Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 5, Part 1"

This is Monday's post. Sorry it's late.

If you haven't read Chapter 4, please do that first.

After a short discussion, the group decided to approach the Wizard's home by way of the woods, rather than by the road. Broadbent offered to send one of his men along as a guide, but Valinor firmly refused.

"We have already imposed too much upon your hospitality, as well as relieving you of your bread money. We would not then take one of your men into danger."

Broadbent shrugged. Either way was fine by him. He insisted, however, that the group take Mort's Mammoth, as well as Silent's horse.

"I don't want anything belonging to that scoundrel in my camp. She's yours."

Colin practically cheered, having long since decided that the black mare was one of the finest horses he had ever seen. Mort didn't look quite so pleased.

It was easy to see why as the farmer warily approached the big chestnut gelding. Mammoth reared and tossed his head, his nostrils flaring in warning. Mort dropped the lead rope, skipping back in alarm.

"Doesn't seem as if Mammoth likes you much," Teserk noted.

Mort grimaced. "Mammoth has always been a somewhat...reluctant animal. I'm sure the robbery combined with being taken by strangers has been a little unnerving for him. He'll calm down soon."

Mort ducked down to reach for the rope, but Mammoth reared again and Mort fell backward on his rump in his effort to get away from the heavy hooves.

"Mammoth, you stop this nonsense," Mort said sternly as he got back to his feet and walked forward in a confident manner. He reached a hand for Mammoth's bridle and was rewarded by a fierce nip that almost took off his hand. He backed away hastily, spearing the gelding with a venomous glare.

"Fine, you worthless excuse for a work horse. You can rot here. See if I care!"

Teserk looked from Mammoth to Mort, then walked slowly up to the big animal. Mammoth didn't so much as move as Teserk reached out a steady hand and placed it on the horse's powerful neck. The swordsman scratched gently, then slowly gathered up the lead rope.

"Seems like he's all right to me," Teserk said with the hint of a smile.

Mort scowled. "Then YOU lead him. I've had enough of his fickle nature for one day." The farmer stomped off to where Theadina and Valinor were getting some last minute directions from Broadbent.

Teserk looked back at Mammoth. The big horse nudged him in the shoulder, encouraging more of the neck scratching. Teserk's smile faded.

"You certainly don't like him, do you boy. I wonder why that is?"

Not having any answers, Teserk clipped the lead rope onto Mammoth's bridle and led the gelding over to where the others were preparing to depart.


Taking Broadbent's advice to heart, the party followed a dry stream bed east towards Nefarious' estate. The map the old soldier provided was crude, but by all indications the group would reach the wizards home round about nightfall. Teserk had questioned the wisdom of approaching a hostile spellcaster's home at night, and for once, both Mort and Colin agreed with him. Valinor had persisted, however, and asked whether the party would rather face the wizard when he least expected them or camp in an unfamiliar wood with a band of bloodthirsty gnolls roaming about. Teserk had pointed out the fact that they might never see the gnolls either way. Valinor had countered by saying it would be easier to avoid the gnolls if they were on the move. He then reminded them that in the morning the wizard would be well rested and watching for them. In the end, the group had reluctantly agreed with Valinor's plan, trusting in the ranger's woodlore to keep them out of harm's way.

The stream bed was fairly flat and provided a good path. Valinor took the lead, scouting ahead for signs of the gnolls. Mort and Theadina followed a ways after, chatting about this and that and generally enjoying the quickly fading sunshine. Teserk and Colin brought up the rear, leading the two horses. As the distance between the group widened, Teserk took the opportunity to share some of his suspicions with Colin.

"Did you see the way Mammoth reacted to Mort back at the camp?"

"Aye, I saw it. It doesn't appear he be likin' 'is master all that much."

"My thoughts exactly. Not the reaction I would have expected from a docile work horse trained to work a farm."

Colin furrowed his brow. "Tis true enough, though Mort bein' a mink farmer an' all, I expect he was jest used fer pulling wagons and sech. Perhaps tis as Mort said - the shock of the attack 'as left 'im skittered."

Teserk laughed. "Skitterish? Look at the fellow - he's as docile as a newborn puppy."

Colin looked at the plodding gelding and was forced to concede the point.

