Witch Queen of Perrenland

Kirk and Aaron were just two travelers hoping to find adventure in Greyhawk’s most notorious drinking establishment. Little could they have known that adventure would find them just a few feet from the Green Dragon. Joined by the mysterious and tight-lipped merchant Rarsirrien, a female thief, and a disgraced Paladin, they become caught up in a plot to thwart the infamous and evil Iggwilv from obtaining the secret to immortality. To do so, they must breach the magically protected borders of the secretive Valley of the Mage. If they succeed, they will have to find Iggwilv’s agents while avoiding detection by the most powerful spell caster on the continent. Discovery will mean capture and death, and failure will mean the loss of countless lives to Iggwilv’s cruel experiments. But in the Valley of the Mage, not everything, nor everyone, is as it appears. Along the way, our heroes will have to confront the demons of their past and a few in the present. If they succeed, their reward will be freedom, fame, and the riches that come from it.

Desprae

Desprae

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Aaron felt the pace slowing. He guessed they had been traveling for about an hour and that they may be nearing their destination. A moment later, he felt the horse come to a stop. He would soon learn his fate and the fates of his companions. He heard the sound of Aleyn’s men dismounting and, after a moment, felt the ropes securing him to his horse release.

“These are not Orcs,” Aaron heard a different voice say. It was calmer, smoother than Aleyn’s.

“No, my lord. We discovered them on the forest’s edge while tracking a pair of trolls that had managed to escape. At first, we thought them friends, but they are traveling with what appears to be a half-elf from the Vale.”

“Really! Well, I must see this half-elf. As far as we know, there are no half-elves in the Vale.”

Aleyn removed Aaron’s hood. After a moment, his eyes adjusted, and he could see they were in a large clearing. Around the perimeter were wooden buildings of Oak and Silverwood. There were perhaps a dozen structures, and they were in total harmony with the forest and the terrain. As he glanced around, his eyes settled on his new interrogator, a muscular and stout man, but not a man. As Aaron studied his features, he could see that this man was also a half-elf. Taller than Aaron, more muscular, his piercing blue eyes seemed cold as a frozen pond, and his hair brown with a few gray hairs. He was wearing leather pants and a light green tunic. Aaron had seen clothes like these before. His father had often dressed in a similar fashion, which had contrasted with the elves of Sunndi.

One of the other elves helped Aaron dismount and brought him before Celidone.

“I’m Aaron…of Sunndi, son of Valandil and Ond….”

“Of Valandil!” Celidone cut him off. “Your mother’s name is Ondoher?”

Aaron nodded, somewhat confused.

Celidone turned to the elf on Aaron’s right, “Show me his sword.” The elf handed over Aaron’s sword.

“This is not the original scabbard,” he said, looking over it. Aaron shook his head. “The hilt is wrong.” He turned the ring on his right hand so the stone-faced his palm and grasped the hilt firmly and, turned it slightly, then re-examined it. “It has been altered.” Then he drew the sword from the scabbard, “I know this blade.” He re-sheathed the sword, motioned for the guard to untie Aaron’s hands, and handed the weapon back to him. He leaned in and examined Aaron’s features closely. “Yes, I see my brother Valandil in you.” The tall Ranger pulled back his cowl, and Aaron could see his face clearly.

“Celidone, I’d show you a proper greeting, but I’m a little tied up at the moment.” It was the first time Rarsirrien had spoken since they had been tied and blindfolded.

Celidone turned, “Rarsirrien, old friend! This day is full of surprises. Release them.” The rangers removed their bonds, and the three found themselves standing before the Ranger Lord Celidone.

Rarsirrien grasped Celidone’s arm in friendship, “‘Ware and were, friend.”

Celidone smiled. “Well, come, old friend. It has been too long.”

“Uncle?” Aaron asked hesitantly.

“No, not by blood. Valandil was my brother by an oath we made long ago. I remember the day we rescued your mother. That was the day I lost my brother but gained a sister. How is Valandil?”

Aaron bowed his head. “He’s dead. We were attacked in OldRed, on our way to Greyhawk. He was killed by an assassin in what they said was a case of mistaken identity.” Celidone looked down for a moment, then back to Aaron.

“Come, I guess you are thirsty after your journey and perhaps hungry. Let us eat and drink, and then we can discuss your business here, and perhaps I can tell you something about your father, and you can tell me about his life away from here in return. I long wondered how my brother was doing.” He called over to Aleyn, “Have some food and drink brought into the meeting hall for our guest. Once you’ve finished, please join us.”

