a call to uprising and rebellion that purported to show clearly the glories of a people long buried.
But the story, the hope of the Traladarans, would not end there. The encoded narrative of the festivals led from the Night of Fire to the next morning, when the celebrants returned to their cities and towns on the first of Felmont to celebrate Beasts' Day. This festival, which celebrated the victory of King Halav in the Great War, was an annual reminder that the spirit of the Traldar could overcome even the darkest of adversaries. This was the danger that Varis saw. He did not think for a moment that the Traladaran peasants who celebrated these yearly events interpreted these festivals properly. But it was only a matter of time before some power-hungry demagogue would use these celebrations to create insurrection and rebellion. One night, the prophecy of the Night of Fire would be fulfilled, and on that day, the Traladarans would truly see fire, a fire of their own creation that would try to burn away the hundred-year-long Thyatian presence in Traladara and leave in its destructive wake a new, fully Traladaran, kingdom.
Despite his suspicions, which were quite passionately held, Varis accompanied the others out to the fields after dinner and a smoke, making sure that his silver pendant bearing the device of the Church of Karameikos was tucked safely away under his vest. Fyodor had procured a jug of ale for the occasion, and Thalaric, poor as he claimed to be, managed to fill both himself and his skin with wine before leaving the inn. The halfling innkeeper, Bert, had invited the travellers to attend the night's festivities at his brother Lernan's farm, and it was thither that the four made their way.
A large group of Traladarans, with a few assorted halflings thrown into the mix, had already begun the celebration. The consumption of enormous amounts of alcohol that was a hallmark of most Traladaran celebrations was in full swing by the time they arrived. Several competing bards were telling fantastic or historical stories simultaneously. On occasion, a woman's voice would rise above the clamour, and all of the gathered celebrants would launch into one of the oddly accented songs that Varis found so quaint. In short, it was everything that Fyodor expected from the Night of Fire, and he kept his eyes peeled (blurred with drink though they were) for any sign of flame, for any indication that a long-lost treasure was to be revealed. His companions, unaccustomed to celebrating this festival, participated to the fullest extent that they could by ability or by conscience.
Thus it was very late indeed when the last of them (Fyodor) finally collapsed in drunken exhaustion in the fields of Lernan's farm, the Night of Fire adequately marked in this, the one thousandth year since the crowning of the first emperor of Thyatis.
* * *
Alexander had drunk too much last night. He had had a wonderful time out with the townsmen, drinking cheap beer (he found the commonness of their brew to be both charming and invigorating) and listening to their talk, most of it in Traladaran. Every once in a while, a Thyatian word or two would slip into a story, but for the most part, Alexander had no idea what his benefactors were saying when they passed him more ale. This, of course, did not stop him from enjoying the fruits of their generosity.
He had also managed to confirm what he had previously only suspected: that Thalaric, although he stood only a hand over five feet high, could drink like a fish. Many larger Traladaran men were sleeping like babies while the elf, who had planted a ridiculous-looking green cap atop his head, continued to pass from group to group, cup in hand, delighting in the religious songs that the Traladarans sang themselves to sleep with. It was only when he realised that most of the others had already gone to bed that he returned to Alexander, smiled, and sprawled out upon the wet grass.
But Alexander had drunk too much last night. He knew this because, upon awakening, his mind was tortured with sharp pains, as if someone were shouting in his ear. Upon regaining lucidity, he was surprised to learn that someone was, in fact, shouting in his ear.
That person was Fyodor.
* * *
"Awake! Awake!" he cried. "The orcs have come! The town burns!" The young Traladaran himself had just been roused by an old townsman who brought terrible news of fire and slaughter. In panic, he shook his companions from sleep, the murkiness of drink fleeing before the frightful calm that consumed his mind, which banished revelry and discomfort in favour of heightened alertness and impassioned action. Once revived, the four looked to Stallanford. Smoke could be seen rising from the north side. Without so much as a second glance towards his companions, fearing more for the safety of the villagers than for his own, Fyodor began to run towards the town, dew-soaked and wild-eyed. It wasn't until he arrived at the village that he realised that his fellow travellers had indeed accompanied him in his hurried flight.
