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Gondell's Quest - Book 1 - Destiny - Free Sampler Edition

Gondell’s Quest

Destiny – Free Sampler Edition
[
Andy Lang]

Copyright:

Layout Copyright © 2016 by Andy Lang. Published 2016 by Andy Lang. Ebook design by Andy Lang. Cover art by Andy Lang.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the authors permission.

Prologue.

Long before the dawn of man, peace reigned over the land. And, as those eternal creatures that still remain today will remember, it was an era of tranquillity and equilibrium. Gnome and Dwarf, Elf and Centaur lived in harmony, Hobgoblins and Ogres laboured industriously side by side with the woodland Fairies. The ancient darkness had been defeated and resigned to faded memory, just as modern man worries not over the period in his own history named the Dark Ages, being simply a time known, but no-longer considered, or of any great concern!

True evil did not exist. Or so we thought. But even the wisest can make mistakes… as I did. Even I could not predict the doom that hovered over our ordered world, or the peculiar outcome. But I do not wish to spoil my tale by rushing ahead. Start at the beginning, travel to the middle, and hope that the end is bright, that is the best tale to tell. And so I take it upon myself to record the events of my long life err memory fades and the now is robbed of the then, for it is a crime to forget, to lose fact to failing memory, or to allow history to be written by the young. History is the domain of the old, we were there, we lived through those times, some of us died shaping the world of today. So my patient listeners, heed not the tales of man. Listen to my story… and learn how it all began.

In order to enlighten younger folk. Now do not misunderstand my words, be you young or old by your own understanding, in my eyes you are all infants. I talk of young in time, not young of age. I alone am old, ancient beyond reckoning, I alone recall the time before man, before machinery, industry and war. So listen well my children as I peel away guesses, assumption and bare faced lies, Listen as I tell you the truth, for fact has faded concerning the original folk that inhabited your lands. I hear the words myth and fable, legend and superstition trip so easily from ignorant tongues. Oh how much you have forgotten… and how much you have never known.

As with every good story it is important to introduce the actors that will amuse you with their jests and mishaps, or bring you to the edge of your seats as peril looms. So forget what you think you know and listen to my words, only then will you truly know the facts.

I feel it only fair that I introduce the humble Gnomes first as young Gondell features so prominently in my tale. I have always found it amusing to see pure coincidence align with forgotten reality, for it is true that Gnomes love to fish, or angle, as they preferred to say. But push aside your preconceptions of the Gnomish race, forget the portly plastic figure that sits dangling his line at the side of your garden pond, for only the bushy beard that it sports bares any similarity to the people themselves.

I never kept the company of them myself, finding Gnomes to be tedious and rather narrow minded little creatures, contented only with their own small affairs and caring little for the doings of others. But let me set aside my own prejudices and tell you a little about the Gnomish race.

Although Gnomes are most contented when sat at table, a fried, or roasted, or stewed fish on their platter, or filleted and sautéed fish, or fish smothered in rich sauce, or fish served battered with chips, in fact, fish prepared in any manner suits the Gnomish taste. Forgive me, I digress, but I hope now that you understand that fish are prized above all other fare in Gnomish cuisine. Yet despite spending much of their waking lives either eating, cooking or seeking fish, Gnomes carry, in general, no weight, they are not a portly race, quite the opposite in fact. Gnomes are, or were, agile, one would almost say in modern parlance that they were athletic. I say were because it has been many lives of men since I last encountered them, but they are a tenacious breed, so I am sure that there are still a few hiding away from prying eyes.

“So how would I recognise a Gnome if I should encounter one?” I hear you asking yourselves.

And I would reply. “It is all in the whiskers!” If you should chance upon a bearded and handsome faced youngster sat beside a river or pool, a youngster of diminutive stature who would barely reach the belt of a man, then rest assured you have met a Gnome.

