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.

Rangers of the Gnarley Forest

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The trio had ridden a half-day from Greyhawk city without incident. At first, they passed many people and merchants on their way to the great city, but as they continued east, the number of travelers became fewer until after they passed through the town of Fork, they found themselves alone on the road. They had spoken little, Aaron and Kirk riding slightly behind Rarsirrien.

When they came to a split in the road, Rarsirrien paused. Kirk rode up next to him.

“Which way, left or right?”

“Neither,” the large man replied. “From here, we leave the road, travel cross country, and make back for the River Road. Hopefully, any watching eyes will think we’ve headed south or east. Many people have seen us along the road and will give our direction to anyone who asks after us. Perhaps luck is with us, and no one will bother looking for us to the north or west. At least I hope not until we can reach the Gnarly Forrest where we will have more cover.”

Aaron sighed. “Well, half-day wasted in the wrong direction.”

“Better that than being pursued and harried the entire way to the Vale.” Rarsirrien turned his horse off the road and started back in a westerly direction. “We head back to the river, then ride parallel to the River Road until we’re well south of Ford Keep. We’ll have to avoid the river patrols.”

“I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about the Vale of the Mage.” Kirk was trying to break the silence and learn more about their new partner.

Aaron led his horse off the road and then went back to obscure their tracks as best he could. He obscured all tracks on the section of the road to make it look more natural and less intentional.

“The valley is on the border of Bissel and several other lands, but Bissel is the one that has kept a watchful eye on who comes and goes from the valley. It’s surrounded by the Barrier Peaks, except for an opening on one end along with the Dim Forrest. It’s been said that the Mage was once forced from the Great Kingdom and that he was a powerful wizard even then. Most figure he’s content to rule the valley and practice his magic. Some, like the Margrave, are wary of his powers, but none want to risk agitating him. It’s a case of don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you.” Rarsirrien paused, then continued, “Besides, he’s enough to deal with. Keeping the valley elves, gnomes, and whatever else lives there in line.”

Kirk perked up and the mention of valley elves. “Valley elves? Never seen a valley elf. What do they look like?”

Rarsirrien jerked his thumb in Aaron’s direction. “That,” he said and kept riding.

Kirk stopped and looked at Aaron as if seeing him for the first time. “Well, I’ll be damned. I always knew something was off about you, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I always assumed it was the mixed race thing.”

“Come off it. Can’t you see he’s yanking your chain? Trying to get you wound up.” Aaron said.

Rarsirrien stopped and turned. “No, I’m not. I’m not making it up either. How many elves have you seen with green eyes? All elves have blue eyes regardless of where they come from, except elves from the Vale…well, them and Drow. They’re the only ones with green eyes. Oh, your friend has some human traits from his father, but those eyes are valley elf eyes.”

The trio was now riding nearly due west across the Plains of Greyhawk. There was very little cover, but fortunately, the tall grasses hid Aaron and Kirk easily. Still, Rarsirrien had to remain hunched uncomfortably low over his horse, trying to present as small a profile as possible. He knew there was a line of trees, albeit a thin one, between the plains and the river. He calculated that their current tack would take them just north of Ford Keep, but he wanted to reach some cover to hide their movements before turning back south. He planned to try and follow the tree line down passed the Keep while avoiding detection, then cross the river and head direction of Gawkes Mere and the Gnarley Forest.

Once in the Gnarley, he figured they would be safer than out in the open, and he knew one or two Rangers there. Aaron was the wild card. He wasn’t sure how he would be received. He knew nothing about Aaron’s father, so he figured it best not to mention him if it could be avoided. After all, his father was exiled or an outcast for all he knew. Better not to invite too many questions, he figured. There was another reason he needed to reach the forrest soon; he was getting hungry. In the distance, he could see a herd of large deer. Venison would do, he thought.

They rode westward without incident and reached the tree line near the river just before sunset. Aaron could just make out the ramparts and one tower on a tree-covered hill to the north.

