The Gathering of Enemies
Kesk had set off with his new warriors in high spirits. His orcs had shared his view, feeling that they were reclaiming their birthright. That had not lasted long.
One day after he had taken the orcs away from Umar things had changed. It had been a little before the sun was at its highest when the cloaks, marked with the symbol of the Tusk Warriors, began to unravel. Within minutes the cloaks had gone, nothing but threads remaining, leaving the orcs with no protection from the sun.
The Tusk Warriors had never bothered to get used to the light of the sun. The cloaks had given them all the protection they needed. With the cloaks gone they blinked against the bright light of the noonday sun and were not pleased.
And, already upset with that, some noticed that swords and armour were rusting away. Again, those were items marked with the symbol of the Tusk Warriors. Kesk had heard angry muttering as his orcs suddenly began to rethink their decisions.
Sheepa and Agars yelled at them, Sheepa had hit one of them, knocking him from his mount. Kesk cursed softly before giving the order that they would find some shelter to wait the day out in.
That announcement had helped the situation somewhat, but the time lost angered him. And it was not just that day as it took two days for the orcs to adjust to the new pattern of movement and rest that they had to operate under.
They had raided a small caravan on the second day and that improved spirits. Lost equipment was replaced and each orc left with a small bit of loot to keep him happy.
Two days after the raid Kesk felt that they had made up lost time and were perhaps only a day behind Misara and those she travelled with. His band had taken refuge in a rocky gully near the road, resting and waiting out of the worst of the light. As soon as they were ready he would set them on the road again.
Kesk had been sleeping, his back up against a rock, when he was awoken by the sound of a nearby footfall. He opened his one eye up slightly to see who was near. It was Olgar. For a moment he thought that the big orc might be thinking of killing him for leadership of the band, but he decided that was not the case. Olgar had something to tell him.
"What is it?" Kesk asked.
Olgar started a little, obviously not thinking Kesk awake. "One of the sentries has spotted a caravan," he spoke quickly. "Lightly guarded. Should we raid it?"
Kesk considered it. Another raid would be good for morale, but it would also cost him time and would disturb his orcs' rest. "What did the sentry say? Exactly what did he say?"
Olgar's brow furrowed. After a few seconds he said, "Twelve loaded wagons, pulled by oxen, maybe twenty mules with packs. A few guards on horseback."
Twelve loaded wagons was certainly a prize: Or a trap. If it were a prize he would lose precious time as the loot was argued over and split up. If it was a trap he could lose his band. He shook his head. "Let it go. We'll find better after we've poured out the elf's blood."
Greed was a strong motivator, but so was blood lust. Every day Kesk engendered a stronger hatred for elves in his band. He had built up the idea of killing Misara to a point where his orcs wanted it almost as bad as he did.
Olgar nodded and smiled before leaving, off to tell the sentry to get back to watch. Kesk reached out and placed his hand on the head of his spear, the metal cool beneath his fingers. They wanted her almost as bad as he did, never as much as he did. Never that.
Liman had never had much respect for orcs, and nothing he had seen had changed that. He had started following the band that was attempting to catch up to the elf. He was fairly certain that they meant to bring harm to her, if they were to get the chance.
He did not think they would.
They appeared to be a group of idiots, allowing their quarry to ride by them. Hoping that the orcs might do his job for him was fruitless. He was going to have to get his hands, and claws, dirty. It was time for him to act.
He moved close, in human form, to where the group the Paladin was escorting had stopped to rest. Slow bunch, very old and very young people, overloaded animals and carts, none of it meant for quick travel.
He crawled further along, downwind of the horses, and then shifted to tiger form. With the greater stealth offered by four legs he moved up on his target. A man, neither old nor young, who had moved some distance from the group in order to relieve himself in private.
Liman waited until the man had pulled his breeches up and had turned back towards the wagons before pouncing. He lashed out with a paw. Even without his claws the strength of the blow alone was enough to snap the man's neck and the body fell to the ground.
