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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Ten - The End Nears)

Colin Frayn
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Doragon returned to work after two tedious days of resting. He was fed up with being injured and wanted to be part of the action once more. Carek and Athena were busy making furniture, and Doragon decided to lend a hand. To a halfling, the kind of furniture you own says a great deal about you. Any man who valued his own comfort enough to buy luxurious, handcrafted tables was clearly someone who you could trust. Humans seemed to spend far too much time collecting vast wealth, and never spent it on a good armchair. What was the point of owning an entire kingdom if you couldn't sit back after a hard day's work and let your cares flow away with a glass of fine wine?

The furnishings took eleven days to make and though they were not of exquisite quality, they served their purpose well enough. Doragon's influence at least assured that the final products were not entirely derisory. There were two sturdy tables of polished oak, which Carek placed in the centre of the fort ready for mealtimes. Carek made four chairs, one for each of the group. He also made some racks for storing weapons and armour, which he installed in one of the huts. A new roof was made for the old well. This contained a winding mechanism with a wooden bucket, waterproofed with sap from a gum tree. This bucket was attached to the handle with a long rope made from carefully woven strands of vine.

After much argument, Doragon finally agreed to be lowered down into the well with a torch to clear out the debris that had accumulated over the years, and to inspect the integrity of the walls. He was the smallest and lightest, so would be easiest to lift up, but he was not particularly pleased about the job. The well was deeper than Doragon cared to test, and had been dug out of the clay probably forty years ago at least. Carek could not remember it being built, as it was long before he was born. It had always provided a good supply of water to the huts, but had finally dried up several years ago. Carek knew that it would be extremely useful to the group if they could return it to its former condition.

Doragon's first job was to fill in all the holes in the walls and seal them with gum sap. After the renovation had been completed, Tarok used his magic to create a good quantity of pure, drinkable water down in the murky depths. This was quite a feat, and left the wizard feeling unusually drained, but with every spell he cast he knew that he was improving his body to withstand more magical energy. In much the same way that an athlete builds up his body by repeated strenuous exercise, all this magic casting was slowly improving Tarok's mind and body so that he could summon and control steadily larger magical surges. These forces could then be shaped into whichever effects the wizard desired. The more magical energy he could control, the more spectacular the effects.

After a few days rest, work began on the moat. Doragon was well healed by now, so he rejoined the group to help with the digging. They planned to finish the work within a fortnight, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the rains to fill it up. Doragon was still trying to persuade Tarok to help using his magical powers, but the wizard was a little reluctant. Spell casting was a very tiring business, and Tarok didn't really like the idea of spending such a long time out of action. Human bodies were not designed to withstand the great strains placed upon them by magic use, and though Tarok was now fairly fit and healthy, there was only a certain amount of punishment he could take. Apart from that, it would be an extremely boring task, just repetitively casting the same spell time after time. Tarok had just spent several weeks learning a great number of fascinating new spells to add to his repertoire, and the last thing he wanted to do was end up repeatedly summoning endless gallons of water.

The hill started taking shape from the excavated soil, exactly where Doragon decided it should be built. Tarok predicted that it would end up five yards high, and that the top could be flattened off to create an area large enough to fit two humans, from where they could fire a rain of arrows down on their unsuspecting foes. The rope bridge would need to be at least eight yards long to connect this outpost to the main part of the fortress. Carek fondly remembered people building rope bridges when his parents were still alive. He knew vaguely how it was done, but couldn't be sure he would get it exactly right. Having a rope bridge snap and dump you a dozen feet straight down amidst a crowd of attacking ogres would probably not be the most desirable of strategies.

After the first day of digging, the moat had been fully planned out. The first part was four feet wide, two yards long, and deep enough so that Tarok could just about stand up in it without his head poking over the top. They decided that the best idea would be to dig the whole moat two feet deep initially, then deepen it to four feet, and then finish it by digging out another two feet. The depth of the first section would be used as a guideline for the rest when the moat was finished. They could then leave steps on which to climb up when they were carrying the soil back out. Well, this was the plan at least. They all set to work on it and after four days of hard work, the whole moat was two feet deep, and the first stage had been completed. The mound of soil had grown quite substantially, and it looked as if Doragon's plan, together with Tarok's careful calculations, might just work out in the end.

Everyone knew that the digging could only get harder from then onwards, and they now had to haul the soil up a further two feet to carry it to the surface. The next stage of the moat took over a week to complete, and by the end of it, the friends were beginning to grow extremely tired. They left a step at one end that was just large enough to climb up on so that the soil only had to be hauled up two feet at a time. The moat was now mostly four feet deep and the four friends were thoroughly exhausted after almost two weeks of extremely hard physical work. Their arms were all aching, and they ate heartily every night in an attempt to regain lost strength.