He turned and led them towards the north end of the clearing, where a larger structure stood. The inside was well-illuminated. There were plenty of windows on the east and west sides and torches along the walls. There were long tables around the room and one more extended table at the north end of the room, just in front of a large fireplace. Celidone took his place in a large, ornately carved chair at the center of the table, with his back to the fireplace, and motioned for the three to be seated to his right.

As soon as they were seated, platters of food were brought in. Fruits and venison were plenty, and mugs of water and wine were set before them. At first, no one said anything; Celidone began to eat and took a few sips of wine, then he broke the silence. “Rarsirrien, I have some questions for you, but first, I want to speak with Aaron.” He turned to the half-elf, “Aaron, did Valandil ever tell you how he and your mother met?”

Aaron shook his head. He knew a few details but never the whole story.

“We had tracked a caravan of slavers from the Wild Coast. They had been raiding into Celene and parts of the Gnarley. Capturing mostly women but a few men and children. We managed to catch up to them on the north shore of the Jewel River just before they could cross back into the Welkwood. They were a group of men and a few half-orcs. No doubt looking for fresh stock for the Slave Lords in Highport or elsewhere along the coast. Most of the captives were elves or humans. Oddly enough, there were three elves from the Vale. Three sisters who had been unlucky enough to have been caught just outside the protection of the Vale. Or so they claimed. Odd to think that the slavers had managed to make it so far through Celene, much less over the Lortmils. More likely, the three were spies that were unfortunate enough to get caught by slavers before us. Once freed, two escaped, no doubt back to their master, but the third remained. She was called Ondoher. It was clear that Valandil was under her spell. At first, I believed that it was some trick or charm. I gave her every chance to escape on our way back through the forest, yet she never attempted. So I began to trust her.”

“She was clearly afraid of something, but she also genuinely cared for your father. No one leaves the Vale. It is said the residents of the Vale are fiercely loyal to the Mage, but she persuaded Valandil to take her as far as they could away. Sunndi seemed as safe a place as any. Elves of the forest would have welcomed a ranger of Valandil’s skill and experience, and it was too far for anyone of Vale to bother. Besides, as far as the sisters knew, she had remained here with us, so she was either still here or dead.”

“Go on now, Aaron, it’s your turn to finish your father’s tale. I have told you all that I know.” He looked at Rarsirrien, “When Aaron finishes, perhaps you will tell me what has brought the three of you together and here.”

Rarsirrien nodded. He had been listening intently, collecting as much information as he could. In his experience, you never know when some seemingly insignificant piece of information might come in handy in brokering a deal.

Aaron briefly and carefully recounted details of his life in Sunndi and about the man he knew as his father. He told Celidone that he knew his father had been a ranger but had no idea he had been a ranger from the Gnarley Forrest. Valandil never discussed details about his mother. A point everyone sitting there believed since Aaron himself seemed to have little idea his eye color was unique and betrayed a part of his heritage. He was open with the fact that his father had done some work for the forces of Sunndi since that knowledge would be easy enough to come by for anyone wanting to know, but the specifics he kept to himself for now. He felt he could trust the present company, but he remembered what Rarsirrien had said earlier about walls having ears.

Celidone appeared to be listening intently, smiling when Aaron would mention one of his father’s characteristic life lessons he had passed on to his son, and concerned when he heard of the last adventure to OldRed, where his father would lose his life. By the time he finished, it was already dark outside. The hall entrance was lit by the flickering light of the central campfire, and several rangers came in to light the torches along the walls.

Celidone motioned one of them over and told him their private conversation was over, and the others were free to come inside and join them. Then he leaned back in his chair, rocking it slightly back on its rear legs. “Well, at least my dear brother found some happiness for a while. It seems he passed on some of his wisdom to his son. That’s quite an accomplishment and far more than I have been able to do.”

The hall began filling, and young boys training to become rangers brought more food and drink. Aaron and Kirk were surprised at the number of men in the hall, almost thirty by now. Kirk spoke for the first time in hours.

“How many men do you have here?”

“Enough.” Celidone trusted them, but he wouldn’t reveal much about his forces just yet. “Enough to deal with whatever makes it this far from the Welkwood. Or from Greyhawk. We’re not far from Lockswell Manor but far enough off the main track that only someone looking for us would find us. Rarsirrien, how did you come to be in the company of these two?”

“It was more the other way ’round,” Aaron muttered.

Celidone’s brow raised. “Oh? How so?”

Rarsirrien took a long sip of wine. “They burned down my house.”

“They what?” Celidone roared, incredulous.

“Well, not them personally but someone after them.”

“We don’t know that. Still think it was someone you crossed.” Kirk replied forcefully.

Rarsirrien described how they met, leaving out the details about Aaron’s father’s sword, the attack at his home, and their eventual escape through the sewers. He left out the meeting with the Margrave and the whole business about Iggwilv, but he thought mentioning the Necromancers might be useful to enlist Celidone’s help. He wouldn’t be keen on the idea of the three looking for four Necromancers.

