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Unread 22nd of February, 2010, 13:37
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Chapter 12 - The Road

Wagons west and wagons south. As fall slips away, but before Winter comes to reign in his court, the last of the merchants leave the northern lands ahead of the snow and the ice and the long dark. Their carts bounce against the hardening dirt roads that wind their way toward civilization.

Soon enough, Karkas, Enderin and all the villages, hamlets, and thorpes like them will be thick in Winter’s embrace. Smoke will curl up out of chimneys while thatched roofs are heavy with snow. Even Tradeholm will be heaped with it. Stores and larders, filled during the autumnal harvest, will be tapped. Most will emerge into the spring thaw a little leaner, and a few starveling, yet none the worse for wear. But some will not emerge at all.

Isac’s body had gone up as surely as a pitch soaked roof. The flames consumed him with a hunger that worked with a purpose and an intensity that exceeded fire’s voracious, but mindless, nature. It had struck Cadrius then, as Skathros screamed and the priest of Pelor became a miniaturized testament to his Lord, that the curse feared not two things, but three: salt, lead, and a cleansing fire.

They had fled back to the safety of the walls. Arriving at the gatehouse at that hour would have aroused far too much suspicion from the guards. So it was that six humans and a half-orc clambored up over a section of the wooden walls surrounding Tradeholm and slipped into the town. They hurried to the inn with many a glance over their shoulders into the shadows.

There was no feeling of shelter or security to be had in Tradeholm. Surrounded by the works of men though they were, they knew what lurked in the dark. At Juni’s behest, they had spread twin lines of salt and lead along the doorways and windowsills of their room in the inn. The blending of light and dark elements was anathema to the cursed minions, but they only had so much of it—and they had nothing for the rest of the town.

Around a fire that did not shed nearly enough light, they sat in silence for a time. Seven minds were consumed by the same thoughts of grief and fear. At last Nicos shattered the dead air and freed the rest to speak in furtive voices about the terror that they had witnessed and what it portended for their future. The shock of Isac’s death had wrapped about them all—a thick, morose cloak that had settled heavy on their shoulders.

Cadrius and Sarra listened as they told a story of the curse. When they finished the fallen paladin sat still for a long time before clearing his throat telling a story of his own.

“I have a seen this before,” he said, glancing briefly at Sarra. “This can only be a sign of more to come.”

And so he told his tale of the villages he had discovered in his journey to Tradeholm and why he had changed course to come warn his former companions. He spoke of the first village he found, full of nothing but bodies that he had sent to the neverafter in a great pyre. Then he spoke of the second village and the men and women whose eyes had turned to ink and had become something else. Of Eadgar and Heleyne, and the rescue of Sarra, he spoke not at all.

“It sounds like a pox,” Juni said.

“Perhaps,” Cadrius said, sensing a ripple of discomfort pass through the room. If that were the case, the fallen paladin and his charge would be spreading it right now. “Yet we had spent a week in the woods waiting to see any effect. There were none.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” Shade said. To Cadrius she seemed hostile. Perhaps it was her brush with death. Perhaps it was something else. “How could that have anything to do with—” Shade gestured into the air “—all of this?”

“I do not know,” Cadrius said, “but I believe them to be connected.”

“Not a disease, but maybe some variation of the curse?” Blarth’s voice was deep and somber.

“Or a poison,” Lynn offered.

Through this, Cadrius watched Sarra’s face. It was ironclad. She had built a fortress to keep her heartache at bay. He could not blame her. She listened, detached, as if it was not her home that had been torn apart, as if there was no question as to why it was her that had been spared and none others.

None save Cadrius.

“You think it has to do with the witch?” Shade’s arms were crossed over her breast. “I’ve not heard of anything like this.”

“It’s not the story you’ve heard,” Nicos said. “It’s the story you’re hearing.”


***


The wagoner is a heavyset man with with a bristly beard and an accent that suggests a childhood spent in the valelands or possibly in far off Cale. While men toil, loading casks and sacks into the wagons that line the outskirts of the market, the wagoner shouts at them in his gravel-laden voice.

“How many?” His voice is slightly less rough than with the men that work for him, but only just.

“Seven.”

“Seven? Many.”

“Yes,” Cadrius says. “We’re looking for passage to the duchies.”

“You are lucky. We are going that way.” He looks at Cadrius, appraising him like a bolt of cloth or a pound of coffee. “But seven is many. Seven is enough to travel on own.”

“The roads are dangerous this time of year,” he offers.

As food grows short and as the fear of starvation during the long winter months grows, more men take robbery to ensure their own survival. Cadrius doesn’t blame a hungry man from stealing, but he would rather it not come at the cost of his own life. Though they are a formidable septet—all it takes is one bolt from a crossbow, one knife to slip past a guard, and they would die there in some nameless bend in the road. He cannot take that chance. There is too much that still needs doing.

The wagoner is not convinced. “They are dangerous for me too. Sometimes travelers sign on and try to rob me.” His eyes narrow. “That is a mistake.”

“I understand,” Cadrius says, smiling, “but it is three women, one girl, one man missing an arm, and my bastard half-brother Blarth. Do you see why we do not want to make this journey on our own?”

He considers it, nodding. “Fine. You pay five each. You can ride in a wagon during the day. Night, we share watches.”

“And food?”

“Bring your own,” the wagoner says.

Cadrius scowls. “For five each? We could ride like royalty for less than that.”

“Could you?” The wagoner cocks an eyebrow. “Who would take you?”

“We will be on watch at night? For five each you had best feed us.”

He grunted. “Fine. Dinner bell is at day end. Breakfast is bread. No stops during the day except for trees in road.”

They shook on the deal and Cadrius counted out thirty five pieces of silver. His purse feels far too light now, but this is what must be done. It is not safe here in this town—not with Skathros lurking in the shadows. The fallen paladin fears what might happen if the witch worked her fell magics on a town the size of Tradeholm. Butchering a few of the shambling dead is one thing, but dealing with this many would be another. He did not like their odds there, especially with the only holy man they knew with a true connection to the divine having perished in a torrent of fire.