"I donnae suppose ye'd accept that the bloodshed shook 'im a bit?"

"A horse that lives and works on a mink farm where slaughter is the rule? No way."

"All right then, maybe he's been abused, beaten and sech fer disobedience."

" Come on, Colin, you know horses better than that. Abused animals are rarely friendly with anyone, Mammoth does everything I ask. And there's not a mark on him that would indicate abuse. No, I don't buy any of it. Something else is going on here, something that I can't put my finger on. It's almost as if Mammoth doesn't know him."

Teserk's words were softly spoken, but their impact caused him to stop suddenly as if he were slapped. Colin looked at him, and Teserk could tell the half-dwarf had reached the same conclusion.

"Ye donnae think the man is really Mortimous DeVous."

"That would be a logical conclusion."

"Then who do ye think he be?"

"I don't know. Maybe the traveler the farmer picked up on the road, maybe somebody else." Teserk frowned. "Maybe the wizard."

Colin's eyes narrowed.

"Should we be tellin' the others?"

Teserk shook his head. "We have no proof. The whole thing ties up so neatly - it's just my word against his. Theadina would never believe it, that's for certain."

They started moving again, walking in silence for a time.

"So what's yer plan?" Colin finally asked.

"We proceed very carefully," Teserk answered, a dangerous glint in his eyes. "We look for anything else that seems out of place. And we never - ever - let 'Mr. DeVous' out of our sight."


The shadows were lengthening steadily as Valinor suddenly appeared from nowhere up in front of the group and quietly called for a halt. The group quickly gathered to him.

"The path ahead narrows into a small valley," the ranger reported. "It's heavily lined with trees and the shadows are pretty thick right now. It would be the perfect place for an ambush."

Theadina asked, "Have you seen signs of the gnolls?"

Valinor shook his head. "Not any physical signs, as such. The valley floor has been altered somewhat, though. There are large rocks where there should be none and trees lay at angles too convenient for my tastes. Broadbent said Nefarious sometimes released prisoners to be hunted by the gnolls. This place stinks of a place where the foul creatures might herd unsuspecting prey to fall on them and cut them to pieces."

"Kin we go around?" Colin asked.

"Not unless we want to add a few hours to our travel."

"We don't have a few hours left," Teserk said. "It will be full dark in less than an hour as it is."

"Then we trip the trap," Colin said as he loosened the strap securing his large mace to his side.

"Agreed," responded Valinor. "We have the advantage of knowing the valley for what it is. We won't be the simple prey they're used to."

Mort was visibly trembling. "W-we're just gonna walk down into a trap? Are you crazy?" His tone was sharp and carried in the suddenly silent forest.

Theadina quickly placed a steadying hand on the farmer's arm. "Mort, lower your voice. Everything will be all right."

Mort's voice decreased in volume, but there was no mistaking the panic. "All right? He wants to take us down into a trap! You all may be experienced warriors, but I've never been in a battle in my life. What am I supposed to do while you all have your fun?"

This last part was aimed at Colin and Teserk who seemed to be eagerly anticipating the possibility of combat.

Theadina's voice was soothing. "Stay close to me. If trouble arises, take refuge behind the nearest tree. I promise, we won't let anything happen to you. We're in this together ."

"For Lucinde's sake," Valinor added.

Mort looked from face to face, then straightened. "Okay. We'll do this. For Lucinde."

Valinor nodded grimly, then led them into the valley.


Their movement was slowed by the various rocks and fallen trees Valinor had seen while scouting ahead. They made their way cautiously with the ranger in the lead, followed closely by Theadina and Mort. Colin wasn't too far behind, but Teserk lagged a bit to the rear having some trouble maneuvering Mammoth around the strewn rubble. Valinor wasn't too concerned over this, knowing that Teserk was capable of taking care of himself. The ranger kept his eyes trained on the surrounding slopes to catch a glimpse of their would-be attackers, an ash longbow at the ready. The onset of dusk and the heavy tree cover made the task much more difficult.

The attack came as they reached the halfway point through the valley.

A hail of javelins arced through the air to fall among the party. The missiles were poorly thrown, only one striking a target. Colin caught a glancing blow along one muscular arm, but the wound was superficial, the sight of his blood steeling the half-dwarf for combat. A howling laughter filled the air and tall, hunched figures broke cover from the trees to fall upon the group.

