13) The Path To Winterhaven

“What brings you this way travellers?” Aloysious questioned Uthyll, as they sauntered along behind Eli.

“We simply seek to visit a contact of Father’s in Winterhaven” She replied, but Pravus glared at her over his shoulder and she fell silent.

“My Daughter Uthyll and I have private business to attend to, halfling. It is not your place to question our intent”.

The halfling stared at his huge scuffed boots for a few moments as he plodded along next to Uthyll.

“Miss,” He whispered, “Did you know that the spirit messenger Marla was in that… that thing?” Aloysious stared, wide eyed at the haughty blonde as she pulled sarcastic faces at the back of her father’s scaly head.

“Yes. Of course I did” She smiled, as the halfling’s mouth fell further open.

“As did I” coughed Eli, starting over his shoulder briefly.

“Indeed” huffed Pravus, and rolled his yellow eyes.

“Look, the path narrows through those trees” The Half-elf piped up. “do you think you might perhaps unchain me, as I wouldn’t be surprised if there were bandits around these parts.”

“Must you herald every change in the scenery, Elf!” Pravus said, irritably.

“She’s right” Said Uthyll. I don’t mean to worry anyone, but there are a lot of aggressive strangers around of late, I fear we may struggle.”

“We’ll be fine, child!” commanded Pravus, and she dropped her next utterance quickly.

The light faded through the thickening branches and dappled the gleaming iron shoulders of Eli’s armor as he swept the bushes aside nonchalantly, carelessly letting them spring back and thwack Pravus lightly in the face and chest. He spat and snorted, becoming quietly more irate. Aloysious chuckled for a moment, before he was glaciated by Uthyll’s stare and fell reverently silent.

After a few silent moments, but for the crunching of leaves underfoot, another giggle rang into the canopy.

“Shut up or I’ll flense you” growled Uthyll to the Halfing, who was staring up at the patches of sky and cloud swimming over the mesh of branches and leaves.

“I said nothing!” he hissed at her, and his eyes widened as Pravus and Eli glanced angrily over their shoulders once more, Pravus hissed as a branch flicked his nostril.

“I heard it too” whispered The Half-Elf. Uthyll furrowed her brow and her eyes darted around.

A spear sliced the air in front of Eli, and thudded into a keeling and rotting ash, sending white flakes tumbling onto the fungus and rocks below.

“Kobolds!” Blurted Eli and Uthyll simultaneously. Without pausing for a breath, Uthyll pushed past him, leaving him frowning as she hiked, determinedly up the one of the banks that flanked both sides of the path. As Eli lunged forward with his sword, Uthyll  darted further up the bank, knowing only her hunting instinct to gain a height advantage. Eli drew his sword, and thrust it forward into the air, nostrils flared and eyes darting around. Aloysious drew his daggers, and dutifully stood back to back with Eli. Pravus rolled up his sleeves angrily, and dragged the Half-Elf forth.

“No you don’t” Roared Eli, and raised his sword skywards. The half-elf whimpered and Pravus hissed obscenities as the Tiefling brought his sword heavily down upon her chains, knocking her to her knees with a thud but splitting the metal loops wide open.

The half-elf threw her arms wide, wincing as her shoulders stretched for the first time in over a day, only to be thrown to the floor again as a thick wooden spear pierced her satchel, shattering the glass bottles that made up the sparse contents and tearing her small clutch of parchments in half.

“You foolish girl” screeched Pravus, his yellow eyes ablaze. “You did not see that coming, you are lucky to be alive!”

He threw his hood around his head, and slipped behind a tangle of thorn bushes, all jostling for the top spot on a huge rotting tree stump at the side of the rocky path.

The woman blanched, but tore her satchel fiercely from the wooden spear now embedded in the path, and rolled away from Eli and Aloysious, who had steeled themselves above her. Aloysious, grunting an alert to Eli, threw his first dagger into the shoulder of a hissing and thrashing kobold who was snaking down a gnarled oak upon the embankment.

“Dragon slaves” he spat over his shoulder to Eli, who swung his blade at an approaching pair of attackers, both wielding dual daggers. He knocked them prone, and as they scrambled away from him, two arrows whipped through the air, one hitting the first kobold in the shoulder, his partner taking the other to the shin. They writhed, angrily, wrenching the arrows from their scaly limbs and limping towards Uthyll, who, having fired two arrows at once was throwing up dirt trying to scramble further up the bank.

 “Fall back” Pravus hissed from his hiding spot at Eli and Aloysious as they made to march after the pair, and they stopped in their tracks, confused. He pointed with a solitary clawed finger at the canopy above, and they spied six more kobolds swaying on their branches, daggers drawn. Wild-eyed, they stared at Pravus as he crawled out from the mess of hedges and elegantly stretched his leathery hands towards them.

“ROLL!” He cried to Uthyll and she threw herself down the hill with wild abandon, knocking the pair of advancing kobolds back to the path with her. Eli and Aloysious pounced upon them, cutting them swiftly with their blades as Uthyll came to a halt in a cloud of dust beside them.

Lightning illuminated the sky, causing the pathway to fall into darkness as flames erupted in the papery sprays of autumn leaves that adorned the trees around them. The ‘dragon slaves’ that clung to the branches of the canopy fell around them, as the pungent smell of burnt scaly skin permeated the forest floor. Pravus drew the invocation back into himself as the flames died to smoke, breathing harshly and flexing his tired hands. He lowered his hood, and ran to his daughter who was struggling to stand, aided by the sheepish half-elf. The redheaded woman pulled leaved and twigs from her hair, and aided her walking with a strong arm.

Eli, sheathing his blade, strode over to Pravus.

“Keeping a civilian captive is poor practise under threat of ambush. The Elf walks freely”

“She goes nowhere without our say so” hissed Pravus, agitated and weary.

“That is your desire, then it is your work to keep her. I am not your mercenary” Eli spoke slowly and carefully.

“I don’t recall asking for assistance detaining my own prisoner. In fact, by unchaining her you create me more work, sir” said Pravus.

Eli grunted at him, and turned to Aloysious who had retrieved his dagger and was reassembling his belongings fussily.

“My name is Adriana” offered the Half-Elf, who was gently anointing Uthyll’s grated arms with a handful of wet leaves. “and I will not attempt to run from you. I know you will kill me if I do. Just give me leave to walk freely and defend myself, I will keep you all healthy, or, I might at least try”.

Pravus, speechless and undermined, sighed.

“Very well. We move to Winterhaven now” announced Eli, uncomfortable with the silence and the indifference of his new comrades.

“It’s about a days walk from here. If we move, we’ll get there by dusk” Adriana offered, to more glares from Pravus.

The walk was free from attacks thereafter, but often steeped in stony silence. Aloysious would, from time to time, attempt a polite flow of conversation, and every now and the Adriana would point out a healing herb, or tell of her memories of certain areas of the hillside or the forest path, but both Pravus and Uthyll remained tacet. The bloodshed had had a profound effect on them both, as if it had seeped into the clouds above them, only to rain down again and again. Visions of Anghammer draped across the wreckage of Pravus’ study bore into them both, her golden braids unwound and her face glassy and pale. Erik’s wild cries of anger, the feel of his hot head in Uthyll’s hands, and the stickiness of his blood as she dug into his cheek. Both father and daughter were ill, their stomachs both churning and their fear thundering louder with every mile closer to Winterhaven.

By the time the sky had begun to turn an ash grey, and the stars began to struggle through the thick clouds that had begun to hang over the horizon, they spied a modest watchtower stoically planted at the side of the winding path. A solitary figure sat in the grass by a battered cart, an old, thin, white pony grazed at the front of it.

As the band of travelers drew closer, they could see that the figure was a young elf maid, who sat weaving a basket among the weeds. She eyed them suspiciously as they passed, with almost a hint of fear in her eyes. The cart, almost empty, held sprigs of lavender, ferns, poppies and wildflowers of all colours. In the distance, a flat stony settlement glowed with lazy yellow light, smoke winding from a few crooked chimney towers, whilst ravens screeched and coughed from a ramshackle wooden attic towering above most of the rooftops.

As they approached the gates to the city, they were eyed by bleary guardsmen, who did not ask to see their papers, only nodded. Pravus noted that ordinarily, it would have been considered strange to welcome a Tiefling into any Nentir settlement, but the guards seemed unphased. Almost expectant.

A fat little Inn poked out of the tightly wedged houses and stables that lined the main street of Winterhaven. It looked, through the webs of hanging lanterns and signage, as though it led towards a square with a large grimy well, however, Pravus ushered the group towards the smell of roasting pig and into the Inn.

“Father, we have very little gold” Whispered Uthyll to Pravus, as the landlord, a grizzled elderly man with streaks of white hair tamed into a band behind his head, stared at them impatiently.

“Worry not” he whispered back. “Good sir!” He jovally strode upto the bar. “My entourage and I require two adjacent rooms this evening, I have here enough to cover the cost of this, and a few jugs of mead for our party!”

The man blinked at him slowly. “One room left upstairs, one room left down here.”

“Ah. Well, I imagine a fine proprieter such as yourself might find it all too easy to arrange another client to perhaps be upgraded to a finer room. Even at, say, my expense?”

“Not moving anyone.” Grunted the man. “you take what I got or you go stay in the stables”.

“Delightful!” breezed Pravus. “We’ll gladly take them.”

As Pravus wearily handed over the appropriate amount to the innkeeper, Aloysious tugged at Eli’s sleeves.

“M’lord, those dwarves over there, they must be staying here, maybe they could swap with us?”

“Why do we need to be in rooms so close, Aloysious?” Eli was growing tired of following Pravus’ whims.

“Did you see the way he burnt those kobolds to ashes? He is a talented mage, my lord. Surely we’d rather keep close to him, and keep an eye on what he is doing. He must value your sword arm more than he lets on, as I certainly don’t think he needs our protection. He must feel otherwise.”

Eli listened, eyeing the pair of dwarves, who were throwing small metal cubes into a bowl, and periodically laughing or cursing.

“They play some sort of game” Eli mused. Eli had never been one for games, nor laughing. “I will ask them if they will trade rooms.”

“Wait! Maybe I should address them!” hissed Pravus, but Eli had already begun to make his way across the inn.

Aloysious placed his head in his hands. He had seen Eli Dajaal’s powers of persuasion in action. His diplomacy was not one of his strong points. As surely as he expected, Eli returned within moments, red-faced and irritated.

“The gentlemen do not agree to a trade” he spat.

“What happened?” quizzed Uthyll.

