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3. A Call of Heroes
THEY BROKE CAMP EARLY. THE trail started steep, but lessened once they made their way down to the waterfall's base. From there, they followed the creek until snow on the ground faded to patches and then nothing at all, and evergreens yielded to great, billowing willows; white-barked birch adorned with leaves of yellow, orange, and red; and, closest to the creek, needle-straight aspens. The afternoon grew increasingly warmer until dark clouds settled in and began to emit a light rainfall. Jerrick stopped at one point to wring water from his cloak and to announce, with little fanfare and a sour expression on his face, that they'd reached the Simarron.
"Will the trail take us directly to Homewood?" Murik asked.
Jerrick gave up on his efforts with his cloak. He was soaked through, and likely to remain that way until they reached shelter. "Not directly, no. It turns south some miles ahead and eventually intersects Bandits' Way. If we leave the path and head east once the trail turns, though, we'll still reach the road and save some time in the process. Once at the road, we'll head north to Homewood. We'll be there by tomorrow afternoon."
"What is this Bandits' Way?"
"Its proper name is Belkin's Way. It's named after Lord Belkin, a knight of old. The last I heard the tale, Belkin held off a force of a hundred goblins come down from the Ugulls while refugees in the area fled to safety. The battle took place somewhere along the path of the road, down near Holden Bridge people think. In Lord Belkin's honor, and because the bridge already had a name, it was decided to name the road after him."
"Interesting, but I still do not see—"
"There used to be a significant bandit problem south of here, down near Brinnok. The bandits—thieves and murderers to the last—became a big enough problem Vrannan regulars were called in to root them out. The bandits held their own well enough against caravan guards, but they weren't much of a match for Vranna's finest. Most fled north into the Simarron. The soldiers, figuring they'd done their duty, didn't pursue. Eventually, the bandits regrouped and started plying their trade again. Only now they preyed on those traveling Belkin's Way. The road's name was never officially changed, of course, but locals just started calling it Bandits' Way after that.
"When I was with the King's Patrol, we tried dealing with them, but the effort proved difficult. We mostly issued warnings, set traps, denied them food and other resources. Made their lives miserable, in other words. Some took the message to heart and left. Others stayed. But, unless the Hall came up with a way to finally deal with them, they're still a danger. By traveling east instead of waiting to intersect the road farther south, we may avoid being robbed or worse. This is all assuming we don't just run into them out here somewhere, of course."
As Jerrick indicated, once the trail began to turn, they left it behind to make their way deeper into the forest. Lesser trees vanished, for the great blackwood oaks of the Simarron ruled here. The oldest of them were hulking, intimidating specimens that spoke of potent Earth Power culminated over a lifespan of more than a thousand years. Jerrick had been just shy of seventeen when he'd first walked under their boughs. He remembered looking up, the branches so intertwined he barely saw the light of day. Their trunks, thicker than the span of his arms held outright, stood higher than the tallest of man-made towers. Their leaves were larger than his hand splayed out. Never before had he been in such awe. The feeling returned as even Murik felt compelled to pause and pay silent reverence.
They were both staring upward when they heard someone approaching. Murik and Jerrick exchanged glances. Highwaymen, or more travelers? Whoever they were, they made no attempt at hiding their approach: neither voices nor heavy footsteps were kept low or held in check. Jerrick identified at least two voices. In between bouts of arguing, he also heard the distinctive neigh of a horse.
Two women came into view from around a blackwood oak. At the sight of Jerrick, Murik, and Ash, they both stopped. One made no further movement. In fact, she froze. The other narrowed her gaze and lowered a hand to the hilt of a sword.
"Hello," Murik said, his voice full of greeting and cheer.
The one with her hand on her sword looked from Murik to Jerrick. She wore armor: a blue surcoat over plate and chain. From her shoulders hung a fine, blue cloak so long it almost touched the ground. Her other hand held the reins of her mount. Her gaze was not friendly.
"Hello, friends," Murik said again. "My name is Murik Alon Rin'kres. You are?"
The other one, the one who had frozen up, managed to move her lips in a greeting of her own. "Well met." This one wore no armor, but a shirt which was dirty and torn, leather breeches, and a simple jerkin. A plain, hooded cloak, soaked through, hung heavy from her shoulders. She wore a dagger at her belt which Jerrick doubted she'd much skill with. She looked about to add to her terse greeting, but stopped to clear her throat and take a deep breath first. "Well met, Murik Alon Rin'kres."
She looked a girl in Jerrick's eyes—not yet a woman, but not a child either. That she had been spooked or frightened was obvious from the way her hands trembled, though she must be cold as well, given that her hair and clothes were plastered to her skin from the rain. Though she was no worse off than any of them, some simply weren't cut out for the wilderness.
The girl gestured at her armored friend. "May I present to you Kayra Weslin, of the House of Weslin and Knight-Esquire of Kallendor."
The other's lips remained sealed in a tight, firm line, but the woman nodded at each of them.
"My name is Holly, Herald and Balladeer." Then she looked at Jerrick and waited.
Only when Jerrick saw all eyes on him did it occur to him to offer his own name. "Jerrick Bur, of Rell."
"But once of the Simarron Hall of the Wood," Murik said.
