Kegar cursed as he stomped toward the camp. He couldn’t believe Percival had stopped him. Who did Percival think he was anyway? Just a merchant’s son, always trying to steal and grift. Why was Percival even here? This wasn’t his country, was he trying to move in on Lizzy? Maybe he was looking to settle down in Lizzy’s castle?
Kegar booted a stone off the path, sending a shower of dirt and stones down the hillside. Clearly, something would need to be done about Percival’s sticky fingers. “Maybe I should have Cat eat him.” Kegar chuckled. It would be totally justified, but he knew no one else would see it that way. Eventually that wouldn’t matter, but until his control solidified he needed to keep them compliant. They needed to understand that his authority was absolute. He was the leader and they were the followers.
What of Lizzy? She was probably mad at him. Of course, he was within his rights to destroy the gift, but perhaps she would be upset about losing it? After all, it was a finely crafted piece. Maybe he had been too hasty? Hmm, perhaps if he apologized, maybe blamed it on his being hasty, she would realize it was all a misunderstanding and she would stop being angry with him.
“What if I could make them turn on Percival? He is the problem, the one making them question me. Everyone needs to see that this mess is his fault.” Kegar stroked the bud of a magnolia tree, the bud blossomed just to please him. Kegar smiled. “They’ll know who’s the wrong one soon enough.” Kegar left the magnolia and moved further into the forest. The magnolia had been asleep until Kegar woke it up. When winter closed in on the hills, the tree would die from frost burn because it was awake when it should have been asleep.
Kegar walked in the woods for a few hours absorbing the peace. The grass twirled around his toes, the branches leaned into him brushing his face gently. He felt his confidence return as he coaxed flowers to grow. Nature obeyed him, why couldn’t everyone else?
When he returned to camp, his blood seemed to boil for a moment. Lizzy had packed up the tent and put it away completely. Her things were on the edge of camp furthest from his. She was sitting with Percival, Katrina, Ellen and the others playing her new harp. Kegar stopped himself from doing anything drastic. The goal was to discredit Percival and convince Lizzy she should be with him. Stick with the plan. They won’t respect your authority if Percival is allowed to challenge you. He couldn’t do that if Lizzy was angry with him.
Lizzy?” He said, coming up behind them, trying to sound contrite, “I believe I was hasty and perhaps I over reacted. A bit. I felt disrespected by the king and the guards” his eyes flicked to Percival “I shouldn’t have taken that out on you.”
His words were arrogant and hollow but to Lizzy who wanted him to be what she thought he was and not what he was, they were enough. “Oh, Kegar!” She stood up and hugged him. “I’m sure no one meant to make you feel that way. But you must understand, customs are different in the city, then back in the wilderness of Pode.”
Kegar nodded. His face was twisted in a grimace, but since he had stepped into a hug with Lizzy, she couldn’t see. Everyone else around the fire could. “So, should I put the tent back up?”
“Join us for supper.” Lizzy patted the log she was sitting on, “I think I’d like to keep things as they are for the moment. It’s getting late. Maybe we’ll put it up another night.”
Percival was so shocked his chin dropped. As a merchant’s son he had heard a number of terrible apologies, but that was absurd. It wasn’t an apology so much as Kegar admitted that everyone else was wrong and it was a shame Kegar was blamed for it.
Katrina caught Percival’s eye and shook her head. It was Lizzy’s life and her decision. “Well, Kegar, what are your thoughts? Where should we go?” Katrina pointed to a rudimentary map drawn in the dirt.
Kegar looked at it for a moment before tapping the crossroad to the south. “This is where the orcs will be hitting supply wagons. Maybe we can track them to their main base.”
The rest of the group nodded. It was a reasonable course of action. That was an area that had been hit by the orcs a number of times.
“We need to wrap this up quickly so the king can send help to Pode. Based on where the orcs have attacked previously, I think they’ll be located in this area.” Katrina pointed to a place south of the crossroads, “Given that the chieftain has been amassing orcs, he should be easy to find. There were a number of orc tribes. If they have gathered together, we are looking for a huge campsite.”
Kegar used his foot to wipe out the drawing. “The southern plains are long and empty. It could take months of wandering to find them if we look without direction. No, we’ll go with my plan.”