“Yes, they are staying in the room opposite upstairs.”

“and?” she pressed.

“I asked them nicely for a trade.”

“Well?” Uthyll grew impatient.

“Let’s just say they have no appreciation for fine Ishvali manners, the metal pigs.” grunted Eli.

“Oh hush! My Lord, such language!” Squeaked Aloysious, turning red at the slur.

“I assume this is another example of those fine Ishvali manners, Mr Dajaal” Pravus drawled. “Well, since our experienced diplomat hasn’t managed to convince them to trade rooms I imagine we may have to assume another approach.”

Aloysious glanced nervously at the two Dwarves, who were now staring at the flustered group of travellers. One whipered to the other in a broad harsh dialect, then they roared laughing, slamming their tankards on the table. Uthyll flushed with annoyance. How dare these stout little commoners laugh at us.

“A drink, all.” She commanded and pouted at her father before he could suggest his idea for a “different approach”, and he rolled his reptilian eyes, shuffled to the bar and set about rummaging through layers of robes for his gold. Uthyll knew that any more attempts to negotiate with the rough and boisterious dwarves would be met with further ridicule. She had seen many a frustrated merchant lose their cool at the hands of Berg and his mocking, rouguish temparament. Once those dwarven men had decided you were to be the butt of their joke, it was hard to escape, until something funnier came along. She wondered whether they had wives or sisters with them, as usually the dwarven women were a little more willing to give you a chance, despite their bullish ferocity and skill as axe-warriors. Uthyll often saw them as the lionesses of the mountains. The male dwarves had bigger manes and louder roars, but the females would get the kill more often than not.
Her fascination with the Volkan way of life had led her to ride alongside Berg on many a hunt and beg him to tell her tales of his home. He had hailed from Garunsen, a stony city north of TeufelTor, the Volkan Capital. He was often happy to regale her with his stories, usually becoming carried away, gesticulating wildly, impersonating everyone from tavern floozies to thunderously angry Kings. He’d wobble side to side on his mount, almost falling off, as he weilded and jabbed his imaginary greatsword at trees and hedges, re-enacting battles for a delighted Uthyll and an amused band of men.

Often Berg had fishished a long tale by pointing at a piece of his chunky bronze jewelry and said “An’ thas where I got this little beauty!” or “and all the wench left me was this bauble!” It was customary for the Dwarven folk, according to Berg, her only real source, to gift each other a piece of handmade jewelry to mark a romance, a battle, a raid, a marriage or a birth. Berg had several torques from women he’d romanced, and a fair few stones from the war cheifs of Volka. Their comrades, Especially Groden and Fest, had thought it hysterical that a War-Chief would gift a battle-victor a ring or a necklace, and had hooted about how romantic the Dwarven men were to one another. They had also found it bizarre that romances could fizzle out but be looked upon so calmly by the Dwarves, choosing to part and remain friends, even lovers, after a marriage had ended. These partnerships seemed to stack up with no tension, confusion or jealousy, and once again, Uthyll and the men would be baffled.

She studied them closely and saw that they wore few rings and bracelets. She could see a fine golden chain on one of them, and a simple gold band on another. Perhaps they were young, she pondered, or just awful in pursuit of both battle-victories and women. Either way, she thought, they don’t seem as much of a threat as they might think.
Pravus clattered back to the group, who had gathered sheepishly round the table, with his bony hands full of tankards. He dumped them unceremoniously on the rough-hewn table and picked the fullest, drinking deeply from it.
“Looks like we’re to split up tonight then” offered Adriana, cautiously lifting her brimming mug of ale to her lips.
“Not if I can help it, Elf” Muttered Pravus, staring hard into his drink.
“They’re playing some sort of dice game it seems” Aloysious pointed out. “Do you think they’d bet on it?”
“Bet?” Grunted Eli
“Yes, sorry my Lord. To bet is to gamble something on the unknown outcome of a game or event. If you’re correct, you win gold, if not, you may lose”
“This seems how a fool lives” complained Eli, clearly troubled by the concept. “Why would you enter a battle if you were unsure that you could win?” He growled crossly.
“Some… Some folks might find it thrilling” Muttered Aloysious
“Fool men!” Punctuated Eli, quite satisfied with his rejection of the idea.
“I know this game” mused Pravus. “The idea is to score the lowest number with the most throws. He who might roll six ones will fare better than he who rolls three twos. It is a very old Volkan game based on their philosophy of small, significant victories, choosing your battles, quitting while you’re ahead and evenly spreading your influence and resources. I quite like it. I was never any good at it, but I do quite like it.”
“It’s a folly based on luck!” protested Eli. “There is no skill in this!”
“Yes, Yes. Well observed Master Dajaal” Pravus soothed. “It’s certainly worth a punt.”
“Punt?” Eli looked confused once more.
“He means a bet, a gamble sir.” Squeaked Aloysious.
“You know so much, maybe you are the man to play” Grunted Eli. “Show me how it is to be done”
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” Aloysius looked horrified. He glanced around the table for help, but Uthyll, Pravus and Adriana stared grimly back in silent nomination.



The top 5 turn-offs for dungeon masters (and mistresses!) 

Hi there!

Long time no speak for the dungeon missus here, I have had a few health problems and a lot of overload at work which has resulted in a regrettable hiatus from both d&d and my little blog. 

I’m happy to report though, that the love affair with dungeons and dragons is still alive and upon the eve of a long-awaited session, I feel the need to share a bit of my wisdom with you all.

Having led my very first homebrew campaign, I can tell you a lot went into my process. Npcs, locations, encounters, maps, and a whole history of my made up town, marmanter, took hours. Not knowing how personal it would be, I laid my Tolkien-esque efforts before the baying players to be met with due praise and enjoyment. 

There are few things scarier than dealing out the fruits of your creativity for your closest friends to pick apart, take it from me, an opera singer. So when I did, I was glad that it was well received and my friends enjoyed the world I had slaved over with their characters specifically in mind. More on that later, hopefully! For now, here are some things, as DM, I have found challenging and would like all players and DMs alike to share with each other to promote healthy and happy gameplay. Roll for initiative!

1) PHONES.yes, let’s dive in with the big one. You’re playing a fantasy game, set in the realms of medieval type myths and quests. I know, I know! It’s not real, and the pressures of everyday life can become irresistible on a quiet evening in, especially when it’s not your turn in combat. Maybe you sent an important message that morning, and you’ve got a reply. Maybe it’s your best friend, who doesn’t play. Maybe, maybe it’s your boss. (In which case I recommend you try keeping stricter personal office hours, seriously!) Sure, keep your phone nearby in case of emergency, but if it’s not, ignore it. There is nothing more disrespectful to a DM, who is putting their creative soul on the line, than your disinterest due to a life-controlling electronic device. If you’re waiting on news of a family death, and must be waiting by the phone at all times, then why are you even playing tabletop games? If you’re not having a crisis, lose the slave-screen and give your attention to the game. It will benefit everyone.

2) Running the game from your seat. Yes, some players might be more experienced than the DM. But you know what? It takes courage to take control, do the maths, make up characters and create a convincing story. My advice to players of a more pedantic nature? Leave it. It’s a game, and it’s the DM’s job to decide how it’s gonna go for you all. If you don’t think your DM did the maths quite right on your last attack, in a lengthy combat with multiple active effects and differing stats to your last level,  I ask you one thing.

Does it matter?

In short, minor miscalculations are not going to swing the game, you will still get a storyline and you’re usually going to beat the enemy somehow, because that’s the way this works. Your DM won’t let you die unless there is a reason. Maybe they’re pissed off, because your “character” keeps bringing the game to a halt over minutia. Think about it.

3) Snack and drink time! Here’s the thing. People seem to get peckish halfway through a huge battle and I totally agree. It is important to keep the stamina up with a vital concoction of Doritos, malteasers and wine. Most importantly, it’s imperative that the DM, who has been concentrating and talking away all night, gets a drink top up and some snacks nearby, as chances are, they’re not going to get a chance to refresh themselves. Make their comfort your priority, but do it quietly. My advice? Keep your snacks and drinks nearby, empty them out or keep the replenishments to hand BEFORE the game begins, to ensure that nobody’s wandering off all the way through playing hostess. Similarly, toilet breaks should happen before play, at half time, and after. If nature persists to call, excuse yourself in character. Trust me, it will keep the game… *ahem* flowing.

4)  Start on time. If there’s an agreed time to eat, arrive, or start play, I would be so inclined to urge players to stick to it. Irs rough enough being DM and nervous without feeling like people aren’t in a rush to play your session. If you keep to your timeframe and avoid faffing around, then your DM can relax knowing that the estimated timeframe is theirs to execute what is usually a carefully planned session. Likewise, if the session begins to drag towards the end, it’s not the DM’S responsibility to keep you alive and kicking til their conclusion for the night. Use your passion for the game to encourage your fellow players and finish on a high. Your DM will glow, and reward you for it. I promise!

5) Don’t destroy their work. Quite often, it is ever so tempting to act the rebel in your heroic character’s way, to go against the grain and to do something unexpected. Sometimes, this is great fuel for a creative DM, but sometimes they will press a point. Recognise this,  because it is usually because they have something awesome planned. To simplify my intent here, it is your character’s job to outsmart the in-game enemy, Not the DM. Arguing and going against the DM can sometimes cause upset, devaluation of their intent and a loss of direction for the campaign. When you wish to rebel, ask yourself. Will it make for a better game overall? Will it help the team? Do I think that the DM wishes for me to really ruin what seems like an obvious requirement of theirs? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then I suggest you backtrack and remember. DM is in charge, and you will have a happier game that way.

Well! I’m sure those are obvious points, but as I retire as DM within our current party and take up the old mantle of player (so happy Uthyll is back, the little firecracker!) I will be thinking on many of the things I found challenging when in the pilots seat, and how, as a player, I can really help the new DM by creating a supportive atmosphere for them. Please roll for diplomacy and share your tips as well if you have any, and, happy playing.

12) The Crossroads

The morning was bleak and the air felt chilly and damp as Uthyll sharpened her daggers by the lip of the cave. Pravus had been through the half-elf’s sack and found a few ropes, and a handful of sun rods, various potions and mesh packs of alchemical reagents, a bag of dry-looking food and a couple of bedrolls.

“Time to press on” He grunted, throwing the sack at Uthyll and gathering his own possessions. He hoisted the half-elf onto her feet and placed the chain over his shoulder, dragging her along behind him. Uthyll awkwardly followed, trying to avoid eye contact with their tacet prisoner.