“A Gnomish girl?” I hear you ask. And my reply. She would be slight of figure, boyish almost, but her beauty would touch your heart. But assuredly you would not meet her. Gnomish fathers were famous for their devotion to their daughters, and their zealous protection. No, you would not chance upon a Gnomish girl wandering alone. You may spy her as an unmarried maiden escorted by a chaperone, but as a married Gnome she would remain in her husbands cave, hidden from sight.

It is a fact that Gnomish husbands were even more protective than Gnomish fathers, not that their wives became prisoners, quite the opposite actually, their being content to remain hidden from the world. It is seen as a dereliction of duty should a Gnome fail to shield his wife from the eyes of others. It was a system that other races struggled to comprehend, but tradition and culture, once engrained, are usually difficult to change.

Gnomes lived in caves, without exception. Generally dug deep into a quiet river bank with a deceptively small and unassuming entrance. Should a man be small and lithe enough to crawl inside, he would soon be given pause as the narrow tunnel dipped down after a very short distance into still water. Every Gnome hole employed the same design, the sudden dip down would only continue for a short space before rising again to open into a spacious entrance hall. An ingenious design that served dual functions, not only did it exclude unwanted visitors, the flooded passage in effect also served as a larder. Fresh fish always literally on the doorstep.

Having never been inside a Gnome hole, as they were commonly known, I can only rely on hearsay and rumour, but to the best of my knowledge they were homely enough abodes. The walls clad with polished stone and the grand halls supported by tree roots. Gnomish architecture relied, I am informed, on the support of living roots, this is why the best place to look for a Gnomes entrance is along a sheer river bank, right on the waters edge beneath the shade of a mature tree. Or so I am led to believe, I have never felt the inclination to look myself.

“So what of a Gnomes temperament?” A question that has no definitive answer. “Were they brave and adventurous?” I would say a guarded no. “Inquisitive?” Yes, to a degree, but no more than the urge to seek out a better fishing hole. “Would a Gnome seek risk and danger?” My answer… absolutely not.

It may appear dear listener, that my low opinion of Gnomes in general may have clouded my dialogue to a small degree, and this is an observation that I will not deny… however, one Gnome inhabits a special place in my heart, old and dry as it may be. Gondell not only surprised me but also gave me hope that the Gnomish race could someday rise above their self servitude and achieve greatness, maybe my hopes are in vain, but at least one of their race deserves some small recognition.

Fact – such a small word. So small that along with truth it appears to have been mislaid over the long years. History often favours the bold, and the bold in their turn decide the recorded flow of what they prefer to be accepted as fact.

I speak of course about Fairies, beautiful and helpful creatures, granting wishes and fluttering around the woodlands on shimmering gossamer wings. Utter nonsense of course. Fairies are, always were, and I am sure, always will be spiteful and dishonest. Never trust a Fairy, except if your intention is to spread malicious gossip or do wrong to others, for these are traits held dear by their kind. Fairies are in general considerably smaller than Gnomes or Dwarves, and contrary to popular belief, they do not possess wings. It is true that in the old days their race could fly, but it is an ability beyond the Fairies of today. Of the modern understanding much of what is recorded in myth is false, but they do, in keeping with modern belief, inhabit the deep forests, living in elaborately woven homes built high up in the treetops for they are expert climbers. Fairies are skilled with their hands crafting both functional and beautifully elaborate items from wood of all kinds, musical instruments of Fairy build are prized even more highly than those crafted by Elves, and that is praise indeed. I need not tell more about them at the moment as their true nature will be revealed as I recount my tale, only then will you, dear listener, begin to truly understand their hearts.

Let us move swiftly on and consider Dwarves and Elves, so different in appearance yet so similar at heart. Staunch and just, one would call the heart of an Elf. Stout and loyal would fittingly describe a Dwarf. Of the fairer folk that inhabited your lands, Elves would without argument be described as the fairest. Not of the same stature as man, but easily taller than any of the other ancient folk, the Elves would reach a man’s shoulder height, rarely growing much taller, slight of build and fair of face they smiled far more than they frowned. Even during the darkest of days an Elf would not be parted long from his smile. As a race: ever optimistic, prone to moderation, almost temperance, an Elf would never be tempted to excess, except of course in music and laughter, both of which they enjoyed in equal measure.

