“We should make for Turtleback Ferry,” Jakardros murmured.
The surrounding area had grown quiet except for the crackling of the fire slowly consuming the barn. Kara kept watch in case the flames threatened the forest, but with the dampness and muddy ground before the treeline, the alchemist was cautiously optimistic that the greater Kreegwood would not catch light. Abby and Rahab moved south into the woods to retrieve the horses. Lem lingered nearby, watchful eye turned upon The Black Arrows.
Gloriana regarded the veteran with sympathy, but she shook her golden locks. “Soon. We must rest a moment, take stock, gather ourselves and our resources. We have all endured horror here, yet there remains much to do. Why don’t we begin by returning the equipment that obviously belongs to you?” The oracle started toward the chest the companions had seized from the basement.
Kaven flashed a ready grin and hastened alongside her. “Let me give you a hand with that. I haven’t had a chance to thank you personally. I’m Kaven.”
Gloriana looked mildly amused. “Yes, I heard.” She began to sort through the remaining goods in the container.
“Tell me,” the youth continued, “what’s a beauty like you doing with this motley bunch?”
The oracle leveled a cool, piercing gaze. “Leading them.”
Kaven’s smile faltered, and Gloriana began stacking pieces of armor in the youth’s arms. She placed a hand on one shoulder and the other on an elbow, turned the young man, and pushed him gently in the direction of his comrades.
Some minutes later The Black Arrows had donned their liberated gear. Kara wordlessly returned the bow of electric magic to Jakardros. The veteran had recovered an old, worn eye patch from his belongings, and slid the cloth over the ragged socket of his maimed face. Gloriana knelt and tended to Shalelu as Abby and Rahab returned leading the mounts.
“Can you walk?” the oracle asked the ranger.
Shalelu nodded. Lem and Gloriana helped her stand. “If we remove about three miles to the southeast,” the ranger winced, “we can find a good campsite near fresh water.”
The stout man called Vale stood looking at the house, battle axe hefted on his burly shoulder. “What about this place?”
Kaven’s handsome features hardened: “Burn it.” Agreement passed among the assembled. Gloriana nodded to Rahab and once more the wizard reached across the immeasurable gulf between the planes, summoning a small fire elemental, a creature of living flame, a conflagration with intelligence, purpose, and sentience. It shifted in different shapes, now a rolling ball, now a small pillar, now a circle, now a gyrating humanoid form, and always made entirely of fire, brilliant yellow-orange that curled, twisted, swept, drifted. The creature gleefully raced along the porch, coiled up the posts, crossed the lintels, traversed the roof. By the time it returned to its realm the house was ablaze in concert with the barn.
Abby and Gloriana lifted Shalelu atop Marigold, and the weakened Jakardros into Pentacle’s saddle. Vale and Kaven insisted on marching, though their pace was slow. Gloriana climbed up on Sparky behind Abby, and Rahab joined Kara on Urdrenn. Lem led the way on Cinnamon. In a couple of hours they had camped near a stream, and nightfall showed the distant orange glow of the burning farmstead lingering above the shadowed outline of surrounding forest.
Kara leaned against a tree trunk, scanning the woods in the direction from whence they had marched. The occasional crepuscular animal strolled or darted, but no sign of pursuit appeared.
Jakardros instructed Kaven to walk a careful perimeter at the campsite, and the young man paused now and again to bend close to the ground, searching for tracks or other sign of passage that might signal further threat, ogre-kin or otherwise. Meanwhile the veteran kindled a camp fire with wood Abby and Vale gathered. The mountain lion rested close by, occasionally pressing its head against Jakardros’ hand or knee in the manner of a house cat. Rahab sat next to Shelalu, the two conferring softly in Elven. Lem accompanied Gloriana to the stream to refill everyone’s waterskins. As they bent to the task, they took quiet counsel, keeping their voices low.
“Did you notice—?” the gardener began.
The oracle held the mouth of a waterskin in the stream. “Kaven?”
“Left forearm, just below the elbow.”
Lem nodded. “I didn’t see the tattoo on Vale or Jakardros, though.”
“What do you think?”
Gloriana lapsed into silent thought. Finally, she said, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
Lem narrowed his eyes in concentration. “Could be nothing. Maybe the kid just likes the dice. If the Paradise really did sink, maybe it doesn’t even matter.”
The oracle considered this. “At any rate,” she said, “don’t mention anything for now.”
They finished collecting water and returned to the campfire.
