A Prayer to Darkness
Kesk had pushed his orcs through the night, walking most of the time. Horses were fine in the daylight, but riding them at any speed in the night was trouble. When the sun had risen he ordered the orcs onto their horses again, declaring that they would endure the sun until they found the elf. There were of course grumbles, but they all did as he said.
It was still early morning, with the sun still low in the eastern sky, when he came in sight of the village of Crooked Tree. Now he had to decide what to do. He knew that the village maintained some patrols, and a small fighting force. He would rather not fight them, though he thought it likely he would win. He could circle around, as he had last time, and pick up the trail on the far side, look for evidence that the elf and her companions had passed. But what if she was still within the walls of the village?
"Agars," he called out.
"Sir," the old, scarred orc said, and rode his horse close to Kesk.
"Take Sheepa and half the orcs, circle to the other side of the village. Wait and see if the elf comes out that way. Make sure no one sees you and if I send a signal be prepared to ride in."
"Yes sir," Agars said.
"Colgam, you and Olgar stay here. Find a place to hide and watch for the elf or my signal."
"What will you be doing?" Colgam asked.
Kesk nodded towards the village. "I'm going in to see if the elf is in there." He put his heels to his tired mount and started towards Crooked Tree. There was a lot that could go wrong with his plan, but at worst, as Kesk saw it, he would just be further behind Misara. So far she had been travelling in a fairly straight manner, following the roads and trails, making it easy to stay behind her. Not that he just wanted to remain behind her. Perhaps now he had finally caught her up.
As he approached the town he saw some people standing atop the wall, looking about. Probably making certain it was safe to open the gate. They saw him of course, but a lone rider was probably not seen as too great a threat.
The gates opened, people exited the village, farmers directing their ox drawn carts towards the fields.
"Well met," some said as he passed, and he nodded politely in response to their greetings. A few looked at him askance, but no one seemed too concerned about his presence.
"Morning," one of the gate sentries said, stepping out to block Kesk's path.
Kesk swung down from his horse. "Well met," he said. "I've been riding all night and I need something to eat and a little rest."
"All night? Seems a little odd."
"The village I planned to stop at was deserted. I was not about to stay there."
The sentry nodded, as if he had expected an answer like that. "Heard a little bit about that myself. Well, you're welcome in Crooked Tree. Ask around, you can probably find a house that has a room available, if that is what you want, or a spot at its table."
"Thank you," Kesk told him.
The sentry moved aside so Kesk could enter.
He considered asking about the elf, but decided not to. He did not want to give anything away until he was certain about the situation. He simply nodded to the sentry and walked into the village.
He looked about, hoping to see some sign of his quarry. The village was crowded, with people going about their regular routine. The refugees from the deserted village added to the confusion, mixing together, getting in one another's way. Crooked Tree would not stand up well to an attack at this moment, Kesk thought. Would that he had the time to attack with his orcs.
He smiled as he considered the implications of finding the elf in this village. He could kill her and then bring his orcs in. They could take Crooked Tree and then go back to the other village, the beginnings of a kingdom. Of course he knew it was, at the moment, likely a dream, but that did not keep him from hoping.
He had crossed nearly half the space enclosed within the village's walls when he heard someone say, "That damn elf, cost me a good chunk of gold, I tell ya."
Kesk stopped and turned towards the voice.
"Tunkus," another said, "just leave it. It's not going to win you and friends."
The half orc tied his horse to a hitching post and then began moving towards the voices.
"Twelve hand kegs of Berduskan Dark," the one called Tunkus grumbled, "the five hand kegs of Evermeed, and all the rest, it was a fortune, and she just made us dump it on the road."
"We needed to go faster," the one who had counselled Tunkus said, "and she was right. All that stuff was slowing us down. I didn't like it much myself, but she was right."
Kesk suddenly understood the goods his forward riders had found scattered on the road. At the time he had refused to let the orcs approach, certain it was a trap of some sort. If only had had know the truth.
He was close enough to see the speakers. One was older, wearing rumpled clothing; he looked as if he had slept in a barn as there was straw stuck in his hair. The other was a little younger than his companion, a little cleaner.
"I should just go up to her and demand she give me the gold I lost," the older one, Tunkus, said. "We should all go up and demand that that elf pay us."
The elf was still here? Kesk smiled slightly. Perhaps his pleasing imaginings were not so unlikely.
"She saved our lives," the other said.
Kesk stepped away from the wall he was using as cover and walked towards the two men, but he focused his attention on the one called Tunkus. "Excuse me, I overheard some of what you said. It sounds as if you need someone to help you get money owed." He tried to look friendly, but did not show his teeth when he smiled.