Moderation and Dwarf are not words that sit happily together. Prone to over indulgence the average Dwarf could eat to the point of bursting, a fact clearly shown by their rotund physique and the stout leather girdle worn by every member of their race, women included. They would also refuse to leave an inn until a freshly broached cask of wine or beer had been emptied. But it would be unwise to dismiss them as merely drunkards and gluttons, the Dwarves approached eating and drinking as they did every other aspect of their lives, with total commitment and passion. When their minds were set to a task nothing could sway their determination, as hard and durable as steel they could endure great hardship, dogged persistence their ally when all around them quailed at the journey or task ahead. Of all the free peoples of old the Dwarves possessed the most warlike disposition crafting heavy weapons of iron and steel. Aside from the ceremonial double edged sword that always hung from a loop on their girdles their most favoured weapon would arguably be their forged iron battle hammer, although some preferred to carry an axe of similar weight. But other than competitions held between clans on feast days, they rarely found the occasion to test their arms and steel in anger.

I must take a few moments to mention the Hobgoblins, or ‘Hobbies’ as they were commonly known. Not to be confused with Goblins themselves, who are a breed apart and no more than distant cousins, the Hobgoblins integrated well with the fair folk being a people finely adapted to domestic service. In fact, it can be stated that Hobgoblins were happiest when cleaning or cooking, hence the name Hob…Goblin, often found polishing, cleaning or cooking at the kitchen hob. In the old days, they were free spirits, moving as they wished, often entering homes unbidden during the hours of darkness, but not entering with any ill intent in mind… No, a hobgoblin would enter a home with the specific intention of dusting or ironing or cooking, vanishing before first light having prepared a filling breakfast, or leaving behind a pile of freshly washed and pressed clothes for the householder. Although many resented this nightly intrusion, the Hobgoblins were generally accepted and their efforts rewarded with small gifts and kindnesses.

But not all was well with these diminutive people, their larger cousins from the north sought to exploit, and over the course of many years, a huge percentage of the Hobgoblin population became enslaved, only to be released from bound servitude with the gift of new clothes, an occurrence that, I might hasten to add, was very rare amongst their cold hearted and mean spirited Goblin masters.

And now, let us consider Ogres and Trolls. So similar in many ways, yet poles apart. I speak of course about temperament. They can be counted amongst the greatest successes and greatest failures of the fair folk, (meaning predominantly the Elves). Both races inhabited mountainous regions in the old days, both untrustworthy and unpredictable. After the great war had ended the Elves, as was their way at the time, determined to bring both races into the light of civilization, the task appeared daunting and probably doomed to failure, yet unperturbed they had sent envoys. Embassies sent to the leaders of the Ogres had been met with suspicion, but their advances accepted in the spirit of friendship, and gradually, over a period of many decades, the Ogres of the mountain slopes adopted the trappings of refined and civilized behaviour, in other words, they stopped eating every visitor to their lands. Eventually, they were admitted as a race into the Guild of Free People, having served a probation of many centuries without lapsing back into their old ways.

The Troll’s however were a completely different story. During the darkest years they had openly collaborated with the forces of darkness. Creatures born of rock, and with wickedness in their stony hearts, they had laboured for the Dark Lord, excavating and enlarging his deep and dark dungeons. They became his gaolers, and his formidable security, for the darkness is ever suspicious, rather trusting slow witted Troll’s than his own peoples.

There are many other races that inhabited the world in those days, some touch our story only briefly, and therefore merit little attention here, others such as the Sirens, Naiads, Wulver, Sprites and so forth will be introduced more fully as they enter the tale.