After sunset they settled into a dinner of jerked meat and hard tack. Vale stretched his great long legs with an aching groan, and Kaven sat next to Gloriana with all the subtlety of a teenager at a first dance. Jakardros seemed anxious to remain close to the wounded Shalelu, yet remained aloof, uncertain, dour. The veteran reached out occasionally to scratch the mountain lion under the chin or around the ears, but otherwise stared long into the campfire, quiet under weight of memory. For her part the ranger kept silent, as well, huddled in her blanket and moving gingerly when she moved at all.
Gloriana ventured conversation. “You mentioned the possibility that you are the last of The Black Arrows. What did you mean?”
Vale, Kaven, and Jakardros abode in melancholy silence. Finally the veteran spoke, his voice ragged with lament and recent horror, firelight flickering in his eyes. “There were five of us on patrol out of Fort Rannick, gone five days, scouting the northern reaches of the Kreegwood which is sometimes hunted by ogres come down from Hook Mountain. But we found nothing, and so returned . . . .” He trailed off. To say more seemed beyond his endurance.
Vale took up the tale: “We found Fort Rannick in the hands of ogres who had somehow overrun the stronghold while we were away on patrol. Some treachery delivered the fortress into the hands of the very enemies against which it has stood for more than a century.” The big man ran a weary hand over his bald head, his dark skin glistening.
“You could not gain entry?” Abby asked.
Vale shook his head. “It was clear that the force was too large for us to openly assault. Fort Rannick had suffered structural damage. Without numbers, there was nothing we could do.”
“How many ogres were there?” asked Gloriana.
“Dozens, at least,” the burly man resumed. “In my years as a Black Arrow I have never known them to organize so effectively, and in such numbers. We saw no sign that any of our comrades had escaped. Jakardros led us away, intent on reaching Turtleback Ferry, perhaps to raise levies, or at least send word for aid.” Vale shook his head vaguely, his gaze fixed on the middle distance. “I don’t know.”
Now Kaven spoke: “We made for the road, but were ambushed by the Grauls.”
Kara was quizzical: “’Grauls?’”
“Those . . . things . . . at the farmstead. That is—was—their name.”
“You knew them?” Abby asked.
Kaven gave a grim chuckle, bitter with recent memory. “No. They told us, more than once. Kept saying how we would ‘feed the Family Graul.’ If you did not find Dal and Landron, then . . . well . . . .”
A long silence settled on the gathering. Gloriana closed her eyes and wordlessly prayed solace and rest for the spirits of all those, known and unknown, who had fallen prey to the Grauls. When she opened her eyes, she offered quiet condolence to The Black Arrows for the loss of their friends and comrades-in-arms.
“The ogres at Fort Rannick,” asked Rahab, “are they kin to the Graul?”
This time Vale resumed. “No. They are fully ogre, and stronger, better equipped, not as . . . ” he shook his head once more, searching for the word.
“Degenerate?” offered the conjurer.
“Yes, though I find myself surprised to say so about ogres.”
Kara interjected: “The force remained at Fort Rannick?”
“Last we knew,” Kaven said. “It has been a ten-day or more since we fled there.”
Vale suddenly leaned forward, an intense light in his eyes, an eagerness to his demeanor. “While captive I spent time thinking about ways to retake the fortress. It is possible, with a force greater than five, and would require using less well-known ways into the keep, and perhaps some siegecraft.” He looked around at the others, his gaze partly encouraging, partly expectant, partly pleading.
The companions made no reply. Gloriana redirected: “How far is Fort Rannick?”
“A day’s ride from Turtleback Ferry. I can draw a reliable map of the grounds and interior.”
Without prompt Rahab searched his backpack, and soon passed the fighting man a portion of paper, quill, and vial of ink. “Make haste to do so tomorrow.”
Receiving the items, Vale nodded his excitement. “You’ll help?”
Gloriana was evasive. “I can reveal that we were sent from Magnimar to this region to investigate the loss of contact with The Black Arrows. The situation is grave.” She brushed a length of golden curls out of her eyes. “Do you think this assault is merely staging for an invasion of Turtleback Ferry?”
Kaven and Vale glanced at one another and shrugged in tandem. “Possibly,” the big man said.
When Jakardros spoke everyone glanced over in surprise. “This turn of events has caught us off-guard. We do not know the extent of what has happened, nor what our enemy intends. Ogres and other giant-kin have long threatened this region. The Black Arrows was established specifically to counter such incursions, and in more than a century has never been vanquished. Fort Rannick was betrayed.”
“You’re certain? Could they not simply have organized a superior force?”
Kara and Rahab interjected simultaneously. “Ogres do not organize.” Alchemist and wizard glanced at one another in mild amusement.