Katrina opened her mouth to protest, but Cole cut her off, “Now dear, Sir Wilbur put Kegar in charge for a reason.”
Katrina stopped listening to the derogatory filth coming from Cole, “Fine. But I want to go on the record contesting this decision.”
Broden shrugged and slung his bag over his shoulder, ready to go.
Shandra looked over at the mute dwarf and smiled, “Broden,” she pointed to everyone’s bedrolls, “we are staying the night here since it took the group so long to get back.”
Broden shrugged, curled up on the ground and fell asleep. It took no time at all for the watch to be decided. Ellen took first watch, Mary second, Katrina third, and Stroz took fourth watch. They had settled into a nice routine. Shandra needed the entire nights rest to regain her spells for the next day, so they left her out of the watches. Kegar insisted that as the leader, he didn’t have to be bothered with keeping watch. Sometimes Cat would stay awake with someone, but no one wanted to try to force the giant cat. They just welcomed the company when it came.
Since Broden refused to talk, they left him out of the watch on principle. It would make it difficult for others to respond if something happened and Broden forgot to inform everyone. Faute was too unreliable to ask to keep watch. Finos sometimes took a turn, Percival too, but the watchers generally insisted he sleep the whole time. Often he would stay up for a time with the first watch or rise early with the last watch. It was nice.
No one asked the noble’s daughter to keep watch and she never thought to offer.
It was late into second watch when Faute wandered into camp. Mary sprang up from where she had been sitting keeping watch. Her martial arts style allowed her to sleep while still being alert enough for watch. It was handy, but most of the group didn’t trust someone who was asleep to keep watch. Or they wouldn’t if they were awake. What they didn’t know didn’t bother them.
“Who’s that?” Mary paused, “Faute? What are you doing out there?”
Faute choked back a sob and stomped into camp, “You didn’t remember I was gone? You could have left me!” Mud caked her shins from where she had left the path and tried to make a short cut. Her dress was torn from where it had caught on branches. She looked awful.
Mary went to Faute, “I thought you had come back already! I’m sorry. Whoa you look like hell.”
A tear streaked down Faute’s cheek, “I got lost on my way back.” Her voice rose, “Why didn’t you send anyone to look for me?”
I’m so glad my skin is dark. Mary thought blushing. “I’m sorry Faute, I honestly didn’t realize you were still out there. If I had realized, of course, we would have sent someone to look for you!” Mary brushed some dirt out of Faute’s hair. As she plucked a twig she thought, Why is it our responsibility to keep track of her when she goes off? We told her not to.
It took Mary a while to calm Faute down enough for her to take a bath in the nearby stream and go to bed. Faute had finally climbed into her bedroll when it was time for Katrina to be awakened for third watch. The group slept through the night waking refreshed, except Faute who woke cranky, before first light.
Traveling on the southern road instead of traveling cross country or on a dirt track sped their progress. It wasn’t long before the road entered a wooded area, but the road was clear, the trees were tall and it was a pleasant journey. Ellen kept her eyes peeled and asked the others to do the same. As she had noted when they entered the forest, “This is the perfect place for an ambush.”
On the fifth day Ellen stopped them, “Look.” She pointed to wagon ruts leaving the road. She walked to the ruts, bent down and picked something up. “Arrow head.”
Katrina glanced around the group. They were largely ignoring Ellen. “Looks like the place.” She said trying to clue the group in to what was going on.
Faute sniffed in disdain, “How do we know?”
Ellen held up another trinket, “Orcish belt buckle.” As she stood she looked up into one of the trees shadowing the road and made eye contact with an orc.
“Ambush!” She yelled, diving into the drainage ditch on the side of the road.
An arrow punctured the ground where she had been standing.
Weapons flashed out in an instant, but since few of them had actually been paying attention to Ellen, almost no one knew where the arrows were coming from.
Katrina had seen, but she knew there was no way there was only one archer. She whipped her hands into the air. A small wind formed around her and with each passing fraction of a second it grew larger and fiercer. Rocks and dirt were picked up by the strong winds, obstructing the view. The wind was so strong it was difficult for the group to stand. Katrina tried to expand the eye of the storm to give the group a safe place to stand, but the group was too spread out.