The townspeople were in panic. Individual words and phrases reached Fyodor's ears: "Orcs!" "Fire!" "Aralic is gone!" "To arms!" It was enough. Penhaligon had in the past her share of conflicts with the orcish tribes that made their homes in the hills surrounding the Shutturga, but Fyodor had never seen anything like this. Stallanford was alive with activity. Orders were being shouted, bucket brigades were being formed, and steel flashed in the red light of dawn as the rangers and guardsmen of the town prepared to exact their revenge. The companions, through overhearing shouts and by putting direct questions to a townsman, a tall, grey-robed man who paused long enough to address them, soon had assembled a rough picture of the event.
Just before dawn, when most of the festivities of the Night of Fire had come to a drunken close, orcs had entered Stallanford from the north. The force, which by eyewitness accounts numbered no less than a dozen but no more than two, easily overran the town guard (who were perhaps enjoying the festival a little too much themselves), slaying a pair of men who put up armed resistance and injuring many others.
But what happened next was most confusing. The orcs made their way directly to the Traladaran church building that dominated Stallanford's central square and made off with Aralic, the village priest, burning the building as they left. This behaviour, which struck those veterans of campaigns against the orcs as being quite unusual, was very upsetting to the citizens of Stallanford. Aralic was their sole spiritual leader, and the kidnapping of such a man of peace (for such was Aralic's reputation in Stallanford) seemed a senseless, insulting act.
Thalaric was especially interested in this occurrence. He and his people were quite familiar with the practices of the orcs. The conflicts between elves and orcs were not limited simply to clashes between the Vyalia and the Nyy-akk in the wilds of eastern Karameikos where few men dwell. Throughout the lore of the elvish people, strife between the two races had been recorded. Thalaric thought that perhaps the philosopher Varis would be interested by the implications of this, that the two races seemed to be connected by some decree of Fate that doomed them to wage war against each other. Some duality, perhaps, built into the very fabric of the world itself.
Many years later, when the lives of Thalaric and his companions would be studied and immortalised in poem and song, men would look back and note with sadness that it was on this day that the four companions came to know hate: Fyodor came to know hate because of the fear of these creatures and the harm that they could wreck upon his people. Varis, although he knew that it was unbecoming for a philosopher, came to know hate because of the beasts' crass treatment of a man of the Immortals and of their taking of innocent life. Alexander looked into the hills surrounding Stallanford, and for the first time saw not adventure and wonder, but fear and death; and so he hated the orcs.
Thalaric hated them not because of what had happened (although he was by no means unaffected by it), but rather because of a sudden increased appreciation of who he was: one of the Forestborn, a child of Ilsundal. The hatred between the elves and the orcs, which had existed for as far back as his people could remember, became for the first time personal to the elf. At first, this struck him as odd, for why was it that he should feel this way about the orcs now? Why didn't he feel this way while he served as a border guard in the Dymrak Forest, when he had even faced the Nyy-akk in combat and slain some of their number who had tried to invade from the mountains? This paradox confounded Thalaric for only a moment, for the answer soon came to him: It's because I've never lost anything to them, he thought. True, there were some of the Blueleaves who had been slain by the Nyy-akk during skirmishes. But that was somehow expected. It was the way of the world for elves and orcs to fall on each other's blades. This, of course, did not justify the evil ways of the orcs to Thalaric, but it placed their actions within a particular context, a divine dialogue, even, between the two races.
But things up here, in the north of the duchy, were different. In some way, the imposition of these beasts into the peaceful pastoral village of Stallanford hurt him, deeply and personally, instilling rage in the elf not only because of the damage that they had caused to this peaceful town, but also because of all the pain they had inflicted upon his people, in every generation. And not just the Blueleaves, nor even just the Vyalia. Something in this event, here, in the northern wilds, miles away from the cool shadow of the Dymrak Forest, made Thalaric begin to hate the orcs truly and deeply because of what they were, the bane of his people, in all places and for all time. And no matter if this eternal conflict was the way of the world or not, it was not right, and the evil and injustice of the very presence of these beasts upon the earth could no longer be rationalised by Thalaric.
"It is time to shed blood for blood," he intoned coldly. "Let us recover our blades, and slay every last one of them."
* * *
Varis was shocked by Thalaric's pronouncement. It was not exactly the course of action that bothered the philosopher: it was the power of the detached necessity of the elf's statement that struck him. He thought that he had read somewhere that the elves believed quite strongly in Fate as a restrictive, circular force of reality that compelled serene obedience to its yoke of has-to-be. The philosopher thought that this was certainly a great mistake; for if it truly was the case that the course of history demanded and determined action, then it would not be possible for the spirit to attain virtue (or vice, for that matter). Such a conclusion surely went against all that the Immortals- including Ilsundal- had taught the mortal races.