Celidone leaned over in Kirk’s direction and whispered, “Next time, “he said, “visit the Yawning Portal instead of the Green Dragon. Just saying if it’s real danger and adventure you seek, that’s the place to hear about it. We can talk more about adventure in the morning. I think you have had enough for one day. We have made some accommodations for you. Aleyn will show you the way.”

Aleyn, who had been seated at the end of the nearest table, stood and approached as Celidone spoke his name. The three stood, but Celidone placed his hand on Rarsirrien’s arm, signaling him to remain behind. Kirk and Aaron looked at Rarsirrien, who nodded and sat back down. Aleyn then led Kirk and Aaron to what could best be described as a barrack at the opposite end of the clearing. It was empty except for eight small cots, but it was more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. As soon as the pair lay down, they were fast asleep, not realizing how the day’s events had exhausted them.

Celidone poured Rarsirrien and himself another glass of wine, and the two drank in silence. Celidone finally spoke. “Do they know?”

“No. Right now, they don’t need to either.”

“Very well, old friend. I trust you know what you’re doing, but my silence has a price, and that price is I want to know what it is you three are doing out here and where you are going.”

Rarsirrien took another drink. “The Witch Queen has dispatched a small party southward, and we were approached in Greyhawk by an interested person and asked to find out what their purpose is.”

“There’s a name I haven’t heard mentioned in an age. Not surprising; Iggwilv is always stirring up something. Why would anyone in Greyhawk care about a small party from Perrenland? Bissel could handle that.”

“Because there are a couple of Necromancers in this group.” Rarsirrien watched Celidone’s reaction hoping it would pique his interest enough that he would agree to help them.

“Well, how big is this party? Not counting the two Necromancers.”

“Four,” Rarsirrien corrected him.

“Four! That’s nothing at all.” Celidone, misunderstanding, couldn’t believe the three were tracking down that small party or why it would be much concern to anyone in Greyhawk.

“No, not a total of four. Four necromancers plus support.” Rarsirrien watched the half-elf sink back in his seat.

“You must have finally gone mad. One wizard, probably, two, maybe, but not even you could expect to handle four. Those other two might be a distraction for a few seconds before they turn you into a pile of ash. Or worse.”

“Calm down. We’re only supposed to locate them, not fight them.” Rarsirrien was bending the truth a lot here, and he didn’t like holding back from his friend, but he didn’t think it wise to divulge too many details in a hall with this many ears. He trusted Celidone and anyone Celidone trusted, but there were too many people in the room to know who might let slip a careless word.

“I sense you’re not telling me everything.” He started at Rarsirrien’s expressionless face. “I can see that you’re not going to share anymore. Very well, I’ve learned not to press you. What was your planned route?”

“West through the Gnarley, into Celene, and resupply in Enstad. From there through the Lortmils and through the Gran March.” Suddenly, Rarsirrien stopped realizing he may have given too much away by mentioning the Lortmil mountains. He watched Celidone for any sign of reaction.

“Relax. You’ve said more than you probably wished, but the information will go no further than me, and we won’t speak any more of it.” He picked up his drink and raised the glass to Rarsirrien, “I drink to your success.” With that, he took a sip and continued. “I will have Aleyn, and one other go with you at least until you’re safely in Celene and clear of the Welkwood. From there, you’re on your own, I’m afraid.”

Rarsirrien finished his wine and set the glass back on the table. “Thank you, old friend. Especially for keeping my affairs private. I should retire; even my kind needs rest, and we have a long road ahead.”

Celidone stood and grasped his friend’s arm, “Until morning then. I will see that your supplies are replenished and fresh water and anything else you may need.” With that, Rarsirrien turned and walked out of the hall. The cool, clean night air was refreshing and welcoming after the smoke-filled room. He was looking forward to a good night’s rest before they were back in the wild, roughing it again. The rangers did a good job keeping the Gnarley free of bandits and other foul creatures, but they couldn’t be everywhere, and the idea of scouts from the Wild Coast making their way up through the Welkwood wasn’t a pleasant thought. Sooner or later, that lot would have to be dealt with.

He entered the hut and saw that Kirk and Aaron were sound asleep. He rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. Rarsirrien awoke just before dawn. He stretched out in the bed, which was just a tad too small for him, and his feet were dangling over the end. He decided to walk outside and let the cool morning air wake him. Of late, he had been spending more time in the city than out. He had forgotten how different the air was in the forest from the city. He enjoyed being in Greyhawk with all the hustle and bustle, but he realized that maybe he also needed this adventure for his soul. Perhaps that’s why he was willing to stick his neck out for these two.