Using his teeth to grasp the body's shoulder, careful not to break the skin, he dragged the dead man away.
Now it was time to see what the Paladin and her companions did.
"We're moving too slow," Rowan said.
Misara nodded and glanced towards the sky. "I had hoped to reach Crooked Tree before night fell."
Rowan sighed loudly. "Bad enough that we had to retrace our trail, but that we have to retrace them so slowly is torture."
Misara could not disagree, but she chose to say nothing. There was nothing she could do to goad the villagers into moving faster. Nothing that was in any way diplomatic.
"Ladies," a voice called from behind them," please, I must speak with you."
Misara directed Iron off the trail and then halted him. She could see that Rowan was doing the same with Rose Thorn. An older girl ran up to stand by Rose Thorn's stirrup, looking up at Rowan. "My father, Warren, has gone missing." She looked from Rowan to Misara. "He left us at the last stop, said he would be back shortly, but he did not come back." The words came tumbling from her mouth, almost too fast to understand. "Please, you must find him."
Rowan muttered a rather colourful curse, too soft for the girl to hear, but Misara heard it, and agreed with the sentiment behind it. These people were causing no end of trouble.
"Should I go and look for him or will you?" Misara asked. She kept her tone calm in hopes of assuaging the girl's fears and panic. Two of the ox carts had rolled by them as they talked at the side of the trail, the drivers watching with curiosity as they passed.
"Olpara and I will go. She might have a spell that will help to track him."
Rowan smiled, and then turned Rose Thorn about to head back the way they had just come. "Olpara," she called out, "we have some work to do."
The halfling, who had been riding ahead, turned her horse and rode off after Rowan.
Misara looked down at the girl. "What's your name?"
"Blue, my Lady."
"Don't worry Blue. Rowan will find your father."
Misara's reassuring words apparently made the girl feel better for she smiled. Misara wondered if Rowan would bring her father back safe. That was not something she was about to promise the girl.
Rowan could still see the wagons when she returned to the spot of the last rest stop. The wagons would crest a rise in the land and then disappear behind it in a few minutes. She hoped to find Warren before then. She hoped that she would find the man napping, drunk, constipated or any other harmless thing that would explain him not following after the wagons.
"Let's work out in a spiral," she told Olpara. "See if we can find any sign of what might have happened, if anything. Unless you have a spell?"
Olpara shook her head. "If he was carrying something unique, I know a spell that could track it, but not him."
"Let's go then," Rowan said, starting on the outward spiral.
Both Rowan and Olpara found signs of the rest break they had taken. There was churned up ground, bits of detritus and other leavings. Some distance from the trail Olpara spotted a trail in the grass.
Rowan looked along the trail back towards the road. "Something was dragged along here."
"No blood," Olpara said.
"Maybe he found something of value," Olpara suggested. "I hear things are always turning up in the Fields. He may have dragged it off to hide it. A man who has just lost everything may not feel like sharing such good fortune."
Rowan nodded. Such greed was not rare. "Let's follow." She gently squeezed Rose Thorn with her heels and set him in motion.
They followed the path easily, their horses moving forward at a quick walk. In a short time the trail ended. Rowan and Olpara scanned the ground, walking their horses around the immediate area. It was Olpara who found a footprint in a bit of soft dirt not far from where the trail ended.
"So, he took off his boots and then picked up and carried his find away from this point?"
Rowan shook her head. "It does not sound too likely." She drew her sword. "Let's see if we can follow this trail."
It was not as clear a trail as before, but it went straight, and they were able to find signs, a footprint, an area of crushed grass, broken twigs and the like. Rowan thought someone truly skilled at tracking would have been able to find such things much faster.
It led them, after a time, to a shallow bowl, in which grew a thick tangle of brambles and bushes. "I think that we might find what we are looking for in there," Rowan said. She looked at Olpara and smiled.
"Why do I think that you want me to crawl into that?"
"Because you're very perceptive."
