Battle in the Ravines
It was a little after the sun had reached its highest point in the sky when Misara and the others rode into sight of Serpent's Cowl. It had been a hard ride with little chance for rest. Iron had, as always, stood up well to the demands she had made on him. He could probably still keep him riding for a few more days, not that Misara planned on having him do so.
The next part of the journey would be by skiff along the river. That would give all the horses, as well as their riders, a chance to rest up. Rose Thorn, not surprisingly, would not need that rest, but Olpara's horse certainly would. The halfling now rode with three horses. She had refused to leave Berry behind when he grew too exhausted to carry her, so they had purchased two new horses for her at one of the villages. They had replaced Olpara's mounts several times during the journey.
Serpent's Cowl was a small village, on the bank of the Winding Water, not too distant from the Forest of Wyrms. There were fields, recently cleared and ploughed around the village, but no buildings beyond the tightly clustered ones of the village.
On first glance it looked rather pleasant, but as Misara closed she could see that something was not right. She looked over at Rowan and saw that Rowan was concerned as well. Without saying anything they slowed their mounts, Olpara followed suite, and rode towards the village at a more moderate pace.
They were near the edge of the village when they saw a group of armed villagers jogging towards them. The men and women were led by a tall man with a limp.
"Halt," the tall man called out loudly before they could ride into the village. The people behind him were bringing up crossbows.
Misara brought Iron to a halt. Rowan and Olpara stopped their mounts as well.
The man with the limp came towards them, but stopped several paces away. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"Misara Dawntide," Misara said, "Paladin of Corellon Larethian. With me are Rowan Jassan, Paladin of Sune, and Olpara Sweetharp. We have some here seeking passage to the village of Yarthrain."
The man seemed to relax slightly, but he did not let his guard down completely; nor did those villagers behind them. "Well met then Misara Dawntide, Rowan Jassan and Olpara Sweetharp. You must forgive our greeting, but we have very recently been attacked by raiders." He was looking at the three of them closely, sizing us up, Misara thought.
"Raiders?" Rowan asked. "Were any hurt?"
"There were some minor injuries, but that is not of any concern. The raiders have taken away many or our children and younger people. They swept through our fields a few hours prior. They snatched up those who worked in the field and then rode off."
"Which way did they ride?"
The man was still looking at them, and Misara could almost guess his thoughts. She supposed that Rowan and Rose Thorn were presenting the most positive and trustworthy image that the moment.
"They rode to the west, following the river upstream," he said in the tone of a man who had made a decision. "We have sent some warriors after them, but they are outnumbered." With such a statement Misara expected a request to follow.
"We will go to lend aid," Rowan said, interrupting him before he could speak. "Perhaps we may be of some help."
"Thank you very much Lady Paladin," he said, dipping his head low. "I am Calroth, the headman of this village. When you meet up with the warriors, let them know that I have asked for your aid."
Rowan nodded and then turned to look at Misara. She was not looking to her for conformation, because Rowan would have no doubts about her intentions, but to see if she had anything else to add.
"Who leads your warriors?" Misara asked.
"Thayla Redlocks," he told her. "She will no doubt be glad for any help you might provide. We also sent a messenger to Heartwing, to see if Aluena Halacanter may help us."
Misara nodded, she had heard of the sorceress and the pegasi she reared. She looked over at Olpara's horses. "Do you have a spare mount that Olpara might borrow?"
Several of the children were crying, some of the older ones trying to hush them. Kesk looked over at his captives and bared his teeth. "Keep the brats quiet or I'll quiet all of you," he growled.
He watched with some amusement as the older ones did their best to keep the younger ones calm, sometimes with methods that were cruel. He might have to stop them if it looked like they would go as far as to kill the younger ones to keep them silent.
It was not that he cared about the children, far from it, but he did not want them dead, at least not immediately. It was not impossible that someone might realise if the children were killed. People might not come chasing after dead children. He was not certain if the elf would. She might put vengeance off to another time if there was no one to save.
Once the elf was dead he would decide what to do with the children. Ransom them back to their parents, or sell them to slavers, he thought.
The children were roped together and secured in the back of the cave. Kesk stood at the mouth of the cave, looking over the lightly wooded hills on the edge of the Forest of Wyrms. The hills and ravines were claimed by a tribe of goblins, almost one hundred strong. They had proved useful and were easily convinced to help Kesk.