"There isn't a problem," the younger said.
"Maybe I do," Tunkus said at the same time.
"She's a Paladin," the companion said, sounding shocked.
"Not of any god I care to respect," Tunkus countered.
The younger man looked scandalized.
"You think you could convince this elf to pay me what she owes?" Tunkus asked, turning his attention completely to Kesk.
"I have done such jobs in the past," Kesk said, nodding.
"Well, I know she's around here somewhere."
"Tunkus," the companion said in a warning tone.
"Might be able to get some like thinking people to go with us," Tunkus said, ignoring his friend. "Strength in number and all that."
"That sounds wise," Kesk said, needing to goad the man into action.
"The Paladins are leaving," a boy called out as he ran by them.
"Damn," Tunkus said. "Running away already I tell you."
Kesk ignored the man. He turned and ran to his horse.
"You think you can get her fore she leaves?" Tunkus cried out after him.
Kesk certainly planned to try.
He untied his horse and led it at a run through the village, towards the gate he had recently entered.
He reached it only to see a crowd of people, blocking the gate, waving farewell to four, fast moving horses. For a moment Kesk thought to leap onto his horse and charge after, but quickly realised the futility of that. His horse, tired after a long ride, would never be able to catch up.
Instead he pushed through the crowd in front of the gate, instead of riding them down, and only then got up on his horse. He kicked it into a quick walk, the best pace it could maintain. Ahead of him he could see the riders dwindling as they got farther from him. He reached under his coat and produced a wand.
A simple, signalling device, he spoke the command word that caused the wands his sergeants carried to grow warm. He might have sent a more complex message, a series where the wands would grow warm and cold in a pattern, but that was not needed.
All he could hope was that Olgar and Colgam would move to block the elf. All they had to do was slow her down until he caught up. That was all. He kicked his horse harder and the beast let out a tired snort, but it increased its pace. If he thought the animal was capable of it he would have ridden it to death if that meant catching up with the elf.
Misara felt good to be out, to be moving fast, for the first time with a clear destination instead of a vague idea. She could tell that Rowan felt the same, and even Olpara seemed to lose some of her darkness in the exhilarating ride. The horses were running, a ground eating pace that had the wind blowing in their faces.
Iron and Rose Thorn could keep that speed up for a long time. Olpara's mount, with the lightweight of the halfling, was keeping up easily enough. It would tire, in time, but that was why they had a spare mount for Olpara.
It was a little over two hundred miles to Serpent's Cowl, the small village near the Forest of Wyrms. She wanted to cover that distance in three days. It would be a hard ride, near impossible, but she was certain they could do it. Ugly as Iron was, she had seen few other horses that had his endurance or tenacity. Rose Thorn was a magical beast and would easily be up to it. She suspected they would have to get Olpara new mounts a few times over the ride, but she felt confident they would pass villages where such things could be arranged.
It was like she was in a race. Like the wonderful outings she and her friends had undertaken in Evermeet, more than a century before. They had ridden their fey horses across the island, through trackless forests, for nothing more than bragging rights. She was lost in the feeling, happy at that memory.
It was why Rowan had to call her attention to a group of riders that were attempting to intercept them.
Misara looked in the direction that Rowan was pointing. "Orcs," she called out a moment later. "They won't catch us." She could tell the horses that the orcs rode were of poor quality, or overly tired. The orcs were trying to press more speed from them, but already she could see the beasts lagging.
"They chase us," Rowan called over the sound of the wind.
"Yes," Misara agreed.
"Should be give them what they want?" Rowan was smiling.
Misara wanted nothing more than to turn Iron about and charge the orcs. It would be good to cross blades with the beasts, to cut them down, perhaps find out why they were following. "No," she called to Rowan. A fight could delay them; a horse might get badly wounded. "We'll stop when we crest that hill."
Rowan nodded. Perhaps she was a little disappointed, but she did not argue the point.
Then ahead Misara spotted a second band of orcs, riding hard, trying to make the road, to trap them so those following might catch up. She smiled as she loosened her sword in her scabbard. "We might have a fight yet."
Rowan nodded, and shifted to the side, putting Olpara and the riderless horse between her and Misara. Ahead of them three orcs, likely on better quality horses, had managed to coax their mounts to a boost of speed and had pulled away from their fellows. They might just catch us, Misara thought as she drew her blade.
The sound of steel sliding from a scabbard caused Iron to lay his ears flat back against his head, and bare his teeth. He was just as ready for a fight as she was.
But even as they rode she could see two of the orcs start to lag, their horses likely exhausted. Only one rider remained, a large orc who was bent low over his horse, using a coiled whip to lash at its flanks. He was probably going to kill the poor thing, Misara thought.
