Monday, July 27, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 4, Part 1"

If you haven't read Chapter 3, read that first.


Valinor Trollslayer grabbed Mort by the shoulder to keep him from continuing. The other party members stopped.

"What is it?" Teserk asked.

Valinor didn't respond. He moved in front of Mort, crouched down and examined something. He gently pulled some of the forest fauna aside and pointed to a thin string that stretched across the cart trail.

"What's that?" Mort asked.

Valinor motioned Mort back a few feet, ducked low to the ground and pulled on the wire with a finger.



Three supple branches tore through the air above the ranger's head. Knives lashed to the end of each branch sunk hilt deep into a nearby tree. Had Valinor been standing when the wire was tripped....

Mort swallowed and visibly paled. "Oh. Never mind."

"We must be getting close to the outlaw camp."

Teserk grinned. "Nothing like a few death traps to warmly welcome your visitors."

"What, you think there are more of those things?"

Valinor look askance at the now trembling farmer. "You can count on it. You stay here. I'll scout ahead a bit to see what we're up against.

"Sure. No problem. I'll just wait right here."

Valinor moved off into the woods. Mort took a few steps back into an area clear of the trees. He unintentionally stepped on a dry branch.


The farmer shot three feet into the air and fell hard on his rump. His hand landed on top of an anthill. Little red fire ants acted quickly to defend their nest and Mort leapt to his feet, squealing in pain.

Teserk laughed uncontrollably as Theadina helped the poor farmer remove the fearsome ants and treated the multitude of angry red welts that began to form on his hand.

"Now THAT was well worth this whole ordeal."


Valinor had discovered and disabled four more traps - another spring trap, a covered pit and two nooses - and bypassed two lazy sentinels before he came to the outskirts of the outlaw camp. Though he possessed ample skill, he had needed very little of it to circumvent the band's defenses. This told him two important things: first, the thieves had only marginal skill in woodcraft and second, they really didn't expect anyone to find them this deep into the woods. They were fools.

At the moment, the ranger was crouched in the shadow of a large elm at the eastern edge of the clearing that was the outlaw camp. The clearing was circular, approximately 200 feet in diameter and was dominated by a large tent towards the center. A semicircle of six smaller tents, lean-tos really, lined the forest edge close to where Valinor hid. The band's horses and cart were stationed on the western side of the open space along with the camp's latrine. The cart trail, which led to the southern point of the camp, was blocked off by a large pile of dead brush. A small stream meandered past about a hundred feet to Valinor's rear and provided the outlaws with a fresh water supply.

Valinor counted seven men in the clearing. Two, gathered close to a fire in the exact center of the camp, were in the process of preparing supper. Two of the others were tending to the horses. The remaining three were gathered in a circle on a space of clear ground tossing dice. All had the look of bullies. They were above average in size, well muscled, and their faces were heavily lined and scarred. There was no clear leader among those he could see, so Valinor made several educated assumptions. There were more men than tents, so every tent had to be shared. By their size, the ranger estimated two men per tent. The leader, of course, would get the luxury of the large center tent to himself. That made a total of thirteen: twelve outlaws and one leader.

Valinor made some quick mental calculations. He saw seven men currently, had passed two sentinels and had killed one in the form of the assassin earlier in the day. That made ten. Valinor counted horses. There were twelve he assumed belonged to the band, plus a giant of a horse that must have been Mort's 'Mammoth'. Add the horse they had recovered in the forest and the number matched up with his estimate of the band's strength. Given that the leader was relaxing in his tent, that still left two of the outlaws unaccounted for.

A small rustle of branches behind him was all the warning Valinor got. He hit the ground and held his breath, not daring to move. Two pair of well-worn leather boots walked to the edge of the clearing from deeper in the forest, stopping not five feet from where the ranger lay.

"Aw, spit! They done started the game without us."

"Well, what did you expect, Dawson? They weren't going wait for our patrol shift to end."

The man called Dawson turned his head and spat to the ground. The spittle hit Valinor's arm. He resisted the urge to wipe the foul fluid away.

"What's with these stupid patrols anyway? We already got two sentries posted, an' they sleep most o' the time anyway. What do we need to be walkin' around fer? Broadbent's getting' paranoid!"

"Stop your complaining, Dawson. It's just a two-hour shift. Dinner will still be hot when we get done. Broadbent knows what he's doing. Do you want those gnolls to come upon us unawares?"

"Aw, spit! We ain't seen hide nor hair o' them things for weeks. I says we chased 'em off for good last time. Broadbent's wastin' my time."

"Better watch your tongue, Dawson, or Broadbent will sic Silent on you when he gets back."