Sometime during the night, their horses had been brought in and tied near their lodging. Celidone must have anticipated his desire for an early departure to make up for the time lost yesterday. Their bags and provisions had already been secured, and he could see several water skins had been provided for each of them. Aleyn and an elf were walking toward him.

“Good morning. May I present Gilam,” Aleyn gestured to the elf beside him. “He will be accompanying us. Celidone thought it might be wise for us to have a full-blooded elf along, seeing as how your half-elf mixed line might cause further problems.”

Rarsirrien nodded. Just then, both Kirk and Aaron stepped out, Kirk shielding his eyes from the morning sun, which took that opportune moment to shine into his hung-over and bloodshot eyes.

Though his mouth felt as dry as the Sea of Dust, he still got out a good morning before stumbling over to a water basin and scooping out a mouthful. “That’s better.”

“We should be starting soon. Celidone has instructed us to take you as far as Celene’s borders. As long as the weather holds, and assuming we don’t have any other problems, you should be as far as Canryell in five days.”

Aaron and Kirk finished stowing their blankets in their packs. Aleyn led them over to the kitchen to get some breakfast before heading out. They ate well, eggs, some pork, and fresh fruits, and were ready to go.

Moving through this part of the Gnarley was not difficult. Aaron glanced up at the massive trees and their towering canopies. This was very different from the forest he was used to growing up in Sunndi, where there was often thick vegetation and a great deal of undergrowth that would quickly choke off less-used paths. Here, the limited amount of light passing through the trees kept undergrowth to a minimum, and as a result, they rode quickly through the wood. By late afternoon they had already covered sixty miles, and Aleyn and Gilam knew of a campsite often used by the Rangers when they were on patrol. There were no permanent structures, but the trees formed a wide circle, and a ring of stones was in the center where a fire could be started. In a hollow in one of the trees were stashed dry twigs and small branches to be used for kindling. Aleyn brought a handful back with him, and Gilam and Kirk went about gathering dead wood for the fire. Aaron and Rarsirrien unpacked bedrolls and set up camp. The day had been comfortable in the shade of the trees, but now that the sun had gone down, it began to feel cool, and a little dampness in the air caused them all to draw nearer to the fire. Aleyn took the first watch, followed by Gilam and Aaron since their superior elven vision allowed them to see better in the darkness.

It was still dark in the forest the next morning, but the sun was already up, its rays not yet able to penetrate the Gnarley’s thick canopy. After a small breakfast of bread, dried meat, and a little water, the five were mounted and on the move again. Rarsirrien estimated they were ten to fifteen miles north of Tricaster. If so, they would cross the road to Beltander in about two hours, then continue westward. By the end of their second day, they had covered nearly one hundred and twenty miles and hadn’t had any encounters. No one mentioned this fact out of fear of jinxing their luck. They set up camp for the night in what appeared to be an abandoned hunter’s blind. It was large enough to house twice their number but didn’t seem to have been used anytime recently.

“Tomorrow, once we’re passed Corustaith, we will turn southwest and make for the old village of Canryell. That is where Gilam and I will leave you. You will be well within the border of Celene there and relatively safe. Once there, we can rest, and then you can continue on your way. If you head south, you should come to the main road leading west to Humming’s End after a half-day. Once there, take the road to the left, southwest to Enstad. The road to the right leads to Hommlet.”

Rarsirrien nodded. “Assuming we’ve lost anyone interested in following us out of Greyhawk, we should be able to take the main road and reach Enstad in six days. Better time than I had expected to make. At this rate, we should make it through the Ulek Pass just as Autumn begins. If we beat snowfall in the mountains, we can get ahead of our adversaries.”

Aleyn started to walk back to continue unpacking what they needed for camp. “I don’t know anything about that. Celidone only instructed us to bring you safely within the borders of Celene. That is what I intend to do and nothing more.”

While the others set up camp, Gilam went in search of dinner. After a half hour, he returned with several rabbits, and they made a meal of them and some potatoes they had managed to find. Gilam had a small spice pouch, a gift from a halfling he had rescued from a giant spider not far from the village of Nulb, which made the rabbits quite tasty and a little less gamey.

The night passed just as uneventfully as the previous, and none of them were going to complain. They packed quickly and were soon underway. Aleyn led them through the forest, paralleling the main road and staying a few miles west of it. Gilam was riding a mile or so ahead and scouting a bit to either side. They continued to make good time at a relatively good pace. Shortly before early afternoon, all but Gilam had stopped for lunch when he came riding back up to them.

Aleyn rode forward to meet him. “Something ahead?”

Gilam nodded. “Greyhawk patrol, I counted thirteen riding south. Probably headed to Camp Adalorn.”