Olpara mumbled something, most of which Rowan could not hear, but she thought there might have been something about 'stupid big people'. Then the halfling swung off her horse, climbing down the stirrup.
Rowan dismounted as well, and walked towards the growth ahead of Olpara. She looked down at trail; it looked as if something was being dragged again. She swung out with her sword, cutting through the branches, opening up a hole. "Warren," she called out loudly, cutting deeper. "Warren, answer me."
No one called out to her. Some birds rose up out of the brambles and flew off. Rowan cut a little deeper into the tangle before moving back out, getting her cloak and her tabard caught on the thorns as she did so. "I don't think there is anything in there," she told Olpara.
"Or if there it is smart enough to stay hidden." She was pulling on a pair of leather, work gloves. "I'll see what I can find." She moved around Rowan and into the hole that she had hacked open. After looking about Olpara got on to her hands and knees and crawled deeper into the thicket.
A short time later she called out, "I think I found him. He's dead."
Rowan was not that surprised. "Can you pull him out?"
"Just give me a little time."
From within the bushes Rowan heard the sounds of something being moved around, and then grunts from Olpara as she exerted herself. When the halfling finally pulled the body from the thicket she was covered in sweat, and there were scratches on her face from the thorns.
Rowan laid a hand on Olpara's face, healing those scratches even as she knelt down to look at the body.
"His neck is broken," Olpara said. "No other wounds I can see."
Rowan pulled his clothing back to see if there were wounds hidden under the cloth. She found some small, shallow holes in the skin of his shoulder.
"Some kind of animal bite?" Olpara suggested.
"Why not deeper. Why not eat him?"
"Was he carrying something, or was he being carried?" Olpara asked.
"Damnation!" Rowan said and pulled her cloak off.
"This is just a diversion." She began to wrap the body in her cloak. "We were led here to get us away from the caravan, maybe just away from Misara."
Misara rode along the Caravan's length, scanning the area about the trail, hoping that Rowan and Olpara might return soon. She would be happy when the refugees were no longer her concern. She reached the front of the caravan and slowed Iron with a pull on his mane. The Horse snorted, but followed her commands. She could tell that he wanted to run, to be away from the slow moving people, mules, and oxen.
There were screams behind her, and a piercing roar. Iron spun about smoothly as Misara drew back the string of her bow, ready to take aim and let the arrow fly.
Something large and white had landed on the back of one of the oxen near the middle of the caravan. The ox had let out the initial scream, but Misara suspected that it was beyond making any noise. It looked as if the white animal had torn out the back of its neck.
She had just about lined her shot in the heartbeat that followed, but then Iron shifted under her. Following her instincts she dropped low across the horse's back, releasing the arrow as she did so. It would not hit.
Something passed over her, hit her across her armoured shoulders, knocking her from Iron's back.
Iron reared up above her, his front hooves slashing in the air, at the dark-red blur that had landed a few hand spans from her. She had lost her bow in the fall. That was embarrassing.
Rolling to the side, she got out from under her horse, away from the tiger. It was definitely a tiger. Her mind was filling in the blanks, putting the information together as a coherent whole. She recalled the weretiger she had fought near the High Forest and knew that it was not a coincidence she faced another tiger.
Iron dropped his front feet to the ground, and then leapt away from the red tiger. He had bought her a small respite with his actions. He was not about to remain close after having saved her.
She came up on her knees, reaching for her sword. The tiger, it was a huge animal, leapt at her. With no time to draw the sword she instead pulled a dagger from the sheath at her back. It slid out, whipping around, coming between her and the tiger. It was not much, it was nothing, but at the moment it was what she had to use.
Strangely, the tiger balked at the dagger, twisting about to keep out of its reach. It thinks it is poisoned silver, Misara thought. Like the one she had used on the last weretiger. She hurled the dagger at the creature she was certain was a weretiger and it leapt back and away so that the dagger missed. She had the space and time to draw her sword, coming up off her knees into a crouch.
