Skin of Glass

Death on the West Cut

Umar Konson had served under Timmin for more than a decade, and he trusted the man completely. Still, the recent business with the half-orc Kesk did not sit well with Umar. Timmin may have accepted the half-orc's money and was willing to let Kesk do as he pleased, but Umar was not so certain. He suspected that the very large payment, much larger than was really required, had affected his leader's judgement.

For the moment, however, Kesk was a client, and in charge, and Umar, until he saw reason to do otherwise, would follow his orders.

At the moment those orders were a fairly simple ambush.

"You will take one section of orcs down the Trade Way," Kesk said, putting one of his thick fingers on the map spread out in front of him. "Move five or ten miles and then move off the road and hide."

"I understand," Umar said.

"Wait until they pass. Three females, all on horseback; an elf, a human and a halfling. Follow after them, but do not let them see you. When you approach the ambush site, increase your speed and charge them. If they run, they will come right into my trap. If they turn to face you, I'll lead the remaining three sections to crash into them from behind."

"It is a sound plan," Umar said. "We will have no trouble carrying out such orders." He wanted to remind Kesk that he was just a client.

Kesk nodded. "Do not close with them if you can avoid it, not until we have killed their horses and ensured they can't run."

"Very well, it will be as you say." Umar paused; he wished to know more about the three women that Kesk wanted dead. "Are they dangerous, or is there another reason you do not want me to immediately close?"

"I simply want to ensure that Timmin's soldiers are not put in too much danger."

"That is very responsible of you, but Timmin would not want you to fail in your mission for fear of making the best use of his men." Umar put a slight emphasis on 'his'.

The lopsided grin might have turned into a scowl, or it may have only been Umar's imagination. Kesk stood. "Take Sergeant Olgar's men with you and leave now."

"I'll also take Viina with me," Umar said, naming the human lieutenant that had come with them.

"Why?" Kesk asked.

"Her illusion magic will come in useful for hiding us, and can make Olgar's section look that much larger."

After a second Kesk nodded. "Very well. Now move quickly."

Umar nodded, and then turned and called for Olgar.

"Thanks for getting me out of there," Viina said. She rode next to Umar, their legs almost touching.

"I did not think you'd want to spend any great length of time with the orcs, especially since that Kesk has been with them."

She nodded.

Umar looked back over his shoulder at Olgar and his ten orcs that rode behind them. Olgar was at the point, the rest of his section riding in pairs; their crossbows ready, covering an arc on either side of the road. Not that there was likely to be any threat, but it never hurt to be cautious.

"I do not trust that Kesk," Umar said, lowering his voice slightly.

"He's not the first client we've worked for who we did not trust," Viina countered.

"There is something he is not telling us. Something important."

"What do you want to do?"

"I want to see just who it is that Kesk wants us to kill."

"That sounds like a good idea. How?"

"Do you have your grays with you?"


"The old West Cut," Umar said.

For a moment Viina said nothing, then she nodded. "I understand."

"We'll move Olgar and his section as Kesk wanted, and then continue on ourselves."


Olgar did not question that Umar and Viina continued on. It was not the first time that the commanders had gone on to scout out the situation. The two humans kicked their horses into a run when they were out of sight of the orcs, speeding down the road.

They slowed as they passed a caravan, making certain that the targets they sought were not amongst the merchants.

They reached the place where the West Cut diverged from the Trade Way. Viina pulled a set of grays from her bag. They looked like baggy garments of sackcloth, with large holes for the head and arms. With a whispered command from Viina the grays altered, becoming the uniform worn by the Flaming Fist Mercenary Company.

Viina created an illusion of a small camp, with a few men, also dressed in the colours of the Flaming First. They went about the tasks of running a camp, appearing to be relaxed. She also called up an illusion to hide the recent passage of the caravan.

Umar and Viina then waited, Viina often scanning the road with a field glass. She spotted the three riders when they where some distance off. As they got closer she was able to positively identify them as three females, one was certainly a halfling. She and Umar positioned themselves on the road and waited.