Jakardros nodded agreement. “Exactly so,” he said. “They must have been led by someone—or something—subtle and cunning . . . .” Again the veteran trailed off, profoundly weary and haggard with shock. The mountain lion purred low and nuzzled the man’s ribs.
Silence drew careful cloak over the group, save for the crackle of the campfire in the night air. No stars glinted among the canopy of trees, for the cloud cover remained, and the scent of rain lay heavy on the air. Before they set watch Gloriana drew Rahab aside.
“I think we should return to Turtleback Ferry, plan a course of action from there.”
The wizard nodded agreement, then went to his bedroll. The last thing Gloriana did before the group settled in for the night was channel the day’s remaining healing power among all assembled, restoring everyone’s health, including the mountain lion.
The next morning dawned gray and cool, and Kaven just managed to rekindle the campfire before a light rain began to fall. Rahab sought shelter underneath Pentacle to study his spellbook. Kara and Vale distributed a rudimentary breakfast, while Abby and Lem saw to the horses. Shalelu remained aloof from Jakardros. The air between the ranger and the one-eyed man was thick with something guarded, heavy, and fraught. The mountain lion padded back and forth between the one-eyed man and Gloriana, nuzzling them and twitching its tail.
The oracle approached Abby, keeping her voice subdued. “What do you think is going on?” The oracle glanced to where Shalelu and Jakardros lingered.
Abby glanced over for a moment, then returned to affixing harness with a shrug.
“Abby!” Gloriana’s whisper was urgent.
“What? This is your area, not mine. I could challenge them to single combat, loser has to confess a secret . . . .”
Gloriana remained determined. “Shalelu called him ‘father.’”
The warrior shook her head in mild annoyance and dropped her whisper to match the oracle’s. “Maybe that’s because—just guessing—he is her father?”
“Glo, I genuinely don’t know! Why not ask them?” She regarded the oracle intently. “Are you asking me because I’m half-elf?”
Gloriana’s eyes widened in alarm. “No! No, of course not! I just thought . . . .” The oracle paused and drew a long breath. “There is no way I can explain that won’t sound awful, is there?”
“Pretty much no way,” the warrior answered.
“I’m sorry, Abby. You’re right.”
The warrior was silent for a while, then nodded slightly. “Thank you. This isn’t like you, Glo. What’s bothering you?”
“I don’t know. It feels like there is something going on, underneath all this. The events in Magnimar, The Black Arrows, Fort Rannick, Shalelu, the ogres, the Paradise and the mysterious Lady Lucrecia, all of it. I just can’t see what it is.”
“You should talk to the puzzle solvers.” The warrior raised her eyebrows and inclined her head in the direction of Kara and Rahab.
“We’re all in the puzzle, Abby.”
The warrior continued buckling tack. “Only be careful,” she suggested, and now her face looked grave. “With families . . . it’s never what it looks like on the surface, and it rarely gets better the deeper you go.” She lapsed into silence. Contemplative, Gloriana went to gather her gear, packing slowly and paying close attention to the ghostly visions clustering the air around her.
Lem knelt, affixing his blanket to the exterior straps of his rucksack, using the task to conceal observation of Kaven. The puzzle of the gambling tattoo on the young Black Arrow pricked at his brain. The tattoo itself implied nothing more than penchant for games of chance. Perhaps more than any of the others, Lem knew the varied and intricate geography of life often described as iniquity at best, criminal by default. Yet simple vice bothered the gardener no more than flecks of blood on whiskers as the cat devours the mouse. In another circumstance Lem might have found some kinship with the young woodsman, Kaven’s humanity notwithstanding. Now, however, something was wrong: The tattoo and The Black Arrow did not fit. He could feel that down at the very heart of his luck.
To the Hells with it, Lem thought, and stood, sweeping his rucksack onto his shoulders. He strolled toward Cinnamon, and as he passed Kaven he remarked, offhandedly, “I think someone has been messing around where someone shouldn’t have.”
The handsome youth looked distinctly nonplussed, and ventured the uncertain smile of the foreigner suddenly addressed in an unfamiliar language.
Lem leveled a penetrating stare, then shrugged. “Sorry. I mistook you for someone with a brain.” Then the gardener hauled himself into the saddle, leaving Kaven glancing around in confusion.
They made their way slowly through the denseness of the Kreegwood, intent on rejoining the road to Turtleback Ferry. The rain fell, light but steady, though the canopy of trees provided some shelter. With his health restored, Jakardros took a scouting lead an eighth of a mile ahead. Gloriana dismounted Marigold and walked alongside Shalelu, conversing with the ranger in low tones.
