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The Red Kings - The Mercenary

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Desert Wind’s hooves thundered across the muddied ground as Jeri crouched low in the saddle, her spear braced for impact. With a fierce snarl, the first of the wolves leapt at her stallion’s left side and she thrust out with the spear, lodging it deep in the beast’s shoulder. The monstrous wolf yelped in pain and rolled away trying to extract itself from the barbed point of the spear, but it was trapped deep in its flesh and the wolf only succeeded in dragging the weapon from Jeri’s hands. She cursed and drew her sabre, the curved blade gleaming silver in the pre-dawn light. The goblin rider had nimbly leapt clear of his injured mount and came rushing at her on foot attempting to thrust his own spear into her left leg. She expertly batted it aside with the flat of her blade and then countered, the narrow point of her sabre sliding smoothly into the Goblin’s unprotected throat. The goblin raider shook as she withdrew the sabre, clutching at his throat but unable to stop the torrent of blood. Jeri cursed again her mortally wounded foe’s lifeblood sprayed across her chest and face before the goblin fell to his knees and slumped face first into the mud.

She tugged at the reins and guided Desert Wind into a tight turn, just in time as the second goblin wolf-rider was closing quickly from the opposite side, shrieking in fury at the death of his companion. The goblin struck out at her steed’s neck but lacked the reach to connect solidly and the point of the spear was deflected by the steel links of the destrier’s armour. Jeri chopped down across the body of her horse and her sabre sliced neatly through the wooden shaft of the spear and also severed two fingers off the goblin’s outstretched hand forcing him to drop what remained of his weapon. The two mounts then collided heavily and Jeri clutched desperately at Desert Wind’s neck with her free hand to prevent being dismounted. The goblin tried to latch on to her leg with his uninjured hand, but fell away moaning in pain as Jeri kicked out and smashed her boot into his nose. Then they were free, the massive warhorse muscling away from the smaller wolf with ease.

Jeri wheeled the horse around and rode at the goblin again. With the spear gone and his short bow still slung across his back the goblin pulled a thin bone dagger from his belt and tossed it in her direction. The blade flew true but ricocheted off her armour and fell away without causing any injury. The goblin kicked furiously at the wolf’s sides and ducked down as she slashed with her sabre at his neck. The slim blade hummed past just above the goblin’s hairline missing him completely, but slicing through the top of his short bow and ruining his last weapon. The goblin stayed low and kicked again at the wolf’s flanks and tried to manoeuvre the beast towards nearby trees where he stood a good chance of losing Jeri and her much larger steed in the tangled undergrowth of the forest.

Circling around, Jeri wasn’t about to let her opponent escape and with a gentle nudge from her knees Desert Wind set off in pursuit, eagerly thundering after the wolf and its rider. The goblin glanced over his shoulder at the fast approaching rider and kicked again at the wolf, screaming at in his own tongue. However, burdened by its rider the wolf was no match in speed for a warhorse trained from birth for combat and with another glance over his shoulder, the goblin dived off his mount and rolled to his feet attempting to flee on foot. Now free of its rider, the wolf bolted for the forest but Jeri ignored it and guided Desert Wind after the fleeing goblin. Realising escape was now impossible the goblin fell to his knees and began to plead for mercy in broken common. Jeri ignored him and expertly ended his pleas and his life with single thrust to his chest, her blade slicing through the goblin’s tattered leather armour and entering his heart.

The last of her opponents defeated, Jeri turned and rode back to where the first wolf rider had fallen. Swinging herself down from the saddle she strode across the bloodied ground to retrieve her spear from the wounded wolf. The wounded beast was attempting to extract the heavy spear with its jaws, but stopped and snarled at Jeri as she approached. She readied her sabre, and as the wolf lunged at her, its jaws snapping at her face, she struck upwards with the blade cutting through its chest and up into its vital organs. The beast still struck her solidly, knocking her back into the mud, but she smashed an armoured fist into its jaws and allowed it to gnaw on steel as she pushed it aside. She cut upwards with her sabre, until the wolf gave a final cough the wolf slumped lifeless into the mud and Jeri was able to clamber back to her feet.

“Fifteen,” she muttered to herself as she looked around for another opponent, but sometime in the past few minutes a white mist had blanketed the valley blocking sight of the battlefield. The Mountains of the Silent Watch were notorious for such mists during autumn. They were thick, cold, and persistent, often curling about the lower reaches of the mountains until well after noon. It was one the reasons why few humans lived in the region, that and the large tribes of goblins and other undesirables who also populated these peaks, raiding any nearby human settlement for food, gold and weapons.

“You test me Avani,” Jeri growled at the pale orb of the Sun as it began its rise above the mountains, just visible through the morning fog.

She walked back to her horse, who had taken the brief respite from the battle to find a patch of long grass to munch on. Pulling a rag from a saddlebag, she carefully wiped all traces of the blood off her sword before sliding it back into its scabbard. She would clean it properly tonight, assuming she managed to rejoin her company. She also undid the straps of her open faced helm and tugging it off she placed it on the saddle as she carefully wiped the blood off her face and away from her eyes. A little cleaner now, she walked back to the dead wolf and placing one foot solidly on its corpse, gripped the haft of her spear with two hands and tugged the barbed weapon free. More blood splattered across her boots, but she ignored it for now as she cleaned the spear.

The muffled sound of a wolf howl sounded in the distance and she slowly backed away from the dead wolf toward her horse. Desert Wind had stopped chewing on grass and stood with his ears pricked looking at something past her, but the fog was still hiding whatever it was from view. Second-in-command of Harien’s Swords, a mercenary company that plied its craft among the rich nations of southern Brechtür, Jeri was only too aware of what could be waiting for her in the thickening fog. Her company had been battling a particularly nasty army of goblin raiders for nearly four hours. Like many creatures of evil, they were also beings of darkness, preferring to strike during the darkest hours of the night, where their superior vision gave them an advantage over their human foes. Jeri had hoped that advantage would evaporate with the dawn, but instead conditions had only become worse and somewhere out there, still hidden in the fog, was a larger force of goblins, survivors of the initial attack on the Sword’s camp site.

Her company, aided by a small group of the Stille Wächter rangers, had been hired to protect an important caravan carrying gold and other valuables from the eastern city of Edlenna to the capital Poden. In addition to the waggons loaded with valuables, they also had been travelling with Baron Eldred Oerwinde, the elderly leader of eastern Rheulgard, and several members of his court. Raiders had been expected, but the company’s captain, Colier Harien, had assured her that the goblins would not dare attack such a large and experienced company. He had been wrong and now many fine men and woman lay dead or dying on the damp ground. Although the dead, like the goblin’s themselves, remained hidden from Jeri’s vision.

Running a gloved hand through her dark, tightly braided hair, she looked around for any sign that might help her deduce where the enemy lay. Of course, in her dark clothes and armour and midnight-black steed, which stood out plainly against the white background of the fog, it was more likely that the goblins would see her before she spotted them. Jeri didn’t see this as a problem though, she wanted to be seen. Right now, there was nothing she wanted more than to avenge those friends and colleagues who hadn’t made it through the night. She had served with some of them for close to ten years and this was an ignominious way for them to meet their end.

She had been lucky enough to be on guard duty when the goblins struck and had been able to fight off the first few attackers long enough to reach her horse. She had also escaped injury so far, aside from a few minor scratches. But many others had not been so lucky, dying while still asleep or perishing as they struggled buckle on their armour and pull their swords from their scabbards. Had it not been for the fact that the caravan had been expecting trouble, they might all have been overwhelmed in their sleep, not even living to witness the dawn. Fifteen goblins had fallen to her blade and spear so far that night, but she still craved more kills, eager for revenge.

For now though, the landscape appeared to be clear of both friend and foe. In fact if she didn’t know better she would have thought herself the only living being in the whole valley. The battlefield had gone quiet, with even the screams of dying men and horses and the war cries of the raiders fading away. Replacing her helm and climbing back into the saddle, Jeri rested the heavy shaft of her spear across the leather saddle, looking for any signs of life. However, what had been for the past few hours a bloody battlefield was now a quiet, almost serene landscape, with the only sound the rhythmic breathing of her stallion, and her own beating heart.

Jeri didn’t like it all, something was definitely wrong. She had expected the fog to dampen the noise somewhat, but not to this extent. Her fingers tightened their grip around the long haft of the weapon she held, ready in case the misleading calm should erupt into furious battle once more. When she had lost sight of the rest of the company nearly an hour ago, just after the mist first began to crawl across the valley floor, she had not expected to find herself lost. Jeri was an experienced campaigner, fighting in wars from Müden to Kiergard, and she had never lost track of her companions before, no matter how furious and heated the fighting may have been.

This time something was different, and there was almost something unnatural about the calm that had now settled around her. Jeri had never considered herself a superstitious woman, preferring to believe in the strength of her steel and her will to see her through the battle, and not put her trust in something she didn’t understand. Certainly, she prayed each morning to Avani, the goddess of the sun and the lady of reason, but that was more of a habit born of her Khinasi upbringing than any real belief. Now though, trapped here in this mist her mind was beginning to play tricks on her and she was starting to imagine things that did not exist. A tree stump became a crouching goblin, and every bird call an enemy signal.

Nervously she gathered up the horse's reins in one hand and gave them a quick flick, urging the large stallion to move faster. Below she could still see the rough dirt of the road, so she knew she was not truly lost, but of her surviving companions there was still no sign. The stallion picked up his pace as he felt his mistress' nervousness. Born and bred on the great plains to the south the horse didn't like the mist any more than Jeri. To his animal intelligence it was something new, and therefore something to fear. He was a well trained warhorse though, and had been taught to follow his riders lead, and at the moment the warrior on his back was telling him to go faster.

So onward they rode, always following the dirt path that marked the road to Poden. Jeri knew that even if she could not find the caravan again she would eventually reach the Bannalach and the small fishing villages dotted only its shore. She would be able to wait there, although she did not relish the explaining she would have to do when the company eventually caught up with her. Of more immediate concern though were the raiders, probably still scattered throughout the valley somewhere. A meeting with a large force of goblins, possibly with Trolls and other monsters aiding them, was not something Jeri looked forward to, at least not without a few sturdy blades to back her up.

However, it was also a meeting that was not to be avoided this morning. Just as Jeri had thought she would never encounter another living soul again, a harsh cry rang out from behind and slightly above her. Fortunately her battle skills did not fail her and acting almost on pure reflex she spun around in her saddle to face whatever had cried out. At the same time she bought the spear down and around so its sharp steel was protecting against a frontal assault. Jeri was expecting battle, but even she did not expect something to happen quite so quickly, thinking that the cry had been a goblin signal to point out her location to a group of enemy warriors.

Instead, it had been a war cry, but the first Jeri knew of an attacker was when a dark shape lunged out of the mist, seeming to fly through the air towards her like a bird. Surprised by the sudden attack, there was little she could do but watch as the attacker impaled himself on the sharp end of her spear. The weapon was pulled from her hands again by the weight of the now dead goblin and dropped to the ground. Still surprised by the whole encounter, Jeri drew her sabre and looked around for another attacker, but the path seemed quiet once more.

Sliding her blade back into its scabbard she swung herself down from the high saddle and landed catlike on the damp ground. With one hand still on the hilt of her weapon, she crept forward, inching towards the fallen goblin. Her spear still looked like it was intact, its thick oak shaft fortunately withstanding the impact of the armoured goblin. Reaching the side of the goblin she checked for a pulse, just to make sure he was dead. One look at the pool of dark green blood and the blankly staring eyes though, quickly confirmed that. With a sharp tug she pulled the spear from the goblin's chest, still somewhat confused and amazed by what had occurred.

Then, wiping the weapon's blade clean again with a piece of the goblin's rough woollen shirt, she looked carefully around her, still a little anxious about a further attack. She almost jumped when she saw a large dark shape a short distance off, before relaxing a little when she realised that it was nothing more than a tall tree that had passed unseen in the fog. She quickly came to the conclusion that this must have been where the goblin had come from, leaping down at her in an attempt to catch her unawares. It was only luck that she had been carrying the spear and managed to swing it around in time to face her attacker. Still, as her old teacher back in Shoufal had always said, a good soldier makes their own luck.

After poking the long weapon into the tree's branches a couple of times to ensure it was now empty of any more goblins, Jeri moved away and headed back to her steed, only to find that Desert Wind was no longer where she had left him. Cursing Sera, the goddess of fortune, she called out to the horse and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when a loud whinny reached her ears from a short distance further down from the path. Picking her way carefully through the fog she reached the stallion's side.

“Taking time out to eat were you?” Jeri whispered in the horse's ear, while at the same time patting the stallion's sleek, black coat. “Well no time for a break yet, we still have to find Cole and the others.”

The horse shook his mane, as if it understood her, and Jeri allowed herself a small laugh at the stallion's playful nature. Even here in the thick of battle, well in the thick of a very chilly foggy morning anyway, the horse was still playful and ready for action. Jeri on the other hand was not so flippant and, after carefully checking to make sure her weapons were secured, pulled herself up into the saddle once more, urging the horse away from his meal of dew dampened grass and back onto the trail.

For a moment she paused to consider the road, unsure which direction she should travel. Then the sound of a distant horn made up her mind for her. It was the sound of Colier Harien's silver battle horn, the one he blew in battle to call for a rally to his position. Her heart lifted at once, as Jeri realised that at least some of her companions must still be alive. Then, through the fog she heard the distant rumble of horse's hooves, many horse's hooves. Only her company had been mounted, well except for Baron Oerwinde and his bodyguards, so that must be them. With a tug on the reins and a light, almost feather-like, touch of her knees she guided the big stallion around, heading back along the road she had been riding for the past half hour.

Before Desert Wind could take more than a couple of steps, however, there was a sudden flash in front of her and with a enormous cracking sound the nearby tree exploded with blue lightning. The stallion may not have been spooked by the fog, but this was something else entirely. He reared up suddenly, sending Jeri flying backwards out of the saddle, before galloping off into the mist. Unable to react in time, Jeri suddenly found herself flying through the air. Her flight was short lived though, as she struck the grass-covered ground with a heavy thump, sending a jolt of pain screaming through her hip. Her head came to ground moment after the rest of her body and her temple collided solidly with a large rock that sat by the roadside.

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Jeri groaned in pain as she rolled away from the rocks she had landed on and onto the softer grass at the side of the road. Another loud cracking sound came from above her and the dark shape of the lightning-struck tree slowly collapsed across the road, showering her with leaves and small twigs as it fell. She watched in horror as the largest of the branches hit the ground almost directly where she would have been moments before had Desert Wind not thrown her. As the tree bounced off the road and rolled away from her, she couldn’t help but notice that tiny sparks of lightning still played up and down the branches like they were alive.

Scrambling backwards in case the rest of the tree collapsed, she felt around until her hand closed on her spear and using it as a crutch hauled herself back to her feet. Her hip ached, but probing it there didn’t appear to be any blood and her armour with its thick padding beneath had protected her so she had probably only suffered a bruise there. Her head injury was more serious. Her head throbbed in pain and although her helm should have protected her from major injury when she touched her forehead with her fingers they came away sticky with blood so she had done some damage there. For a moment she thought about retrieving a bandage from the saddlebag only to remember that the bag, along with her horse, had fled off into the mist somewhere. For all she knew, he might have already been captured by the goblins she knew were lurking out there somewhere. She couldn't imagine the fiery stallion ever allowing a bunch of goblins to get their slimy hands on him without a fight though.

Instead, she reached down to tear off a strip of cloth from her shirt. It was already stained with the blood of the goblins she had killed earlier that morning, so wasn't worth keeping anyway. Before she could do anything, however, a half-naked screaming goblin rushed at her out of the mist, followed by two more of its kin. She dropped her spear to one side, knowing she lacked the strength to wield the heavy weapon in this sort of close combat and, trying to ignore the pain as she put her full weight on her bruised leg, drew her sabre instead. The first goblin had little skill and simply rushed at her waving a club wildly around its head as if trying to overwhelm her with sheer strength. She ducked beneath its first swing and sliced her sword upwards, the razor sharp blade to cut a long bloody line across his unprotected stomach. As he fell away, clutching at his stomach to in a vain attempt keep his innards from spilling out, the other two attackers approached with more caution.

These two obviously had some experience in battle and appeared to have fought together before. They slowly and cautiously approached her, fanning out to either side to flank her. One was wielding a bloodstained battle axe nearly as large as he was, although he still held it easily in two hands, while the other carried a steel sword and a shield marked with the symbol of her company. They had obviously looted the weapons from the dead, which gave her some hope as they were unlikely to be familiar with them. Beyond the two goblins she could see more shapes approaching, at least ten, although it was difficult to tell what they were at this distance with the morning fog still shrouding the battlefield. Jeri slowly began to back away, limping a little as pain restricted her from moving as freely as she’d like. The goblin with the axe grinned horribly when he saw her move, realising that his foe was injured.

However, before the goblin could strike there was another sudden crack of lightning and the air sizzled as a bolt of intense blue energy shot past the combatants to strike somewhere off in the distance. Even through the mists she could see a flare of light as another tree lit up with lightning, this one burning fiercely as it fell sideways. Briefly silhouetted against the burning tree Jeri saw a slim figure dive to one side, its hand outstretched in her direction. Then three tiny shards of green energy sang their way through the air above her head and struck one of the approaching goblins who grunted in pain and angrily snarled out something in his own tongue. Three more shards of energy shot back in the opposite direction, although these were blue like the lightning and someone gasped in pain as they struck home and Jeri came to the sudden realisation that she was caught in the middle of a magical battle between two wizards.

She knew little of magic herself, aware only that wizards were extremely powerful and very rare. In fact it was said that in all the world there were only a few hundred wizards. The only thing her old teacher in Shoufal had told her about wizards was to get clear of them in battle as quickly as you could. So Jeri endeavoured to do just that and she backed away down the road, trying to follow the direction her horse had taken. The two goblin warriors shadowed her, not letting her get away, but at the same time not pressing the attack. Having already seen one of their number fall to her blade they were obviously waiting to see who won this magical dual, hoping to overwhelm her with superior numbers.

Just then the fog lifted a little and she saw the source of the bolts of lightning, an elderly goblin who glared at her with malice as he lowered his carved staff to point in her direction. The shaman’s companions, a force of at least twenty goblin warriors, eagerly lunged forward, each wielding a mismatched selection of knives, rusty swords and clubs. They had barely taken two steps, however, before a tiny spark of drifted almost serenely past Jeri’s ear. The shaman spotted it and his eyes opened wide as he turned to flee. He was too late, though, as a massive ball of fire erupted around him, temporarily blinding Jeri as it expanded across the battleground.

“Avani’s flaming tits,” she cursed out loud as she threw herself backwards and skidded across the dirt road into the grass again, one hand raised to shield her face from the worst of the explosion. A wave of heat rushed over her, but thankfully none of the magical flames touched her body.