“Camp Adalorn? Never heard of that one before,” Kirk had just ridden up to the two rangers.

Aleyn leaned back in his saddle. “It’s a Greyhawk militia base. They patrol the road and the lands east of the Gnarley. Normally, they leave us alone, and we return the favor. None of us want Greyhawk’s interference, but here in the south, we have a common interest in blocking humanoid incursions, scouts, and raiding parties from the Pomarj who come up through the Wild Coast. Since the fall of Highport and then Fax to the slave traders, there have been more frequent tests of the southern defenses. It gave Greyhawk the excuse it needed to establish a permanent military presence here.”

Kirk could hear from Aleyn’s tone that he didn’t like the idea of Greyhawk extending their influence, and it seemed he had even less respect for their capabilities.

Aleyn could see from Kirk’s expression that he had guessed his disdain for Greyhawk’s soldiers. “The last patrol leader I had to deal with couldn’t find his bottom with both hands. Most of the militia are conscripts, better suited to farming than fighting, much less tracking. However, the last garrison commander was competent and reasonable enough. He worked with us, and we shared intelligence. We managed to coordinate a few engagements against bandits. I’m guessing his willingness to work with us led to his being replaced so quickly.” By now, the rest of the party had caught up and was listening to Aleyn’s story. “Time we get moving again. We’ll give the patrol some distance and stay a little more west of the road. We’d be turning that way soon enough anyway.”

“We need to turn west now if we’re to avoid Bad Deep.” Gilam waited for Aleyn’s acknowledgment. Aleyn nodded his agreement. They turned and began to ride in a west, south-westerly direction. Aaron took the opportunity to try and speak privately with the elf and spurred his horse into a light gallop until he had caught up with him.

Aaron tried to start a conversation when he was sure he was out of earshot of the rest of the group. “What is Bad Deep?”

“An old battlefield. A dead zone created by ancient magic was used between two warring tribes long ago. Almost no one who enters comes out. The few that survived were never the same. Several went mad not long after. They say that there are still magic items and weapons to be recovered. Perhaps even treasure, but few consider the risk worth the attempt. For now, the druids of the forest try and slow the spread. The dead zone is growing but very slowly. Still, if nothing is done, then in time, it could consume a good portion of the Gnarley and Welkwood, cutting off the northeastern part of Celene.” Gilam paused, “Now, may I ask a question?”

Aaron nodded. “I’m curious; what was your mother like?” The question caught Aaron entirely off guard. He had expected to be asked about his sword or travels, but not about his family and certainly not about his mother.

“Why do you want to know?”

“I’ve never met a Valley Elf. Not even a half-valley-elf. I was curious. Are they like the rest of the woodland elves, or are they more like our underworld-dwelling cousins?”

Aaron thought for a moment. “Well, I remember that she was accepted and respected among the elves of the Rieuwood. She loved and respected living things, so I would say that it is more in common with what I know of all elves. I have no experience with the Drow. I’ve never seen one, much less met one, so I can’t say how similar or dissimilar she was to one. She’s strong, independent, and quite good with a bow and a sword. Most of all, I remember how she loved my father. She must have given up everything and crossed nearly half the world to remain with him.”

Gilam nodded. “I’m unaware of any other race of elves having contact with those from the Vale. They say the Mage has them under a spell, but that seems unlikely. They simply prefer to be left alone to pursue their own interests. If they wish to be left alone and leave others alone, then I see no reason to alter the situation.”

By sunset, they were just on the northwest edge of the dead zone. They decided to camp here for the night. Aleyn estimated they would reach the ruins of Canryell sometime tomorrow afternoon. That would give him and Gilam time to make it back across the border before nightfall. The two rangers planned to head north, take the main road, and head back, stopping in Corustaith and Tricaster to see what news they could pick up before reporting back to Celidone.

The group made camp and gathered some dead wood for a fire. After they had finished, Aleyn gathered them around the fire. “We’ll skirt this edge of Bad Deep and keep heading west. I estimate the ruins of Canryell lie about forty miles in that direction. We cross several small streams between here and the old village, so we’ll refill our water skins from those.”

“It’s a village; doesn’t it have a well?” Kirk hadn’t said much all day until now.

“Do not drink the water from the well in the village. It’s enchanted, though cursed may be a better description. Those who drink its waters have been known to fade from this plane. There is no known cure. We will remain with you there overnight but will leave at the first light. I suggest you don’t remain in the village any longer than necessary - it’s said that the spirits of those who remain do not long suffer the presence of the living.”

“Sounds wonderful.” Kirk leaned back against a sizable roanwood tree.

Gilam stood and walked just out of sight of the others in the camp. A minute or so later, Aleyn approached him. Gilam acknowledged him yet kept peering into the wood.