He found Sarra looking at a merchant’s stall from a distance. Even with autumn’s chill not yet dispelled from the land there were still many of the denizens of this town bustling about, buying, selling, haggling, and likely a few stealing. The young woman looked on not at the stall featuring bushels of apples and corn, but through a window into the tailor’s shop. There, long silk gloves and scarves and dresses and hats were set up within the window to catch the well-to-do shopper’s eye.

Cadrius would buy her something from there, if he could, but paying for passage left him all but poor. She would love him not at all for the gesture, and it would do nothing to assuage the pain she must feel every day at the loss of her parents. Still, maybe it would lessen that burden for a little while.

But he has neither the coin nor the means, and the wagoner will be leaving soon. So instead he stands next to her a moment, gazing on into the tailor’s shop before clearing his throat.

“We will be leaving soon,” he says. “Come. We must fetch our belongings.”

Last edited by Cadrius; 13th of March, 2010 at 00:56.
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Unread 13th of March, 2010, 00:01
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Things were dire indeed if they were seeking refuge in Tradeholm, a city they'd fled in fear of their lives not long before. She was glad they'd be leaving soon - the smart thing to do was lay low while they were here, stay away from places she or Juni might be recognized. Skathros' departure had likely thrown the Night Eyes into confusion, coming as quickly as it did on Ricard's demise. Losing two leaders in quick succession like that would turn the guild into a pack of brawling wolves. Sooner or later one would come out on top, of course, but it would take a little time.

Shade contented herself with stealing once or twice at dusk, keeping her hood low and staying away from everyone. There had been something she wanted to do while they were here, before they started on their trek to the Duchies. It would be dangerous, but less so with the wagons. She carried the object of her quest with her now, on her way back to the room they had rented, her oblong package wrapped in a green cloth - a narrow thing, approximately three feet long.

Juni was outside the inn as she returned, almost as though she were waiting for Shade there. The rogue shook her head, wondering. The girl did things like that far too often for it to be coincidence. She slows as she approaches, reminded suddenly of how young Arjuna really is. If there was another way, Shade wouldn't even suggest she come with them, but as dangerous as it was, sticking together was probably the safest thing they could do. And if they were stalked by danger . . .

"Hi," she says with a smile as she holds out the package, "I got you something."
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Unread 13th of March, 2010, 05:59
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A chill wind blew down the street, swirling about Blarth's cloak and sending a shiver up his spine.

"Deal," Blarth replies to the merchant and starts handing over gold and silver. It was a bit more than he had hopping to pay, but the cold wind had reminded him of just how necessary the quilted woolen clothes and blankets he was bargaining for would be shortly. "I imashin that bushinesh ish picking up to the pointch thatch you'll be able to replashe the glash in your windowsh shoon," Blarth comments as the merchant tied the blankets and clothing into a bundle.

"Oh, the windows weren't borken," the merchant replies with a knowing smile, "They've never had glass or even paper for that matter. I'm a fan of the fresh air."

Sniffing the odor of the clothes dyer a few blocks away, Blarth can't help but think that these city dwellers have a strange definition of fresh air. At least they'd be headed for the Duchies tomorrow. Blarth was uncomfortable in Tradeholm, especially under the disguise that Lynn had fashioned for him. It couldn't completely hide his orcish heritage, but it minimized its appearance enough that with his hood up he could walk the streets unmolested. The color paste and wooden teeth were uncomfortable, however, and added something of a lisp to his voice. It was almost easier to stay hidden in the room at the inn than put it on each morning. They'd needed the winter clothing, however, and Blarth had the most experience with such stuff so he had volunteered to make sure they got what they needed. At least he wouldn't have to wear the get up while they were traveling. Lynn had stated that it would be far too difficult to keep the disguise up without the privacy necessary to touch it up each morning and the group agreed that discovery of the deception would be far more akward to explain than just dealing with any tensions Blarth's orc heritage might bring.

That didn't mean that there would be no deception, however. Blarth and Cadrius were going to pretend to be half-brothers; Lynn, Juni, and Shade were sisters (or was it cousins); Nicos and Lynn were paramours; Sara was Cadrius' ward (which, as Blarth understood it was actually true); and there was supposed to be some link between Cadrius and one of the women, but Blarth had really lost track of the whole story at that point. Indeed, he wasn't even sure exactly what the whole cover story was at this point. So many ideas had been suggested and discussed that he'd lost track. All he knew was that the others felt they would arouse less suspicion if they were some kind of family group traveling together rather than a bunch of friends or comrades in arms. Blarth didn't really understand the logic, but then it was human logic and these were human lands so he had let the others handle it.

Arriving back at the inn, Blarth smelled the scent of honey buns comming from the kitchen and stopped to grab a couple before heading back up to the room. As usual, the cook gave him a hard time about it, but after a wink and a silver on the counter, she smiled and wrapped the second, "To keep it warm until the little one gets back."

Munching on a honey bun while he balanced his package of clothes, blankets, and a honey bun, Blarth heads up the stairs to the suite of rooms that the party was renting to get out of the make-up and wait for dinner.
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Unread 13th of March, 2010, 06:28
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"Something for me?" Juni says, truly surprised. She can't help feeling a rush of girlish excitement as she takes the package from Shade and sits down at one of the outdoor tables to open it. Presents were always fun and so unexpected! "How did you ever afford- " she begins, but then cuts the question short as her thoughts catch up to her tongue. "Nevermind. It's not important," she adds quickly. And I'm better off not knowing, she thinks.

The package is secured with leather string and it takes Juni a moment to undo the knots. Then she pulls the green cloth away to reveal... a bow and a quiver. "Oh my," she says, taking the bow in her hands. The dark wood, carefully carved and polished, feels solid and comfortable in her grasp. "I hope I remember how to use one of these," she says with a laugh, and then sets the bow down, looking over at her friend. She seems so very different now that the curse has been removed, at least to Juni's eyes. Her smile is brighter, her eyes clearer. Even her manner is different. She no longer seems... shadowed. "Thank you, Shade. It was very kind of you to think of me.