Umar could tell when the riders became aware of him. They slowed their horses, moving the animals closer together so they might talk. When they approached they did so at a cautious pace.

He took note of the red headed one first. She was one of the most beautiful women he could recall seeing in a long time, and he felt his chest tighten at the though of her death, especially at the hands of the likes of Kesk.

The elven woman was also beautiful, but he had always found elves to be a little alien, the unearthly beauty a little disturbing.

The halfling was pretty enough, though he was more focused on that she rode a horse, perched upon the large animal sidesaddle.

When they closed he called out, "Well met travellers. I am Captain Imdian of Baldur's Gate and I must request that you hold."

The three riders brought their horses to a halt not too far from where Umar and Viina sat upon their own mounts. The red headed beauty urged her magnificent white stallion a little closer. "Well met Captain Imdian. I am Rowan Jassan. Tell us of what trouble has required you to stop us?" she asked, politely, with a voice that was clear.

"There is trouble on the road ahead. We must ask that you take the West Cut. It will lead you around the difficulty, though it will take a little more time."

"What is the problem?" the elven woman asked as she tugged on her horse's mane. "If necessary we can lend you our swords."

"The problem does not require swords, but shovels. I thank you for your offer, Lady..."

"Misara Dawntide Captain. Are you certain there is nothing we might offer in the way of aid?"

"Misara Dawntide, the Paladin?" he asked, feeling as if the hairs on the back of his neck had stood up.

She nodded. "You have heard of me?"

"I have heard stories Lady Dawntide. My father came from Chessenta, and he told me about you."

"I am certain that the stories have been exaggerated," she said.

"Such modesty becomes you Lady Dawntide," he said, thinking her suddenly much more attractive than he had before, in spite of the strange elven beauty.

She smiled. "You are kind Captain. But tell me, why is it that we are bypassing on the Trade Way?"

"Sink holes Lady Misara. They are being repaired by work crews, but it is safer for all if traffic passes it by on the West Cut."

The elf looked about, her gaze seeming to take in the trail, the illusionary camp, even Viina, with more attention than seemed warranted.

"The West Cut looks as if it has not been used in some time," Rowan said, looking down the path. "Is the way still safe and passable?"

Umar shifted his attention back to Rowan. "Scouts were sent down it two days ago. They reported poor conditions, but a passable path."

"Well, we had best get moving then."

Misara returned her attention to the immediate vicinity and looked over at Rowan. "Yes. We'll have to make up the time as we can."

"Thank you Captain," Rowan said. "The blessings of Sune upon you." She smiled, then turned her stallion towards the divergent path.

Misara and the halfling simply offered him a polite nod, and then followed after Rowan.

Umar watched as the three of them started down the neglected path, soon disappearing around a bend and obscured by the trees.

"I think the red haired one was a Paladin as well," Viina offered.

"Perhaps," Umar said, lost deep in his own thoughts.

"Do you really know of the elf?" she asked.

"Yes. She," he paused, "she did something very important for my father, when he was still a boy."


"I would rather not talk about it."

Viina looked in the direction that the three females had ridden. "That was not easy then?"

Umar shook his head. "No it wasn't." He sighed loudly. "Let's get back to Olgar." He turned his horse and started back the way they had come.

Viina dispelled the illusions and then followed after him.

They had been riding on the path for a little longer than an hour when Olpara said, "This is actually a very good trail."

"What?" Rowan asked her.

"The trail. It is very good. Look at those low stone walls. They keep the trail from shifting if there is too much rain."

"I suppose. I wonder why they went to so much trouble to maintain and build it and then just abandoned it?"

"Because there is something wrong with it further up?"

"Then why did the Captain send us down it?" Rowan asked.

Misara had been listening to what Olpara and Rowan said and began to take a keener interest in the path they travelled.

"Because he wanted us to run afoul of whatever has made this road impassable," Olpara said, a hint of petulance in her voice, as if what was happening was somehow an affront against her.

"That is a disturbing thought," Rowan said, and then to Misara, "Perhaps we should think about turning back."