They passed close enough that the big orc attempted to use the whip. Perhaps he hoped to pull one of them from their saddles, or slow a horse by wounding it. Or he might have been very desperate. Misara met the tip of his whip with her sword, cutting part of it away as she slapped it over her head.
And then they were away, the orc falling behind, fumbling at his saddle for a crossbow. Misara spun on Iron's back, ready to cut any bolts that might fly from behind, but the orc was slow, and soon they were out of range.
They rode until they had reached the crest of the hill. There they brought their horses to a stop. Iron and Rose Thorn looked as if they were ready to run or fight, and they were lively, not pleased to be waiting.
Misara strung her bow and then looked through the quiver of arrows. She selected one from its fletching and pulled it out. She stood on the crest, looking down at their pursuers.
The first group they had seen was moving along the road, trying to catch up to the second group. That one, now in a more coherent grouping, was pushing hard. Misara waited as they closed, looking at the riders, picking out the big orc that she had chosen as the likely leader.
"Do you think that Crooked Tree is in any danger?" Rowan asked.
Misara did not look at her, but shook her head. "They are after us, and Crooked Tree can stand up to a small group of orc raiders."
"Do you think they came from the North?" Olpara asked.
"I don't know," Misara admitted. "I can't see them having followed us all the way from Silverymoon. I would like to question one."
"We can't afford to take the chance that we might be slowed," Rowan said, echoing Misara's early thought.
Misara said nothing, for there was no need to debate an agreed point. She watched the orcs approach, the first group closing on the second, which was slowing. They were still following. She wondered if they saw her, standing on the road. The sun was to her back, and orcs did not see well in daylight. They did not seem to be riding as to make an arrow shot more difficult. Perhaps they did see her and did not think they were in range.
She drew back the string, her thumb brushing gently against her ear. She picked out the big orc, lifted the bow so the arrow was at and extreme angle to the ground, and then released the string.
The arrow hummed as it sped away from the bow, cutting up into the air, raising high, and then angling down and plummeting towards its target. Beside her Rowan gasped. The arrow hit the orc, the steel arrowhead likely punching through its armour and piercing deep into its chest.
A moment later the spell locked into the arrowhead triggered and arcs of lightning flashed out to blast the orcs all around the one who had been hit.
Misara unstrung her bow and leapt upon Iron's back. "Let's go," she said with a smile and then she laughed. "We will race the wind."
Kesk looked at the burnt and battered bodies that lay on the road. Colgam was doing his best to treat the wounded, using the few simple healing spells he had learned since becoming a priest of Gruumsh. Not that there were that many to heal. There was no sign of Olgar's body, and most of the orcs that had been with him were dead as well. The orcs who stood around, the few that had survived the blast as well as those that had ridden with Colgam, looked dejected, broken.
He ground his teeth together in anger, wishing he had the elf in his hands, that he could smash her face in with his fists until it was a bloody mess. She had not even bothered to stay and fight. He wanted to think it was cowardice, and he would tell his orcs that was what it was, but he knew the truth was that she just had not cared to fight. There was something more important to her than fighting with orcs.
He moved close, looking at the orcs, making eye contact. Most turned away, and the few that met his gaze did so in an accusatory manner. They blamed him for their current situation. He suspected that most of them were wishing to be back at the encampment with Timmin. He was going to have to convince them otherwise, to give them back their desire to fight.
The problem was that he did not know how to do that. Not at that moment.
He turned his attention to Colgam. The small, one-eyed orc was doing his best to heal a badly injured orc. Kesk walked up and knelt down beside Colgam. He reached forward to place his hand on the wounded orc's chest. "Gruumsh, give me the power that I may heal this one," he called out in orcish. "Let him be healed so that he might lay low our enemies and bring further glory to you."
The electrical burns on the orc healed, leaving behind scars as they did so. A moment later the orc opened his eyes and sat up.
Kesk stood. "Colgam, get them to a defensible shelter. Make sure they rest up. Watch for Sheepa and Agars and give them the same orders."
Colgam nodded as he stood. "How long?"
"Until I come back."
"Shouldn't we go after the elf?"
"We will," Kesk told him. "Don't think that she has won," he said louder, raising his voice so all the orcs might here him. "She chooses cowardly tactics, and runs, but we will take away her tricks and show her our might," he said the last in a shout.
His speech seemed to rouse his orcs, at least a little. A few nodded, some punched their fists into the air and said his name, or called for the death of their enemies. It was not much, but it was a start.