"Oh, I almost forgot... " Juni says, her smile fading as she remembers the reason she had come outside to wait for Shade. "Cadrius has been looking for you.. for all of us, I mean. I guess we ought to be getting down to the wagon. It is nearly time to leave."
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Unread 15th of March, 2010, 13:31
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"Well, we can get some target practice in on the road. Better to have it and hope you won't need it then to need it and not have it. Besides, it's a good match for that fine blade you have - which we ought to practice with some too."

Maybe it wasn't the gift the girl had been hoping for, but Shade was determined to see that she could protect herself. Her face darkens when Juni mentions Cadrius. She'd managed to let much of her anger go in the wake of her brush with undeath, but for some reason the warrior got under her skin these days.

"Yes, the sooner gone the better."
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Unread 16th of March, 2010, 14:47
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Nicos strode around the corner street of the in, boots tucked under his arm with his cloak wrapped around his weapon. He spotted Shade and Juni, flashing a smile at them as he made his way over, trying to appear casual despite the flush to his face that made it seem he had run to the spot with some speed.

"Hey," he said, glancing at everyone nearby or walking in their direction with a look too measured to be casual. "So, um we were leaving soon right? As in, very soon?"
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Unread 17th of March, 2010, 02:29
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"Hello, Nicos," Juni calls in reply. "Look what Shade got for me!" She holds up her new bow with a smile, but her expression quickly turns to one of puzzlement as she catches sight of Nicos' stockinged feet. "Where are your boots? It's freezing cold out here! Put them on, for goodness sake, before you catch your death!"

Shade rolls her eyes but says nothing, and Juni begins to put two and two together.

Oh?

Oh!

Oh...


"Not again, Nicos," Juni groans, shaking her head. "Who is she? Or more to the point, who is her husband? Not the Captain of the Guard this time, I hope!"
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Unread 17th of March, 2010, 02:43
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Shade frowns, looking past the bard to see who might be following. It occurs to her that she's seen this drama play out a few times before. Nobody appears to be right behind him, so she withholds her customarily scathing rejoinders. Instead, she just meets his gaze and nods.

"Yes, we're leaving. Juni and I were on our way to the caravan now."
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Unread 17th of March, 2010, 22:11
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"There are some things a gentleman doesn't tell," Nicos told Juni with a wink. "Still as few people consider me to be a gentleman let's just say there is a certain wife of a certain Porter's Guildmaster who may have developed a reputation for being ... indiscrete this week. All just scandalous rumour you understand, I'm sure there's no truth to any of it."

"And that is an impressive looking weapon," Nicos said dropped his eyes to the bow Juni was holding, the bard's eyebrows rising in appreciation before casting a look at Shade. “I’ll presume we have a growing list of reasons to quietly leave town. I'll go grab my gear."
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Unread 13th of April, 2010, 09:31
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Riding all day in the back of a wagon has its advantages - it is better than wearing the soles of your boots out on the road, for one thing. But after several days of such riding, Juni has decided that nothing in the world is more tedious or more boring. Maybe it is the steady clop clop clop of the horses hooves sounding in her ears; or the rhythmic sway and creak of the wagon itself as it rolls along mile after mile. Or maybe it is the utter monotony of the slate-gray winter sky that looms oppressively overhead. Whatever it is, Juni can hardly keep her eyes open, even though it is the middle of the day. She stifles a yawn and decides that a change of position might be what she needs to wake herself up. She has just begun to climb down from her spot atop a pile of grain sacks, when the wagon suddenly lurches over a rough spot in the road and she goes sprawling.

"Oof!" she says, finding herself wedged between two slightly musky-smelling casks of wine with something sharp digging into her hip. After she manages to get herself free of the casks and into an upright position again, she realizes that the thing poking her is in her belt pouch. She pulls it out to see if she has broken something.

It is a heavy metal disc, a medallion, on a chain. "Isac's holy symbol," she murmurs softly, remembering that she had put it in her pouch for safe keeping after digging it out of the ashes of the fire days ago. When she'd found it, it had seemed strangely warm to the touch, though the ashes were cold. She had put it away in a hurry, not wanting to think about it too much at the time.

It feels warm now too, warmer than it ought to, even if it had absorbed some of her body heat while inside the pouch. "That's odd," she says out loud, turning the symbol over in her hands.

No, it isn't, the voice of her psi-crystal hums in her mind. A priest's holy symbol is usually very important to him, and is often imprinted with his psychic energy. I don't find it at all surprising that Isac's medallion feels warm in a Clairvoyant's hands.

Oh! You always act like you know everything!
Juni thinks back, exasperated, but also a little bit irritated that she hadn't thought of that explanation herself. If that is the case, then you ought to stop talking about it and help me concentrate.

She holds the intricately fashioned Sun symbol in her hands, marveling once again at the craftsmanship.

It is elven in design.

Is it really?
Juni muses, interested.

It's funny that her psi-crystal knows so many things, things that she couldn't possibly know herself. Wasn't it supposed to be a fragment of her own mind? But then again, it had belonged to her father before it had belonged to her. She is beginning to suspect that the psi-crystal contains a piece of her father's mind as well, which is a little bit frightening.

Are you concentrating?

Juni closes her eyes. Yes.

And in a sudden flash, she feels herself transported to another place and time. She stands in the secluded glade of an old growth forest, looking out through someone else's eyes.

A nearby stream cuts its way through massive, moss-covered boulders worn down by age and carved with ancient runes. Standing atop one of the primeval monoliths is a surreally beautiful woman. Raven black hair flows over the flawless, opalescent skin of her shoulders, and she leans gracefully upon her spear as she gazes into the forest ahead with feral blue eyes. Down her neck and along her bare back are rows of delicate tattoos. Finely wrought golden bands encircle her wrists and twine about her upper arms.

She is an elf, Juni's psi-crystal instructs. And one of apparently high status.

The exquisite creature turns to look back over her shoulder, and Juni is pierced through by her gaze. "Eshaahc," the elven woman calls in a voice like a woodwind instrument, deep and lilting. A wave of emotion engulfs Juni, so overwhelming that she can't take a breath; she feels like she might well drown in it. And yet her heart sings.