As the after effects of the ball of fire faded and she was able to see again, she climbed back to her feet to see how much damage had been done. What she saw surprised and terrified her. The main force of goblins, including the shaman, appeared to have been roasted where they stood and a vile stench hung over the battlefield as smoke drifted upwards from their charred corpses. Some were still burning, their thick hide armour and clothing aflame. The two who had been shadowing her had survived but still been hit by the spell. One was rolling on the ground screaming in pain as he tried to put out the fire burning on his back, while the other was standing around looking dazed. He was still holding his club, but seemed to lack the will to use it. Holding back her nausea, she ran her sword across his throat before he could gather his wits and then stomped heavily on the neck of the final goblin to stop him moving and finished him off with a thrust into his heart.

“Nineteen,” she said to herself as she pulled the blade out of the goblin’s corpse and wiped it clean on his ragged shirt before sliding it back into its scabbard.

There was no sign of the other wizard, so Jeri quickly looked around for the spear she had discarded earlier, only to find it had been destroyed in the magical fire and was now just a charred stick with a misshapen piece of melted metal for a tip. She kicked it once in disappointment, but decided not to waste any more time here. She needed to find her horse and get back to the rest of the company and avoid any more contact with wizards. She could see now why her old teacher had warned her to avoid them, a few spells like that could devastate an army.

“Help!” a weak voice cried out from somewhere off in the direction the last spell had come from.

Jeri hesitated for a moment, but after another muttered curse she hobbled off in the direction the voice had come from. Near the shattered trunk of the second lightning-struck tree, which still burned fiercely, she found the wizard lying in the tall damp grass, a surprisingly young woman dressed in a thin white robe which looked more suitable as a nightgown than combat gear. Several fresh bloodstains marred the white cloth of the robe and the girl was clutching at a particularly looking nasty wound in her stomach, her fingers slick with blood as she tried to stem the flow still leaking from the wound. She coughed and tried to speak as Jeri approached her, weakly raising her left hand to point at something off to the side.

Assuming the girl was warning her of more goblins, Jeri quickly glanced around, but she couldn’t see any enemies. The fog was almost gone now and aside from the still smoking corpses of the goblins in the distance and the flaming tree lying across the road, the battlefield was clear. “Lie back,” Jeri told the girl, kneeling next to her to examine her injuries. She had seen enough battlefield injuries over the years to know at a glance that the girl was badly injured, perhaps even dying.

The girl shook her head weakly. “Bag…” she said with another cough as she tried to point again.

Jeri looked in the direction the girl was pointing and spotted a small leather bag lying almost hidden in the tall grass. Reaching over, she grabbed the strap of the bag and tugged it closer to the wizard, who quickly snatched with both hands and pulled it close, her bloody fingers struggling to undo the metal clasp. Unable to open it the wizard groaned in frustration and dropped the bag to clutch at her wounded stomach again. Her pale hazel eyes were damp with tears and she grimaced in pain.

“Let me,” Jeri said gently, tugging off her heavy armoured gauntlets and placing them aside. Picking up the bag she easily opened it and looked inside, seeing that it contained two crystal phials, a small wooden box, a rolled piece of parchment and a several small jars full of coloured powders. Deciding that the wizard was most likely seeking the phials, Jeri reaching in and selected the first one which was full of a faintly glowing red liquid and held it up. The wizard shook her head. Jeri put it back and picked up the second phial, this one containing a thick green liquid.

“Yes,” the wizard gasped and tried to rise.

Jeri held her down easily with one hand. “Don’t,” she said. “You don’t want to hurt yourself further.”

“Need it…”

Jeri looked at the phial, noticing it was sealed at the top with thick red wax. She dug a fingernail into the wax and broke it away from the stopper. Removing the stopper she carefully raised the phial to the wizard’s blood stained lips, letting her sip the emerald liquid. The young wizard eagerly drank the thick potion without spilling a single drop and then sank back into the damp grass with a contented sigh, letting her hands drop to her sides.

“Thank you,” the wizard said softly as she lay in the grass, her eyes half closed but breathing normally again.

Still holding the now empty phial, Jeri noticed that the wound on the wizard’s stomach had stopped bleeding and that several small cuts on the side of her face were fading even as Jeri watched. Now that she had a moment to examine the wizard, Jeri recalled seeing her before back when the caravan had been preparing to depart the City of Edlenna. The girl had been at the back of Baron Oerwinde’s party and had been standing next to a young man similar enough that he could only be a twin brother. Jeri had been too busy at the time with preparations for the ride west so hadn’t caught either of their names and was certain she had not seen them either of them since, although that was not surprising as she had spent most of the trip back with the main caravan while Cole had ridden up front with the Baron and his guards.

Reaching down, Jeri brushed the girl’s blonde hair back away from her face and placed the back of her hand against the young wizard’s forehead, pleased to note that the girl’s temperature seemed normal. However, Jeri was surprised to notice that the wizard possessed the thin, pointed ears common to the Sidhelien, the race humanity knew as elves, but she was far too short to be a true elf and she was also too slim to be human, so she could only be a half-elf. Although elves and humans could have children together the deep animosity between the two races the dated back to the arrival of the five human tribes on the continent of Cerilia meant that half-elves were exceedingly rare. Jeri couldn’t recall ever meeting one before.

The wizard stirred and opened her eyes, her pale gaze scanning Jeri’s face. “Hi,” she said with a slight hint of a smile playing across her still blood-stained lips.

“Um… hi,” Jeri stammered.

“I’m Mursa,” the girl said.

“Jeri… um… Jerenia.” Jeri didn’t know why she was telling the wizard her real name, she hadn’t used it since she left Shoufal a decade ago, but for some reason it just seemed right. She stood up and then helped the wizard get back on her feet before then handing her the leather bag and the now empty phial.

The wizard placed the phial back in the bag and slung it across her shoulder, grimacing slightly as if that action still pained her. She looked back at Jeri and her face clouded with concern. “You’re hurt,” she said, pointing towards Jeri’s forehead.

Jeri had forgotten the injury to her head, but reached up again to find the cut just beneath her helm still bleeding. “It’s nothing,” she said, dismissing the wizard’s concern. “Are you all right?”

Mursa probed her stomach where the blood stained her robe. “It’s still tender,” she said. “But I think the potion healed the worst of it.”

“Then it was powerful indeed,” Jeri commented. “When I first saw you… I… well I thought you weren’t going to make it.”

The wizard shrugged. “I was careless. I saw you fall off your horse after that goblin sorcerer cast his first lightning bolt. I thought I could take him and save you, but he spotted me first and nearly killed me with his second bolt. It was only luck that I had that scroll on me, he was far more skilled than I could have imagined any goblin being.”

“Scroll?”

Mursa pointed to the grass and when Jeri looked where the wizard was pointing she could see a small pile of flaky ashes lying in the damp grass. “Master Rheulaan is going to kill me,” Mursa said. “He gave me the potions and that scroll for emergencies only. They are very expensive.”

“And this wasn’t an emergency?” Jeri said.

“Well, yes,” the young wizard admitted. “But, you don’t know Master Rheulaan.”

Jeri couldn’t recall hearing about any wizard by that name, although admittedly the only wizard she knew by name before today was Reshoud, the old wizard who served as adviser to the Sultan of Shoufal during her childhood and she imagined he was probably dead by now. She smiled as she remembered playing in the summer sun beneath the old wizard’s tower, the smell of jasmine and spice from the markets filling the air.

“So, what now?” Mursa asked.

Jeri blinked, dismissing the memories of her distant homeland. She looked around, and was pleased to see there was still no sign of any more goblins, they had probably slunk back into the forest with the coming dawn. She bent down and retrieved her gauntlets before replying. “Now we find my horse and catch up with Cole and the others.”

“Cole?”

“Captain Colier Harien,” Jeri answered. “You must have met him.”

Mursa nodded. “Oh yes, the Baron introduced us.”

“Do you work for Baron Oerwinde?”

Mursa shook her head. “No, Kur and I serve Master Rheulaan. We were sent… Oh gods, Kur, I nearly forgot about him!”

“Your brother?”

“Yes, he went to visit the Baron and Captain Harien when I went back to our tent, he must have still been with them.”

“Then he should be alive. If he was with Cole then that’s the safest place he could have been on this battlefield, and remember the Baron had his guards as well. Cole definitely survived the ambush at the campsite, I heard his war horn earlier, so we just have to find him and we’ll find your brother.”

Mursa looked relieved. “Do you know where they are? After the goblins attacked I joined some of the soldiers who had been on watch but we got separated in the forest in the confusion and I thought I was lost until I came across the road.”

“Cole was calling for a rally and the camp is west of here. He didn’t come this way, so he must have gone west which would make sense as the goblins came down out of the mountains on this side of the camp. So if we follow the road west we’ll come across them eventually.”

“Then lets get started.”

Jeri nodded and led the way along the rough dirt track that passed for a road in Rheulgard. She didn’t want to worry the young wizard, but she knew that Cole was unlikely to be found at the camp site or anywhere close. If she were in his boots, she would be riding hard for the capital, Poden, for reinforcements. There had been too many casualties and even though dozens, perhaps hundreds of goblins were killed in the fighting last night, the mountains were full of them and if they were here in large numbers then the future was very grim indeed. Jeri realised that their best chance right now was to find her horse, or another horse, if Cole had left any behind, and ride west as fast as they could go.

Chapter Text

Jeri had travelled further than she had initially thought during the battle with the goblins and it took the two woman nearly an hour to reach the old farm where the mercenary company had set up camp the previous evening. Initially they were walking with forest running along both sides of the road, but as the northern side of the road cleared and farmland appeared Jeri knew they were getting close to the camp site. Years ago this region had been home to a small community with two dozen families and their homes. A minor noble ruled over it and he had built a stone-walled manor house near where the road passed close to the river that ran west towards Poden. It was the beginnings of a small town, carving a home out of the wilderness of Deuchlach province. A lovely dream, but it had ended more than a decade ago when goblins raiders had struck, killing the majority of the farmers and carrying off the rest. None were ever seen again and with no one left to claim the farmland it had fallen into ruin.

The manor house had survived the raid and had been used intermittently as a stop over by caravans heading west to the capital ever since. While there was another, much safer, route from Edlenna to Poden further to the south it was also much longer as that road travelled all the way to Rheulgard’s third largest city, Unbrau, before winding its way north through the forest to reach the capital. For a caravan master who had had to pay his guards and drivers by the day, the much shorter direct route was the only choice if a good profit was to be made. Unfortunately the goblins who infested the deep forests and mountains of Deuchlach and Dezeel provinces had learnt this as well and for years now had been raiding deeper and deeper into the region, ransacking territory that owed fealty to Baron Oerwinde. Forced to take action, initially the Baron had countered this by sending out patrols of the Stille Wächter, his highly trained infantry based out of the fortress city of Edlenna. When they had failed to hunt down the elusive goblins, he had finally been forced to hire Harien’s Swords, one of the most renowned of the mercenary units that operated across the Great Bay.

Now on their first mission for the Baron, the company had met their foe in battle and the result had been a bloody massacre. Even from a distance, Jeri was shocked by the scene of devastation that confronted her as she walked back to the camp site. The old manor house, which had been taken over by the Baron and his entourage as their sleeping quarters, was a smouldering wreck half collapsed under the weight of the slate roof. The barn where the horses had been picketed was still standing, but the walls had been peppered with arrows and spears from the frantic fight. Most of the tents that had been pitched in the field in between the two buildings were knocked down or torn by the conflict, although a couple past the manor house still stood. And everywhere there was buzz of flies and the stench of death rising from dozens of dead bodies that lay in the morning sun.

Initially most of the dead she could see were goblins who had died during the initial assault on the camp. Dozens of their green-skinned corpses lay about the fields, but soon the bodies of her companions appeared. All had been looted, some lying half-naked with their armour and weapons missing. The goblin hadn’t cared to bury the dead, but they had definitely taken the time to loot everything of value they could get their hands on. Walking next to her, Mursa gasped at the sight and the wizard clutched at Jeri’s arm. “Oh gods,” she whispered. “What happened here.”

“War,” Jeri replied, her voice sounding a lot harsher than she meant it to.

“What do we do?”

Jeri tried to keep her face neutral and not betray the agony she was feeling inside. Many of those who now lay dead on the muddy ground were close friends of hers. Josef, a stocky, middle-aged Brecht man who had served as company cook for more than a decade was one of her oldest friends and had been one of the few who had welcomed her as a fellow warrior when she had joined the Swords. He now lay face down near the heavy cauldron he had tended every night, usually making another bland but nourishing stew to keep the mercenaries’ stomachs full. The goblins had even tried to drag the cauldron away, but it must have proven too heavy as they left it on its side next to its owner. Further on were the bodies of Brandt and Renfred, the two former farmers who were poor warriors had proven invaluable as grooms and cared for the company’s many horses. Jeri had last seen them when they were helping her buckle on her stallion’s armour before she and three others had ridden out to face the goblin wolf riders. That was only a few hours ago, but looking at their corpses lying in the mud peppered with arrows it seemed like a lifetime had passed.

“Jerenia?” Mursa asked, her fingers tightening on Jeri’s arm. Her face was pale and she was doing her best to avoid looking at the dead bodies on the ground all around her.

“We salvage what we can and then try to catch up with Cole,” Jeri said finally. “If there is anything you need, find it now. I want to be out of here before Cole gets too far ahead of us.”

“All right.” Mursa said, her hand dropping weakly back to her side.

“Don’t take too long.”

“I’ll just check our tent, my pack was there and I want… I want to make sure Kur isn’t here.”

Jeri hesitated for a second but then grabbed the wizard’s arm. “Wait,” she said softly. “Tell me what you need from your tent and I’ll go and check. You go down to the river and wash off your clothes.”

Mursa nodded. “I just need my travel bag. It’s purple, you can’t miss it. It has all my clothes.”

“Which was your tent?”

The wizard pointed to one of the few tents still standing, over on the far side of the smouldering manor house. “That one,” she said.

“Okay, go down to the river and clean up. I’ll check out the barn to see if Cole left us any horses. Then I’ll check your tent and I’ll meet you down by the river. Don’t go too far, I won’t be long.”

Mursa nodded and headed off towards the nearby river. The wizard’s face was very pale and she held a hand over her nose and mouth to try to filter out the smell from the corpses, but she was holding up better than Jeri had the first time she had seen combat. Jeri had hardened herself to the reality of war ten years ago but this was something else. Harien’s Swords had suffered losses before, that was the risk all mercenaries took fighting for often unappreciative regents who would send mercenaries into battle in the van rather than risk their own troops. It was a bloody business, but it was also why they were paid so well, and in a pouch tucked inside her shirt Jeri had a small fortune of gemstones, the rich reward for ten years of service across Brechtür.

Normally, they survived the battles with few losses. Cole was a good leader, and he only took on the best. That is what gave the Swords their reputation and allowed the Captain to charge such high fees. No matter how few though, there were still always losses, friends cut down in battle or who died later from wounds taken despite the best efforts of the healers, or those rare few who just tired of the mercenary life and retired and settled down. During the disastrous skirmish between Berhagen and Rzhlev two years ago the Swords had lost a quarter of their number, mostly to the bitter cold and hunger that had come when the town they were defending was besieged by the Vos troops. This single battle was far worse than that though. At least a third of the company lay dead around the camp site, and Jeri didn’t want to think how many more might be dead somewhere in the forest or along the road to Poden. With a sinking heart she knew at a glance this was the end of Harien’s Swords, too many had died this time to come back from this and even if the rest somehow escaped to safety, it would be years before they could recruit enough skilled replacements to be at full strength.

She picked her way across the camp site to the old barn. It had never been a particularly sound structure, but it had been patched up over the years to provide additional shelter for caravans travelling along the road in bad weather. The previous evening they had used it to store three of the waggons, the ones she knew were carrying the most valuable cargo including several iron-bound chests of freshly minted gold coins, money the Baron needed for some purpose in the capital. A close watch had been kept during the night over the three waggons and it appeared the barn had become a makeshift fortress during the fight. The numbers of goblin dead piled up outside showed how well the defenders had fought here.

The doors to the barn were open and the waggons that had been stored inside were gone. There was some blood staining the ground inside, but she could not find any dead so unlike those who had been fighting outside either everyone who had been in the barn had survived or the survivors had taken the dead and injured with them. Heavy wheel marks in the muddy ground showed Jeri that the waggons had been driven away to the west, which made sense. Hoof marks also marked the ground, so any surviving horses had also been ridden that way. There were some dead horses in the fields outside, she had seen them as she had arrived at the camp site, but only a few. Jeri knew that meant that all the survivors from the ambush would be mounted and with no horses appearing to have been left behind, that made her situation quite grim as she couldn’t think of any way she could catch up with them on foot. Yes, the waggons would slow them down, but they were still moving faster than she could on foot.

Wondering what she would do now, Jeri left the barn and made her way across to the tent Mursa had indicated earlier. She found more corpses along the way, which bought the total dead to at least forty, out of a hundred and nine mercenaries and thirty two members of Baron Orewinde’s party. Jeri wondered just how many goblins there had been. Yes, they had been surprised to be attacked here, but there had been a warning from the sentries just prior to the attack and most of the Swords would have had time to grab some weapons and armour before the battle had begun. She knew she had personally slain nineteen of the goblins, and Mursa’s fireball spell had killed as least that number as well. There were also dozens of goblins corpses lying in the mud around the camp and yet the goblin's numbers had still been sufficient to drive off Cole and the survivors from the camp so this wasn’t a normal raiding party, this was an entire army and a much greater threat that the one envisioned when they were briefed back in Edlenna soon after taking on this job.

Quickly searching through the tent, Jeri found the purple bag Mursa had mentioned, but also took the time to gather up everything else she found, including a second green-coloured bag, a large and important looking book, and a small collection of scrolls that had been tied together with a leather band. She rolled it all up inside a thick fur cloak she had found hanging outside the tent to make is easier to carry and slung the bundle over her shoulder. She then headed for the river to find Mursa. In spring, when snow melt flowed down from the mountains, the river could be a raging torrent and impassable. At the moment though it was just a shallow stream that ran across a wide rocky bed and Jeri could easily cross it on foot if she chose to. It was the same river that would eventually become the Bannalach, the large lake north of Poden and the road they had been following also ran along the south bank of the river most of the way to the capital. It also marked the borders of civilisation with almost all farmland and towns situated south of the river and to the north there was untouched wilderness, home to goblins and worse. Further north the forest rose to become the Mountains of the Silent Watch and beyond the mountains was the merchant nation of Müden, where the Swords usually spent the winter months.

Jeri heard Mursa before she found her, the wizard was sitting on a large stone at the edge of the river, naked except for her leather boots, and holding her bloodstained robe as she quietly sobbed. Jeri’s boots crunched through the gravel at the water’s edge as she hurried over and the wizard clutched the robe to her chest, looking embarrassed, but tears still flowing freely.