They trailed south as the sun blew skywards, casting a harsh light over the grassy plains of the Nentir Vale. The Vale stretched as far as the Lake Dunfur, anywhere north of the huge lake was considered North-Medzera, a quiet people who farmed their landscape and kept their dealings with the Vale and with Ocelia at a minimum. They were well known as obedient citizens, and the Lords of Upplow, Sering and Dakilm were rarely seen to exchange correspondence, keeping their land and people separate. The Sorrow Isles, North of the Medzeran continent, were all the more mysterious because of it, and it is rumored that the Three Northern Lords only joined together to make peacekeeping political trips there.

“Where are we going?” Uthyll shivered, her breath in clouds in front of her. Pravus peered with yellow eyes over his shoulder, which was draped in thick traveling velvet. He stuffed his hand into his leather bag, and pulled out another thick cape, tossing it at her. She caught it neatly and threw it around her shoulders.

“South.” He muttered. “As far away as is possible at this moment, and, I suspect, the same way that your brother will have fled.”

“Well, what are we aiming to do when we find him? Kill him? Detain him and bring him home? Give him a warm embrace and tell him, once again, that murder is no real bother?” Her lip trembled and her sarcastic veneer cracked as she stifled a throaty sob.

Adriana looked over her shoulder kindly at Uthyll, but she narrowed her reptilian eyes and sniffed angrily, wiping her tears with her rough bracers. Adriana returned her gaze to the horizon, scanning calmly. “Excuse me…”

“Quiet.” Pravus bit. “You’re not obliged. Uthyll we must at least find him, if not to protect him, then to protect others from his anger. He is my son. Please do not pretend that he isn’t.”

“Sorry, Sir Mage…” The half elf interrupted.

“Will you shut up!” Pravus hollered over his shoulder at the woman, furious at the imposition.

“There’s someone over there!” She stammered, and nodded towards the misty horizon. Sure enough, a huge figure was sloping towards them, a petite companion hopping along behind it. Pravus threw his arms sideways, blocking Uthyll and the half elf with his winged robe.

“Father! That only makes us more conspicuous, surely!” Uthyll whined, and pushed in front of his arm. His heart froze as he remembered Anghammer doing exactly the same, barging confidently past him to her death, and he grabbed her wrist with his free hand, dropping his staff on the floor, along with his sack of belongings. She whipped round, shaking off his grasp, but the fear in her fathers’ eyes paralyzed her. She picked up her father’s belongings and handed them back to him. She drew an arrow and grabbed her bow from her back, but stayed behind Pravus.

“If you unchained me, I might be able to help…” Sniffed the half-elf.

“Yes, and then off to town you’ll go to tell everyone about what happened in the gardens, you little sneak. I bet you’d love a nice tidy informative’s pay-out from the kings guard, wouldn’t you?”

The woman rolled her eyes.

As the figure bowled closer, they saw that it was around eight foot tall. He’d stopped by the sign at the crossroads which stood around the same height. It was a man, and he had two enormous horns protruding from his forehead, a hefty coat of armor and a giant longsword jutting out from his tree-trunk thigh.

“Ishvali.” Uthyll whispered. Pravus looked at her, narrowly. “Not one I’ve met before, father. Not the aggressors from the lake.”

The giant warrior was examining a decrepit stone tablet, and holding it up to the sky, squinting in the cold sunlight.

Pravus squinted at the tablet, and nodded sadly. “Come on” he whispered, and ushered the two confused women forward towards the Tiefling. The smaller figure danced around him and chattered in a polished common tongue, loudly. Neither seemed to acknowledge the trio of misfits trudging towards them, now with purpose. The tall Tiefling glanced over his shoulder, finally, when their footsteps became audible, and the small figure stopped hopping, and began gawping, open mouthed, at the Cruentos and their prisoner. He tugged at the Tiefling’s tunic worriedly, and the giant turned to face his new acquaintances.

“Sir. I mean no quarrel.” Pravus said, confidently striding towards the man and waving his forefinger in the air, sleeves billowing at his side. “I must inform you, that the piece of stone you are holding belongs to a highly dangerous group of covenant members who would very much like it returned.” He stopped, feet together, and held his scaly head high, keeping his gaze fixed with the Tiefling. The Tiefling looked confused. He looked from the stone tablet, to Pravus, to the Half-elf, to Uthyll, to his companion, then finally to the pointed sign at the crossroads, which read “Winterhaven – South” He frowned, and Pravus smiled, courteously.

“Good sir, I must ask you to perhaps consider handing it over. You see, I am a diplomat of the Graywellian Embassy, an Ambassador to those who serve the almighty Glumvůd and I am authorised to return it to its rightful owner.” He blinked, his lizard eyes shining, and extended his empty palm to the enormous, confused man. “By owner, I mean myself”.

“Pleased to meet you?” said the giant man and put his hand in Pravus’, shaking it gently. The small figure at his side, a halfling with mucky blonde curls, smacked his forehead with his palm and sighed.

“What do you want with us Monsieur Githzerai?” Clipped the halfling in a deep voice, he appeared to be very well spoken.

“Well I think you can glean from my instructions that I must redeem ownership of that useless piece of stone!” Said Pravus, shirtily. “Its of no magical help to you sirs, and I really must take it and move on.” He sighed. “Fine, how much gold would you like for it? Enough for a carriage to Winterhaven? That is where you’re heading, yes?”

“Winterhaven!” Said the Tiefling.

“Sir!” Squeaked the halfing. “Speak not! I am your lips!”

The Tiefling smacked the halfling around the head and he fell to the floor, rubbing his skull furiously.

“He my squire. He speak, but with no thought first to his words. Common is not my mother’s tongue” The Tiefling said. “I keep this” and with that, he turned to walk away.

“No!” Shouted Pravus. “You can’t! That’s mine!”

The tiefling glanced over his shoulder as he strode away from them, raising his thick eyebrows. “Says who!” He growled.

“This!” Pravus shouted as he scurried after the man. He fumbled in his sack and produced an identical tablet. Uthyll’s eyes widened. She knew what it was, her father had often mentioned the invocation tablets, but he had never let slip to her that he owned one. The Tiefling stopped marching away, and swiveled clumsily around to face Pravus. The men somberly paced towards each other and stared, suspiciously at one another.

“Where did you find this, Mage-Priest?” Growled the Tiefling.

“Your masters weren’t very thorough in their efforts to smuggle it across the oceans, my friend. Let’s see what it says, shall we?”

“You are making suggestion that this is a remnant of…”

“The troubles. Yes.”

“Orders are return it.”

“It’s useless without this part.”

“I cannot go back to the Pryd with a half of a tablet”

“You didn’t know it was half a tablet, did you.”

“I did!”

“Then why so protective?”

“Just give it to me!”

“No. We release the message now or I smash this to pieces off the Elf’s head” Pravus threatened. The half elf’s eyes bulged with worry, whilst Uthyll watched the two men barter with amusement.

“You are not advised to harm your prisoner, Lizard!”

“Oh, fluent in common tongue now aren’t we! Well who says she’s a prisoner? Maybe she’s an actress!”

“I’ll kill you, if you smash that stone”

“Then you’ll have no stone, and a dead Graywellian Ambassador, and an angry ranger to deal with.” Uthyll made her fiercest noise and the Halfling squeaked, running behind the Tiefling.

“You make a point.” Sighed the man. “What is your name sir?”

“I am Magus Pravus Cruento of the Gray Wells. And you are from the Ishval. Which Pryd sir.”

“The Tattan. My name is Eli Dajaal.” The Tiefling announced.

“It means lover of men!” Chimed the Halfling, gazing up at his master.

Eli swiped at the halfling and missed as he leapt out of the way. “It means ‘Protector of Man’. Dajaal means Demon. That is the word used so often by outsiders to describe my kind. This is my Squire, Aloysius.”

“This is my daughter, Uthyll Cruento. This is our friend. And we must press on, so I insist we do this with haste.”

Eli glanced suspiciously at the Half-Elf, then raised his half of the tablet. Pravus joined his own half, corner to corner, and they fused. Pravus nodded, knowingly, as it trembled, glowing. Eli held on to it tighter, as Alosious gasped.

A shadow rose from the tablet, draped in ashy robes, slowly spinning as it rose.

“That is the spirit messenger Marla” Whispered the Half elf.

“Yes, I have studied him in great depth. Here he is before me” Pravus agreed.

“You must continue your journey to Winterhaven. Seek safety from your new comrades, as you fulfil your command to speak with the one who calls himself Lord Padraig.” the ethereal hiss from the glowing embers, where a mouth should have been, echoed in their ears. It dissipated into the air around them, warming their chilled cheeks and noses, before blowing away on the cold southerly wind.

“That’s settled then. We are to seek out this Padraig in Witerhaven.” Commanded Eli, and turned to march south.

“Now hang on just a moment, what makes you think we’re following you!” Snipped Pravus. “We have our own business to attend to and we are certainly not obliged to obey you!”

“It said seek safety from your new comrades. That obviously means you.” Pressed Aloysious. “We have to fulfill the invocation’s command.”

“Yes, that’s the way this works!” Agreed Eli.

Pravus rolled his eyes. Surely a trip to Winterhaven could only mean danger for him and Uthyll. He glared at the tablet in his hands and shook it angrily, but it merely crumbled to dust in his grasp.

“Gah!” he hissed, and shook the dust from his hands, wiping them on his robe.

“Let’s go Father. We might be able to find passage.” Uthyll whispered. “If this huge man thinks we’re intrinsic to his quest then he will be obliged to protect us.”

“That is a good point. And the halfling?” he queried

“Fodder.” She mused. “We’ll lie low. He can speak to Padraig, and do what he needs to do. Then perhaps we might gather some information as to where Erik might have gone.”

“Ah Uthyll, you are a hunter at heart. Very well. I’m loathe to argue with you and I am weary.” He glanced at the half-elf who was listening calmly. “This has nothing to do with you!” He yelled at her, and she rolled her eyes again.

“Fine! We will accompany you, good fellows, to Winterhaven!” Pravus announced to Eli and Aloysious with a dazzling grin. He gathered up his bag and staff, and gave the half-elf’s chains a gentle tug. “Come along now dear” he muttered as she began to shuffle indignantly. Uthyll slung her bow over her shoulder and began to follow, as Eli and Aloysious began the last foot of their journey to Winterhaven.



11) The Sakura Gardens

Erik disappeared. His cloak blended into the darkness and with a flick of black hessian, he was gone. His thudding footsteps faded, and the trees stopped rustling.