Dawson shifted his feet uneasily. "I d-didn't mean nuthin' by it. Honest. Aw, spit, Luther. Let's get movin'."

The two men moved back into the woods and were soon gone. Valinor breathed a sigh of relief and got back to his feet. He quietly moved away from the camp and headed back to where the others waited.


"So there are just twelve of them? That should be a breeze."

Mort stared at Teserk incredulously. "You can't be serious! We're talking about twelve - TWELVE - armed and vicious thugs! And you think it'll be like a stroll through the meadow? You're crazy!"

Valinor stifled a smile. "We won't be fighting all of them at once. In fact, if we're lucky, we won't have to fight many of them at all."

"An just how do ye plan t' do that, lad?" Colin asked.

"I've heard of this Broadbent," Valinor replied. "He's ex-military. Honorable in his own way. I'm sure he'd be open to a challenge for the hospitality of his camp. I've got a plan."


Clive Conners sat sleepily at his watch ten feet up in an old elm tree. The wooden platform was hard, but Clive had managed to arrange himself comfortably enough. Unlike some of his band brothers, Clive didn't mind watch duty. Since nothing ever happened out this far into the woods, he was able to use the time to catch up on his sleep.

He was almost asleep when he heard a voice. A female voice.

Clive blinked back the sleep and came to his feet. He listened carefully for a few minutes, but heard nothing else. He was just about to dismiss the episode as a dream when he heard the voice again, closer this time. It was definitely a female voice. And the woman seemed to be crying.

Ignoring protocol, Clive clambered down the rope ladder and made his way toward the source voice. He found it two minutes later.

The woman was sitting on a fallen log. She was beautiful. The skin of her face was a creamy white. Her eyes were a dark liquid brown. Rich brown hair was gathered into a braid that fell over her left shoulder. A long royal blue cloak was draped about her, making it difficult to see the details of her clothing. The woman had one boot off and was in the process of massaging a dainty foot.

"Stupid blister," she muttered. Her full lips made an "O" shape as she noticed Clive.

Clive raised his hands in a calming gesture.

"S'all right, miss," he said, "I ain't fixin' ta hurt ya."

"I should hope not," the woman replied. "I've suffered quite enough for one day."

She held the offending boot up to show him. "Can you imagine having to walk for miles, alone, in a boot of such shoddy workmanship?"

Clive's eyes widened at the word 'alone'. He was beginning to see some possibilities.

"Let me help ya, there, miss."

"Oh, would you? I'm simply too weak to manage it myself."

The woman held her foot out in his direction.

Clive made a beeline for the woman. In his haste he failed to notice the man concealed behind the bush next to the fallen log.

There was a crack as Mort swung a thick branch across the back of the Clive's head. The guard collapsed unconscious at Theadina's feet.

"Well done, Mort," the Knight said as she pulled first her stocking, then her boot back onto her foot. "Let's hope the others have it so easy."


Valinor could clearly see the guard on the platform, though he himself was well hidden. The ranger reached into his pack and retrieved a small black pouch. This he carefully affixed to the end of a blunt-tipped arrow. His weapon ready, Valinor nocked the arrow and took careful aim.

The shaft flew true, striking the tree a scant two inches from the guard's face. The black pouch exploded upon impact, enveloping the startled guard in a cloud of powered herbs. The guard inhaled deeply in his surprise, an action that caused him to gag, then cough uncontrollably. His eyes rolled suddenly up into his head and he collapsed to the floor of the platform.

"Sweet dreams," Valinor said, moving on toward the camp.


"What's this, now?"

Dawson had stopped abruptly, causing Luther to run into him.

"Looky there," Dawson said, pointing in the direction of the stream. Tied to a tree near the bank was a sleek black horse. The horse was unsaddled.

"That's Silent's mount."

Dawson gulped, remembering his complaining from earlier and Luther's threat of Silent's retribution.

"Aw, spit! What's she doin' out 'ere? An' without no saddle?"

"I have no idea," replied Luther, "But I reckon we'd better check it out."

"Aw, spit!" Dawson muttered, but he followed Luther over to the mare.

"She looks all right," Luther said after a brief inspection of the horse. "Let's take her back to camp.

Before Dawson could answer a flying shadow descended from a tree branch above, knocking both men to the ground. Dawson rolled with the impact, coming up into a crouch a few feet away. He was quickly leveled by a well-placed kick to the side of his head.

Luther got only a cursory glance at his attacker before the man's fist connected solidly with his jaw.

Colin helped Teserk off the unconscious Luther then untied the black mare from the tree.

"Come on, lass," he said, "Your job's not finished yet."

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