"Yes, once of the Simarron Hall."
"And your dog?" It was Kayra who spoke. The woman had yet to relax her stare.
"Ash," Jerrick said. "His name is Ash."
"So," Murik said, "what brings a knight of the Order and her …"
"Herald," Holly supplied.
Murik smiled. "Yes, of course, and her herald. What brings the both of you this far from the road? We are still far from the road, aren't we?" The last question was directed at Jerrick.
Jerrick pointed in the direction from which the two women had come. "An hour or so that way."
Holly and Kayra exchanged glances.
"We thought the road was in that direction," Holly said, pointing another way entirely.
"Afraid not," Jerrick said.
Kayra's expression turned into a scowl, while Holly emitted a slight sigh. The two women exchanged glances again. Holly tried smiling at the other. It was met by a tight-lipped stare that, after a heave of the woman's shoulders, finally relaxed.
"Might as well tell them," Kayra said.
Holly turned her attention back to Murik and Jerrick, took a deep breath, and blurted out, "We were robbed!"
Jerrick had never heard anyone so excited about having been victimized. Then, as she began her tale, Jerrick realized it was not the act itself but the telling which had the woman so excited.
"We were traveling Belkin's Way," Holly said, "heading north from Brinnok. Though it was morning, the woods all around were dark as night. Suddenly, bandits plunged from the woods from all sides, surrounding us. There were at least twenty of them—"
"There were six," Kayra interrupted.
"There were twenty," Holly insisted, "though only six confronted us. The others waited in the forest. They were rough, unshaven men, hardened from a life of thievery. Their leader, a bald man with only one eye, demanded we turn over our goods. Kayra laughed from Aurum's back, drew her sword, and engaged the leader. Two other brigands moved to stand against her. Kayra beat them back, thrusting and parrying their every move. Finally, they grew tired of the fight, turned, and ran back into the woods." The delight in Holly's voice faded as she went on. "Unfortunately, while Kayra held off the three bandits, the others made off with my horse and most of our supplies. But Kayra wasn't ready to admit defeat." She picked up the tempo again. "So we plunged headlong into the forest in pursuit and—"
"Wound up hopelessly lost," Kayra said in conclusion.
"Yes," said a dejected Holly. "We left the road, failed to find the bandits or my horse, wound up lost, and, well, here we are." She threw her hands up. "They stole nearly everything we had, including my mandolin. We've been trying to get back to the road ever since."
Her story complete, Holly took a moment to run her hands through her chestnut hair, using the dampness already there to slick it back. It was short, and didn't hold well.
Ash, who had been eyeing Aurum since the horse's appearance, chose that moment to slink forward toward him. The destrier made no reaction at first, huffing but otherwise seeming unconcerned. Still, Jerrick knew the trouble the dog might cause. Just as he was about to warn Ash away, the knight's steed stamped its hooves on the ground and made to rear. The motion was enough to startle Ash, who scrambled backward. Kayra grabbed hold of the horse's bridle, controlling the animal and staving off any further mayhem. Ash barked once, but he did it from a safe distance.
"Well," Murik said, "perhaps we can at least get you back to the road. From there, your journey is your own … unless, of course, our destinations happen to be the same?" He looked expectantly from one to the other.
"We go to Homewood, and then to your Hall," Kayra said, nodding at Jerrick, "to answer a Call of Heroes."
"A Call?" Jerrick asked with some alarm. He thought of Aliah's words again.
"Yes," Holly said, "one was issued by the Hall." Holly looked with surprise at them. "Neither of you know about it?"
"This is the first I've heard of it," Jerrick said. "If Murik knows anything, he's said nothing to me."
Murik admitted his own ignorance before he asked, "What can you tell us about it?"
"Unfortunately, not much," Kayra said. "We received word of it just a week ago when we arrived at Brinnok. The Call had already been issued and answered numerous times by others before us. No news had returned to say how they had fared, though. The Call itself said little enough, only that strange happenings had occurred and they required assistance from all willing and able." She paused, gathering her thoughts before continuing. "As a knight-esquire, I travel in search of a deed worthy enough to justify my promotion to the rank of knight. When I saw the Call's proclamation, I knew we needed to respond."
This new information gave Jerrick much to think on. Coupled with Aliah's warning, it gave him no peace. But without any further knowledge, he was unsure of what questions, if any, to ask. It surprised him when Murik posed a question of his own.
"This Call," he said, "when was it issued?"
"I don't know for sure," Kayra said, shaking her head. "Maybe four or five months ago."
"Nothing was said regarding the 'strange happenings'?"
"No. The Call was vague on the exact threat."
Murik chewed on his lip for a moment, then, with head lowered, he strolled away, lost in thoughts of his own.
"We'll take you to Homewood, if you like," Jerrick said. "We're going there anyway, and four will travel safer than two."
Murik was agreeable, and so Jerrick led them all to Bandits' Way. It took only the hour he had estimated. The road was revealed as a crude, narrow strip of dirt meandering from the outlying farmlands of Brinnok all the way north to Homewood. Trees lined its either side and, through the drizzle, they found the way deserted as far as the eye could see.
"Homewood isn't far," Jerrick said. "We'll be there before nightfall."