His benefactor had given Kesk everything he needed, and more. The feast that first night had been good for morale. The magical portal that had allowed them to instantly travel to a place near Serpent's Cowl had made the orcs truly believe that the power of Gruumsh was with them.
Fresh horses and equipment had awaited them on the other side of the portal, as well as information about the goblin tribe and the gold required to buy their services.
Kesk felt certain that he would trap the elf, and that he would see her dead. More than just see her dead, he would take her life, in view of his orcs. He would destroy her completely in the sight of his god.
The wand he wore beneath his breastplate grew warm, cold and warm again. The pattern repeated twice more. Agars had spotted the elf. She was near. He stepped out of the cave, smiling.
"It's a trap," Rowan said.
Misara nodded, looking at the trail they had been following. It had led along the river for a time, and then turned into a hilly region on the edge of the forest. The ravines within would create a twisting maze: An easy place to set up an ambush.
"What should we do?" Olpara asked.
Rowan reached down and patted Rose Thorn on the neck. "Go in, of course. Trap or not, the children were taken that way."
Misara put her bow away and drew her sword. Guiding Iron with a gentle squeeze of her knees she started him forward. Rowan came up behind her, followed closely by Olpara. The three women looked about as they rode, all of them alert for any sign of danger.
The walls of the ravine rose up around them, above them the sky was partially blocked from view by intertwined branches. They had a few hours of light left, Misara noted. Coming darkness would not be a hindrance to her, but she would prefer to have things dealt with while it was still day.
Rowan stopped. "Look at this," she said softly.
Misara looked back over her shoulder and then turned Iron about and rode to Rowan's side. Rowan was leaning over in her saddle, using her sword tip to push a small thicket aside. Near the edge of the growth was a small, bare footprint.
Rowan nodded. "We're probably in their territory. The riders from Serpent's Cowl must have known."
"They did not have much choice."
Misara said nothing else, just directed Iron back to following the trail.
There was, now that she looked for it, some sign of the goblins that must live there. She watched for traps as she rode, deadfalls and pits, the simple things that goblins were likely to build.
They had moved deep into the ravines, still following the trail, when they came around the corner to find themselves facing five other riders. The other riders turned at the sound of their passage, hands went to weapons.
"We offer no threat," Misara said quickly, taking note of the woman with short, red hair. "Are you Thayla Redlocks?"
The woman looked at them and then nodded. "I am. Who are you?"
"Misara Dawntide, Paladin of Corellon Larethian. Calroth asked us to come and aid you."
"I am Rowan Jassan, Paladin of Sune."
"Olpara Sweetharp. Why do you wait here?"
Thayla looked at them each in turn, was silent for a few seconds, and then said, "Well met then. I am glad for you aid. As to why we wait here, we have," she paused, and pursed her lips, "have lost the trail."
Misara heard those words as if they were a call to battle. Her eyes darted above her, to the top of the ravine, and the area around them. She could see Rowan was also more alert.
"What is it?" Thayla demanded, now looking about herself.
Before any explanations could be offered large balls of mud began to roll down the side of the ravine, forcing the riders to scatter, driving their mounts to avoid the rolling projectiles. One of Thayla's riders was not fast enough and a mud ball bounced and hit him, knocking him out of his saddle.
Misara spun Iron about, letting him dodge the mud as he would as she searched for signs of their attackers. Then there were a series of loud cracks, and a number of the trees above them fell into the ravine. None of them caught any of the riders, nor the man who was now on his feet, but they had effectively cut the small groups off from one another.
They scatter us with the mud balls and they make sure we cannot join to form an effective defence, Misara thought. And they had been waiting for her and Rowan to arrive before springing their trap.
Next were the crossbow bolts. Most of the bolts buried themselves into the ground, or the fallen trees, which were providing Misara and the others with some cover. One bolt bounced off of Rowan's armour. Another scored a glancing hit across the hindquarters of Thayla's horse, causing the beast to buck in pain and forcing its rider to divert all her attention to staying mounted.
People were scattering, looking for cover, for a place to regroup.
Then the crossbows ceased firing. A moment later goblins and orcs came over the sides of the ravines, charging towards their confused foes.