Rarsirrien noticed his gaze. “Ford Keep,” he said. “We make camp here tonight and let the horses rest. Staying here, we should be able to remain out of sight, which means no fire. We’re close enough to the keep that we shouldn’t have to worry too much. Still, I’d rather no one notice us just yet.” He reached into his saddlebag and removed a dark piece of parchment. He sat down under a tall oak and rested his back against its trunk. He motioned both of them over, then unfolded the parchment. At first, it appeared to be a dark-stained blank piece, but once he moved his hand over it, outlines of lakes and rivers began to appear, then roads, borders, and even names. It was a map the likes of which neither of them had ever seen.

“A special gift from a sorceress with a fascination for cartography.” Rarsirrien held the edges flat while the rest of the map filled itself in.

“I’ve seen plenty of maps, but never one like this.” Kirk looked up at Rarsirrien, “I don’t think I want to know what you had to do to receive such a special gift.”

“No. You don’t.” He leaned forward and pointed to a small red dot that appeared close to the river, just south of another dot labeled Ford Keep. “Here we are,” he said, pointing to the red dot. “Now the question is once we cross the river, do we continue west and then north to Gawkes Mere then pick up the Western Road or,” he put his finger on the left edge of the map and as he moved it to the right the map shifted to reveal lands west of the Selintan River, “do we stay in the Gnarley Forest and head due west towards Verbobonc, north of the Kron Hills, and then find a place to cross the Lortmil Mountains?”

“I didn’t realize just how far and difficult this would be.” Kirk shook his head.

“You don’t think there might have been a good reason the Mage of the Vale selected that particular valley? I suppose he doesn’t like to entertain much and wanted to discourage peddlers and would-be adventurers from knocking on his door every five minutes.” Rarsirrien’s sarcasm betrayed his annoyance. He took a deep breath, leaned back, and seemed to calm slightly.

“Look, this is going to be a long and difficult journey. We’re going to need more help before we get to the Vale. Let’s face it; there is no way the three of us will successfully take on four necromancers head-on. We need an angle and a good plan. A few wizards of our own wouldn’t hurt either.”

“What about the Margrave? Maybe he can help us out with the forces we need.” Aaron looked at Rarsirrien, then Kirk.

“I don’t think the Margrave wants to be directly involved, especially in any way that can be traced back to him. He doesn’t want to anger the Mage and prefers that things remain status quo. He has enough to worry about in his north. If Iggwilv were to become immortal, nothing would hold her back from trying to form an alliance with the Old One and move south, or remove him outright and take over herself.” Rarsirrien looked at the two, “Any help is likely to come from an indirect means. We need to recognize it and take advantage of it.”

Rarsirrien rolled the map back up and put it away in a cylindrical leather container. “So tomorrow we head west, through the Gnarley Forest then.” In a softer voice, he paused and said, “Let’s stay as far north of Celene as we can, though.”

Aaron could guess why. He wasn’t sure how Rarsirrien came to possess wine from Celene, but one thing was sure it probably wasn’t given to him. If anyone in Celene knew he was involved, then he wouldn’t be very welcome there either.

“Okay. We stay north of Celene but within the forest.” He began unrolling his bedding on the ground at the base of the next tree. No fire meant no warmth or a hot meal, so he took a piece of bread and ate it with water from his canteen to wash it down. Kirk had a small piece of jerky, and Rarsirrien ate nothing.

“You two get some rest. I will take the first watch, then Aaron, then Kirk.” Rarsirrien stood up, leaned against the tree, and stretched his large arms out. “I’ll walk around our perimeter to make sure things are okay. I’ll wake you in about three hours or so.” With that, he started off into the woods. For a large man, he could move nearly silently when he wanted. Aaron strained to hear where he was at and finally gave up when the noise grew too faint. It was almost impossible to hear over Kirk’s snoring. His head had no sooner hit the rolled-up jacket that he was using as a pillow than he was fast asleep.

It took some time before Aaron finally drifted off to sleep. Just before he nodded off, he thought he heard a shriek in the distance and the sound of stampeding deer. In a moment, it was gone, and he told himself it was in his imagination and allowed himself to fall asleep.

It was well after midnight when Rarsirrien finally woke him. He had slept longer than the agreed-upon three hours, closer to five. As he was shaking himself awake, he noticed blood in Rarsirrien’s beard. “How’d you get bloodied?”

Rarsirrien rubbed his beard and saw the blood on his hands. “I stumbled over a root in the dark, and I must have cut my chin on a branch. I didn’t realize I was even bleeding. Nothing serious.” With that, he lay on his blanket and closed his eyes. About that time, his stomach rumbled.