The holy symbol falls through her fingers and drops to the floor of the wagon with a dull clatter of metal on wood. Juni gasps, and through a dizzying blur feels herself being pulled from a great distance and dropped back down into her own body again. Her shoulders heave with a wrenching sob, and her eyes burn with tears. She weeps for the unknown elf woman. She weeps for Isac. But most of all she weeps for herself and for that newly discovered pureness of emotion which she has never yet experienced in her own life.

"Who was she?" she whispers to the golden face of Pelor looking up at her from the floor of the wagon. "Oh, Isac. You loved her so much!"

by Kel and J
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Unread 17th of April, 2010, 03:58
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Wagons are slow. That more than anything was the major conclusion that Blarth had reached traveling with the caravan. The first day, he had ridden in the wagon, thinking that that was what one did. Or at least the day had started that way. By lunch time Blarth was bored out of his mind and had noticed that several member of the caravan were walking alongside the wagons. Deciding to do the same, Blarth had climbed down and walked the rest of the day. Indeed, matching the slow pace of the wagons had actually proved to be something of a challenge and he had found the activity stimulating enough to try it again the following day.

By the end of the second day, however, that was no longer enough to hold Blarth's interest and and on the third day he had taken to walking to the front of the caravan and then sitting and waiting for the whole thing to pass him by before getting up and doing it all over again.

On the fourth day Blarth decided that he'd spent way too much time sitting down and thus tried walking around the whole caravan as it progressed along. He got five laps in before the wagons ground to a halt for the night.

The fifth day was unusually hot and dry and Blarth had found the dust clouds near the caravan intolerable, so when he got to the front of the caravan the second time he kept going and ranged out in front of the caravan, occasionally coming back to the front, for the rest of the day.

By the sixth day Blarth's restlessness had been noticed by just about everyone in the caravan and the caravan master had invited Blarth to join the caravan's outriders as a way to pass the time (and keep him from spooking the draft animals by crossing in front of them). Blarth had accepted, and except for when the weather turned wet, hadn't regretted the decision. At least this way he had something to do each day, even if it mostly amounted to waiting until after the caravan had left to do a final policing of the night's campsite before leapfrogging ahead to the next stop to start setting up the new camp.
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Unread 19th of April, 2010, 01:55
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"Well, at least Blarth found something to keep himself busy with," Juni comments aloud on their sixth day out. She is still spending her days riding in the back of one of the wagons, although she has taken to walking along beside the wagon in the middle of the day just to break up the monotony.

It is late afternoon and much colder today than it has been on any other day since they left Tradeholm. Juni is bundled up in a heavy cloak, plus two blouses underneath that and a blanket thrown over her lap and her legs for added warmth. Even so, she can still feel the cold planks of the wagon floor on her backside. She tries to comfort herself by thinking about the cup of hot tea she will have later tonight when they make camp.

"Isn't it supposed to be getting warmer as we move further south?" she can't help grumbling. "And it looks like it's going to rain later. Or will it snow? Is it cold enough to snow? Gods I hope not!"

Who are you talking to?

Oh hush!


"Nicos, are you sleeping again?" She can see the bard's legs sticking out from beyond the cluster of barrels where he has lain down to rest, but can't tell whether or not he is awake. She suddenly realizes that she has been talking on and on, just saying out loud almost any thought that comes into her head.

"Sorry if I'm bothering you," she says apologetically. "But I'm just so bored! The days are endless, and the nights are... well, scary. I keep thinking of the curse or the plague or whatever it is that Cadrius told us about. I- "

There you go again.

"Oops! Sorry. I'll shut up now." Juni pulls the blanket more closely around herself and sighs.
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Unread 19th of April, 2010, 09:35
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Nicos dozed in the afternoon, lulled into a semi-slumber by the slow steady rocking of the wagon. With sleep fuddled thoughts his mind drifted back to a conversation from several days earlier.

-----

"It won't work."
"It will."
"Nothing you've tried so far has, we should be focusing on things atleast one of us know how to do."
"I do know how to do this, I've spent many long boring hours planning it and more than that, it feels right."
"It won't work."

"Nicos," Lynn said through gritted teeth. "Are you trying to be an arse about this, or is it just coming naturally."

Nicos looked over at Lynn and bit back a comment. They had been passing the time on and off during the trip, trying to teach her one of the 'tricks' Nicos used that some people incorrectly considered magical. It had not gone well. Either she lacked the knack needed for them or Nicos was a less then able teacher, it wasn't working and out of frustration Lynn had decided to try something new.

"Fine," he said, suppressing a sigh. "Show me."

"Just shut up and pay attention," Lynn replied readying herself. After a few long moments, the young woman began to sing. It was a quiet song, soft and full of breathy constantans that danced at the edge of hearing. The song droned one, sounds blending together and despite himself Nicos felt his eyelids growing heavy.

He was jerked to alertness by the horse pulling their wagon missing its step. Glancing around he noticed the driver yawning and blinking rapidly as if to ward off sleep. Turning back to a smug looking Lynn, Nicos cocked a crooked smile at her.

"Alright, show me that again."


-----

"Nicos, are you sleeping again?"

Pulled from his half doze, Nicos rubbed sleep from his eyes and eyed Juni where she sat near by. The girl was young, clearly an inexperienced traveller and even more clearly bored. The foes of dirt, exhaustion and boredom were familiar to anyone who spent time travelling, and each developed their own way to deal with it. Nicos had taken to napping during the day and staying up late singing for all who would listen and keeping the first watch company. He had spotted Shade slipping out of camp into the night a few times, and had decided he was better off not knowing what she was up to.

"You need a hobby Juni," Nicos said sitting up. "Something to keep you occupied and pass the time. It's only way to stay sane on trips like this."
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Unread 20th of April, 2010, 10:29
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"A hobby... " Juni muses, trying to think of something she would enjoy doing. She remembers back to when she lived with her father and he was trying to introduce her to high society in Tradeholm. Young ladies of her own age would get together with their mothers in the afternoons to do needlework and to gossip about whichever other young ladies were not in attendance that day. She had absolutely hated every minute of it.

NO, I don't think I'll take up sewing.

Maybe Nicos knows some good gossip.


Juni giggles at that, then has a sudden thought.