His metaphysical train of thought was cut short by Fyodor. "We must find the priest before he comes to harm," the young Traladaran said. "We cannot leave him in the hands of those men."
"They are not men," Thalaric said. "Nor are they elves, or hin, or any other decent creature upon the earth. They are abomination in the eyes of all things that live."
"Regardless, we must save him!" Fyodor replied in earnest, confused by the strange mixture of vitriol and poetry in Thalaric's voice.
"Men have already gone to Detoria Pass," said an unfamiliar voice. The companions turned to see that it was an old man who was speaking to them, his eyes red with tears. "But the orcs made not for there, but instead fled into the eastern hills. There will be no retribution this night."
* * *
Stallanford, like most of the smaller towns in the north of the duchy, existed in the shadow of the perpetual threat of being raided. Some of these assaults were from common bandits, attracted by the lure of expensive and exotic Darokinian goods that made their way south along the Duke's Road to Penhaligon and beyond. These bandits that occasionally harassed Stallanford were not interested in the villagers or their possessions so much as the goods that the merchants carried with them as they passed through the town. These caravans usually had plenty of armed men to protect them, and on the few times that large-scale assaults had been made by brigands upon Stallanford, they were fairly easily repelled with the cooperation of such travelling mercenaries, not to mention the duke's soldiers who daily passed through the village on patrol.
But besides these common robbers and thieves there lay the greater threat of the goblins and the orcs of the Wufwolde Hills. These foul beasts did not attack for the purpose of sacking caravans. Rather, they would steal livestock or raw materials (for it was said that these creatures knew not the arts that would allow them to survive without the aid of plunder). When orcs or goblins had attacked Stallanford in the past, they had done so in smaller bands than the human bandits, but they struck at times when the town was at its most vulnerable: namely, when there were no caravans (and their mercenaries) around to aid in its defence.
And so it came to pass, several years ago, that the men of Stallanford decided that the best method of dealing with these inhuman intruders was to take the fight to them. A group of townsmen, assisted by recruits from Penhaligon and the surrounding farmsteads, went east into the Wufwolde Hills and confronted one of the larger tribes of orcs at their settlement. After a bloody battle, the orcs were slaughtered, and those who remained were driven deep into the hills. In honour of those brave recruits who had given their lives in the service of Stallanford, the location of the battle came to be known as Detoria Pass, from a Traladaran word meaning "those who were called."
The old man who now stood in front of the four, quaking with anger, was named Janner, a woodsman and a veteran of that battle.
* * *
"I have one son, and there he fell," he pointed to the still-burning church, the flames sputtering slightly in response to the ever-so-slight drizzle that permeated the air. Janner was choked with emotion. Varis moved to comfort him, but the old man brushed him aside. "The only comfort that I will have is knowing that none of those foul creatures will remain alive."
Thalaric spoke: "Sir, we intend to do just that. I too have lost kinsmen by the swords of these beasts; allow me to be the agent of both of our vengeance."
Janner looked with surprise and admiration at the elf. "I see that you are honourable, Wild One. Although I do not imagine that I would be able to be anything more than a hindrance to you in a fight, I can show you the trail. All the other fighting men that we could spare have already left. They were headed by that fool Kuzmov, who led them back to Detoria Pass. There they hope to relive old glories. But I have examined the signs, and the trail of the orcs does not lead to the pass. They will not find them. Gather your weapons, and I will show you the path."
* * *
Alexander belted his sword to his waist and checked the tension on his crossbow. He was confused about the details of the trip, as he had stood by mutely as the others had gathered information in hastily spoken Traladaran. What was clear to him was that they were going into combat to perform a great and mighty deed. He felt nothing but fear.
* * *
We are well armed, at least, Varis thought to himself as he nervously ran his fingers over the shaft of his mace. May Halav be with us.
* * *
Fyodor hefted his father's sword. The fear that had initially gripped him was beginning to be replaced with something else, a courage that he had never known. Suddenly, the notion of confronting the orcs in direct combat no longer frightened him. No matter the odds,he thought, this sword will once again spill the blood of those who oppress the Traldar.
* * *
The elf looked forward to the killing that was inevitably to follow with anticipation. This is right, he thought. This is how it always was and how it always will be.