Uthyll threw off the tall figure that had grabbed her and stood panting, her father finally finding her, wheezing. He had ran down the spiral staircase and through the market to reach her.  She turned around, once she was sure that Erik had truly gone, to see a half-elf sitting lodged in a hedge, glass bottles and glowing pouches scattered around her. Her diadem was cocked at an angle, and her pointy ears were visible through a messy auburn braid. The half-elf was panicking, Uthyll could see that clearly.

“How DARE you.” She shouted at the wriggling woman, and the half-elf whimpered. She turned to walk away, but Pravus grabbed her wrist.

“No! Wait!” He hissed, holding onto Uthyll. She gave him a menacing stare, but stopped pulling away. He turned to the half-elf. “What did you see?” He narrowed his eyes.

The half-elf looked from Uthyll to Pravus and back again. “Nothing.” She shrugged. She tried to sit up and gather her potions into her satchel, but Pravus shot a bolt of energy into the ground next to her.

“What did you see?” He barked, again.

The half-elf sighed. She pointed at Uthyll. “I saw this lady attack that Gith man, and she said Mark my words, something what’s ‘is name. I. Will. Kill. You. then she stabbed him in the cheek.”

Uthyll threw her head back and stared angrily at the sky. Paper lanters rose from the market quarter, and she heard singing, laughing and a bubbling hobosh of voices in conversation. She wanted to scream. Scream for her mother, her life, everything she had been promised that had never happened.

The half-elf tried once more to dislodge herself from the shrubbery, but Pravus raised his hand again, and she stopped, eyeing it with uncertainty.

“I can do that too, you know” she sneered. “Well, I can do some  things”

“I don’t care, half-elf, you’re not going anywhere” Pravus spat, meanly, and Uthyll turned to him, eyebrows raised.

He rummaged around in the sack he had dragged out of the house with him, and pulled out some chains.

“You try and run off, and I will immolate you, understand?” Pravus said to the half-elf who had begun to shake her head in disbelief.

Uthyll had never seen her father speak so savagely, he sounded commanding and cruel. She watched him bind her with the chains, and he pulled her to her feet.

“Get her things, they might be useful. Even just as leverage.” He sniped at Uthyll, and she jumped, but fumbled around for the half-elf’s belongings nonetheless.

Pravus pulled the half-elf along behind him viciously, until she gave up resisting and sloped along at his pace, Uthyll creeping behind and unable to stop glancing over her shoulder.

“Have you got Oxosi?” He asked.

“Yes, Father.” Uthyll whispered back.

“Good. Keep her ready, in case of any disturbances”

Pravus led them to an iron gate covered by brambles, and brushed them aside. He took them through to a dark tunnel, and they descended damp stone steps.

“Where are we?” Uthyll was unnerved, and the Half-elf was silent.

“Don’t fear. We are simply taking an alternative route.” Pravus sniffed.

He led them through dark corridors, domed rooms of stone with algae and damp dripping from the ceilings, dusty tombs and gurgling drains. Occasionally, a grid of light would shine down upon their heads, and Uthyll could smell spit-roasting pork, mulled wines and hear lutes and harps from above.

“We’re under the City!” Uthyll whispered.

“Not for long” Pravus hissed back to her, as he ascended a rotting wooden staircase.

They creaked up to a rotten wooden door, and Pravus shoved through it. He pulled the half-elf and Uthyll through it swiftly, and wedged it closed again. Dark and dank walls wept with mouldy water. Uthyll knew this smell well, lakeside cave. They sloshed through the mud towards the dim starlight visible through the exit covered with vines. She sensed that they were a little way to the West of East Cross.

“Sit” Pravus commanded at the lip of the cave.

The half-elf and Uthyll both sat on the crumbled rocks, whilst Pravus paced.

“South. We’ve got to get south.” He muttered, following up with unintelligible noises and what appeared to be counting.

Uthyll leaned back onto the freezing cold wet rock. Her Mother had just been lying there, dead. The office, she remembered, was a mess. Erik had been home, why had she not been warned of his visit. Maybe he had been thrown out of Higvil’s courts. Why had father just bound him. Mother, who had been kind to Erik despite his foulness to her. She thought about the nine years she’d spent away. The last time she’d seen her mother was over two months ago.

“Sweet Daughter” Anghammer had crooned, pulling her into an embrace. “Let me run you a bath. What have you got there? Surely that isn’t what I think it is! A huge piece of vension. Let me take it and prepare it while you soak, the fire has heated up all of the water for you.”

They had sat, side by side on the bench, and spoke of many things. Anghammer had spoken of Pravus’ recent experiments in the tower, and the sounds and smells that were produced, and of the gossip from the courts. Uthyll had told her mother of the Kobold raids, and of Remi’s constant advances. Anghammer had laughed, and said “You mustn’t fend off a handsome man so readily, for you never know how gruesome the next one who offers might be! Do you wait for the skinny elk to bolt lest the next is a fat one? No, you shoot it and keep it until a larger specimen crosses your path.” They had giggled together, at the thought of Remi with giant antlers, running from the arrows.

“But, Mother, he is old!” She had lamented after they had calmed down from their laughter.

“You are twenty four years in a couple of weeks, Uthyll. That is only ten years his junior. Do you forget that you have grown now, as I often do?” Anghammer soothed, plaiting her daughters long blonde curls. “Too old for Mother to interfere with your suitors of course, but not too old for my cooking and love”

“I never will be too old!” Cried Uthyll, and shook her hair out of Anghammer’s hands, laughing and brushing her fingers through the braids to loosen them out. Pravus, at that moment, had stepped through the front door, his arms full of vegetables and wheat. He’d dropped them all with a gasp, and joyfully flown towards his daughter to embrace her. After they had exchanged excited compliments, Pravus had sat to talk to his daughter whilst Anghammer had hacked at the huge roast venison haunch with an enormous knife.

“I hear from the stables that there have been reports of more Kobold raids further north. You’re not straying that way, are you?” He’d pressed, concerned and suspicious.

“No Father. I know you worry, but they are half-pints. We have defeated hoards of them.” She had defended.

“That may be so, my child, but they are not only raiding you for money and weapons. They want to know who you are. You’re not unfamiliar to the gentry of the Nentir Vale, and you would fetch a high ransom if captured”

Uthyll had shrieked with laughter, causing her Mother to embed the knife in the table and swear skillfully. “A ransom? Me! They’d get more for Eklund, he’s the pretty one!”

Pravus had smiled kindly. “Yes Uthyll, a ransom. You wouldn’t be the first young woman to have gone missing from the forest trails of the Vale. Lady Almond’s niece, Galathea, was most regrettably ambushed not far outside of Dunfurlain Port last week.”

Uthyll had gasped, her hand to her cheek. The foreign ward-princess Galathea was often mentioned around the campfire of an evening, Berg had met her once in Lorbank and frequently remembered out loud her beauty and grace, not to mention her outfit, which Uthyll had understood to be revealing, if not flattering, on a young shapely figure.

“What happened? Did the Baron of Dunfurlain pay the price?” Uthyll had felt the answer already to be grotesque.

“Sadly not.” Pravus had sighed. “Tensions between West Ocelia and Medzera have been more pronounced than ever, and are now more so since the unfortunate girl was, well… Her clothes and hair only were sent back to Baron Henderfrigh, in a sorry state. I fear these Kobold rebels are amassing a fortune in petty crime and banditry under our noses, but we are loathe to interfere in the regimes of the Northern areas of Medzera, or any areas of Ocelia for that matter.”

Anghammer had dropped the steaming haunch onto the table, and sat with a huge goblet of wine.

“Tough as you are, precious child, you forget that your lineage is of value. If I have to intervene, and prevent your troupe of jostling boys from straying too far into the dangerous areas of the Vale, so be it.”

Uthyll had sulked at this, nauseated by the thought of poor Galathea’s demise, but ultimately unphased by the thought of an ambush. In fact, she liked a challenge. Let them try! Drunk and full, they had stumbled to their beds, and the morning had brought fruits, brisk walks around the city and a brief, but glowing, farewell.

Now there was no more mother. Tears rolled down her face and she let herself sob, silently. The half-elf stared at her, and Uthyll stood and turned away.

“We stay here for one evening” decided Pravus. He shot, from his trembling hand, a flame into a dry bush and set it alight. “I’ll keep first watch. Tomorrow, we move south as soon as day breaks. By the position of the stars, I’d say that’s in six hours.”

The half-elf slid from her rocks and lay on her side quietly, in calm thought.

“Don’t try anything, you.” Said Uthyll to the redhead on the floor, bound in chains, who shrugged at her, and rolled over. Uthyll lay down upon the sandy mud, and cradled Oxosi. Sleep was never going to occur this night, and she watched the sun rise lazily, eventually, onto the lake between East and West Cross, mirroring itself in reflection as it ascended into the chilly clear sky.


10) The Outskirts

Uthyll was weary, sat atop Rain who was sloping towards East Cross, barely picking up from the ground. The charger would move no faster. Uthyll rolled her eyes at Eklund, whose mount was also dragging his hooves. The hunt that week was sparse, and they had been forced, mostly by Groden, but also by the King’s Guard, to stay within the East and West Cross perimeters.

Dear Sirs, and, Madamoiselle.

It has been noted that within the last twelve moons there have been a number of occasions recorded in which you have far-impeded the boundaries in which you are permitted to operate, and we have been given no choice than to issue your party with a final warning, which, if ignored, will ultimately result in a cease-and-desist order, enforceable by Wallier’s personal Guardsmen.

It is also noted that on several occasions, reports of illegal poaching have been fed back to both His Excellency, Lord of the House of Padraig, and Sir Higvil, Third of his name. Should we, on our next market produce survey, find any unfortunate items of contraband, we will regrettably be forced by law to remove the license of the Gentleman, or Gentlewoman, to whom it is assigned, for an indefinite amount of time.

Our Regards, 

Guardsman De Livras and Senior Guardsman Cruento

Estate of his Royal Majesty, Wallier.

Groden had grimly read it out a few months ago to the miserable band of hunters who sheltered under a thick canopy of ficus in the rain, whilst Eklund had morosely tried to ignite a stack of twigs. That had been the point in which the both their kills and their spirits had started to dwindle. They had stayed within the boundaries for two months, and paid dearly for it. The ‘unexplainable’, as Uthyll had started calling it, was the notion as to why the nature, usually bountiful, was now sparse, and those deers that they did find were sick and thin.