"We might," she said as she stopped Iron. "But me might be walking back into an ambush."

"And we most likely are walking into some kind of ambush or trap by continuing on this way." Olpara looked more upset, but Misara was not certain if the halfling's anger was directed at her or the situation.

"I know. It is something of a disturbing state of affairs," Misara said. "If we go back and there is an ambush set for us, then the ambushers will know that we have seen through their trap and will be that much harder to deal with."

"And if we go forward," Rowan said, "then they may believe that we are still unaware of the danger, which may make whatever lies ahead that much easier to deal with. We disarm the trap from within, as it were."

"People who try to disarm traps from within usually end up with a poison needle in their hand," Olpara said sourly.

"We could go off road, circle wide around possible threats and then move back onto the Trade Way at a point farther along," Misara offered.

"That will cost us time," Rowan countered. "I do not think we can spare it."

"We might argue this around and around, but we will probably come back to the same decisions no matter how we come at it," Misara told them. "We either ride into a trap or not. If we ride into it, then we should go forward, which probably offers us a better chance at success. If not, then lets us leave the trail and head east for a day, or maybe two. Then we can turn north again."

"Who knows what we might run into in the wilds off the trail?" Rowan shook her head. "It might be worse than whatever might await us, and we really don't know if there is a trap or not. I say we go forward, cautiously."

"Forewarned is forearmed," Misara said. "It probably is the best out of a number of poor choices."

"Fine." Olpara did not sound happy. "Let's just be careful about it."

Misara prodded Iron into a walk, as she did so she made certain her sword's hilt was in easy reach and that the sword was loose in its scabbard. Olpara fell in close behind her and when Misara looked over her shoulder she saw the halfling going through the pouches of spell components she wore on her belt. Rowan brought up the rear, her hand also near the hilt of her sword.

It was a chance they were taking, not one that Misara was particularly happy with. Still, it did appear to be the best choice from a set of bad options.

Several times as they rode they passed close to areas that Misara thought were perfect ambush spots. And yet each time they cleared the area without any threat showing itself. Instead of relief each safe passage only brought more and more anxiety.

When she came over a small raise and saw the wagons Misara was certain that the time had come. The moment of anticipation was ended when she saw no people about, and could see that the wagons ahead appeared to be wrecks and abandoned. Then, as what wrecked and abandoned wagons might mean occurred to her, she found herself slipping into battle wariness.

"It is a perfect way point on this road," Olpara said softly from where she had stopped behind Misara.

"It's a perfect place for a monster to lay in wait," Rowan said as she drew her sword.

"It must not need to eat very often," Misara said. "Or ranges wide in its hunting."

"We could run through," Olpara said. "Be clear before whatever it is knows we are here." The halfling's horse was fussing slightly and she had to tug at its reigns to control it.

"And charge at speed directly into the teeth of something," Rowan cautioned.

"I don't like leaving dangerous things behind," Misara said as she drew her own sword forth. "I don't like being responsible for the evil done by something I ignored or fled from." She directed Iron into a slow walk. She did not know what she might have to deal with, but she had been in such situations before; not that that made her feel any better.

"What do you think it is?" Rowan asked. She had ridden up beside Misara and was in the process of sliding her left arm into the bindings of her shield.

"No idea."

Rowan chanted a soft prayer under her breath as their horses splashed through the small stream at the base of the hill. "There is something evil ahead," she said as the horses stepped upon the far bank of the river. "To the right side of the path."

Misara nodded. "Let me go ahead," she said, and then set Iron charging up the hill, his hooves pounding on the ground and kicking up chunks of dirt.

She caught site of movement on the right side of the path and let herself slide from Iron's back, landing to the left side of the path and then rolling into a crouch. Something large and man shaped lunged at Iron, but the fast moving horse easily outdistanced it attacker.

Misara sprung towards it, swinging her sword around in a wide arc and slashing across the thing's armoured chest. The banded armour was rent by the blow, and the sword sliced into the flesh below, but nothing in its actions suggested that it felt the blow.

