Wednesday, August 9, 2017

To Hearth-Home and Back: Chapter 3

Frodo set off and rounded the corner back the way they had come and started towards the double doors. As he approached it became clear that there was another hallway facing the doors that they could not see from their cells. He peered down it and saw the flicker of a torch on a wall some thirty to fourty feet away where the hallway joined another perpendicular to it.

Behind the halfling, Malion looked at the double doors. They were solid oak and once belonged to an ancient tree he noted with sadness. They were immensely heavy, and the hinges will well wrought out an equally heavy looking iron. They were designed to swing in towards the party, and there were multiple means of barring them on the wall to his left. No cracks were visible along their seem, lintel, jams or sill, such was the quality of their construction but the half-elf's keen hearing was able to pick out muffled voices from their other side.

Jones stepped passed both Malion and Frodo to peer down the new hallway. "I'm going to take a look down this hall, just to see what lies down that way," he said quietly. He started making his way towards the torch on the far wall, intending to pick it up and see what else was lying around the corner. Jones advanced cautiously, listening for sounds of any additional orcs. Kuhlbert watched as Jones walked down the corridor and decided to follow the man, club at the ready. The wizard caused too many problems last time to be left alone, he thought.

Thorek saw the two move off as he looked around at the doors. He was increasingly curious about who had built this place and would have wagered it was his kin. The prison cell of silver had him wondering what else of value might lie beyond the double doors. Yet, splitting the party would not be a good idea; they barely had any weapons. Hopefully their kit was here somewhere. Perhaps, he thought, looking at the doors and their fastenings, it would be better to secure the doors behind them and explore the hall? "Malion, ye hear anything over there," he asked as the half-elf stood ear to the door.

"Just voices," Mal returned. "I cannot make out the words though."

Jones and Kuhlbert had reached the end of the hall and stood with their backs to the wall as they peered around the corners. The way left ended abruptly, barely five feet from the corner. Refuse was left to rot here and it smelled foul. To the right the adjoining hallway went some ten feet before turning quickly left and then right again, neither of the two men could see much past that however. More interestingly, another hallway doubled back the way they had come sharing a wall with their hallway. It ended in a single closed door, but there was another door on the left wall just before that which was left ajar. A low light emanated from that door and Kuhlbert thought he heard voices there.

Thorek looked to Jones and Kuhlbert as Malion answered his question. He thought briefly before responding, "'Ere, Mal, let's see if we can't bar this door quietly and catch up with the others. We shouldn't separate." The half-elf nodded and assisted Thorek with barring the door. They attempted to move as silently as possible as to not alert the voices in the room beyond. There was a heart stopping moment, however, when one of the retaining bars slid across the door with what sounded like a thunderous scrape. Thorek grimaced, and drew his dagger once more.

Well, that could have gone better, the dwarf thought to himself. He put his ear up to the door, straining to hear whether the voices in the other room had changed. He played with his blade absently, betraying his stress level, and looked at Malion. The half-elf had an ear pressed to the door as well. After a moment he relaxed and shook his head. Thorek nodded and he, Frodo and Merritt moved to join the others at the end of the hallway.

Jones turned at the sound of the others approaching and motioned for them to do so quietly. He shared a look with Kuhlbert, they might have had the element of surprise at the moment but the last thing they needed was to alert the orcs that they had broken out of their cells. Jones whispered to the man a moment later, "Do you think we should bother to see what's in there? That's a long way where we could be caught out in the open," he noted.

Kuhlbert shook his head and whispered back to Jones, "we shouldn't go further alone, you should stay with the others." Jones shot him a glare but the cleric ignored him, or just didn't notice the look, as he peered around the corner again down the adjacent hall. He could make out what sounded like three orcs. They were arguing about something he thought, as their voices were raised and their tones sharp. When the others arrived he explained what he had heard and saw as plainly as he could.

Thorek and Malion looked right and down towards the open door for themselves, while Merritt looked over the little alcove to the left. He motioned to Frodo to come closer as he prodded the trash with his dagger. "Let's just make sure we don't get caught flat-footed," he said.

"Devious stuff, this orc shit," the halfling asked the man as he stooped over the debris. Merritt shook his head and continued in his search. After a few seconds more it was clear that the pile held nothing of interest or cleanliness about it. He ignored the halfling's sly smile and continued to search out of spite.

Thorek had just been about to suggest they move past the adjacent hallway to the darker one beyond when Mal stepped around the corner and set off for the voices. He made a grab for the half-elf but missed and watched as he moved down the hall. His fear gave way to anger and then bewilderment in quick order. The scene sat oddly with the dwarf, but he couldn't put his finger on why until Malion hopped over a stray broken crate. The half-elf wasn't making a sound. How in the blazes, he asked himself.

Malion reached the open door quickly, stepped to the opposite wall as to not frame himself in its light and slowly edged sidewise to see what was in the room. He need not have been so cautious, as three orcs stood with their backs to him bickering over what looked like Kuhlbert's huge maul. Mal looked back to Thorek, held up three fingers and motioned for him to approach. It took a few tries to get the dwarf's attention as he kept on looking at Malion's feet. He gave Thorek a questioning look along with the single finger sign the dwarf had given him back on the trail. That seemed only to confuse the dwarf more.

Jones had peered around the corner to watch Malion sneak down the hallway. When the half-elf first signalled, he turned around to get Merritt and Frodo only to find them amongst the orc filth. "When you have finished with your discovery session," Jones quipped, "it looks as though the half-elf found some more of our captors." Jones stepped in front of Thorek and slipped down the hallway while the dwarf and Malion gestured back and forth with their hands. He would be damned if missed out on a chance for some revenge.

Kuhlbert followed the magic-user, sparing a glance to Frodo and Merritt as well. He prayed that they could surprise this group of orcs like the last, and that he could kill one of the foul creatures himself. Exasperated, Thorek joined him and quietly approached Malion.

Mal watched as part of the group approached. When they arrived, he looked at them and silently mouthed, "three orcs." He pointed to the others, then to the doorway, and finally mimed a punch into his hand, hoping they would understand his intention. Mal was especially concerned about the dwarf, since hand signals seemed to be beyond his understanding. Mal showed his hand to the others and raised his fingers while mouthing, "three, two, one." He rushed into the room, knife in hand, hoping to surprise the arguing orcs.

Jones followed on Mal's heels, stepping to his left upon passing through the doorway in order to allow his companions clear access to the room. He took a second to focus on the furthest orc as he fell into the throes of magic. Mal charged the closest orc and thrust the dagger into its lower back as what sounded like a group of angry hornets rushed past his head. The orc mouthed a silent scream, the dagger finding its way into its right lung and stealing its breath. The orc, for its part, did not fall to the floor.

Able to focus without any distractions, Jones had condensed the magical energy into a concentrated bullet as he fixed his vision on the back of the furthest orc's head. With a flick of his wrist and a point of his finger the missile had whizzed past Malion and slammed into the orc, snapping its head forward and killing it instantly. Jones' eyes widened at his success as Malion pulled his blade from the closest orc.

Kuhlbert followed the others into the room and saw as they began to attack. He charged the unengaged orc with his club above his head, the holy ones willing he would bash its head in. The last orc had turned at the sound of the other attacks and managed to step aside as the priest brought his club down.

Not far away, Merritt and Frodo froze as they heard the scuffle begin. "Shit," the archer said. They both had assumed that the others would have waited for them to finish their search and catch up. They turned quickly down the hallway towards the others, rushing to help their comrades.

Thorek was the last to step into the room, flipping to a throwing grip on his dagger as he did but hesitating to let fly. As tempting as "accidentally" hitting Malion might be, it wasn't something he really wanted to do. Instead, he stepped to the left with Jones, trying to clear the way for the other two and possibly get a cleaner line of sight to one of the damned orcs.

Mal grabbed the orc he had stabbed as it attempted to step away and thrust his dagger once more into its back. He was rewarded with a gurgle as the beast fell from the blade and slumped lifelessly to the stone floor.

Frodo and Merritt arrived at the doorway as Malion finished his opponent. Seeing Kuhlbert squaring up with the other orc holding the man's large maul Frodo took two quick steps, hopped up onto a barrel and launched himself at the sole survivor. The orc turned just in time to meet the flaming end of the torch the halfling swung at its skull. Solid oak met bone and both broke in a shower of sparks. The orc hit the ground hard with Frodo on top of it, his celebration was short lived as his bare feet met with the hot coals of wood. He hopped off the orc with a "hot, hot!"

Merritt entered the room with a frown, disappointed in not having had the chance to cross blades with an orc yet. He took a look around. The room was nearly fifteen feet long and ten feet wide. The orcs lay slumped on its far end amidst what looked like the goods from the wagons while a door lay shut in the middle of the wall to his left.

"Let's get moving," he said, the tinge of regret apparent in his voice for having missed the action, as he walked to the wagon goods. "We should not stay here too long. Someone's gonna' come back looking for these oafs." His practiced eye swept the pile and landed on his bow and quiver in short order. He picked up both and tested the bow's string, it was still tight. He found his backpack further off behind a crate wrapped in his leather armor, his daggers and sword were where he had tied them to it the night before. He opened the bag to ensure all was as it should be and pulled the armor over his shoulders.

Jones began searching for his kit as well in the repossessed pile of goods. While he was thrilled at the prospect of having killed an orc with his magic, he needed his spear back now that his magic was used up. He could feel the mental exhaustion, a dullness at having stretched his abilities to their limit. He found the spear and his backpack next to a pile of apples, but as he lifted it up it was clear that the ink within had leaked. Fearing for his spellbook he opened the bag to find the bottom and a large sack completely covered in the black ink. Its vial had broken, along with another he had carried with him. Luckily, his spellbook had been spared. Mopping up the rest of the ink as best he could he turned to the others. "Someone check that door," he said gruffly, gesturing to the closed door on the wall to their left. "We need to figure out a way to get out of this filthy burrow."