There remains then only one other race of note. The Wizards, and we play no small part in this tale. I say we, because I have not yet introduced myself. I am Orrin, and I am a Thaumaturge.

A strange name, many will say, as my order has slipped from common memory over the long years. “So what is a Thaumaturge?” I hear you ask. It is probably best to describe my order as ‘workers of great wonders or miracles,’ we have the ability to harness and direct all good and pure energy. Of course there are many different paths that the various orders of Wizards may walk, some for great good, some for great evil… and for some there is a more difficult path to follow, a path wreathed in shadow, a fine line between the light and darkness. But I need say no more at this point, for now it is time to take you back to the not so distant past, relatively speaking of course. The war to end all wars had faded into memory, with over one thousand years of peace passing. So let your imagination transport you back to the times before the rise of man, the time before your own short recorded history began. A time of magic and myth.

Chapter 1

Spring came early breaking winters icy grip on the land. Dangling icicles that had adorned the branches of the old willow tree that stood beside his favourite pool now dripped steadily. Drip, drop, drip, the rhythm constant and soothing. The last sprinkling of winter snow fought valiantly, clinging to the sword shaped leaves of early blooming snowdrops, but its battle was doomed to defeat as it melted under the soft golden suns caress.

Gondell turned his face toward the hazy sun and sighed, a sound of deep contentment, the land around him appeared to sigh in concurrence with his happiness, rebirth and renewal could now begin, and optimism bloomed in his heart. The long dark dreary days of dried provisions and preserves were now behind. A good job too, he smiled as he pictured his diminished larders, dried fish is good, rabbit and venison are also very passable when naught better is on offer… but now spring is finally here!

On the calm river a solid raft of ice floated slowly by and Gondell smiled, the thaw is here at last, so now to business. He took a final glance at the sun and tested the breeze, just a quick sniff and a taste, from the south, just the first promise of warmth… and wood smoke, he sniffed again. A cooking fire for sure… and do I detect something wonderful roasting? He began to salivate as his stomach growled, not that he was particularly hungry, he had dined well on a rich and herby stewed hare with lumps of fresh crusty bread torn from the still warm loaf. His hunger arose from the tantalising aroma wafting past him on the breeze. Fresh fish, he chuckled, and without further ado he disappeared back into his tunnel and plunged into the submerged passage that led into his subterranean home.

The thaw has come in perfect time, he thought as he stepped from the water and grabbed a towel from a row of hooks attached to the tunnel wall, some towels were hanging specifically for guests, but the fluffiest and finest were always reserved exclusively for himself.

Perfect time indeed, he observed, his stock of fresh fish being not simply low, his flooded larder was bare, and had been for quite some time, not one silver flash of fin and scales had dashed away as he swam through. Time for something fresh, he decided as he busily hunted through his tackle cupboards, sorting poles and lines, hooks and floats, determined to take advantage of the first decent fishing day in months.

Now it may be assumed that a home underground would be dark and dank, but not so a Gnome hole. Warm, cosy and bright are the words that Gondell frequently used to describe his own personal abode. It is an art long lost, that is if man ever knew the process, but Gnomes warmed and illuminated their homes with lamps and heaters that were fed directly from the abundant tree roots that also acted as supports for their vaulted ceilings. Lamps affixed to the thick vertical columns of root burned with an even golden glow as they fed on the constantly flowing sap, and heaters at the base generated adequate warmth to keep the stone clad rooms both dry and cosy.

Gondell loved his hole, inherited from his father, and his father before him, “The place has been in my family forever.” he would tell admiring guests. How his ancestors had managed to secure such a prestigious stretch of the river bank had been lost in the mists of time and to the best of his knowledge his family had never been particularly famous or wealthy.

“Most likely just good luck at the time,” he often replied when the question entered envious conversation, but it was not a matter that occupied his thoughts too much, I am comfortable and want for little, he would content himself, I have no great need for explanations!