In each hand the creature held a wicked, spiked flail. It attacked, the weapons lashing out, forcing Misara to fall back, her sword deflecting the blows. It kicked out with its bare foot, trying to trip her. Misara managed to shift to the side in time to avoid falling, but it still hit her. It felt as if someone had slammed a club across her shin.

Rowan came charging up, a throwing axe held ready. She hurled it as she and Rose Thorn passed, the force of her arm and the speed of Rose Thorn combining to drive the missile deep into the monster's side.

Taking advantage of Rowan's attack, Misara moved forward, swinging her blade in a circle about her. It was a slow attack, but there was a great deal of force behind her sword when it hit. Again the blade cut the armour and the hard flesh beneath, but the sluggish, thick blood told her that the creature was not alive, and that it would take a great deal more to hurt it.

Rowan had hauled Rose Thorn around and then leapt off the horse, drawing her sword as she did so. She charged the creature, raising her shield to fend off one of the flails, and the savagely cut across a rent in the armour that Misara's sword had earlier opened.

Flanking it, the two women managed to keep it off balance, covering it with many small wounds. Unfortunately it did not seem to feel those wounds.

"What is it?" Rowan asked as she slammed it with her shield and then parried a flail with the flat of her blade.

"Undead." Misara kicked it in the knee; it felt as if she were kicking stone. "Powerful undead."

"You attack," Rowan called out as she caught a flail blow across her shield and then sliced it across the face, cutting the threads that had been used to sew its left eye shut.

Misara launched into a purely offensive style, leaving herself open as she savagely attacked the undead creature. She had to trust to Rowan's shield and sword to protect her. She waited until she had pushed the monster hard, to the point where it was ignoring Rowan as it desperately tried to attack her. She then shifted her sword into a defensive pattern. "Now," she said.

Rowan went in hard, using her sword and shield to attack the undead. Misara kept the flails off of Rowan, allowing her to completely focus on hurting the thing.

It often took months to learn how to fight together, especially for one fighter to defend while the other attacked. When it worked it could be a very effective, but it was difficult to master. Fighters would either make mistakes and leave openings, or their patterns were predictable.

Fortunately their opponent did not seem particularly attentive.

For almost a minute the two Paladins drove the undead creature back, apparently taking it apart piece by piece.

Then it suddenly roared, dropping any pretence at defending itself for a moment. Misara felt as if she had suddenly fallen into frigid water, and her limbs stiffened. From the corner of her eye she could see that Rowan was also affected by whatever was happening.

Worse, the wounds covering the monster began to heal, some even completely closing up. Negative energy, Misara realised. Dangerous, even deadly to the living, but for the animate dead, it provided healing. Surely this was a powerful creature indeed.

Fortunately, she, as well as Rowan, were protected by the divine favour of their gods, and the harm they took from the negative energy was less than others might. Unfortunately the undead beast took advantage of the fact that its foes were off balance for the moment. One of its flails crashed down on Rowan's shield, driving her back a few steps. Its other flail caught Misara hard in the left side, and she was certain that a rib broke.

Misara and Rowan fell back together, both prepared to defend herself and the other as they regrouped. Misara wondered for a moment about Olpara, but the sudden flashes of magical energy that splashed against the creature's chest told her that the halfling still lived.

The magical attack seemed to disorientate the creature, slowing it for the few seconds Rowan and Misara needed. Misara leapt forward and stabbed her blade into the creature's waist. She drove it forward, putting her weight behind the attack, pushing it forward, deep into the monster.

A shadow fell over her, and she heard the sound of metal on metal. Rowan must have moved in to protect her from the flail blows. Trusting her companion, she focused solely driving her sword into and through the undead monster.

She felt the tip of her blade pierce the rear part of the armour. She was close to the creature, almost up against it. She could smell the faint odour of the grave on it, could see the white, waxy skin on its hands that gripped the flails. It was trying to use the flexible weapons to bypass Rowan's shield and sword to hit her.

Misara reached up and grasped its upper left arm with her left hand, pushing it up. Holding the sword's hilt tight in her right hand, she began to pull its arm to her left. Pitting her strength against its, Misara pulled it against her sword, the blade slicing slowly through it.