* * *
Janner urged the party to hurry in their preparations, and even helped Fyodor strap his armour plates into position over his chainmail shirt. "Where exactly are these orcs going to be, Janner?" Fyodor asked gently. The pain of his recent loss was still fresh on the face of their guide. He's so calm, Fyodor thought. If I were in his situation I don't think I would be able to do anything but grieve.
The old man shrugged. "I don't know. The Wufwolde Hills are riddled with caves. I would imagine that they make their homes in one of them."
"Does anyone have a tinderbox?" Fyodor asked his companions, who were readying their equipment around him. "Or torches?" He himself had strapped some tar-smoked faggots to his pack for such an occasion before he left his parents' house (he noted with a twinge of unexpected sadness that he could no longer call it his own). A quick survey of equipment was taken, deficiencies noted, and an urgent request made to the hin who owned the travellers' lodgings for a tinderbox and some spare torches, which, upon their delivery by the innkeeper himself, looking red and flustered, were distributed among the group.
"We must hurry," said Janner. "Trails get obscured over time. And only Zirchev knows how much travelling we must do before we can exact our revenge."
* * *
Standing aloof from the chaos that had gripped Stallanford was a solitary figure. The dying fires from the burning church glinted dully off of armour-steel as Boldar Shieldcracker gazed north, through the mist, to the mountains and beyond. The attack of this peaceful town by the hated orcs was his cue to go, a sign, as he saw it, from Kagyar himself that Boldar's time amongst the humans had run its course, the damage done.
He had been drunk- a condition that he found himself in more and more frequently since he left Dengar in embarrassment and shame- when he was roused from stuporous half-sleep by the sounds of battle. By the time he had managed to shake off the night and stagger up from the basement room of the blacksmith's shop, the church was afire. Humans were killed; Boldar wasn't sure how many.
Yes, the time for his leave-taking was definitely upon him. Boldar left some gold for the smith (a kindly soul and one of his own race) in thanks for the work that he had provided him with, quickly equipped himself for travel, and prepared to leave. The desire to see his homeland again had been growing stronger and stronger within him as of late. I have had little success in the south, he thought. Perhaps it is finally time to return home.
But the doubts that had followed Boldar ever since his exodus from the mountains a year ago stopped him at the outskirts of town. How could he think of returning, especially now? Would he be received as anything less of an outcast because of his time spent in the southlands? Surely this was foolishness of the highest order. I do not have to return to Dengar. Perhaps I could sojourn with the dwarves of the gemeinschaft in the Northern Reaches. But Boldar knew that he was just fooling himself, that the mere sight of the mountains of his homeland would surely make him mad, filling him with a passion to return that could never be fulfilled. The heart surely desires nothing more than what it is incapable of having, he mused.
Quite unexpectedly, the thought passed in front of the young dwarf's mind that he did have a choice in the matter, that his fate was not determined for him. The accident in Dengar did not demand his ostracism from the peaks of the Denwarf Spur any more than the tragedy at Stallanford compelled him to leave Karameikos. This thought stopped him dead in his tracks. The notion that his beloved land was not lost to him through the cruel workings of Chance was a new one, almost hypnotic in its suggestiveness of power and self-determination. I am in control, he thought for the first time in as long as he could remember.
It was at that point that Fyodor and his companions first made their acquaintance with Boldar Shieldcracker, dwarf of Dengar.
* * *
Alexander, frightened and confused to begin with, grew even more baffled as the party left Stallanford, led by the old man Janner. The air was clean and crisp in that way that it only was right at dawn, at that perfect time when the sun once again dramatically reasserted its dominion over all things. It was a moment that Alexander usually paused to savour, in an almost pagan fashion (best not to tell Varis, he thought). This day, however, was different. The sword that he wore at his side might actually be used, not merely as a rakish embellishment to his otherwise perfectly ordered travelling costume. Today, Alexander thought, they are going to find me out.
But there was still this sense of bafflement, surely brought on not only by the disorder of the recent turn of events, but also because of the strange sight that greeted the companions as they prepared to leave the village behind. For there, standing at the edge of town in the light drizzle, facing north, was a dwarf. Alexander had seen these people before, in Kelvin and Darokin. This current one was much like the others: around four feet high, but broad-shouldered. He wore plated chain and carried a shield on his left arm and cradled a sallet in his right. He stood motionless in the rain.
Janner also seemed put off by the dwarf's presence. He looked back to the party for help. It was Thalaric who spoke first.
"What do you see?"