Several orcs were sprinting towards Misara, their weapons raised. The one in the lead swung at her with a great sword. Misara rolled off Iron to avoid the blow and then darted beneath and between the horse's legs, sword leading, to cut down the attacker.
As he fell two others leapt over his body to press Misara. She blocked their attacks, knocking their swords wide, and then slid into the opening, the tip of her sword sliding into the armhole of one orc's armour.
The other orc swung his sword over his head and was about to bring it down on her, but Iron spun about and kicked out, both his rear hooves slamming into the orc's chest, sending him flying back.
For a moment Misara had free space about her and the time to look about.
Thayla and two of her men rode upon their horses, using the height advantage to slash down at goblins with their sabres. Rowan rode easily upon Rose Thorn, cutting her way through goblins, orcs, and tree branches in an attempt to get closer to one of Thayla's men who was fighting alone and un-mounted. She spotted Olpara, and the man who had been first knocked from his saddle. Both were upon the halfling's horse, trying to ride clear.
She had no more time to check on the others for three more orcs, and perhaps fifteen goblins, were moving on her.
Misara leapt away from Iron, running straight at the approaching attackers. She would not give them time to surround her. She hit the leading orc, two sweeps of her sword batting his sword up and wide, and a third slash to open his throat. Ducking low, both hands on the hilt, she drove the point of the sword into face of the next orc, punching through his defence and his skull.
Iron moved in beside her, head darting down to bite one of the goblins and tear a chunk out of the small creature's shoulder. He then reared up; his steel shod front hooves kicking the air in front of him, hitting the last orc in the shoulder with bone breaking force. Misara finished the orc off with a quick slice that opened it up from wounded shoulder to hip.
The goblins seemed to lose their stomach for the fight and broke. Misara managed to cut down two before they could flee, and Iron's quick hooves accounted for another two.
She looked about and could hear sounds of movement above them. "Have fun and make yourself useful," she told Iron, and then leapt up so she landed, standing, on his back. Another leap took her out of the ravine.
Rowan balanced herself upon Rose Thorn's back, moving with the horse, slashing at the goblins and orcs that tried to pull her down. Her sword traced out a figure eight as she cut to either side of the horse. Rose Thorn kicked, bit, and stomped, killing as many enemies as she.
She fought her way towards the edge of the ravine, leaving a trail of dead and wounded in her wake. The wall would provide her a place to put her back and it would make defence that much easier. The remaining goblins, assuming that was her intent, had tried to stop her. As soon as she reached the wall the goblins pulled back to regroup, to find a new way to deal with her.
It was what Rowan had been hoping for. As soon as the goblins gave her room she touched Rose Thorn's sides with her heels. The horse leapt forward, landing amidst the goblins. Rowan's sword rose and fell, cutting down the closest of the goblins for the moment that she was among them. Then Rose Thorn had moved away from them, rapidly gaining speed.
Just before they would have charged into the tangled branches of a fallen tree, Rose Thorn leapt. Legs tucked close to his body, he sailed, very nearly straight up, over the branches, and then came down, on the other side, his front hooves crushing a goblin as he landed.
The goblins stared at Rowan and the horse in shock. The man she had come to save also stared at her in surprise, his sword lowering as he gaped at her, leaving himself open.
"To me," Rowan yelled, and sent Rose Thorn spinning to his right as she slashed to her left. Hooves and sword blurred and the goblins had no idea which was which. One might manage to avoid the sword only to be cut by an iron-shod hoof, or dodge a hoof only to be hit by the sword.
The man moved forward, not getting too close to the horse, and attacked the goblins from a new direction. Together he, Rowan and Rose Thorn were able to drive the goblins back and send them scrambling up the walls of the ravine.
Rowan cast about her quickly. She spotted Misara leaping from Iron's back up and out of the ravine. Thayla and two of her men were nearby, however separated by fallen trees, formed into a tight, defensive circle, fighting off goblins and two or three orcs.
Rowan put her hand down towards the man she had saved. "Get on," she ordered.
He grabbed her hand and Rowan pulled him up so he was perched behind her.
She wished she had a horn, something to make a great deal of noise with. Rose Thorn must have sensed her desire for he screamed as they thundered towards where Thayla and the others fought.