“What is it?”

“I’m not certain. There’s nothing there that I can see. Just a sense.” He paused, “Remarkable don’t you think?”

Aleyn took a deep breath, “What’s remarkable?”

“We’ve traveled this far and yet haven’t encountered…anything. Has that ever happened? I’ve gone a day or two, but we’ve covered over a hundred and fifty miles and not so much as a bear or wild boar.”

“Perhaps there’s more to Celidone’s friends than he told us. In this case, I’m willing to accept the easy road. I’d rather not have to fight every other day, especially with a group I don’t know. Come, let’s rejoin the rest before they begin to wonder what’s happened to us.” He turned and headed back to the camp. Gilam turned to follow, but then some movement in the shadows caught his attention. He stopped and stared, trying to see through the darkening wood as best as his elven sight would allow. But he saw nothing. Perhaps a trick of the now fading light. He turned back and followed Aleyn. Behind him, the shadows continued to deepen as the sun set, but one was darker than the others.

The night, like the last few, passed without incident. Rarsirrien was relieved, and it further convinced him that they had managed to elude anyone who might have attempted to follow them from Greyhawk City. Though he wasn’t going to admit it, he, too, was surprised that their road had been relatively easy and that they hadn’t had any encounters. They were close to the Welkwood now. Soon the trees of the Gnarley would give way to the taller Ipt trees, some reaching over a hundred feet, and roanwoods that were among some of their kind’s tallest.

They extinguished the remains of their fire and were back on their horses just as the first rays of light began to pierce through the trees. They were riding just along the edge of the wood now, and through the trees, they could make out a large, barren wasteland that appeared devoid of any living thing. The waste extended for several miles, but they soon passed beyond its western edge, and the wood’s green began returning.

As Aleyn had predicted, they were nearing the ruined village of Canryell by late afternoon. Gilam, as usual, had taken point to scout ahead as a precaution. Now he was heading back toward them at a rapid pace. Aleyn and Rarsirrien rode ahead to meet him.

“A band of men and half-orcs are already in the old village. Most are gathered in the center, around the well. It appears to be a small raiding party. I’d say no more than fifteen, from what I could tell. They also have prisoners. Most are human women, some children, but mostly young girls. There is also a large, locked box on a wagon. From its construction, I’d guess it also holds prisoners. Probably the more dangerous ones.”

By this point, Aaron and Kirk had joined the other three. “What’s happened?” Aaron looked to Gilam and then Rarsirrien. “There appears to be a raiding party encamped in the ruins. We’re guessing fifteen as their number, a mix of men and half-orcs. We may have to divert and camp elsewhere. There is still enough light for us to continue on.”

Aleyn sat up tall in his saddle. “Unfortunately, Gilam and I cannot permit them to pass freely. We must try and harass them somehow, so they know they cannot move through our wood without risk.”

“I agree,” said Aaron. He looked to Kirk, who nodded.

Rarsirrien shook his head. “We’re outnumbered three to one. The odds are not in our favor.”

Gilam spoke up, “I saw only ten. There may not be fifteen.”

“Or there may be more who are not visible. Or who are away scouting the area around the ruins. This is not a wise idea and puts our mission at risk.” Rarsirrien was trying to convince them he felt this was a bad idea.

“Maybe. But we have the element of surprise right now. If we can split up and hit them simultaneously from several sides, they may believe we are a larger force, and if they are only ten to fifteen, they may retreat. They may not see a dozen human women and children as worth risking their lives for. They may see more value in living to fight another day.”

Rarsirrien shook his head. “I can see I’m not going to win this. We need to come up with a plan, then. Too dangerous for us to split up. I suggest Kirk and Aaron, Gilam and Aleyn, and I will take the third direction. How are they deployed in the village?” Gilam dismounted and gathered a few various-sized stones. One large one he placed in the center as the well. He put some large oval-shaped rocks around the well to show where the building was, then smaller pebbles to show where the men and half-orcs were quartered. The prisoners were in the middle of the perimeter with the woman and children tied and chained to the wagon.

Rarsirrien looked over what the elf had laid out. “Which are the taller buildings?”

“The two on the north side of the well are two-story structures. One looks like it must have been a pub or inn.”

Rarsirrien thought for a moment and then looked to Aleyn. “You and Gilam, see if you can get into the one two-story on the northeast side so you can use your bows. Kirk and Aaron come around and try to come in from the west. Gilam, when you’re ready, try and take out the biggest one you can. That’ll signal Kirk and Aaron to make as much noise as possible while trying to stay hidden. Maybe that will draw out any forces we can’t see without totally giving ourselves away. Then, Aleyn and Gilam can engage them from above with their bows. I’ll try and move in quietly from the south. With luck, they will be focused on you, and I can spring a surprise or two on them.”

