"To hot for this far north," I say, but Garen isn't listening. He's just staring down the hill with one hand rubbing a small, red star-shaped, pendant that is hanging from his neck. "I said 'to hot!'" He still doesn't turn so I begin to leave him on his belly, staring over the crest of the hill, and head back to the horses. He's usually more than happy to point out the shortcomings of my anxiousness.
"Not as hot as down there," he finally says.
I stop from pulling myself up off the ground and look back into the forest. The gnolls are maybe a mile out. From our vantage on the hill we can see them in the hamlet's clearing, scurrying about the smoldering ruins like rabid hounds. In the center of the hamlet there is a bonfire with a few gnolls gathered around the flames roasting the bounty of their hunt.
"So are we going to do this?" I ask. Garen always takes to long to plan things out. If we hadn't stopped at Ratikhill for the night we might have been able to save this hamlet instead of avenging it like the two others. "If we go now we might not have to chase 'em all the way back to Spinecastle," again I turn to get the horses and my stomach reminds me that we've had no fire to cook since Ratikhill. How I hate trail rations.
"I doubt they're from Spinecastle," he says condescendingly. At least he's starting to respond. "There's their leader." He says flatly and points, as if he is the only one there.
I look back down the hill, over the beginnings of the Loftwood forest and down to the clearing. There is a large gnoll, a good hand taller than the rest, barking loudly at the others. It's clad in shining mail and with the sun streaming down unmercifully, the beast looks like a hyena-headed diamond.
"Good," I say, "I'll kill him first." There are maybe six or more gnolls that I can see in addition to the leader, "strange that they're out in this heat?" I ask looking up at the bright sun. I look over at
Garen, his eyes never leaving the clearing, I feel like grabbing him and dragging him over to the horses. I hate waiting. But I hate even more that he's barely spoken a word since we left Ratikhill.
"He's the shaman."
I look back curiously, though still annoyed that we're not moving, and the leader is grabbing a gnoll with one hand and places the other hand on its forehead. There is a glow that's faint and lasts only for a second. It could be the sun off its armor. It could be the heat in my head. It could be a lot of things, but then again it could be a spell.
"You know, its hot, it's the first of Richfest, there are feasts and balls and parties back in Marner. I would much rather be there with an ale in my hand and a baroness on my lap than here with this damnable sun on my back and the smell of roasted commoner wafting up to my nose!"
I snort, grab my sword, stand up and walk back down the opposite side of the hill to our horses. I leap up, snatch the reigns, and kick the beast into motion.
"Let's kill us some gnolls!" I say riding past him and down the hill.
Four days ago Garen and I had been in Bayrest, a large town on the coast of Grendep Bay that catered to the nobility of Ratik; a villa on every corner and two mansions in between. We had been planning on heading to Marner for the Richfest festivals when a royal messenger called on us.
"Lord Garen Redstar and Lord Mekrith Tallowhair of her Archbaroness' Holy Guard?" We both nodded at the boy. When he looked up from his scroll he seemed a little confused as his gaze rested upon me, "Lord Mekrith Tal-low-hair?" he enunciated.
"Yes, that is I," I said somewhat annoyed.
"Oh, ahem," he continued.
"Bet you he thought you were a halfling." Garen whispered to me.
"Boy," Garen asked, ignoring my outburst, "you thought ol' Tallowhair here was a halfling, didn't you?"
"Well, from what I heard..." the messenger began.
I shook my head and whispered, "I should have never let that wizard shrink me," I sighed, "but the spell wore off!"
"...yes, yes I did," the boy finished.
"Well he's small, but he's no halfling." In the city Garen has a sense of humor, a bad one and at my expense, but a sense of humor none the less.
"I see, well, I have an order for the two of you from the baron of Ratikhill" the messenger quickly continued seeing the anger in my glair.
"Go on," I growled.
"Ahem," the boy cleared his throat and straightened up to read from the scroll, "From his lordship Miksha Torl, Baron of Ratikhill to Lord Garen Redstar and Lord Mekrith Tallowhair of her Archbaroness' Holy Guard. I hereby summon you to investigate the rumor that gnolls from the Bone March have sacked two hamlets in the southern Loftwood, that of Pinecrest and Weler, and may be a part of a larger force intending to invade our fair domain. So far they have been heading northwest."
That morning we were on our way. I had wanted to go straight to Loftwood but Garen had insisted that we meet with Baron Torl in Ratikhill.
"It will take us a day, two maybe with the foothills, out of our way, why do we need to speak with the Baron?"
"I must speak with him," was all that he would say about the subject. I had never seen him so quick to end a conversation.
Across the farmlands of southern Ratik we rode and made our way up the foothills of the Rakers to Ratikhill. Once there, Garen held private counsel with the Baron and in the morning we were headed east. Garen spoke barely a word to me the entire trip.