Kobold raids had been the best reason to stop straying too far north, after Olin had lost his horse to the savage little dragon people, and Charl had sustained a huge injury to his torso after underestimating one of their leaders. Whilst they were not usually a threat in twos and threes, the past few months had seen large groups of them, targeting those with weapons or gold for raids, some of them even mounted atop boars and savage wild dogs.

Berg, with a bronze spyglass, peered ahead, on his pony ahead of the band and their dilapidated,raid-worn wagon and hungry, tired horses.

“‘Bout fit-een minute ter East Cross lads! Reckon we’re-a beat the rain!”

Remi cantered up to Uthyll and Eklund. “I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do, friends” he mused out loud. “We can’t fill quotas, we can’t even substitute anything. It’s like all of the animals have just disappeared.”

“Kobolds, killing the lot of them.” Uthyll muttered.

“This far south? I’m not so sure.” Eklund chimed in. “We haven’t seen any this near West or East Cross. We’ve not seen any kills, either. Usually, the dead elks tend to lead us straight towards them. Berg’s shouting about something, I can’t hear him.” Eklund clicked, and his horse sped up alongside Berg’s pony. They amused Uthyll, one tall and lithe, one short and wide, side by side silhouetted against the pink evening horizon.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Dart, what you purport to do should we disband. I fear it is likely that we may have to seek other paths.”

“You ask me a question I do not know the answer to.” She hadn’t even entertained the notion that they would disband. How could Remi be so casual about it? “What do you purport to do?” She threw the question back at him.

“Well, I might retire to my family’s estate, just outside Dakilm.” He raised his eyebrows at her, waiting her condemnation.

“That’s a way. How did you come to reside in East Cross?” She wasn’t interested, but her mother had always told her it was polite to pretend.

“More opportunities to trade with Ocelia, my dear. I made my fortune quickly. The DeBergere family have built up a fine keep back in North Medzera, and I daresay they need a young Lord to defend it against those filthy Ishvaal beggars that I hear have started to trickle down to us. It may also, in light of my mother’s recent passing, need a Baroness.”

She scowled, slurping water from her waterskin. How low. To drop in the death of his mother to put her in a position like that.

“I am flattered, Remi. I had no idea you were so… wealthy.” She smiled politely.

“Well, one mustn’t brag, I hear it’s vulgar.” Remi smiled.

“Are you asking me because I’m the only virtuous woman you actually know? Or because I’m the only woman whose name you can remember.” She quizzed, unsure how to navigate the now very tense proposition.

“Don’t be like that, Mademoiselle Cruento. You’re now in your 24th year. Are you going to select another?”

“Why are you using my name?” Uthyll was embarrassed.

“Because,” Remi took a deep breath, “I don’t think of you as just ‘The Dart’. You’re, well, a lady. And a pretty good one. And I can’t help but notice that.”

Uthyll was speechless. A Lady? Her parentage was indeed noble. But a wife? No. Thunder rumbled over East Cross. They were near the stables. The sky seemed dark. A flash of lightning ripped through the skyline.

“What was that?” Uthyll’s eyes tore towards the Cruento tower.

“Just a storm. We seem to get them more now.” Remi waved off the question and continued to waffle, but Uthyll had already kicked into a gallop towards the City. The hunters, a little taken aback, accelerated after her, a few of them peering behind them to see if she had fled an attacker.

Her heart felt like it had frozen, she was certain that the bloom of lightning had come from her father’s study, and that she had seen that familiar flash of light before. An unfortunate storm, a bad time to wash your face, moon of Runcton, don’t mock your sister, vile pomegranate wine… She hadn’t heard her brother’s voice for years, she’d cleansed her mind of his sneering tones. Now it echoed through her, clanging within.

She flew through the houses surrounding the interior and exterior of the high city wall, across the drawbridge into the military quarters. Without dismounting she pounded, on Rain, into the plaza. Jumping down, she sprinted through the narrow streets and up the crumbling steps, across the ramparts and into the market quarter. It was full of lanterns, cooking meat, jugglers and music.

Festival of Lanterns. She cursed under her breath, and pushed past an elf who was singing a tinkling song about the Runcton moon, and why it grew fat with harvest food each autumn causing it to hang lower in the sky.

She shoved through vendors pushing sweets and buns, and children dancing excitedly around conjurers throwing up colourful sparks, until she managed to jostle to her front door. Pounding hard on it win her fists, she heard nothing within. She listened intently until she was sure that a muffled thumping could be found. She knocked again. Nothing. She had no key, feeling that keeping one would falsely give hope to her mother and father that she might one day return.

Her nauseous feelings gave way to instinct, and she raised her leg. Screwing her eyes shut, she kicked at the door once, twice, thrice, on the fourth the lock crunched through the polishes oak and she was able to push it open, bending the rusty ironwork latch on the other side. It was quiet. A bulging knapsack lay on the floor by her boots, potions and clothes inside. It smelt damp, and she wrinkled her nose, pushing it aside with her leather clad foot. The thumping had begun again.

She pushed the door shut gently behind her and wiggled the latch into place. She knew, somehow, that an obvious break-in would attract unwanted attention from the revellers. For a family that had a secret, they had very oddly chosen to remain in a house that could not be more central to the King’s district.

She paced quietly along the gallery, running her fingers along the stone wall. She brushed the portrait of her mother and father, mother holding a four week old Erik, Pravus a four week old Uthyll. They had all worn gold that day, ready for Wallier’s feast of Souls, to mark the end of the long third moon of Runcton and the beginning of a new astral era. Of course she didn’t remember, but she’d been told tales ever since of her smiling baby brother and she, stealing the limelight as the adorable, noble, Harlequin twins of the antipodal eclipse.

She stalked up the spiral staircase, hoping to find her father in a frustrated rage. She didn’t want to scare him, she usually gave plenty of notice for a trip home. Where was mother? With him? Are they fighting?

She pushed the door to her fathers study open and saw blonde hair scattered on books. why is mother on the floor? It was too dark to see anything else.

Pravus flew to her, clamping a shaking, scaly hand over her mouth and locking her against the wall. In the darkness, a small glow from the corner glimmered, reflected in the tears resting on her father’s cheeks. She struggled, but he shook his head. He whispered, almost silently,

“Do not curse or scream Uthyll. He is unconscious. He can’t hurt you.”

She mouthed “mother” under his hand, and he released her. She threw herself to the body lying peacefully on the floor, to feel the coldness and see the whitenes of her mother’s deathly face.

“Erik” Pravus whispered, and her attention was directed to her bound brother, floating aloft by the curve of the wall.

Pravus was helpless, merely in a pool of despair.

Uthyll shook. She lifted Oxosi from her mother’s side.

“No!” Croaked Pravus, but Uthyll did not hear him. She took an iron arrow, but Pravus gulped. He moved to placate her, arms out, but she pushed him away. He sobbed, frantic, and the charm broke.

Erik fell to the floor with a thud, awake, and scrambled up to face Uthyll.

“You!” He shrieked. “Finally decided to come to one of our little reunions have you!”

“What do you mean! What does he mean?” Screamed Uthyll, looking for Erik to Pravus, feeling maddened and dispossessed.

“Please! Let us discuss this!” Pravus sobbed wildly, trying to roll up his lo sleeves with shaking hands.

“Last time I saw the bitch she had her bow raised to me as well! The savage!” Erik laughed demonically.

Uthyll launched herself forward, but Erik backed towards the window, facing down the the plaza lawns below.
He laughed. “See you one day soon father!”
He threw himself from the tower window, onto the alchemy store roof below, then lowered himself to run. Uthyll, no stranger to the pursuit, followed him, pouncing down to the rooftop then onto the lawn, giving chase.

He fled to the sakura gardens, trying to blend into the bushes, but the lanterns hanging everywhere with messages of love lit his scales and Uthyll launched herself at him, pinning him to the ground.

“I should have killed you nine years ago” she spat, and took her dagger from its sheath. “Now let me rid the world of you, you foul murderer” and she sliced his cheek, shaking with rage.

Strong arms wrenched her up from Erik, and she swore, thrashing around. Pale, shorter arms, not her father’s.
“Mark my words Erik Cruento. I. Will. Kill. You.” She screamed, her screams echoing through the gardens.

9) The Cruento Quarters

Anghammer inhaled the sharp ginger from the dough she was kneading. Although her bright blue eyes were now winged with light creases, her strength remained that of a young warrior. She pummeled the air out of the dough, working fine flour into the folds. Finally, she plaited the fluffy mixture, and rounded it into a ring. Dusting the flour from her hands, she stood back to admire her work. She had made fine gyngebreed every feast day since she was a youth, but she now felt a little sad at the thought of the upcoming festival of lanterns. Without her children to feed the bread to, and to share among their friends, who would scamper around the quarters with them, tussling for a slice, it seemed like a pointless tradition. Occasionally, Uthyll would drop by on a feast day, and holding back her emotions, Anghammer would send her away with a parcel of the bread, knowing the hunters would enjoy it. Her daughter, once fabled to become the deadly jewel of the kings guard, had a new family now. One made up of diverse backgrounds, of competitiveness, and often questionable behaviours, but one of solidarity nonetheless. Anghammer had often rode out to the woodlands, never on Fjell but with a borrowed horse and borrowed cloak, to see if she could catch a glimpse of the corps in their day-to-day exploits. She admired them somewhat, watching them throw themselves into danger; to save one another’s skins, to catch the great trophy kill, to support and protect each other and to show their very obvious love for one another. She had watched Uthyll become wise, growing from a zealous young girl into a strong woman who considered her words before speech, and her actions before movement. Of course, she had her hot-headed moments, but never without true passionate belief in her reasons. And, virtuous.

That Remi. He, from what Anghammer could see, was desparate. She mused on her daughter’s obvious fondness for the dark, curly haired hunter. Her Uthyll would never consider a man who was so free with his favour, but Remi was a man of both adequate station and worldly experience. On one hand, her girl could do so much better than the likes of boozy, ill-mannered Remi, on the other, she could do a lot worse. 

She dropped her bread braid onto a slate, and eased it into the crackling oven in the Cruento kitchen. Erik and Uthyll used to perch on the bench as she baked, bickering and sharing fruit, both bragging about their studies and teasing each other about their differences. Snake eyes, Erik used to call Uthyll, while she’d quip back Lizard-boy. She never dreamed, watching them play rough-and-tumble by the hearth, or sharing their candies sat side by side at Violet’s feet as she knitted, that their differences would become so pronounced. That Uthyll would eventually come to declare any situation where Erik might be present one that she would not attend. That he would be dead to her. Her little boy, with sparks of magic and indestructable resiliance, now bitter and secretive, now sad and frustrated. Now a murderer. As she washed the flour from her fingers, she thought back to the last time he had been home to visit.