Startled, the dwarf turned to look at the companions. His hair was a deep black, the same as his beard, which was modest compared to the norms of his people. The dwarf's eyes were black as well, but they seemed reddened or bloodshot to Thalaric and the rest of the company. When he spoke, his voice was deep, throaty, and resonant. Although, in truth, he spoke no louder than was appropriate, it seemed to those gathered around him as if they were hearing a voice majestically echoing, amplified, as it were, from the depths of a cavern rather than issuing forth from the figure in front of them. If anything, the dwarf seemed a bit hesitant as he said: "I'm sorry. I was lost in my thoughts."
"We go to slay orcs," said Thalaric matter-of-factly, "in retribution for what has happened here this day. Has your axe tasted their blood?"
The dwarf opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it, a look of thoughtfulness on his face. Before he could form another sentence, the elf broke in. "If you wish to come with us, fall in line." And with that, the fire-haired elf continued on his way, the surprised old man Janner going with him. The rest of the companions followed. And so did the dwarf.
* * *
The path that Janner led them on was one that pulled east off the Duke's Road. This area of flatland might, in some day in the future, be farmed and developed. But the uncertainty of the land, symbolised so dramatically by the Altan Tepes Mountains rising in the distance, kept men inside their cities at nighttime. Those who farmed did so on a small scale, and on the southward side of Stallanford, away from the mountains. A rationalist such as Varis might take this for muddleheaded foolishness, as if having the small town of Stallanford in between oneself and the mountains made life any safer. But in a setting in which the farmer was painfully aware that he was an invader in a strange and wild land, one took advantage of every opportunity that one could to reassure yourself that you were secure in your endeavours.
If Varis had spent much time dwelling on these popular prejudices, he would have been mightily distressed by it; he was the kind of man who lost sleep over issues of this sort. However, Varis had other concerns on his mind. The first of these was Thalaric. Looking at him, striding ahead with Janner, Varis was struck again by the elf's reaction to this situation. The will of the Immortals seemed clear enough to Varis: the priest must be recovered and returned to Stallanford. But what was this that Thalaric spoke of? He spoke only of violence and killing, to the extent that the deed at hand, the recovery of Aralic, was obscured. And look how that dwarf, who had introduced himself to Varis earlier as Boldar son of Gored, so easily fell in line when Thalaric called to him! Maybe it was one of the fey powers of the elves that had been whispered about in the seminary at Kelvin. Perhaps.
All Varis knew was that he was nervous and had never shed blood before. While he was a student in Kelvin, he had taken part in many sparring matches with fellow seminarians, but that was with padded sticks, and the most common injuries were twisted ankles and bruised egos. He pulled his mace from his belt as they walked and hefted it, testing its weight. The Church of Karameikos forbade a non-tonsured novice like himself to carry arms; the job of her philosophers was to fight the war of the Immortals on the intellectual front, converting souls and seeking out truth through appeals to reason, science, and logic. Varis took a look at his mace, with its relatively small, four-cornered head, a far cry from the huge, flanged war-maces that the Thyatians sometimes used (that my father used, Varis thought). What the philosopher held in his hand was technically known as a sceptre, the symbol of his clerical order. The sceptre was a sign of rulership, of control. On the Church of Karameikos' device the sceptre was depicted between the sun and the moon: universal dominion, universal scope of authority. The Immortals upheld all things in the world-order, and the Church was the path, the only path without stumble or misstep, to Immortal reward.
So Varis carried the sceptre as a symbol of his faith. On formal occasions, in fact, he was required to bear it. But the other use that the sceptre could be put to, that other, horrible purpose that adventure-minded mendicants and novices had discovered before him, was that of the mace. And so now Varis went, almost certainly into battle, armed not with a sword or a spear, but with his clerical sceptre, a semantic distinction that the hierarchy encouraged. Such was the power of the symbol. How were the forces of Ignorance and Chaos defeated? With the sceptre of Truth, Righteousness, and Purity.
As all of this flashed through Varis' mind, he said a quick prayer to Koryis that he might not have to use his weapon (for there was no doubt in his mind that it was a weapon).
Then, after a moment's reflection, he said the same prayer to Halav and Viuden.