I wait for Garen at the bottom of the hill, just inside the tall pines of the Loftwood. He rides quickly over the crest of the hill and is soon beside me.
"Let's go," I say, trying to smile, as I turn my mount around to face the forest.
"We should leave the horses here," he says.
"Fine. Not that paladins of Heironious look better when mounted, but fine." I get off my horse and tie the reigns to a pine. I await for some retort that paladins of Rao look good all the time but he is silent. Garen simply, almost haphazardly, ties up his mount.
We make our way into the forest. It is cooler here and now I wish I had my plate mail. Most of the gnolls that I had seen in the hamlet were carrying sword or axes and leather armor is not my first choice when confronting that. I draw my sword and Garen looks at me sternly.
He doesn't respond.
As we draw nearer I can hear the gnolls. I hate gnolls; their stupid-insane laughter feels like claws dragging down your spine. The smell becomes intense, putrid and sour; the tall pines feel like they're bending back and away to avoid it.
We creep up, as best we can. There is little underbrush to hide in so we move with our backs to the trees.
The hamlet is in ruins. The palisade has been completely torn down and burned, half of it still smoldering. There may have been twenty buildings but only two now stand and both of those are badly burnt. But even now gnolls on the far side of the hamlet, near a large stream, are rebuilding the palisade as others are gathered around the fire cooking with the villager's frying pans. I'm hungry but I hold back the lump in my throat at the thought of what they're cooking.
The leader appears from around the corner of a burnt home, kicking a blackened corpse out of his way and laughing, always laughing. There is a symbol around his neck but I don't recognize it. I look to Garen, who is watching from behind a large tree like me, to see if he recognizes it.
He whispers, "Yeenoghu."
I shrug my shoulders and he shakes his head in annoyance. The leader enters a building that still stands.
"Yeenoghu, demon lord of gnolls."
I know the name from my studies but I had never heard it pronounced. I smile, nothing like killing a demon worshiper for a days work.
I nod to Garen that I'm ready but he holds up his hand and pulls from his pouch a scroll. He looks at me to do likewise.
I pull a similar scroll from its case at my side and read softly, "Hieronious, protect me from these blights, these profanities of evil," and I feel the warmth of my protector spread over me.
Looking back at Garen he nods to me and I take a deep breath. We spin from around our cover and begin to walk into the ruins of the people of Ratik.
"What did you talk to the baron about?" I ask quietly as we come into the clearing.
"Where he thought the gnolls were headed," he says quietly. None of the gnolls around the bonfire have noticed us yet. They are busy gorging down lunch.
"Where did he say?"
We make our way to the edge of the palisade, stepping carefully over the charred poles. There are a few bodies here; some burnt, some not, some adults, many children. It looks as if they were cut down while trying to climb the walls. I want to spit in disgust.
Garen clears his throat and I tense up. I was planning on quietly ambushing the creatures. It's not like him to be so rash. That's my area of expertise. He calls out in the language of these beasts, "Enemies of Ratik! Surrender this place or suffer the judgment of all that is Good and Just!" I hate knowing their language. Every word is filled with anger and hate. Even 'Good' originates from 'good-murder.'
The cackling of hyena laughter stops and there is a burst of motion from around the camp. Swords and axes gleam in the sunlight as the laughter resumes at a fevered pitch.
"Guess they'll take judgment," I say but Garen isn't listening. He rushes into the hamlet and with an underhanded swing that crashes through one of the gnoll's armor and disembowels it before the chaotic throng.
In an instant Garen is surrounded by the creatures. More gnolls drop their work at the palisades and rush into the narrow street. Ducking and swerving Garen parries the best attackers, his leather taking the other assaults.
I rush up behind Garen, frustrated at this first time show of brash hostility of his, my sword cutting deep into a flanking gnoll as more pour out from the building the leader had disappeared into. Sparks fly into the air as rushing gnolls haphazardly kick protruding logs of the bonfire.
There are far more gnolls than what we had seen from the hilltop. Three rush me, blood begins to run down my legs. I score another hit against the gnoll in front of me, he falls gasping for a breath that his lungs never receive.
There are to many gnolls now for me to see how Garen fairs but his sword continues to swing unmercifully and he is screaming in rage. I feel I fight along side a barbarian; where is the paladin of reason? The creatures' laughter is everywhere, meaningless, high pitched, and unnerving. I growl a curse to block out the hideousness of it all.
There are cries of pain, gnoll screams, as Garen fights on. A gnoll from the building tries to flank me but I cut him down only for another to take its place. Hard pressed I start to back myself down between the building where the leader hides and a burnt husk of a home. All the while gnolls fight on heedless of their doom.
From the corner of my eyes I see the leader step out of the building. Wisps of smoke, no, some kind of mist begins to swirl around the leader. It fills the area and is nearly blinding. The gnolls in front of me become shadows in the fog.
