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Embers of Black - Chapter Fourteen

Patrick Braddock
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A softly-glowing ball of magical radiance flashed into being in the night above the score of orcs in the patrol and then faded, blinding their sensitive eyes.

The white-clad figures that rose from the snow in a semi-circle on the orcs' flank had been careful to keep their eyes closed then that magical light had appeared, and they saw quite well in the pale moonlight, arrows leaping from polished bows, finding targets in the ranks of the bedazzled orcs. Within a matter of moments, the entire patrol was down, lithe shapes making their way among the groaning humanoids, finishing off the wounded with quick motions of sword or dagger.

Talomanes slowly rose from his prone positon near Naestra's feet. For the past two days, it had been like this, ambushing patrols that strayed too near Gemyn's Rest. The first had nearly discovered the small village, and each one after had been taken farther and farther from the hamlet, drawing the orcs' attention away. With luck, the settlers there would never know how close they had come to having a murderous mob of bloodthirsty orcs come crashing down on their heads.

Beside him, Naestra slipped the arrow she had nocked back into the quiver at her hip, unstringing her bow and tucking it in with her arrows before closing the oiled leather flap. The light snow that was falling wouldn't do much damage to her bow and arrows, but the wind and the starless expanse of sky to the west seemed to promise much more before dawn came.

The paladin slipped an arm around her waist, drawing her close to himself so they could share their body heat as he wrapped his cloak around them both. He felt he squeeze his gauntleted hand as they both surveyed the carnage of the orcish patrol.

In the last two days, they had taken nearly a hundred orcs, with the loss of only one drow archer and a scout that was still missing and presumed dead. The skills of Ashera, the drow priestess, and Talomanes' own newfound healing abilities had kept those more seriously wounded alive long enough to get them put back together and away from the threat of death.

The sole drow killed had actually been an accident, having been tumbled down a steed draw when the snow beneath her feet gave way. When the rest of the group reached her, they saw she had crashed through a patch of ice and landed in a nest of ice vipers, already dead from a score or more venomous bites.

Looking across the churned snow of the ambush site, Talomanes saw that Ashera was talking with Yshandara, the elven cleric of Eilistraee, using another drow as an interpreter. The cleric of Lathander had fallen in with the other priestess and spent much time with her, as well as the scout who had gone missing. The three of them spoke long and usually loud, interspersing the conversations of deities, magic, and rituals with more relaxed subjects such as stories of growing up, wonderful sights each had seen, and, oddly enough, men. The paladin figured he must had played a role in some of the last topic, and, judging by the acid looks that occasionally got sent his way, it wasn't a very good one.

Naestra sensed his distress and turned her face to his, a slight hint of worry creasing the faint lines around her eyes. Her eyes on his always brought a smile to his lips and he leaned down, kissing her briefly. She returned his kiss and he saw that the lines around her eyes had faded.

Turning back to the field in front of them, Talomanes gestured with his hand, taking in the whole scene. "It went well tonight."

"Yes, it did," the assassin agreed quietly. She went back to studying the moonlit plains around them, her eyes searching for anything out of place. Once before, after an ambush, they had been attacked by shadowy wraiths, and it had been she who had sounded the alarm. Since then, they had been extremely wary after an engagement, as the undead seemed to be drawn to violence and death like vultures.

The dark elven women were finished rifling through the corpses of the orcs and were preparing to return to their hiding place in a roundabout, backtracking manner to throw off attempts to track the group back to their lair. Seeing this, the paladin gave Naestra a quick kiss on the cheek and squeezed her waist affectionately before guiding her over to the elves.

Ashera, the drow priestess, and their go-between fell in, as well, the cleric of the Morninglord shooting Talomanes and Naestra a look of scorn. Women! he thought with an exasperated mental snort.

The group began moving east, angling northwards, though the cavern lay to the south. Three fast-running scouts sprinted ahead of the group, helping to prevent the ambushers from turning into the ambushed.

About three hours to daybreak, the storm that had been sweeping in from the west overtook them. Screaming wind slammed a virtual wall of snow into them, the thick falling cutting vision down to just a few feet. The drow had prepared for this and each member of the group paused for a moment to loop a long, thin strand of rope through their belts.

Guided by their heat-sensitive eyes, the scouts returned and likewise tied themselves in with the group, one in front and one on each flank, their eyes roving the white expanse of nothingness.

Talomanes could see nothing in the blizzard, not even the back of the drow archer a pace in front of him, her cloak making her blend into the darkened mass of swiling snow even more. He stumbled along, both pulling Naestra behind him and half-dragging her when she stumbled through the larger drifts. Her hand in his seemed the only thing solid in the snow-shrouded night, as the ground gave with each step.

The rope at his belt jerked once and then went limp as the paladin took another step forward and tripped over something solid and heavy. Falling to his knees, he felt Naestra bump into his armored back. Slipping the gauntlet from his right hand, he reached down, trying to pry the rope from whatever had tripped him, as it had seemed to be tangled with whatever it was.

