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Embers of Black - Chapter Seventeen

Patrick Braddock
Old Vault Category: 
Old Vault ID: 

A shining sun hung overhead as the party left the cavern the next morning. Talomanes led the way, leading them by memory. Anluriel trudged along in his wake, her and the two other drow caught in the ambush moving stiffly from their still-healing wounds. The red-cloaked Anjolina made her way as best she could behind the drow, her heavy clothing sometimes bogging her down in the snow. Korg came next, his axe slung across his right shoulder as he carried a satchel loaded down with books across his left. Illandra and Corenne came after the orc, talking quietly amongst themselves, one of them occasionally moving up beside Korg to ask him a question. Maezinessa and Jaezil held the rear position, keen drow eyes keeping a vigilant watch for another ambush.

The bright sun shone on the steel of the paladin's armor, warming him pleasantly. Despite the freezing temperature, he found it warm enough to doff his tattered cloak, folding it up and tossing it over a shoulder. Though his easy gait and the marching song he absent-mindedly hummed bespoke a certain nonchalance, his green eyes kept watch nearly as well as the two scouts', though he spent much of his time sweeping the sky, looking for the dragon that had led him to the orc and the scout the day before.

Korg� Talomanes was still trying to figure out what goals the orc had. When he had first entered the small cave and spotted him hunched over the sleeping drow, he had been prepared to cut him down but had instead found his muscles frozen in an magical grip, leaving him unable to move. After both he and Maezinessa had talked to him, at length, and made sure he understood, the orc released the spell he had used to hold the paladin.

After watching way the orc handling his axe in the skirmish with the patrol yesterday, as well as the spells he had wielded with equal ease, Talomanes knew that Korg was both an accomplished warrior as well as a powerful sorceror. The fact that he bore no ill will towards them and even risked his own life to save that of the wounded scout made little sense, considering the orcish army plaguing the land. Also, the paladin sensed no evil at all within him.

Shaking his head in confusion, Talomanes turned his eyes once more to the sky. Orcs who attack us, orcs who help us�Next, we'll be finding a kindly old man out here who just happens to be the great Elminster and he'll whisk us all away to the jungles of Chult for tea. Snorting, he ploughed onward through the snow.

Behind him, Anluriel was also struggling with her thoughts. She had led a full dozen of her sisters into this wild northland in the hopes of working Eilistraee's good here. Now, four of her sisters were dead. Their souls weighed heavily on the drow, seeming to weigh her down with each step. Silently, she offered a prayer for them, recalling each of their faces. My sisters, daughters of Eilistraee, you will not have died in vain.

Anluriel turned her eyes to the man in front of her, a human warrior of a human god who had every reason to hate her for the stories that were told of her people. Yet, oddly, he accepted her and the rest of the dark elves with nary a second look. We could learn a lot from this one. She didn't begrudge him for taking command of the group so easily. Instead, she admired a male with such assertiveness, something never seen among the drow culture, which was dominated by the priestesses of Lolth and where men were kept as little more than slaves and breeding stock.

The sun crept ever higher in the sky as the group moved westward, heading towards the relative solace of the village. At noon, Talomanes called a short halt so they could rest and eat some of the dried fruit and meat the drow had stashed in their hideout.

Chewing on a strip of tough reindeer meat, the paladin turned in a slow circle, his eyes sweeping over the unbroken expanse of white that surrounded him.

"Getting us lost, fearless leader?" There was a rustle of cloth at his shoulder and a flash of red glimpsed from the edge of his vision.

"No, just checking for anything out there that'd like to stick us full of sharp, pointy objects." He turned his eyes on the bardess. "Why are you here, Anjolina?" Holding up a hand to forestall the objection about to tumble from her open mouth, he trod on. "Why here? Why now? There's too many threads woven here for all this to be coincidence."

The bardess looked down, picking idly at her crimson cloak, a thoughtful expression on her face. "You are right when you say there's too much going on to be coincidence." She lifted her eyes to his. "There are some who can sense these things." It seemed that her eyes flashed with a hidden fire for a moment.