I can still hear fighting to the right of me, where Garen and the leader are, but it sounds bad. I continue to back myself up along the wall of the standing building as a gnoll's axe cuts my chin and another blade cuts deep into my sword arm.
I swing at a shadow, relying on the dog headedness of it as my guide. There is a shriek, the shadow drops, but another takes its place.
There is laughing behind me, a gargling blood lust. I duck and the swing goes wide, spinning with my back to the wall I bring my sword up then back and across its neck. Gnoll life-blood stink stains my armor.
There's a shrill call from around the corner where Garen is, a cacophony of laughter responds as if a giant stepped upon an abyssal den of fiendish dogs.
An axe flies inches from my nose. The mist works both ways. With it's flank open from the swing I lunge in for another kill. But new hyena faces, like swirling demons, fade in and out of my view as I parry axe and sword from cutting me to pieces. I've done better jobs of it.
Hard pressed I keep my back against the wall as I back up. There are four, maybe five, on me at all times. Every time I kill one, another takes its place. I'm fighting on the other side of the building. I can't hear if Garen needs my help, not that I would be able to get to him anytime soon.
An axe blade swings low and clips my shin. A take a step away and duck down, calling the power of Heironious to aid me. In an instant the healing would be done, but an instant is a long time when gnolls are trying to kill you. Two axes swing wildly through the mist. One hits me hard but I roll with it. It takes all my will to keep the healing flowing. It is done, but some wounds still flow.
I'm up and parrying again. I can hear the stream growing louder. I need to find my way back to Garen.
I back up dodging an axe. It misses, barely, and strikes deep into the building beside me. The gnoll, stupid not to let go of the axe's shaft, finds by blade severing its arms. I guess it will have to try and pull the weapon free with its teeth, but it's to busy screaming in pain.
I spin around, there's more shadows in the mist, but as I turn something slams into my back. I try to turn but the force sends me stumbling forward. I try to stop myself but my legs are growing numb.
Somehow I manage to turn around, though now I'm stumbling backward through the mist. Echoing off the burnt-out buildings and through fog, the laughing of the gnolls thrums in and out of my ears. Another axe swings towards my head. I parry. Metal snaps and rings. Half of my blade spins into the mist as the axe blade carries through and cuts a line across the bridge of my nose.
The axe comes back on a cross swing, swirling the mist in strange ethereal eddies. My legs still will not answer me and finally give out. I begin to topple over. The gnoll, unprepared, strikes me with the flat of the axe as he angles it to follow my fall. There's a thud, then a crack, but I don't feel any pain. I can see bone pushing against my leather at my shoulder.
I land hard on my back with a splash. I must be in the stream. The gnolls are laughing, cheering in joy, as their shadows, rabid and grotesque, dance in the mist.
"You didn't kill me," I say but my voice is hoarse and they don't hear me. They just continue their cackling laughter.
I must have fallen on a log, or debris, as I'm now floating head long with the current.
The mist fades, I can see what is left of the hamlet smoldering on my right. There are gnolls jumping and dancing excitedly. Garen is there, though I only see his head.
The stream carries me past and I am floating by where the gnolls have begun to rebuild the palisade. Further still I float, unable to move anything save my head. I'm at the edge of the hamlet. Bodies of the villagers lay stacked and burnt upon each other. The water around me turns a putrid pink and I don't know if it is from the villagers or my own wounds. As I float by I can see scavenger birds picking at the rotting meat and the smell is more than I can bear. I can feel my hands squeezing into fists, even though I can't move them. It's not the disease of the stained water that I worry about; Heironeous' will protects me well enough from that. But being eaten alive by vultures is not covered by His divine grace.
All that I can do is watch the bodies bake in the heat as I float by. I rasp a prayer for the hamlet and curse the gnolls. But without feeling, with out power over my own body, I cannot mete out the revenge.
My breaths become short and strained. What if the logs under me give way and I roll over to drown! I see myself face down in the current, watching rocks and fish pass under me on the streambed as my lungs fill uncontrollably with cool water, unable to move, unable to save myself from such a fate, unable to roll over. Forced to stay conscious and aware until the last breath.
"Heironeous!" I cry out. But the call only slips quietly past my lips. I focus on His valor, a meditation, to take me away from this moment until I die or am freed from this mock prison.
With my eyes closed I see Garen again, smiling at me, from when we first met. His face was calm and he was sure of himself. The temple of our order was a small converted tavern, little more than a two story wayside shrine on the outskirts of Marner. I had been on with the Holy Guard for less than a month when Arnet, our order's clerical patron, introduced us.
"As you can see, my good Mekrith, Garen here serves Rao the Calm, and his presence here offers us a most wise addition to our order."