“Sorry,” the young wizard said, as Jeri emptied the bundle she had collected in the tent onto the ground next to the wizard and wrapped the girl in the thick warm cloak.

“It’s all right.”

“I just…”

“I know,” Jeri said as she sat down next to the wizard and gathered her close. “I know what it’s like the first time.”

Mursa sobbed again, dropping the blood-stained robe onto the ground and allowing herself to be held, resting her head on Jeri’s armoured chest. “I haven’t killed anyone before, not even goblins. Master Rheulaan always kept us safe from all danger. And then I saw all those dead and all I could think about was my brother and how he could be dead as well.”

“It’s ok,” Jeri reassured her. “He wasn’t among the dead.”

The wizard looked relieved, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know how you deal with this so calmly.”

Jeri stiffened slightly, inwardly reminding herself to stay calm and that she could grieve for her friends later when they were safe. “It isn’t easy,” she admitted. “Ten years I’ve been a mercenary and for ten years I’ve seen friends die. It’s still hard every time.”

“So you get never used to the death and killing?”

“No, you never do. You just learn to grieve later and survive now.”

Mursa said nothing for several minutes, just letting Jeri hold her. Finally, she pulled away and stood, tugging the cloak tightly around her. “Um… I’d better get dressed,” she said blushing.

With a faint smile Jeri picked the robe the wizard had discarded and turned away so the girl could get dressed. “I’ll clean this for you,” she said. “I bought everything I could find in the tent.”

As the wizard searched through her bag for fresh clothing, Jeri removed her gauntlets and helm and placed them aside so she could wash the robe in the clean waters of the river. The water didn’t remain clean for long as blood and dirt from the robe was carried away by the flow. Jeri cleaned the robe as best she could, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to remove all the stains but once the robe dried it would be at least usable again. She then turned her attention to her own hurts, washing her face and hands clean. The cut on her head finally seemed to have stopped bleeding and although she knew she should sew it up and treat it properly to prevent infection, she lacked the necessary needle and thread right now, so she settled for cutting a thin strip of cloth off her ruined shirt with one of her daggers and tying that tightly around her head. She then replaced her helm and gauntlets before turning around to see how Mursa was doing.

The wizard still wore the same boots and the cloak, but had donned black wool pants and shirt as well a dark purple leather vest and a belt of similar material. From somewhere, perhaps one of the bags Jeri had bought her, Mursa had also found a two-foot long metal rod tipped with a large purple crystal and this now hung down from her belt. The wizard also wore the leather bag she had in her possession when Jeri had found her earlier that morning and had added two large cloth pouches which now hung from her belt as well. Everything else she had apparently stuffed into the large purple bag and it was sitting on the ground next to her.

“Ready to go?” Jeri asked.

“Yes,” Mursa replied without hesitation.

“Then…” Jeri began, before she froze as she heard the sound of heavy footsteps on the other side of the river, gravel crunching with every step.

She spun around, one hand on the hilt of her sabre. On the far side of the river a small group of goblin warriors was approaching from the forest. Five in total, they were stalking towards her with weapons drawn. Four of them were obviously nervous about moving about in the daylight hours and were shading the glare from the sun with their shields or hands. The last one, the largest of the group, was walking tall, his dark purple-coloured eyes apparently untroubled by the sunlight. Wielding a heavy battle axe easily in one hand, he smiled at Jeri, his lips curling up to show his blackened canine fangs.

Jeri glanced behind her and saw that Mursa had drawn the rod from her belt and was holding it in one hand. “What does that do?” Jeri asked the wizard.

“This,” Mursa replied, as she levelled her weapon towards the oncoming enemies and with a single word of power sent a blast of green energy arcing across the river to strike the group.

The lightning bolt was similar to the one the goblin sorcerer had cast earlier and appeared equally powerful. Two goblins died almost instantly as the bolt of lightning tore through their bodies and left nothing but smoking corpses behind. Two more were struck and survived, but were flung to the ground and lay there twitching as lighting still played across their bodies. However, the last goblin, the large powerfully build warrior carrying the battle axe, merely flung his arms wide and accepted the lightning blast, letting the green energy play across his body. Somehow unaffected by the brutal spell, he let a fierce grin spread across his face and raising his axe he rushed towards Mursa, ploughing into the waist deep water of the river.

Jeri stepped out in front of the wizard and without a word raised her sabre ready to fend off the goblin’s attack. However, that attack never came as the goblin warrior pulled up his charge and slowed to a walk, flipping his axe from hand to hand as he considered Jeri as a potential opponent. This was all the time Mursa needed, and she cast another lightning bolt from the rod, this one striking the goblin right in the middle of his chest. Like before though, the large goblin was unaffected and instead of leaving a smoking hole in his chest, the lightning seemed to be reflected off his body and it shattering into shards of magical energy that flew in all directions.

One of the energy shards sliced across Jeri's arm, cutting through her armour, the thick padding underneath, and her woolen shirt and leaving a red burn mark across her arm, almost like the lash of a whip. Ignoring the pain Jeri called back to Mursa, “leave him to me, it looks like he is immune to your magic.”

“But how can that be,” was Mursa's reply as she began to back away from Jeri, careful to keep an eye on the large goblin.

The large goblin merely smiled as the wizard retreated and dismissing her for now turned his attention back to Jeri. “So human, you think to match your sword with Gazrok’s axe,” the goblin said in badly accented Brecht, the language of Rheulgard and the other kingdoms of Brechtür. “Best you give up now I think, or I will surely kill you and feast on your blood.” The goblin calling himself Gazrok then sniffed at the air, as if trying to pick up the Jeri's scent. He looked disappointed for some reason and said, “you are hardly worth my effort female. Best you surrender I think and be my slave.”

“I don't think so goblin,” Jeri said firmly, her hand tightening around her weapon until the knuckles bled white. Despite her outward appearance, she was very concerned by the prospect of battle. Gazrok was large for a goblin, and she could sense something powerful about him, an aura of strength that had not been present in the other opponents she had fought in the past few hours. Jeri began to worry just a little, wondering if this time she had found the opponent who would defeat her.

“Go,” she called back to Mursa. “I’ll hold him here, you get to safety.”

She didn’t get time to see if the wizard followed her command though, as Gazrok quickly attacked, swinging his heavy axe at her head, obviously aiming for the quick kill. Jeri was to disappoint him though, as the reflexes that had kept her alive for so many years came into play and she raised her sabre in time to fend off the goblin's attack. Sparks flew as the two weapons collided and Jeri found herself forced to her knees by the power of the goblin's blow. She held her ground though, despite Gazrok's obviously strength advantage, and stopped the downward motion of his weapon, even forcing it back a little. The goblin just grinned, exposing the black fangs that filled his mouth. Jeri shivered slightly, realising that the jagged, obsidian-like fangs in the goblin’s mouth were certainly not the usual yellow-white teeth that most goblins possessed.

Jeri tried to ignore the goblin's foul breath, and the obvious relish he was showing for the battle, and with a blinding move she rolled to one side and quickly came back to her feet, while at the same time rotated her weapon so Gazrok's axe slid off to one side. The goblin's momentum carried him forward, exposing his back to Jeri's counter attack. She did not lose the opportunity and drove her sabre down towards the goblin's vulnerable back.

As it struck there was a sudden spray of sparks, the razor sharp blade striking the breastplate the goblin had hidden beneath the loose, tattered cloak he wore. The sabre skittered off the strong steel of the armour, leaving a mark but failing to cut through to the flesh beneath. The goblin gave a grunt of pain as he tumbled forward out of the reach of her weapon and before Jeri could move to press home the advantage, Gazrok was back on his feet and he was easily able to fend off her next strike with his axe.

Then it was the goblin's turn to attack. He swung his heavy axe towards Jeri's head, forcing her to duck to avoid being beheaded. Then, before she could respond, he swung the axe head back again, aiming for her chest this time. Jeri was forced to retreat, her smaller blade little use against the heavy battleaxe the goblin was swinging. Try as she might, she could not find an opening through the goblins furious attacks, and if she used the sabre to block the axe it would be swept aside by the strength the goblins was eagerly displaying.

Further and further she was forced to retreat, coming perilously close to the river’s edge. Then, as she took another step backwards, her foot caught on a protruding rock and she was pitched backwards into the cold pool of water that she didn't even know was there. She cursed as she fell, expecting the goblin's axe to strike her at any moment. But, Gazrok, in the process of swinging his axe suddenly found himself without a target and was unbalanced, spinning around with the weapon and stumbling forward. Then he too tripped over the same rock as Jeri and fell forward towards the water.

Jeri was just trying to pull herself out of the water when the heavy goblin fell towards her and she could only watch as his heavy body collapsed on to hers, while at the same time her sabre, almost forgotten in her hands, slid upward beneath his breastplate and the curved point drove into his chest. There it found the goblin’s black heart and pierced it firmly, sending a flood of dark blood gushing out of his body and over Jeri. Then the goblins dying body crashed into Jeri, crushing her beneath its weight and knocking her back into the water again.

Conscious but trapped, Jeri looked up into the fierce face of the dying goblin as he twisted and turned, trying to pull himself off Jeri's blade. With a final burst of strength he did just that, hauling himself up onto his knees and letting the sabre slide out of his heart. As it did so though, an explosion of dark energy played along the weapon, arcing down the blade and entering Jeri's body. The goblin looked down with confusion and horror filling his face as his lifeblood flowed from the wound and spread across the clear water of the pool like a dark ink stain. Then with one last gasp he toppled sideways, landing with a splash in the pool next to Jeri's still prone form.

Unaware as to what exactly had just occurred, Jeri watched the black energy that had surged from the goblin's corpse seemed to flow down the sabre and into her body. As each arc of energy struck her it caused a jolt of pain that left her whole body numb and cold. She had a sudden urge to flee and dragged herself to her feet and staggered off into across the stream. She could only manage a few steps though, before collapsing into the water in agony. Her chest was screaming in pain, feeling as though her entire ribcage had been shattered and she could feel a cold numbness beginning to fill her body, as if death were approaching.

With a whispered cry to her goddess, Avani, she fell forward into the river, her mind slipping into unconsciousness just as she also slipped beneath the dark waters of the river. As she sank into the water her hand opened and the sabre, still stained with the blood of the goblin, dropped from her fingers to float down towards the rocky river bed. As her last conscious thoughts slipped from her mind she heard the sound of someone or something rushing across the stream, coming ever closer to where she now lay.

 

Chapter Text

Consciousness returned slowly to the warrior. It started with an icy prickling sensation in her big toe and became a catalogue of aches and pains that spread throughout her body, from a sharp pain in her right arm, to a dull ache in her ribs, and finally a deep splitting headache that felt like some whacking at her head with a rock over and over. With aching slowness, Jeri managed to drag her eyes open, but her vision was blurry and she found it difficult to focus. She found herself lying stretched out on the river’s edge, the sharp stones of the rocky river bed poking into her back. One foot was half submerged in the dark, icy water of the river and she appeared to be missing her boots.

Overhead the sun has vanished behind thick storm clouds and the day was now overcast and gloomy with a cold drizzle falling around her. In the dim light the surrounding landscape looked washed of colour and where once the blue waters of the river had trickled merrily across red and brown stones, now murky, black water gurgled slowly downstream across grey, jagged rocks beneath a dismal grey sky. Thick clumps of black slime coated the surface of the water and as Jeri watched the slime meander downstream she would occasionally see a bubble of air break the surface of the slime and pop, filling the air with a foul, choaking stench.

In the middle of the river floated the corpse of the goblin she had slain. Its mottled brown hide was bloated and slick with slime and Jeri could see thick white maggots crawling out of the ruined flesh of the corpse. Nausea rose within her and she had to choke back the desire to vomit at the foul sight. By sheer force of will she managed to drag herself upright and stand, although every muscle in her body protested and ached terribly. Her limbs felt heavy as if they were trying to drag her back to the ground and every movement she made was difficult as her body was slow to respond to even the simplest commands.

A splashing sound dragged her gaze slowly upwards and Jeri watched in horror as the corpse of the goblin began to rise out of the dark water of the river. Black slime dripped from a gaping wound in its chest and its eyes blazed with an unholy purple light as it slowly lifted its head to capture her in its gaze. A thick tongue crawled out from behind its jagged black teeth and it licked its cracked lips as it smiled evilly. “Mine,” it rasped in a hollow voice that seemed to echo around her. Moving slowly at first, but with ever increasing speed with every step, the creature began to wade through the dark water, reaching for her with its rotting hands outstretched. “Mine,” it croaked again.

Instinctively, Jeri reached for her sabre, but the familiar weapon wasn’t at her side. Neither were her daggers and even her armour appeared to be missing. She was clad only in thin wool shirt and pants, both torn in several places after the adventures of the day and clotted with foul-smelling dried blood that flaked off the cloth as she moved. Stumbling across the rocky ground, her body still feeling sluggish and unresponsive, Jeri backed away from the river and the walking corpse pursuing her. Looking for something to defend herself with she spotted a broken tree branch nearby and reached down to pick it up. But the branch was as rotten as the corpse pursuing her and it burst apart as her fingers brushed it. Several inch-long centipedes oozed out of the crumbling wood, twitching sluggishly as they fell towards the earth and then began to crawl towards her along the ground.

Turning to run, Jeri felt like she was moving through thick treacle with every step taking a lifetime. Somehow she stumbled her way away from the river and out into the open field beyond. As she crossed the empty field she felt like something was missing, but her mind was as sluggish as her body and she couldn’t think what it could be. She fell several times as she ran and each time she seemed to fall into a patch of muddy ground so soon she was caked with mud that was weighing her down even more. Behind her the undead monster steadily shambled towards her and despite its slow pace it always seemed to be getting closer. She could almost feel its foul breath on the back of her neck.

Then, in the distance, she heard the dull sound of a horse's hooves clomping along the muddy road and Jeri dragged her gaze upwards to see a distant rider slowly moving towards her through the rain. The tall figure of the rider stopped at the very edge of the field and turned its hooded head to face her. Jeri’s headache suddenly grew worse and her legs buckled beneath her as she collapsed under the pain, falling heavily into the thick mud of the field. The rider turned away and slowly disappeared into the distance as Jeri struggled to regain her feet. “Wait!” she tried to call out, but her tongue seemed to be caught in her throat and all she managed to get out was a dry croak.

Something grabbed at her ankle. Looking down, Jeri saw a skeletal hand reaching out of the mud to clutch at her. She kicked out at the hand, and although she managed to break free it was still able to rake its claw-like fingers along her ankle and foot, leaving bloody grooves in her flesh. She stumbled away from it, but all around her the ground began to break apart as first one, then a dozen, and then hundreds of skeletons crawled from the earth and began to reach for her. A heavy hand grasped at her shoulder and spun her around, pushing her backward towards the ground. Her vision swam as her head struck the muddy ground and then the undead goblin was on top of her, sitting on her stomach and forcing her down into the mud. The corpse hissed at her at it leaned forward towards her face, fat maggots tumbling from flesh and bouncing off her like rain.

The undead creature hissed at her again and its foul rotting breath assaulted her senses. Her vision swam again and she felt like she was falling away into blackness. Spots danced before her eyes and the twin sparks of the creature’s glowing purple eyes seemed to spin around her like a vortex that was sucking her in. It’s sharp obsidian teeth began to morph before her, widening into yellowing chisels with flecks of green between them. Then the creature opened its mouth and a gigantic slimy tongue snaked out and licked the side of her face. She cried out and…

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…and then she woke spluttering as a large, rough tongue licked the side of her face. Something snorted warm air into her face and showered her with mucus. The familiar, but unwelcome smell of wet animal fur tickled her nose and she coughed, her throat feeling raw and dry.

“Bad horse,” someone nearby cried out.

Jeri’s thoughts were still hazy in the aftermath of the vivid nightmare she had just experienced, but she recognised the increasingly familiar voice of the young wizard, Mursa. She turned her head slowly towards the wizard and saw the half-elf running towards her waving a large piece of white cloth at the creature that loomed above her, its shadow blocking out the sun. Jeri dragged her gaze upwards and was pleasantly surprised to see the face of her warhorse, Desert Wind, looking back at her. The big warhorse licked Jeri’s face again, his hot breath brushing across her face as he lowered his head and nuzzled her cheek once before pulling away, snorting at the wizard and stamping its feet uncomfortably close to Jeri’s head. Mursa waved the cloth angrily at the horse again and with a final snort followed by a loud neigh the warhorse apparently decided she was not worth the trouble and clomped off to investigate the long grass growing at the water’s edge.

Mursa knelt down beside her and began to carefully wipe her face clean with the cloth she had been carrying, which Jeri could now see was a piece of the robe the wizard had been wearing earlier. “Sorry,” Mursa said when she had finished cleaning Jeri’s face. “I didn’t think he would try to eat you.”

“He was just making sure I was all right,” Jeri said with a smile. “Where did you find him?”

“I didn’t,” the half-elf replied. “He just turned up and started nibbling on your hair. I pushed him away a couple of times but he kept coming back. Is he your horse?”

Jeri nodded and then ignoring Mursa for the moment she turned her head to either side to look around her to try to work out where she was. The last thing she remembered, apart from the nightmare, was falling backwards into the water of the river with the big goblin falling on top of her. She now appeared to be lying on a thick bedroll which had been laid out on the grass near the river bank. A wool blanket covered her and a blazing fire had been lit nearby in a circle of round stones that the half-elf must have dragged over from the river. Her armour was also stacked neatly nearby, along with her boots and weapons belt. It was hard to tell how much time had passed since her battle with the goblin, but the sun was now almost directly overhead so it had been several hours at least.

“What happened?” she asked the half-elf who was still kneeling at her side.

“Well,” Mursa began slowly. “After you killed the goblin you fell into the river and I had to pull you out which took me some time because with your armour you are heavier than you look. I thought you were dead, but thankfully you were still breathing, just really cold and wet. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I lit a fire to warm you up and then this horse turned up and started trying to chew on your hair. He had the blankets and bedroll tied behind his saddle so I took your armour off and made you more comfortable. That was a few hours ago and I’ve just been waiting here for you to wake. I wasn’t sure what else to do.”

“And the goblins?”

“The two that survived the lightning bolt ran off when I was pulling you out of the river. I didn’t have time to stop them getting away. They ran along the road to the west I think.”

“So they know we are here,” Jeri said, her brow furrowing as she wondered why the goblins were going west instead of east where she imagined their forces were. She asked, “have you seen any sign of them or any others since?”

Mursa shook her head. “No, it has been very quiet. I haven’t seen another soul.”