The next stage would be the hardest and everyone was already very tired, so they decided to take a few days rest while they regained their energies. Athena made sure that she spent the time training her archery skills, and practised firing at trees from the top of the tower. Tarok helped her by creating smoke screens to fire through and dancing lights to distract her. Athena wanted to make sure that she was a bit more useful to the group should there be another attack in the near future.

Athena was a trained soldier, and so knew exactly how to learn a new weapon. She impressed all the other members of the group by her dedication, and spent most of the spare daylight hours either sprinting round the fort to keep fit, climbing trees to build up her strength, or just loading, firing, and reloading her crossbow over and over again. Before they started building the moat, she could fire five shots per minute, but now, after practising hard, she could manage seven shots per minute plus the increased accuracy. Even Carek was impressed at the speed with which she was improving, and she was now becoming quite deadly with her new weapon. Carek almost reluctantly agreed to let her follow him on another hunting trip soon, but decided that it would be better if she trained a bit on her stealth first, just as Doragon had done. The creatures of the forest currently had a great advantage there, and Carek knew exactly how important that was.

After the rest period, the real work resumed once more on the moat. It seemed that Tarok's estimate of a fortnight would be a long way off. The digging had already taken eleven days plus the two days rest. The rest of the moat would be likely to take eight to ten days to complete if they continued at the same pace. Work carried on as usual, but everyone was still becoming exhausted very quickly. The added problem of carrying the soil to the top of the small artificial hill was definitely tiring everyone out and they really were beginning to need an alternative.

Tarok had been very quiet all this time in the hut practising his spells to himself. He had an idea that he could not only use his telekinesis spell to transport the soil to the top of the hill, but he could also possibly use it to transport large blocks of soil from the moat site as well. This spell would take a lot out of him, so he could only cast it once per day but he could transport about a cubic yard at a time, which would make quite a substantial dent in the workload.

Tarok discussed this idea with his friends, and they agreed that it would be a great help, and would probably cut the time taken to finish the moat by at least a day or two. He proposed to try out his idea that very same day, as soon as he had prepared the requisite incantations and all those other magical necessities. His three friends were all getting quite excited about the idea as Tarok walked out of his hut, spell book in hand. He had not yet managed to memorise all the correct gestures and utterances so decided to better be safe than sorry, and read it from the book instead. Magic was dangerous enough when you got the words right, and Tarok didn't want to consider the possible disasters that could happen if he got them wrong.

Tarok stood there beside the trench, picturing the soil in his mind's eye. Suddenly, he raised his hands, chanting the mysterious words, and a whirling tempest of energy surrounded him, streaks of lightning racing from his fingers and surrounding the block of soil. Doragon stepped back in amazement and Carek and Athena looked on with great caution. Tarok summoned more magical energy, and began to raise his hands still further, seemingly teasing the soil out of the moat. Slowly, and to the great amazement of the rest of the group, the block gradually lifted up in the air, rose out of the trench and floated slowly across the clearing. Tarok was concentrating hard, and the strain of maintaining a constant flow of magical energy was beginning to show. The pain was growing, and he could feel his whole body weakening under the stress. Carek was becoming worried, but trusted the wizard to know what he was doing. Tarok was occasionally a little reckless, but would never risk his life to do such an unimportant task.

As the rest of the group watched on, the block of soil floated slowly over to the existing mound. Tarok closed his eyes, and the block fell to the ground on top of the larger heap of soil, spilling everywhere. Tarok staggered forward as the magical beams of energy vanished and he came out of his trance. The pain subsided, and his eyes began to cloud over as he collapsed to the ground. He regaining consciousness a few seconds later to a round of applause from his three friends. This had been a very powerful spell for him, and he would need to rest to cast it again the following day. Fortunately, Tarok was now able to go back to his room and sleep in safety, knowing that he had the fort to protect him.

Work carried on with the rest of the group using their crude shovels and buckets to carry the soil around. They realised that the moat would take considerably less time now, but they could not leave all the work to Tarok because the magician was using all his energies at the moment. Ideally, they wanted to spare him as much work as possible as he was such a useful ally. They didn't know what they would do if he were not available to help them in a combat situation, and the thought of the ogres returning with the wizard lying in bed, too weak to help, was not an inviting one.