Oh gods, do you suppose Nicos ever, um, "visited" any of the ladies in my circle?

It is certainly an amusing notion, and Juni entertains herself for quite some time imagining the bard and one or another of the matrons or maids she'd known that he might have had success wooing.

Which somehow brought her back to thinking about Isac's holy symbol and the intensely emotional vision she'd had of him and the beautiful elf woman. The powerful feelings he'd had (and that she had experienced through his medallion) were unlike anything she'd known before. Was it like that for everyone? Would she ever know it for herself?

"Nicos, you've had a lot of experience," she says quite suddenly. "What's it like to be in love?"
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Unread 20th of April, 2010, 11:57
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"That might be a bit challenging to take up as a hobby," Nicos quipped, flashing his automatic smile at Juni. He held it for a moment while he studied her face, before letting it drop. "Being in love? It's ... painful."

The bard frowned and looked at the floor of the wagon, letting the awkward silence settle between them. When he spoke again it was sudden, flat without preamble.

"At first it seems like ... like you've found a missing piece of yourself that fills a hole you never before knew you lacked. It's a fire that burns through your mind, your heart, your -" with a sly glance -"other places. At times it can warm you and light your way when you’re surrounded by darkness, but it can also be so bright, so hot that you're blinded to other sights, thoughts and feelings.

"And in the end," he finished, looking not at Juni but beyond her to something only he could see. "In the end, no matter what, it burns you."
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Unread 21st of April, 2010, 03:41
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Shade slipped through the thick brush on the eastern side of the trail, pinpointing the wagons by the slow creak of wheels. Even slowed as she was by the terrain and the effort of staying silent, she moved faster than the caravan. Despite their talk before departure, she and Juni hadn't practiced much of anything yet. Everyone had pretty much kept to themselves thus far, which suited her just fine. She needed the time to think.

Stepping lightly upon a downed log, she stalks its length almost absently, so quiet you might not know she was there - a ghost of blue and grey. And yet, she felt more herself, more alive than she had in years. Isac had brought her back, had restored to her something that had been fading since Ricard's treachery. It still filled her with wonder that he'd sacrificed so much for someone he barely knew. Shade would not claim to know him well, but she knew him well enough to know that there was purpose to what he did, and it pained her to realize she'd never know the whole truth.

Only a fool would think it was over though. Skathros was still out there, and Cadrius himself had told her of the horrible plague that was spreading. Sarra was proof, she thought bitterly. Funny how easily he'd given up on Shade, judging her for things he didn't know anything about. Love was a cruel blade, alluring but deadly. Not that it mattered, she wasn't going to let it bother her, not now, when she had this chance that Isac had given her.

During the day, she honed her skills - woodcraft and stealth, both. But it was at night that she really did her work. Stealing out from camp on any night with a moon, she stalked for real. They were out there, she knew - the dead, eaters of flesh and haters of life. Maybe she was doomed to live alone, to live hunted, to live with the burdens that only a hard life would give you. So be it. There were those she cared about, those she would see live a better life - yes, even without her. She could help them by keeping them safe, by following Isac's way - a better way than her own. Grimly, she smiles. Who better to hunt the dead than a ghost?
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Unread 8th of May, 2010, 20:40
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"Burns?" Cadrius says, climbing in through the back of the wagon. "That it does. Though that has more to do with the company one keeps than the nature of love itself."

Nicos offers him a scowl and a rolling of eyes worthy of the stage. Juni's face is, however, is caught in honest contemplation. Cadrius smiles, appreciating for a moment that she does not understand the jest. There is an innocence about the girl that is to be admired, and, if not protected, then at least minded. Like Sarra.

Thoughts of his ward brings her back to the forefront of his mind. He had left her riding with the wagonmaster and his wife. She had, begrudgingly, agreed to help the woman with some stitching. Cadrius was grateful for the distraction. He had little to offer her when it came to instruction. Would he make her a swordswoman in the vein of Alessandra of Pommerand? No, the life of the sword is not a pleasant one and it always ends far too soon.

"Oh, it's true," Nicos snorts. "The courtly love of nobility is so pure that I forgot it even existed. Apologies, m'lord. Prithee, would you grace us with a lesson in the truer forms of love?"

Cadrius' traveling clothes are comfortable, well-worn, and already dusty from their six days on the road. He shifts the sword on his back around so he can sit on top of a chest of some sort. Cadrius has missed it, the wagon travel, having spent far too many days trudging through the leaves on his own. There is something comforting in the creak of the wood, the sound of many hooves plodding down the road. It is tranquil. There is security.

But most of all, he misses being in the company of people.

"It is far from pure, as you know," he says, taking his turn to roll his eyes. "In the Duchies there is a a Duke that is so well-known for his, hmm, indiscretions that the others refer to him simply as Pox."

"Oh," Juni says. "That's..."

"Disgusting?" Cadrius asks.

"Not surprising?" Nicos replies.

"Interesting," she says.

Nicos grins. "Our Juni is a polite one."

"Yes," Cadrius agrees. "I'm certain the good Duke appreciates your civility."

It is a moment of mirth and warmth. Cadrius recognizes it for what it is and tries to latch onto it, grasping it with hands that are not strong enough to hold something as powerful as this. It flees his grasp, slipping through his finger as surely as water, and dances down the road, capering and bowing.

"We're going to the Duchies," Juni says. "Shade told me you're from there."

Home. It is something he has studiously attempted to keep banished from his mind whenever possible. He has filled these six days with work, or conversation, to keep all thoughts of the land he was exild from, the land he fled, from cropping up. It has been an unsuccessful battle.

"I am."

"What is it like?"

"I..." he lets out a breath. "It depends on which duchy you're in, and who is in charge. Some are small, some are large. Forests and farmlands. Rivers and streams. Hills and dales."

"As varied as its rulers," Nicos says.

"Is it really as turbulent as the stories tell?" Juni asks. "Are the dukes always fighting?"

"Yes," he says. "They are always feuding, or scheming, but outright war is not so common. I would not listen to every story told of the place."

"The nobles are like a big family," Nicos says. "A big, bloodthirsty family, but a family. They're probably all related anyway--no offense intended."