She could hear the rapid clash of flail against shield and sword as the monster desperately tried to beat through Rowan's defence to harm her. She ignored it, continuing to pull at the monster, yanking it about, her sword parting skin and armour. Her blade came to a stop against something. Its spine, Misara realised.

There was another burst of negative energy. Misara felt her knees go weak as again she felt the sensation of being dunked in freezing water. She gritted her teeth together and pulled for all she was worth. Above her she heard the sound of a flail hitting a shield, and then something slammed hard into her left side, and she felt more ribs go, and something pierced her side.

She put the pain from her mind and pulled. The monster's spine, trapped between her magically enhanced strength and the keen edge of her sword, finally gave way. Such a wound would have been fatal for a living creature, but undead were not so vulnerable. Still, severing its spine and cutting through many of its abdominal and lower back muscles cost is a great deal of structural integrity.

Releasing its arm, she ducked behind it, grasped the hilt of her sword in both hands, and then pulled it free, slicing the blade through tissue and armour. Then she leapt back and gave it a kick. The pain in her side intensified with the actions, and she did not think she might manage such an action again.

The top part of its body flopped over to the side, held to its legs by a band of flesh and muscle. A hideous wound, and yet it still attempted to fight, swinging its flails about, and looking as if it was trying to flip the top part of its body back up onto the lower part.

Worried that it might release more bursts of negative energy, harming her and Rowan while healing itself, she leapt forward again, taking a glancing blow from a fail, and cut at the flesh that held torso to legs. At the same time Rowan moved in, using her shield to block the flails, and began to chop at its neck.

The two of them brutally hacked at the creature until head separated from neck, and then torso from legs. And sickeningly, all three pieces of the creature continued to twitch.

"It just won't die," Misara said, stomping her foot down on its left elbow and then plunging the tip of her sword into the shoulder joint. As neatly as a goodwife dismembering a chicken, she gave the blade a twist and popped the joint out of the shoulder.

Rowan whistled, and a few seconds later Rose Thorn ran up to her. She put her sword and shield aside and removed an axe from where it hung on the saddle. Turning, she lifted the axe above her head. A moment later she brought it down on the monsters right knee.

For a minute the two worked quietly and efficiently at the grim work of further dismembering their fallen foe. It might not have been necessary, but they were not taking any chances.

Finally Misara took a few steps back from the remains and then dropped to her knees. She put her sword down, noting as she did so the thick, gummy, black blood on the blade. She'd have to clean, later. For the moment she just wanted to catch her breath. Every deep breath she took made the broken ribs stab into her.

Rowan also let her axe fall, stepping back a few steps, and then sitting on a rock by the side of the road. Rose Thorn came up and gently nuzzled his mistress. Misara looked at her companion, not seeing any serious wounds.

Misara herself was a little worse for wear. There were the direct hits from the flails the monster had wielded so efficiently, as well as a number of glancing blows. Underneath her armour she had no doubt her flesh was beginning to darken.

She shivered slightly though the spring day was warm and her earlier exertions had made her perspire. It was shock from the many wounds. She had seen warriors die from such after the battles had ended. She closed her eyes and reached for the healing power of her calling.

The worst of the pain faded, and the itching at her side told her that the broken skin was closing up. She said a quiet prayer, a request for further healing, and the aches and pains of the battle faded even more.

She got to her feet, grabbing her sword from the ground as she stood. "How are you feeling?" she asked Rowan.

Rowan looked up at her. "Better. I'll be fine."

Misara nodded and looked around. Olpara had ridden her horse close enough so that she might see. When she saw Misara looking at her she said, "It's still twitching."

Misara nodded. "Nothing coordinated. It's dead, or, well, destroyed."

"We should burn it," Rowan said as she got to her feet. "Make sure nothing is left."

"Agreed," Misara told her. "We can use the wagons for wood. Maybe there is something flammable to help the blaze along."