Aaron muttered under his breath, “should have eaten something, old man.”

Rarsirrien would have replied, but he was trying to suppress belching, so he let Aaron wander off. There would be plenty of opportunities to put these two youngsters right during the journey. He cautiously estimated it would take at least two months, assuming they had no significant problems.

Aaron was awake now, and a clearing sky and more moonlight assisted his naturally superior elvish vision. No sounds were coming from the direction of the river, and everything on the plains to their east seemed quiet enough. He thought perhaps he dreamed the sounds he heard. Or maybe it was Rarsirrien stumbling in the dark that he had heard.

The hours passed slowly and uneventfully, so he decided not to wake Kirk. He wouldn’t have been able to go back to sleep anyway.

The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, and he decided to wake Kirk first since he had slept the most. They could gather their things together and then wake Rarsirrien. Assuming they could pack quite enough and not wake him in the process. The big man was a sound sleeper since Kirk and Aaron were anything but silent as they packed their gear and prepared the horses. As soon as their equipment was stowed, Kirk picked up a branch and tapped Rarsirrien on the foot until he stirred.

“Time to rise. Besides, you started snoring loud enough to wake a dragon.” Kirk was about to toss the branch but noticed how dry it was. He broke it up into smaller pieces and placed them in one saddlebag. He figured it might make good kindling, and there was no telling if they might need it or not, but he felt better being a little prepared. He had assumed they would be moving along the main roads and from town to town, but now it seemed the plan was to try and stick more to open country. It made sense for now, in case someone was indeed following them.

Rarsirrien stood up, “I don’t snore.”

Kirk turned to refute the claim but stopped when he noticed that Rarsirrien already had his things neatly rolled and ready to pack. He would have liked to have seen how the big man managed to pull that off so fast.

As if reading Kirks’ mind, Rarsirrien strode over to the horses and, while packing his things, looked at him, “Years of experience, young man.”

Kirk smiled, nodded, then moved to his horse. “Breakfast, and then we ride?”

“Ride first. Breakfast once we are on the other side of the river. I want to cross and then watch our backside to ensure no one is following us. Might also use the time to eat while we’re sitting there.”

Kirk looked at Aaron, who said, “I’m fine with that.”

The look of dismay on Kirk’s face told them he was hungry now. “You can make it a few more hours. Here, have a piece of bread.” Aaron broke off a small piece of the loaf in his saddlebag and handed it to his friend.

“Thanks. I guess better than nothing.”

With that, the other two started through the trees toward the river road. Kirk took a small sip of water and then urged his horse on to follow them. The sun was still below the horizon, but the morning sky had lightened enough that they and the horses had no difficulty picking a way through the tree line and down to the river. Rarsirrien turned them back in the direction of the Keep. He knew a spot where the channel narrowed and was shallow enough to cross most of the way with the horses. There was only one spot that would be tricky; near the center of the river, a channel had been dredged to allow traffic between the Nyr Dyv and lands to the south. To their benefit, it hadn’t rained in several weeks, and so the tributaries that fed into the river had kept it a little lower.

When they had ridden just a short way, the river made a slight bend, and Rarsirrien saw that the river had dropped low enough that the rocks normally not visible below the water were now exposed. That would ease their crossing. He turned to the other two. “We cross here. Move along those rocks,” he pointed to the stone just visible above the water, “near the middle, there is a channel for the boats. It’s too deep to walk across, but the horses should be able to make it. It’s only ten or so feet wide; then, there are more rocks on the other side where you can find shallower water. Just follow my lead.”

He urged his horse out into the river, staying on the stone path until he was almost in the middle of the river; then, they could see him lean and put his head near his horse’s ear. The next thing they knew, Rarsirrien’s horse sprang into the river. He seemed to struggle for a few short moments but kept his forward momentum, and then they watched as he clambered up on another rock ledge like the one they could see from their side. Rarsirrien rode up on the far bank, then turned and dismounted. He coiled some rope into a loop, just in case one of the other two ran into trouble midstream.