* * *
Fyodor was amazed at how Janner followed the trail of the orcs. Sure, after the old man pointed out the bloodstain on the grass, or the small piece of fabric, he saw them well enough, but Janner picked out these clues from the surrounding countryside with the accuracy of Petra's arrows. Fyodor wondered at his skill at tracking, although age had turned his hair grey and bowed his back slightly. How was it that Zirchev tracked? Fyodor thought to himself. It must have been with greater skill than this, although I cannot imagine what that would be like. He briefly considered commenting on this to Janner, but feared to break his concentration or provoke the wrath of Thalaric.
So instead he kept to himself, trying to prepare himself for when they reached their destination. There would be blood spilt, he knew. He prayed to Halav that it would not be his.
* * *
They stopped after three hours of travel away from Stallanford. First, the group had followed Janner to the northeast, through the coastal plains of the Shutturga. Here, the terrain was marred only by the occasion copse of small pine trees or the gentle hill. Janner was forced to stop often to regain the trail. At one point, after they had travelled but two miles or so, the old man thought for a moment that he had managed to lose trace of the orcs' path completely, owing to the obscuration of the trail by the light rain that had now emerged from the early dawn's drizzle. Janner was bemoaning his inadequacy when a clumsy heel print in the soft, damp grass presented itself to him, turning his cries of despair into a shouted prayer to Zirchev. The group continued with renewed vigour.
However, their journey soon became more difficult. The occasional tree and most modest of hills changed after two hours of travel into extremes of both. These were the Wufwolde Hills, the footstools of the mighty Altan Tepes. Lingering always just a short jog away from Stallanford (and Penhaligon, for that matter), they were perpetual reminders of the threats of the encroaching wilderness. From there, Janner led the party on a gradual eastwards turn. Their journey became more intense; after only one day's training in travelling in armour, Fyodor found himself struggling not along the smooth and flat Duke's Road but up the uneven sides of pine-covered foothills. It was only Fyodor's resilient strength and endurance that saved him, for despite his desire to avenge the wrongs afflicted upon Stallanford, he would have given the whole thing up, a casualty of the realities of the world, if his sturdy physical makeup did not carry him through these hardships.
There was reason to be thankful that the trail led through the hills; the density of the pine forest was such that the trail became much clearer to Janner. They moved towards their prey with reduced speed but with greater certainty of their path. After struggling up the first major hill, through the rough pine forest that covered its side, Janner stopped. It was only now that the others noticed how winded the old man was. They had been moving at a forced march, seeking to close the gap between themselves and their quarry. The last leg of their journey, where they were forced to pick an arduous path up the wooded hill, seemed to drain Janner of much of his strength. The old man, his leather garments moist with rain and sweat, drew deep breaths as he stood on the peak of the hill, taking in the surrounding countryside. The others were grateful for the moment's respite; Fyodor especially had even begun to curse the heavy armour that he had received so gratefully just two days ago.
The crest of the hill was somewhat bald, with rough, stony ground very much unlike the slope up which they had just struggled. Only a few scrawny trees held on for dear life to the soil. This, however, allowed the companions a magnificent view of the landscape, despite the misty air and overcast sky. The hill upon which they now stood was clearly one of the largest in the area, and they could easily see the Wufwolde chain continuing in all directions save the west, from where they had just arrived.
Then Janner spoke. "Look," he said. "Do you see there?" The companions followed the line of his finger. To their surprise, they could see a bit of a clearing on the side of the next big hill in their path, and what was unmistakably, even from this distance, the mouth of a cave. But more importantly, they saw figures moving into it. Although, in truth, they were too far away to make out clearly, no one in the group thought for a second that they had discovered anything less than the object of their journey. "That must be them," Janner said, giving voice to the general feeling of the companions.
"We see it, friend," Fyodor replied. "Come, let us be off!" With the sighting of the orcs, all of his weariness seemed to melt away.
"I don't think that I can continue," said Janner. The old man was clearly spent from the exertion. "Perhaps it is best if I return to Stallanford; it's downhill all of the way to the Shutturga. Hopefully, I will be able to meet up with the rest of the men, once they realise that the old lair at Detoria Pass is empty, and either lead them back here myself or at least guide them to this place." Janner hung his head. "I wish to Halav that I were young enough to wield a sword with you."
Fyodor grasped the old man's arm and spoke to him gently in Traladaran. "Janner, the Blessed Three require only that we do what we can, not what we cannot. Let us who are young wield the steel, just as you did in defence of Stallanford and Traladara in your youth."
Janner nodded. Fyodor could see that tears had begun to form in his eyes. "Revenge my son," he said simply, and then turned and left the five standing on the peak of the hill alone.