Gilam and Aleyn dismounted and tied their horses to a nearby oak. Kirk and Aaron rode slowly west a few hundred yards, dismounted, and tied up their horses. Rarsirrien had the furthest distance to cover, so he had already started off. They made their way to the edge of the old village. Ferns and vines overgrew everything. Trees had started to grow in the middle of what used to be narrow lanes and streets. The town appeared to be laid out in a hub and spoke pattern, so they had no problem finding their way slowly and silently to the center. Kirk pointed out the ruins of a couple of two-story buildings. He could make out the shadowy figures of the two rangers scaling the back wall to the second floor of one of the buildings.

They kept low and crept around to one of the old cottages bordering the old square. Kirk grabbed the back door, which was rotted and barely hanging on, its hinges rusted. With Aaron’s help, they could pull it open while not making a sound. They crouched low and crept inside. A table and a few sticks of wood may have been chairs at one time. The windows had long been broken out, and they could hear the men’s voices outside. They had to move slowly to keep from stepping on the broken glass scattered on the floor. Finally, they made their way to one of the windows so they could see out.

Kirk slowly lifted his head up so he could see. He stared straight at the back of a large half-orc leaning against the former window’s center frame. Fortunately, it also blocked him from the view of anyone, and he was able to see Gilam taking position inside the outer second-floor window two buildings over. Now they just had to wait to give Rarsirrien time to get into position. Kirk’s half-orc shifted slightly to the right giving him a clearer view of the square. He could see the stone wall in the center, a wagon covered and locked off to one side with what appeared to be two guards, one human, and the other half-orc. Chained to the wagon were the women and children. Their hands were tied with rope, and their legs were in chains connected to one another. Soon there were more voices, and several more men came out of one of the ruined buildings on the opposite side of the square, followed a moment later by two men in robes.

Kirk ducked down and grabbed Aaron by the shoulder. He mouthed the word “Magic-User” to Aaron. Gilam had not seen the two magic users. They must have been inside and out of view. Kirk slowly looked out again. The half-orc was still leaning against the window next to him, so he tried to hide behind him and peer over his shoulder. He could see the other two more clearly now. One wore robes typical of a spell caster, but the other was more priestly. Kirk guessed the second was a cleric, which would make sense. That’s why the raiding party was able to be so small. He glanced up at Gilam and Aleyn, who, by this time, realized their miscalculation. There would have to be a change of plan. They just had no way of letting Rarsirrien know. Since he was not part of the initial attack, they hoped he would quickly figure out what was up.

Just then, another half-orc came around the corner, stopping a few inches away from the one leaning against the wall in time to see Kirk’s head over the other’s shoulder. He started to say something, but Kirk shoved his sword through his throat so hard the blade came out the other side. Aaron had drawn his sword and drove it through the leaning half-orcs back. The odds were now down to two-to-one, but two were spell casters. The silence continued for what seemed like hours to Kirk and Aaron before the others raised the alarm. All their attention was focused on the building with Kirk and Aaron.

By this time, Gilam and Aleyn had seen the two spell casters. Gilam could see the magic user beginning an incantation, but he didn’t have a clear shot. The cleric had moved to the other side of the wagon and was also out of his and Aleyn’s view. He and Aleyn decided to focus on the two human fighters who had accompanied the magic user out, guessing that they were in charge. Gilam’s arrow pierced the first man’s heart, but Aleyn’s went slightly off and embedded itself in the second’s thigh. Kirk and Aaron took advantage of the fact that their enemies had now looked up to see where the arrows had come from to get out of the house. It was good timing because no sooner had they cleared the backside than a fireball from the wizard’s fingers exploded and ignited the bits of cloth and furniture inside. The wooden part of the structure was soon quickly engulfed in flames. They ducked around the back of the neighboring stone building and ran into two of the raiders who must have been coming back from gathering wood for their fire. They dropped the load of timber they were carrying, but it was too late. Kirk’s and Aaron’s swords were faster, and the two brigands’ blades never cleared their scabbards.

Kirk grabbed Aaron and pulled him back behind the stone building just as a slew of flaming missiles passed. “Now, that was some luck. We managed four by ourselves. Maybe this actually will work.”

Aleyn had dropped to the first floor while Gilam kept the two spell casters pinned down with his bow. Where was Rarsirrien? He fitted another arrow in his bow and came up in the first-floor window opposite the wounded leader, but he was nowhere to be seen. He glanced around the square and saw a half-orc archer releasing a missile in his direction. He jumped back, and the arrow impacted the wall next to him. He stared at it momentarily and then noticed the thick, black coating on the tip. Poison. It was so thick a scratch might have been enough to hinder him. Then he saw the cleric step out and extend his fingers. He raced for the back of the building, waiting for what would come next, but it didn’t. The cleric dropped to his knees as a sword pierced his back.