Talomanes blinked. "And you're one of these people?"

That brought a bright peal of laughter from the woman. "Me? Good heavens, no!" She smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. "They sent me to watch and record what happens and to tip the scales if they seem to be too badly unbalanced." Stepping close to him, she reached up, touching his cheek. "But just because I'm here on obligation doesn't mean I can't have a little fun, too." She threw him a wink before turning and slipping off to seat herself on the satchel of books that Korg had lain in the snow, striking up a conversation with the orc.

Muttering to himself, Talomanes was struck by how ludicrous it was. Korg and I and a dozen females! Sighing, he touched the steel covering his heart, his thoughts going to Naestra. Remembering the feel of her in his arms as she slept brought a small smile to his lips. The memory of their moments of passion brought a fierce blush to his cheeks, as well, turning his smile into a goofy grin.

"Korg tink you got water on da brain, lookin' stoopid like dat." A powerful hand smacked him on his backplate, nearly tumbling the paladin into the snow. "Tink you need be getting' us movin'."

Grinning, Talomanes clapped the orc on the back. "You're right, Korg." He raised his voice. "Let's get moving. We've still got a few more hours of plodding along like pack mules."

As Korg proceeded to lift Anjolina off his bag of books and dumped her unceremoniously on the ground, the others stood and made ready to move out. The paladin turned his gaze to the west. Trying, with difficulty because of his armor, to scratch an itch between his shoulder blade, he set off once more, his feet carrying him towards the one he loved.

The great, sweeping plains were cloaked in darkness by the time the weary group reached the houses of Gemyn's Rest. The scent of woodsmoke lingered in the air. The smell of cooking also wafted from more then one chimney, doing a little to pick up the spirits of the companions.

Talomanes hurried his pace, eager to get something hot in his belly as well as to see his Naestra again. The short trip to the Benevolent Unicorn seemed to take an eternity to him. Finally, though, he stood before the stout door that led into the common room of the inn, the soft hum of conversation coming from within.

Taking a breath, he pushed open the door. "Look who I found!" Holding the door open, he stood to the side as the rest of the group came trudging in. Master Calhen's eyes widened a bit at the sight of more of the dark elves and nearly started from his head altogether as Korg's barrel-chested form came through the doorway.

"Ah, w-w-will you be needing more rooms, good sir?" He was wringing his hands, not sure whether the influx of new patrons was a good thing or not.

"I think so," Talomanes replied, tossing a small purse to the heavyset man, who caught it with remarkable grace. The paladin's eyes swept over the few folk gathered there, spotting Yshandara, Ashera, and one of the other drow seated at a table. Naestra and the other dark elves were nowhere to be seen.

There was a tapping at the top of the stairs, drawing Talomanes' eyes. The assassin stood at the landing, swathed in shadows. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest and was tapping her foot on the floor, her face a grim mask. With inexorable slowness, she straightened and made her way silently down the stairs until she stood directly before the paladin, staring up at him.

"Come with me," she said quietly, slipping around him and out the front door.

The silence of the inn was only broken by the feel of every eye on him. Blushing furiously, Talomanes turned, following Naestra out the door. The cold bite of the air stung his exposed skin after the soothing warmth of the inn. He steeled his resolve, following the dim figure of the assassin around the side of the building and into the main entrance of the inn's stables.

A lantern threw its fitful light around the empty stable, doing little to drive away the murk of the night. Talomanes made his way inside, trying to find Naestra in the darkness. The sound of the door closing behind him was followed by the clunk of the bolts being thrown. Turning, the paladin saw the assassin standing there, one hand still on the last bolt. In her other hand, she held the naked blade of one of her long knives, the light of the lantern dancing on the gleaming metal.