Thoughts of a dry roof and a warm bed drove them on with no breaks. Only Kayra did not last long on her feet. Her armor was heavy and not suited for such travel. But she'd Aurum, and no one took issue that she rode while they walked, though Jerrick wondered aloud why she wore the armor at all.
"You'll be up half the night drying and oiling it to keep the rust away," he said.
"I know," Kayra said, a note of dejection in her voice. "Today was supposed to have been my grand arrival in Homewood. The knight in shining armor riding in to save the day, or some such thing." She let out a mocking laugh. "Little did I realize it was going to rain most of the day, or that we'd be waylaid by bandits, or that ��" She sighed. "Let's just say this has not been my best day. Nor have things gone my way of late."
Jerrick was surprised at her frankness. He didn't know this woman at all, but something told him she did not reveal chinks in her armor often. That she had weaknesses, Jerrick had no doubts. Everyone did. But if she admitted those weaknesses to herself, or let others see them … That was another matter entirely. Jerrick cast a sidelong glance at her. She wasn't much older than Holly, he realized. It was sobering to think he was twice their age. Once, he'd been young too, arriving in the Simarron wide-eyed and full of ambition. Perhaps his goals were not as grand as a knight's, but he'd wanted to prove himself. He supposed he had. He was always well regarded as a patroller. As squad leader, he'd earned the respect of his men. But he'd chosen to leave that life and begin another. The decision still haunted him. "I know what you mean," he said, more to himself. "I know what you mean."
The rain never stopped, but it did lessen. Once, a train of wagons three deep hove into view, heading south from Homewood. Kayra and the others yielded the narrow road to them. As they passed, Holly issued a greeting. Neither the wagon masters nor the stone-faced guards, who walked beside the caravan with halberds in hand and broad swords at their hips, acknowledged her. Then, the wagons faded from view and were gone.
"Well," Holly said, "they certainly weren't very friendly."
Jerrick just shook his head, remembering past encounters along this road as pleasant exchanges of news and local gossip. Shaking his head some more, he gestured at Kayra to take the lead again.
Jerrick's thoughts drifted back to the Call. Patrollers prided themselves on self-reliance. It was a good thing, too, for there were few willing or able to lend them assistance if and when they needed it. Brinnok, the closest major city, lay several weeks away. Though they possessed a contingent of soldiers, mercenaries, and no doubt a wizard or two in their employ, offers of assistance from them were few and far between. Brinnok relied on the patrollers of the Simarron Hall to guard their frontiers, to warn of goblin activity, and to slay any creature violating their lands. But when the patrollers required aid, like when the bandits took up residence in the forest, the dignitaries of Brinnok had invented one excuse after another why they couldn't help. Jerrick didn't understand all the politics, but he knew the relationship the Hall maintained with Brinnok was tenuous at best. He also knew the situation must have become dire for the Hall to have issued such a plea.
The forest to either side of the road gradually opened up as the travelers approached several farms. Smoke drifting from chimneys and a few dim lights shining through drawn drapes were the only signs of life. They left the solitary farms undisturbed, reassurances from Jerrick that Homewood was not far urging them onward. Then, the frontier town came into view.
Like so many other border settlements, Homewood began as a place of safety amidst an inhospitable and often dangerous wilderness. The first settlers, a hardened lot of trappers, hunters, backwoodsmen, and farmers, often congregated at the early settlement seeking provisions, shelter, and protection from the night's denizens. Even in those early days, Homewood enjoyed the protection of the Simarron Hall. The King's Patrol had been there for as long as anyone remembered, guarding Vranna's frontier against goblin invasion while maintaining a vigilant eye for other dangers. As Homewood grew from a seldom-visited way station into a burgeoning community, the comforting presence of the patrollers and their Hall helped attract additional permanent residents.
Now, approaching the woodland outpost, they spotted flickering torches shining through the afternoon's gray like beacons guiding wayward travelers. The entirety of the place was ringed by a wooden palisade so high not even the roofs of the buildings on the other side poked over it. The only entrance was a single, large gate sealed shut. The road led directly to the gated entrance.
Jerrick thought it strange the place was so tightly shut, and he related as much to the others. Homewood always welcomed travelers, whether they were frequent visitors or newcomers. At night, the gate was closed. But never during the day as it was now.
Jerrick led the others the remainder of the way to the gate. Torches, the ones they had spied from a distance, were lit to either side of it. The others looked to Jerrick, unsure if a challenge from inside was forthcoming or if they needed to announce their own presence. Jerrick shrugged, walked up to the gate, and pounded on it with his fist. There was no immediate indication anyone had heard him. Jerrick was about to knock again when the door's spy-hole, located at eye level, shot open with a sharp creak. In its open square was framed a man's unshaven and scared face.
"Welcome ta Homewood." The words were spoken in a bored, routine manner. "State yer business."
Holly politely stepped forward and said, "We have come to answer the Call sent out by the Hall of the Wood. We travel in the company of a knight of the Order, and request a night's—oops," she said, giggling, "stay in your good town."
Jerrick thought Holly's answer a bit overdone, but he let the knight's herald have her say.
The guard's eyes became slits as he took in each member of the group. "A knight, ya say?" His gaze lifted to the mounted woman.