Jeri tried to get up, but found her head starting to throb again and she also felt dizzy and light-headed. With a groan, she slumped back onto the bedroll until the dizziness went away. Reaching up, Jeri probed the wound on her forehead and found it had been covered with a fresh cloth bandage, probably another piece of Mursa’s robe. Unfortunately the bandage was sticky with fresh blood which meant the cut had reopened and was still bleeding freely, which explained the dizziness.

“It was bleeding when I pulled you out of the water,” Mursa explained, her face pale and uncertain. “I did what I could, but it’s still bleeding. I’m not sure what I need to do to fix it.”

Jeri pointed toward her horse, who was still nearby. “In the left saddlebag are several bandages and a small pouch.” she said. “I’m going to need them.”

Mursa hurried over to where the horse stood chomping on the grass after some hesitation began to rummage through the saddlebags. The horse twisted around to look at her, baring his teeth at her and switching her side with his tail, but not going as far as biting her. The half-elf quickly retrieved the items Jeri sought and hurried back to the warrior’s side, handing them over.

Jeri put the bandages aside and opened the pouch, taking out a thin, curved needle, some black silk thread, and a clay pot sealed with thick black wax. “What is your needlework like?” she asked, holding out the needle and thread.

“I… I have never,” Mursa stammered, her face pale.

“It’s all right,” Jeri assured her, still holding out the needle and thread. “It’s not hard, you just need to sew up the cut as neatly as you can. I can’t see it or I’d do it myself.”

The wizard finally accepted the needle and thread and knelt down beside Jeri again, untying the bandage and dabbing away the fresh blood that flowed from the wound. She held the needle close to the cut, but her hand was shaking. “I’m not sure I can do this,” she said.

Jeri reached up and gently gripped the wizard’s arm to steady Mursa’s shaking hand. “It’s all right, just take it slowly and carefully.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Yes,” Jeri admitted. “But not too much and it has to be done.”

Jeri grimaced slightly as Mursa finally summoned up her courage and pricked the needle through the warrior’s skin and began to sew up the cut. The wizard took a long time, but Jeri concentrated on ignoring the pain and guided the girl through the process as best she could. It would be a messy effort and would leave a particularly nasty looking scar, but as long as the wound was closed it could start healing. As soon as the thread was tied off, Mursa used one of Jeri’s daggers to cut it before she handed the bloodied needle back to Jeri.

“Will it leave a scar?” the wizard asked, dabbing away the blood again and reaching for the bandages.

“Yes, but what is one more. I have plenty already,” Jeri replied, stopping the wizard from picking up the bandages and pointing to the pot instead.

Mursa handed over the pot and Jeri removed the wax seal. A minty scent filled the air as she screwed the lid off and handed the pot back to the wizard. “Now you need to spread some of this salve across the cut. Not too much, but just enough to cover the whole cut completely. Then you can bandage it up.”

“What is it?” Mursa asked, shivering slightly as she dug out a small amount of salve with her fingers and spread it carefully along the cut. “It’s cold.”

“Something a priestess of Éla gave me a couple of seasons ago after I did her a favour. I don’t know what she put in it, but it works well for stopping infection so I keep using it.”

“It’s enchanted,” Mursa commented.

“It is?” Jeri said, sounding surprised by this news. “Well I guess it was a pretty big favour and she was very grateful. How can you tell it’s magical?”

“I am a wizard,” Mursa replied, digging out some more salve with her fingers.

Jeri had a feeling that magic didn’t quite work that way, but didn’t press the issue further, instead just lying back and letting Mursa complete her work.

“Does this sort of thing happen to you a lot?” the wizard asked as she finished applying the salve and picked up a bandage.

“More than I’d like,” Jeri said. She pointed to a thin white scar ran along her chin. “This was a dagger from a drunken sailor in a dockside tavern in Brechlen.” Next she tugged the collar of her shirt aside to expose three long scars the stretched from her shoulder down to her breast. “A gnoll did this during a skirmish in Grevesmühl five years back.” Finally, she pushed the blanket aside and tugged up the hem of her shirt so show the wizard a semi-circular line of jagged circular scars across her stomach. “And this was a varsk bite from two years ago in Rzhlev. That one was really bad and I didn’t think I was going to survive, but we had a priest on hand who was able to patch me up.”

Mursa finished applying the bandage and helped Jeri sit up. Jeri still felt dizzy, but the pain from her head had gone for now, the salve numbing it. From her previous experience with the salve she knew that wouldn’t last and she would feel it again by the next morning. Jeri was about to help the wizard pack away the needle and the salve when she noticed that Mursa’s left hand was also wrapped in a strip of cloth. “What happened to your hand?” she asked.

The wizard looked down at the bandaged hand. “It’s a bit embarrassing,” she said. “After I pulled you out of the water and dragged you over here I decided to try to find your sword and I… well stabbed myself on tip of the blade when I finally did find it.”

“Can I take a look?”

Mursa nodded and held out her hand. Jeri quickly untied the rough bandage and saw that the cut was shallow and had already stopped bleeding so didn’t need stitching up. However, she did spread a little of the salve on it and replaced the bandage with a fresh one. “You should be all right,” she said. “It won’t leave much of a scar either.”

“As long as I can still move my fingers,” the wizard said, testing the movement in her hand. “Some of my spells depend on precise gestures or they go awry.”

“It will be a little stiff as it heals but you didn’t do any major damage. Let me know if you need me to take another look,” Jeri said, retrieving her boots and tugging them on before climbing back to her feet. She shook off the last of the dizziness she was feeling and picked up the rest of the bandages and other items and went to put them away in the saddlebag. Desert Wind looked up as she approached and butted her side with his head, which she noticed was still encased in the metal armour he wore in combat. She knew what the horse was trying to say and patted the side of his neck and then stroked his mane. “All right boy I guess we have no choice.”

She turned to Mursa and called out, “Give me a hand here.”

The wizard hurried over. “What do you need?”

“We need to remove Desert Wind's armour.”

“But won’t you need it if we encounter more goblins?”

Jeri shook her head. “Speed is more important now. Those goblins will probably be back by sunset and I want to be well away from here by then. This armour will only slow us down now.”

The well crafted armour for her stallion has cost her a considerable sum of coin and she hated to leave it behind, but Jeri knew that she couldn’t expect her horse to carry both it and the two woman without risking injury. She was already concerned for the horse after he had been wandering around in the sun for most of the day wearing the heavy armour and although he still seemed pretty feisty still there was a limited to his endurance. Like her, the stallion was from the Khinasi lands to the south and used to tough conditions, but Jeri was close to reaching her limits after the events of the day and she was wary of pushing her mount too far. Desert Wind was more than just a steed, he was a valued companion and she wasn’t sure what she would do without him.

Working together Jeri and Mursa soon had the armour removed and piled neatly underneath a tree. Jeri hoped she would have a chance to come back for it, as it would be expensive to replace, but she suspected she would never see it again. Right now though, speed was more important than protection and she hurried to prepare to get moving. While Mursa packed away the bedroll and blankets and extinguished the fire, Jeri carefully buckled on her armour and weapon belt. She was forced to leave the helm off as it wouldn’t fit comfortably on her bandaged head, and one of the arm guards had also been badly damaged by the reflected spell earlier. Jeri didn’t know enough about magic to know what might have caused the spell to be reflected like that, but whatever the reason it had died with the goblin. She still strapped the arm guard to her arm, but it wouldn’t provide much protection until it was repaired or replaced.

After clipping her helm to the back of the saddle, just behind the bedroll and blankets, Jeri swung herself up into the saddle. Reaching down, she took Mursa’s hand and pulled the wizard up behind her. The stallion neighed a complaint over the extra weight, but Jeri just patted his neck again and said, “just for a little while boy.”

“Are we going to follow the road?” Mursa asked, slipping her arms around Jeri’s waist as she settled in behind the warrior on the horse’s back. The wizard had her purple travelling bag slung over her shoulder and Jeri hoped it didn’t slip off during the ride as she didn’t want to stop if she could help it.

Jeri didn't respond immediately as she considered the options available to them. Certainly Cole and the rest of the survivors from the camp would be following the road, the waggon tracks had already indicated that. But they now had more than half a day lead over them and there was also the goblins to consider. Mursa had seen the two survivors from the group that attacked them earlier going west. It was unlikely the goblins would go west unless they expected other goblins to be there so that meant the main force was probably off in the forest somewhere, and could very well be camped out somewhere along the main road, or they could be pursuing Cole. She considered heading east instead, back towards Edlenna, but the goblins had come from that direction initially so they could be there as well. In a sudden moment of clarity she recalled a map she had seen in the Baron’s castle before setting out on this journey and a new option opened up to her.

Guiding the warhorse with the reins, Jeri rode towards the road first, the heavy warhorse leaving deep hoof prints in the soft ground. After travelling a short distance along the road, she suddenly appeared to change her mind and turned the horse towards the river instead. The water wasn’t deep but it still lapped around their feet and came up to Desert Wind’s chest, making the horse toss his head and snort out a complaint. Staying in the water for some time, Jeri followed the river north, well past where the manor house still smoldered and even past the crossing where she had fought the goblin. Finally, she reached a bend and guided the horse out of the water and up onto the rocky bank. A narrow path appeared in the trees before them and Jeri guided the horse towards it.

“Where does this go?” Mursa enquired from behind her.

Jeri bought up the image of the map in her mind again, wondering as she did so why she could suddenly recall it so clearly. “It leads to a pass through the mountains into Ruelshegh province in Müden. It’s not used much any more, but according to the map I saw there should be another road that leads off it down towards the Bannalach at the border of Dezeel and Coulbaraigh provinces. It's a slower journey and there are a lot of hills to climb, but it may be safer than the main road.”

The wizard nodded and clung tighter to Jeri’s waist as the big warhorse shouldered its way past some bushes growing close the to the track and began the slow climb up the first of the hills. The track seemed stable but it clearly hadn’t been used in some time as leaves and small branches reached out from the trees to scratch at them as they passed and several times both women were forced to duck to avoid low hanging branches overhead. Jeri found herself questioning the wisdom of taking this track instead of the main route, all based on a map she had seen for only a short time nearly a week ago. Yet for some reason this seemed to her to be the right way to go, almost as if something was guiding her to take this path, so she kept on the path hoping her instincts were correct.

Chapter Text

As the day wore on and the sun began to dip ever closer to the horizon, Jeri began to question her decision to take this route instead of following the main road and chasing after Cole and the other survivors. The forest with its thick undergrowth and overhanging branches that had originally impeded their progress soon gave way to partially forested hills and finally to a rough rocky mountain track that rose steeply upwards into the foothills of the Mountains of the Silent Watch, a mountain range that stretched for several hundred miles from Berhagen in the east to the tiny nation of Pashacht in the west. The map Jeri has seen in the Baron castle had shown this route as a passage leading into Müden, but it was soon obvious that the track had not been used in many years, perhaps not since the small settlement where the company had camped last night had been abandoned. The path was too narrow for waggons so that made it almost worthless to the merchants who were the lifeblood of the region. They would take the same route the Swords had when they had travelled to Rheulgard several weeks earlier, which was to travel south from the Müden city of Saarmen and cut through the Berhagen province of Bierlev until they reached the fortress city of Edlenna.

This path was also very poorly maintained with numerous rockfalls that covered part or all of the track in loose stones and dirt. While Desert Wind was able to go over or around all of them, Jeri was fearful that a large fall somewhere up ahead might cut the path completely and they could be forced to turn around and go back. The risk of a rockfall occurring while they rode past also worried her as it was becoming increasingly common to hear rocks shifting and even see small pebbles tumbling down the mountainside from high above. The rough ride was also starting to take its toll on all concerned. Desert Wind was obviously finding it hard going as the warhorse's gait had slowed considerably as the path had become steeper. Even without the armoured barding Jeri had removed and left behind at the river carrying the two women over such rough terrain was pushing the horse to his limits. The trek was taking a toll on the horse's passengers too. Mursa had spent most of the past hour dozing with her head resting on Jeri's back, her hands still wrapped tightly around the warrior's waist and Jeri also found her headache has starting to return and she knew she was exhausted as well and that they needed to stop and rest, but part way along a mountain path with a steep drop down to the forest below on one side and a potentially unstable mountainside on the other was not a suitable place to camp for the night. The only upside so far was they had not yet seen any signs of goblins or any other enemies.

It therefore came as a considerable relief when Desert Wind pricked up his ears as if he had sensed something and began to pick up his pace, trotting eagerly down the path. Jeri realised that they were nearly at the point where the map showed the path forking and sure enough she soon spotted a second track forking off to the north and snaking its way up into the mountains. The track they had been following continued on, fording a small river and following the ridge to the west. Between the two paths was a small, picturesque valley.

Twin waterfalls cascaded down the mountainside at the northern end of the valley, filling the air with a musical tinkle of water on rock as well as a fine refreshing mist. The waterfalls fed two streams which ran alongside a small rocky spit of land covered with a thick copse of trees and flowering bushes, although this late in the year there were few flowers to be seen. The streams emptied into a deep lake in the centre of the valley filled with crystal clear blue water and overflow from this lake in turn fed a narrow river that cascaded over some small rapids before it cut across the path to the west and tumbled over the edge of the ridge and became another waterfall, this one much higher than the other two and dropping all the way down the forest far below. Jeri imagined that eventually the water would flow into the main river that fed the Bannalach to the west.

As Desert Wind trotted towards the lake, Jeri gently nudged Mursa to wake the dozing wizard. "Time to wake up," she said as the wizard stirred and yawned.

"Where are we?" Mursa asked, looking around the valley with interest.

"Somewhere near Dezeel province I think. We are stopping here for the night."

"Oh good," Mursa said, tossing her purple travelling bag onto the ground and leaping down off the horse's back. Once on the ground she picked up the bag again and peered at the sky, looking a little concerned. "We might need to find some shelter," she said.

Jeri also glanced up at the sky, noticing that dark clouds where starting to crawl across it. In the west the sun was just kissing the horizon, setting the thickening clouds afire with a red glow, a sure sign that bad weather was coming. "You could be right," she said, leading Desert Wind over to the lake.

The wizard slung her bag over her shoulder and pointed to the copse of trees at the far end of the lake. "I'm just going to investigate those bushes, I'll be right back."

Jeri nodded and knelt next to the lake to scooped up a handful of water to sip. The water was clear and had only a slight mineral tang to it. She also noticed several small silver fish swimming around just below the surface of the lake and for a moment contemplated trying to catch one, but she had enough food in her saddlebags for one or two meals and she wasn't prepared to waste too much time trying to catch a dinner, especially as she had no intention of lighting a fire that evening. While the night was sure to be cold, a fire was also one of the easiest ways to be spotted in a dark night and while they hadn't seen any goblins since they left the forest, that didn't mean they weren't out there somewhere.

Next to Jeri, Desert Wind was drinking his fill, the big horse looking tired after the long day's ride up from the forest below. When he was finished he butted his head against her arm, a sure sign that he wanted something. When Jeri continued to ignore him, he stomped the edge of the water with one of his hooves, splashing water across her boots. "Not now," Jeri told him, moving away from the grumpy horse to avoid getting splashed again. "I need to look for some shelter first."

Glancing around she could see there wasn't much in the way of shelter to be seen. If rain came from the west then it was possible that one of the rock ledges she could see along the western side of the valley could shelter them, although none of the ledges she could see in the failing light appeared wide enough to provide anything more than the most rudimentary cover. That left only the copse of trees which would provide some limited shelter as long as there wasn't a storm. Unfortunately storms were common in Autumn in Rheulgard so there was a reasonable chance they would see one that night and with the amount of cloud cover now spreading across the sky some form of rain was almost guaranteed. She hoped it wasn't too heavy as it would make the track down towards the Bannalach tomorrow much more dangerous.

"Jerenia," Mursa called out, waving at Jeri from the trees. "I've found something, come and see."

"On my way," she called back, grabbing Desert Wind's reins. The horse protested, butting her arm again, but eventually gave in and followed her. Jeri noticed several flat rocks in the closest of the two streams, which was probably how Mursa had reached the spit of land between the two waterfalls, so she jumped across. Desert Wind just waded through the water and while it was deep and rose to high on his chest, the warhorse muscled his way to the other side and climbed out again onto a small rocky breach. Once back on dry land Jeri tied the horse's reins to a nearby tree and went to see what Mursa had discovered.

"See," the wizard said as Jeri reached her side. She pointed towards some flowering vines that clung to the side of the rocky mountainside and a dark passage that could been seen behind them. "It's a cave."

"Not much of one," Jeri said, examining the vines for spikes or anything else that could be dangerous. The flowers with a particularly vivid shade of pink and even in late Autumn they filled the air with thick pollen. She pulled out a dagger and poked one of the flowers, just in case it was the sort that puffed poison at people who brushed by them.

"They aren't dangerous," Mursa said, smiling. "We have these growing on the tower back home, they are perfectly harmless… well mostly harmless, just don't try to eat the petals."

"They kill you?"

"Eventually, yes."

Jeri sheathed her dagger and drew her large sabre, using it to brush aside the vines. "This cave doesn't look natural," she said. "The walls are too smooth, but at the same time it doesn't seem to be in use. If I had a light I'd go in further and check."

"Oh, I can help with that," Mursa said, fumbling with the small leather bag slung over her shoulder. She reached into the bag and pulled out a small jar full of a bright yellow powder. She opened the jar and took a tiny pinch of the powder which she held carefully in one hand as she replaced the lid and put the jar back in the bag. Then Mursa whispered a short phrase in a language Jeri wasn't familiar with and tossed the powder into the air. There was a bright flash of light and four softly glowing orbs of yellow light appeared, circling around Jeri's head. "They won't last long," the wizard warned Jeri, as she gestured with her fingers and the orbs floated forward into the cave.

Jeri edged inside the cave, her sabre leading the way. However, there was no danger to be found, the orbs of light revealing a small cave that lead deep into the cliff face. An old fire pit and two broken wooden crates reinforced her first impression that this was not a natural cave and it now looked to her as if someone had cut this cave to use as a shelter, perhaps for travellers using this route, as there was no sign of any mining equipment or even any trace minerals in the rock that might indicate it was a mine. Cutting away some cobwebs with her sabre she continued further into the cave, the orbs of light floating along with her.

"Is it safe?" Mursa called out from the entrance.

"I'm not sure," Jeri replied, before cursing as the orbs of light winked out of existence. She walked back to the entrance. "We will need something more permanent if I'm going to check out the rest of the cave. I'll see if I can't fashion a torch out of some dead wood, there is a flint and tinder in one of my saddlebags."

"No need," Mursa said, holding up a tiny glass container. "I couldn't find this earlier or I would have used it instead." She whispered another spell and the glass container lit up with bright white light and illuminated the entire entrance to the cave. "Here," she said, tossing the light to Jeri would just managed to catch without dropping it on the ground."

"What is it?"

"That is a dead firefly in a bottle," Mursa said with a smile. "Actually the firefly is just the focus of a simple light spell. It will last for an hour or so before going out, although I can recast it again as often as you need."