Again the stallion made an impossible leap, apparently unburdened by the second rider. The horse landed near one of the orcs. The orc spun about, a falchion gripped in his hands. He leapt forward, the heavy blade swinging down from a high attack, aimed at Rose Thorn's head.
Rose Thorn turned so Rowan was able to meet the attack with her sword. The weapons rang out as they connected and Rowan could feel the force of the blow in her shoulder.
The man she had saved shifted behind and slid from Rose Thorn's saddle as the orc reversed his swing and turned the falchion, swinging it up at Rose Thorn's belly. Again Rowan parried the blow, and countered, stabbing her long sword along his arm, aiming for the armpit.
The orc managed to drop his arm, driving her sword down so that it struck armour. Still, her keen sword managed to pierce the steel of his breastplate and the skin beneath. Not a mortal wound, but good enough.
Then the man she had saved leapt forward, swinging his sabre around in a wide arc to take the orc's head off.
Thayla and her people had taken advantage with Rowan's arrival and pushed their offensive, scattering and killing goblins as they made their way close to the Paladin.
"We can't stay here," Thayla said, her voice loud.
Rowan was inclined to agree, and there was a ravine near by where they might make their escape. She did not know, however, if that way had been left open by chance or if there was method to all parts of the attack. There was little other choice however.
"That way," she said, pointing towards the opening.
The unhorsed man grabbed a riderless horse and they started forward. Rowan looked about her for a moment. There was no sign of Olpara or Misara, and even as she watched Iron stomped a goblin to death before crashing through the branches of a fallen tree and disappearing down another ravine.
She turned Rose Thorn about and followed after the others.
Misara had come up on a slope covered in scrub and small trees. Several goblins were gathered nearby, reloading a collection of crossbows. They goggled at her as she appeared near them, and were reaching for their swords as she moved among them. She cut one down while he was still drawing his sword. The second goblin fell, his defence easily beaten back. A third had brought his sword up in a guard, but Misara's sword had shattered his and then took his head off. The fourth she stabbed through the heart and at the same time she knelt down to scoop up one of the reloaded crossbows. She put a bolt through the eye of the last.
There were other goblins, in small groups, gathered around the edges of the ravines. Misara drove the point of her sword into the dirt and then picked up another of the crossbows. Poorly built and maintained, but it would do. She fired and a goblin went down.
There were several loaded crossbows at her feet and she quickly cycled through them, picking them up, firing them, and then tossing the weapon aside. The goblins had panicked and run, some fleeing off between the trees and others leaping into the ravines.
She dropped the last crossbow and then grabbed her sword. She had no interest in the goblins. There were orcs about, and she strongly suspected that they were looking for her. She set off, scanning the area for the orcs, or any other danger that might present itself.
Rowan knew they had to get out of the ravine. The tight confines made it difficult to manoeuvre about on horseback, and the goblins were using the high ground effectively. They shot down at them with crossbows, or threw spears or rocks. And when they did come down to fight, they could easily retreat back up the walls of the ravine. One of the men had been badly wounded and Rowan had only kept him alive with divine healing.
A few times orcs were with the goblins, but they would not stay long, and retreated before Rowan or the others could engage them. They were looking for Misara, Rowan realised. As soon as they saw she was not there they would leave.
Rowan spotted sunlight ahead. "This way," she called, and turned Rose Thorn about. She scattered the goblins in her way, and charged out of the ravine, into a large, open space beyond the hills. Ahead of her were the densely packed trees of the Forest of Wyrms. Behind her the ravines, but the open space around her was wide enough for the horses to be used effectively, and the space was wide enough to force the goblins from hiding if they wanted a fight.
Thayla rode up beside her and looked about. "How long do you think we can hold here?"
"As long as we have to," Rowan told her. "Have faith."
Thayla shook her head and turned towards the ravine. "Alright you louts, gather up here and prepare to fight as if your life depended on it," she yelled at her men.
Olpara felt lost. She had ridden deeper into the hills, away from the sounds of battle, letting her borrowed horse have its head for a time. The man who sat in the saddle behind her was not offering any advice and slumped slightly against her. She suspected that he might have been more hurt than she had first suspected.