"Yes," Holly said. "May I introduce Kayra Weslin of Kallendor, Knight-Esquire of—"
The peephole slammed shut, leaving Holly with her mouth open and the wet and weary travelers with bewildered expressions. Jerrick was just wondering if he needed to pound on the gate again when they heard an inside latch drawn. Moments later, the gate creaked inward. Without hesitation, the group entered Homewood. At the wall's other side, they watched as the guard latched the gate tight once more. When he was finished, he turned to address them. The man wore a chain hauberk with leather pants and boots. A short-bladed sword whose leather-wrapped hilt was tarnished and worn hung from an equally tattered belt.
"The market's closed fer the day, but you'll find food and a hot bath at Jay's Tavern. 'Tis straight ahead and ta yer left." They saw the man was missing a few teeth. Those remaining to him were stained yellow and black from chew. The habit was confirmed as the guard paused long enough to eject a stream of saliva from his mouth. Wiping the spittle from his stubbled chin, he went on. "Yer horse," he said, nodding toward Kayra, "can be stabled at the livery, if it pleases yer knightship. End a' the road and ta the right, past ol' Varg's blacksmith shop." He started to walk away without further comment, but then stopped and said over his shoulder, "The Call a Heroes … it came from here, not the Hall. Naught's been heard from them patrollers fer some time now." Before any had a chance to respond, the man shambled off, entered a small guardhouse which shared one wall with the town's palisade, and slammed its door shut. The door creaked back open of its own volition, then slammed again, this time staying shut for good.
"So now what?" Holly asked.
Jerrick knew his own plan. "I'm for Jay's Tavern for a hot meal, a room, and a bath."
"I think we all shall join you," Murik said.
"I'll see to Aurum," Kayra said, "then meet you there." She motioned the horse onward, and they trotted off.
"Shall we find the tavern?" Murik asked. "I, for one, am eager to be out of this constant drizzle." He shook the rain from his cloak for emphasis. No one mentioned that he somehow had stayed the driest.
Strolling down the muddy street, they saw few crisscrossing the main thoroughfare. Those who did wore coats with hats pulled low or cloaks with hoods drawn, and all moved with a hurried step. Not one of them paid any heed to the newcomers, though Ash encountered his own greeting party in the form of three mangy mutts. All outgoing caravans had left for the day, though they saw a series of wagons being outfitted for the morning. They passed these by, noting the wagon master, a rough-looking man, and the caravan's owner, a snout-nosed, long-necked raspel merchant chittering directions to his lead worker. Both looked their way briefly, but neither offered a greeting. Such unfriendliness came as no surprise to Jerrick given their experience on the road in. Still, he was taken aback by the contrast between the folk he remembered and those he now encountered. Shaking his head, he at least found comfort in the familiarity of the town itself as he looked from place to place.
There was Homewood's guard station, Blek Thunderaxe's carpentry shop, and Rupert's Trading Post. Across the street was Davlin's Fur and Tannery and, next to it, Homewood's abattoir, where a third-generation butcher plied his trade. Cabins lined a road which branched off from the main street. Some were occupied by year-round denizens of Homewood, while others stood empty until some well-to-do merchant came along needing privacy and a place to stay free from the noise of places like Jay's. Farther down, more shops, houses, and other dwellings lined the main street. The group came to a halt before reaching them, though, as Jerrick gestured toward a rare two-story building, whose sign read, in big, faded letters, Jay's Tavern. Next to the lettering were two frothy flagons of beer carved into the sign, both nearly tipped over and spilling their contents. Under cover of the tavern's awning, Jerrick and Holly took the opportunity to remove their wet cloaks and stomp some of the muck from their boots. Murik kept his cloak about him. His boots needed no cleaning, for they were as if new.
The voice, low and grizzled, came from a slight figure seated in a rocking chair in a shadowed corner of the porch. Jerrick took a few steps toward him.
"Yes, my name is Jerrick. Who are you?"
A balding and grayed head stuck out from the shadows. One of his eyes was closed permanently, while the other scrutinized the patroller. "Why, Jerrick, it is you!"
Instant recognition dawned on Jerrick. "Old Man Jasper!"
The patroller strode forward and embraced the still-seated oldster. Jasper returned the hug with enthusiasm.
"How have you been, Jasper?"
Old Man Jasper pulled a quilted blanket closer about him. "Oh, fine, just fine."
Jerrick looked to Holly and Murik. "Jasper's been a permanent fixture around these parts for longer than I've been alive. He's the best trapper the Simarron's ever seen."
Jasper cackled. "Oh, I mighta been the best, but not no more. Age has crept too far inta these ol' bones."
"Nonsense." Jerrick smiled at the man.
"How long has it been, Jerrick? Four, five years?"
"Something like that."
"Why, I haven't seen the likes a ya since ya ran off fer that girl. How is that wife a yers?"
The question gave Jerrick pause, but he answered before the silence grew too heavy. "She's well."
"So, what brings ya back ta these parts?"
"The Hall. We've heard some things. Perhaps later, if you've the time—"
Jasper leaned close. "If yer wantin' ta know what's goin' on, Jerrick, best talk ta Relk."