"No need," Jeri replied. "It will be dark soon and I don't want any light showing that could be seen by anyone who passes by."

"No fire then?" Mursa asked. "It will be cold tonight."

Jeri shook her head. "No fire. Any light could betray our location once the sun sets. On clear nights like tonight you can see a fire from miles away. I remember during our campaign in Grevesmühl I was on sentry duty in a watch tower halfway across Sleppsig province and could still see the lights of Daugren over fifteen miles away. Even with trees between here and the track any goblin or other enemy walking past will still spot any fire we light almost immediately."

"All right," Mursa conceded. "No fire. I guess I'm not used to this sort of situation. Until the last couple of days I'd never even camped out doors, let alone in a cave in the wilderness."

"It could be worse," Jeri replied.

"I'm not sure I want to know what could be worse than this."

"Well there are no Varsk trying to eat you."

"I don't even know what a Varsk is," Mursa admitted.

"Well imagine a lizard the colour of snow that is roughly as tall as a horse but with teeth that can cut through solid steel armour and horns that can disembowel your mount. Then add a bloodthirsty Vos savage riding them and you get the idea of what they are like."

"Sounds very nasty." Mursa said. "Why were you fighting the Vos?"

Jeri shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure. We were being paid by Baron von Schaeffen from Berhagen as part of an attack on Rzhlev, but why he wanted to attack the Vos I still don't know. Cole usually handles those details and the rest of us just collect our pay at the end. Of course there were a lot of us that didn't collect our pay at the end of that campaign. It still wasn't as bad as today though."

"I'm sorry," the wizard said, her voice quiet. "I realise it must be tough. I'm still so worried about Kur, I keep imagining him dead by the road somewhere. I hope he is still alive, but I still worry."

"Don't worry, Cole will protect him, he's one of the best strategists and warriors I know. But, let's not worry about that right now, we still have to check out the rest of this cave."

Mursa nodded and followed Jeri as the warrior walked deeper into the cave, this time holding the bright light the wizard had summoned. "It looks safe," she said, before noticing an odd glow further on. The carved rock walls of the tunnel were rough here, as if unfinished, but as she walked closer and held up the light, Jeri could see a number of crystalline growths spreading across the stone. "It looks like some sort of crystals embedded in the rock here," she said, moving the light closer.

The wizard hurried over and took the light from Jeri, holding it up to the crystals so she could examine them closely. "This is amazing," she said after nearly a minute of careful examination of the crystals.

"Are they valuable?" Jeri asked.

"Priceless… well to the right person."

"What are they?"

"Come," Mursa said, heading further into the cavern as she followed the vein of crystal along the wall. The crystals eventually led to a jagged hole that had been cut through the solid rock at the end of the tunnel and appeared to lead into another cavern. There were signs that whomever had created this cave had abandoned their work here as piles of loose stones were scattered about the floor instead of being carted away. Without waiting for Jeri, Mursa climbed through the hole and into the new cavern.

"Wait," Jeri called, annoyed that Mursa had run ahead. She ran after the wizard and carefully stepped through the hole in the end of tunnel into a large cavern that glowed brightly in the light the wizard held above her head. In the centre of the cavern was a large pool of a thick pearlescent, cream-coloured liquid that seemed to glow with its own inner light, while scatted around the rest of the cavern were clusters of different coloured crystal. These were growing from the ceiling, the floor and the walls of the cavern and appeared random in their size and shape. The slight flow of air from the hole in the cavern wall caused faint motes of light to drift about the chamber giving it an ethereal, other-worldly appearance.

"What is this place?" Jeri asked as she picked her way across the cavern, careful not to touch any of the crystalline growths.

"It's what Master Rheulaan sent us to get permission to search for," Mursa replied.

"What do you mean?"

"This is why Kur and I were meeting with Baron Oerwinde," the wizard explained. "Master Rheulaan had sent us to get the Baron's permission for to survey his territory for locations just like this."

"What is it?" Jeri asked again, still confused.

"A source," the wizard replied.

"A source?"

"Yes a source of magic… do you know what mebhaighl is?"

Jeri shook her head. "Never heard of it."

"Mebhaighl what we call the essence of magic," the wizard explained. "It is energy that is created by all living things that collects in rivers and streams that flow through the world beneath the earth and form places like this. A skilled wizard, someone of Master Rheulaan's skill, can tap into these sources to cast spells of such power that they… well let's just say they are very powerful."

"And very dangerous I imagine," Jeri replied, now realising the value of the find. She had heard stories in the past of the deeds of the most powerful of wizards, able to raze castles to the ground, summon legions of undead monsters from the Shadow World, and even transport armies across entire provinces, but like most stories about wizards she didn't believe these feats were actually possible. If the tales she had heard were more than just stories she could imagine the possibilities and the dangers that could bring.

"Very dangerous," Mursa agreed. "Which is why we needed to seek the Baron's permission. He wanted certain assurances agreed to first, of course, but I'm sure Master Rheulaan will be able to talk him around. Our mission is also why we came with the Baron when he left Edlenna. We were supposed to speak to the Meister of Poden as well and the Baron was going to introduce us, but… well you know the rest."

"So is this source or whatever it is dangerous to us right now?" Jeri asked, the warrior jumping nervously when the pool in the centre of the cavern bubbled once and tiny flecks of magical energy rose into air like sparks from a fire.

Mursa laughed and shook her head, waving her hand through the flecks of energy to show they couldn't hurt her. "Not at all," she said. "Without the skill to tap into it, this is just a pretty cave. Magic functions a little better here and I wouldn't try drinking anything from that pool, but we could sleep in here if we wanted."

"I think I'd prefer to stay outside," Jeri replied.

"If you prefer. I'll need to make some notes though, Master Rheulaan will probably quiz me about every detail."

"Well I'll leave you to it. I need to go and tend to Desert Wind before he gets any grumpier. I don't want him to toss us off halfway down the mountain tomorrow because I forgot to brush him down tonight."

"I'll need some parchment and my quill anyway," Mursa said, following Jeri towards the exit. "And I need to clean up. Your horse is very nice, but he gets a bit smelly after riding him all day."

"Your sense of smell is one of the first things you learn to ignore when on campaign," Jeri said.

"Yes…" Mursa said very carefully.

Jeri stopped and glared back at the wizard. "Are you saying I smell?"

Mursa looked apologetic. "I didn't want to upset you by saying anything, but yes just a little… well a lot actually."

"You will just have to live with it then. All my gear was on one of the baggage waggons which are either lost or with Cole so this is my sole set of clothing right now and I'm not going to wash these and sit around in wet clothes all night."

"No, of course not," Mursa said. "I can wash them for you."

"I still don't see how that will make me any drier."

"You forget, I'm a wizard. The first spells Master Rheulaan taught us were basic cleaning and mending spells. Of course, ever since then we've had to do all the cleaning, cooking, and other chores around the tower, but I became so good at them that…"

"I'll think about it," Jeri said, marching off towards the entrance to the cave.

"I even had soap in my bag," Mursa called after her. "It's scented."

"I'm Khinasi," Jeri called back to her. "My people invented soap and my father was a trader in exotic perfumes and spices from across half of Cerilia. It's washing in cold streams this close to winter that I'm against."

"But I just thought…"

"Just get back to taking notes about that source thing. I need to tend to my horse."

"All right," Mursa replied, kneeling next to her bag to retrieve a blank scroll and her writing implements, before she headed back to the other cavern. Jeri, meanwhile, headed for the cave entrance and began to unbuckle the straps to her armour.

After removing her armour and stacking it neatly by the entrance to the cave, Jeri stretched several times to work the kinks out of her body after a long day. Then she buckled her sword belt around her waist and drawing her sabre used it to brush aside the vines at the entrance again, still not convinced that something that flowered in Autumn was safe, and went outside to tend to Desert Wind. After removing his saddle, bridle, and other tack she took out a heavy brush from one of the saddle bags and brushed the warhorse's coat, mane, and tail, taking care to remove twigs and burrs that had become stuck on the horse's hair. The last rays of the sun were just disappearing by the time she was finished brushing down the horse and after returning the brush to the saddlebag Jeri retrieved a hobble that she placed around Desert Wind's back legs so he couldn't run off in the night, although after the long, tiring ride today she doubted the warhorse would be in a hurry to wander off tonight. That done, she collected the saddlebags and tack and then carried everything inside, using the leather of the saddle to shield herself from the vines this time.

Mursa was back in the tunnel by the time Jeri returned and had spread her cloak out on the dusty stone floor and used it to set out a small collection of food that she must have been keeping in her bag. The light she had created was sitting in the middle of the cloak illuminating much of the tunnel.

"I have some beef jerky in one of these saddlebags," Jeri said as she dumped the saddle on the floor of the tunnel next to her armour.

"I don't eat meat," Mursa replied. "I do have some very tasty nuts and dried fruit from my bag and I even have a couple of left over honey cakes that we picked up from a baker in Edlenna. They should be still quite edible and if we are careful we should have enough here to last a few days."

"We should be back in civilisation by tomorrow evening," Jeri said, sitting down opposite the wizard. She picked up one of the small cakes and bit into it. The crust of the cake cracked open and thick honey ran from the sides of the cake, down her chin, and dripped onto her shirt and gambeson.

Mursa giggled as Jeri cursed and shoved the rest of the cake into her mouth while simultaneously trying and failing to stop more honey from dripping down her chin. "They are supposed to be eaten delicately," she said.

Jeri finally swallowed the last of the cake and used her shirt to wipe her face clean. "We normally don't get long to eat, I guess I've just become used to wolfing everything down as fast as possible. Of course, with Josef's stews you sometimes had to do that or it would come back up again."

"Reminds me of Master Rheulaan's last attempt to cook," Mursa said smiling. "All of use were sick for the rest of the day and he sulked for a week."

"You talk a lot about your Master Rheulaan," Jeri said. "Have you been training with him for long?"

"Oh, all our lives. He is like a father to us."

"And your parents?"

The wizard's face fell and she didn't answer for several seconds. "Dead," she said at last. "They died when we were very young and Master Rheulaan has looked after us ever since."

"I'm sorry," Jeri said. "I didn't realise."

"It's all right, it was a long time ago now and far away I think. Master Rheulaan has never told us much about what happened to them, just that they were soldiers in a war and died somewhere called Flax. I don't know where that is, but my earliest memories are of a boat trip so it could be somewhere over the sea."

"Perhaps in Djapar or Aduria?"

"Perhaps." Mursa looked wistfully towards the cave entrance. Finally, she looked back at Jeri. "How about you? Are your parents alive, you said your father was a merchant?"

"My mother died when I was born so I never knew her," Jeri said. "My father is probably alive."

"You don't know?"

"We sort of lost touch. It's a very long story and probably best kept for another time."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

Jeri brushed off the last of the crumbs from her meal and stood up. "It's all right. It's just that I've never told anyone, even my closest friends in the Swords, about my past. You're actually the only person here who I've told my real name. Even Cole only knows me as Jeri."

"I prefer Jerenia."

"It would probably be best if you call me Jeri around the others when we get back to them. I have reasons not to use my full name."

"Something to do with your father?"

"Yes," Jeri admitted. She glanced towards the entrance of the cave and noticed it was starting to get dark outside. "Anyway, time to extinguish that light," she told Mursa, bending down again to help the wizard pack away the meagre remains of their meal. "It will be visible from the track quite easily."

"Do you think there are still goblins out there? It doesn't look like they have ever been here."

"I'm not willing to risk it," Jeri said. "They probably won't come past, but if they do…"

"I understand," the wizard said, closing her hand around the tiny bottle that was the focus of her light spell. The light vanished instantly, shrouding the tunnel in darkness, the vines at the entrance blocking most of the dim light that was coming in from outside.

"I want to take a quick look around outside," Jeri told the wizard after Mursa had finished packing all her belongings back in her travel bag, although she kept out the thick wool cloak.

"What do you hope to see?"

"I'm not sure, but I think it would be worth taking a look over the edge of the cliff to see if we can spot anything. It might be possible to see campfires or even the lights of a town if there are any nearby."

"I'm coming with you then," Mursa said.

"It won't be that interesting."

"Perhaps not, but if you are serious about going out there without a light you will need me with you."

"Why is that?" Jeri asked.

"Elvish blood remember."

"Oh?"

"I can see in the dark. Not as well as in daylight of course, but enough to spot anything that could be sneaking around in the dark out there."

Jeri nodded. "All right. Let's go then."

The two women made their way out of the cave and jumped across the flat stones that formed a crossing over the nearest of the two streams. Walking past the lake, Jeri led the way over to the edge of the cliff, which was just visible in the fading light. Even the red glow on the clouds from the sunset was now fading as darkness descended across Rheulgard. Jeri crouched down at the edge of the cliff and waited for the last of the light to fade, while Mursa sat a little closer to edge of the cliff.

"So what are we looking for?" Mursa asked, after several long minutes has passed in silence.

"I want to get a look at the area, especially where we are going to be travelling tomorrow."

"Isn't it going to be too dark to see anything?"

"Yes, but we should be able to see the light of any towns up ahead. From the map of the region I saw there should be some small fishing villages along the north edge of the Bannalach. I'm hoping I can spot on of them which will give me some indication how far away they are."

They sat quietly for a while longer, before Jeri finally pointed at a dim flickering light in the distance and said, "there, that is what I was looking for. At least we know now there is a village ahead of us and if the track downhill is similar to the one we came up we should reach there tomorrow afternoon."

"And will we catch up with Kur and your Captain there?"

Jeri shook her head and pointed a little further to the south where only darkness could be seen. "They should be there, assuming they still have the waggons, they may travel faster without them, but I doubt the Baron would want to abandon the gold and other valuables. Cole wouldn't leave the Baron behind so that is their most likely location."

"How do we reach them then?"

"There will be a boat or a ferry across the Poden side of the Bannalach. We may even be able to get ahead of them."

"Can we see Poden from here?"

"No it's too far," Jeri replied. "It's probably two, maybe three days ride west from here along the road, but we may be able to save some time if we can find a boat to take us."

"What about those lights down there?" Mursa asked, pointing to the south.

"What?" Jeri said, looking confused as she shuffled closer to Mursa. From where the wizard was sitting Jeri was now able to see a series of tiny lights running in an almost straight a line for about two miles, cutting through the middle of the forest.

"What is it?" Mursa asked.

"Not a settlement," Jeri said. "They have to be torches carried by someone."

"Who?"

"I'm not sure," Jeri replied. "I can only think it has to be the goblin army. Goblins hate sunlight, but they still use fire like us."

"There sure are a lot of them down there."

Jeri tried to count as many of the points of light she could see. "At least two hundred," she estimated. "Although that's only if every goblin has a torch, it's probably less than one in five that has a light, perhaps one in ten, hopefully no more than that."

"So as many as two thousand goblins?" Mursa said, sounding amazed. "Why are there so many? When we were growing up Master Rheulaan told us that goblins were tribal in nature and rarely formed coherent nations of their own."

"That is usually the case," Jeri said. "I have heard of goblin nations in Vosgaard, Anuire, and elsewhere, but there are none in this region. Someone or something must have been organising the local tribes for several years to put together a force of this size. The raids in Deuchlach province over the past couple of years were getting so bad that Baron Oerwinde was forced to hire us so there has to be an alliance of several tribes and normally the various tribes hate each other. That means either a very powerful leader has conquered all the tribes and organised them into a single army or some outside force has managed to pull them all together like this."

"If they had so many soldiers though, why did they let your Captain escape."

"I'm not sure," Jeri said, as she continued to watch the line of torches below as if trying to find some meaning in their positioning. "It seems almost as if they are trying to set a trap."

"What?" Mursa sounded confused.

"When they hit us last night they must have only sent a fraction of their true numbers, maybe just a few hundred. They hit us hard, but Cole was still able to escape with more than half of the Swords. Had they bought their full force we would have been slaughtered to the last."

"So? Does that mean they don't have as many as we are thinking."

Jeri shook her head. "No, because if there are hundreds or even thousands of goblins still down there that means they only used enough of their forces to crush but not destroy our camp. They wanted Cole to escape."

"That doesn't make a lot of sense," Mursa said. "Why would they want survivors?"

"Well, Cole is no fool, he will have scouts, so if they harry the survivors as they head west then Cole will see them and know he is being followed by a sizable force. He'll then send riders west to Poden to warn the Meister who will most likely muster his army and take the field."

"I'm still confused, why would the goblins want that."

"Because if I'm correct and they have an army of thousands down there, then the Meister could not hope to beat them on the field, he simply does not have enough troops. Most of Rheulgard's elite troops are in based out of Edlenna or Unbrau and it would take a week to reinforce the capital from either city. Poden can hold if the Meister stays behind the city walls, but if he takes the field and loses, then the city could well fall and with it most of northern Rheulgard. I doubt Cole knows the true numbers of the goblin forces, so he has no way of warning the Meister of what is coming."

"But we can?"

Jeri nodded. "Yes, as you can see we are about even with the goblin's main force now and they will be on foot so will move slower than us on horseback. We should be able to pass them tomorrow if this track continues the way I believe it does. That should give us enough time to catch up with Cole and warn him."

"So do we leave now?"

"No," Jeri said. The warrior climbed back to her feet and brushed off her pants to remove any dirt. "We should still get some rest, we'll catch up with them during the day when they are hiding from the sunlight. Now, as you are the one with the elvish eyes, you can lead the way back to the cave."

Mursa clambered back to her feet and hurried to catch up with Jeri so she could guide the warrior back towards the cave. The night had grown very dark by now as the cloud cover overhead grew thicker and hid the stars from view. "That was quite impressive how you worked out the goblin plan," Mursa said as she led the way around the edge of the lake to the crossing the led to the cave. "All I saw were lot of lights."

"I… I'm not sure how I knew it," Jeri admitted. "Cole is usually the strategist, but looking down at the goblin army it just seemed to make sense, like everything fell into place."

By this time the two women reached the steam they had to cross to reach the cave and without thinking Mursa stepped out on to the first stone. Jeri, lacking the night vision of the half-elf was close behind her, but didn't see the stream or the stone and before she knew it she had stumbled forward and was plunging into the cold water of the stream, landing in a deep pool of water with a tremendous splash. "Are you all right," Mursa called out as she hurried across to the other side of the stream and crouched down on the rocky beach on the far bank, reaching out to assist Jeri out of the water.

Unable to swim, Jeri floundered in the water for several long seconds before realising that she was tall enough to be able to stand on the rocky bed of the stream. "I thought you could see in the dark," she said, spitting out the water she had almost swallowed. She unbuckled her sword belt and tossed it up to Mursa before beginning to wade across the stream, the water in the pool up to her neck.

"Sorry," Mursa apologised. "I was too busy talking that I forgot you couldn't see the path. But at least there is some good news."