“Good afternoon Mother” he had mumbled, staring at the floor. A week before, Anghammer had written a heartfelt letter to her son, begging him to return for a night or two. Pravus had seemed strangely unattracted to the idea, insistant that his studies were important and that time away from them could be damaging. “A couple of nights! To see his mother and father! You must miss him terribly too Pravus!” She’d cried, unable to hold her emotions back. Pravus had agreed, and promised to journey to Winterhaven to collect Erik the next morning. Pravus assured her that Erik would meet him halfway, at the fishing village of Whitevale, and that a senior from the House of Higvil, his masters, would escort him there. By the evening of the third day, they had returned, Erik seeming gaunt and nervous. 

“How has it been at the House of Higvil, my son?” Anghammer had had softly implored, stretching her arms towards him. He had shrank back. As her arms had fell, her eyes had watered. “I have been waiting to see you. It has been many months this time, son. You seem pale, and weak. Have they not been feeding you well? Come, sit, I have meat, fish, fruit.” Anghammer had taken him by the shoulders, but he had jolted at the touch of her hands. She had ushered him onto the bench and started slicing food onto a plate for him, whilst Pravus threw his cloak off wearily and hung by the end of the table, picking at a large fat chicken. “Sit, love” Anghammer had soothed.

“Dear, I have been atop Vigilance for nearly four days. I’d like to stretch. As for Vigilance, I fear he may sleep for at least a week. You have cooked so much food Ang, are we expecting somebody else?” Pravus had massaged his thighs, chewing noisily.

“Of course, I forget. Violet and Hester may drop in later this evening for a wine, and to see Erik. They miss him so.” She had smiled. She relished the opportunity to have the family gathered together. As her heart had panged for her daughter, Erik had pierced her with his gaze.

“And what of Uthyll?” Erik had interjected, chewing a mouthful of berries, red streaks sliding around his pointed teeth. “Will my sister be marking my visit with an appearance? I believe it has now been, lets see,” He had rolled his eyes upwards as if to count, mockingly. “Eight years! Goodness me how time has flown. She must miss me, after all this time. Oh, wait. No, I forgot, I murdered her fiancee. That’s probably why she doesn’t.” He had chuckled. “Not over it yet, are we?” He had feigned surprise at his Mother’s horrified expression.

“Son!” Pravus had warned. “You do not speak of this”

“How do you keep this a secret at House of Higvil. I have never heard your name mentioned by any of the Winterhaven diplomats, guards, or townsfolk. Surely you must have slipped” Anghammer had become suspicious.

“He is largely hidden, love” Pravus had cut in quickly. “He does not have much contact with those passing through, he is busy in study under his tutor.”

“I see. And you are learning well?” Anghammer had pressed on, trying to maintain her calm poise.

“Yes mother. Watch.” And he had raised his hand above the table. Pravus had hissed at him to stop, but his blue eyes glimmered as he conjured a small, crackling ball of lightning. Anghammer had nervously watched it, her hands on her throat, as Erik guided it further into the air. He had flicked his bony wrist and the orb expanded, bolts shooting from all angles.

“Enough now, Erik” Pravus had shouted over the sparks of energy, but Erik’s eyes had stayed focused on his invocation.

“Stop!” Anghammer had pleaded, but Erik simply smiled at the energy, growing larger as it singed the bread beneath it. There had suddenly been a knock at the door, and Erik jolted, throwing his orb at the large wooden doorframe. As it burnt into the wood and died, Anghammer had heard a gasp at the other side. 

“Don’t fear!” Pravus had cried loudly at the closed door. “A rogue spark from my old staff, glum-forsaken piece of crud.”

Anghammer was less convinced. She raised her hand to her husband and son and strode over to the door, sliding open the peephole. 

“Hester and Violet” she had sighed, relived, and let them both slip into the quarters.

“No sister of mine? Just the servants I see.” Erik had sneered, amused that he had gotten away with his tricks.

The evening was whiled away, with Erik making up wild and vivid stories of the house of Higvil, Pravus interjecting once every so often when Anghammer became suspicious or overly inquisitive about a particularly far-fetched detail. Hester and Violet had been full of gossip from the town, as usual, and when dawn birds had begun to chirp, Erik had been sent to bed, as Hester and Violet had taken their leave. Candles that had burnt down to their plates had been extinguished, and Anghammer had whispered to Pravus sleepily.

“He’s happy, I suppose?”

“Dear one, he will never be happy until his novicehood I imagine. I fear until he feels he belongs, his passions will remain unchecked.” Pravus had soothed.

“How does he manage in servitude at Higvil?” Anghammer had not been sure of the way Erik might manage being instructed continuously by an elder, she knew her children well.

Pravus had shuffled nervously. “I correspond with him almost daily, dear. I keep him calm, and his mind focused on the eventual rewards that his work will bring.”

Anghammer had been furious. “Correspondance? He replies to you? I have had no more than one letter a month from our son, though I write weekly!”

“No, no, you mistake him. He does not respond, heart, he only reads what I mentor to him. He is obliged to respond in his weekly letter to us both, and that is enough. I often send word to him only to keep his Cruento soul alight.”

She had felt placated then. “You both ride back tomorrow?”

“No Ang, he will stay one more night”

“I cannot see how his powers are so volatile, dear. It frightens me. Even more so, as your invocative powers never once made me feel threatened, only in awe. His feel dark to me, I can sense a blackness in them as I can sense the rot in the forest, or a thief in a cave.”

“Our son has no darkness Ang, only sadness.” Pravus had insisted. “To bed, for me must be awake before Erik tomorrow, lest he chance a trip into town and is seen by somebody.”

“Fear not Pravus, Violet and Hester are on guard. Again. We take no chances, even after all this time”

Anghammer slid out of her daydream, she could smell the sneaking and searching scent of bread filtering through the corridors of her quarters. The chopping of the woodcutter outside her quarters had ceased, and the streets were oddly calm. It didn’t feel like a festival day at all. She peered out of her window, and saw Pravus scurrying towards their home across the courtyard their kitchen jutted into, robe billowing in the breeze. A figure behind him trotted along in a full length black cloak with a bulging knapsack and roughly hewn staff. Erik? It had barely been a month since his last visit. Anghammer’s heart pounded. How had he gotten here? Pravus had been with her only this morning, had the Master Higvil provided an escort? Why had he returned so soon, and with his belongings? Tears welled in her eyes, as horrific scenarios played through her mind. Another attack? A murder perhaps? Had he stolen from the gentry, or, even worse, insulted them? She ran to the front door, and unlatched it. No less than ten seconds later, Pravus and Erik flew across the threshold and Anghammer shut and latched the door behind them. Erik threw down his hood, his face pale and clammy and his eyes wild.

“Put your hood back up, now!” Hissed Pravus. “Are you a fool, boy?”

Erik hurriedly gathered up his hood again, and slumped into a chair.

“What is the meaning of this Pravus?” Annghammer was confused, and very worried. Her intuition screamed loudly inside her mind.

“He can no longer spend his time away from me.” Pravus panted, tired from his run. “We must find a way to have him home. We, we must…” His breath fell short. Anghammer took a jar from the shelf and bled some mead into it from the large barrels that lined the wall of the reception hallway. She thrust it ino his hands, and he gulped at it.

“Where have you been today” She spat, angry and tense.

“In the catacombs, in the tomb of Collivere Nienti”

“Under the city.” Anghammer was snapping quietly, no stranger to the vibes Pravus produced when he was about to explain something unpleasant. “And, you have been under the city with Erik.” She seethed.

“Yes.” Pravus did not see the point in lying any longer, his world was about to change. They would have to hide Erik for weeks, perhaps months at home util Pravus could secure another position in North Medzera, maybe even back in Ocelia. He had played out the conversation many times in his mind, except that in his mind, he was going to be in control of the discussion. The blazing storm in Anghammer’s eyes had rendered him a frightened boy, as it always did, and his carefully planned words scattered from it like gulls on the stormy surface of the sea.

“For how long have you been under the city with Erik. In the tomb of a long dead and much revered magus, I also understand.”

“Well, I think we should perhaps all move to somewhere quieter, the kitchen perhaps, or the servant’s quarters.”

“What is going on, and why has Erik, as I gather, moved home with no warning” Anghammer carefully laid out her words, to mean only that they were to be answered truthfully and immediately.

“Ang. Erik was never granted apprenticeship at the House of Higvil.” He whispered, staring at the floor.

Mother, you must be positively stupid to think that all this time I was in servitude to the fumbling old fools in Winterhaven” Erik sneered.

“You! Be silent!” Pravus barked at his son, who shrank back. He had never spoken so harshly to Erik, but he was reaching the end of his tether. “Ang, they wouldn’t take him anywhere. They all said the same. He has a nasty streak, he is weak of mind, he is not trustworthy…”

“Because I am a Gith! Do not lie, father!” Erik was becomeing panicked.

“You are lucky to be Githzerai, you fool! If you were Githyanki, you would have been hanged for your actions in the high Glummish courts, how dare you desecrate the name of Cruento with such notions!” Pravus took Erik by the shoulders, claws digging in. Erik struggled and struggled, but his father held him down firmly. “You will remain silent. Your mother is anything but stupid, do you not realise she has had her suspicions all these years?”

Erik spat, sudden and fierce, into Pravus’ face. Pravus thew Erik back into his chair, and wiped his face with a long trailing velvet sleeve.

“This cannot go on.” Anghammer muttered. “He must see a priest, or a shaman, even a healer. He is arranged foully.”

“Let me finish” Pravus stilted. Shaking with rage, he took a deep breath. Long tendrils of warm energy snaked from his hands, and pressed against Erik’s chest, firmly holding him in his seat, and he snarled. “I had no choice. My love for my son, it prevented me from banishing him. Since Uthyll left us, I couldnt bear to lose Erik.” Erik hissed at his sister’s name.

“How have you been feeding him? What have you been doing?” Anghammer reeled from the information. She had had her suspicions about the finer points of Erik’s apprenticeship, but she had ultimately trusted her husband to ensure that Erik was safe. The townsfolk had long forgotten about the boy, and had stopped asking. They assumed that he had been sent upon his novicehood early, as he had often bragged would be the case.