Kuhlbert ignored the talk of the others as he stared at the orc. Not only did he not kill the foul beast, it was using his weapon. He picked up his maul and gave the creature's corpse a swift kick purely out of spite. He slowly walked over to the loot and found his gear. As he donned his armor, the priest wondered how much prayer and blessing it would take to remove the orc filth from the maul and the symbol of his holy order. Satisfied with the familiar weight of his equipment, he distractedly looked over the group and watched as they gathered their gear. He was deep in thought. Three times he had met with orcs and none yet had died by his hands. It was a poor record in the eyes of the holy ones.

As Mal put on his armor and retrieved his belongings, he looked at both the mage and cleric and flatly stated "You two seem like very angry people." He cocked his head, unsure as to why everyone was so taciturn while the others ignored him. They were on an adventure! Sure, the orcs had beaten and kidnapped them, but they had escaped from their cells and taken revenge upon their captors. He had even got a pair of sure to be magical boots out of the deal.

Stepping lightly and avoiding the bodies and blood pooling on the floor the half-elf leaned against the closed door in the room, attempting to hear anything on the other side. Silence greeted him as the others finished equipping themselves.

Thorek's eyes had lit up as he spied his gear and pulled it out of the pile. He donned his armor, orc-stink or otherwise. There would be time later, hopefully, to clean things. He checked his pouches for their contents and practically kissed his axes as the two hand weapons found their way back into their belt loops alongside his quiver. His dagger disappeared back under his beard as he turned to address his bow. He restrung it and tested its draw, satisfied he drew an arrow to hold it ready in his bow hand.

That addressed, he spared a moment to see how the others were getting on, and then turned his attention to the closed door and the half-elf listening there. His scowl returned, "you know, lad, I think we need to work on your hand signals," he said.

Mal looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "I'm not hearing anything behind the door this time, friends. Shall we proceed," he asked. The others looked at each other, waiting for someone to speak up. Frodo was still digging around the trade goods looking for his extensive kit. He was muttering to himself about a tent and a winter blanket. Privately, Thorek wondered why the halfling bothered to buy a tent if he was just going to sleep in the back of the wagon or at the bottom of a latrine pit.

"Well standing around staring at each other isn't going to do us any good," said Jones. "Let's see if we can't get out of this prison. With a bit of luck, we may even have chance to liberate our benefactor and his generosity with him." He didn't like the feeling of exhaustion and mental fog that was creeping on the edge of his thoughts and craved an opportunity to rest and recharge but didn't expect that would be a luxury they would be able to afford anytime soon.

The magic user walked over to the door and stepped between the half-elf and dwarf. With a glance at his companions to ensure they were ready he gave the door a push with his off hand. It opened easily and Jones stepped through, Kuhbert following with his maul at the ready. Thorek grimaced, drew and knocked a second arrow as they went through. If we're exploring like this, best to have a backup ready. He looked around at the remaining members of the group saying, "last one through watches our backs," before moving to follow Kuhlbert and Jones. He stepped to the side as he entered to keep the other two out of his sight lines. Aggression, not planning, had kept them alive this far; hopefully that streak would hold up.

Mal watched as the others went and replied, "I'll guard the rear." Merritt had beaten him to the punch however and was quietly closing the door back to the hallway. He shuffled backwards slowly towards the door and Malion. They both drew an arrow and nocked it in their shortbows while Frodo continued with his search and swearing.

The room Jones stepped into was fifteen feet long, extended ten feet to his left and utterly reeked. Looking down, it wasn't hard to see why. The orcs had filled the floor with refuse to the point where there was only a very narrow path to another door in the right wall at the far end of the room.

Backing into the room, Malion fought back a dry heave. "These orcs are filthy," he said upon turning to gaze at the room, the disgust evident in his tone. "I think we should push on and see what's behind that far door, unless anyone wants to search through this dung heap."

Jones smirked as his thoughts landed on Merritt and Frodo. "There may be a few of us who wish to," he said as he began to work his way across the room to the next door. He picked his way carefully through the mounds, using his spear to prod piles and test them before getting too close. Kuhlbert followed Jones as he made his way through the trash. He listened to see if he could hear anything on the other side of the door but couldn't make out anything in particular.

Thorek had no interest in rooting around in orc offal, but continued in his trek through it anyway to keep a clear line of sight. He stepped carefully through the room, keeping to the far left-hand wall, bow ready and eyes on the far door. As the dwarf edged through the trash it became clear that they were not alone in the room. He saw a large pile towards the far left corner of the room shift as he approached. A quick glance to his right told him that Malion and Merritt had seen it too in the flickering light from the wall torch in the room where they found their kit. Whatever it was, it was big. At least five feet long and leaving an oily film over everything. Thorek drew back an arrow and prepared to let fly when the another creature rose up not five feet in front of him. A large, pale green lump of glistening flesh rushed at him tentacles first.

"Shite!" Theorek spun to face the lunging monster and cursed as his arrow went wide. He'd seen the farther beast moving, but hadn't spotted the nearer one. Thorek tried to backpedal furiously through the trash, trying to open up some range between himself and the lunging mass of tentacles. Malion saw the creature as it rose up from the trash and in one smooth motion dropped to a knee and let loose with an arrow. The shot struck home with a wet "thunk," lodging in the monster's greasy body.

Merritt had been trying to get a good bead on the first creature but every time he leaned one way or another his shot was blocked by his companions. Damnit, he thought, this is why I like to work solo. Failing to read his companions ducks, dips and dives, and not wanting to skewer one of them with an arrow he was slowly losing his patience. As Malion took a knee it finally gave him the opening he needed. He swung his bow towards the closer of the two, sighted the creature and let loose with an arrow of his own at the hideous thing. He swore loudly when it missed.

The thing closest to Thorek closed the rest of the distance between them and took a wild swing at the dwarf with its tentacles. Thorek was too quick for it though and hopped sideways into the wall of the room to dodge it. It turned towards him again just as Kuhlbert moved behind it. Silently, but with rage filling his eyes, the priest brought his maul down in a mighty arc right on its bulbous head. The force of the blow drove the creature's head to the ground and, with a wet popping sound, covered Thorek in a greenish-grey slimy mess.

Initially startled by the unidentified creatures, Jones tried to recover and attack the one that remained. As he pulled his spear from the refuse he had been prodding however the weapon's point caught an old tunic. The sharp blade sliced through the rotten cloth, but the delay was enough to throw off the spellcaster's timing, he only caught the air with an upwards sweep.

Kuhlbert attempted to carry on his attack on the remaining monster as well by pivoting on his right heel and bringing the maul back around in a downward diagonal swing. He had misjudged the distance however and the swing did not reach the creature's body.

Sparing a brief nod of thanks to Kuhlbert, Thorek knocked another arrow, focused on his original target as it began to rise up out of the trash and let fly. The arrow flew straight and true, striking the creature squarely in its left eye. It was dead before it hit the floor. More satisfied with his second shot the dwarf muttered, "much better," as he started towards the thing to see if he could retrieve the arrow. He thought better of it as he drew close, writing it off as a loss. He pulled out another arrow and trudged through the trash to join Jones at the door, slipping every few feet thanks to the slime that covered him.

Kuhlbert returned the nod of thanks to the dwarf and offered up a quick apology for the slime that covered him as he cleaned his maul. Eyeing the room cautiously, the cleric made his way to the door as well, stood and waited for the rest of the party to join them.

"Well you don't see something like that in a hedge wizard's garden," said Jones. Turning, he gave a listen at the door as Kuhlbert and Thorek joined him there.

Mal walked over to the creature he had shot and pulled the arrow from its rubbery hide. "Waste not, want not," he said as he wiped the ichor onto a piece of rubbish. The half-elf renocked the arrow and continued to cover the rear as the rest of the group advanced.

After a moment, Jones shook his head. "I don't hear anything," he said as he pulled his ear away from the door they were gathered at. He looked around at the others in the gloom, the only light came from the torch in the room where the three orcs lay dead. "Where is our torch bearing halfling," the man asked?

Merritt, still stood in the doorway between the two rooms, turned and looked behind him. The halfling was nowhere to be seen.

"Maybe he went to take another nap in the latrine trench," Kulhbert said as he looked around. The last time the cleric saw the halfling was in the battle with the orcs. "We should go find him and make sure he doesn't get hurt or bring more orcs down on our heads." He looked at the door they stood next to and continued, "He couldn't have gone through this door in the battle. Jones, can we bar the door so nothing surprises us while we look for our friend?"

Jones leaned in to examine the door to see if there were any brackets or handles that could be used to jam the door. Glancing along the frame he noted that the door swung inward but there didn't look like there was anything about to keep it from being pulled open. "Not with anything here," he responded.

Thorek had been looking around the trash-filled room, wondering if perhaps the halfling had gotten stuck in or under the refuse. "How did we lose Stinkfinger," he asked. Someone as loud-mouthed and foul-smelling as Frodo didn't just go missing. "We'd better find him." With a sinking feeling in his gut, Thorek readied an arrow and squeezed past Merritt back into the room where they had found their gear hoping to spot some hints to the halfling's whereabouts.

The goods from the wagon were where they had been left after the party had rummaged around for their kits. The orcs they had slain lay amongst them, blood pooling atop the cut stone floor and still glistening in the light of the room's torch. The dwarf noticed what looked like the weapons and various sundries of their other companions that had accompanied them out of Kleine: Griswold, Alard, and the sword and spearmen. They were likely here then, and hopefully alive. Of the halfling though, Thorek saw no sign.

Merritt watched as Kuhlbert filed past him as well, following the dwarf into the previous room. As Thorek searched the priest made his way to the far door. He remembered there was yet another in the hallway and planned to move quietly to it for a listen. He stopped when he reached the hall and peered cautiously out and to his left. He saw the door in the flickering light cast from the torch far down the hall to his right. The door itself looked undisturbed but the broken crate they had all stepped around had been moved and placed in front of it.

Jones followed behind his companions, retracing their steps. He couldn't believe that on top of trying to escape this filthy network of caves, they now needed to hunt down the halfling. "Looks like someone has been sneaking around behind us," he said when he saw the crate that had been repositioned. "Do you suppose it was our little friend?" Kuhlbert nodded, in agreement.