The wind kept multiple arrows from striking their targets. Instead the arrows thunked harmlessly into the ground or in trees. A few arrows she was even able to send back to their archers. The tiny lightning bolts that danced across her skin when she was irritated arced into the wind storm, charging it with electricity. Unfortunately, this hurricane strength wind meant that the fireball Shandra cast would be blown off course.
Shandra had been reading a book when Ellen called the ambush, so she hadn’t seen anything. She saw some movement in one of the trees, took aim and summoned a fireball. Ultimately, this was fortuitous. The tree Shandra was aiming at did not have any orcs in it, but there were squirrels, whose movement had confused her. The tree she hit instead vaporized at the point of impact and a full thirty feet in every direction. What hadn’t been vaporized exploded outward as the sap super heated, expelling the two orc archers that had been hiding successfully in the branches, into the road.
Broden launched himself at the fallen orcs’ broken bodies. His axe came down with a thunk, separating one orc from his head. The other, still on fire, was brokenly rolling in a futile attempt to put out the flames. His flailing took him into Mary’s range.
Stroz believed he was a dragon and that gave him the ability to breathe the elements. Mary wasn’t certain if they were dragons specifically, and she wasn’t trying to be one, but she knew they were special and she was willing to use the idea of a draconic heritage as inspiration for her martial arts. She stood in her dragon pose when the flailing orc came into range. Before she struck the spirit of her dragon ancestor rippled through her muscles, her nails turned to claws and scales speckled her skin. She struck with blazing speed, ripping the orc’s brain out of its skull.
Cole, seeing the danger surrounding them, stood by Katrina, guarding her. He brandished his sword, it blazed like the sun with holy energy. If anything stepped near Katrina it would be struck down in seconds.
Stroz inhaled sharply and breathed oil at another tree, the oil ignited when it hit the air, setting the tree ablaze. Three orcs leapt out of the tree, attempting to extinguish the flames that licked over their leathers. The flames stuck to the orcs armor, cooking them like pork. The scent of roasting meat clung to the area.
In the confusion, Finos scaled the tree the first orc had shot from, slitting the throat of the orc. He kicked the orcs’ wretched corpse out of the tree.
Ellen nodded at the corpse, “That’s the last one.”
Faute, who was hiding in Katrina’s shadow with a ball of pink crackling energy in one hand, quaked, “How do we know?”
Katrina stepped away, releasing the wind, “Ellen said so.” she looked to Ellen, “Lead on.”
Kegar stepped forward, “Wait a moment.” He looked around the fallen orcs for a heartbeat or two before turning to Ellen, “Lead on, Ellen.”
Ellen sighed and followed the orcs trail. The beginning of the track was well hidden in the brush on the side of the road. The trail was barely more than a game trail. At the end of the track was a clearing with a run down keep. The portcullis was down, but also so broken they could enter with minimal effort.
Ellen waved Percival and Finos forward, “Okay guys-”
Kegar grabbed Ellen’s arm, “Hold up. I’m the leader! What are you planning?”
Ellen was growing weary of Kegar’s micromanaging. Sir Wilbur trusted her to do her job. Kegar needed not only to be a part of everything, he needed to influence it too. If she told him her idea he would change it, simply to have asserted his control of the situation. “All keeps have a back entrance.” Kegar eyed her with suspicion, “All keeps do. I was going to have one of us check for a back entrance, one search the front to see what we can find out about our enemies, and one search the grounds to look for remains of orc camps.”
Kegar shook his head, “That won’t be necessary. This is clearly the orc chieftain’s hide out.” His eyes flicked between the two men in front of him, “Percival check out the front, Finos the back.”
Percival was about to refuse when Lizzy stepped forward and patted his shoulder, “Go on, I’ll be fine here.”
Percival sighed and rolled his eyes. He wasn’t certain what to expect from Kegar now. They had been friends, he thought, but since Kegar was in leadership he was becoming more and more of an asshole. There was a part of him, one that was growing, that thought Kegar might try to get him killed. He had stood up to Kegar earlier and Kegar certainly didn’t like it. Percival worried about leaving Lizzy with Kegar, but he also worried about arguing with Kegar too much. He might wake up dead.