The weretiger growled at her and circled her from right to left, its fangs bared, its eyes locked on her. She turned on the balls of her feet, keeping her eyes on the tiger. It was waiting for a moment of inattentiveness to leap.
She heard the rumble of hooves off to her side, and then growling. Iron and the white tiger, she thought, but did not take her eyes from the beast in front of her. She would trust Iron to keep the other occupied.
The red weretiger had not looked towards the noise, it continued to circle her. And then it suddenly reversed its movement and leapt at her. Shifting about, dropping to one knee, Misara raised her sword so it shielded her from the tiger. The creature made an attempt to slash at her with its long, front claws, but Misara shifted her sword about quickly, blocking one attack and turning the other so the claws only grazed her cheek.
The weretiger hit the ground some distance away. It dug its claws into the turf to spin about and then came right back at her. Misara, still on one knee, turned quickly, sword in both hands, bringing the steel to meet the tiger.
It leapt high, over her attack, paw lashing down, hitting armour, knocking her to the side. Misara rolled with the considerable force of the blow, tumbling across the trail and then up onto her feet.
She spun her sword about, making it a barrier of razor-sharp steel. The sword caught the tiger across its right foreleg as it lunged at her, knocking its attack off true. As it passed to her side she kicked it, catching it in the ribs. The force of the kick sent it spinning off to the side.
Misara charged after it, but the weretiger brought itself to a stop, claws leaving shallow furrows in the ground as it came about to face her. Fast, Misara thought as she dodged a blow from its front claws, and too smart. Its jaws closed on the space her wrist had been a moment before. The teeth had come together with a loud snap that left no illusions as to what would have happed had it caught her wrist.
Both of them were bleeding, neither particularly hurt, and Misara could feel her heart thumping in her chest, she had begun to breathe hard. She suspected that the weretiger was in similar shape. She did not want to fight to go on so long that they both got tired and stupid so that the first to make a mistake would die. She did not want to give that white tiger a chance to drive Iron off and then come charging at her back.
She and the weretiger each made several more attacks, rapid manoeuvres that each one barely managed to stop. For moments each held the superior position, but neither could keep it. They were evenly matched.
Misara shifted her sword to a one handed grip as she stepped to the side to avoid the weretiger's lunge. She grasped her sheath, used the attachment to her weapon belt as a pivot point, and brought the metal shod tip up hard, catching the weretiger across its muzzle. The beast let out a scream of anger, and a little pain, and stumped, fell, and rolled some distance from her.
Pressing her thumb against a small catch on the clip caused the sheath to come free of her belt. She lifted it up and pointed the mouth towards the weretiger. A whispered word and the metal at the mouth of the sheath grew cold in her hand. From within the sheath came a wind, as powerful as a gale, and within that were the blossoms of a thousand flowers.
The weretiger, caught in the gale, blinded by the white, purple, pink, red and black blossoms, let out a scream of rage, but Misara shifted about, keeping the beast caught squarely in the wind. She placed her sword in wind. It was almost pulled from her hands. The weretiger screamed in rage once more. She released the sword.
The scream of anger became one of pain.
Misara stopped the wind.
The blossoms fell from the air, raining down upon the ground like snow.
The weretiger stood unsteadily, a deep, red wound along its left side. Blood poured from the wound, like ale from a shattered keg, and the weretiger swayed unsteadily on its feet. Some paces behind it Misara could see her sword, speared deep into the ground.
She heard Iron scream a warning, and the growl of the white tiger. She spun to the side, avoiding the beast's lunge. The red weretiger was moving away, running as fast as its wound would allow. Misara suspected that it was in a great deal of pain. The white tiger, its muzzle covered in blood from the dead ox, leapt at her, a tentative attack, forcing Misara to keep its attention on it. It was allowing the weretiger to escape.
Iron came running up, hooves thundering as it charged the white tiger. Misara pulled a throwing knife from a sheath on her wrist and hurled it. The white tiger shifted slightly and batted the knife away from it, sending it speeding off in Iron's direction. The horse was in no danger of being hit, but it shied slightly and slowed its charge.