The next morning the four woke up and Tarok paced out to the moat. He began to prepare himself carefully for the spell. Once again, the whirling maelstrom of magic surrounded him, and the bolts of energy appeared from his fingertips. He guided the soil to the heap, which was growing quite quickly, and let it drop. He collapsed from exhaustion, just as before, regaining consciousness a few seconds later, but too weak to walk for a while. Carek and Athena carried him to his bed, and let him lie down and rest. Work once again started on the moat with the traditional shovels and buckets. They were doing quite well now, and knew that the moat was not far from completion. However, they were not going to be completely happy until it was brimful with water, and the lookout post was complete too. Still, with Tarok's help the end was well and truly in sight.

They had just returned to work after lunch when Doragon suddenly stopped still and his ears pricked up. He spoke in a soft voice to his companions, "Quiet - I thought I heard something." Athena and Carek were silent, and climbed out of the trench to survey the surrounding forest. Doragon spoke again, "Yes, I definitely heard something that time."

Athena shrugged her shoulders, "This forest is full of noises my friend, why should this be any different?"

Carek reached down a hand and pulled his shorter friend up to the top of the moat where the halfling once more began to listen intently to the surrounding forest. It was then that Carek heard it too, and he began to wander towards the forest in the same direction as Doragon. This wasn't a friendly noise. Carek had lived in the forest for long enough to know that. He turned and began to run back towards Athena, his voiced showing a hint of fear, "Quick! Grab what you can and run back to the fort." Athena did as she was told, and then jogged after her friend, half confused and half afraid.

Doragon was most of the way to the fort now. Carek was frantically gathering up all of their equipment whilst running after his halfling friend. It was then that Athena heard it. Like the whole forest suddenly came alive with murmuring voices, and every twig in sight cracked under a myriad of approaching feet. She glanced over her shoulder, and a look of horror covered her face. A large group of creatures charged out of the forest, running straight towards her. They let out a war cry, which echoed round the clearing, filling her heart with fear. The hobgoblins were back, but this time they numbered well over a dozen. Athena ran back to the entrance of the fort, and her two friends closed the gate behind her just in time as a crude spear struck it from outside.

They had the half-finished moat to help them, but it was currently no more than a ditch. They were tired from the back breaking work, and totally unprepared. Worst of all they had no magician to defend them, as Tarok was still weak from his spell casting. The numbers looked bad, even including the help that the fort gave. This was to be a fight of epic proportions.

Outside the fort walls a series of loud battle cries rung out, together with overpowering guttural roaring. Athena, Carek and Doragon quickly gathered their weapons, wished each other luck, and took up their positions around the fort, preparing themselves for the battle of their lives.

Carek and Athena ran quickly to the top of the tower and started to fire. Two of the hobgoblins fell down to the floor, one from Athena's bolt and one from Carek's arrows. Doragon locked the main door with the heavy wooden bar and got ready in the centre of the courtyard. The only place where the moat had not been dug was the causeway in front of the door. This was the only section around the whole fort that had no moat but climbing the door would be very difficult because of the metal spikes embedded in it. Doragon hoped that the carefully planned defences would hold. He especially hoped this because he had helped to plan them all. He had designed the defences to make the fort as hard as possible for anything to get in to, provided that it thought just like him. He just hoped this would apply to hobgoblins too.

Carek fired another rain of arrows, this time managing to fire three at the sacrifice of accuracy. One hit its target, injuring another of the creatures, but the other two whistled into the ground, only forcing a few of the attackers to fall back. Athena took another shot, managing to impale the injured creature and felling it. Just then, one of the uglier hobgoblins stood forward, and began to wave his hands in the air. Immediately he started glowing a deep shade of red. Athena gasped - the hobgoblins had a sorcerer! This was getting worse. Bolts of energy flew from the sorcerer's hands, and struck Athena in the shoulder, knocking her off her feet. She fell backwards onto the hard wooden floor, striking her head on the battlements behind as the searing pain shot through her veins. Carek ran over to where she lay, and checked to see how she was. Anger began to swell up within him. How dare these creatures injure his friend? Athena was badly hurt but still breathing. Carek was furious, and he stood up, peered over the battlements and targeted the sorcerer. This evil beast would pay for its actions! Two arrows struck the creature in the chest. Carek fired another two to make sure, and ducked behind the fortifications as a crude spear flew overhead. He crawled over to Athena, and tore off a bit of his cloak to bandage her wounds.