"Please," Cadrius says. "The Duchies aren't the royal seat of the past. We do not marry our kin. Juni, do not listen to Nicos on this. With so many lands and so many families, there is a good deal of intermarrying, but bloodlines are also tracked carefully. We do not want to end up daft like the Mallisters."

"That makes sense," she says. "though I haven't heard of these Mallisters."

"There is a reason for that," he says. "They've kept their lands through sheer force alone. I would not want to be one of the smallfolk that live there."

"So what's Somerest like?"

"Beautiful," he says, "but every man thinks that of his homeland. There is a grand river near the keep where ships ply up and down. And there are rolling green hills and small woods flush with game. It was not a bad place to call home.

Then why did you leave?

The question had lurked in the background, waiting for its opportunity to pounce and rend and devour the flesh of knowledge. He bears no ill toward Juni for asking. She can't know, wouldn't know, why he hasn't gazed on its green and blue for years.

"That is a very long tale, I am afraid," he says. "And unlike our friend here, I am no storyteller. I should tend to Sarra. Perhaps another time."

Cadrius nods to his companions and ducks out under the canopy of the wagon. His boots touch the earth and remind him that they are slowly, inexorably, winding their way back toward the lands of his birth, and the lands of his fall. But this is not about Cadrius of Somerest and the sins of his past. This is bigger than him.

At least, that is what he tells himself.
  #18  
Unread 10th of May, 2010, 11:56
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Nicos watched as Cadrius stepped off the wagon, waiting until the man had moved out of earshot before turning to Juni with raised eyebrows.

"I think you scared him off."
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  #19  
Unread 11th of May, 2010, 03:26
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Market Day. There were many through out the year, some more important than others, but each shared one commonality: if you had something to sell or money to spend, you headed for the closest town and made a day of it. The result was a merchant's dream.

The crowd would have been bigger back in Tradeholm, but Joarabam said that the smaller communities would have less competition for his goods. As a result, he'd timed the caravan's journey so that it would reach Gouban just in time for the pre-winter Market Day. That was tomorrow, and the caravan would reach Gouban around mid-afternoon today. The extra time would free up some of the wagoneers to start spreading the word, and a few coins of their pay, much of which would then find its way back into Joarabam's coffers when he started selling to the locals the next day.

To Blarth, however, all that was of secondary importance. The primary matter for him was that instead of racing ahead of the caravan to start setting up camp (in particular getting the cook fires going), Blarth and his group of riders were tasked with diverting to Gilgal, a smaller village about half-a-day's journey from Gouban. The idea was to spread the word of the caravan's arrival a bit further, increase the crowds, and maybe extend Market Day by a day or two.

Gruumsh! I hate saddles!

Trying to shift into a more comfortable position Blarth was thankful that the horse required no real guidance from him. He was a horrible rider, when it came down to it, far preferring his own two feet to a horse's four. Fortunately, wagon travel was normally slow enough and the horses heavily burdened enough that he could keep up on foot. Today, however, the outriders were riding light and fast and Blarth had no choice but to ride.

Gruumsh! I hate saddles!

With Gilgal in sight, Blarth shifts again, anticipating the imminent relief from the saddle when his two companions reined in. Confused, Blarth stops his horse as well, and then backtracks to join up with them and find out what is going on.

"...too quiet," Horace was saying, "We haven't seen a single farmer out in the fields, nor on the road. Something is wrong."

"What?" Blarth asks, looking around at the harvested fields. "The crops are in. Why would anyone be working in the fields."

"They still need to ready the fields for winter," Trafan responded absently. "Only the fiercest winter blizzards keep farmers from their fields..."

"No smoke from the stacks," Trafan adds, redirecting his comments to Horace. "You're right, something is wrong here. We best find out what."

Spurring their horses into motion, Horace and Trafan left Blarth to confusedly follow in their wake as they cautiously finished the ride into town.
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Last edited by Black Plauge; 13th of May, 2010 at 01:28.
  #20  
Unread 12th of May, 2010, 02:36
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"I think you scared him off," Nicos says of Cadrius' departure.

Juni looks away, feigning interest in a loose thread on her sleeve. "Did I?" she says off-handedly. "I didn't mean to."

Nicos looks at her, and Juni grows uncomfortable with the silence that falls between them.

"I really didn't mean for him to leave, Nicos. It was a pleasant conversation, and I like to hear all about the Duchies and the feuding and such. But it just seems strange to me that when Cadrius pops up all of a sudden, everyone just decides to follow him wherever he leads. And..."

She looks over at the bard, and he can see that she is genuinely troubled by something. "And have you ever noticed how Shade is... different when he is around? There is something wrong there, and well... it bothers me, that's all!"
  #21  
Unread 12th of May, 2010, 09:50
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Nicos thought about it for a moment, rubbing the last of the sleep from his eyes. He was tired, but enjoyed a good gossip far too much to turn down the opportunity.

"Something wrong?" he asked with a grin. "Besides their mutually unrequited love that must-never-be-acknowledged let alone acted on? I wouldn't worry too much about it, some people just enjoy the drama of the chase more than they should."
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Unread 13th of May, 2010, 02:20
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"Empty," Trafan calls as he exits from another building.

"That's the third, and I bet if we took the time to check the rest they'd be empty too," Horace remarks.

"So what do we do?" Blarth asks, "We can't tell people who aren't here about the caravan."

Rolling his eyes at the statement of the obvious, Horace considers for a moment. "There's no sign of foul play, so maybe nothing is wrong. We'll spend the night here and head to Gouban at first light. Might as well as have a roof over our heads, even if it is self-service."

* * *

"What was that?" Blarth exclaims, sitting bolt upright in the bed he occupied. Listening intently to the silent night, at first Blarth hears only Horace's snoring from a couple of doors down. That had been going on all night, however, and wouldn't have been enough to wake the half-orc. Settling down after several minutes, Blarth is beginning to think it was a dream or some such thing when a thud sounds outside. Getting out of bed, Blarth makes his way to the window, opens it, and sticks his head out to look down into the courtyard between the inn and the stable. Thick clouds prevent any moon or star light to illuminate the far reaches of the courtyard, but Blarth's orcish heritage allows him to make out a human shape against the stable door. As he watches, the figure gathers itself and then slams into the door, creating the "thud" that had woken him up.