Her horse slowed slightly. Olpara looked about. She thought about turning around and heading back the way she had come. When she had first run it had seemed like a good idea, to get clear of the main part of the fight. She had even thought about turning around, coming back once she had a little time to think about the best spells to use.
She had not.
The man behind her shifted slightly behind her. "Where are we?" he asked, his voice slightly slurred.
"I had hoped you knew," Olpara said.
"Never mind." She directed the horse to a small bush nearby and reached out to break a forked twig from it. She had a spell that should lead her back to Rowan.
Then she heard sounds above her.
Before she could do anything four or five orcs had slid down the walls of the ravine. One of them swung a heavy mace at her. Olpara ducked low against the back of the horse. The mace hit the man behind her with a wet crunch and he fell from the horse.
Another orc grabbed her and pulled her from the saddle. She fell and hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind from her lungs.
"Got the halfling," one of them said in orcish.
"Got the horse."
"This one's near dead."
"Think Kesk want the halfling?" the one standing over Olpara asked. He pulled the short sword from the sheath at her belt and tossed it away.
"He didn't say to kill her, so we don't kill her," one who had not yet spoken said. Olpara, having gotten some of her breath back, turned to see the speaker. He was an old looking orc, his face heavily scarred.
"Well, maybe we can ask her some questions then, about the elf," the orc who held her said. He pulled a long dirk from a sheath on his wrist. "Kesk mind if she a little bloody?" He placed the knife tip against her jaw, gently poking her with it.
Olpara remembered being taken by the giants. She remembered the cries of her friends. She had been so frightened that the giants would turn their attention on her. She had listened to Midan, the soft, lazy wizard who had first refused to say anything to the giants. And then, as time passed, and his screams grew more pained, he had begun to break.
Olpara had not wanted to suffer like that. What was the point of being brave, of refusing to talk, when eventually the pain would break you anyway? She could not take that.
"Please," she said, her voice almost a squeak, "I'll tell you what you want to know. Just don't hurt me." Saying it made her feel terrible, like the worst creature on all of Faerûn, but it also relieved her. She would not have to try to hold out.
The orc leered down at her. "Going to talk already," he said. "What's the little bird going to sing about?"
The old, scarred orc pushed forward and stood over Olpara. He held up his left arm, and the wicked, steel hook where his hand should have been. "Tell us all about the elf," he said.
Where to start, Olpara wondered. She was not even sure where Misara was. Perhaps she could offer to take them to her. The spell she had planned to use to find Rowan would easily help her track down Misara.
Then, before she could even make the offer, the orc with the hook rocked to the side. The other orcs cried out in surprise; the one holding Olpara released her as he stood. Olpara took her eyes from the hook and looked up at the old orc. There was an arrow sticking out of his neck.
The old orc fell to his knees, and then over on to his side.
The orcs tried to lift shields, or dodge out of the way, but arrows streaked down from the ravine top, finding openings in armour. The orcs hit to the ground, lying still with the dark shafts still quivering in their bodies.
Olpara looked around, amazed at the speed at which the orcs had died.
There was the sound of dirt and rock falling and Olpara turned towards the noise, seeing Misara slide down the side of the ravine, a rough short-bow in her hand, arrow held ready.
"Misara," Olpara said softly. She could not ever remember feeling so shamed and low as she did at that moment.
"Are you alright?" Misara asked her.
Misara walked to each of the orcs and used the toe of her boot to push at them. One of them moaned. She walked over to the fallen man and knelt beside him. Her voice was soft, and the words elvish. Olpara realised she was praying. A moment later the man groaned and opened his eyes.
"Just lay down for a moment," Misara told him.
"Is he going to be alright?" Olpara asked as she got to her feet.
"Just some cracked ribs now." She stood and walked over to the orc who still lived.
Olpara watched as she pulled the orc up to a sitting position and then slapped him across the face. "Talk to me," she said in orcish.
How odd the orc tongue sounded when voiced by an elf, Olpara thought.
"Kesk will kill you," the orc said, and then laughed. "He has the favour of He Who Watches."
"Kesk? Well, where can I find this Kesk?"
The orc laughed again. "Near the top of the hill where the trees are burnt. Go there and die elf." He spat at Misara, but she shifted her head aside and the spittle landed near Olpara's feet.