The magic user spun around, suddenly aware they also had an enemy behind them. He had already prepared and unleashed a second round of magic missiles at his attacker.

Rarsirrien emerged, and Kirk could see him clearly in the light of the oncoming projectiles. Rarsirrien waited, then waved his arm in front of him, and the magic weapons fizzled and vanished; as they did, Rarsirrien’s sword swung at the wizard as if a magical hand was guiding it. The blade sliced swiftly through the wizard’s thin robes and bit deep into his side. He collapsed, not dead but severely wounded.

The two half-orc fighters guarding the wagon appeared frozen, trying to decide whether to continue the fight or flee. The decision was made for them as Aaron appeared from a side ally and charged them in the square. His action forced the one who had been out of Gilam’s sight to step out from the cover the wagon had provided him. As he prepared to engage Aaron with his partner, Gilam calmly lined him up and released his arrow. It entered with such force it went straight through the leather tunic, through the heart, and the head of the arrow was protruding from his chest. He made rasping gurgling sounds as the blood foamed up in his mouth, choking him,

Aaron prepared to fight the remaining half-orc, not realizing there was another half-orc with a bow across the square behind him, now lining up to take a clear shot. Aaron closed on the half-orc, his sword at the ready when suddenly his legs were swept out from underneath him. He had not seen the wounded man hiding under the wagon until he was flat on his back, looking up at him. Neither had the half-orc, who now had a poisoned arrow in his chest. By knocking Aaron down, the big man removed the only obstacle between the two other half-orcs. As he moved out from under the wagon, he grabbed Aaron and lifted him slightly off the ground, pressing him against the side of the wagon, his short sword prepared to thrust through Aaron’s chest. He heard the sound of a bow and looked back toward the window where Gilam had been firing. Then he heard the sound behind him, glanced back over his shoulder, and saw the half-orc archer slumped forward. The pause proved fatal. Aaron had managed to get his wits back about him, drew the dagger from his boot, and thrust it deep into the man’s chest. He fell to the ground as the big man’s grip on him released. He took cover behind the wagon and tried to assess the situation. He could barely distinguish the bodies of the two he and Kirk had killed when the fight started. He knew there were two dead behind the house they had hidden in, two dead in front of him, plus the archer behind, which accounted for all the half-orcs and two human fighters. The supposed leader was dead at his feet, and his lieutenant had been killed by Gilam, which left one human fighter remaining, and Rarsirrien had managed to deal with the two spell casters. So, where was the last raider?

Kirk and Aleyn had been carefully circling to try and find him, as had Gilam. Gilam had moved from rooftop to rooftop to try and detect him trying to escape through the back streets and alleys but had come up empty. They all met back by the well where the bodies of the cleric and magic user lay. They were both dead, the magic user having taken his own life by poison, the vial still clutched in his hand.

“Fancy sword, that.” Aleyn was looking at Rarsirrien. “Good timing on that dispel magic as well; else you’d be a flaming pin cushion.”

Just then, Gilam returned, “One got away.”

Aleyn nodded. “So, no rest tonight. We’ll have to watch to ensure he hasn’t got friends nearby.” He looked over to the wagon where the terrified prisoners huddled together, unsure if they were going from a bad situation to worse, especially when they saw Aaron.

“Seems he has that effect on people. Might come in handy someday.” With that, Gilam walked over, and when they saw the wood elf, the women seemed to calm down. The three set about untying and releasing the prisoners, but they needed the key to the locked wagon.

“Don’t even know if there is anyone in there. It could just be all the treasure they managed to gather. We haven’t heard a sound from it.” Aaron reported to Rarsirrien. “There’s no key on the leader or others. Not for the wagon.”

Rarsirrien patted down the sides of the wizard’s robe, then stopped when he felt something in one of the pockets. He pulled out a platinum key. “Now, this is interesting. Perhaps you all should stay back and let me open this, just in case.”

The others took a few paces back as Rarsirrien stood before the wagon’s closed door. He inserted the key and turned the lock. It opened with an audible click. He paused, waiting to see if he had set off some hidden trap, and when nothing occurred, he removed the key and opened the door.

He had lived a long and well-traveled life—still, nothing he had ever encountered compared to what he found secured in this prison wagon. Hands and feet bound in heavy iron, a collar around her neck with a short length of chain, barely long enough to allow the wearer to sit down, and gagged to prevent her from speaking, was a female Drow.

D A STEMPNAKOWSKI

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