He followed the rope down with his hand, bumping against something solid. Probing around blindly, he realized he was feeling the belt of the elf that had been in front of him. Trying to work his arm around the fallen drow to help her to her feet, his fingers brushed a gaping tear in her fine chainmail, coming away sticky with rapidly-cooling blood.

Talomanes leapt to his feet, bellowing, "Ambush!" Realizing that fighting in the sightless murk would endanger friend and foe alike, the paladin roared out a single command. "Run!"

Slipping the dagger from his belt, he cut the roap from the fallen elf's beat, severing him and those behind from the ones in front. Looping the cut rope around his right hand, he leaned down, lifting the drow and slinging her over his shoulder unsure whether she was alive or not. Regardless, he wasn't going to leave her here.

Leaning forward, he crouched and bit and tensed, then ploughed through the snow at an angle perpendicular to the one they had been following, dragging Naestra, the three drow who were behind him, and Ashera through the new path had was blazing. "Run!" he yelled again, crouching slightly as he pumped his legs as hard as he could, seeming to make his way through the knee-high snow with agonizing slowness.

For long moments he heaved and waded through the snow, fearing an attack he couldn't see. Then calmness flowed through him as he felt Torm's presence within himself. With the presence came a pang of guilt, as the knowledge came to him that he had abandoned his comrades who had been ahead of him.

If I hadn't cut and run, we may all have been dead! With that, the feeling of guilt lessened, but didn't go away completely. He knew that when he had gotten those behind him to safety, he would be back out here, searching for the rest.

Hot blood flowed down Talomanes' left shoulder, seeping through the seams of his plate and through the links of his mail. Thankfully, the drow stirred a bit, moaning. Still pushing relentlessly through the snow, the paladin opened himself to his god's divine radiance, summoning up the healing warmth and sending it flowing into the dark elf. There was a brief resistance, as always, and then the warmth left him in a rush, flowing into her.

The dark elf relaxed as the healing power coursed through her, her body going limp on the paladin's shoulder. Giving her mailed rear end a good pat, the paladin trudged faster through the snow, not knowing where he was headed but wanting to be as far from whatever had hit the group as possible.

Hours later, the raging storm finally blew itself out, leaving the entire plain covered in waist-deep snow. A bone numbing weariness had seeped into the paladin and by the dragging steps of those behind him, he knew that the others felt the same.

Talomanes' right hand had gone numb, the rope wrapped around it hard enough to draw blood, but even the blood had frozen, welding the rope to his skin. The blood that had flowed down his left shoulder had iced as well, making the entire left side of his body feel as though it had been submerged in a glacial river.

The sun had just cleared the horizon, and as the paladin lifting his red and blistered face up, he caught sight of a faint smudge of smoke against the horizon. As the smoke seemed to be too little to be the orcish camp and hoping for someplace warm and dry to rest, he turned his numb feet in that direction, plodding through the drifts with painful slowness.

After nearly a half hour, he was close enough to make out each of the twoscore buildings in the small village. Gemyn's Rest. Torm be praised! Soon, he was leading the band among the town itself, looking for an inn or hostel.

Occasionally, a pair of eyes would turn to the band curiously, and more than one caught sight of the black-skinned elves. Though tales of the legendary drow ranger Drizzt Do'Urden had spread this far east, these dark elves certainly weren't him. Suspicious glares followed the companions down the main road, despite the presence of three humans in the group.

Spotting an inn named the Benevolent Unicorn, which he took to be a good omen, Talomanes hastily made his way there, the others close on his heels. The building was stout river stone, the chinks in the walls patched with mud daubing. The door was stout oak, and closed against the cold.

Leaning back a bit as he carefully juggled the weight of the wounded drow, the paladin reared back an iron-shod boot and kicked the door open, sending it banging against the wall. He staggered through, trying to get his balance back before he tumbled both himself and the one he was carrying onto the floor. Naestra took up watch outside the door as the rest filed in, her hands resting surreptitiously on the hilts of the long knives at her belt.

The innkeeper, a portly, balding man, was mopping up the ale he had spilled when Talomanes kicked open the door, glowered at the group until he caught sight of the snow-covered and blood-drenched paladin and the body over his shoulder. Eyes widening in fear, he began backing up towards the door to the kitchen as the dozen or so people in the room fell silent.

Trying to diffuse to panicked mood of the innkeeper as well as that of the patrons in the taproom, the paladin stepped forward. "Greetings, there," he said cautiously, raising his right hand to show he meant no harm. He winced a bit as his torn flesh protested in agony, but continued. "My name is Talomanes. I'm a paladin of Torm. And these are my companions." He gestured at the others, taking in the drow, Ashera, and Naestra, who had just closed the door behind her and was keeping her hands well away from her knives.

"T-T-Torm, you say?" the bald man stuttered. He seemed to regain a bit of composure, mopping his sweaty forehead with the ale-sodden rag he was holding. Stepping forward, he held out his right hand, which the paladin took. Gingerly, they shook hands. "You need a place to stay?"