Kirk looked at Aaron, urged his horse, and followed Rarsirrien’s path. Once he reached the middle of the stream and the end of the rock outcropping, he jabbed his heels into the side of his horse, which sprang into the river. He didn’t cover quite the distance as Rarsirrien’s horse, but he had made it a little over halfway. Then his horse slowed. He wasn’t as strong as Rarsirrien’s, and with the extra weight and being wet was becoming exhausted. Kirk could sense the animal was beginning to panic, so he began speaking in his ear in a calming voice, urging him on. Rarsirrien was already moving out onto the rocks again, starting to uncoil the rope, when Kirk’s horse suddenly made one last effort, reached the shallows, and gained footing. He clambered up the rocks and across to the shore, where he stopped and lowered his head. Aaron could see the horse’s sides moving with his heavy breathing from where he was on the opposite shore.

Aaron patted his horse’s neck. “Well, we won’t let those two show us up now. Are we?” They moved out, following the route Kirk had taken. Instead of stopping and lunging, Aaron urged his horse into a light gallop. He thought the additional momentum would help carry them further out so his horse would have a shorter distance to swim. He failed to consider the algae and slime covering the rocks, and before his horse could leap, it slipped and slid into the water.

Kirk grabbed one end of the rope from Rarsirrien, ran back to Rarsirrien’s horse, and wrapped it around the saddle horn while Rarsirrien moved further out on the rocks towards the center of the river. Aaron’s horse struggled under the weight, and the current seemed to increase, sweeping them downstream suddenly. Aaron would only have one chance to catch the rope from where Rarsirrien stood. Fortunately, Rarsirrien had a good arm, and the rope had enough weight that it sailed out into the river just slightly ahead of Aaron. It landed across Aaron’s horse’s neck, and Aaron grabbed it and quickly looped it around his saddle horn. Kirk and Rarsirrien held the rope as Rarsirrien’s horse backed up, pulling Aaron closer to their side of the river. They were now downstream of the rocks and would have to swim the remainder of the way. Rarsirrien just hoped the animal had enough strength left in him to make it.

Aaron and his horse made it to shore, where the poor animal collapsed to its knees. Aaron got off his mount and immediately started tending to the shaken animal. He whispered apologies in elvish into the animal’s ear and promised never to do that again.

“That was close. On the bright side, I forgot about being hungry for a while.”

While Kirk was speaking with Aaron, Rarsirrien was scanning the opposite bank. The current seemed to have slowed to the strength it was when he and Kirk crossed. He peered intently across the river at the opposite shore, trying to discern if anyone, or anything, had been shadowing them. He could see nothing, and the sun was coming up above the tree line, blinding him. He turned back and walked to where Aaron and Kirk were sitting. Aaron’s horse was now standing again, but he could see that the animal’s heart was still beating rapidly. He patted the animal on the neck, then rubbed his nose.

“Don’t worry just yet, my friend. You have time to rest here, but first, we have to get into the cover of the trees. Then you can have this nice, juicy apple.” He led the three horses into the trees, found a small tree, and tied them off. Kirk helped Aaron over, and they set up a small camp where they could remain concealed and watch the river.

Rarsirrien wanted to wait another half hour to watch for signs of possible pursuit. He couldn’t accept that he had been the target of the attack. There were too many coincidences for him to feel comfortable about. But if Aaron and Kirk had been the real targets, then there should be some sign of pursuit. Yet there wasn’t any. He began to doubt his instincts. He hadn’t been wrong in over a hundred years, was he mistaken now?

He rejoined the others. “I think we can be on our way now. Traveling south along the road would be the quickest, but we’d be in the open, and I still feel someone is watching for us. I suggest we move south parallel to the road but stay undercover from the trees. It will be slower but perhaps safer.”

Aaron looked at Kirk. “I don’t think my horse will mind the slower pace after that close call in the river.”

Kirk nodded, finished his last bite, and gathered the few unpacked utensils. Aaron returned to his horse and rubbed its nose, then patted his flanks and swung himself into the saddle. Rarsirrien was already mounted and picking a way through the trees, following the road to the south.

They rode for the remainder of the day and just before nightfall and managed not to be seen by anyone, not even the light river patrol near Two Ford. A few miles south of the Two Ford crossing, they came to a stream flowing into the Selintan. Here Rarsirrien had them turn back west again. “We’ll put a little more distance between us and the river road before we stop and camp. Just a mile or so should be fine. By then, we should still have enough light to find a suitable place to try and go unnoticed.”