“Taking food from the markets. Extra engagements with the head mages ensured I had the money. Teaching him most days, very rarely taking him in disguse to the stream and the woods on days of low patrol.” Pravus, monotonous in his confession, continued to bind his son whilst staring at the floor.

“You have risked everything, our family’s integrity, the safety of many citizens, to care for our son. For that I cannot hate you. But we must take action now.” Anghammer felt defeated. Erik had been beneath her all along. For nearly nine years. All of the meetings they had arranged, visits home and shady picnics halfway, Pravus would disappear for days to give the impression that he had ridden to fetch Erik. Where had he been? Visiting Uthyll perhaps? No, she would not be aware of this, she would not have kept this from her mother. Her stomach churned.

“Well, I’ll be retiring to my quarters then, if nobody is happy to see me home” Hissed Erik, seething.

“You are mistaken, Erik, I am overjoyed to see you home. But we must tread carefully”. Anghammer’s heart was burning for her children. None of this had she ever imagined a possibility, her two little harlequin babies who used to play together, now both rogues, missing in action, hating their family and their lives back home.

“We will have to relcoate. I will spend tonight sending my letters of application to different posts. I may be able to retain an ambassadorial role if we stay in Medzera, if we are to go to Ocelia I may have to descend a rank or two.” Pravus pushed on. Anghammer shook her head mournfully.

“A great inconvenience, mother. I do apologise” Erik slimed, sarcastically. “Father, do release me. Mother, I fear you may become… depressed… should we have to move far. It means precious Uthyll wont be able to sneak home every few weeks. Come and fill her boots with all this food and mead we have here, show off about shooting a baby animal again.”

“Enough!” Shouted Pravus.

Erik smirked. He turned his palms upwards, and shot white hot light from them, breaking Pravus’ dull mauve energy bonds. He leapt to his feet. “I said, release me! Time to listen to Erik Cruento. No more stupid chit chat from either of you. I have been ready for my novicehood for three long years. And each twelve moons I hear the same answer. Not yet son, they’ll say when you’re ready son, all I can do is apply for you again son.” Erik mocked Pravus, his voice high and whiny. “Well.. to hell with you father. I’ll make my own way there, I’ll show you what I’m capable of, Father, you with no faith in me!”

Erik ran into the gallery of the quarters, throwing bolts of light behind him at his stunned parents. They pursued him as he ran up the spiral staircase to the tower where Pravus’ home study was situated. As they ran into the room, they saw him smash Pravus’ scrying orb with a brutal throw to the floor. He laughed, staring into their eyes. He threw over a tall tower of books into the middle of the room, and singed them with a shot of fire from his palm.

“This doesn’t have to happen Erik” Cried Pravus, tears in his eyes as his sacred room of work was trashed. He held a robe-winged arm in front of Anghammer to protect her, but she threw herself past him. Erik roared with laughter and threw Pravus’ delicate planetary model from the desk, shattering the glass orbs in their different glowing hues and snapping the gleaming spun-gold frames in which they danced.

Anghammer, pleading tearfully with Erik, tried to place her hand on his shoulder, but he twisted towards her, venom in his glare. He attempted to grab her throat, but she leapt backwards, a trained warrior.

“Pathetic!” He shrieked, and formed a huge glowing electric orb between his scaly scratched hands.

“Erik no!” Pravus roared, as the frantic boy threw the orb straight at Anghammer. Hitting her chest, it washed the room with cold white light.

Her body fell limp, her face blue and lips white with shock, as she crumpled, dead, onto the mound of broken and burnt books in the centre of the tower.

8) The Stream

“Hold fire” whispered Eklund, who crouched behind Uthyll. She was trembling, but silent. “wait until she gets a bit closer”. 

A great grey wolf paced towards them, her yellow eyes fierce in the dim light of the autumn forest. Her teeth were bared, and she growled in a low, throaty tone.

The second her front left paw touches that white mushroom, see it? The broken one. We go.” The fungus lay prone in the path of the wolf, showing signs of having been sampled by a passing creature, but not selected for lunch. The wolf, as though instructed, crushed the mushroom neatly beneath her paw, keeping her eyes locked on the two archers squatting behind a mossy fallen log. Uthyll and Eklund released their arrows, both embedding them firmly into the muscular breast of the wolf, who howled and buckled onto her knees.

“Finish her!” Cried Eklund in his prim and proper voice, and he leapt over the log. Uthyll scrambled on top of it, and reloaded. Taking in the fusty smell of the damp leaves carpeting the forest floor, she calmly breathed. Centering on the wolf now barking cries of fury, she let her arrow slice into the beast’s side. She lowered her bow and watched, as Eklund sliced into the wolf’s neck with his scimitar, and as the beautiful beast’s life ebbed back into the earth beneath her giant muddy paws.

“Cant eat this!” Exclaimed Eklund, laughing as blood splattered up his thin face. “But at least she didn’t eat us, eh? Dart? Well done girl. Let’s skin her up and make a nice little cape for the child of some fancy old bugger in town.”

Uthyll slid down the log and trudged over to the carcass. She felt sorry for this one, she hadn’t even had a chase. The giant wolf had merely crossed their paths as they had bashed through the shrubs looking for some more deer-tracks, and rather than bolting away, she had refused to let them scare her. No pack in sight, they’d decided that it was better to take her down than to climb a nearby tree and wait for the pack to emerge. They were surely near by, however, and Eklund and Uthyll made short work of skinning her before retreating back on themselves carefully.

When they reached the stream, they saw their cart clattering towards them, and jogged up to see Berg atop his pony, leading the rest of the group.

“Why are you coming this way?” Yelled Uthyll across the water, and Berg waved his arms wildly, shaking his head. Remi cantered out from behind the wagon on horseback, and crashed across the stream towards the two confused archers.

“We were coming to find you, to let you know that we have to get back to East Cross as soon as possible!” he panted, worry carved into his expression. He ran his hands through his curly black hair, then held them out in impatience.

“What? We’ve only just set out! We’ve got nothing on us, a couple of furs and a few poxy birds, Rem!” Uthyll was confused.

“Yes, I know, it does’t matter, we go south immediately. We’ve seen Padraig’s men marching on Dunfurlain.” Uthyll shrugged at this, prickly and impatient. “Do you remember those six Tieflings we may, or may not, have sold our local map to? It was a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure they were actually explorers, but I didn’t want to give them any reason to take it by force, you saw how heavily armed they were and we’d had an enormous haul. There was no way we’d have gotten out of there alive with a full delivery.”

“What!” Uthyll was infuriated. “We agreed we’d fight them if they came back, Rem! Where was I that day?”

“You’d gone to meet your mother and father if I recall. They had ridden out to the Watchtower for you.”

“Shit, Remi, why! We agreed. We shook hands! Or were you so drunk that you don’t remember any of the conversation”

“Cut him some slack, Dart” sighed Charl. “You didn’t see the way they rode up, swords out. They barely spoke any common, we didn’t want to get into a war of words. How’s your Draconic?”

“Father specifically warned me against sightings of Ishvaal mercenaries in the area. They are casing Medzera, we’re almost certain.” Uthyll snapped at him, and he fell silent.

“Your father isn’t always right, you know! Why don’t you listen to your own mind for once. Sometimes, when you’re there, dishing out orders, you sound just like him! Well you’re not a Graywellian diplomat. You’re an archer! You can’t just rescind your title, and all your money, and all your wonderful little privileges to come and declare yourself one of us mere peasants, then start ordering us around like you never left the guardsmen! Sorry, dart, it doesn’t work like that out here! And neither does your father’s political opinion. I thought you would have realized that in the last six years!” Remi was often passionate in his disagreement.

“Stop it now!” Barked Groden. “Throttle each other later, in the stables. There’s no point in arguing, Dart, they’d have got the map off of someone else, after they killed us all. Better we stayed alive and got some gold for it. Now let’s move, or we’ll be in direct view of Padriag’s men, and we don’t need them to know we’re trading this far north when we’re under warning on that already.”

“What does it matter if we’re this far north.” Uthyll hissed, furious. “Surely Padriag’s men aren’t going to inform Wallier that we’ve strayed a little out of zone.”

Gordon shook his head. “They’ll inform anyone who might interested that they’ve seen southern folk hunting or trading in the wrong perimeters, you know that, and they’ll be clamping down especially hard now that Winterhaven is on a high security alert. How many other game corps have a noisy great blonde woman as their mascot. We’re not exactly inconspicuous in case you hadn’t noticed. We’re supposed to be defending them, not abandoning them, they’ve made that much clear. If Padriag’s men tell anyone in Dunfurlain how near we are, that’s it for us. No more freedom, no more trust, we’ll have the bloody guardsmen with us on every trip.” Groden was starting to lose his composure.

“No more boozing, no more side-deals, no more poaching, no more girls.” Quipped Eklund. “Are you saying that we might have to behave ourselves, Groden?”

“I’m saying, Eklund, that our movement is going to become seriously handicapped if we’ve got to have Uthyll’s mother along on every trip!” said the Orc.

“How dare you, she’s twice the warrior you’ll ever be” Uthyll began to shake with rage. Unable to tolerate the disrespect, she started to storm away from the giant Orc who was sat atop his enormous charger.

“Let’s invite her along then! It’s settled!” Roared Groden, and a sardonic smile split across his face. Uthyll stopped dead in her tracks, knuckles white on her bow.

Her stomach churned. Groden was right, as usual. They all relied on their little sidelines whilst out on their hunt, and Uthyll herself had long since defeated her inner guilt when it came to poaching white harts, peacocks and swans from the lake’s edge near Dunfurlain. Once they were plucked, strung and oiled, you could pass them off as geese, although she was never certain whether the households they were sold to cared much for whether they were eating an illegal find or not, as long as it was fresh, cheap and delicious.

As for girls, Uthyll would rather they didn’t bring those back to the camp. Brash, drunk, and usually a little stupid, some of the women she’d discovered helping themselves to the breakfast broth of a morning near West Cross were a sorry sight. At 21 years, Uthyll found them puerile and, for all the love she had for her friends, lacking in self-respect. Eklund was usually the first to emerge from his tent and throw them out on their ear, in agreement with Uthyll that their friends could do a  little better. Remi, Olin, Charl, Fest and Berg were the main culprits, unable to resist the pull of too many ales and a jaunt into the town. Rarely did they all come back alone, and on those nights Uthyll would sit up and write notes to her mother and father by candle light until the noises died down, and the snoring began. Some of the women would smile kindly at her in the morning, even try to talk nonsense with her about cooking, men, or their paltry chores. It was then that Uthyll would stand with her nose firmly in the air until Eklund arrived to usher them off, his nose held delicately between his deft thumb and forefinger, which would make Uthyll laugh as that morning’s poor woman undoubtedly took offense.