Mal ignore the others as they backtracked, he was curious as to what was behind the door that still lay before them in the trash filled room. "I'm checking the door in here," he whispered loudly, confident that Merritt would hear him. As the half-elf trudged up to the door, he slung his bow and pulled out his short sword. Upon reaching the door, he leaned in and attempted to hear if anything was on the other side. Merritt looked around, shook his head and followed the elf through the trash.

Though he was paying more attention to Jones and Kuhlbert, and trying to work out where Frodo had disappeared to, Thorek did catch Mal's whisper. Thorek's eyes widened as he worked out where this was going, and spun around rapidly to move back towards Mal.

In a louder voice, pitched so Jones and Kuhlbert ought to hear and laced with no small amount of urgency, Thorek tried to catch the half-elf's attention, "hold up, Mal! Are ye daft, lad? The halfling's missing, and we're strung out 'ere. No sense splitting up further! Hold up for a sec there."

He then turned towards Kuhlbert and Jones and continued, "Lads, I ain't no scholar, but I know enough to know we need a bit more plannin' 'ere. Let's circle up a sec and think about how we tackle this. I'd love to go gut some orcs, but we've been lucky so far here and still don't know what we're up against." He hadn't set out on this venture to play shepherd, but Uncle Arrek would've given him a good whipping for letting the flock split up and wander off like this.

"Oh good, you heard me," Mal said as Thorek appeared in the doorway between their two rooms. "This door looks promising, and I don't hear anyone on the other side." With a smile on his face, he opened the door and stepped into the room beyond as Thorek's eyes widened in disbelief. The stench intensified as Malion open the door and both he and Merritt dry heaved as their senses were assaulted by a nauseating fetor. Through tear-filled, blurry eyes the half-elf made out a room that stretch fifteen feet long with three privies arrayed on the wall to his right. Malion had found the garderobe, and the stench that emanated from it was unbearable.

Thorek gagged and spat to clear his mouth. Even from across the room he could taste the smell the half-elf had unleashed. "Are ye happy now, ye git? If'n yer done with the shitters let's get back to finding that halfling!" The Dwarf turned and walked back to the hallway where Kuhlbert and Jones waited, Merritt stumbled after him, gagging. Hawking and spitting again Thorek grimaced, damn, the smell just wouldn't clear. As he passed Jones he muttered, "Next time he does something like that, I might accidentally let an arrow slip."

Thorek eyed the broken crate. Clearly somebody wanted to know if anybody was mucking around on this side of the door. Now how to budge it without attracting attention? Merritt saw it as well and came to a different conclusion. "I wouldn't move that, more than likely Frodo propped it there to impede whatever he found behind that door."

Jones shook his head as the dwarf walked passed encased in a wave of a pungent odor. He truly didn't understand his companions' obsession with the orcs' waste. Focusing back on finding the illustrious Stinkfinger, the mage looked the crate and door as well. Without all the armor that everyone else had, he stood the best chance of quietly approaching the door and moving the remains of the crate without notice. On the other hand, the archer had a point.

Mal stumbled out of the room and closed the door. In between gasps for fresh air he responded to the surly dwarf, "leave no... ungh stone urk unturned...", unsure if Thorek had heard him. He bent over, hands on his knees, in an effort to catch his breath. After a moment, when he was able to breathe again, he regained his composure. No treasure was worth going back into that room again. He shook his head to clear the odor, but something told him that it would be some time before that stench left his nose. He followed the others from the room to the doorway in the hall.

Kuhlbert had heard the chaos behind him, but was content to ignore it with no sounds of battle forthcoming. He approved of the party coming together again and forming a single group. As Thorek appeared the priest said, "I did not hear anything on the other side of that door," before turning to watch the hallway. With the other branch up there, who knew what lurked behind them. Without breaking his gaze he said, "So, now what's the plan?"

Jones shouldered his way into the hallway, having reached a decision. "Why, we need to go and find the Stinkfinger. Judging from the crate, it looks like he might have gone through this door and is covering his tracks. Hopefully the silence you heard, Kuhlbert, means he is light on his feet. Thorek, make that bulk useful and get ready to bottleneck the door when I open it just in case orcs have somehow managed to be as silent has Mal's new boots." With that, Jones reached for the door in front of him, and pushed it open.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

To Hearth-Home and Back: Chapter 2

Alard awoke to the same blackness. He couldn't see but felt the burlap sack about his head. His hands and feet were bound and he heard the familiar sound of shod horses mixed with guttural voices and laughter. He felt around and realized that he was on the wagon with what felt like at least two of the others. Remembering Griswold's wound he shouted, "Uncle, are you there?"

Thorek came to as Alard shouted and as the wagon bounced across a particularly deep rut, banging his head against a sideboard. Planned dwarvish invective died on his tongue as memories of the ambush flooded back. He need to figure out where he was. The back of his skull and the rumbling of the wheels told him he was on one of the wagons, and the voices around him told him he wasn't in friendly company. Damn. Not good, he thought to himself, but why do they want us alive? Unable to see anything, Thorek tested the tightness of the knot binding his hands, gently trying to see how much play he had to work with. Are the others nearby? Who's left? With no better options, Thorek tried prodding around with his boot to see if anyone else was on his wagon.

"Ow," said Malion. It was bad enough to have been beaten, tied up, then thrown into the back of a wagon, but now someone was kicking him in the head. "You can stop that. I'm not an orc, you know." Mal began trying to free himself from the ropes. He was pretty limber, and orcs weren't known for their attention to detail. He hoped that knot tying wasn't one of their strengths. In his struggle to extricate himself, Mal could feel others rolling about on the floor of the cart with him, and had heard Alard call out for his uncle. Mal didn't know the others well enough to be to concerned about their current state, so he attempted to listen and see if he could hear anything of importance from their captors.

Jones came to as well, progressing from a world of dark, silent blandness to one filled with a throbbing pain intervaled with rough jolts that sent sharp pains through his head and side. He began to take stock of his situation as quickly as he could in his rattled state. His hands were his first concern. They appeared to be bound behind his back. He flexed his wrists and moved his fingers to determine how tight the knots were. With his newly discovered ability to magic knots, he could easily break these bonds, but he also knew between his practicing and the battle, his ability to cast further spells was severely limited. Some sort of cloth bag was drawn tight over his head as well, preventing him from seeing where he was. He was lying in one of the wagons; he could feel the rough wooden floor and cramped space around him.

Judging from the guttural laughter and conversation he could pick up, it appeared that the rest of the caravan had suffered a fate at least on par with his own. Quietly and slowly, as much to humor his aching body as to try and avoid drawing attention to himself, Jones began to test his range of motion and to try and determine what he was lying against. He thought he may have heard a human voice call out a name, but in his foggy state, Jones was uncertain if it was real or imagined.

Merritt rolled his eyes. Not that anyone could see them. He'd been bound and beaten before. It happens when you grow up more or less a street rat. "So which one of you assholes pissed them off that they came after us?" He started "gently" kicking around at random, trying to get the attention of the others he assumed were bound with him. "Fess up and let's get this damn thing over with." He tried to roll around a bit to get to the side of the scrum so he could better sit up. "I'm not sure it'd be wise to try and cut these ropes either. Worst you do is piss off the orcs further when they come to fetch us and I'm not ready to die for you assholes yet."

An orc, amused by all the kicking and prodding its bound captors were inflicting upon one another, looked down at Merritt in annoyance from its seat on a barrel at the back of the wagon. It looked to its companion, sat similarly on the other side of the wagon, smiled and smacked the man's head with the flat of its ax as he tried to sit up. They shared a good laugh as Merritt's eyes crossed within his burlap sack and his back hit the wagon floor once more."Gods damnit, that wasn't necessary ass. I know you're orcs and all but c'mon, let a man at least sit up a bit."

Kuhlbert came to to the clang of metal. He felt the bruises growing on his body and the constraints binding his limbs. I'll have to teach the wizard how to better negotiate, he thought to himself. Still he was alive and the orcs weren't about to kill them yet. Others were awakening as well as he heard the mumbles and the thrashing of the other bodies. Kuhlbert kicked, as best he could, the person who was punching his back. Annoyed and with no understanding of how much time had passed, he began to pray and pray hard. He did not want to end up in the slave pits or cook pots of the foul beings. There was evil to smite and the holy one's work must be done.

Annoyed by the futile struggling and cursing of his fellow captives, Frodo tried to relax in his small part of the wagon. "Save your strength ya' damned fools!" He called out to the mass of thrashing bodies. There was no point in making a fuss, besides, he was still alive which meant that he could still try to escape at some point. He didn't relish being an orc captive, but he was enjoying the fact that Griswold had gotten what he deserved. Frodo only wished that he could have struck the blow. Spitefully cutting out the smug merchant's tongue or gouging out his eyes so that he couldn't look at all of his gold coins was what Frodo was planning to do when the opportunity presented itself. The orcs had taken that opportunity from him, but a bitter smile still crept across his face underneath the hood. That filthy bastard Griswold had bled out in pain. What a delicious thought.

The wagon drew to a halt at a commotion outside. There were shouts of what sounded like alarm but any hopes of rescue the captives clung to were quickly dashed as hails were exchanged and footsteps approached the wagon. None of the prisoners spoke the orcish tongue but they all could recognize the intonation of the leader as it addressed, or perhaps questioned, other orcs. One orc finished speaking and the night fell quiet, the silence broken only by the bush crickets. "Accurukun hundur avhinguk," the anger in the exclamation was punctuated by a loud slam on the side wall of the wagon. Silence followed until the leader started talking again, after a few short sentences the sound of a single pair of footfalls fell away from the group and the wagon began rolling once more.

Roughly another hour later and the wagon stopped again. The men under Griswold's employ quickly found themselves forcibly pulled, pushed or kicked from the wagon on to the rocky ground beneath it. Each was pulled roughly to their feet, heaved over a shoulder and carried off. After some twenty paces a great scraping sound could be heard, as if wood was being drug across stone. A similar distance later the same sound was there again, followed by metal clanging on metal and a unceremonious deposit on a hard stone floor. Cries of pain interspersed these thumps as well as the metal on metal sounds. Finally, footfalls echoed away before what sounded like a massive door slammed shut.