Sure enough, they came to a small clearing surrounded by trees and some denser bushes. It would be difficult for anyone to see them there except from above. “This should do for tonight.” With that, Rarsirrien slid from his mount and stretched. “Works both ways.” Kirk looked at Rarsirrien, “We won’t see anyone either until they are right on top of us.”

“I guess we’d better hope that our little diversion worked, and no one is looking for us out here then.” Rarsirrien pulled his bedroll from his horse and laid it out under the branches of a large oak. “Since you’re so concerned, you can have first watch,” With that, he was already lying on his blanket with his eyes closed.

Aaron unrolled his blanket near Rarsirrien. “That will teach you to open your mouth. I guess that’s the payback for getting a little more sleep last night. Remember that when it’s time to wake me for my watch.” He removed his cloak and folded it neatly into a square as a pillow for his head.

Kirk stood his watch, sitting quietly against a tree opposite his two sleeping companions. They lit no fire this evening. There was no reason to; none of them were hungry. He thought back to how he had met Aaron in Old Red all those months ago—how he and his father had somehow wandered into the middle of an assassination attempt on a local merchant. Valandil, Aaron’s father, had been killed while saving a city guard who didn’t see the assassin who was about to strike. After that, he had gotten to know Aaron and decided he couldn’t let the young half-elf wander off in search of adventure on his own. Even with all his elven skills, he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. He had been around humans too long.

He stayed awake as long as he could, but when it was becoming too difficult to keep his eyes open, he roused Rarsirrien, remembering his deal with Aaron and allowing him to get a few more hours of sleep. Rarsirrien didn’t say a word; he just stretched and walked across to the tree where Kirk had been leaning a few moments earlier. He watched Kirk wrestle with his pack for a moment before finding the knot, untying it, and stretching his bedroll out on the ground. He shook his head in quiet amusement, thinking the guy had had all this time while he was on watch where he could have prepared his bed, yet he waited until he was dead tired to try.

About three hours before dawn, Rarsirrien woke Aaron. “Your watch. I think we can risk a proper breakfast this morning.”

Aaron nodded that he understood. Rarsirrien told him it would be okay to build a fire and cook some of the provisions they had brought. He figured that also meant it would be a long day riding. He would be correct; it was Rarsirrien’s intention for them to make it into the Gnarley Forest by the end of the day. Since they would no longer be following the road, they would be harder to track, but they would also have to pay close attention to their direction.

Kirk was asleep and dreaming of bacon, a nice thick slice of bread with butter and white cheese. He opened his left eye slowly and looked about. He recognized the branches of the tree he had lain under, but the most amazing thing was that he still smelled bacon. He sat up, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and stared in mild disbelief at Aaron, who was tending a fire and had a skillet with sizzling bacon, a few slices of bread, and…cheese? Where did he get that from?

Aaron pointed to a small pan as if reading his friend’s expression, “I packed a couple of slices because I know how much you like it. But it doesn’t keep well, so you might as well eat it before it goes moldy.”

They ate the breakfast Aaron had prepared, and as they were finishing up, Rarsirrien filled them in on his plans. He took the parchment out of the cylinder and traced a jagged line running north and sound, then another line moving from the first towards the west. “Here is where we are now, by Yarpick Creek,” he said, pointing to the second line. “We follow it west into the Gnarley forest, and if we gauge it right, it should bring us to a small town called Beltander. We can pick up the road that goes to Oakvein and into Celene to Enstad. I plan for us to take the Ulek Pass to cross the mountains. Once on the other side, we turn northwest and make toward the Valley.”

“Why not head more west, skirt the Kron Hills, then come around and head south?” Asked Aaron.

“I considered that, while it allows us to move to avoid the mountains in the short term, it takes us through Veluna, and that road passes too near Hommlet for my liking.”

“Why is that a problem?” Aaron looked at Kirk, then Rarsirrien.

“I can see there are some rather large gaps in your knowledge of the history of this part of Oerth. Well, we have time ahead of us. Plenty of opportunities to fill in the gaps in your education.” Rarsirrien poured more water on the ash. “Let’s get packed and get moving. Need to make up some time now.”