Finos and Percival faded into the high grass. After a few steps, even Ellen couldn’t detect the ripple in the grass from their passage.
“Since Percival is Lizzy’s bodyguard, you really should have let me go, Kegar.” Ellen said whispering to Kegar.
“Are you challenging my authority?”
Ellen shook her head, “No. That’s why I waited to say something to you.” She clenched and unclenched her jaw, “Sir Wilbur trusted me to be his tracker and huntsman. This is the sort of thing I did all the time. It’s the whole reason Sir Wilbur sent me with you, leaving the entire town vulnerable. If you don’t let me do my job, you are hobbling your authority and effectiveness.”
Kegar’s eyes narrowed, “What do you mean hobbling my authority?”
Ellen hadn’t seen this kind of behavior since she had worked for Sir Halverik as his woodsman. Sir Halverik had been a petty lord obsessed with his authority. His arrogance made him sloppy and foolish. No one could be a master of every trade. His insistence to be the ultimate decision maker made things take forever to get done. The maids couldn’t change the sheets without his say so. Of course, that meant people tried to do things without his knowledge. It was necessary to keep the lands running. However, when people inevitably got caught, some of them were executed. It was what made her decide to leave Sir Halverik’s service. “Everyone knows why I’m here. If you don’t let me do my job, people will question your ability to do your job. That undermines your authority.”
Kegar nodded. He realized that he looked weak having to depend on Ellen, but he looked pathetic by not using her skills. Before he was able to consider this new train of thought much more, Finos returned.
“There is a tunnel behind the keep. It looks like it may be the primary entrance. The tunnel is covered by dirt over a barrel cover, the tunnel is unlit so we’ll need to bring some light with us. Once you drop down, it widens to where two people could stand next to each other if they squeezed. There is a heavy door at the end,” Finos smiled, “I can pick the lock.” He sighed, “But I don’t know what is behind it. I heard voices, but I don’t know how many.”
Kegar nodded, “We’ll go that way. Get ready.”
Just before they headed out, Percival walked up, “We don’t want to go through that gate.”
Kegar glared at him, “What took you so long?”
Percival took in the gathered people suited up in their armor, “I had to move cautiously over broken and rusted bits of gate. It looks like a monster tried to rip its way into the keep. I went a ways inside and heard something very large sleeping.”
Kegar looked at him like Percival was an idiot, “Did you see what it was?”
Percival shook his head, “It was in a dark room. If I had tried to sneak in I would have let light in.” He was glad Kegar was sold on going in the back. What had taken up most of his time was filling the entranceway with traps after he discovered the creature in the room. He had spent all that time trapping the area because he had to step over bits and pieces of bodies to get as close as he did to the dark room. At first, he had thought the body parts were from the horses and mules of convoys that had been taken, but when he came across a mangled arm he decided that whatever it was, he never wanted to see it awake. That was also the reason he didn’t tell anyone about the horse singing a song about dying. If he hadn’t seen those body parts he knew he would advocate saving a talking horse.
Kegar frowned, “Some help you are. We don’t even know what we are against.”
Finos sniffed Percival, “You smell like you were in a troll lair.”
“Troll? It was pretty terrible smelling.” He nodded, “That makes sense.” Percival shuddered. If what he knew about trolls was true, then he had spent all that time trapping the entrance for nothing. Even if the troll hit every trap he put in there, it would probably be completely healed by the time the troll reached them.
He shrugged. Wait a second. It’s not like the troll is going to come at us from behind. It we wake the troll – and there is no guarantee of that – most likely it won’t be until we get to the top of the keep. My traps won’t be completely useless.
Kegar growled, “At least someone did their job right.” Kegar shoved Finos forward, “You lead us in.”
“Uh, okay. Remember to stay low and be quiet.” Finos led them along the wood line, then through the grass to a patch of dirt. He bent over and pulled a concealed handle, lifting it out to reveal a hole in the ground. The inside was very dark. He put his finger to his lips and pulled a moon rod out of his cloak pocket. The moon rod illuminated everything with a silvery white light for about forty feet. Finos tucked the rod in his belt to free his hands. One by one they lowered themselves into the tunnel.