Misara was impressed, but she suspected that part of it was luck, and she could see a small stain of red on the paw. The white tiger made as if to charge Iron but instead turned towards Misara.
She waited until the white tiger had committed itself to the attack, leaping at her and then dropped prone to the ground, letting the tiger pass over her. She arched her back and kicked up with her right foot. It felt as if an ogre had hit the heel of her foot with a club, and her leg was slammed back to the ground.
The white tiger hit the ground, one of its legs folding under it, and flipped over several times. It looked rather painful, Misara thought. She got to her feet, ignoring the numbness in her right foot, and then dashed towards her fallen bow.
The white tiger rolled onto its feet, shifting back, favouring its left, front paw. It looked about, as if assessing the situation, and then turned and fled.
Misara grabbed her bow, cast about for an arrow, saw one, snatched it up, and then had the arrow nocked and drawn in a heartbeat. The white tiger was running full out, hampered only a little by its injured leg. It was moving in a zigzag pattern that might have given other archers a problem. Misara sighted and then hesitated. She recalled the green dragon she had killed not so long ago.
The white tiger was not evil, of that she was certain. It was her enemy, but it was a beaten, hurt enemy. She felt no desire to kill it.
She released her arrow. It sped across the grassland and buried itself into the white tiger's shoulder. The beast stumbled, but kept running. Misara grasped about for another arrow. Even as she grabbed the arrow she saw the white tiger crest a small rise and then disappear into the dead ground beyond.
A normal animal might bleed to death from the wound, but Misara thought the white tiger also a weretiger. The arrow she had used would not kill it. She looked at the arrow she held, at the silver edged tip.
Iron walked up to her and nickered softly, nudging her shoulder with his nose. She turned towards the horse, gently pushing his head away. She saw a set of three, nearly parallel claw marks in Iron's flank. They were not deep, but she suspected that they pained her horse. She reached over and put her hand against him, close to the wound.
The claw marks stopped bleeding and then began to close up. After a few seconds there was nothing left but patches where the hair had been torn away.
Of her wounds, none of them seemed of any real concern. She had some salves and bandages that would be treatment enough.
She swung up onto his back and then unstrung her bow and secured it. The people about her, many who had run from the wagons when the tigers had attacked, were coming back. Some children were crying and many of the people there looked scared.
None of them had tried to help her.
It was an uncharitable thought, Misara realised. They were not supposed to fight weretigers. They were farmers. It was her duty to keep people like that safe. Keep them safe, no matter how she might do it.
She rode Iron over to her sword. She leaned over, holding tight with her legs, and grasped the hilt. She straightened, pulling the blade free. From one of her saddlebags she removed and oily rag. As the villagers looked about to make certain everything was all right she cleaned the blood and dirt from her weapon. Once it shone she tossed the rag aside and turned Iron back to the Caravan.
Some men were trying to free the dead ox from its harness. They were arguing over which other cart could give up an ox for the cart they stood near. The cart in question was loaded with kegs and barrels. Beer, wine and a brandy made from apples. Valuable stuff.
Misara directed Iron in close and then cut through the yoke and harness, letting the dead ox fall. Some of the men shouted in surprise. One pointed out that she had ruined the harness. She was not listening.
Iron came around the back of the cart under her direction and she slashed the bands holding the kegs and then knocked open the back gate. Iron danced aside as the kegs and barrels rolled off, hit the ground with dull booms. One shattered, spilling a white wine all over the road.
"What're ya doing?" an older man yelled.
"Get everyone in these wagons, or on a mule," Misara ordered, and leaned over to slash a pack from one of the mules. The pack made a clanking sound as it fell to the ground, and the flap opened, revealing pewter mugs within.
She rode Iron to the front of the caravan so everyone might see her. "Listen to me," she raised her voice. "I will set a pace that will bring me to Crooked Tree before the sun sets, before the gates close. If you cannot keep up you can fend for yourselves."