From beneath their burlap sacks, a faint flickering light could be seen by the captives, but beyond that their hoods concealed all. Jones wasn't certain, but he suspected that a large portion of their group had been left in some sort of prison or cell by the orcs. He had been listening to the speech patterns in the orc's conversations, but had been unable to pick up their language yet and was uncertain as to the intent of their captors or the location of the prison. Trying to gain his bearings, Jones called out, "Who all is here? Can anyone hear my voice? Let me know where you are." He had every intention of finding another member of the group and cooperating to get their bonds off. If it turned out they were separated by cells or unable to get out for some reason, he was ready to untie the knots with magic. Struggling to maintain his balance and get to his feet, he listened for some sort of affirmation that his comrades were awake and present.

Sensing the same opportunity, Merritt called out "I'm here, the one with the bow. Name's Merritt. Gimme a sec and lemme see if I can slip this rope here," as he began the process of slipping his bonds. It didn't go well.

"I'm here." Thorek's reply was pitched low and tinged with frustration. Whoever tied his ropes was an unusually meticulous bastard for an orc. Thorek sagged forward for a moment, rolling his head from side to side, before slowly straightening up. Thank the Ancestors, at least one thing's gone right on this trip. He paused and listened to what was going on around him. "'Ere, anyone loose?" Frustration gave way to hopefulness in his tone, although he kept his voice low and tried to keep it from carrying.

Mal heard some of the group identify themselves as he tried and failed to slip his bonds. "Malion here as well. I can't seem to slip out of these ropes. I think we're in the same room. I only heard a single door close. Can anyone else free themselves?"

Frodo heard and whispered, "aye," as he struggled with the ropes. "I'm here, but keep it down. Don't give those savages a reason to come back and check on us." He fared better than the others, and with a sigh of relief, his small hands were able to slip out of the clumsy orc knots. He quickly took off his hood, stood up and looked around the dimly lit chamber.

The air was stale and dry. He stood on a cold stone floor of well cut and mortared blocks some five feet by five feet square. Three of the walls were similarly well crafted but the fourth was iron bars from the floor to the ceiling some seven feet above it. "Definitely in a cell," he whispered, mostly to himself. The bars had a door in them that he tried for the hell of it, "and it's locked to!" He turned at the sound of Merritt's voice.

"If'n you’re done with the tour, how about a hand," he asked, rolling on his side to show Frodo his bonds. The halfling clapped softly, Merritt's reply was loaded with sarcasm, "A jester then?" Frodo eventually bent down to untie the archer who removed the burlap sack from his head and then undid his ankle restraints. He looked around as well as he stood up. The only source of light came from a torch in a wall sconce outside and to the left of their cell on a facing wall. The two couldn't see to their immediate left and right but noticed an alcove across and to the right of their cell. They could just make out a large double door there, further back and to the right.

By this time both Malion and Jones had managed to slip their knots, the magic-user only after losing a bit of skin on his left wrist. They set about freeing their legs and then turned to their cell mates. Jones freed Thorek, and Malion the priest Kuhlbert. Together, they all joined the halfling and archer at their respective cell doors and looked around. They couldn't add much beyond what the other two had gleaned, aside from the fact that Mal and the priest were in the cell to the left of Frodo and Merritt, and Thorek and Jones were in the cell left of that. Kuhlbert finally broke the silence that had descended. "Does anyone know where our other six companions went? Were they alive," he asked the other five that remained.

"When I first came to in the wagons, I thought I heard someone calling out for Griswold, but I can't be certain," replied Jones. "I suppose they could be in another set of cells down the hallway," he added. He strained to see if anything could be seen down the corridor, either friendly or captor, but his angle gave him precious little to work with. He gave up and began to inspect the door of the cell, giving it a shove to try and determine how sturdy it was. The bars held firm. While old, they were definitely well made, constructed by hands much more skilled than orcs. Given the low ceiling, and their presence in the Farolas Hills, he concluded that they were likely in an old dwarvish fort. "I don't suppose one of you happens to be a locksmith," he added dryly.

That elicited a quick laugh from Frodo. "That we would have that much luck," he said. "Well lads, it's all well and good that we're free of our ropes and such, but I don't think those orcs will be too happy about it," he added. The halfling turned his back to the bars and leaned against them. He stared around the cell and whistled a soft tune for a moment. His drunken adventures had landed him in many a cell so this was not a new experience for him. Having blood-thirsty orc jailers, on the other hand, was. He looked over at Merritt, but spoke to the group "Any bright ideas gents? Beyond hiring a locksmith?"

Jones gave a quick glance around the cell. Without any immediate means of escape, and the other cells seeming to be in a similar situation, he retreated to a pile of dirty straw in the corner. "Since we appear to be stuck for the time being, I'm going to try and catch some sleep and refresh my casting abilities. Theorek, if any of the beasts come back, wake me." The magic-user wasn't sure what the future held for them, but he'd be damned if he wasn't going to try and be prepared for it at least.

"Aye, sure, just take a nap while I go to work on this lock here," Thorek said, rubbing his wrists. His inclination to thank Jones for untying him dying at the mage's words as he began to lie down. This wasn't going to be easy, but it was worth a try, he said to himself as his thoughts returned to the lock. Subconsciously he placed a hand on his beard and the metal hid there as he began to look over the door. He reached through the bars and tried to feel for the lock. While mucking with the padlock, he addressed Frodo a cell over, "One step at a time: going to see what I can do with this lock. Hopefully it's not too tricky." Thinking for a moment he turned back to Jones, "Hey Nancy-boy, got any hair pins I can borrow?" Jones ignored him and his smirk.

"I'm afraid I'm no good at lockpicking," Mal replied to the halfling's query. "There wasn't much of a need for security of that nature where I'm from. I'll see what I can find though." He began to look around, hoping to find a loose stone or bar, or some evidence of a previous occupant's escape attempt. His efforts were rewarded when he found that a stone along the cell's back wall moved. After a bit of wiggling he was able to pull the small block out and move it to the side. Inside the opening he found a leather bag, the material dry and brittle with age. Kuhlbert watched the sack fall apart as the half-elf revealed two small vials from within it. Malion looked at the vials, "these look useful," he said. The priest held out a hand and the half-elf passed him one.

Kuhlbert gently pulled the stopper out of the vial, gave it a sniff and then lightly dabbed it on his tongue. "I believe that is a healing elixir," he said. "And judging by the similar color of the two, the other one might be as well. The curate of my sect was able to brew these, and I was charged with seeing them safely to and from the stores. I've seen them bring a man, trampled by oxen and near death, back to full health.

Malion secreted the vials amongst his belt and Thorek ceased his playing with the lock as Jones stood up at the sound of approaching footfalls. Merritt and Frodo were the first to see two orcs as they walked past the double door and into the hallway leading to the cells. They both carried numerous sets of manacles that clinked against each other as they walked. One bore a set of keys which dangled from its belt next to a dagger and a rather nasty looking whip. The other carried a small club while a dagger lay sheathed on its belt.

"Time for working," the key-bearer said with menace in its eyes, either not caring or not knowing that the captives should have been bound. The other orc yawned which earned it a cuff to the side of the head. Turning back to the prisoners the lead orc continued as it slowly walked past each of the cells. "Who first? Man-filth? Half-man? No…" it said, stopping in front of Thorek's and Jones' cell. "Stunty first," it concluded sneering at Thorek. "Hands here stunty, man-filth too," it said, gesturing for Thorek and Jones to put their hands through a gap in the bars so they could be manacled. "That, or whipp'n", it added eagerly.

Thorek bit back a retort and stepped forward with a sly wink to Jones. Jones saw and followed, not knowing what the dwarf was about but planning on playing along. Each placed their hands through a gap in the bars and looked to the orc. Somewhat crestfallen at their compliance, the orc clapped a set of chains on both the dwarf and man before unlocking the cell door. The second orc then entered the cell and clapped linked chains on both of their ankles. It gave a tug to the chain it still held and Jones, followed by Thorek, trudged out of the cell. The process was repeated at the next cell where both Malion and Kuhlbert were chained at the wrists. The lead orc bent to unlock their cell door as the other yawned.

"Have a meal of me fist ye ass-faced, dirt lickin' washoon!" Thorek had been waiting for more strength in numbers, or a chance to figure out where they were first, but "Sleepy" was too much of an opportunity to pass up. He barely considered his plan as he stepped behind Jones and swung his manacled fists around, smashing them into the side of the yawning orc's head. The orc stumbled back and to its left, dropping the chain to their ankle restraints, as it hit the wall and slid to the floor. "Take him Jones!" Thorek shouted, hoping to at least distract the other orc long enough for Mal or Kuhlbert to strike.

Attempting to capitalize on Thorek's distraction, Malion pulled his manacled hands back into the cell and took a step to his right, planning to reach through the bars and pin their gaoler against them. Forgetting his restraints, he put his hands through two separate gaps in the bars and cut his reach short as the chain caught. Malion's surprise was mirrored in the orc's face on the other side of the bars. That expression quickly turned to terror as the chain from Thorek's manacles flashed in front of it and found its way around the orc's neck. Eyes bulging, hands clawing at the iron links digging into its neck, the orc found itself bent back away from the cell door as Thorek snarled in its ear, "who's gettin' the whipp'n now, ye rat-skinned scabshyte." The orc passed out quickly and fell back onto Thorek with a string of dwarven expletives. Jones, somewhat in shock of what had just transpired before him, stared down at the orc, and the keys and weapons it carried.

Kuhlbert blinked in surprise as the orcs were brought down in short ordered. He recovered his wits and exited the cell, removing the keys and the dagger from the orc on top of the still swearing Thorek. He rolled the orc off the dwarf and helped him up. The shackles clanked on the floor as they fell off the dwarf as Kuhlbert found the right key. "Take this" he said to Thorek, handing him the dagger as he freed himself, the wizard, Malion and the two others still in their locked cell. After everyone was free, Kuhlbert addressed the group "Since the last time went so well, this should be easy." He almost cracked a smile before shooting the wizard a look, "don't think about pulling your negotiation stunt again."