"And exactly what might that be?" Jeri asked, grimacing as her boot struck a large rock hidden underwater.

"You can take that bath now. I'll just go and get the soap."

Chapter Text

“I’ll just leave these here,” Mursa said, placing Jeri’s now clean and dry clothes on top of a rock a short distance from the stream the warrior was bathing in. The wizard had spent the good part of an hour casting spell after spell to remove the dirt and bloodstains from the cloth and had even done what she could to mend the tears in Jeri’s shirt, although there was still a large strip of cloth missing that Jeri had torn off to create a makeshift bandage. “And you can use this old robe to dry yourself off.”

“Thanks,” Jeri said, not looking at the wizard.

“I said I was sorry.”

“I still think you did it on purpose.”

“Yes I definitely wanted to spend the last hour exhausting my magic to clean your dirty clothes while you lounged around and lost my soap.”

“That was an accident!”

“Well so was me leading you into the water. I just forgot that humans can’t see in the dark like I can. I’ve spent three decades with just Kur and Master Rheulaan for company so I have a lot to get used to out here in the world.”

Jeri sighed, idly splashing at the water in frustration. “Sorry, I shouldn’t be taking it out on you, I’m just upset about… well everything really.”

“I understand,” Mursa said. “It’s been a tough day and we are both tired. But, we just need to be like your horse, he has been standing here quietly and hasn’t made a noise for an hour.”

“He’s asleep.”

Mursa looked over at the warhorse in confusion. “But he’s still standing up.”

“Horses do that,” Jeri explained. “They can sleep standing upright.”

Mursa moved closer to the horse and waved her hand in front of his face, observing Desert Wind’s slow steady breathing. “Well there is certainly a lot Master Rheulaan didn’t teach us,” she said.

“You didn’t have horses?”

“Not until recently,” Mursa said. “When Master Rheulaan first organised this trip he left the tower for a few days and came back with two horses and taught us how to ride, but before then we had never seen one before. We were very sore for the first couple of days before we got used to riding them.”

“I can imagine.”

“Well, I had better… um…” Mursa said, pointing towards the cave and starting to walk away.

“Wait,” Jeri called after her.

“What is it?” Mursa asked, pausing near the cave entrance.

“Three decades?”

“What?”

“You said that you had spent three decades with only your brother and Master Rheulaan for company.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“So that means you are more than thirty years old?”

“Thirty three years old last summer,” the wizard confirmed.

“But you look so young, I thought you couldn’t be more than sixteen.”

Mursa laughed. “Elvish blood remember. Why? Does my age matter?”

“No, not at all.”

“Good. I’ll leave you to get dressed then.”

As the wizard turned and brushed past the vines into the cave, Jeri waded out of the water and picked up the old robe Mursa had left behind for her to use. It was the one Jeri had first seen the wizard wearing during their first meeting early that morning, although after all that had happened that meeting seemed so long ago now. The robe was torn and ragged, as the wizard had cut several long strips of cloth off it to use as bandages after Jeri had been injured fighting the goblin warrior in the river. Making a mental note to buy the wizard a replacement when they reach civilisation as thanks, Jeri quickly wiped herself down, drying herself as best she could. She squeezed as much of the water as she could out of her hair but would still be damp for a while. She had taken the time to release her hair from its normal tight braid and wash away the dirt and blood from the past day’s adventures and it now hung down her back to just below her shoulders.

Once she was dry, Jeri hung the robe across a nearby tree branch to dry overnight and dressed quickly in her clothes, gambeson and boots. She had been shivering in the cold night air, but noticed as she dressed that the wizard had somehow managed to warm her clothing with her magic and the chill disappeared. Jeri doubted her clothes had ever been that clean before either, and she marvelled again at the power of a wizard’s spells. After she was dressed, Jeri picked up the leather pouch she normally wore around her neck, which she had placed carefully up on a rock at the edge of the stream to dry. The leather was still damp, but she still hung the leather thong around her neck and let the pouch drop down inside her shirt where it was safe. She kept the pouch tightly sealed so she hoped the valuable gems and coins inside were still there when she next checked as she doubted that she would be able to find them again if any had been lost in the deep pool of water. Finally, she retrieved her sword belt. She had drained out the water from the scabbards before replacing the weapons, but she would need to attend to them properly in the morning once it was light. For now, she used the sword to push the vines to one side again and entered the cave.

While outside there had been just enough light from the stars peaking out behind the gathering clouds to see by, inside it was pitch black, the vines at the entrance allowing very little light to pass. Jeri could hear the wizard moving around further down the tunnel, but she couldn’t see anything, so she called out to Mursa for assistance.

“Yes Jerenia?” the wizard responded from somewhere further down the tunnel.

“I know I said no fire, but could you summon some of those floating light orbs so I can see where I’m going.”

“Of course.”

Jeri heard the wizard moving about again and then a rustling as she searched through her belongings for the necessary components for the spell. Soon after four bright orbs of light appeared in the tunnel. Jeri shielded her eyes and blinked. “Brighter than I remembered.”

“Sorry,” Mursa said and waved her hand. The orbs of light immediately dimmed to a more tolerable luminance.

“You can do that?”

Mursa nodded. “I can even change their colour.” She gestured again and the light changed to violet. “There, now they match your eyes.”

Jeri frowned as she said, “but my eyes aren’t purple.”

“Um…” Mursa stammered. “Are you sure?”

“I think I know my own eye colour,” Jeri replied. “My eyes are brown and have always been brown.”

“Oh, I must have been mistaken then, sorry.” Mursa gestured again and the orbs changed back to a dim yellow light. “I must be more tired than I thought.”

“Perhaps we both are,” Jeri replied. She put her sword belt and her weapons down near the cave entrance and picked up one of the saddlebags which she intended to use as a pillow to rest her head on. She then walked down the tunnel to where the wizard had unrolled Jeri’s bedroll and blanket. “You take the bedroll,” Jeri said, picking up the blanket and moving to the other side of the tunnel.

“All right,” Mursa said after a moment of hesitation. “You won’t be cold?”

“It’s a cloudy night,” Jeri said. “So all I should need is this blanket. However, I will see if we can buy some additional blankets and other gear at the first village we come to. They mightn’t have much, but hopefully they will have a store or be able to share something with us for a few coins.”

The wizard nodded and snuggled up in the bedroll, resting her head on her rolled up cloak. Jeri followed suit, and although the rocky floor and the tunnel was hard and unyielding she had slept in worse places. She rested her head against the saddlebag, pulled the blanket tight around her, and closed her eyes. Soon afterwards the orbs of light vanished and as both women drifted off to sleep a light rain began to fall outside the cave. Desert Wind woke as the rain began and after shaking himself once, he shuffled under the shade of a nearby tree to escape the worst of the rain and went back to sleep.

———————————————————————————————————

Jeri woke the next morning to find light streaming in through the mouth of the cave, the clouds and rain of the previous night having vanished with the dawn. Throwing off the blanket she climbed unsteadily to her feet and stretched to get some feeling back into her limbs before she headed for the entrance to the cave, brushing past the hanging vines without thinking. After a quick trip into the bushes to relieve her bladder she returned to the cave mouth and located Mursa sitting on a rock beside the stream on the other side of the cave. She was studying a large leather-bound book, the very same book Jeri had found in the tent yesterday. The wizard’s purple travel bag already packed and sitting beside her and she was wearing her warm cloak, the hood pulled up over her head.

“You didn’t wake me,” Jeri complained.

“I only woke half an hour ago myself,” the wizard said, putting the book aside for a moment and pulling back the hood of her cloak. “I needed time to study my spellbook and you looked like you could use the rest. I planned on waking you once I finished.”

Jeri knew it wasn’t the wizard’s fault she overslept, her body obviously needed the rest. When on campaign she was able to get by with just a few hours sleep every night and over the years she had become used to waking early to take the early morning watch. However, last night she must have been especially worn out as she had slept hours longer than normal, but at the same time she did feel very refreshed this morning. “You have half an hour,” she said, walking away from the wizard and back to the entrance to the cave.

In fact, it took nearly an hour before Jeri had finished sharpening and oiling her weapons, equipped her armour, and had prepared Desert Wind for the day’s ride. She also checked on her wounds and although the cut to her head still ached it wasn’t bleeding and she decided to leave the bandage off for now and wear her helm in case they ran into any trouble. After a quick check that she hadn’t left anything behind she led Desert Wind across the stream, taking extra care not to fall in this time. Once securely past the stream, Jeri mounted up and then assisted Mursa in clambering up onto the horse's back to sit behind her. With a flick of the reins, the horse headed for the track leading down to Dezeel province and whatever they might find there.

The light rain of the previous evening had made the ground soft, but the track still held up well under the big warhorse’s heavy hooves. Unlike the rough mountain track they had travelled up the previous day, this track had been widened sometime in the recent past to allow waggons to travel along it and it had also been kept relatively clear of obstructions. It was also almost entirely downhill, so Desert Wind was able to increase his speed without tiring and they were soon far from the isolated mountain valley where they had spent the evening. There was no sign of the village whose lights Jeri had spotted the previous evening, but the blue water of the Bannalach was in sight for most of the journey.

After stopping for a brief meal of dried nuts and fruit around midday they continued on and soon the track crossed below the tree line and they were again deep in a thick forest. However, the path still remained clear and the undergrowth on both sides of the track had been chopped back so it didn’t foul the passage of anyone travelling by this route. Another hour of travelling and Jeri thought they must be getting close to the village she had spotted soon. Then, off in the forest just a short distance ahead, she heard a loud cracking sound that echoed around the hills. Jeri looked up and could see one of the taller trees shake and then slowly topple to one side. The sound of snapping branches followed as the tree fell sideways through the forest followed by a loud thump as it crashed into the ground. Several birds screeched in protest as theyflapped off across the forest away from the disturbance.

“Looks like we have found someone,” Jeri said as the din died away.

“Goblins?” Mursa asked.

“Probably local villagers,” Jeri said. “But get ready just in case.”

The wizard nodded and reached down to her belt and unclipped the rod she had used to blast the goblins with lightning the previous day. However, as it turned out Jeri was correct and it was local villagers rather than goblins that they found. Rounding a bend in the track, they could see a waggon pulled up beside the road and two large draft horses attached to the waggon's traces. A large muscular man dressed in homespun wool pants and shirt and wearing a pair of mud-caked leather boots on his feet stood next to the waggon watching them. In one meaty hand he held a large woodcutters axe, while his other hand held the reins of one of the draft horses. Seeing Jeri and Mursa riding slowly towards him, the man turned to someone hidden from their view and called out, “travellers.”

A shorter man, dressed in a much finer cut of clothing than the first with a leather jerkin, black leather boots, and a red, fur-edged cloak, stepped out from the trees. This man was carrying a loaded heavy crossbow, but when he spotted Jeri and Mursa he clicked on the weapon’s safety catch and rested it up against his shoulder in a less threatening stance. “We didn’t expect to see anyone out this way,” he said. “Especially coming down this track. I thought the route into Müden was closed since that rock slide a season or so back.”

“Good morning,” Jeri said. “We are not from Müden. We came from Deuchlach province, and from Edlenna before that.”

The man’s forehead wrinkled in confusion and he shared a brief sideways glance with his companion turning back to Jeri. “Deuchlach you say? Why didn’t you two ladies take the main road then?”

“Goblins,” Jeri said.

The first man gripped his axe a little tighter. “Goblins?” he growled.

The second man reached up and placed a restraining hand on his companion’s shoulder. “A raiding party?” he asked.

Jeri shook her head. “An army, several hundred strong at least.”

“Are you sure?” the second man asked. “We have seen many goblins raids in our day and there always seems to be more of the pests than their really are.”

“I’m sure,” Jeri replied. “I serve with Harien’s Swords, you may have heard of us. We were over a hundred strong and were riding with Baron Eldred Oerwinde and his bodyguards towards Poden and we lost nearly half our number in Deuchlach yesterday morning.”

The two men exchanged glances. “Turn the waggon around and ready the horses,” the second man said. “We need to ride for Haldendorf at once.” Turning back to Jeri the man said, “I am Tyrus Yurdvik, Mayor of Haldendorf, a small village not far from here on the shore of the Bannalach, and this is Henrik.”

“I am called Jeri and this is Mursa, a guest of Baron Oerwinde.”

“Are more of your company coming?” Tyrus asked, looking along the path behind the two women. “You said you lost half your company, so I assume the rest will be along soon?”

“We were separated,” Jeri explained. “We came by this route to bypass the goblins in the forest, while they headed west along the main road.”

“I see,” Tyrus said. “And the goblins? Are they still out there somewhere or have they slunk back to their holes?”

“We think they are coming west, following the main road as well.”

“Think or know?” Tyrus asked.

“I counted over two hundred torches in the forest last night roughly where we last saw the goblins. They were spread out along the road west of Deuchlach so my guess is they are coming west towards Poden.”

“What about Haldendorf?”

“I don’t know,” Jeri said. “If I was commanding their forces I wouldn’t split my army, but these are goblins and don't think the same as us so it's difficult to predict what they are planning. All I know is that they appear to be organised and in large numbers.”

“Then we had better return home as soon as possible,” Tyrus said. “Henrik, are you done with those horses yet?”

By now, Henrik had finished readying the waggon and with the two draft horses heaving, was able to manoeuvre the heavy waggon in a tight circle so it was facing downhill towards the distant lake. “What about the haul, Tyrus,” he asked as he released the horse’s reins and walked across to the others. “If we leave it here…”

“Ah yes,” Tyrus said. He appeared torn for a moment before he finally made a decision and smiled up at Jeri. “Please go on ahead,” he said. “Just continue on down this road and you’ll soon find our little village. Henrik and I will continue our work here and join you shortly.”

“What are you collecting?” Jeri asked.

The two men exchanged glances again before Tyrus replied, “just some sap from the trees here.”

Jeri decided not to push them further, even if they were up to something illegal, she had more important concerns right now and anyway it wasn’t her job to police the provinces of Rheulgard from criminals, especially as they were now outside Baron Oerwinde’s territory and inside the lands claimed by the Meister of Poden. Instead, she asked, “is there a boat or ferry in the town? I need to get across the Bannalach to Poden as soon as possible.”

“Why yes,” Tyrus replied. “I happen to own a very fine vessel that may suit your purposes, it could even carry your horse quite easily. It is across the lake at Steffenberg right now dropping off a load of cargo and picking up some supplies I have ordered, but should be back in Haldendorf by late this afternoon. I would be happy to put it, and myself, at your disposal.”

“That’s very generous,” Jeri said, although she couldn’t help but feel a little suspicious his motives. In her experience very few people would volunteer their services without expecting something in return.

“Not at all,” Tyrus said. “Now, why don’t you head down to the village. The building closest to the dock is mine, ask for Sofie and tell her that I sent you.”

“All right,” Jeri said, urging Desert Wind on. The horse trotted past the two draft horses and continue on down the road while the two men heading to the forest beside the road.

“That was lucky meeting them,” Mursa said as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Very lucky,” Jeri agreed. “Hopefully they are all they appear to be.”

“You don’t think they are?”

“People rarely are in my experience,” Jeri said. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“What bridge?”

“It’s a saying,” Jeri replied with a laugh.

The two women said very little to each other for a next hour as they rode down the track towards the village. The thick forest of the hills soon thinned out and grassland and eventually even cultivated fields appeared. This late in Autumn the harvest was over and no crops remained, but Jeri could still see the remnants of the recently harvested crops in several fields. She also noticed some scattered livestock, including one small herd of cattle being moved across a field by a farmer who waved to them as they passed by. In the distance a small fishing village could be seen huddled by the edge of the Bannalach, a faint haze of smoke from cooking fires hung in the air above it.

Then Jeri noticed something that made her frown. Just south of the village a stream of thick grey smoke was rising into the air and as she turned in the saddle to get a better look she could see several figures running across the field towards the town, carefully keeping to the shadows as they slipped from tree to tree. However, one was careless and left the shadows for a second and Jeri caught the glint of sunlight shining off steel and she realised it must be a bared blade or other weapon. She urged Desert Wind forward, while simultaneously checking that her blade was free.

“What is it?” Mursa asked, forced to tighten her grip around Jeri’s waist to stop herself slipping from the horse’s back.

“Goblins,” the warrior replied through gritted teeth.

“I thought you said they wouldn’t attack in the daylight.”

“I was wrong,” Jeri said as she spurred Desert Wind into a gallop and rode headlong towards the village, Mursa desperately clinging to her waist.



 

Chapter Text

As soon as she urged Desert Wind into a gallop, Jeri knew she had been spotted by the goblins approaching the village through the forest. As she drew closer she could see that there were several more of them than she had originally thought, perhaps as many as a dozen, and further off she could see even more shapes flitting between the trees which could be even more enemies. One of the larger goblins was pointing her out to his companions and almost immediately a small force of five goblins broke off and ran towards her to intercept the horse and its riders. Between her and the goblins was an open grassy paddock currently home to a small flock of sheep. Sometime in the past a farmer had built a rough stone wall along the edges of the paddock, but the wall was designed to keep the sheep in their pasture and it didn’t slow down the goblins who simply vaulted over the piled stones and continued towards her.

Looking towards the village Jeri could see rest of the goblins heading directly towards the centre of the town. Now that she was closer she could see that Haldendorf was not large, with perhaps a dozen homes clustered around a central square. There was a small temple standing alone in a field just to the north of the village and beyond that what looked like a stable. Past the main village square there were another half dozen homes and a larger building close to the lake, which was likely the structure Tyrus had mentioned to them. None of the villagers she could see from this distance appeared to be aware of the doom creeping towards them through the trees.

She pulled back hard on the reins and Desert Wind slid to a stop, his hooves churning up the earth of the track. “How well can you ride?” Jeri asked, looking back at Mursa, who was looking a little shaken at the sudden stop, having nearly lost her grip around Jeri’s waist and fallen backwards off the warhorse’s back.

“I don’t fall off any more,” the half-elf replied with a weak smile. “Why?”

“That will have to do.” Jeri said as she swung herself out of the saddle and jumped down onto the soft mud at the edge of the track. “Ride for the village and warn them and then get to safety.”

“Wait! What are you going to do?” Mursa asked as she shuffled forward onto the saddle and gripped the reins.

“I’m going to try to buy you some time,” Jeri replied. She smacked the big warhorse hard on his rump with her armoured hand and the horse jumped forward with a start and then picked up speed as he galloped off towards the village, Mursa gripping the saddle horn tightly as she struggled for some control over the massive warhorse. Satisfied that the wizard was probably out of danger, at least for now, Jeri leapt over the nearby stone wall into the sheep pasture and ran towards the small group of goblins approaching her. She wished she still had her shield, but that had been lost the previous day during the ambush in Deuchlach so she would have to fight without it. She pulled her sabre from its scabbard, thanking Avani that she had taken the time to sharpen the weapon before setting out that morning, and also drew one of her daggers to wield in her off hand.