The last bolt shut fast, she approached him, with with grim purpose until she stood before him. When she spoke, her voice was a soft whispering that Talomanes had to strain to hear. "You left me alone, running off into the night." With a deft twist of her knife, she cut one of the straps of his breastplate. "You never left word about where you were going." She cut off his protest by slitting another strap. "You could have been killed and I would never known." The blade flicked again, leaving the armor hanging precariously from his mailed shoulder. "You will never do that again." Once more the blade flashed, severing the last bit of leather and letting the steel clang to the ground.

Gazing into Naestra's eyes, the paladin saw the pain and the fear lurking there. And something else, a banked fire. "No," she whispered. "You will never do that again." She drew her hand back, her knife set for a killing blow.

Unflinchingly, Talomanes stood before her as her knife whipped forward, groaning in surprised as she shifted her grip at the last moment to punch him full in the gut, causing him to bend over and fall to his knees as he wheezed, trying to catch his breath. A firm hand on his chest pushed him over backwards as bucket of water was poured over the lantern, snuffing it's feeble light.

"You'd better do a good job of convincing me you're sorry of you're going to hurt worse in the morning," Naestra's voice murmured teasingly as Talomanes felt her hands on the buckles of his remaining pieces of armor.

"Yes, my love," the paladin replied dutifully, his own hands working on the straps, as well. Torm have mercy should I fail to impress her� A wicked grin flashed across his face in the darkness.

The faint light of dawn filtered through the cracks in the door and walls when the paladin awoke. Blinking awake the sleep in his eyes, he stretched, then immediately regretted it when his arms and shoulders slipped from under the mound of blankets.

Chuckling to himself, Talomanes huddled back underneath the pile, snuggling up to the still-sleeping assassin. She had planned his out in quite a bit of detail, he had realized. The two of them lay on a stack of blankets four thick and had as many covering them, keeping the two of them warm despite the freezing air within the stable.

Wrapping his arm around Naestra's waist, the paladin lay behind her, letting the warmth the two of them shared lull him back into a doze. His thoughts brushed over the night before, his face flushing. Hurriedly, he turned them elsewhere, looking back over the past few days, to the orcs that had been pillaging the land and to the undead that had seemed to be plaguing just them.

The way they act�it seems like they're two separate groups. Talomanes turned over the possibility that they were facing not one but two enemies, each one working towards unknown purposes.

As if his thoughts had drawn the fell humor of a dark god, the mournful call of an orc war horn came faintly to his ears. "Oh no�" He gently shook Naestra's shoulder. "Beloved, wake up. It's an attack."

The assassin came awake instantly, sitting upright, her head cocked to one side as she listened, ignoring the biting cold that drew goosebumps over her exposed skin. Again the faint call came. Swearing to herself, she hastily began pulling on her clothes.

Talomanes began dressing, too, his teeth chattering in the frigid air. After he had dressed and slipped into his mail hauberk, he held up the breastplate, trying to figure out a way to repair it quickly. Grunting, he let out a bit on the straps, punching new holes in them with his belt knife. It wasn't something a smith would be proud of, but it would hold his armor on.

By the time the paladin had unbolted the door of the stable and entered the inn, he saw the others were already prepared. The drow were all clad in their dark mail, slim elven swords at their hips and graceful bows across their shoulders. Corenne and Illandra stood near them, the raven-haired wizard looking cool and composed clad in a brilliant white gown and cloak, her friend looking vaugely ill as she ran her fingers restlessly over the sword at her hip.

Korg had found a shirt of chain somewhere, as well as a sturdy leather helmet, reinforced with strips of iron. He grinned at Talomanes and Naestra as they entered, his eyes sparkling knowingly. His wicked black iron axe hung at his belt, his hand resting lightly on it.

At the rear stood Anjolina, clad today in a cloak of mouse gray which parted to reveal a set of clothing that was plain and ordinary, the color of fresh-fallen snow. A graceful rapier hung at her hip, though she kept brushing it with her hand as if to remind herself what it was doing there, exactly. She also smiled as the paladin and assassin came into the inn, throwing a roguish wink at the pair.