With the window now open, Blarth can hear the muffled sounds of the horses banging against their stall walls and whinnying in fear. Concerned, Blarth calls out to the form below, "What are you doing?"

In response, the form gathers itself again and hurls itself at the door once more, exciting the horses even further.

Muttering to himself, Blarth gathers his club and a lamp and heads out towards the courtyard, rapping on Horace and Trafan's doors as he passes and calling out a warning about the trouble.

Out in the yard, Blarth sees the figure hurl itself against the stable door again and the sounds of wood breaking from within the stable. Grabbing the figure's shoulder, Blarth spins it around, demanding, "What in the Nine Hells are you doing?"

By the light of the lamp Blarth sees black eyes staring back at him; not the black of night adapted eyes where the color has simply shrunk to a thin ring, but a deep black that reflects no light and covers the entire orb. Below them, black fluid flows down the figure's face like tears. Startled, Blarth flinches back involuntarily and drops the lamp. The clay vessel shatters on the ground, spreading oil about and creating in quick flare up which increases the light momentarily, revealing the figure's clothing. They are the simple garments of a stable hand, but their front is now streaked with red and black: blood, and whatever it was that was leaking from the figure's eyes.

Screaming in fear, Blarth swings his club, caving the figure's head in and knocking it to the ground. Running back to the inn, Blarth yells for Horace and Trafan.

"GET UP! GET YOUR STUFF! WE'VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!"

Thankful now that they had elected to stay in the town, Blarth grabs his still packed shoulder roll and swings it over his shoulder. Pounding on Horace and Trafan's doors he calls for them again. Groggily the two men demand to know what the shouting is about. Struggling with his fear, Blarth explains what he saw and the two men elect to investigate. Grabbing a bulls-eye lantern they head out to courtyard while Blarth waits nervously for them to return.

Several minutes later they come back in, shaking their heads.

"There's nothing out there," Trafan says accusingly. "You woke us up for some crazy nigtmare. Go back to sleep Blarth."

Stunned, Blarth watches the pair go back to their rooms and is rewarded with the sound of Horace's snoring resuming a few minutes later.

Staggering back to his room, Blarth puts his shoulder roll back down and sits at the end of the bed, his heart still racing as his mind tries to reconcile what he saw with what Trafan and Horace apparently saw. Blarth didn't sleep the rest of the night.

* * *

"A nightmare, huh?" Blarth asks when the three find the slaughtered remains of their horses the next morning.
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  #23  
Unread 13th of May, 2010, 09:50
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Unrequited love?

Juni looks at Nicos doubtfully. How can they both feel unrequited love? But the more she thinks about it, the more it begins to make a kind of sense. It certainly explains the stiffness between the two, the secret looks, and the moodiness.

"Love!" Juni says finally, shaking her head. "You've made it sound very unpleasant. I always thought love meant pretty words, bouquets of flowers, and butterflies in your stomach. Now I don't know what to think."

Of their own volition, her fingers find the pouch on her hip where Isac's holy symbol is stashed. She can feel the outline of the face of Pelor through the soft leather, and the vision of the beautiful elf woman seems to dance just at the edge of her mind. She is reluctant to hold the medallion now, apprehensive of being swept away by that devastating tide of emotion again. And yet she is drawn to it too. Is it possible that the holy symbol wants her to know its story?

"You know, I think you are right, Nicos," she says, setting thoughts of the medallion and of love aside for now. "I do need to find something to keep me occupied and pass the time. Maybe I could learn to juggle!"

Last edited by Kelemyn; 13th of May, 2010 at 23:48.
  #24  
Unread 14th of July, 2010, 23:48
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“I need you to go back to camp,” Cadrius says. “Do not tell the others. Speak to Gregor. Tell him very quietly what happened. He will want to see this. After that I need you to go find my companions. Go tell the man with one arm and the woman with the swords where I am.”

The guard replies by spilling the contents of his own stomach onto the ground, his whole body heaving as he wretches. Cadrius pats him on the shoulder. The poor guardsman is little more than a boy and while he has likely seen a pig slaughtered before, it is an entirely different sight when it is a man that you know.

“What is your name, fellow?”

The guard spits, his hands on his knees, eyes watering. “Alan.”

“I know it is a terrible sight, Alan,” he says. “It is best not to look. Are you well enough to go?”

Alan nods and wipes the saliva and bile from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Then go,” Cadrius says, “and tell Gregor that we have a problem.”



The first blushing fingertips of dawn that morning had grazed past the horizon to caress the frost. They glittered together as lovers not long for this world—a blaze of fire across frozen grass. The cold brought a chill to the world. No birds sang, no creatures moved, no men stirred from their heavy slumber. Even the coals of the fire slept deep beneath their ashen blankets. Only the sun tried to roust them.

The sentries were the first to shake free of the bitter shackles. Frost clung to their eyes, noses, and mouthes as, sluggish, they returned to the circle of wagons. Here, one shook a comrade awake; there, one nudged another with a foot in the ribs. The sleeping men grumbled and groused but awoke and slowly moved about their morning duties.

Cadrius came awake as well, lying in the hold of a wagon. A thick blanket was pulled tightly about him. He rolled over onto his back, heavy eyelids peering at the wood and canvas. Sarra slept on a bench above him, her legs curled up to her chest beneath her own blanket. Crystals of frost marked the outer ranges of her breath. It had been a cold night.

He frowned as he rubbed his hands together for warmth. An early winter was an ill portent for these lands. This frost alone could have killed any crops that had not been harvested and ruined the autumn gardens if a farmer was not mindful to cover them. An early snow would be worse, shutting down the roads to all but the most diligent travelers. And this wagon train had leagues to go yet.

Easing to his feet, he took his blanket and gently draped it over Sarra’s own. She stirred slightly but did not wake. Her face was a porcelain mask of tranquility, untroubled by those last weeks of confusion and sorrow. It was a sad thing that she could find peace only in dreams. Cadrius envied that she could find it at all.