Misara lay the orc down, her movements surprisingly gentle. She took her dagger from her belt and slit his throat. Olpara watched, noting that Misara's lips moved as she spoke something too soft for her to hear. Was she praying?
"Find a place to hide and wait," Misara said as she stood.
Olpara wanted to ask what Misara would do next, but she left so quickly, climbing up the side of the ravine and disappearing.
The goblins did not come out of the ravines. They fired their crossbows, but the bolts fell far short of where Rowan and the others waited. Thayla and her men had strung their bows and fired a few arrows into the forest. It was more of a warning than any attempt to stop the goblins.
"I'm not certain they are going to leave the ravines," Thayla told Rowan.
"Not yet," Rowan said. She suspected that the goblins were getting ready for something. She knew that the little creatures could be quite devious, and with intelligent leadership their numbers made them a very real threat. When they finally committed themselves to an attack Rowan intended to ride away, causing any formations they might have to pull apart. Then she could turn and attack the goblins while they were disorganised.
It was a serviceable plan, assuming that the goblins did not do anything too surprising.
An arrow shot out of the woods and hit one of the Thayla's riders, knocking the man from his saddle.
"To cover," Rowan shouted.
They rode fast, moving farther from the ravine, closer to the woods, and into the cover offered by a small copse of trees. More arrows shot out of the woods, whistling close by. Several buried themselves deep into the trees they sheltered behind.
"Those aren't goblins with crossbows," Thayla said.
Rowan shook her head as she got down from Rose Thorn. "Maybe the orcs." She moved through the copse until she was on the edge closest to the ravine. Several of the goblins had moved out into the open, running to areas of cover. Then several hobgoblins exited the ravine, kicking at a group of goblins to get them to move faster. Each of hobgoblins carried a longbow and was followed by goblins carrying extra quivers full of arrows.
Rowan turned and sprinted back to where the others waited. "Hobgoblins," she said, pulling her crossbow from Rose Thorn's saddle. "Come on."
She moved back into the copse. She could not let the hobgoblins set up. If they could move to firing positions with cover it was certain they could pin her and the others down while the goblins circled around to attack them from their flanks and rear.
As she reached the edge of the copse she set the heavy crossbow's windlass in place and began winding the string back.
At her sides Thayla and her two, remaining men were drawing their bows.
The hill with the burnt crown was not difficult to find. Misara circled around and approached it from the side opposite to the where the ambush occurred. She slipped between the scrub and small trees, moving silently and hidden. She spotted an orc crouching in the behind some bushes, covered partially by a mottled green cloak. Well hidden, for an orc.
She looked about and began to spot other orcs, arrayed out along a steep path that led up the hill. It did not look like they were set up for a simple ambush. She suspected that they were there to drive someone, herself, up the path, to whatever was waiting at the top.
Cut off her retreat and force her to fight.
She moved back from the orc and paralleled the path, moving through the bushes, unseen. When she had passed all the orcs she moved onto the path, looking about to make certain she remained unseen.
She placed a trip line on the trail, setting it to trigger a firetrap. The trail secured, she continued climbing, moving to the side into cover.
At the end of the trail she found four orcs waiting. They were alert, and carried their weapons ready. Misara was a little taken aback by the female orc with them. She usually did not see female orcs outside of their caves.
Farther up, near the edge of the burnt area, she saw the mouth of a cave. Standing in front of it was a tall, broad form wearing armour. This was a trap, she thought. To drive her up here, trap her, so that Kesk, possibly the one who stood by the cave, might kill her.
She had been thinking about Kesk, ever since she had heard the name from the orc. There had been a Kesk, several years before. He and others had plotted to poison the water and food of Baldur's Gate so that they might take the city with ease. She had stopped them months before they had been ready to move, taking the leaders, of which Kesk had been one.
He had been turned over to the authorities at Baldur's Gate. She had assumed he had been executed.
Misara decided that whether it was the Kesk she recalled, or someone with his name, or an undead creature seeking vengeance, that it did not matter. She would have to deal with him to save the children. Over the distance she could hear soft cries coming from the cave. For now at least some of the children still lived.
She drew her sword and freed her sheath from her belt. She stepped out behind the four orcs who were waiting for her, pointing the mouth of the sheath towards them. She spoke the word to call up its power.