All this time the band of hobgoblins was advancing. There were still at least ten left, and one looked like a chieftain, a very powerful warrior with fine crafted armour who would be a powerful adversary in combat. Carek knew this all too well, and he also knew that there were ten warriors out there against the two left inside the fort in fighting condition. They had done some damage to the attacking force, but the numbers were still against them.

Carek stood up once more, and shot two more arrows, which sought another victim who fell down dead on the floor with a painful shriek. Doragon had been running round the centre of the courtyard, gathering a pile of sticks. He carefully piled them up in the fireplace, fanning the dying embers with great vigour. Fortunately, there was still quite a bit of heat left over from their lunchtime cooking. Doragon obviously had one of his ideas again, and so Carek left him to carry on. Doragon fetched the black cooking pot, still half full of warm soup from their lunchtime meal. He placed it carefully on top of the burning embers, and left it to heat up.

Carek stood up from the battlements, and got ready to fire once more, but the hobgoblins had become wise to the danger, and had moved behind the walls at the other end of the fort. Carek knew that he would be safe for a few minutes, so rushed down the tower to collect some water for Athena. He hauled up a bucket from the well, poured it into a wineskin and then hurried back up to where his injured friend lay. He knelt next to her, poured the water slowly on her bleeding shoulder and then bandaged it up again. He gave her a sip of water to drink, and she slowly pulled herself onto her feet, resting weakly against the corner of the tower.

Meanwhile, Doragon had heated up the soup to boiling point once more, and heaved the heavy pot beckoning to Carek to help him. Carek ran down the tower, intrigued by Doragon's plan. They fetched one of the tables and stood it up against the wall overlooking the invaders below. Summoning all their strength, they lifted up the pot, and poured the boiling contents over the horrified greenskins. One of them perished in the flow of scalding hot water, tumbling into the moat below, and several others ran off screaming into the forest. The rest backed off from the wall slightly, fearing another shower. Carek got his bow, and shot at the creatures a they came out from their cover, killing one of them who fell down into the unfinished moat with a thud.

The rest of the group retreated into the forest. Carek smiled; that had seen them off. He and Doragon wandered back to the centre of the fort, and checked to see if Tarok had regained his strength yet. He was still lying down in his hut in an almost trance-like condition. He was obviously in no fit state to help them, so they left him there. Just as they were leaving the wizard, a yell came from the other side of the wall. The hobgoblins were back, and two were scaling the wall, obviously having made some kind of bridge over the moat. Carek got his bow ready, and shot down the first one, but before he had time to shoot again, the rest were upon him.

There were seven left, including the chieftain. Carek stepped back as the first took a swipe at him. Doragon lunged forward injuring its side, and Carek attacked with his spear finishing it off. Two more scaled the wall and approached the melee. Doragon stepped forward to fight, sword at the ready. Unfortunately for him, the attacker was also ready and dealt him a blow to the shoulder with his club. Doragon winced with the pain, but returned to the fight, determined not to fall out of this one too. Carek stepped forward to join in, but found himself being attacked from three sides as another attacker joined in the melee.

Carek took one swipe at the first hobgoblin, cutting his side, but then the greenskins counter attacked. One winded Carek with a sharp blow from his club, and Carek narrowly dodged a clumsy swipe from another. The others closed in on him from all sides. He was beginning to think that his luck had finally run out when all of a sudden one of the creatures let out a painful yell and fell down in a heap. Athena stood at the base of the tower, crossbow in one hand. Carek smiled. That had been a quick recovery! Athena quickly dropped the crossbow and drew her sword, wielding it with her strong arm. Five hobgoblins remained.

Carek managed to catch one of the creatures off guard, and sent its sword flying with a skilful disarm. The creature panicked and turned to flee, but Carek finished it off first. Turning round, the two friends saw the chieftain scale the wall, and approach with his three bodyguards. Doragon managed to scramble up, and limped away in the direction of the tower. Carek and Athena ran backwards prepared their weapons. Carek took his bow and fired, striking one of the three bodyguards, but decided to retreat up the tower before their enemy had chance to approach any further. Athena grabbed her crossbow as they retreated, and stopped half way up the tower, firing another quarrel into the chest of the wounded bodyguard through a window. The creature collapsed to the ground, its comrades running towards the tower where the three injured warriors had fled.

Carek had reached the top of the tower now, and Athena followed hurriedly. They tried to get the ladders up, but were not quick enough as the first guard started climbing up with his shield above his head to protect him from bombardment. Doragon had managed to reach the second level, and hid himself in the shadows of the corner of the room hoping not to be seen. Fortunately, the hobgoblins had not searched the rest of the fort, presuming the three defenders to be of greater concern. If they had entered Tarok's enclosure, then that would surely have been the end of the unfortunate wizard. Carek kept an eye on where the wizard lay, and prepared himself to defend his friend however he could. Fortunately, it seemed like the hobgoblins remained unaware.