"Relk?" Jerrick remembered his old friend, a hunter and trapper much like Jasper, only younger by many years. Relk spent most of his time outside the walls of Homewood, living amidst the outback of the Simarron. When he did venture into town, it was usually for very brief stints. "He's here?"
Old Man Jasper nodded, gesturing with his thumb toward the interior of Jay's. "Inside. Been here a couple a nights. Brought in quite a catch this time around, too. He'll no doubt be headin' back out sooner rather than later."
The two spoke a moment longer before Jerrick excused himself and the others. Leaving with a promise to catch up later, Jerrick herded the others, including Ash, who'd shaken off his greeters, into Jay's.
* * *
Jerrick, Murik, and Holly were just in the process of paying for two rooms and dinner all at once when Kayra, her horse settled for the evening, entered and offered to pay for everything as a gesture of thanks for leading Holly and herself out of the wilderness. Jerrick and Murik, while appreciative, refused to accept. Kayra's insistence won out in the end, however. Then, with a time close to early evening set for them to meet up again, they all retired. Jerrick, Murik, and Ash shared one room, while Kayra and Holly took another. Hot baths and a change of clothes were the first priority for all. Since all of Holly's belongings had been on her stolen horse, including extra clothes, Kayra sent out for a clothier, who provided the woman with new, clean garments. Kayra again insisted on paying, feeling responsible for their ill-fated encounter on the road. Holly protested, but the knight's persistence was without equal.
As the designated time arrived, Jerrick emerged into the hallway dressed in a clean shirt and breeches, with the worst of the road's dirt wiped from his boots. He left his bow and sword behind in the room, but kept his hunting knife at his belt. He opted not to shave, but had thoroughly washed and combed his hair so it looked much neater than it had throughout the journey thus far. The others promptly joined him. Murik remained garbed in his usual clothes: a leather vest worn over a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of leather breeches, and his eslar cloak. He kept his wizard's staff close and housed his sword and dagger in their jeweled sheaths at his side. Holly's new garments consisted of leather woodsman's breeches and a simple tunic tied at the waist by a leather belt. Kayra emerged last. She had removed her armor and, in its place, wore cotton breeches dyed brown with a blue tunic. Her hair, previously woven into a single braid, remained so. Ash emerged the same mangy dog he had been upon entering the tavern.
Once they descended to the common room, they each saw a scene not unlike the one they had found upon arriving. A subdued tone hung over the place as people sat huddled about round tables, conversing in muttered whispers or not at all while they nursed drinks and picked at food. Soft music greeted them as a journeyman balladeer played a melancholic tune from the corner of the room, while barmaids quietly strolled about, carrying drinks and food to the sparse crowd. A dwarf with a braided beard manned the bar. Requests for drinks being light, he spent his time sucking on a pipe and blowing lazy puffs of smoke into the thick air. A healthy blaze, the only warmth in the room, burned in a hearth set at one side of the room. Holly wondered out loud if the people were preparing for a funeral. A few patrons shot her irritated looks, but they turned away and went back to their business when Kayra's stare met theirs.
They found Jerrick's friend Relk seated at a table large enough to accommodate them all, and so they joined him after the proper introductions had been made. Jerrick and Relk immediately slipped into an easy conversation, while the others sat in silence, taking in the sights and sounds of the place as they listened to the woodsmen's conversation. When a barmaid strolled up to their table, they ordered food and drinks. Before long, the table was covered with dirty plates, spent ale mugs, and a trio of empty spiced-wine cups before Kayra. Beneath the table, Ash chewed merrily away on a massive soup bone.
The music stopped as the traveling minstrel called for a break. Relishing the strong ale, Jerrick took a long draft, only to find himself staring at the flagon's bottom once more. About to call for another, he paused instead as the tavern door swung open and four unshaven men wearing a patchwork of clothes and armor entered. Their weapons were equally diverse: axes, short swords, and hunting knives hung from thick belts. They were a clamorous lot, loud and boisterous as they galumphed their way to a table and yelled for drinks.
Holly followed Jerrick's gaze as she looked over her shoulder. Her head immediately spun back around for a quick moment before she shot her gaze back toward the men once more. "That's my mandolin!" She gestured at one of the men, who'd such an instrument hanging over a shoulder.
"How can you be sure it's yours?" asked Murik.
"Trust me, I know. That's definitely mine."
"She's right," Kayra said. "Two of them were amongst the bandits who robbed us." The woman rose. "All of you, stay here. It is my honor alone which demands satisfaction."
"Need I ask if you're sure it's them?" Murik asked.
"It's them. I never forget the face of someone I've crossed swords with."
Holly put out a hand to touch her friend's forearm. "Kayra, don't. There's too many."
"Worry about them, not me."
The knight strode directly up to the quartet of bandits. Though her sword leaned within easy reach against the nearby wall, she chose to leave it behind. When she reached the men's table, she planted both feet apart and waited for their attention. One took note of her immediately, motioning to his fellows, who were too busy drinking and laughing to notice themselves. When all four eyed her, Kayra spoke.
"I am Kayra, of the House of Weslin and Knight-Esquire of the Order. Yesterday, on the road into town, you and some of your fellow thieves robbed me and my friend."
One of the men looked Kayra over with a critical eye. "So what? Ya want yer stuff back or somethin'?" He laughed. "Too late fer that! We sold it all already!" His cohorts joined him as he broke out into a series of loud guffaws.