The flock of sheep scattered as the goblins approached, bleating in terror as they fled towards the western end of the field. Jeri pulled up near the middle of the field and braced herself for combat, tuning out all distractions to focus on the battle ahead. The goblins came towards her as one group, screeching and hollering war cries and waving their weapons eagerly as they closed on what they imagined was an easy kill. Jeri didn’t disagree with their assessment of her chances, she knew this was going to be a tough fight that she had a slim chance of surviving. The only thing in her favour was that she was wearing full armour while they were only wearing rough leather and cloth and their weapons were old and makeshift, although she noticed one carrying a mace he must have looted from the Sword’s camp the previous evening.

With a roar, the closest of the goblin warrior lunged at her with a flint-tipped spear. She dodged left, avoiding the thrust, and countered with her sabre, striking the goblin high on his arm, tearing through the ragged cloth of his shirt sleeve and opening a long gash that ran the length of his arm from elbow to shoulder. Behind her another goblin struck her solidly across her back with a notched sword. It was a bruising attack, but her armour held and she quickly reversed her dagger and slashed at his unprotected throat. Blood sprayed across her armour as the goblin fell backwards clutching at the mortal wound to his throat. Two more goblins came at her, one slashing at her with a rusty axe, but she took one step back and his wild swing fell short. She deflected the attack from the second goblin’s club with her sabre, but was unable to stop a third who struck at her ribs and connected solidly with a heavy mace. Although her armour and the padding underneath absorbed most of the blow, Jeri still felt pain shoot through her chest as the mace struck her side.

Then she was falling backwards into the grass as she tripped over the outstretched boot of a goblin as she tried to dodge back and away from her attackers. A spiked wooden club swished past her nose as she fell, one of the spikes just nicking the tip of her nose. She fell heavily into the grass, but rolled to one side as the goblins lunged towards her and she avoided the next attacks from her opponents. The raw pain from the blow to her ribs was making it hard to breath as she scrambled to fend off the attacks of the remaining goblins and regain her feet. One was down and almost certainly dead, another was badly injured and had dropped his spear to bind his wound, but the other three closed around her, raining blows down on her.

The goblin with the mace struck down at her arm and missed with a blow that could have broken her forearm, instead connecting with the back of her hand. It wasn’t as solid a blow this time, but Jeri still gasped in pain as her gauntlet crunched and her dagger fell from numb fingers. She twisted to one side and lashed out with her sabre, a long arcing cut that connected solidly with goblin flesh before it continued on its way, tiny droplets of blood trailing the blade. Something, she couldn’t see what, smashed into the side of her helm and made her head ring and a goblin axe deflected off her leg armour as the goblin holding it dropped the weapon to clutch at his injured stomach. Regaining her feet, Jeri reached down to her belt and drew her second dagger. Her hand still felt numb after the mace blow and she had trouble holding the weapon.

With one dead and two seriously wounded, the last two goblins approached with a lot more caution now. One had picked up the sword of the dead goblin and now held two weapons, while the other still wielded his heavy mace, grasping it tightly with both hands. They fanned out to either side so they could come at her from opposite directions, so Jeri feinted an attack with her dagger at one of the goblins and then lunged at the second opponent, the goblin carrying the mace, with her sabre. The goblin was not a rookie fighter though, and easily deflected her blow and this allowed the second goblin to take advantage of the brief opening Jeri had given him to strike at her hard, his sword skimming across her armoured chest while his club struck her pauldron. Metal screeched and Jeri felt pain shoot through her shoulder as the spikes on the club penetrated her armour. The goblin tried to pull the weapon back but it was stuck fast. Jeri ignored the pain, and the blood flowing from her wounded shoulder, and lashed out with her dagger, hitting the second goblin solidly in his chest. The goblin released his weapons and clawed at Jeri’s armoured wrist as he tried to force the blade out of his chest, his black nails skittering over the steel of her gauntlet.

The last goblin struck upwards with his mace, knocking her sabre aside and then he pulled his weapon back for a heavy swing at her head. Jeri released her hold on her dagger and allowed the impaled goblin to fall to the ground, still clawing at the weapon as he tried to extract it from his chest. She then ducked beneath the last goblin’s wild mace swing and dropped down on one knee, sliding across the damp ground as she struck upwards with her sabre. The weapon caught the goblin under his arm and slid sideways into his chest and pieced his lungs. The goblin coughed blood as his mace fell to the ground. He tried to pull away, but Jeri gripped the hilt of her sabre with both hands and pushed with all her strength, driving the weapon deeper into his chest and into his heart. The goblin shuddered one final time and then collapsed sideways, taking Jeri’s weapon with him.

Standing, Jeri reached down pulled the sabre free of the dead goblin and looked around the field. Only first goblin she had wounded was still on his feet, bleeding heavily from his arm as he backed away and pleaded for mercy in garbled Brecht. The one she had struck in the stomach was down and still clutching at his stomach, while the goblin she had stabbed with her dagger was now lying unmoving on the ground. Jeri levelled the sabre at the last goblin standing, and realising his pleading wasn’t going to save his life he pulled out a bone dagger and lunged for her. However, before he could reach her an arrow caught him in the throat and Jeri spun around to see a farmer running across the field holding a longbow.

“Well fought,” the farmer called out as he ran across the field towards her.

Jeri shivered with a sudden chill at the realisation that the battle was over for now and that despite the odds she had survived. Reaching up, she unbuckled her pauldron and, gritting her teeth, forced the spikes from the goblin’s club up and out of her shoulder. Fortunately, the thickly padded gambeson beneath the armour had prevented the spiked club from penetrating too far, but the wound stung and blood trickled freely from her shoulder and down inside her shirt. She dropped the pauldron to the ground and placing one boot on it, tugged on the club, but she was unable to separate it from the spiked club that still impaled it. Cursing under her breath she left it for now she walked over to the side of the goblin she had struck with her dagger. Reaching down she pulled the weapon free, before wiping the blood off the blade using the goblins ragged shirt.

“Twenty-three,” she said as she slid the dagger back into its scabbard and went looking for the other dagger she had dropped earlier.

“Are you all right?” the farmer asked as he reached her side.

Jeri took stock of her injuries. Her metal gauntlet was crushed inward and her hand was numb, but she didn’t think she had any broken bones as she couldn’t feel any pain. Her side still ached from the first mace attack and there was still the occasional jolt of pain from that side of her body so she suspected a cracked rib or two there which was troubling. Her shoulder was bleeding freely from the spiked club, blood dripped from the tip of her nose, and her head was still ringing from the blow she had received to the side of her head. Finally, she had blood flowing from a cut to her lip, but she couldn’t remember how she had obtained that particular injury.

“I’m Alive,” was the only response she could think to give.

“That was amazing,” the farmer said, looking at the warrior with an expression approaching awe on his face. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead as he looked around at the dead goblins now littering his field. “Do you have any idea where this lot came from?” he asked.

Jeri didn’t reply. She had found her last dagger, and after bending down to pick it up, she walked across the last surviving goblin who was still clutching at his wounded stomach. She thrust the dagger into the goblin’s throat and said, “twenty-four.”

“What was that?” the farmer asked, his brow crinkling in confusion.

“Nothing important,” she replied, looking at him as if noticing him for the first time. “Can you use that bow?” she asked, pointing her dagger towards the farmer’s longbow.

“Good enough to kill a few goblins,” he replied with a grim smile.

“Then follow me.”

Leaving the corpses of the goblins behind, Jeri started jogging across the field towards the village. Behind her she heard the sound of approaching horses and glancing back over her shoulder she saw a waggon approaching the village along the eastern road, travelling at high speed. The two men she had met in the forest earlier that day were on board, along with two other men she didn’t recall meeting, but who must have been working out in the forest as well. Their leader, the well-dressed man who had introduced himself as Mayor Tyrus Yurdvik, waved in her direction, before tapping on the driver’s shoulder and pointing to the village. Tyrus still had his loaded crossbow, while two of the other men were holding woodcutting axes, their faces grim and determined. The last man held the reins and a long leather whip which he flicked above the horse’s heads to encourage even more speed out of the hard-working workhorses.

A flash of green lighting lit up the village, so Mursa had obviously decided to ignore her instructions and had entered the battle with her magic. Jeri hoped the wizard was unharmed and that she had been able to warn all the villagers in time. Picking up her pace, Jeri ran towards the southern side of the village. The farmer followed closely behind her with his longbow clutched in nervous hands. At least two buildings on the south side of town were on fire, flames rising high above the buildings, but it appeared that the goblin’s advance had been halted in the village square and Jeri could see no sign of any dead villagers from this side. Leaping over the stone wall at the far end of the pasture, Jeri ran towards the entrance to the village square, coming around behind the goblins.

In the village square, Mursa had joined a small group of villagers who were fighting in brutal hand to hand combat with the goblins. Half a dozen goblins lay dead on the ground, likely victims of the half-elf’s magic, but at least twice that number still remained, including a group of three archers hiding behind some barrels just across from the central well. Jeri came at them from behind, leading with her sabre as she stabbed the closest goblin through his back, the weapon sliding easily through the ragged shirt he was as clothing. Another blast of bright green lightning cut across the square, killing a goblin near the centre of the square and then striking the barrels the goblins were hiding behind and tossing the remaining two archers to the ground. Jeri quickly finished off one who was still twitching and then jumped over the wreckage of the barrels to assist the villagers.

Three villagers had been injured so far in the battle and were lying up against the wall of one of the far buildings. One of the wounded men, who was clutching at an arrow embedded in his side, was being tended by an elderly man dressed in the dark robes of a priest of the night god Ruornil. As Jeri rushed towards the fight, Mursa cast another spell and three darts of energy caught a goblin high in his torso, dropping him to the ground where he was quickly finished off by a blow to the back of his head from a muscular woman wielding a heavy blacksmithing hammer. The heavy thunk of a crossbow sounded and another goblin fell clutching at the bolt that had suddenly appeared in his throat. Then three men wielding axes rushed in from the west and the battle quickly turned into a rout.

Seeing more defenders coming at them from all sides, the few remaining goblins decided the battle was lost and turned and fled towards the south. Jeri threw herself at one of them and crashed bodily into him, slamming him into the ground and knocking his sword from his hand. He fought back with fists, hitting her several times, including in her wounded side, but she had her dagger and made short work of him. Another goblin died to an arrow, as the farmer who had followed Jeri from the field took up position near the south entrance to the square and began to fire arrow after arrow at the fleeing goblins. The rest were soon finished off by the angry villagers and by the time Jeri had regained her feet, the battle was over and all the invaders were dead.

“Twenty-six,” Jeri said to herself as she cleaned off her blades and walked over to join the surviving villagers who were busy organising a bucket bridge from the nearby well and also from the lake to extinguish the two burning buildings.

“Are you all right?” Mursa asked as Jeri approached, noticing the injuries the warrior had suffered.

“Well my armour could use some repairs, but I’ll live,” Jeri said. She placed a hand on the wizard’s shoulder and smiled at her. “You did a good job.”

“I did what I could,” Mursa replied, a faint blush appearing on her cheeks. “Although that has exhausted most of my magic I’m afraid.” She held up the rod she had been using to cast lightning spells, and Jeri could see the crystal at its tip was cracked and a faint whip of smoke was rising from it.

“Was it expensive?” Jeri asked.

The wizard nodded. “It was, and I’m sure Master Rheulaan will be most angry it is destroyed, but I couldn’t sit back and let the goblins overrun the village.”

“And we are most appreciative,” Tyrus said, as he swaggered over to interrupt their conversation, still holding his crossbow. “You have both aided my people at the risk of your own lives and that makes you heroes in my books.”

“We weren’t able to prevent them setting fire to part of the village,” Jeri said, indicating the still burning homes in the southern quarter of the village square.

“No, but if you hadn’t been here there would have been more houses burnt and many of my friends would not have survived the day.” Tyrus gestured to the old man who had finished tending the last of the villagers who had been wounded in the battle and was washing off his hands. “Frederik,” he called. “Can you aid my new friend here as well.”

“No need to worry about me,” Jeri objected. “I’m fine, it’s just a couple of scratches.”

“Nonsense,” Tyrus replied, waving his hand dismissively. “You fought to save us, the least we can do is have our village healer patch you up. Besides, the goblins sometimes poison their weapons.”

“What’s this about poison,” the old priest asked as he approached.

“There was no poison,” Jeri said.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the priest replied. “Now sit down over here and let me take a look at you.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Jeri sat down on a bench outside the blacksmith’s forge and allowed the priest to examine her, while Tyrus went to supervise the villagers fighting the fires that had consumed the two houses on the western side of the village. Mursa stayed by Jeri’s side and looked on in concern as the priest continued to examine the warrior.

“No poison,” the priest said after several minutes of prodding and poking.

Jeri looked sceptical. “You can tell just like that?”

“Yes I can lass,” the priest confirmed. “You are free of poison, but I will need to fix these cuts to prevent possible infection. Do you have any other injuries I need to know about?”

Jeri reached up and removed her helm. “This is from yesterday,” she said, pointing to the partially healed cut on her head. “I was also walloped a couple of times by one of the goblins out there, once to my side and also on my hand.”

“Did you stitch up this one on your head yourself?” the priest asked, probing the injuring with calloused fingers.

“No, that was me,” Mursa answered.

“Not bad, but you’ll need some practice at your needle work if you are going to be a battlefield healer,” the priest said. “I’ll need to remove these or you’ll have a nasty scar. Now, get that armour off so I can take a closer look at your side.”

“Let me help,” Mursa said, hurrying over to Jeri’s side to assist the warrior in removing her armour, the half-elf’s fingers fumbling with the buckles and straps that held the armour on. By the time Mursa had completed removing Jeri’s armour, the fires in the houses had been extinguished and the villagers were busy clearing away the damage to the square and also dragging away the corpses of the goblins who had died there.

The tall muscular woman Jeri had noticed earlier walked over and pointed to the pile of armour on the bench next to Jeri. “Do you want me to fix that for you,” she asked. “No charge of course. I’m not an armoursmith, just the village blacksmith, but I can bang out those dents and polish it up a little for you.”

“Thank you,” Jeri said. “There is one piece missing. I left it out in the field with a spiked club still stuck in it.”

“I’ll send my apprentice to fetch it,” the blacksmith replied, gathering up the pieces of Jeri’s armour and carrying them into the nearby forge.

The priest continued his examination before finally standing up and going to fetch a bag he had left near where he had been treating his other patients earlier. “Will I live?” Jeri asked him with a half-smile.

“None of these injuries are life threatening,” the priest replied without smiling. From his bag he out a thin, sharp knife. “This won’t hurt much,” he told Jeri, before using the knife to carefully slice through the stitches in her head. That done, he placed the knife back in the bag and slowly pulled out the stitches one by one. Then he pressed both hands onto the wound on her shoulder and began to intone a short prayer to his god. “Ruornil aid this woman, cleanse her wounds, bind her flesh, and make her whole once more.”

A faint glow surrounded the priest’s hands and Jeri felt warmth begin to flood into her body as the priest called on the divine power of his god to heal her. Her nose and forehead tickled as the spell began to nit the flesh together and she had the sudden urge to sneeze and was only just able to repress it. The warmth spread throughout her body and she felt a faint twinge of pain from her chest as the healing magic knitted together her cracked ribs. As the pain from her ribs began to fade and the priest sat back and removed his hands from her shoulder. “All done,” he said, sounding a little tired.

“Thank you,” Jeri said.

“Thank Ruornil,” the priest said, standing and picking up his bag. “For some reason, he has deemed you worthy of saving despite the tainted blood within you.”

Jeri was stretching to check that the pain in her shoulder was gone, and frowned at the priest’s words. “Wait, what are you talking about?” she asked. However, the priest never got a chance to reply as, seeing that Jeri was healed, Tyrus left the other villagers and hurried over.

“Good work, Frederick,” the mayor said, clapping the priest on his shoulder. “I’ll make sure to send my boys around later with some extra food and supplies for your temple.”

“See that you do, Tyrus,” the priest said as he gathered his things and walked off towards the temple without looking back.

“Wait…” Jeri tried to say, but she was interrupted again by Tyrus who placed a friendly arm around her shoulder and smiled broadly.

“Don't worry about him,” Tyrus said. “He's an old grump sometimes, but he means well. Anyway, it appears you were right about those goblins, although this lot didn’t look much like an army to me.”

Jeri made a mental note to track down the old priest as soon as she was done here, but first she had to get free of the Mayor. “These may just have been scouts or deserters,” she said. “The torches we saw last night were on the other side of the river, so I suspect the main goblin force will be there.”

“We should know soon enough,” Tyrus said. “Captain Geroldt will be back from Steffenberg with my ship soon. He may have more news about the situation south of the Bannalach. Perhaps you ladies would like to join me at my home for a meal while we wait for him to arrive.”

“I need to check on my horse first,” Jeri replied, looking over at Mursa.

“He’s tied up outside the temple,” Mursa said. “I didn’t know where else to leave him.”

“You can put your horse in the stables for now,” Tyrus said. “I’m sure there is room and I'm a personal friend of the owner so I'll get him to take good care of your steed.”

“All right. But I don’t want to delay too long. We should leave as soon as the ship returns.”

“Of course,” Tyrus said. “Now come follow me and I’ll show you where the stables are.”

Chapter Text

 


 

For the mayor of a minor village far from any of Rheulgard’s major population centres or trading routes, the home of Tyrus Yurdvik was not what Jeri had expected. Instead of the usual straw-covered or dirt floor she had expected, his home had polished wooden floorboards covered with thick Khinasi carpets of such beauty they made her ache for her homeland. The walls were wood-carved panels, patterned with scenes of hunts and tourneys that would not have been out-of-place on the walls of an Anuirean nobleman's castle and on the walls hung paintings, tapestries, and trophies from across Cerilia. Some were faded with age or had been damaged, but all looked valuable.

“I like to be comfortable,” was all the mayor had said when he had seen the two women looking at the room in amazement.

After they had removed their boots and left them at the entrance, Tyrus guided them to sit at a massive wooden table carved from a single slab of wood. The wood was a timber that Jeri wasn't familiar with and was polished to a bright red sheen. An elderly woman — his mother Jeri was to learn later — bought out a hearty meal of roast lamb, baked vegetables, and fresh-baked bread, as well as foaming mugs of ale and a bottle of red wine. Jeri gladly took a mug of ale and was pleased to find it quenched her thirst and was not bitter like many village brews. Mursa accepted a single glass of wine and ate only the vegetables and bread, while their host picked at his meal and nursed the single mug through the entire meal. It was the Brecht custom that no one spoke during meals, but Jeri could tell that the mayor had something on his mind he wished to speak of.

“Do we need to worry about any more goblins?” Mursa asked, as soon as the meal was over. She still held her glass of wine, having consumed less than half of it.