They erased as many traces of their campsite as possible and packed their gear. Within a quarter-hour, they were on their way again, heading west. The terrain between the Gnarley Forest and Selintan River was gently rolling grassland and the occasional tree for shade. Not much cover, but they didn’t see anyone or anything along their way by late morning; nothing was moving along the creek. After an hour, Aaron’s elf vision could detect a thin, dark-green line on the horizon.

“I can see the edge of the forest now.”

“Yes,” Rarsirrien stood slightly higher in the saddle. “You’re right. We should be under cover of its trees in a half-hour or so. Looking forward to the cool shade of the trees and, “ he glanced skyward, “from any prying eyes from above.”

“Do you still believe we’re being followed?” Aaron looked up, then searched the horizon around them but saw nothing or anyone.

“I prefer to be a pessimist. That way, I’m rarely disappointed and sometimes pleasantly surprised. Thinking about it, I don’t like most kinds of surprises.”

Aaron was looking forward to being back in the forest again. Greyhawk is a fantastic city, but all that stone made it feel cold and impersonal. He was looking forward to being back among green living things and majestic oaks. Rarsirrien was also looking to get into the forest as soon as possible as he urged his horse into a gallop and headed for the tree line. Aaron slowed slightly to allow Kirk to come up alongside him.

“Where’s he off to in such a rush?”

“Wants to get in the shade, I suppose.” Aaron watched Rarsirrien when his eyes went to something low in the grass ahead of him just before the trees. He stood in the saddle to try and get a clearer view. He could make out what appeared to be two mossy clumps in the grass directly in Rarsirrien’s path. “What’s that?” He pointed at the two clumps, which were becoming a little more visible. They both urged their horses into a light gallop. Rarsirrien wasn’t slowing down, and he was headed right towards the two shapes lying low in the tall grasses. Then it dawned on Aaron that Rarsirrien’s focus was inside the forest, not on the two objects. He didn’t see them at all.

“Oh hell, he sees something else. He doesn’t see those two clumps. Rarsirrien!” Aaron began calling after the older man trying to get him to slow down. He showed no indication of having heard. Aaron quickly fitted an arrow and let it fly; it went past Rarsirrien’s left ear and lodged itself into the left clump. That managed to get Rarsirrien’s attention, and he turned his head and looked back in their direction, but it was already too late.

The two objects now stood upright, both over six feet tall. Almost the same height as Rarsirrien himself. Their moldy green arms outstretched knocked Rarsirrien cleanly off his horse as if he had run full speed into a low branch. He lay there, unable to move, having the wind knocked out of him. Aaron and Kirk were now riding at full speed. Kirk’s sword was in his hand, and as the first troll reached to claw at Rarsirrien’s chest, Kirk passed him, and the blade severed the arm midway between the shoulder and the elbow, buying Rarsirrien a few seconds to crawl backward away from the monster.

While the first troll hesitated, the second began to advance on the still-winded Rarsirrien. The first troll recovered, and he and his severed arm began moving in on Rarsirrien again. Kirk was now off his horse and ran toward the first troll attacking from behind. Rarsirrien got his breath back and yelled at him, “No dismembering. They’ll regenerate. Need fire.”

Aaron’s arrival momentarily distracted the second troll. He had gotten there just in time to hear Rarsirrien’s warning to Kirk. He had a small flask of oil that he thought would come in handy if they needed to improvise a torch, and he pulled it from his saddlebag as he dismounted. The second troll was now advancing on him, and he took several steps back while fumbling with the stopper on the flask. It took some force but finally came free just as the troll had closed within an arm’s distance. He tossed the flask at the monster, which caught it and, holding it up, crushed it in its vice-like grip, causing the contents to spray and coat the monster’s face and upper chest. Aaron was trying to get the flint and steel out of his pocket. He has been sweating while out under the sun, and the moisture from his sweat caused the pants pockets to stick closed. He had to force his hand into his pocket, and in that time, the troll managed to grab him in its deathly grip and lift him off his feet. It opened its gaping mouth, and Aaron was suddenly overcome with a wave of nausea from the stench. He tried to strike the flint and steel to get a spark, but he couldn’t move very well. Just then, an arrow hit the troll in the back between his shoulders, and in that split second, he managed a spark. The oil ignited instantly, and the troll dropped Aaron and stepped back, batting at the flames on its chest and face.