A half dozen or so large men clad in furs in carrying massive longbows stood in the center of the room, talking amongst themselves and throwing the occasional glances at the dark elves. Oddly enough, Harald Calhen also stood with them, an ill-fitting leather jerkin covering his broad bulk and a rusty spear held uneasily in his hand.

"What's going on?" Talomanes asked, catching Anluriel's eye.

The dark elf gestured towards one of the men. "I shall let them tell you." She nodded towards a black-bearded man, his head covered in a conical steel helm. He returned her nod and stepped forward.

"I am Jenvar Gnorrson, a trapper hereabouts. My friends and I," his gesture took in the other men standing behind him, "heard orc horn while we were holed up in our winter camp. We've grown accustomed to the usual cycle of orcish raids every spring, but there are far more than normal. Maybe as many as a thousand. And they're headed this way. We made it here perhaps an hour ahead of them."

Talomanes nodded, taking this in. Maybe as many as a thousand� "We need to get the women and children out of here as fast as we can. I want you to gather as many men who will fight and send them here. Don't send them all. We'll need someone to protect the others as they flee."

Jenvar shifted uneasily, exchanging looks with his comrades. "There is nowhere to go. Develor was the only haven around here, and your friends have said that it lies in ruin."

The paladin muttered an oath. An idea, nothing more than a hopeful grab at someway to get the women and children out, came to him. He looked to Anluriel. "We'll take them to the hidden cave."

The drow leader started to object. "But the undead-"

"-are no threat compared to the thousand orcs about to come crashing down on us," Talomanes said, crushing her statement. "If we don't act now, everyone dies. Or worse." He turned his eyes back to the trapper. "Go. Get everyone here. We're going to push hard and fast towards a safe place and hope the orcs are content to stop and loot this village." Jenvar nodded and motioned to his comrades. Together, they left the inn, heading out into the fierce cold.

Harald Calhen came forward. "Good sir, I've still got much of my winter stores left. It's not much, but it should feed everyone in the town for at least two weeks."

"How many people are there here, exactly?" the paladin asked.

The innkeeper thought for a moment. "Perhaps thirty or so. Why?"

Shaking his head, Talomanes replied, "No matter." He gestured towards the steely-haired orc. "Korg, go with Master Calhen and see what you can do about dividing up the food. When the townspeople start coming, I'll send the stronger men to you and you can load them up."

"Awright," the orcish warrior grunted. "Korg tink dat da water on your brain musta cooked off. You be tinking good now." He grinned toothily at the paladin before following the innkeeper through the kitchen door.

Talomanes permitted himself a grim smile before turning to his other companions. His eyes swept over the women. I wonder who will die today? "Yshandara, Ashera, you two will stay with the women and children, keep them safe. Illandra, you go with them. Your spells would be more useful there. Anluriel, you and your drow stay with me for now. Corenne, you, too. Try to stay back and use your magic, leave the swordwork to the veterans." He turned, his eyes dropping to Naestra, who still stood behind him. "Beloved�" His voice was barely above a whisper. "I want you to watch my back. I can think of no one I would rather have there."

The assassin smiled briefly, reaching up to touch his cheek in a tender gesture. "Just don't do something foolish like charging into the whole horde and expect me to keep up." She stood up on her toes, brushing her lips against his.

"What about me?" Anjolina's voice came from behind the others. "I can fight, too, you know."

The paladin turned to face the bardess. "I want you to stay with Korg. He may need an extra hand watching over the food. It'll be the most important property in the days to come."

The woman snorted. "So now I'm nothing more than a glorified tavern wench, hm?" Her lips quirked into a sardonic smile. "Well, if I'm going to die, I might as well die buried in dried figs." She spun on her heel, her gray cloak billowing around her as she strode into the kitchen.

The first of the townspeople began showing up then. Talomanes directed them into three groups. The older boys he sent through the kitchen to Korg so that they could be assigned a portion of the stores to carry. The women and younger children were shepherded to a circle of a drow warriors. The men, nearly a score counting Jenvar and his trappers, were taken by the paladin to a place outside the inn and away from the others.