"Except for the instrument, it seems."
"What instrument?" asked the thief, who had unslung the mandolin and now held it.
"The one in your hand, you sot."
"Who ya callin' a sot?"
The man rose. As he came around the table to stand before Kayra, his eyes appraised the woman's figure and a broad smile played out across his face. "Here now, lass, yer a fine-lookin' one. Mayhap me and you can head on up ta one of Jay's rooms and discuss this like—"
Kayra slammed her fist into the brigand's face. Blood spurted, and the thief yelped in pain as he stumbled back and fell onto the table. His friends laughed as blood streamed from underneath a hand he held to his nose. They grabbed his arms, shoving him back up as they verbally prodded him back into the fight. Indignant, his eyes took on a wild look, and still holding the mandolin in one hand, he swung it at Kayra's head like a club. "Why, ya stupid—"
Ducking beneath the clumsy blow, the knight turned about and grabbed the man's outstretched arm. She pressed her fingers into his wrist, forcing a cry of pain from him as he released the instrument. Kayra snatched the mandolin out of the air, then smashed her elbow into the thief's stomach. He doubled over in agony. She disentangled herself from her assailant just as a second brigand lunged at her from behind. Sensing his approach, she sidestepped his charge. Moving too fast to stop from ramming into a neighboring table, he sent plates and flagons flying everywhere, and as he attempted to right himself, he slipped, hitting his forehead hard on the table's end. The thief slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Kayra turned just as the first brigand, ready for more, took a vicious swipe at her with a knife he'd pulled from his belt. She backed from that first attack, then backed some more as the man slashed at her. Then she butted up against a table and could go no farther. A look of delight crossed her attacker's face as he brought his arm back for the kill. In that instant, Kayra sent one, then two quick jabs into the man's broken nose. His howl of pain was silenced as Kayra launched her boot into his groin. He doubled over in agony, his mouth opening wide to issue a silent scream. Kayra grabbed a flagon from the nearby table and crashed it down on the back of the thief's head. Knocked senseless, he fell flat to the ground.
Kayra looked at the two remaining brigands, both of whom had remained seated throughout the conflict. Neither of them dared meet the knight's stare.
Leaning over each of the prostrate men, Kayra removed their purses from their belts. She opened each, performed a cursory inspection of their contents, then said to the two seated men, "Take your fellows and be gone. I'm keeping these," she said, holding up the purses, "as compensation. Now, be off!"
Kayra turned and walked to the bar. Behind her, she heard the men's chairs slide back and their booted feet stomping on the wooden floor as they gathered their fallen comrades and made for the exit. She reached into one of the purses, and a flash of gold sailed toward the dwarven bartender.
"For the mess."
The barkeep caught the coin in midair, bit into it, and smiled. "Any time, dame knight!"
Jerrick, along with everyone else at the table, had stood the moment the second brigand had risen, ready to jump into the fray if necessary. Holly urged them not to, however, as Kayra's honor demanded she handle this herself. So they hung back, relieved when Kayra finished off both the ruffians. Now, the knight returned to their table and sat. The tavern's other patrons, who had paused to watch the outcome of the confrontation, returned to their own business. Ash, who had taken no notice of the commotion, continued to gnaw away at his bone.
Jerrick looked at the woman with grudging respect. He'd heard enough tales about those of the Order and their prowess in combat, but never thought to see one lay out two much-larger men with nothing but her bare hands.
Kayra handed the undamaged mandolin to Holly, who squeezed her friend's arm for a moment and offered a thank-you. The knight smiled a moment—the first such gesture of kindness Jerrick had seen from the woman—then drained what remained of her spiced wine and ordered another. A moment later, they heard the barkeep shouting it was on the house.
Holly, delighted at the return of her instrument, slipped into her own world as she held the mandolin close and plucked and tuned the strings with practiced fingers.
With the excitement over, Jerrick thought it best to get to business. "Relk, I need to ask you about the Hall."
"Aye, the Hall." The man's eyes dropped and his expression took on dour seriousness.
"It's been more than four years since I've been to Homewood or the Hall," Jerrick said. "The gloom I see everywhere is not how I remember this place. What's happened to bring this darkness down on these people? More importantly, what news of the patrollers?"
Relk took a gulp of ale. "Folk are scared, that much ya no doubt can tell. That's the reason fer the doom and gloom. They've got good reason to be frightened, too."
Murik chimed in. "Perhaps if you start at the beginning."
Relk took another swig from his tankard, wiped the froth from his beard, and then, after releasing a healthy belch, said, "I can't tell ya much a the Hall itself, only 'cause I haven't been there a late. But I've heard and seen things aplenty in the forest. In times past, I'd cross paths with a patroller or two every so often. Not that my business was ever anything ta concern them, mind ya. I'm just a simple trapper, after all." He flashed them all a grin, then lowered his voice as he went on. The others were forced to lean in to hear. "A while back, maybe six or seven months ago, they stopped checkin' in. I thought maybe they figured I didn't need lookin' after, but then I ran inta some other woodsmen who told the same tale. Just like that, poof!" Relk's hands came up in balled fists, then he spread his fingers wide in emphasis. "What's stranger, 'twasn't just the wood-folk who no longer ran inta them. 'Twas everyone! No one's—I mean, no one's—heard from them patrollers fer a while."