If Gondell had known the illustrious heritage that the name of Lenzen carried he would have given family history more than a cursory thought, but he was simply Gondell Lenzen, the owner of a desirable and inherited river side hole in a better stretch of the bank.

Selecting his favourite pole, lovingly sanded and freshly varnished during the idle months of ice, he strode through to his entrance hall and carefully propped it against the wall alongside his woven willow creel, I have everything now except bait, he nodded and began to wonder if the ground had thawed sufficiently for worms to be stirring, “I doubt it,” he muttered, “But bread will be just as good… and I can exchange a few slices for a decent supper!”

Returning to his bedroom Gondell set his damp clothes on the drying rail above a wide heater and rummaged through a spacious wardrobe. As a race that inevitably get themselves drenched every time that they enter or leave their homes, Gnomes have clothes in abundance. Not that being wet is any discomfort to them, and they rarely feel the cold, they simply love clothes. For indoors their attire is generally bright, reds being a favourite. Gondell felt most comfortable relaxing in his carved wooden rocking chair wearing soft tan leather breeches, an embroidered white shirt and his scarlet silk robe, but of course it was considered ostentatious to wear such trappings outdoors.

And so Gondell selected black mole skin breeches that reached half way down his calves, cinched tight at the bottom with leather laces, a drab waterproof olive shirt and a stout yet flexible leather waistcoat dotted with numerous pockets. He held the sleeveless vest aloft and studied the emblem embossed on the breast pocket. This strange mark was the only part of his heritage that ever caused his wondering to become more active.

“Never forget this mark.” his father had told him as a young boy, “I cannot explain it’s special significance, but my father told me the same thing when I was a boy, and his father told him, and so it has always happened in our family.”

So the emblem of an ornate sword surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves became a mysterious feature of his life, along with the promise that he had made to pass on the knowledge to his own son when the time was right. “I need a son first,” he chuckled, “Before I start worrying about that promise.” Yet tradition demanded that he continue the memory, scant in detail as it was, through the line of Lenzen. I wonder what it really means, the thought drifted into his mind but only fleetingly as the desire to catch his supper usurped his inquisitiveness.

Gondell passed the small cave that housed his boat but dismissed the notion of an early launch. I don’t need it today, his thoughts ran to the hours of maintenance that he should have done during the dark days of winter. But I never felt the inclination, he told himself quickly attempting to justify his months of inactivity, winter is such a dreary time, I shall enjoy the work more with the sun on my back.

He didn’t need a boat for what he had planned, a few relaxed hours watching a red painted cork float drifting past on the steady current as he sat comfortably on the river bank.

Whistling a merry tune, one that he had made up himself, and was really quite proud of, Gondell climbed a short flight of steps cut into the steep river bank. “What a glorious day for fishing,” he announced to the world in general as he stepped onto short rabbit-cropped grass and picking up the main path that led the full length of his little hamlet, and strode eagerly toward his favourite hole, hoping that no others had felt the same urge. “I want to relax, not chat,” he told himself, baulking at the thought of company.

Now, to an inexperienced eye, the hamlet of Hendle upon Risser would remain unnoticed, no more than a casual investigation would reveal simply a series of holes in the red clay river banks, but look closer and the tops of small chimney stacks would become obvious peeping out of the turf above, the only outward sign of habitation. But this is how Gnomes liked things, quiet and private, to live their lives away from prying eyes.

And so, Gondell Lenzen. Of number sixteen River View, (not very original I know, but I did warn you that Gnomes are rather narrow minded), in the fair and gentle county of Hevershire, after little more than ten minutes walk, settled himself down upon his little willow creel and cast out his line.

Hidden from view in a tall stand of reeds, rather shabby looking reeds, the old growth from the year before, Gondell waited patiently as his float drifted slowly by. This is the life, he sighed contentedly, and lifted his line ready to cast back upstream.

“Hey ho Gondell.” A voice broke into his peace and tranquillity, “I should have guessed that the first bit of decent sun would have brought you out.”