Talomanes looked over his handful of soldiers carefully. All of them looked as if they knew how to use the axes and bows they carried. As Jenvar had said, orcish raids were something to look forward to every spring.

"This is what we're going to do." He squatted down, tracing a circle in the snow. "This is the village." He drew an arcing line below the circle. "This is the orc army, coming up fast." Another line came out of the top of the circle, bending sharply to the left. "We'll go north from here and turn westward towards the hidden cave." Leaning back on his heels, the paladin swept his eyes over the men gathered before him. "We are going to be the rearguard. Anluriel's dark elves will watch over the others and get them there safely."

Talomanes held up his hand to forestall the muttering before continuing. "What we're going to do is to buy them enough time to get there safely and try to cover our tracks as best we can. Hopefully, we'll get another winter storm blow up, but if not, we'll do what we can."

The paladin stood. "Five minutes and we move out. Until then, your time is your own." He walked around the side of the inn.

In front of the building, the drow were busy getting the women and children together. Maezinessa even had a bawling baby in a harness on her back. Korg and his detail of boys, some barely larger than the heavy burdens they carried, were lined up. The orc was directing them with his wicked axe, either unaware of the stares it drew or knowing and using it to his advantage. Corenne and Illandra were talking quietly amongst themselves, but when the brown-haired elf saw him approach, she quickly embraced her raven-haired friend and fell in beside him.

"We're leaving?"

Talomanes nodded, his eyes searching for Naestra. He found her talking with, of all people, the gray-cloaked bardess. The two women had their heads bent close, ignoring the chaos churning around them. They ended their conversation, the bardess giving the assassin a quick hug before heading towards the axe-waving orc. Naestra looked up and saw the him and elf approaching and moved to meet them.

The paladin wrapped her in a tight embrace, lifting her from the ground. He held her for a long moment like that before setting her back on her feet. She threw him a brief smile before taking her place at his side, opposite Corenne.

He turned to face the assembled group, taking a deep breath. "Listen up, people! Until I say otherwise, Anluriel is in charge." He gestured at the dark elven leader, who nodded her white-haired head. "I want you do to whatever she says. If you don't you risk everyone's lives. Move 'em out!"

The drow nodded again, raising her own ringing voice. "Follow me and keep the pace up! We need to hurry!" She started off at a brisk walk, the small column of women and children following her. Korg and the boys carrying the food were in the middle, Anjolina walking beside the orc. The other drow formed a circle around the group, keen eyes already keeping a watch for danger.

When they were out of sight, Talomanes turned to his own men, many of whom were staring after the column. "This is it. It's up to us to see that your kinfolk make it safe and sound." All eyes turned to him. "There's probably going to be scouts come through here first while the main army waits outside. They're going to want to see what kind of opposition they'll be facing." Silently, the paladin thanked all those boring lectures he'd had to endure in the Temple of Torm, lectures on military tactics and history. And to think I thought paladins always battled alone or with just their comrades.

"We'll split into small groups of four or five and take up positions around the city. When you catch sight of the scouts, try to pick off as many as you can and then begin falling back. Meet up here as fast as possible and we'll leave once everyone arrives. Hopefully, losing some of their scouts will give them pause and give us enough time to slip away."

Quickly, he divided up the men, placing at least one of Jenvar's trappers in each group. With himself, he took Corenne, Naestra, Jenvar himself, and Harald Calhen. Taking a deep breath, he faced the men one last time.

"Remember, we need your alive, so no noble sacrifices right now." A few of the men chuckled nervously. "Torm's guidance go with you all." He dismissed them with a gesture and they began to slip away in their groups.

He turned towards his own small band. The assassin gave him a small, comforting smile. "Let's get to the south edge of town and take a look at these orcs." The others followed him as he trudged down the main street of the village. Once they reached the house he had in mind, they quickly entered and took up position in the bedroom, which was on the second floor and gave them a good view of the plains between them and the advancing orcs.


Embers of Black - Chapter 17 © Patrick Braddock

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