Athena and Carek had reached the top, and waited for the first of the three remaining hobgoblins to arrive. Doragon crouched in the shadows, petrified, as the creatures carried on upwards without noticing him. The first to reach the top was a reasonably tall creature with a mace. He advanced, and attacked Athena first. His mace luckily hit her, bruising her arm. Carek charged in, and tried to disarm the creature, but failed. The creature managed to dodge the spear strike, and instead attacked Carek off guard. In one desperate manoeuvre, Carek blocked the creature's attack, and dived out of the way. Athena seized her initiative, and swiped at the distracted hobgoblin, neatly severing its head.

The second guard appeared with an axe, followed by the bulky chieftain. Carek and Athena looked at each other, then their foe, and then rushed forward in a flurry of energy. Whilst Carek disarmed its shield, Athena thrust her sword into the creature's stomach. Its attempts to stop both attacks failed and it was overcome. The creature breathed slowly once more and then collapsed.

The fight was now by no means over. The chieftain stepped forward, swiping his sword skilfully in the air. His force lay dead, but he was not about to give up here when victory was so close. Carek and Athena once again tried to confuse him with a joint attack, but he skilfully dodged them both, blocking Athena's sword with ease. Now it was his turn. He whirled his sword around his head and stabbed at Carek, hitting him squarely in the chest. Carek stepped back, and gritted his teeth to try to stand the pain. Fortunately, the wound was not deep, but it had pierced Carek's armour and cut his chest quite badly. He felt his strength flow away as the blade struck home, drawing a trickle of warm blood. Carek dropped back, clutching the wound with one hand, and wielding his spear with the other.

The chieftain attacked again with increased ferocity. Athena, who was worked up with fury, quickly dodged to one side like lightning, and the chieftain's blade lodged in the woodwork of the tower. Athena kicked the creature in the face, and drew her sword while the confused chieftain was still off-guard. She swiped at it, striking the creature's shoulder. The chieftain finally managed to dislodge its blade, but Carek was ready. He once again tried to disarm the chieftain with his spear, and this time managed to send its blade spinning off the side of the tower, where it thudded into the ground below.

Athena smiled as a look of horror covered the face of the defeated hobgoblin. She stepped forward, and took two attacks at the helpless creature. Carek followed her and off balanced the powerful adversary with a swipe of his spear, then struck it in the face with the blunt end. Just then the creature recoiled in pain as Doragon's dagger struck firmly in its undefended back, the halfling standing majestically behind, having crept up the ladder unnoticed. Athena helped Carek to lift up the badly injured, fiercely struggling beast, and dropped him from the top of the tower, a fall of nine yards into the moat below. Carek dropped his spear just to finish the job, and it landed in the hobgoblin's unmoving body with a painful thud. It was all over.

Just then, Carek gasped as he noticed movement in the courtyard. The first bodyguard had clearly not been quite as dead as the group had thought. It was staggering in the direction of Tarok's hut, sword aloft. Carek drew his bow, fumbling for an arrow. He was too late as the creature reached the door, and stepped inside. Athena called out, "Tarok!" and ran down the tower as fast as she could, trying to ignore the pain of her many injuries. Doragon followed quickly after her. Carek tried to get a clear shot through the door, but the creature was out of sight. He could only wait, not daring to breathe.

A couple of seconds later there was a loud roar, followed by a blinding flash. The charred body of the now-deceased hobgoblin flew with a ball of flame out of the hut, landing ten feet back from the door in a crumpled heap. Athena ran over to the door, where a tired wizard had just thought to get out of bed.

"I wondered what all the commotion was," began Tarok, looking over the scene of destruction all around him.

"Nice to see you can handle yourselves without me now," he grinned.

Tarok wandered back to his hut, turning for one last time to his three friends, "Now this time, when I say I want to remain undisturbed, I mean it." He smiled a wry smile, and wandered back to bed.

The single greatest victory for the group had been won. They had all fought bravely, and had once again proven how useful the fort was going to be to them. But most of all, they all realised how vulnerable they still were without Tarok's magic to aid them. Tarok didn't know what he had missed. Nor did he realise how close to death they had come that day, but he had survived thanks to the courage and bravery of his friends.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 10 - The End Nears © Colin Frayn

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