They went to work. Misara tore one of the wagons apart and used the wood to build a pyre. Rowan found some bales of old, mouldy hay, and Olpara a cask of lamp oil. The halfling also found something else and she called Rowan and Misara over to look.

A tall box, one end of it smashed, lay half out of a large wagon. Misara looked at Olpara's find, not certain what concerned her. Rowan said, "What is it?"

"Look at the end."

"It is not the only thing broken here," Misara said.

"It was smashed open from the inside," Olpara said, a hint of what sounded like exasperation in her voice. "And look at the gouges inside the box."

Rowan moved in close. "It does look like it was smashed open from the inside." She looked at Misara. "That thing could have been inside this."

"There's something at the bottom of the box," Olpara said.

Misara moved closer, looking at the damage done to the box, and what looked like a black stone that was at the bottom of the box. She broke more of the box, opening it up so the mid afternoon sunlight might illuminate the interior. The stone was glossy black and wrapped in a dull, silver wire. "And ideas?" she asked.

"Never seen anything like it," Olpara said.

"It could be a control talisman," Rowan suggested.

"For that creature?" Misara asked.

"Someone was transporting it," Olpara said, as if she was not certain whether she could believe it. "Why?"

"An excellent question." Rowan reached into the box as if she were going to grab the stone, but her fingers stopped just short of the glossy surface. "Perhaps a mystery for another time?"

Misara nodded. "Leave it. We'll pass the information on to someone in either Waterdeep or Baldur's Gate. They can send someone to investigate." She paused as she gave the situation some thought. "Olpara, I would appreciate it if you continued to look around, see what you might find."

Olpara nodded. "I'll do that."

"Back to work," Rowan said.

"Let's set flame to the pyre. And maybe," she looked at a skeleton lying close by, "we'll see about burying the remains of the victims."

Later, when the pyre was burning hot, turning flesh to ash, burning bone, and blackening armour, Misara found a shovel and began to dig a grave. Rowan, sometimes with help from Olpara, gathered up the bones of the dead, putting them on a tarp she had found. Rowan would drag them to the graveside, and then go looking for more.

Finally they pushed the bones into the large, shallow grave. Misara and Rowan both said prayers over them, and then they shovelled the dirt over the bones.

It was late afternoon by the time they finished. Rowan took up a piece of board from one of the wagons and used her dagger to carve a rough representation of a skeletal arm holding a pair of scales. She then drove the board into the freshly turned earth, a marker for the grave.

"Hopefully the families might take some comfort in this," Rowan told Misara.

"At least they have been laid to rest."

There was not very much else for them to do. Olpara did not find any clues as to who might have been transporting such a powerful undead, but she did find no small amount of treasure.

The three of them took a share of it, and then buried the rest in a hidden spot. Again, it was something that the authorities might deal with later.

The sun was an hour, maybe two, from setting, and all that remained of the pyre were brightly glowing embers amidst the blackened armour and bones. They left it behind, moving down the road at a fast walk, not looking back.

Kesk had been angry when he had read the note, again delivered and coughed up by one of the odd messengers. He had sent a pair of scouts racing down the road to check with Umar, to be certain that nothing had happened to him and his squad.

When Umar and the others arrived he asked them if they had seen any sign of the females. Umar had said 'they did not pass by the ambush spot', and Olgar confirmed that. Kesk did not know what had occurred to send Misara off on a different path, but he was not going to allow her to get too far ahead of him.

"Let's pack up. We'll chase them down," he ordered.

"No," Umar said.

The orcs that had leapt into action at Kesk's order now stopped, looking uncertainly between the two.

"What do you mean?" Kesk demanded.

"I have since learned more of your targets. There were things that you did not tell Timmin that."

"Timmin did not care to ask!"

"He should have. He might not have taken the job had you told him you wished to kill a Paladin." Umar turned to meet the gaze of several of the orcs. "We kill a Paladin, and someone will find out." He returned his gaze to Kesk. "Priests will ask their gods, and the truth will out. Then we'll either have to deal with Flaming First from Baldur's Gate or a company of Paladins, set on revenge, from Waterdeep."