"The guard at the gate said as much," Murik said.
"Aye, but there's more," Relk said. "I stopped here in Homewood fer a night or two after that, ta catch up on news and such. Well, when I ventured back out ta the Simarron, somethin' was different." He paused to take another drink. "The woods had grown dark, and I'm not talkin' about from the sun goin' down. Oh, 'twasn't sudden, but as I traveled north toward the Hall—not my usual direction, mind ya, since I do most a my trappin' ta the east—the whole time I swear somethin' was watchin' me from the shadows. The oaks didn't even look right. I dunno how ta explain it, but they almost looked … sick. Well, with those eyes on me, I decided it'd be best ta stay clear a the Hall, and I turned east back ta familiar ground. It wasn't until then that the feeling left me, and things returned ta normal." Relk took yet another draft from his flagon, this time a long, deep one.
Jerrick knew Relk was a hardened man who did not spook easily. But he was a woodsman, and prone to their superstitions. Jerrick wondered in the back of his mind if perhaps some of those fears had taken hold, leading his old friend down a road of false manifestations.
Kayra asked, "What of the Call? What can you tell us about it?"
Relk nodded knowingly. "The mayor a Homewood issued it after contact with the patrollers grew stale. Oh, he sent some people up there before issuing it. Jaslin's husband, that fella Rodal, Kert, the tanner's assistant, and a few of the town's guards. All I know is not a one a them returned."
"None at all?" Holly asked, with widened eyes.
"Well, one, but the poor man's mind's gone. 'Twasn't like that before he left. But he's a stark-raving-mad lunatic now, if ya get my meaning."
"What's his name?" Jerrick asked. "Perhaps he can tell us something."
Murik added his agreement.
"I reckon he won't say much. Nothin' you'd understand anyway. The fella's name is Graewol. Ya can find him at the blacksmith's shop most times."
"Perhaps in the morning we can talk to him," Kayra suggested.
The others agreed.
"And what of Greth?" Jerrick asked.
"Ah, now ya be gettin' ta the heart a what's got the good people a Homewood so worried, my patroller friend."
"What is Greth?" Kayra asked.
Jerrick was about to explain when Holly beat him to it.
"Greth … I've heard that name before." Her features narrowed in concentration for a moment before her face lit up. "Oh, I remember! There's a brief reference to it in a story my bard master used to tell. The entire story is rather long, but the part mentioning Greth goes something like 'and so the goblins—'"
"Goblins!" Kayra said, too loudly, as the surrounding tables took notice.
Holly shot Kayra a look of reproach, raising her voice as she went on. "'—were driven back to their dark mountain fortress, Greth, where they plot and wait for the King's Patrol to wither, die, and forget their duty so they might one day emerge anew and cast a shadow of Darkness over all.'"
Relk nodded approvingly. "Aye, 'tis the tale a the Battle a Brakken Pass ya tell. 'Twas the goblin filth's last stand, and one they sorely lost. Their few survivors fled back to Greth, where 'tis said they remain ta this day, waitin' and watchin'."
"Which is what they'll continue to do as long the patrollers stand ready," Jerrick said.
"Yes. But now, people are beginnin' ta wonder, and worry. If somethin' has happened ta them patrollers …" Relk just shook his head.
The group fell into silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Relk took the opportunity to finish off the last of his drink and excuse himself.
"I'll be here till mornin' if ya need me fer anything."
"You're actually going to sleep in a bed?" Jerrick asked, smiling. It was unusual for the trapper to sleep on anything but dirt and leaves. Even more unusual for him to remain within Homewood overnight.
Relk laughed. "No, more likely the floor. The guard won't open the gate after nightfall. Not without a bribe, anyway. Mayor's new rule. Yer lucky ya arrived when ya did, otherwise you'd be stuck out in the cold. Speaking a the mayor, I reckon he's heard a yer arrival and will be wantin' ta talk ta ya. The fat slug's probably been sleepin' all day, otherwise he woulda come sooner. Ah, well, when ya see 'im, give 'im my regards fer keepin' me trapped in his town all night."
Jerrick rose and extended his hand, which Relk shook with vigor. "I'm afraid you leave me with more questions than answers, my friend," Jerrick said. "I thank you, nonetheless."
Relk said his farewells to the others, wished them well, and made his way to the stairs leading up to the tavern's rooms.
Jerrick watched his friend go, then, returning to his seat, cleared his throat and said, "There's something else. Something I haven't told any of you yet." He looked around the table, seeing their full attention upon him. "When I started this journey, I didn't know anything about any of this trouble. I meant to return to the Hall to … well, to visit old friends, nothing more. But now …" Jerrick paused, taking a swig of ale. He swallowed hard before continuing. "The first night I was in the mountains, before I ran into Murik at Eagle's Nest, something happened. Several hours before dawn … I was woken, by a mist—a green mist—rising from a nearby stream. When I went to investigate, I found the current still. The surface looked like a window. When I looked into it, I saw the face of a woman, an old friend. Her name is Aliah. She was here in the Simarron. She spoke to me. Cried for help, actually."