Valinor turned quickly at the first sign of attack and followed the arc of one of the javelins back to its caster. As the hyena-headed figure of a gnoll burst from the trees it caught a dark feathered shaft in the chest, staggering it. As it tried to regain its balance, a second arrow joined the first, removing the attacker from the fight.

"Mort, take cover!" the ranger shouted as he sighted another gnoll, this one charging towards the farmer. This time the arrow took it in the throat, dropping the creature to the ground. Valinor couldn't see if Mort followed his advice as two more of the monsters sprang from the trees directly before the ranger. He swung his bow in a wide arc, catching one of the gnolls in the face, then dropped the weapon and drew his twin short swords. More wary this time, the two circled slowly, waving their battle axes about menacingly.


Theadina raised a loaded crossbow and fired as a gnoll leapt at her from atop a massive boulder. Her aim was true and the creature landed dead at her feet. She had no time to think, however, as another of the creatures rushed her. She threw the crossbow at it, slowing its advance just long enough for the knight to draw her blade.

Then the gnoll was upon her. She heard Valinor's warning to Mort, but was unable to go to his aid. The seven-foot tall gnoll outweighed her by a good hundred and fifty pounds and it was all she could do to turn aside the first vicious axe swipe. She was thrown slightly off-balance, but recovered in time to duck the monster's second attack and spin out to the side placing the boulder to her left. Because the boulder gave her partial cover, the gnoll was forced to attack from a higher angle to avoid the rock. Theadina crouched and came forward under the swing making a quick thrust. Her sword caught the gnoll in the stomach, drawing blood, but something prevented her from completing the thrust. She was forced to spin away to avoid the gnoll's answering chop.

Theadina swore in a manner most unbecoming to a Knight of Calinde. These monsters were wearing armor! The gnoll growled in its laughing way and advanced on her.


The gnolls opposing Colin soon discovered that their armor was NOT effective against the half-dwarf's heavy mace. The fighter blocked the attack of the gnoll to his left then slammed the mace head into the stomach of the gnoll to the right. The creature doubled over on the ground, coughing blood, effectively out of the fight. Colin ducked under the horizontal swipe of the other gnoll and grabbed the passing axe handle with his left hand. The gnoll tried to pull the axe from the fighter's grasp, but Colin was the stronger of the pair. With a mighty heave, he jerked the axe forward, pulling the gnoll towards him. As the creature overbalanced, the fighter launched a vicious head-butt that cracked it between the eyes. The gnoll staggered and Colin smashed his mace down on its head with a two-handed overhead swing. The dead creature twitched as it hit the ground.


Farther back, Teserk found himself beset by four of the monsters hoping to take out the isolated party member in an easy fashion before helping to overwhelm the others. The strategy might have worked, but the gnolls didn't account for Mammoth. As the gnomes stormed Teserk's position, Mammoth reared angrily, lashing out at the attackers. Two were forced to back away, leery of the massive animal. Teserk promptly set his back to his impromptu partner and faced the two gnolls that were able to approach him.

They came in a coordinated fashion trying to get the swordsman to commit his defense to one side. Teserk would have none of it. His bastard sword twirled about as if possessed of a mind of its own, deflecting a strike here, hooking an axe-head there and pulling it out wide.

The gnoll to the right stumbled slightly, his axe dropping as Teserk deflected the axe of the gnoll to his left. Teserk thrust at the opening. The gnoll recovered more quickly than he should have, the stumble being a feint to draw Teserk away from his defensive line. The gnoll's axe came up and there was no way Teserk could block it. He didn't have to.

Teserk saw the ruse for what it was and chose that moment to spin to his left. His timing was perfect as he ducked under the hooves of a rearing Mammoth. The Clydesdale lashed out at the unsuspecting gnoll and connected a huge hoof with the creatures forehead. The gnoll crumpled to the ground, the front of his face caved completely in.

Teserk continued his spin full circle, coming around low on one knee. His sword took one of the unsuspecting gnolls at the knees, hamstringing one leg while almost completely severing the other. He leapt up, dodging to the right to increase his distance from the still rearing horse. His opponent, recovering from the shock of the swordsman's sudden appearance, stepped up to engage him.

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