Jones nodded sullenly at the cleric's words. He turned and moved over to explore the fourth cell, testing the door and peering into the darkness. He didn't have the faintest idea of how to use the whip left on their unconscious jailer, but maybe a staff or old dagger had been stored in this dark corner of the dungeon somewhere. With limited magical abilities left for the day, he needed to find another method of defending himself. The cell's door was open but there wasn't much in it aside from some rags and a bit of straw.

Thorek thanked Kuhlbert via a mutter of appreciation as Jones wondered off. He turned to Merritt and tossed him the knife he had been offered. "Thanks but I've got me own. Let's spread the wealth a little." From under his beard came a short, wickedly curved skinning knife which promptly disappeared briefly into the chests of both of the downed orcs. He tossed Sleepy's dagger and club towards the group and squatted over its bloodied head, working his knife back and forth around one of the orc's larger incisors.

Free of his cell, Frodo gingerly stepped around the orc bodies and reached up on the tips of his toes to take the torch off of the wall. With a mass of orcs likely beyond the large doors, he reckoned that it couldn't hurt to look further down the hall for another way out. Staring down the darkened corridor next to his former cell Frodo motioned with his torch, "we'd better get moving lads, the orcs will surely be checkin' on their kin soon." Cautiously, he started down the hall.

Kuhlbert stooped to pick up the club as Malion grabbed the knife. They both followed the halfling as he started to move away. Merritt followed as well once Thorek had finished extracting a tooth from each of the felled orcs. Jones went to follow them before noticing light emanating from the hall next to the fourth cell. He looked around the corner and heard the footsteps of the others. He walked down the halfway before stepping into the light before a startled Frodo who gave the mage an incredulous glare.

The room was some twenty feet wide and thirty feet long. It apparently housed an island of eight identical cells in the middle of it. They were all empty now, save for the one opposite the hallway that lead to the double doors. That cell contained the skeleton of what appeared to be a man. It was still clothed and lay on its side at the back of the cell. The bars of the cell looked different from the others as well, they gave off a different luster.

Malion approached the cell and gently tried to open the door. It was locked. Looking to Kulbert, the priest passed him the keys so he could unlock the door to the cell. It opened with a creak. He cautiously approached the skeleton, leading with his dagger, the stories he had heard in his youth of the walking dead clear in his mind as the others gathered at the bars. Jones shuttered and looked away as the half-elf gave a tentative prod at the skeleton. Malion satisfied himself with a few more prods before gingerly examining the body. It was definitely once a human male given its size and bone thickness but he had no way of telling how the man had died. The clothes it wore were old and rotten, having seen the man's flesh decompose within them. The boots looked to be soft and well worn as well, but still serviceable from their exterior leather.

Malion was not uncomfortable with death, it was, after all, part of the natural cycle. He was, however, relieved that the skeleton appeared to be of the permanently dead variety. Mal eyed the leather boots the skeleton was still wearing once more. Maybe the man had hidden something within them before he expired, he thought. He knelt to remove the boots, they came off of the skeleton's feet without too much trouble. He flipped them upside down and shook them of their contents, dust, dirt and other debris were all that fell out. Peering inside them he expected to be greeted with an awful stench and stains but to his surprise he experienced neither. The boots looked on their inside like they did on their exterior, well worn but still in decent condition.

Malion shrugged, his boots were perfectly fine but he suspected the skeleton's boots might be more than they appeared. He removed his boots and tucked them into his belt and then pulled the leather boots on his feet. They felt a bit large for his him, but not overly so. He wasn't sure what he was expecting to happen, but nothing did beyond a few raised eyebrows and a queer glance from Frodo. "Who takes a dead man's boots," the halfling muttered to Merritt.

Jones turned from the scene to inspect the bars of the cell more closely. Something about them stood out from the other cells, not to mention the general squalor and filth of the prison. The half-elf had opened the door with little problem with the key, but the presence of an enchantment couldn't be ruled out. He rapped on the bars with his knuckles and turned to the dwarf, "Thorek. Your people are renowned for the metallurgy. Do you notice anything unusual about these bars? They seem to be a bit off from the rest." Jones turned back to the cell while Thorek scrutinized the bars. A chill ran down the magic-user's spine. After that night he had spent stuck in a crypt while gathering spell components for his master, Jones was more than happy to let someone else get up close and personal with skeletal remains.

After a few seconds of peering at the bars Thorek turned to Jones, "aye, they're made of silver lad. A bit of an odd choice for cell bars, bending 'em wouldn't be too hard."

Jones repeated Thorek's analysis in alarm and a step back, "Silver? As in the metal used to kill undead, silver? Maybe we should let our resident priest here take a look at that skeleton," he said looking at Kuhlbert. "Just to ensure that its current state is the proper one, and that it stays," he stressed, "in that state.”

Kuhlbert looked at the mage, it was clear that he was unnerved by the dead man. "Or we could just leave the door locked like we found it," he said plainly. "If Malion didn't disturb it undressing it I doubt it will rise up now. Let the man reset in peace."

Malion, meanwhile, had heard the halfling mumble and attempted to defend himself. "He doesn't need them anymore, you know," he said as he began to hop from side to side and then quickly ran from wall to wall in the small cell. "Besides, they could be magical!"

Frodo shook his head, "are we done here," he asked.

Thorek crossed his arms, staring at the cell bars thoughtfully. "You know, with a hammer an' chisel, or maybe a good mattock, we could walk out of here with a pretty good amount of money from pawning off these bars."

Malion shook his head, "the halfling is right, we should get out of here," he said, still hopping from foot to foot in an attempt to activate what magic, if any, the boots contained. "I say we leave this room. "There may be more orcs coming once they realize their friends haven't returned. We can come back for the bars later." He looked at them all, "by the way, we haven't been properly introduced. I'm Malion, but you can call me Mal," he said. "I believe we owe these orcs for the beating we took. Are we in agreement?"

Merritt nodded. "Aye, lead the way funny man," he said looking at the halfling with the torch.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

To Hearth-Home and Back: Chapter 1

The Melodious Harpy of Kleine was the favorite watering hole of every farmer, fisherman, shepherd and drunkard in the region. While one could argue that this could be owed to the tavern's well-stocked bar, Ames' (the barkeep's) crass sense of humor, or their excellent blood pudding, everyone seemed to gloss over the fact that it was the ONLY watering hole in the town. Normally a bustle of laughter, jeers and boasts (for the Harpy also served as Kleine's unofficial town hall, at least until the official town hall's construction was finished) this evening proved no different. What separated this sundown from most were the patrons; where ordinarily one would find only locals and the occasional traveller, tonight the latter far outnumbered the former.

The reason for this was undoubtedly due to the man standing upon one of the Harpy's tables (blatantly ignoring or blissfully unaware of Ames' irritation) who was addressing the motley group of onlookers. Griswold Odenkirk was an audacious man, at least this was the consensus amongst the locals after listening to his pitch these last few minutes. Of middling height and years, he was a bald merchant from Melinir in well-crafted and well-used clothing with a bushy light brown beard. In an orotund voice he continued to explain the risks and rewards he was offering to the crowd before him.

One, a young half-elf by the looks of him, tensed excitedly at the mention of orcs and the need to travel under guard. A halfling, head half shorn and tattooed, glared at the elf before returning to his meal which he shovelled into his mouth with some thoroughly filthy fingers. Some dozen men armed with everything from spears to a colossal maul paid heed as well while a dwarf, sat at the bar between two locals, merely listened with his gaze now fixed into a scowl upon the ale he had just been served.

"Right, so that's the job then," concluded Griswold. "You lot guarantee my safe passage to and from Hearth-Home, and I'll pay ye each a'hundred gold coins. Half at Hearth-Home, half when we'll be back in Kleine. If ye need supplies, leave yer list with my nephew Alard here." Griswold gestured to a tanned young man who's intimidating stature was tempered mostly by his youth. He smiled and raised his hand while making eye contact with a few in the crowd. "I'll be covering yer rations for the week, anything else will come out of the hundred coin. Any coin the orc carry will be pooled and split evenly between ye when wel be back in Kleine. Any other way and you lot start to argue about who axed this one and who shot that one."

With that, Griswold hopped down from the table, opened a book upon it and gestured to the closest man to come up and give his name. The half-elf though walked quickly up to the table and, trying to hide his excitement, said "I'll take you up on your offer. Malion is the name."

Griswold looked quizzically at Malion and shared a glance with the rather irked swordsman who he had just stepped in front of. "Right, Malion," he said sardonically as he looked him over and wrote the name in the book. "Ye look ready to go, we'll be pepping on the road just south of town at dawn tomorrow. Make sure ye be there or we leave without ye." Malion noded eagerly and headed for the door. Griswold shook his head with a slight roll of the eyes and gestured again for the swordsman to step forward.

"Aye, I'll offer my sword as well, longshanks," the halfling called out from a couple of tables back through the smoky gloom. "Keeping your lordship's arse safe sounds more profitable, and entertaining, than roughing up some old peasants over an unpaid loan." He stepped up onto the bench which he had been sitting on, so that he could be better seen by the merchant. Having already drained a couple pints of ale he had to steady himself by resting his left hand on the table. Wiping his right sleeve across his mouth to remove the last morsels of dinner he said with a greasy sneer, "my friends call me Frodo, but you can call me Stinkfinger." Rather amused with himself, he half snorted, half chuckled and drained yet another pint of ale.

Griswold, halfway through a conversation with the man at his table, raised an eyebrow contemptuously at the interruption. "Then get in line with the others," he said, curtly. Unfazed, Frodo did just that amid sidelong glances and murmurs of "Filthy peck." These too went unnoticed by the halfling, he being three pints in.