"Lord Redstar," I bowed, "it will be an honor to fight along your side. With you at our aid, justice will be swift for those who would think to harm this most peaceful nation."
"With respect, Lord Mekrith, justice is never so in danger of faltering than when it is swift."
I was stunned. Of the score of paladins in our order not one had ever argued against my judgment.
"With respect to..."
I had begun to retort but Garen's words were calm and penetrating, "Tell me Mekrith, do you have any brothers?" I shook my head, "sisters?" Again no, "Any close family at all other than the parents who raised you?"
"No, but who..."
"Justice, Order, Law. These ideals are first learned with family. I have a brother and sister in Westwood. Never so honestly did I learn the need for compromise for the greater good than in my family.
While this order has been most successful in fighting off the skirmishes and bandits from the Bone March, to many innocents have been killed..."
"Casualties of wa..."
"To many have been slain. This order now needs to turn towards protection of the innocents rather than avenging it. 'Action -governed by reason and wisdom- is required to counteract' the evils that besiege this land."
There is a breeze flowing through the pines now. It carries the soft scent of those trees to me and the smell clears out that of the fleeting hamlet. Starlings, dancing about the needles, have replaced the birds of prey.
The sun is setting. I know I should be getting cold but I still cannot feel anything. From the corner of my eye I catch a piece of cloth, the remains of a white gown, floating along beside me. It soothes me as it caresses the small undulations of the water's current.
The pace of the stream picks up and my heart's beating quickens as if to match the water's movement. Turbulence shakes me and rising from under the water I see a hand at the end of the gown. I start to choke as the realization wells up in my chest. My raft is no log, no debris, but that of a woman, some town's person, who's life was taken by evil. It is too much to bear. I begin to laugh, hysterical and mad, as the pace of the stream turns to rapids. Tears stream down my cheeks as I convulse in fits of insane joy.
There is a sharp crack against my head then only pain.
It's morning. The heat swells as the sun rises above the pine trees but I awake to the freezing water around me. At the shock of consciousness I kick, my legs responding, and I fall over into the water. I convulse from the cold and frantically I splash about to find my balance. My feet fall upon thick mud and I am able to stand, my shoulders just cresting the waterline. I am near the edge of a pond. The whole of my body aches with cuts and bruises and small bites from curious trout. My face and hands are sun burnt and sting at the water's cold and sharp touch.
The body, my saving raft, floats softly away from me, rocking in the ripples from my convulsions. Shaking I reach out and pull it towards me. The woman's wounds tell that the gnolls showed no mercy.
I pull her along with me, to the edge of the water and up onto the muddy bank. Out of the water I then roll her onto her back and from her neck a pendant stares up at me; a small red star. It is Garen's pendant only smaller.
"Oh gods!" I moan. "What was the name of that hamlet? Could this be..." my throat tightens and becomes parched. I can't speak. I pull her forehead close, sobbing, and I whisper as much a pray as I can muster for her and Garen and their other brother who must have been at the hamlet as well. Then I kiss her brow, lay her head gently back to rest, and weep.
Hours pass. I mourn. Then realizing there is nothing else that I can do I stand up, taking her necklace from her and placing it around my neck, and head into the forest.
I come to a large rock in the center of a small clearing. The sun shines down bright and all seeing. Achingly I climb to its crest and sit. I focus on my surroundings. There is nothing evil here that I can sense. I focus inward then, calling upon the Grace of Heironeous. His power swells within me, knitting my broken shoulder and healing other lesser wounds. The pain in my lower back and hips eases but is not gone. Not enough to heal me completely but enough to see me through the day.
I limp along at an agonizing pace and the sun begins to set on another day. Part of me still wishes to be born along, unfeeling, down the stream, unaware of the raft that saved me. I stop; force those thoughts away. That path can only lead me to madness.
I find myself stumbling, shaking from the sunburns and the cold that still fills my damp leathers, along a ridge. A small pine filled valley lies below me. I head, as best I can, towards the setting sun. Shivering I wish I had a fire. Tomorrow morning I will wake in time to pray for spells so long as I find a way to offer proper respect to Heironeous. I do not know where my symbol disappeared to and I do not know if He will hear my prayers.
As I limp along, the ground below me gives way. I fall, calling for Heironeous to take me. But despite the rumbling chaos of broken rocks and sand I remain conscious. Somewhere along the way I hear a crack that send shivers through my body.
Finally I skid to a stop. The pain in my leg is too much and I dry heave an empty stomach upon the ground. I try to stand but my left leg will not support my weight.
As I rise to a kneeling position I see a campfire ahead of me at the edge of the valley's trees. Then I hear the laughter. Gnolls, gods-forsaken gnolls, and ogres, leer up at me from roasting boar. Fetid breath escaping through toothy maws.
I smile back, as best I can. At least they have a fire.