“When we met in the wilderness on the way here you said your travels were taking you in our direction . . . .” The oracle left the invitation open.
“I sought him,” Shalelu nodded in the direction of the woods ahead. “I had heard that contact with The Black Arrows had been lost. The signs I found led to the house in the woods.”
“That is why you went ahead of us yesterday morning.”
“It is difficult between you two.” The oracle did not phrase it as a question.
“Yes. He—” The ranger scowled.
Shalelu sighed. “My father died when I was a child. Many years later, a young adventurer came to the Mierani Forest, the land of my people, of Kara’s people. Did you know that I knew her family? Not well, but they were important. No matter,” the ranger gave a vague wave. “This young adventurer was Jakardros, and when he came to the Mierani he offered my people help defeating a force of ettercaps serving a green dragon. The battle was difficult, and Jakardros was injured. A priestess of Desna named Siantia nursed the young man back to health, and they fell in love, as sometimes happens between elf and human. They married, though the union was not without difficulty.” She lapsed reflective.
After a while Gloriana quietly mused: “Siantia was your mother.”
“Yes. Jakardros became my foster father. He and my mother were happy together, I think, but there was a doom on the Mierani, and the green dragon returned in wrath. Though my people eventually vanquished the agulta vabam, 1 my mother fell. Jakardros left, just disappeared one day, without word. I still do not know why. In time, with experience, I sought him out.”
“To confront him.”
Shalelu nodded. “Though now I have found him and do not know what to say, what to do.”
“He is concerned for you.”
“He shows otherwise.”
“It can be difficult. Sometimes survivors feel guilty that they lived when their loved ones died, and the burden of this feeling can cloud understanding, or obscure the way through anguish.”
“Such is not our way.”
“It’s a strange thing about ways,” Gloriana gave a small smile, almost as if she were reminding herself, as well, “how often they merely lead us to unfamiliar territory, and then we must find another way in order to make progress.”
“That sounds very human.”
The oracle’s quick laugh was bright, a sound of genuine mirth, like a momentary sunbeam piercing the clouds overhead and melting away the horror of recent days. Shalelu could not help but smile. Even Gloriana’s laughter was beautiful.
The two women lapsed into contemplative quiet, content to take in the sound of rain on leaves.
Kaven started the journey flirting with Kara, only to find the alchemist disinterested and silently dismissive. Next, he tried Abby, until the warrior made it quite clear that she was unimpressed. He even attempted to engage Shalelu briefly, but the ranger transfixed the youth with a glare as piercing as her bowshot. So Kaven wound up once again alongside Gloriana, all smiles and wit. The oracle admitted to herself that the handsome young man was not unskilled, and she responded playfully, yet remained cognizant of the atmosphere of mourning still present among The Black Arrows. She remembered, too, the tattoo of a hooked, seven-pointed start that the roguish youth bore, and so kept herself on guard behind banter.
Over the course of the journey, Gloriana made certain to spend some time with each of The Black Arrows, gathering impressions and information. She found Jakardros haggard and forlorn, deeply wounded by recent events, like a relic of the past, fragile and pitted with time. Vale seemed stolid and soldierly, a good-natured core at the center of a fighter’s hardness. And as for Kaven, it was clear the man was afire with the vigor of youth, his mind on adventure and the pursuit of sensual delight.
Vale strode alongside Abby. The warrior glanced down from atop Sparky.
The burly man stammered and cleared his throat. “Take a look.” He held out the map of Fort Rannick he had been composing. Abby dismounted and led Sparky by the reins, taking the proffered document carefully in her other hand. Vale’s depiction was excellent, clearly marked, easy to understand. The big man began to point out features of the schematic and to ask for Abby’s strategic perspective.
Several lengths behind, Gloriana watched the interaction, unable to contain a gleeful grin. Kara caught sight of the oracle, and rode close.
“What is it?” asked the alchemist.
In hushed delight: “It’s cute!”
Kara glanced forward where the Gloriana’s attention lay. Recognition dawned.
By late afternoon the companions returned to Turtleback Ferry and resumed their rooms at Bottom’s Up, securing additional accommodation for The Black Arrows. Whispers began among the locals at the sight of the previously absent woodland guardians, though the villagers kept such rumblings to themselves.
The party gathered erratically for dinner, and The Black Arrows joined them, the meal passing largely in silence. Moody memory lingered among them all, of differing provenance, yet united by the nightmare of the Graul farmstead.
The rain fell.
1 Roughly translated from Elvish: “green death.”