Kirk had inflicted deep wounds on the troll menacing Rarsirrien, buying the big man time to get to his feet and prepare his weapon for the attack. Neither had anything with which to start a fire, their only chance to inflict enough damage on the monster that the troll would flee to safety so it could regenerate. Kirk heard the arrow that hit the troll that had managed to grab Aaron, and he saw Aaron fall to the ground just as the troll’s face became engulfed in flames. Then he heard a bow snap and a thud. The troll spun around, facing the forest again, his back to Kirk. Kirk could see the arrow, and attached to the arrow was a small black pouch. He stabbed at the troll from behind, forcing it to turn and deal with him, and just as it did, a flaming arrow struck the pouch, igniting the contents, which set the troll’s back ablaze.

Both monsters attempted to retreat but were caught between two groups of attackers who intended to destroy them. As the three battled them and pushed them back toward the forest, they began to attack more viciously. Kirk had forgotten about the severed arm, which had made its way over to him and now grabbed his leg with incredible force. He hacked at it, trying to avoid cutting his limbs off. He managed to sever the hand from the remainder of the arm and kicked it into a patch of burning grass that had caught fire from Aaron’s oil. It made a sickening sizzle and popped as it burned, letting off a putrid green-black smoke.

A group of men and elves emerged from the wood’s edge, pouring more oil on the wounded trolls and setting them alight. Rarsirrien and Kirk lowered their swords but kept them ready. Grateful for the rescue but hoping they hadn’t been spared one battle to land in another.

Four men and two elves dressed in woodland garb. “Rangers of the Gnarley, I think,” Rarsirrien said to Kirk. The group approached Rarsirrien and Kirk and lowered their weapons. The two elves remained with arrows nocked in their bows but not drawn.

The larger of the men stepped forward towards Rarsirrien. “I’m Aleyn. You owe us your lives.”

“We are indeed indebted to you.” Rarsirrien sheathed his sword and stepped towards Aleyn with his hand outstretched and open in a sign of friendship. The man grasped Rarsirrien’s arm at the forearm and reciprocated the greeting. Then he released Rarsirrien’s arm and looked at the burning remains of the two trolls. “We have been tracking these two for the past three days. Ever since they escaped from a group of Orcs we attacked.”

Rarsirrien looked at the burning heaps and tried to avoid inhaling the smoke the wind was stirring about. “Orcs in the Gnarley? That’s not something one hears about every day.”

“They make their way up from the Pomarj through the Welkwood, testing defenses and causing mischief. They take intelligence back to their chieftains. The ones we found won’t be returning with any news.”

Aaron, who had been some distance away from both Kirk and Rarsirrien, led his horse over to them when the two elves got a good look at him. Their bows were raised with arrows knocked in a flash, drawing Aleyn’s attention. Kirk and Rarsirrien moved their hands to their swords, but it was too late. The rangers had their weapons drawn, and Aleyn’s blade was already at Kirk’s throat.

“Who are you? What purpose do you have here?”

“I don’t understand,” said Rarsirrien trying to be as calm and diplomatic as possible given the graveness of their situation.

“Traveling with this Valley Elf. Spies?” He motioned for his men to secure the three of them. Before they knew what was happening, their weapons were removed, and their hands were tied behind their backs.

“I thought the Rangers of the Gnarley forest were supposed to be friendly,” Kirk whispered to Rarsirrien, but loud enough for Aleyn to hear him.

“We are to our friends and those who would be our friends, but our enemies fear us.” He paused and looked at Aaron, “And their spies.” He turned to his men. “Blindfold them, put them on their horses, and lash them together.”

Kirk and Rarsirrien were blindfolded, and a hood was placed over Aaron’s head. Each horse was led by one of Aleyn’s men. “Where are you taking us?” Aaron asked.

“You’ll be taken to our lord, the Ranger who oversees this portion of the forest. He will decide what will be done with you. Depending on how you answer his questions.”

With that, they were led into the forest. Aaron’s ears could still pick up the boiling and pop from the troll’s remains. He tried to focus on the sounds of the woods, but his heart was pounding in his ears, and he could make out little.

D A STEMPNAKOWSKI

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