Tyrus waved his knife towards the south, although as there were no windows on that side of the building they couldn't see what he was pointing towards. “I've sent one of my men up the hill overlooking the river,” he said, “and another is watching from just south of the village. They will be able to spot anyone who approaches along the southern road or through the forest and can let us know if any more goblins are heading our way.”

“And if they come in force?” Jeri asked. “I still don't think they will, but it is possible.”

“Then we retreat to the docks,” the mayor replied, pointing out the window towards the nearby lake. “There are enough fishing boats here to carry everyone in the village to safety. They can even sail across the water to the capital if things get too bad. We'd lose the village, which would be a shame as everyone has put a lot of work into this place, but no one need die.”

Mursa nodded. “That makes sense.”

“You don't plan to be with them?” Jeri asked, noting that the mayor had said 'they' not 'we' when he had talked about the evacuation plan.

“I was hoping you would allow me to come with you,” Tyrus said.

“To what end? If I am right and the goblin horde is heading west towards Poden then we are almost certainly heading towards danger. Most people would want to avoid a horde of goblins, not head towards them.”

“Yet you are going,” the mayor pointed out.

“We have good reasons,” Jeri said. “My captain and the other survivors from my company are riding that way, along with Mursa's brother and Baron Oerwinde and I have to know they are still alive. Besides, the Baron paid good coin to hire my company so I am duty bound to his service until our contract ends, but there is no need for you to risk your life to help us.”

“If I want to get anywhere in life I'm going to need to take risks sometimes and as it happens I do have a personal interest in seeing these goblins stopped as soon as possible. I own a number of businesses along the southern shore of the Bannalach and in Poden and they are all at risk if your estimates of the goblin numbers are correct.”

“I won't be able to help you save your businesses,” Jeri warned him. “My duty is to my company and the Baron until they release me from their service.”

“I understand that, but if my aid helps you stop this invasion then my holdings may be saved and that makes the risk worth it to me. Besides, I think you will find my help invaluable. I have many contacts and friends in the villages and towns along the Bannalach, as well as holdings in the city of Poden itself. I am also well known by Richard Kaysun, the Meister of Poden and if you are unable to find your captain or Baron Oerwinde then I can get you in to see him and use my voice in support of yours.”

“It sounds like I would be foolish to refuse your help then.”

“I was hoping you would see it that way, and I think you will find I am handy in a fight should it come to that. I'm quite the marksman with a crossbow.”

“Hopefully it won't come to that,” Jeri said.

A knock at the door interrupted their conversation and as their host excused himself to answer it, Jeri shuffled her chair a little closer to Mursa. “How are you feeling,” she asked the wizard.

Mursa took another sip of her wine and gave Jeri a wan smile. “I'm fine. Just a little worried about my brother. This is the longest we have ever been separated.”

“Well, we are nearly there now and if all goes well we should be able to reunite you with your brother soon. I know how you feel, I miss Cole and the rest of my friends as well.”

“It's Gretchen with your armour,” Tyrus called from the entrance. He left the door open and headed towards the stairs leading up to the second floor of the building.

Jeri rose and headed over to the door to meet with the muscular blacksmith. Kneeling next to the hand cart the blacksmith had used to carry her armour from the forge, Jeri began to sort through the pieces of armour. She noticed that each piece was brushed clean of dirt and rust and the metal had been polished, at least as polished as her well-used armour could be.

“I fixed it up the best I could,” the blacksmith said. “I managed to fix the holes in the pauldron, but that armguard will need replacing, I don't know what did that to it, it looks like something burned straight through the metal.”

“Magic,” Jeri replied, picking up the armguard in question. While it was still damaged, the blacksmith had done a good job smoothing out the jagged tear in the metal and it would offer some protection in combat, at least until she could find the time to visit a proper armoursmith. “This is good work. It should keep me safe until I get to Poden.”

“It's the least I could do,” the blacksmith said. “You and that young wizard friend of yours saved us for certain. I only wish we could do more to repay you.” The blacksmith helped Jeri unload the rest of her armour from the handcart and then after shaking the warrior's hand, she headed back to her forge.

“Do you need a hand?” Mursa asked.

Jeri almost jumped with the wizard spoke. “You're very quiet,” she said.

“I've had a lot of practice sneaking into the library in our tower at night so I could read books when I was supposed to be sleeping.” She picked up one of the pauldrons. “Here, let me help you with this.”

“You're getting good at that,” Jeri commented as the wizard's nimble fingers buckled the armour to her upper arm and shoulder.

“Well, I do seem to be getting a lot of practice since I met you,” Mursa said. The wizard finished helping Jeri into her armour and then pulled on her boots and headed outside. After locating her own boots, Jeri followed her and found the wizard standing near the edge of the lake staring off across the water. As Jeri arrived, she pointed towards something in the distance. “That could be Mayor Yurdvik's ship.”

Jeri followed the line of Mursa's arm and soon spotted a distant dot halfway across the lake. “It could be,” she said. “It is too far away for me to see it properly though.”

She didn't have long to wait, however, the vessel soon came into view. It was a single-masted keelboat of slightly more than fifty feet in length sailing directly towards them across the calm waters of the lake. It had a large, bright-yellow sail unfurled, although there was little wind, and as it drew closer Jeri could see the vessel sat low on the water, its decks heavy with cargo and supplies for the village. The vessel was small compared to the great sea-going vessels she had seen in the ports of Müden, but those ship had to survived the rough waters of the Great Bay, while this one could ply the shallow waterways of the inland lakes and rivers and would likely never lose sight of land. She had heard that small ships like this could sail south from Rhuelgard and then travel east along the Asarwe River until they reached Ghoudaïa in Sendoure, the easternmost of the Khinasi city-states, although Jeri had never made such a trip herself.

A noise behind her made to glance over her shoulder, and she saw Tyrus leave his home and walk towards her and Mursa. The mayor wore the same clothes as before, but he now had a bag slung over one shoulder and his crossbow over the other. He also had a slim rapier hanging from his belt, as well as a dagger and several pouches.

“Your vessel?” Jeri asked as he joined them, inclining her head towards the approaching ship.

“That's her,” the mayor confirmed. “They are a little later than I expected, but we should still be able to make the other shore before sundown.”

“Even to the capital?” Jeri asked, thinking back to the map she had seen in Baron Oerwinde's office. From her recollection, the city of Poden was some distance away still, closer to the other end of the Bannalach in the province of Podenstahl.

“Not that far,” Tyrus said. “I was thinking that Steffenberg would be a better destination. I don't usually send my ship as far west as Poden.”

“You don’t travel to Poden?”

“Steffenberg is closer when I’m transporting goods south or east, and of course there are certain… taxes and duties that I avoid this way. Besides, as you said your company will be coming west from the forest, Steffenberg is the largest town in the province and the best place to meet them.”

“They may already have passed the town.”

“Possibly,” the mayor admitted. “But, Captain Geroldt is returning from Steffenberg, he should know a lot more about what is happening along the southern shore. We should speak to him first before making any final decision about a destination.”

Jeri nodded, realising the mayor was correct. If Cole and the other survivors from the forest ambush hadn't passed the town yet then the town on the southern shore of the lake would be the best place to meet them, but if they had passed the town, or they if arrived while she was sailing there, then the ship could always continue to Poden without losing much time. “That sounds like the best plan,” she said.

The ship was much closer now, and Jeri could see four crewmen on the deck were now using large oars to manoeuvrer the vessel towards the docks. “How long before we will be ready to set sail?” she asked the mayor.

“It will take some time to unload all of my cargo,” Tyrus said. “But we should be ready to sail again within the hour.”

“Then I had better fetch my horse,” Jeri said, although she glanced towards the nearby temple instead of the stables.

“I might take some time to study my spellbook,” Mursa said. “There is a spell I can use to contact my brother once we are closer.”

“And I need to bid farewell to my mother,” Tyrus said, “and give my men some instructions on what to do while I'm away. We will meet back here in an hour's time, are we agreed?”

The two women nodded and headed off to complete their tasks. Tyrus waited until they were both out of sight and then he walked over to the waggon he had used earlier in the forest, which had been parked next to his home. One of his employees was nearby, working in the garden behind the house, so Tyrus called him over. He pointed towards the back of the waggon where a large irregular-shaped object was covered with a thick canvas sheet. “It's too risky to transport this now,” he said. “Get Otto to help you break it down and then pack it in a crate and bury it in the usual spot.”

“Right away, boss,” the man said.

As the man headed off towards the centre of the village, Tyrus left the waggon and headed back inside his home.

 


 

Leading her warhorse, Jeri trudged along the muddy path from the stables back to the village proper. The temple was north of the village and coming from the stables she could see a small graveyard with some scattered wooden headstones on her side of the building, and empty fields on the other. It was only a short trek from the stables to the temple and Jeri soon stood outside the single wooden door leading into the building. She tied Desert Wind's reins to a ring set in the wall of the temple and reached up and banged several times on the door with her armoured fist. When there was no response she tried again and when there was still no response she pushed the door open. It wasn’t locked so she walked cautiously into the interior.

“Shut the door behind you,” a voice called out as she entered. “And make sure you wipe your feet.”

Inside, the temple was a shabby affair. Four rows of rough wooden pews faced a simple stone altar at the far end, and behind the altar was a simple tapestry depicting the crescent moon symbol of Ruornil, the god of night and magic. The old priest was kneeling on a thick rug in front of the altar, one hand on a heavy, leather-bound tome which rested on the floor beside him, while his other hand lightly touched the edge of the altar. Small windows high up on the wall let a little light in, but most of the light in the dark room came from four thick candles, one at each corner of the altar. Jeri closed the wooden door behind her and slowly walked across the room towards the priest.

“What do you want girl?” the priest said and Jeri approached. He slowly climbed back to his feet and picked up the heavy tome and placed it on the altar.

“I want to ask you about what you said earlier,” Jeri said. “You told me my blood was tainted, what did you mean by that?”

“What I said,” the priest replied.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” the warrior said, scowling at him.

The priest sighed and said, “Sit down.” He walked across to a cabinet at the back of the room and open it, pulling out a bottle filled with a dark amber liquid and a single metal cup. After pouring himself a generous helping of the liquid, he walked back to Jeri and sat down on the edge of the altar and sipped his drink before asking, “Your family are blooded are they not?”

Jeri blinked at him in surprise and didn’t answer immediately. She knew the history of Cerilia as well as anyone and knew of the great battle fifteen centuries earlier when the ancient gods had sacrificed themselves to defeat their dark brother, the god of evil Azrai. When the gods died, their divine essence had washed across the battlefield and infused their surviving followers with a part of their power. The most powerful of their followers had become the eight new gods, while the rest had become known as the blooded, men and woman of power who carried within them a tiny spark of divinity that placed them above the common folk of Cerilia. Her family had no ancestor who had been present at this ancient battle and as a result, like most people alive today, she was considered a commoner, or unblooded. Baron Oerwinde, the ruler of Eastern Rheulgard, who had employed the mercenary company she served, was blooded, as were the rulers of every other kingdom in Cerilia, as well as the most powerful wizards, priests, and merchant-princes.

“Well?” the priest pressed when she didn’t respond.

The warrior shook her head. “No,” she said. “My family were simple merchants, nothing more. We have no links to any of the ancient bloodlines.”

The priest frowned and leaned forward to study her closely. “Interesting,” he said. “You most certainly carry a taint of power within you.”

“No I don’t,” Jeri said firmly. “I would know if I did.”

“I can sense it, girl,” the priest said. “My family traces its descent from a Brecht warrior who fought on the slopes of Mouth Deismaar and from him I have received a bloodline descended from the goddess Brenna and this gives me certain abilities. I can sense poisons within objects and people, which is how I knew the goblin’s weapons were not poisoned. I also have the much rarer ability to detect the bloodlines of others and I can sense the divine blood within you. It carries the unmistakable taint of the shadow.”

“You must be wrong.”

The priest shook his head. “I am not, within you is a tiny spark of power that once belonged to Azrai, the ancient god of evil.”

Jeri shook her head and looked shocked at the news. “How is this possible?”

“Normally a bloodline is passed down from generation to generation, rising or falling in power as the family’s influence and power grows, much as the gods themselves rise and fall in power depending on the success of their worshippers. But, if your family have only ever been commoners then you must have received this power by some other method.” The priest scratched his chin as he sipped his drink and thought. Finally, he asked, “Have you killed anyone recently?”

“Just some goblins,” Jeri replied.

“Did any of them seem… unusual?” the priest asked. “More powerful that your average goblin warrior perhaps?”

Jeri hesitated. “Yes,” she admitted. “There was one I killed near the river in Deuchlach.”

“What was different about him?”

“He was immune to magic, at least it appeared he was. Mursa cast a spell at him and he disrupted it… or reflected it… I don’t know enough about magic to be sure, but he was able to survive the spell unharmed.”

“A powerful ability indeed,” the priest said, sipping his drink again. “And, it is also one often said to belong to scions of the blood of Azrai, if the holy texts are to be believed.” He patted Jeri on the shoulder in sympathy. “Well there you go, that mystery is solved. When you killed the goblin, his bloodline must have passed to you. It’s pretty rare, but occasionally killing someone can transfer their bloodline on to you.”

“Can it be reversed?” Jeri asked. “I don’t want this.”

The priest downed the rest of his drink and went back to the cabinet to pour another. “Not by me,” he said as he sipped from his refilled cup. “I have never personally conducted such a ritual and it would certainly be beyond my power now as I have stepped down as Patriarch. You would need to approach the new Patriarch at the cathedral in Poden and he may be able to perform a ritual to transfer of your bloodline to another person, if you were able to find someone who would willingly accept the tainted essence of Azrai. Even then, it would require the direct intervention of Ruornil, as the divine power of one of the gods would be needed to achieve such a feat and I doubt the god's assistance will come cheaply.”

“So what happens to me now then,” Jeri asked.

“You leave and I get back to my prayers. I’ll say an extra one for you if you like.”

“I mean to me. Will I… will I become a monster? My father used to tell me the stories of the Awnsheghlien, those corrupted by the blood of Azrai to become beings of evil.”

The priest shook his head. “You carry within you the taint of the god Azrai, but it’s too weak to corrupt you. Provide you don’t use any powers it grants you it will cause you no harm.”

“It didn’t grant me any powers,” Jeri said. “I feel no different.”

“Then you are safe, just don’t make a habit out of killing blooded scions, even if they are goblins, and you will be fine.”

“So that's it? There is nothing you can do for me?”

The old priest sighed. “Well, if it gets you out of hair, I can write you a letter of introduction to Patriarch Tunraus, who leads of our temple from the cathedral in Poden. He may not be able to help you, but my letter will at least get you in to see him. I make no promises beyond that though, you will need to speak to him for anything more.”

Jeri nodded, and sat down on one of the pews as the priest went to find a quill, ink, and paper. She removed her gauntlets and began to check her fingers and hands for signs of the corruption she knew now lurked inside her. Her skin was the same light-brown shade it has always been, except where a several scars traced white lines across the back of her hands. She rubbed the palm of her right hand, trying to feel something beneath the skin, but she couldn't sense anything different. Whatever the goblin's tainted bloodline had done to her it wasn't easy to detect and maybe the priest was right after all and she didn't have anything to worry about, but for some reason she didn't feel that way and knew she would do everything in her power to cleanse this from her body.

 


 

Half an hour later, Jeri found herself leading her horse back towards the docks, the priest's letter now safely stowed in her saddlebags. She shivered as a cool breeze blew across the lake, bringing with it a return of the dark clouds of the previous evening. The boat she had watched sailing towards them earlier was now tied up at the docks and its crew were busy offloading the last of the cargo. Tyrus and Mursa stood near the docks, talking to an older man whose long white hair was tied back in a ponytail. She walked over to join them.

“Ah and here is our last passenger,” Tyrus said as she drew closer to the small gathering. “This is the warrior Jeri, a member of Harien's Swords, a mercenary company in the service of Baron Oerwinde of Edlenna.”

“Captain Geroldt,” the man said, introducing himself with a brief nod of his head.

“Any news from the south?” Jeri asked. “Do you have any news of my company or Baron Oerwinde?”

“As I was just saying to Tyrus, according to dock workers in Steffenberg, two riders passed through the town early this morning bound for Poden. They were warning everyone about a goblin army coming from the east. I heard Baron Oerwinde's name mentioned several times, but nothing about your company.”

“So you don't know where the Baron might be?”

“I'm afraid not,” the captain said. “I assume he is still riding towards the capital. The rumours I heard said that the riders had pushed their mounts pretty hard to reach the town and that they had to get fresh remounts from the local stables before they continued on to Poden.”

“Then I think we should head to Steffenberg,” Jeri said. “If Cole and Baron Oerwinde haven't reached there yet then we need to find out why. How long will it take to sail there?”

“Not long,” the captain said. “We have the wind behind us sailing south so can make the journey in half the time it took us to come back to Haldendorf.”

“Then let's get aboard and underway,” Tyrus said. “The sooner we get started the better. Is all the cargo offloaded, Geroldt?”

“Aye, just about,” the captain confirmed.

“And you'll have no trouble with Jeri's horse?”

“As long as the beast can keep calm on the deck we should be all right.”

“Desert Wind has made sea voyages before, Captain,” Jeri said.

“Well, then get aboard before the wind changes,” Captain Geroldt said. “The crew did have plans to spend the evening drinking down some of that fine ale we picked up today, but they'll have to make with the cheap swill in a Steffenberg tavern instead. A pity, but I doubt they'll notice the difference.”

“We will be safe from the weather,” Jeri asked, looking out across the lake to where dark clouds where continuing to gather.

“Aye, for a while yet,” the Captain said. “You'll be safely tucked up in an inn in Steffenberg before that storm hits us.”

There was some grumbling from the crew when the captain announced that the ship would be turning around and heading straight back to Steffenberg, but after Tyrus promised to shout the crew several rounds of drinks in a tavern, they eagerly swung back into action, clearing the last of the cargo off the deck and helping Jeri guide her horse up the gangplank. After everyone was safely aboard and the horse was secured, long oars pushed the ship away from the dock and turned it back out into the lake.

The wind picked up, filling the boat’s sails and carrying them south across the Bannalach towards the town of Steffenberg. Jeri moved to the back of the ship and watched as the village retreated into the distance, smoke still rising from the buildings the goblins had fired during their attack earlier that day. Although the sun still shone, she felt cold and shivered again as a chill breeze blew from the west.

“Are you all right?” Mursa asked, the half-elf joining her at the rear of the vessel.

“I'm fine,” Jeri replied. She had decided not to speak to anyone about what the priest had told her. If what he said was correct and she had nothing to worry about then it was no use her worrying others needlessly and if he was wrong then she would have other reasons not to tell them. She shivered again and wonder if it was cold or fear that chilled her.