"Was she in danger?" Kayra asked.
"Not at first, I don't think. But she said someone was coming, that she wouldn't allow them to take her. She was frightened. Then her face vanished from the water and everything returned to normal."
"Did she say anything else?" Murik asked.
Jerrick swallowed again. "She said they were all dead. I don't know who she meant."
"The patrollers?" Kayra asked.
Jerrick shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe. She disappeared before I found out for sure."
"The means by which you communicated with her is known to me. Is she a sorceress?"
"She's a half-dryad, the daughter of a forest sprite."
"Ah, a friend to water faeries, then. That explains much," Murik said, though he offered nothing else.
Kayra took a long pull from her wine cup. "If your friend—this half-dryad—did speak of the patrollers, then we could be walking right into occupied territory. Possibly right into a trap." She looked at Jerrick. "I'm sorry, but this must be said: The goblins may have overrun the Hall, killed everyone, and even now plan an attack on Homewood."
Jerrick had already thought that particular scenario through. He had hoped to find news proving such speculation wrong, but everything up to this point only corroborated it.
"If the Hall has been overrun," Holly said, "then maybe we should head back to Brinnok to let the governor know about it. At the very least, he can send the city garrison—"
"No," Kayra said. "If we go back now, with no proof, they'll do nothing, and we will have wasted precious time, for we'll just have to come right back here to find it. By then, it might be too late."
"Agreed," Jerrick said. "I'm for the Hall, to see for myself. If it has been taken over and the patrollers are … gone, then I'll head to Brinnok straightaway and let Vranna's soldiers deal with the goblins."
"What is this sudden talk of 'I'?" Kayra asked.
"The patrollers are my business, and I will not ask—"
"You have no need to ask. We were all committed to this journey before this night. I, for one, plan to follow through on my commitment. While I will not speak for Holly, I know she is as resolute as I."
Holly's lips formed a nervous half smile, but she nodded her affirmation.
"I am also committed to the stated course of action," Murik said. "I will complete my journey to the Hall and see what has happened there."
"Are we all in agreement, then?" Kayra asked. "We travel to the Hall of the Wood together to discover what fate has befallen the patrollers?" She waited for each of them to agree. "I don't know what destiny has in store for us, but we've been brought together for a reason. Of that, I have no doubt."
Jerrick opened his mouth to say something, but then just shook his head, took another drink, and stayed quiet. He put little stock in destiny or fate, but let the others think what they liked. If nothing else, he did feel better for the company.
Murik stood. "With that, I take my leave of you. The rain has stopped, and I think I shall take a brief walk about town before I retire for the evening." Murik gathered his cloak about him, picked up his knotted staff, and walked outside.
Those who remained barely had time to take another drink before Relk's prediction concerning the mayor proved true. As Murik exited the place, a balding man with a short beard and a round waist entered. His arms waved about enthusiastically as he spotted the newcomers and proceeded directly for them. Without pause, he introduced himself as Billard, Mayor of Homewood, before greeting each of them in turn. Kayra rose, informing him they answered the Call of Heroes and pledging to help in every way possible. Billard bubbled with excitement as he expressed his immeasurable gratitude, ordered them all another round of drinks on him—or, more likely, out of the town's purse—and pledged all the resources at his disposal to their cause. He even went so far as to offer them a modest reward, but all joined Kayra in turning it down. They readily accepted provisions and other supplies, though.
As the drinks Billard had ordered arrived, Kayra asked the mayor quite pointedly, "Relk mentioned others who had ventured to the Hall. What happened to them?"
Billard's jovial manner disappeared. "I'm afraid none have returned, including our own who were the first to journey to the Hall. Of them, only Graewol came back. We issued the Call only because we knew not what else to do. As you no doubt know, the nearest city is Brinnok, and they've always some excuse for sending aid. We might appeal to the duke, but that takes time. In the meanwhile, if something has happened to the patrollers, we wish to help them."
"How many other heroes have answered the Call?" Holly asked.
Billard's face contorted as he thought for a moment. He started counting on his fingers, then finally said, "Twenty-three others. In fact, three dwarfs left just a week ago. Said they'd be back in no time."
The three party members stared at the mayor, waiting for him to relate their fate.
Billard squirmed under their scrutiny, then, his lips curling into a half smile, he said, "Their definition of 'no time' must be different from our own, for there has been no sign of them … yet." He emitted a chuckle, which faded into a sigh. "But I have a feeling good fortune has come upon us this time. You, good knight, are the first of the Order to answer our Call. That, combined with a patroller returned home and a bard whose songs I must no doubt hear before you leave, and …" Billard looked about, his plump cheeks jostling back and forth. "Wasn't there another with you? An eslar, if rumors are true. Oh well, no matter." The mayor of Homewood rose. "I shall see that all of your needs are met and waiting for you in the morning. Good night to you."
Without further comment, the Billard shuffled off, leaving them to look at one another with befuddled expressions.
"Strange man," Holly commented.
The two women excused themselves for the night, leaving Jerrick alone at the table. He ordered another ale, and as soon as it arrived, took the drink outside to the tavern's porch. Ash, his soup bone devoured, followed in silence. Jerrick found an empty chair, lit his pipe, and smoked.
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