Kesk looked about, noting that a number of the orcs looked nervous at the mention of the Flaming Fist, and perhaps even more so at the idea of a company of Paladins. He supposed he could not blame them, but that did not benefit him.

For a moment he thought of ordering that the orcs kill Umar. Unfortunately he could tell that not all would follow that particular command. He was certain he would win the battle in the end, but his force would be greatly depleted. As much as he would like to kill the Paladin loving fool, Kesk would not move against Umar that day.

"Tell your precious Timmin that he may keep all the money I paid him, I have had it with him and his humans." He turned his back on Umar and faced the majority of the orcs. "I leave, now, to chase after an elf, one who serves the god who is an enemy to He Who Watches. Follow me, those of you who would call yourselves orcs."

The four sergeants, his first converts, moved to his side immediately. Others came quickly as well. A few moved to put themselves obviously by Umar's side, but many more came to Kesk's call.

When it was done Kesk had thirty-three orcs who would ride with him after Misara. He would have preferred more.

He looked at the orcs who remained by Umar. A few of them he would have liked to come to him, but there was nothing to be done about it. "Our paths part now," he told Umar. "Pray they do not converge again."

Umar nodded, acknowledging Kesk's threat without seeming intimidated by it. "As you wish, but I must ask that you return your cloaks and anything else bearing the symbol of our company. I would not have you damaging the reputation of the Tusk Warriors."

Several of the orcs that had come to Kesk looked about nervously, as if the request crystallized their choice, and they were rethinking it. Others began to remove the cloaks they all wore, enchanted cloaks that offered the orcs protection from the sun. Kesk did not like what was happening.

Then Colgam laughed. "We'll not be giving up such things," he said derisively. "We'll take 'em as mustering out benefits, and there's not a damn thing you can do 'bout it." He laughed again. "And don't worry. These cloaks," he gave the garment a pull to emphasize his words, "will be covered in blood soon enough. No one'll be seeing your precious crest."

Galvanized by his words, the orcs pulled their cloaks tighter about them, and those who had looked uncertain lost their hesitant looks.

"I think you have your answer," Kesk said, smiling slightly.

"As you wish," Umar said.

Something about the man's look, a superior smirk, made Kesk certain that he was missing something. As much as he wanted to grab the man and pound the information from him, he did nothing. He walked up to his horse and grabbed its reigns. "Mount up. We ride now!"

Soon his force was mounted upon their horses, ready to follow him. He raised his head and screamed, then cried out in orcish, "Bless us Gruumsh for we go to bring death to your enemies!" He kicked his heels into the horse's sides and the beast leapt forward.

Behind him came the pounding of hooves as his followers came after him.

"When will you destroy the cloaks and other things?" Viina asked.

Umar and Viina rode at the head of the small group they were leading back to the their main camp. He looked about, to be certain that none of the orcs were close enough to hear, and said, "Tomorrow, a little before noon, if the sun is shining bright."

She nodded, smiling. "That will teach that whore son and those that followed him."

"It will."

"Do you think that he will succeed?"

"I don't know. I am amazed that the Paladin survived whatever was in the West Cut."

"You know, we might be able to benefit from this. If we send word that the West Cut is now clear..."

"As long as we do not take direct credit for it." He nodded. "You're right. We'll send a scouting group to take a look."

"Now that you know she's not dead, care to tell me about this connection you have?"

"It's not that interesting of a story really. She took a group of slaves as reward for some service or another. My father was among them. She then set them free in the Dale Lands and Sembia and provided them all with enough money to start a new life."

"It sounds as if it is an interesting story."

"My father thought it was. Every feast day he would tell us the story, just so we would not forget that we owed a great debt." He shrugged his shoulders. "It was his debt, not mine."

"What do you think Timmin will do about this?"

Umar suspected that Viina was changing the subject, and he was glad enough for it. "Get angry. Then wonder why we didn't do more to stop it. Then he will consider how to best make up for the losses."

"Almost half the company. We've never had losses that high."

Umar shrugged his shoulders. "Timmin will deal with it. He always does."

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