"You can't do that," someone yelled.
"Our things," another called.
"Keep up or fend for yourselves," Misara told them, and then turned Iron around and started down the road at a quick pace.
There were more angry and dismayed calls from behind her, but she also heard the sound of things falling to the road as loads were made lighter. She did not look back, would not look back. She needed these people to move, and if fear of abandonment was the only way to do so, then so be it.
Fortunately she felt certain that Rowan and Olpara would be following, and those two could take care of any stragglers.
When Rowan finally did return she did not immediately make her way to where Misara rode. Misara could hear the shouts of villagers as they asked questions or made demands of Rowan. Some of them likely thought they might have a better ally in Rowan. She heard some request to go back and retrieve items left behind. She did not hear Rowan's answers to those requests.
When Rowan finally rode up beside Misara, Olpara a horse length behind, Misara asked, "What of Warren?"
"Dead," Rowan told her. "Killed to separate us."
Misara nodded. "Have you told Blue yet?"
"I did. One of her aunts is looking after her."
Misara suddenly felt she should not have hesitated over her bowshot. "Any stragglers?"
"No. They are all in a tight little group, keeping up with you. What exactly happened here? I've heard there were cat beast of all kinds."
"Just two. Weretigers."
"Just like the attack outside of the High Forest you told me about."
"Exactly. Whoever this Asharass is, he, she, they or it is trying to stop me from finding out more. However, it is not using any forces directly related to it. It wants to avoid anything being traced back to it. Or having any of its people divulge any information."
"The demons. That undead monster. These weretigers. I wonder what else?"
"I hope we had exhausted any resources this Asharass might have, though I fear it is unlikely."
Rowan nodded. "These people, they are upset," she said, changing the subject.
"It will make ensure that they live to see Crooked Tree."
"Agreed. Let's pick up the pace a little."
Shisii shifted forms, the transformation healing some of the damage she had taken, easing the pain in her arm. The elf had kicked her hard, and the attack had taken her by surprise. There was also the arrow in her shoulder. She reached up with her small hand, grasped the shaft, and pulled.
That hurt. A great deal. She hissed in pain and threw the arrow away from herself. Shifting back to her tiger form healed more of the damage. She knew that the wounds were not a threat and would heal soon enough. She was more concerned with Liman than herself. It had looked as if he was gravely injured.
She grew more concerned when she found the blood trail he had left. That he was still bleeding was a bad sign, but he was also leaving a trail that anything might follow. She sprinted off in the direction Liman had gone.
He was in the small camp they had set up. In human form he was desperately holding his wound closed. With both hands occupied in keeping him for bleeding to death he was not able to do anything else.
Shisii took her human form and moved close to him. He looked at her, tried to speak, but was too weak. Shisii reached for a small bag near Liman. From it she took out two vials, each one sealed with cork and wax.
She removed the wax from one and then pulled the cork free. She put it near Liman's lips and, when he parted them, slowly began to pour the contents into his mouth. For a moment she thought he might be to weak to swallow, but his throat worked and he got it down.
He grew stronger with each swallow, the blood-flow from the wound at his side slowing and then stopping.
Shisii put the empty vial aside and opened the second. Liman reached out, grabbed the vial from her, and upended it into his mouth. She took a few steps back, waiting.
"Thank you," he told her a short time later, sitting up. He ran his hands over the wound that had been freely bleeding not so long ago. It was almost completely healed, only a small amount of scabbing present.
"Should we go after the elf now?" she asked him.
Liman shook his head. "I need some time to properly heal."
Shisii did not say anything. She shifted to her tiger form and walked off, to patrol the perimeter of the camp. Liman would not say it, but he was afraid of the elf. She did not blame him for she was afraid the elf as well.
He would not admit that to himself and he would likely wish to continue to follow after her. Shisii did not want to attack her again, but if Liman decided to do so, then she would follow.
She hoped that they would survive the encounter if it came.