Of all the bothersome nuisances, he sighed before turning with a wide smile, “Tindell. What brings you this way?” he replied, his heart sinking as he noticed the pole in his friends hand.

“Need you ask,” laughed the young Gnome as he began to scramble down the bank sending clumps of earth and stones tumbling down amongst the reeds and splashing into the quiet water.

Well, that’s scared away all the fish for miles around, groaned Gondell silently as he pushed aside the thought of fresh fish for his supper. “So what’s the news?” he asked politely as Tindell slumped down at his side.

“This and that,” replied Tindell as he threaded a hook.

I’m surprised he ever catches anything, thought Gondell as the younger Gnome shuffled and crashed around in the reeds looking for his bait box that had slipped down almost to the waters edge.

“But if you had bothered to come to the meeting last week, you would know everything that’s going on. Quite a discussion we had, that’s for sure!”

“Oh aye,” replied Gondell, secretly wishing he hadn’t asked the question, he avoided the regular village meetings for a reason. Nothing but nonsense and gossip, he thought, suppressing a shudder as he remembered his last evening in the village hall. Except the village didn’t have a hall, Hendle couldn’t boast such an extravagance, not like the cavernous meeting place beneath a huge and ancient elm tree in the town of Rissermouth downstream. The inhabitants of the village used a clearing in the woods nearby. Quite cheery on a summers evening, he admitted, but only a fool would go outside in the middle of winter to hear old Mayor Wisherton pontificating.

“By all accounts there’s trouble brewing in the north,” continued Tindell, “That’s the rumour anyway, how much truth there is to it, I know not.”

“There is always talk of such things,” Gondell replied, concentrating hard on his float as it passed by, “But what happens up there is no concern of ours.”

“Mayor Wisherton says that there could be war brewing.”

“Old weasel Wisherton just makes these things up to sound important,” snorted Gondell. He wasn’t on the best of terms with the mayor since a heated dispute over access to the best stretch of the river, the mayor thinking he could mark an exclusion zone. “A stretch reserved for county officials only,” the wily mayor had announced. Gondell had won the debate with a unanimous show of hands when he pointed out that Hendle only had one county official.

“Maybe your right,” Tindell nodded, “But it sets you thinking, what with all the disappearances and all!”

“Disappearances?” questioned Gondell as he re-baited his hook with a pinch of crust.

“So they say,” Tindell nodded, “Lot’s more have vanished over the winter, even old Nobbler, up and left without so much as a word… and he always seemed so happy here.”

Now that is news, thought Gondell, I never expected that of Nobbler. “Does anyone know why they’re leaving?”

“Only rumours, Mayor Wisherton says they’re going north, back to their old lands, back to the Goblins.”

“Well that just proves what a fool he is,” chuckled Gondell, shaking his head, “Go back to being slaves! Anyway, the Goblins got chased away centuries ago, from what I’ve read there’s nothing up there now except for ice and snow, and a few wolves and bears.” he added with a small shudder.

“I don’t know about that, but all the Hobbies are going somewhere. That’s for sure, he isn’t making that up.”

“True enough… it’s a mystery” A mystery that Gondell didn’t need to solve, he had never had a Hobgoblin in his service, so their sudden disappearance troubled him little.

“A mystery sure enough.” replied Tindell as he cast his line, the big float landing with a resounding splash.

No fish for me tonight, Gondell sighed deeply, a sound of resignation as he glanced at his young friend, a decent enough lad, he acknowledged, but so clumsy!

The fair weather held, and very soon no trace of the winter remained upon the land. Spring bloomed in all it’s glory, woodland glades were filled with nodding bluebells and delicate white anemones. Fresh tender grass sprouted in the meadows and hares gambolled and play fought, filled with exuberance, the long winter behind them, spring rejuvenating the land, and soft eyed does on their minds.