"For a while, aye." Talomanes swept his eyes over the bedraggled group he had led in. "Perhaps a week or two."

The smile that spread across the innkeep's face, though it slipped a bit when he caught sight of the dark skin of the drow, was genuine. "I'm Harald Calhen. You're welcome for as long as you want here in the Unicorn. I haven't had much business all winter, and all but one of my rooms are free." Throwing a concerned look at the unconscious elf over the paladin's shoulder, he turned towards a stairway at the back of the room. "Follow me and I'll show you to your rooms," he called over his shoulder.

Talomanes followed the heavy-set man, struggling up the stairs, which led to a long hallway lined with doors. He registered motion at the end of the hall and looked up in time to see a pair of eyes watching him from the crack of the door at the far hall. Realizing the paladin had taken notice of the movement, the watcher slammed the door quickly.

"Ah, that's my other patron. She said she was a bardess, but she hasn't come out of her room at all, hardly. She even insists on having us bring up her meals." Harald shook his head in confusion. Blinking, he noticed he was just standing in the middle of the hall. Apologizing profusely, the man rushed over to the nearest door, turning the knob and pushing it open for the paladin.

Staggering into the room, Talomanes spotted the nearer of the two beds and, as gently as he could, dropped the dark elf onto the straw-filled mattress. With his burden gone, he stepped back, sagging down to sit on the other.

Yshandara, the priestess of Eilistraee, pushed her way in, followed by Ashera. Together, and the two began weaving their spells over the wounded elf, completely ignoring the paladin, which suited him just fine. He leaned back against the wall and within moments had slipped into a doze.

A hand shook him awake and he gazed up into Naestra's worried brown eyes. Such beautiful eyes� He reached up, stroking the assassin's cheek gently, not hearing more than one or two words she said. Armor? Cold? That's when he realized he was indeed cold. Very cold.

Shakily, he got to his feet, Naestra helping him unbuckle the armor plates from his body. When the last had crashed with a dull thud to the ground, he shrugged out of his bloody hauberk and stripped off his soaked clothing.

A fire had been started in the fireplace and was already driving away the chill. The warm air on his skin causing him to tingle all over. Slipping between the linen sheets, he pulled the assassin, who was clad in only her shift, to him.

With her body nestled against his and his arms wrapped around her, Talomanes was asleep almost instantly.

When the paladin finally awoke, the room had been plunged into near darkness, the only light coming from the dying fire. He had been asleep all day and into the night, it seemed. Feeling the bed beside him empty, he swung his legs over the edge, bracing his hand against the wall as his head spun for a moment.

Shrugging off the dizziness, Talomanes stood, stretching and working the kinks from the muscles of his neck and back. From the other bed came the sounds of someone sleeping. The wounded elf, he thought.

Being careful not to disturb the slumbering drow, the paladin found his trousers where someone had hung them to dry and pulled them on. Padding as quietly as he could to the door, he slipped out, not wanting to let anyone see him.

The hallway was empty but the sound of voices drifted up from the main room below. As he crept to the stairs, Talomanes caught the sound of Naestra's voice, talking with one of the other drow, as well as a woman he didn't recognize. He hoped their conversation would last for a short while, at least.

Sneaking back to his room, he dressed as quietly as he could. His armor clanked and clinked as he bundled it in his cloak, tying the makeshift bundle to his back with the blanket from the bed he had shared with the assassin.

Moving to the window, he pushed it open slowly, wincing as a gust of cold air blasted in. The sleeping elf murmured something in her sleep, but her voice drifted off into silence again. Breathing a silent prayer, the paladin wiggled through the window, barely fitting his bulk and his armor through at once. Thankfully, there was enough of a ledge to brace himself on while he closed the window from the outsite.

He reached back through the window, snatching up his two-handed blade and tossing it into the snow below. Holding his breath, he unslung his armor, letting it fall to the snow below. Instead of a clatter, it just made a dull thunk. Smiling slightly, Talomanes hopped off the ledge, dropped off the second floor and landing beside his armor.

Hurriedly, he untied the bundle, using handfuls of snow to scrub as much of the blood off his armor as he could. I wouldn't pass inspection, but it should do well enough and not draw too much attention. He slipped into the hauberk, running his hands over his body to get it settled. Next, he belted on and buckled down piece after piece of the plate.

Slipping the shoulder strap of his scabbard over his head, he buckled the belt around his waist, securing the greatsword in its place for an over-the-shoulder draw. Satisfied with the fit, he tested the draw of the blade and found it acceptable.

Ignoring the gnawing pangs of hunger that ate at his gut, he slipped off a gauntlet to scoop up a handful of snow, stuffing it into his mouth and letting the heat of his body and his saliva turn it to water.

Pulling his gauntlet back on, Talomanes strode off to the northwest, heading in the general direction of where they had been ambushed, sloshing the melting snow around in his mouth. He never noticed the slim form that leap from a different window on the second floor of the inn, landing softly in the snow and flitting from shadow to shadow as it followed him.


Embers of Black - Chapter 14 © Patrick Braddock

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