The dwarf at the bar listened and grimaced at the theatrics. That, or the warm ale in front of him. He pulled out a small satchel, hefting it contemplatively while staring at his half-finished beer, grimaced once more and came to a decision. He let a few coins clink onto the counter to cover his tab, re-knotted the satchel before making it disappear somewhere under his beard, and pushed his stool back from the bar to go join the line in front of Griswold. When he arrived before the merchant, shortly after the dirty halfling, the man greeted him with a smile. "Ah, master dwarf. I would be glad to have your ax and eyes at our side as we crossed the the Farolas Hills. Ye call them home, I wager?"

"I did," replied the dwarf. "Me names Thorek, and I'll see you at sun up." He and Griswold exchanged nods as the dwarf stepped aside and the next man stepped forward.

That man was the maul bearer, and he came forward swinging the hammer to his shoulder as the others gave him room. From the look he shot the merchant the man was clearly leery of Griswold. By his garb it was plain that he was a cleric, and one that had been wandering the back woods for a while, spreading the word of his faith. When he reached the table the cleric lowered the maul slowly to the floor and said "I'll go," signing the book slowly and simply as "Kulhbert".

"Thank ye," replied the merchant, looking the cleric over. "See'n as we'll be out in the open have a word with Alard about securing a sling and bullets for yerself." Kulhbert nodded and made his way towards the man.

A young man in long robes watched the scene unfold before him with a contemplative look. He stood up suddenly with narrowed eyes and a decisive nod, grabbed the pear from the wall next to him as he strode into line. When he reached Griswold, he stated in a serious deadpan, "Reconsider pooling the orc bounty. I don't want my share brought down by the rest of this… accompaniment," the last word he added with the slightest of sneers.

Thorek caught the robed man's words as he was moving toward the door and turned slowly. He gave the young man an appraising once over, folded his arms across his chest, and slightly too loudly asked, "So, you've experience fighting orcs, do ya?" The dwarf's stance showed not only his scepticism at the man's claim, but the leather band wrapped around his left bicep as well with many large teeth woven throughout it.

"I'm sure the man is quite capable, Master Throrek," interrupted Griswold with a slight grin. Privately, he was unconvinced by the man's act. His well-groomed appearance, clean robes, and lack of any calluses on his hands told the merchant that this man had no real training with the spear. A mage then, he thought to himself, and an inexperienced one at that. Turning back to the man Griswold addressed him gruffy, "The conditions are as I've laid out, lad. Take them, or leave them."

While annoyed, the man was still eager and took the proffered quill from Griswold. He signed the book "Jones Fatedefier" in an elegant and well practised hand. Griswold thanked him, his curt manner vanishing, and saw the sling on Jones' kit. "See Alard to secure some bullets and pouch for that," he said, "along with any other supplies ye might need.

All told, Griswold had some ten names in his book after the better part of an hour as additional sword and spearmen, as well as an archer, came under his employ. Pleased with himself, he leaned back and stretched with a great yawn before addressing those that yet remained in the tavern. "Right! The plan's to leave from the south road near-after dawn tomorrow. Gather yer kits and get some rest. We'll be one the road for four days and three nights before we reach Hearth-Home." With that, he gathered up the book, nodded to Alard and strode out the door with his nephew in tow.

The next morning found the caravan preparing to begin its journey just as the merchant had promised. For their part, the majority of the hired men we're prompt in their arrival. Frodo, having spent the night in a pen amongst a few piglets, was the last to arrive. He stumbled up to the two wagons a bit worse for wear, looking to be concentrating an inordinate amount for such a simple task. Griswold spared him a quick glance and a smirk before he addressed the men before him.

"Right, we're taking the caravan route west towards the Farolas. We should reach the hills by sun down today in time to set up camp and we'll spend the next two nights in the hills before we reach Hearth-Home on the fourth day. Your rations will be distributed after, " he stressed, "we make camp. I'll be taking the lead wagon here and Alard the one behind. I expect two of ye to each take turns on watch each night, and to share in setting up and breaking down the camp. Anyone shirking their duties can enjoy a nice long walk back to town here." With that he took a quick attendance from his book, handed out the various supplies the men had bought with their promised gold, and hopped up on the lead wagon surrounded by Kuhlbert as well as three other men and Thorek the dwarf before striking out on the road.

Alard's gaze swept over the men his uncle had left to his wagon and couldn't help but feel a little disheartened. His band comprised of the halfling Frodo (now busy heaving last night's meal out behind a wagon wheel), the thoroughly sour looking Jones, two men who looked like they were more interested in the time they would spend together on the trail then the gold at the end of it, and Malion the half-elf who hadn't stopped dashing from either side of wagon, peering into the distance, since they had arrived. "Alright," he sighed, "you lot fall in around the wagon. Mr. Frodo, mind you, we're shoving off." The halfling staggered out from under the wagon, nodded, and quickly regretted it as the wagon pulled away.

Stumbling after the wagons with bleary, bloodshot eyes and a pounding headache, Frodo was suffering from a good and proper hangover. Everything was too bright and too loud, his limbs felt heavy and his stomach was a wreck. He was almost sorry that he had drank too much the night before. Almost. He knew that he would have to be stone sober until he reached Hearth-Home. Frodo had very few personal rules, but not being drunk on the job was one of them. Whither his life ended drunk in a tavern, or drunk and in the arms of a lusty wench, it mattered not to him. At least he'd get to enjoy some pleasure beforehand. But he wasn't about to be "three sheets to the wind" when there was the chance that some cut-throat mercenary or vile creature from deep in the wilderness could be stalking him. He had seen the terrible deaths of others and he was determined to not let that be his fate.

He caught up to the slow moving wagon and with grunt filled effort he managed to awkwardly climb aboard the back. Settling in amongst the goods and supplies he noticed the half-elf observing him with a raised eyebrow. "What?" Frodo groaned while shielding his eyes from the morning sun. "My legs are short, it's not my fault. Anyway, you'll want me fresh to fight any beasts that roam these parts. I'll save the whole lot of you I will." Moaning, he laid back with his sword across his chest, closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as the wagon jostled down the dusty county road.

Malion watched the halfling clumsily pour himself into the wagon, like the gallon of cheap rye he had poured into himself last evening. He slurred something about "egg shorts" and "fighting beets" before collapsing into a drunken puddle, snoring before he hit the floor.

The road to Hearth-Home had once been well used, with many caravans packing the earth beneath their wheels as they travelled to and from Lake Ostrel in the east, with Kleine nestled at its southern shores, and the ancestral homeland of the dwarves in the west. Here, in the Upper Great Grasslands west of the Drake River, it still saw everyday traffic as people made their way to and from the few minor villages in the region and Kleine proper. Within a few miles of Kleine, after crossing the Drake, the caravan passed one such group of travellers. Griswold greeted them as they passed: miners from one of the larger villages, Duvik's Pass, who were headed to Kleine and one of the houses of worship there.

The wagons passed no others that morning as they rolled along the road through picturesque grazing lands and small farms. Before them was yet more of the same, but looming in the distance were the Farolas Hills, sat squarely between sheer cliff faces to either side of them. To the north, beyond the grassy horizon and perhaps some four to five miles away, the hired men could see those same faces as they wound their way around the entire canyon of Thunder Rift. They began to disappear as the Burning Hills rose in the east beyond Kleine, the distance being too great to make them out with the naked eye. Likewise, to the south, the grasslands stretched for as far as those eyes could see.

Thorek walked alongside the front wagon, matching his stride to the easy pace of the caravan. He attempted to stay about as windward of the animals pulling the wagons as he could. Based on his last trip in the opposite direction, he expected the rest of the day to be uneventful. That said, his mind was already turning toward the Farolas and home's familiar dangers.

Thorek turned to their employer, "Griswold, this is a fine day's walk for now, but I expect as we get closer to the hills ye'll be wanting me a little further out front. I figure I'll range about a mile ahead, plenty o' time to spot any surprises and try to handle them or double back for aid. I'd want at least one more with me, someone who can keep quiet and run quickly if need be. What do ye reckon?"

The caravan and sellswords weren't sheep, but Thorek figured the principles were largely the same. Uncle Arrek's lessons were about as familiar as breathing. Someone takes point, someone stays with the flock. Plan your path and know your warning calls. It worked well enough the last time on the way out of the hills, but last time nothing really happened anyway.

Griswold looked down from the driving bench of the wagon. "Aye, master dwarf, aye." He looked around at the other men, thinking on the question. "Master Merritt," he cried, addressing the archer. "Would ye be so kind as to scout ahead with our dwarf friend here?" Merritt nodded and looked to the dwarf, motioning for him to lead the way.

Jones watched as the pair of guards ranged ahead of the caravan as he strode alongside the wagons while sun beat down from overhead. Situations like these always confirmed for him that wearing armor was a distasteful burden. Feeling confident that there was no imminent threat, he allowed his mind to wander to a new incantation he was attempting to master. His fingers danced slowly through the intricate motions as he muttered the appropriate phrases trying to understand the arcane puzzle. He knew the comprehension would not come today, but without the practice it would never come at all.

Kulhbert had noticed the orc teeth on the dwarf's arm as he spoke with Griswold and was going to ask him about it but the dwarf and the archer had taken off before he had the chance. Kulhbert had been walking at the front of the lead wagon since they had set off. He had spent the morning in prayer, praying for the safety of their journey and so that he might be prepared for the challenges ahead. His mind started to wonder about how we was going to spread the faith. Whether it be to Griswold or any of the guards. Eventually he went back to watching the road, he had a job to do and he wasn't going to be caught with his guard down. "Never again," he said to himself.

Malion had heard the dwarf's exchange with Griswold as well thanks to his enhanced hearing. He had excitedly trotted forward in order to volunteer but slowed his pace when the archer was chosen instead. He had hoped to be the first to see action, but that wouldn't happen today, apparently.

He grimaced and turned towards Jones' mumbling. The man was speaking in a language Mal wasn't familiar with and appeared to be waving away the flies that were attracted to the draught animals. "Maybe he was touched in the head," he pondered. The combination of the man's words and erratic movements began to make the half-elf vaguely queasy, so he turned his gaze toward the dour-looking man walking alone at the front of the lead wagon. He had spent most of the morning quietly whispering prayers as he walked. There was an intense look on his face, and Mal was pretty sure he didn't want to be on the receiving end of the huge hammer the man carried. His attention eventually returned to the surrounding environs as the caravan plodded on.