During the two weeks since the weather finally broke Gondell had been busy. Dragging his small sailing boat out onto the sandy shore before his entrance hole, he laid out a series of wooden trestles and overturning the craft began to sand. Stripping the old paint away, rubbing and scrubbing until natural wood shone out, the deep lustre of seasoned oak, the feel of it warm under his loving fingers. This is not simply a boat, it’s a work of art! Made by his father, only the finest materials had been used, let others paddle about in their pine hulled skiffs, he laughed as he stroked along the fine grain, but this beauty will still be sailing long after those others have rotted away to nothing.

And his pride was fully justified, for there were few boats afloat on the Risser that matched his own.

The same routine every spring, he nodded to himself, and the same thoughts! Such a shame to hide this wonderful wood. Always he felt a deep regret as he applied the first coat of bright blue paint, blotting out the deep grain, but it is necessary protection.

And so, one fine morning in late March, Gondell loaded his freshly painted and varnished pride and joy with everything that he would need for a day afloat, and with a feeling of optimism in his heart, pushed out into the river and let the current carry him toward Rissermouth, and the wide lake beyond

Chapter 2

Dark thunder clouds loomed ominously on the near horizon but Gondell chose to ignore the signs. He was under that spell that afflicts all fishermen from time to time. The fish were biting with a reckless abandon, practically sacrificing themselves to Gondell’s hook, and while they were in such a fey mood he would take full advantage. Make hay while the sun shines, he laughed quietly glancing at the rapidly advancing storm, not that the sun will be shining for long now!

“I should really head back to shore,” he told himself just as his float bobbed below the calm surface of the lake sending out rings of shimmering ripples, but I have time for just one more. His catch for the day was impressive, roach and rudd, carp and bream, most destined for his smoker as he sensibly planned to restock his winter larder, but one fat bronze flanked carp promised him a roasted feast to celebrate such an outstanding catch.

The cork float bobbed again. “Wait,” he whispered, “Patience Gondell.” Another twitch, it’s tasting my worm, this one is cautious, he told himself as his concentration focussed on the bright red cork, just one more before I turn for home.

Gusts of wind began to race across the lake, their path marked on the surface like an invisible finger drawing through the calm water. “Time to go,” he announced sadly, “It would have been nice to catch another.” he added with regret as he turned to gaze at the distant shoreline and the river mouth that marked his path home. I’ve drifted a long way, he suddenly realised with the first stirrings of alarm, it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get back before the storm hits!

The float bobbed again, more determined, a positive bite, almost there, he grinned as the ominous clouds disappeared from his thoughts, he’s being so cautious… maybe a big old tench. His optimism grew as the fat carp suddenly didn’t seem half as appealing, it’s place on his plate now taken by his favourite of all fish. So beautiful, and so tasty, his stomach rumbled in anticipation of the treat in store if he could maintain the patience to allow the cagey fish to overcome it’s suspicion and finally take the bait.

“And now I have you.” he cried in glee as the float drifted almost casually below the surface, no-longer a hesitant bob the bright cork disappeared from sight as the big fish began it’s run. Striking quickly he set his hook and instantly understood that his prize would be worth the wait. Power surged through the line and bent the flexible pole in his hands, he could feel the struggle in the depths, he felt the panic as his prey surged towards deeper water. “Big.” he declared happily, very big by the feel of him, he admitted as small doubts began to taunt his mind, would his line be strong enough? Would his pole stand the strain? The supple willow began to bend into a tight arc and Gondell instantly relieved the pressure, I have to give him time to fight, I cannot rush this, he warned himself as the real threat of breakages loomed, if I push too hard I will lose both fish and tackle.

“Oh my, how big are you?” he gasped as the boat began to move, towed by the monster of the deep. I’ve never had one this strong before, his thoughts quickly attempting to identify any catch capable of dragging the weight of his boat. “No, I’m not that lucky.” he declared as the image of a sturgeon forced itself into his mind. He would be the envy of the whole community if he could reach home with such a rare monster aboard. “Caviar.” he whispered but drove the thought away as he fought the urge to fight harder, whatever it is, I have to give it time to wear itself out, he can’t last so long dragging me… be patient Gondell.