He brushed through the canvas flap of the wagon and stepped into the chill morning air. Cadrius took a moment to fasten his cloak and pull it about him. Nearby, one man tended to the fire, stirring up coals with a stick while another took a small hatchet to a pile of wood, slicing thin strips. Others went about their business, slowly readying the wagons for departure for after they broke their fast. Even the wagonmaster, Gregor, appeared sapped by the cold night. His voice was still gruff, but the bark was softer than usual. One man approached him, speaking in a low voice and gesturing off away from the camp.

“Then go get him,” Gregor said.

The man spoke again. Cadrius busied himself and pretended not to eavesdrop.

“I don’t care. You go…fine. You! Cadrius! Come here.”

Cadrius did his best to pretend that he had only just noticed the wagonmaster.

“Good morrow, Gregor,” he said, walking over to the two men.

Gregor snorted. “Hah. It is as cold as a witch’s tit and this one says ‘good morrow, Gregor.’ There is nothing good on this morrow.”

“As you say.”

“This one,” Gregor jerked his thumb at the man, “says Brenden didn’t come back from watch yet. The fool probably took jug of mead with him to keep warm and got drunk.”

“I always heard it was ‘warm belly-cold heart,’” Cadrius said. “A nip is fine for the cold, but too much can be dangerous.”

“No,” Gregor scoffed. “Spirits are good for the spirit.”

Cadrius shrugged.

“Brenden is drunk, I know it,” Gregor said. “But go with this one and make sure, will you?”

Cadrius glanced at the other man. He was another guard, and a bit young at that, having just the wisps of a beard on his chin. He had an apprehensive air about him and beneath that was the faint mephitic stench of fear. He was worried about something. Perhaps he had a right to do so.

“Of course,” Cadrius said. No sooner had the words escaped his mouth before Gregor moved on, appearing to build vigor with the rise of the sun, as he began castigating the men tending the fire.

The fallen paladin beckoned the guardsman. “Let me fetch my sword and we will be off.”

Cadrius eased open the flap of the tent, reaching in for the scabbard and saw Sarra looking at him from beneath her pile of blankets. Her dark eyes were as impassive and cold as the morn.

“I am going to check on one of the men,” he said. “Breakfast is not ready yet, but it should be soon. Stay warm.”

Sarra says naught.

“Come along then,” he said to the guardsman. “Let us check on your friend.”



The first sign of trouble was when they saw him sitting up against a tree. He looked, by all rights, as a drunkard would, his legs splayed out before him and head lolled to one side. But as they drew closer, Cadrius saw no puffs of steam roiling into the air. He could not see the man’s chest rise and fall in the deep pattern of a drunkard. No snores rumbled in the chill air. He moved not at all and it gave Cadrius cause to slow his pace.

The guardsman did not notice and hastened his step. In his hurry, he missed the crimson in the dirt. Cadrius came to a halt then, a hand upon the hilt of his sword.

“Stop,” he said.

The other man ignored him and strode forward, hurrying to see if his comrade was hale. But as he drew to the last ten paces, he too slowed and then came to a stop. There was more crimson sprayed across the ground and it was plain as dawning day that the fallen guard was not holding a jug of mead over his belly. He was clutching at his own guts as they strained to spill out. His fingers were stained in their feeble attempt. They had not succeeded. Cadrius could see bits of the man’s innards between his hands and on his lap.

Cadrius drew his bastard sword from its sheath, the blade hitching a bit from the cold. He joined the guardsman as he stared in horror at his friend.

“Then go,” Cadrius said, “and tell Gregor that we have a problem.”



Branden Marbech stood watch, his thick brown cloak pulled tightly around him. The shadows hid its mottled nature, dirty from the road and the occasional patching he had to do while traveling or when at home with his wife, Lynn. It was not a bad cloak, it kept the worst of cold’s bite from his bones, but on a night such as that he wished he had a proper winter cloak. He guessed at how much he would have left after he was paid his due and if, maybe, there could be enough for a thick cloak.

A shroud of freezing mist wreathed about the wide-spread ring of sentries. The roads were dangerous, but there were none that would brave this early frigid eve to rob. It was a night better spent huddled by a fire, even if your belly was empty. But there he was, far from the main fire, with his patchwork garb. He cursed the unusually cold autumn night. Perhaps a new cloak could be bought.

But no, Lynn was with child, going on five months now, and he must save for the baby. He hoped for a son to carry on his name. Perhaps he would rise above his low breeding and make something more of himself, something beyond a caravan guard. This son of his could be a man of an honest profession—like a smith. Or maybe fortune would smile upon him and he would become a squire. Perhaps even one day he could become a knight.

The fantasies warmed his belly like a slug of grog. His eyes glazed over and he felt not the frost on his fingers, and not the chill in his toes.

But most of all, he heard not the sound of its approach.
  #25  
Unread 18th of July, 2010, 03:17
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Blarth always found it harder to get up on cold mornings. The process of abandoning the accumulated warmth of one's blankets was never an appealing one and they way the night seemed to hang around just a little bit longer each morning was almost enough to convince him that orcs really should have been a hibernating species.

His bladder almost always had other things to say on the matter, however, and it was get up or else.

Finding a rock to turn into a salt lick, Blarth was going through his usual morning grumbling routine when the commotion started to spread through the camp. Whispers, innuendo, furtive looks, and gasps of horror chased the rumor around the breakfast fires. One of the night guards had been tortured hideously! Drawn and quartered some said. Disemboweled or beheaded according to others. One drover even claimed that the guard had been eaten from the inside out. All agreed that the man was drunk when it happened, and thus probably hadn't felt anything (as if that made a difference, the man was still dead), but beyond that the story twisted and morphed with each retelling. Before long Blarth began to recognize the details of the story he had brought back to the caravan intertwining with the new one. The man's blood had turned to ichor. His eyes were orbs of obsidian. He'd attacked the man who'd found him.

Wandering through the campsite, Blarth went looking for Cadrius. He seemed to be on the best terms with Gregor out of their little group and would probably know what was going on, or at the very least could ask.
__________________
Physics is like sex. Sometimes it yields practical results, but that's not why we do it.
-Richard Feynman
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