The day passed without incident, and the wagons made good time west. Farms gave way to grazing and grass lands for most of their travel. By mid-afternoon the grass became less pronounced and small shrubs dotted the landscape. By this time the Farolas loomed before them their road had given way to what amounted to little more than a rough cart path. Few travellers passed this far west, the villages were behind them and the presence of the orcs in the Farolas dissuaded many from making their way to Hearth-Home now. Griswold and Alard were visibly more watchful as they pulled the wagons off the road near late afternoon, stopping just short of a forested hill that rose to their north and west.

"Right then," Griswold began, "this is where we'll be staying the night. There's three tents, two for the lot of ye and one for me and Alard. We need people to set those up, a fire pit dug, wood and water gathered and at least two men on watch. Me and Alard will take care of the horses 'ere. I suggest ye work in pairs and keep an eye out. The sooner we do the necessary the sooner we eat! Off ye go!"

Thorek and Merritt had stopped at the hill as well, watching as the wagons approached. After Griswold had explained things the dwarf asked, "I'm headed up the hill for firewood and to have a look around. Any other takers?" He wanted to take a good look at the surrounding area to see if anyone else was setting up campfires, have a look for game and maybe find a decent watch spot for the night to suggest when he returned. He didn't plan on taking this night's watch if he could help it. He felt they were probably better off with him on guard later in the trip and hoped he could dodge that discussion while up on the hill as well.

Looking around, he was curious to see who would opt to join him up the hill. Merritt was already heading off to a small stream, a bundle of waterskins slung over his shoulder. The man had not said much in their scouting, not that Thorek was a personable companion himself. The priest looked like he'd probably handle an axe pretty well, if that maul was any indicator, he thought. The half-elf seemed a little overly excited, and this might not be a bad opportunity to introduce him to the country and its many hidden "charms." Privately, he wouldn't have minded a wager on whether Jones would get involved in making camp. In the end, it was the priest who said he would join him.

"I'll join you," Kulhbert said in response to the dwarf's question. Despite wearing a cleric's robe he was happier performing manual labor then he was performing rituals at the altar. Besides, unlike the rest of the party, the dwarf looked like he knew what he was doing. Kuhlbert was honestly confused by the guards at the back of the wagon train. Spearmen who barely look like they know which end of the spear is sharp? An excitable half-elf, and a drunk halfing to boot? Hopefully Griswold kept his promise about freeloaders.

Thorek nodded to the cleric and unwrapped his shortbow as they prepared to leave, testing the draw. He thought out loud, "Who knows? Might even find some extra meat up the hill." Pausing he eyed the baggage on the wagons and asked. "Alard, any spare twine for setting snares?" Rule Number One: Tap someone else's resources before your own.

Alard, busy rubbing down one of the horses, looked to his uncle in deference. Griswold nodded and Alard replied, "Aye master Thorek," dropping the straw and climbing into the back of the wagon. From a leather sack hung from a peg he produced the ball and tossed it to the dwarf who caught it easily and set off with the cleric in tow.

When they cleared the camp, Kulhbert introduced himself to Thorek plainly with "My name is Kuhlbert," as the two began to climb the hill. Before the dwarf had a chance to respond Kuhlbert continued, "this maul may not be good for felling trees, but it sure can split them." "You seem at home in the woods, what's your story?" he asked as the unlikely pair set about their chores.

Jones had ignored the dwarf's question as he was glancing at the halfling, wondering if a bucket of water would be required to wake him. With a shrug, he turned around and began pitching one of the tents that had been offloaded from the wagon by a swordsmen. It couldn't be any harder than the endless parade of chores Master Rickter had given him daily. That lazy old mage had been satisfied with lounging in his favorite chair, working his way through tankards of ale, flicking his wrist around to perform the numerous cantrips he'd mastered all those years ago. Jones had been required to perform the real work: gathering firewood, preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning out the musty cellar and gathering spell components. All that in exchange for a few measly cantrips.

"Eh, perhaps a little more slack then," the swordsman suggested, interrupting his bitter reverie. Jones looked down, lost in his anger he had tied the tent's corner lines entirely too short. He shot the man an annoyed look out the corner of his eye and stood up. With a quick gesture towards the rope he barely hid his surprise as the knots loosened. Quick to capitalize on his new-found success he gestured again in a similar manner, biting his lip to hold back a smile as the knots re-tied themselves in a better position.

"Better," he asked haughtily, turning to the swordsman to bask in the man's dumbfounded expression. Putting the man from his mind he looked to the group and announced, "I'll take first watch." This would work well enough for him. He could review his spells and try to determine what he finally got right with the knotting cantrips. It would also allow him to get the uninterrupted sleep necessary to preserve it to memory. He couldn't afford to miss that required sleep, certainly not for the sake of his… comrades' comfort. A wry smile danced across his thin features at this thought.

Frodo had begun to awake with the wagon's abrupt halt. He sat up slowly, stretched his stiff shoulders, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around. The merchant had been bellowing some sort of nonsense at the group about "chores" and everyone had started to make camp. With a disinterested yawn Frodo gathered his things and climbed down off of the wagon. His mouth and throat were bone dry, so he pulled the cork out of a waterskin and took a couple of large swigs, much to his disgust. "Damned sobriety," he muttered to himself.

He noticed the hill that they had stopped near. In such open country it was a welcome bit of protection and should offer a good view of the surrounding prairie. As a halfling Frodo was always uneasy in open country, there was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This place was nothing like the Melinir Hills, it was much more barren. Just then, his stomach noisily reminded him that he hadn't eaten since the night before. Shifting the pack on his back, he made his way through the flurry of activity to where the merchant and the bloke named Alyardi, or something like that, were brushing down the horses. "Yer lordship!" Frodo called out as he approached the two men. They turned from their work to look down at the dirty halfling quizzically. He smiled with a mouth full of neglected teeth and said "So, I reckon that you might be in need of a cook."

Griswold smiled broadly, "Aye, master Frodo, aye! Yer just the man for the job!" He gestured for the beaming halfling to follow as he walked to his wagon and hoisted himself into it. "We are lucky indeed to have someone of your talents amongst us to tend the pot," he said while rummaging through the baggage of the wagon. Frodo's smile quickly turned to a look of confusion when he caught the spade Griswold tossed out to him. He looked at the shovel and back to the man in bewilderment. "Tend the shit pot, that is," smiled the merchant. "Get digging lad," he laughed heartily. Frodo sullenly turned from his exultant employer and went to look for some soft earth.

Malion heard the halfling volunteer himself for cooking duty and smirked when Griswold instead gave him latrine duty. The thought of having that filthy fingered creature touching the group's foodstuffs made Malion queasy.

Malion wasn't particularly tired from the day's travels as the caravan stopped and Griswold called to set up camp. He had a long stride and they were moving at a relatively slow pace, even the dwarf was able to keep ahead of the group without issue. There was a considerable amount of road dust that had collected in his mouth and throat though, so he took his waterskin from the cart that held their personal items and took a long drink. He wondered why the archer hadn't collected the waterskins from the rear wagon before he set off?

The half-elf regarded his options. He had no problem doing what was required to set up the camp for the night but it certainly wasn't particularly thrilling. When the dwarf called out for someone to collect firewood with him Malion figured the poor fellow didn't know what types of wood made for the best kindling and likely needed some assistance. Everyone knew dwarves were masters with stone, but wood? The hammer bearing warrior volunteered to go with the dwarf, hopefully he would know more about forestry. Just to make sure, Malion called after them, "Collect deadfall for the fire! Green wood will create too much smoke!" Malion wasn't sure what the dwarf's single finger response meant, but he assumed it was some form of dwarfish sign language that his advice had been heard and understood.

Malion eventually decided that guard duty would be a good use of his talents, he was familiar with the outdoors and was able to see relatively well in the dark. Besides, there might be the opportunity for some action while he patrolled the area around the encampment. The twitchy fellow, who had seemingly calmed down and was no longer mumbling to himself, had also volunteered. Malion called out "I'll take guard duty as well!" and walked over to his compatriot and introduced himself. He extended his open hand and, with a grin, said "I'm Malion, but you can call me Mal."

By the time the sun was setting the party was just beginning their super. Thorek and Kuhlbert had returned with three bundles of wood, but nothing to show for their snaring efforts. Merritt had made a few trips to the stream that evening as well, after being sent back out by Griswold to fill everyone's skin. The two spearmen finished their meals first and went out to relieve Jones and Mal, who returned to the fire to partake in the meal. Frodo was curiously absent from the meal, and Griswold was just about to organize a search effort when one of the swordsmen awoke the halfing, asleep in the hole he had dug, by relieving himself upon him. The merchant was doubled over in laughter while the unphased halfling helped himself to the food.

The night was mostly uneventful, the only disruption was a mountain lion which the spearmen managed to scare off with a torch. Their voices had awakened only Malion, who was left wondering how the men had lost their pants in the encounter. The two men woke Frodo and Thorek for the third watch and they the two swordmen for the fourth. By this time both Griswold and Alard were awake and preparing the camp for a quick breakfast before they got moving. The wagons were rolling again soon after dawn and the next day continued much like the day before it.

Their path took them up the forested hill for nearly a mile before emerging into a hilly shrub land. The going was that much slower now that they were in the Farolas proper, with the route being washed out by rains and overgrown with bushes in places. It turned west and cut through a narrow band of trees once more before the hills really opened up before them. The wagons had covered eight miles that day, well on track to arrive at Hearth-Home in another two days. The travellers set up their camp and ate with another forested hill before them, starting to settle into a routine. As the sun set and all but the spearmen on watch settled down to sleep it seemed like another another uneventful night, yet a commotion awoke the band.

Each of its members emerged from the tents, unarmored but weapons in hand, and looked around. Dark shapes with red eyes peered at them from all angles. There were at least a score of them and Thorek spoke the word, "Orc," as if it were a vile curse. Just at the edge of the firelight the spearmen were bound and gagged, lying limply on the ground in front of the beasts.