“Well I suppose we had better get going then.” She spat, splashing angrily across the water, Eklund picking his way carefully behind. “before they see us, or hear Groden bellowing away like a bull.” She shot the Orc a narrow look, but he grinned widely at her, tusks glinting in the low sun, and she rolled her eyes with a half-smile. As the band of hunters prepared themselves to move along, a noise tore through the trees. Uthyll froze, one hand still on her mount ready to pull herself atop Rain, her young chestnut quarter.

A rough-hewn spear with a leather tie thudded into the side of their wagon, and they all stared grimly at it.

“Kobolds.” Berg said, and smirked through his giant brown beard.

As three more spears shot through the treeline, Uthyll grabbed her bow and hoisted herself onto Rain. The hunters circled the wagon, bows aloft, until the stumpy, dragon-like warriors waded into the clearing. Uthyll counted sixteen quickly, and charged at the largest who was carrying an axe aloft. Remi and Berg followed her, as three more Kobolds swarmed in on her path. Berg made short work of them from atop his pony, swinging his hammer down upon the skull of the closest then swinging round to knock the other prone. Uthyll fired, and her arrow met with the breastplate of the large leader, as he strode forward towards her. Rain leapt aside as he swung his axe, and he buried it in the dirt. She reloaded, and planted another arrow in the nape of his neck, piercing it through the scales and causing him to scream and hiss.

As two smaller kobolds broke through the circle of hunters to climb the tarpaulin of the wagon, Fest emerged from inside. The nearest kobold sliced at him with climbing daggers, and he took a scratch to the shoulder, but he roared and beat the lizard-like creature with his club, causing its back to crunch, and he slid off of the wagon to the floor below, where Gordon’s charger galloped past, crushing him into the ground. His companion scrambled to the top of the wagon and set to work slicing at the tarpaulin with his daggers, but Berg’s crossbow made short work of the little reptile as the hollering dwarf on his fat pony cantered past. He banged his breastplate with a leather-clad fist and roared, reloading his crossbow with a casual flourish, and set to aiming at the remaining hoards who were struggling to get between the legs of the circling horses.

This had happened before, with a handful of bandits, a couple of bears, or even packs of wolves, but whispers of kobold sightings were on the winds. They had come across a few here and there, but never in such high numbers, and it seemed the further north they crept, the more they were finding tracks, camps, and raiders.

A spear bounced off of Groden’s shoulder guard from downstream, and he turned his charger to face a pair of wiry kobolds, spears held aloft. One of the licked his lips, gazing at the enormous muscular horse Groden rode, but as they attempted to flee from his thundering advance, they met with his short sword as he clattered between them, skimming it right then left. “Keep an eye on the wagon!” He roared into the air, and Olin and Charl raced their steeds towards the wagon, kobolds slicing at the ankles of the whinnying horses.

“I’ve never seen this many!” called Olin, as he beat a kobold off of his horse with his  bare fist. He flinched, and examined his knuckles which had split on the scaly skin of the kobold.

“Upstream!” Screamed Uthyll to Petyr and Remi, Berg, Eklund and Groden, who followed her up the rocks towards the peak of the hillside.

“The armies!” Shouted Remi, twisting his body to fire at a kobold happily clawing his way up the rocks behind them. His arrow missed, and clattered into the gushing water of the stream.

“Well at least they could help us!” Uthyll hollered over her shoulder.

Petyr and Remi bombed ahead up the incline, but as they reached the peak of the bank, the ground trembled.

“Stop!” Remi cried, but it was too late. Bursts of soil threw themselves skywards, and hot chunks of iron knocked him from his horse. As the riverbank began to slide, more explosions burst upwards, causing rocks to tumble and roll downwards.

The eruptions calmed, but hot metal hissed in the cool waters of the stream, which was now jagged and obscured by the rockfall.

As Uthyll picked herself up from the ground, she saw the remaining Kobolds swarming the wagon, and Fest, Olin and Charl gathered together on the bench, swiping at them. Two were climbing into the back of the wagon, rifling through the sacks and satchels piled up at the sides.

No, no, no. She said to herself. She looked around and saw Groden trying to push himself out from under his horse, who was writhing around and bucking. Remi scrambled out from beneath wet mud and rocks, cursing and panting, to help her pull Groden out from under his horse. Rain was nowhere to be seen. She must have bolted when the explosions began.

She grabbed her daggers from their sheaths, and marched downhill, slipping on the mud.

“You!” She bellowed at the kobolds raiding the wagon. They stopped, and turned their yellow eyes towards her. “Get gone, right now, or I will sell you as seasoned packs of limbs at the next market we pass through.” She held her daggers aloft, to signal that she was ready to fight them.

The kobolds glanced, at each other, then Uthyll, whose snake-eyes were burning into theirs. They turned, spears in hand, to retaliate.
They scuttled towards her, ready to throw, but their eyes widened. Uthyll did not dare to turn her head, but she felt the towering presence of Groden behind her, and imagined his sword aloft.

As the Kobolds leapt towards her, she thrust her dagger at the chainmail of the fattest, catching it and hooking him closer. Her second dagger met with his underbelly, and he writhed into the mud. Kicking him aside, she ran to the wagon, glancing over her shoulder just in time to see Groden behead the second raider in one sinewy swoop.

Uthyll had never liked to ensure her enemy was dead, it was too personal. It was better to know they they couldn’t chase her, even if they were still alive. Groden, however, bought himself one tasty fruit bun at market for each one-hit kill he executed on an expedition, notching them up on the sole of his giant boot. A good hunt was over when he couldn’t finish his buns, and everyone got to share them.

She leapt into the back of the wagon and wrenched a spare bow from beneath the burlap sacks, and rummaged for her quiver beneath her damp tangle of blonde hair. She still had arrows, and managed to load her bow.

Jumping from the wagon, she crept round to the front, and shouted “Get!” at the five remaining kobolds scrambling at her colleagues atop the driver’s bench. Fest was roaring, swiping at them with his club, as Olin and Charl stabbed downwards with their shortswords.

She shot her first arrow into the eye of a hissing kobold, and he fell, and reloaded. As another snaked towards her, screeching, she embedded another iron dart into the back of his throat. Fest cheered, and jumped from the wagon with his club aloft, before bringing it down upon the skull of another, and the kobold crunched into the rocks below. Fest jumped up and down on the mess of scales, and Uthyll shuddered. She held her middle finger up to the two remaining little dragonlings, and as she desired, they chased her around the wagon, where Groden and Remi were waiting with their bows to take them down swiftly.

Panting, Uthyll jumped up onto the back of the wagon and rifled through the sacks.

“They haven’t taken anything!” she breathed.

“Well, they didn’t get a chance! Well done Dart, without you we’d be empty handed.”

“Where are Petyr and Eklund? Where’s Berg?” she suddenly realized she hadn’t seen them since the hill had exploded.

The hunters scanned around them.

“The little pieces of shit, they set a trap.” Sighed Remi. I’d bet you anything they’ve had that bluff loaded for weeks. Bits of Iron they can’t use from the mines, all sorts of shrapnel, and some sort of enchantment triggered by their prey. It smacks of organization, and if that’s one things the kobolds have never been good at, it’s organising themselves. Someone has to have ordered this, someone with access to explosive materials, and enchantments.”

“There! Down to the East!” Uthyll saw, with narrowed eyes, a little bronze arrow point shone out of the muddy bank. They clambered into the pile of mud and rocks, and threw back iron and wet stone until they had uncovered Berg and Petyr, almost totally mud-covered and seething.

“This is unacceptable!” grumbled Petyr. “We’re staying south from now on.”

“There you are!” Echoed a manicured voice across the heaps of dirt. Eklund’s horse picked through the mud with disgust, and the Elf hopped down into the puddles surrounding the hunters. “I shot off sideways to flank them and saw the explosions. The nasty little blighters. Is everyone alright?”

“Fine. We should get back.” Remi said.

“We’ve got nothing on us!” Petyr lamented.

“Come on, we’ll sweep every living thing on the way back” sighed Uthyll. She wanted, secretly, to get back to East Cross early, to see her mother, to speak with her father about the kobolds, who were no longer creeping around in caves, but assaulting travelers on the road. She wanted to find out about the Tieflings of the Ishvaal, and to rifle through her father’s travel memoirs. More than anything, however, she wanted a bath.

The crew traipsed back to the wagon and searched for the horses, who were to be found drinking out of puddles nearby, and were reluctant to be resaddled or attached to the cart. Rain followed at a distance behind the carriage, and refused to come any nearer, so Uthyll resigned herself to drive the wagon, wedged between Remi and Berg.

“Mud’s meant to be good for your skin, Dart” Remi nudged her. She pouted at him, and kept her eyes firmly ahead. “Hey, it suits you. You look very… Basa-Mortan. Exotic!”

She glanced sideways at him, and the slits of black in her yellow eyes narrowed. She smiled, joylessly at him.

“I didn’t mean what I said. About your Father, and about you. We wouldn’t be without you, Uth.”

“Don’t call me that.” She sliced through his sentence.

“Oh. Alright. Well anyway, I wanted to know if you, perhaps, wanted to stay in my quarters when we get back to East Cross. We can get a pheasant if you like, and I can run you a bath. My housekeeper Sarila can always wash your hair. Or I can do it, my hair is quite high maintenance too…”

“Remi. Will you just leave me alone please. I will be returning to the Cruento quarters. If you wish to meet me for supper I suggest you approach my father who will be pleased to grant you permission, after a brief political discussion.”

He shriveled. “Sure, Dart. It’s clear you do what your parents tell you all the time.

Shut. Up.” She hissed at him, she had become aware that Berg, although pretending extremely hard to not be listening to the conversation, was smirking, and shaking ever so subtly with what she could only assume was laughter.

She felt a little bad. She turned to Remi and looked at his wounded expression. It had changed his arrogant face into that of a sweet boy in trouble.

“I guess I could come round in the evening for a bit. We could do some weapon repairs together, you’ve got a nice big armory. I’ll bring some of Mother’s bread if she’s got any. Father shouldn’t be eating so much of it, it makes him moody.”

Remi glanced at her, and she nodded. She smiled kindly, but her thoughts were not of him. She needed to know why the kobolds were actively raiding. What, or who, were they searching for?