He nodded, and then turned and started up the trail, leaving his exhausted horse for Colgam to deal with. For a time he simply walked, until he was at the crest of the hill. He had not seen what had happened, but he could guess the elf had stopped there to fire on the pursuing orcs. He realised he should have warned his orcs of the danger, but telling them how deadly the elf was with a bow had not seemed a way to fire their orcish spirits and encourage them.
They were orcs, if anyone should have known the danger elven archery presented it should have been them, he thought angrily. Perhaps they had been too long working as mercenaries. Or maybe, he thought as he turned and looked down the hill, they had not realised they were in any danger.
A mighty shot. It was not the first time the elf's bow had cost him. He still could hear the cries of pain as arrows sped out of the night, finding his soldiers, both orc and man alike. He still did now know if she had been alone that night, in the canopy of the Wood of Sharp Teeth, but she had been the only one he had seen.
When she had finally shown herself, stepping out of the shadows as dawn's light filtered through the thick canopy, he had already had two arrows in him. None of those who had survived were uninjured. All were exhausted from a sleepless night. They had never stood a chance.
That was what angered him most of all. That he had not been given a chance to face her, to test his skill against hers. He was certain, given the opportunity, she would be the one found wanting.
He took the leather and steel gauntlets from his hands and tossed them to ground. With the blackened head of his spear he cut open the palm of his left hand. Placing his cut hand over his forehead left a bloody mark there. He drew a streak of red down his face, his neck, and across the travel stained tabard her wore over his plate mail. The cut stung with the dried salt of his sweat.
Kneeling down he placed his spear to the side and then reached under his tabard, drawing forth a bone scroll-case. He opened it, staining it with his blood as he did so. He shook the scrolls within out. He looked through them, carefully using his right hand so as not to get his blood on them. He took one from the pile, and then returned the rest of the case.
Kesk spread the scroll out in front of him. He began to chant in orcish, a discordant, harsh sound that made it sound as if he were croaking the words out. He dipped the pointer finger of his right hand into the wound in his left palm. Using the finger like a brush, her began to carefully draw glyphs onto the scroll, obscuring the words as he chanted them.
When he finished reading the entire scroll he began to read it again, taking from memory those words obscured by blood. More glyphs appeared on the scroll, obscuring more and more of what was written on it. He kept the wound in his hand bleeding as he wrote. It pained him, but he did not stop.
Gruumsh was not a god who cared to make the lives of his worshippers easier. He had no room for the weak, those who could not fight. He did not provide his aid easily, nor without proof that the petitioner was strong enough to earn it. Kesk knew this, and accepted it, and his voice did not falter as he chanted the words through a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, completely from memory for the scroll was covered in his blood.
And when he finally received his answer he stood up, thrusting both hands into the air, and called out to the glory of Gruumsh. And, when the sense of the divine finally left him he settled back to the trail, sitting on the dirt, and smiled. He tore the edge his tabard off and used it to bind the wound on his hand. Then he took off his left boot and from a hidden pocket within removed a flat, red stone, the size of his smallest finger.
The stone had been given to him by the man who had freed him from prison. It was a way to communicate, but the note that had been wrapped around the stone had made it clear that Kesk was not to use it unless absolutely necessary.
He felt it was necessary.
He held it in his right hand, concentrating, as the note had instructed. The stone grew warm, and he felt a slight tingle begin to spread out to his fingers and then up his arm.
'What is it Kesk Hornskull?' a voice in his mind asked.
"I need your help if you wish to see the elf dead," he said aloud.
'I am listening.'
"I need to bring my men from where I am now to a village called the Serpent's Cowl. It is several days journey from here."
For a time there was silence and Kesk began to wonder if his benefactor and employer might not answer, then, 'I can do this for you.'
"This is more."
'What?' The voice seemed curious, and tired.
"Fresh horses and an illusion so my orcs will appear human."
'I see. Will there be anything else Kesk Hornskull?'
Kesk thought about it, and then smiled. "A feast. Barrels of ale, and meat. My orcs will spend this day and night resting and then will fight better for it. New weapons as well, quality swords and armour." Kesk did not know if he would get these things, but he would ask.
'I will see what might be done,' the voice in his head told him. 'When do you want this feast?'
"Soon," Kesk said. "I will call you when I want it to arrive."
'Very well Kesk Hornskull, but be certain that my time is being well spent. The elf must die, and soon.'
"You will have what you want," Kesk said aloud.
The stone in his hand grew cool, and Kesk knew that the other was gone. He returned the stone to its hiding place and then put his boot back on. Standing, he picked up his spear. He would lay the thanks for the feast at Gruumsh feet. There was no reason for his orcs to think that the food was anything but a blessing of their god. He knew that Gruumsh would approve.