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.

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