A figure stepped over them and into the light. "Drop your weapons, man-filth. We not ask again," it said in a low, guttural voice. The creature was a male but shorter than the rest with smaller teeth, a less sloping forehead, and black hair pulled back in a tight topknot. He wore scale mail of decent quality and carried a large shield with a single red eye emblazoned upon it. In his right hand he held a wicked looking spear.

Thorek's eyes tracked around while he remained motionless, seeking out their ambushers. Quietly, in a voice meant not to carry past the group, he said through gritted teeth, "We can take them, lads. Just gotta surprise them. Someone keep the leader talking, 'cause it sure as hell shouldn't be me…" In his mind's eye, the dwarf saw red eyes, heard echoes of screams and smelled wood smoke.

Merritt grimaced at the dwarf's words. This wasn't what he had in mind when he had left town. Looking around, he slowly lowered his shortbow to the ground, hand lightly brushing against the concealed daggers in his belt, reassuring himself of their continued company.

Standing back up, he put his hands up slowly. His right hand lingering a bit on the ragged scar on his face that ran mouth to cheek on his right side, a nervous tick he had developed. His eyes darted around to his compatriots. The dwarf was probably good in a fight. The fancy man probably not. Without stepping away from his bow, he turned slowly so his back was to Thorek. The dwarf would likely get them in trouble and he planned to drop to the ground and notch an arrow as soon as he could.

Kulhbert heard the dwarf as well and stepped in front of the group, lowering his maul to the ground. No need to wear himself out before the fight. In a calm, clear voice he said "What do you want? Untie those men!" Since the orcs hadn't killed them all during the night there might be a chance to talk their way out of this, or at least he could keep them talking long enough for the dwarf to organize the party for an attack. Regardless of how this encounter went, the cleric was confident in the outcome. He had spent his morning in prayer, the holy ones would bless them in battle. If one of their number did get hurt he would be able to heal them. A slight smile appeared on his face, the holy ones' will be done tonight.

On the other side of the camp fire Jones contemplated compliance with the orc's demand as well with a barely concealed frustration at having been caught flat footed by the ignorant creatures. They were barely above beasts yet it was clear they had the upper hand. He tried to see out into the dark to identify if any of the monsters had a bow or other ranged threat, but was unsuccessful.

Not being able to see into darkness, Jones settled on the spear-bearer as his target. His fingers danced rapidly in and out of hidden pickets in his robe, gathering the necessary components for the spell. He cleared his mind of all else and began to slip into the sudo-medatative state the precluded the casting. His magic missiles had never missed a target, and he did expect them to start now. With a bit of luck, he might even land one right in the orc's brutish face. He smiled at the thought.

Distractedly, the magic-user heard chanting from behind him and felt the magic of another's spell creep over him, attempting to bind his muscles and restrict his movement. He pressed on, focusing on the movements of the incantation. The two swordsmen next to the dwarf, archer and cleric bore no such luck. Without Jones' training they were bound fast, eyes dashing back in forth in a panic as they tried in vain to make their bodies obey their minds. Alard, next to his uncle between the two groups, was having more success than they, but was still struggling to overcome the spell's effects.

Enraged at the audacity of some orc shaman trying to constrict his actions, Jones channeled his fury and disgust into his spell casting as Merritt dropped to a crouch and picked up his shortbow, knocking an arrow. With grim satisfaction and more than a bit of glee, Jones watched as his magic missile reliability slammed into the spear-bearer. His outward bervado began to crack when the orc failed to even flinch at the attack. From its narrowed eyes and the snarl that began to form on its lips he believed he had managed to upset it at least.

"Ye bloody loon, boy, are ye daft!" Griswold was about as impressed with Jones' negotiation abilities as their odds of getting out of this alive, say nothing about his wagons and goods. He turned to his and let fly with a dagger towards some dark shapes. He heard a clank but not the squeal of pain he was hoping for.

The shapes began to emerge into the firelight after Jones and Griswold signalled their intentions, they were indeed orcs and there was indeed a lot of them. The first two ran in from opposite sides, screaming savage war cries. They were armed with crude axes and shields, and wearing what amounted to little more than animal hides sewed and layered upon one another. One smashed its shield into Thorek who was too slow to avoid the creature's swing. Malion faired much better, easily sidestepping the orc as it attempted to hit the elf with its shield as well.

A third, much larger than the others, flicked Griswold's dagger from its shield as it closed on the man. It murmured something as it drove its axe into the merchant's side. The man grunted and fell from blade, the deep gash left in him bleeding profusely.

"Uncle! No!" The sight of his uncle in mortal peril gave Alard the strength to finally throw off the constricting grasp of the unseen caster's spell. He stepped over the fallen man with a ferocious swing of his mace, connecting squarely with the orc's left collar bone as it tried to raise its shield up to defend itself. There was a resounding snap as bones broke, the orc screamed, and it and its shield fell to the ground.

On the other side of the fire the spear-bearer's snarl began to flow into a low chant. After but a few words it culminated the spell by gesturing towards the party with its spear. Malion felt the magic dance about him, like a cool breeze on a hot summer morning. He smiled at the sensation, his thoughts drifting back to his youth and all its adventures, as the orc's face betrayed its complete infuriation.

By this time Orcs were flooding into the light cast by the campfire from all angles. Four came running in followed by another five right on their heels. The creatures used their shields like the first two, attempting to subdue the merchant and his men. One connected squarely with the halfing Frodo, staggering him with the weight behind its blow. Another narrowly connected with Jones, the magic-user avoiding the worst of the blow with a quick spin. The archer Merritt dove into a roll from his crouch, coming up behind the surprised orc while Kuhlbert took the full brunt of the shield straight to his gut as he stood from retrieving his maul, the chaos unfolding around him.

Merritt's roll took him right in front of another of the beasts armed with a large spiked club. It attempted to bring the butt of the club straight down on the archer's heard but he stepped aside to his left, keeping both of his attackers in front of him. Thorek was less lucky than he, his second attacker floored him with a well placed blow to the back of his shoulders. He cried "Ollen!" as the darkness took him.

In the middle of the two groups, Alard hoped to finish off his uncle's attacker when another Orc rushed at him from his left. He managed to smack the orc's shield away with his mace without giving up the protective stance above his uncle.

To his right, Jones and Malion were being pressed by another orc each. Jones attempted to spin again but his fresh attacker connected more squarely than the last and sent him reeling. Malion, like-wise, was running out of room to move and caught a light blow to his right hip as he attempted to find space to maneuver. The blow stung but Mal smiled, firelight glinting off his perfect teeth. The orc had overreached and the half-elf thrust his short sword into its throat and laughed triumphantly as it died, choking on its own blood. This was the adventure he was looking for!

An orc bedecked in bones with dyed red hair and carrying an immensely large bone club stepped into the light across the fire from Malion. It was chanting and from its voice it was clear that it was the beast that froze the swordsmen in place. It focused its attention on Merritt and with a gesture the archer froze mid side-step, only to have his momentum carry him to the ground.

Three more orcs came with the bone-adorned orc, the first joined its comrade attempting to subdue Alard. The man showed no signs of giving ground however and easily swayed aside from the beast's wild swing. Another clipped Frodo on his shoulder as the halfling gained his bearings while the third tripped in its eagerness to lay the winded Kuhlbert low.

Frodo looked around as yet more orcs piled into the camp site. This was not going to end well for them, he thought. The halfling had hoped to make some additional coin to support his proclivities, not end up enslaved or dead to an orcish ax. Life apparently didn't give a damn for his hopes and dreams. He squared up against both of his opponents, his longsword grasped in his grubby hands. He swung it back and forth at their knees in an attempt to give himself some room and time to think. The last blow had left him woozy, and he needed to clear his head quick if he was going to get out of this.

Five more orcs joined their comrades in the fire light. Two rushed Alard, completely surrounding him with their other two brethren as the large one he had wounded attempted to crawl away. One landed a heavy blow on the man with its shield, the other clipped only his elbow as he reeled from the first blow. He kept his balance and swung his mace in a wide arc, clearing the area around him. The orcs seemed timid in light of the maiming he had inflicted upon the orc that had laid his uncle low.

Jones and Kuhlbert were the next to fall, the former sustaining a heavy blow to the head as he back peddled from his earlier attack. The priest fell to a well placed knee to the head, bent over as he was trying to catch his breath. Malion spun around to meet the fifth orc, keeping it and the other he had yet to fell to his right. He caught his new opponent's elbow in his ribs as he did so, his movements restricted as they were.

The crawling of the orc that Alard had wounded abruptly ceased as his mace found its chest. His anger had carried him a few steps away from his uncle in pursuit of the merchant's attacker. With the beast dead he turned his attention to the four orcs around him. Two swung at him with their axes, the death of their cousin causing them to abandon their desire to subdue the man. He dodged the first and parried the second as the other two orcs circled around him.

Mal heard the cries of pain as the defenders went down, one by one. He wasn't sure how many were still standing, but he would continue to fight as long as he could. His smile turned to a grimace as he focused his attention on one of the two orcs that were attacking him. He saw one of the orcs that had downed Jones turn to face him as well, his thrust at it ended poorly as he stumbled over a half buried rock. Two of the orcs were quick to capitalize on his misstep and beat him mercilessly to the ground.

With that only Frodo and Alard remained standing and they quickly became the focus of the bone-clad orc shaman as it continued its chant. Both the halfling and man felt the spell seize them and bind their muscles in place. The two orcs in the front of the halfling smiled as they realized what had happened. His last sight was the pommel of one of the orc’s ax as he brought it down on his forehead.

The four around Alard were much more wary. One eventually worked up the courage to edge closer, and grinned wickedly when the man did not move. He raised his ax to strike the man down when the spear-bearer said something in their tongue, "Drepa naj-ri agh jiak avake yas ukkin". The orc lowered its ax sheepishly and stepped back as their leader approached. He met Alard’s eyes, the hatred there matched equally by his own. "I am Jaruk, man-filth. And you are mine." It regarded him and smiled sadistically. It was the last thing he saw before the creature headbutted him and the blackness came.