The boat began to rock gently as it slowly cut through the water, the once calm surface now rippling with small waves, the precursor to the gathering storm.

Now, had Gondell been thinking clearly those waves would have registered as the final warning, the sign to sever his line and retreat to the safety of the river. But of course he wasn’t thinking clearly, only dreams of bowls brimming with salted fish roe filled his mind, he could almost taste them as he nursed the pole, applying only enough pressure to offer resistance, slowly tiring his powerful prey.

The far shore began to appear as a thin dark pencil line in the distance and the first faint alarm bells began to ring as the waves grew in both height and frequency. Gondell felt torn, the light faded quickly as a canopy of angry black clouds closed in above his head, muttering words of frustration he slid his ever present filleting knife from its leather sheath and with a trembling hand reached forward, can I give him just one more minute? His blade paused, the finely honed edge a fraction from the taut line, “One more minute,” he gasped as greed conquered sense and the first fat drop of rain splashed onto his upturned face, “Just a little longer, he’s getting tired, I can feel it.”

Every fisherman understands when the battle is won, that moment of realisation, the struggle is still there but the strength and conviction have waned. “You’re finished now!” he whispered to himself as the line slackened, slow and steady now, he cautioned as he took up the slack and felt the slightest of tremors in the solid weight that he had begun to drag up from the depths.

“Very big… how heavy are you?” he grunted as he hauled, the mass below rising painfully slowly as his pole bent under the strain, “Very soon now.” he murmured as the red painted float broke the surface quivering on the tight line. Gondell licked his lips as the outline of a huge tail fin flipped deep in the murk, still too deep still to identify the species, but clear enough for him to understand that his catch would be worth his patience, “Oh my, you are huge.” he chuckled happily a split second before tears of frustration flooded his eyes as the taut line suddenly shot clear of the water. “Damn it, damn it, and double damn it!” he swore as the massive fin swirled the water liberating a stream of tiny bubbles, “Of all the evil luck.”

For just a second frustration almost forced Gondell to dive in after his lost catch, so close he could almost touch the tantalising feast, almost taste it’s flesh, but the wind lashing the canvas sail with a loud snap focussed his thoughts. “I’ve left it very late,” he groaned as glancing over his shoulder he saw that his own home shore had drifted from sight, only the bright sunshine glinting on the rolling waves remained of what had started as the perfect fishing day. Now ahead the once calm lake was being beaten into a frenzy of foam by the powerful swirling winds and an oppressive darkness had engulfed his small craft.

Stowing his pole quickly Gondell cast aside the memory of the one that got away and set his small triangular sail, and cursing himself softly for being foolish turned the boat by paddling hard, his target the brightness that would lead him home.

That massive fish would prove to be a turning point in Gondell’s quiet and comfortable life, the catalyst that set a chain of momentous events in motion, but of course Gondell knew none of these things, and so intent was he on outrunning the storm that he never noticed a scale covered hand slide up from the churning water and grasp the gunnel. So complete was his shock that he barely had time to draw a breath as the small boat was overturned and he plunged head first into the icy lake.

Cellie had followed the endeavours of the small creature that bobbed on the surface of her lake home for most of the day, such was her boredom.

With a flick of her broad tail she had followed his thin line down into the murky depths and giggled as a wicked idea entered her mind. It will offer a little distraction if nothing else, she thought as her plan clarified. Of course she intended to kill the creature, that would be the grand finale, but she had no intention of simply drowning it quickly as she had done so many times before, I will play with this one, she decided and turned the crude hook over in her hand watching the impaled worm wriggle feebly.

How stupid fish are! The fact that they could be so easily duped by such an obvious and alien device always amazed her. She had watched many fall to his bait as the day had passed, often she had aided his efforts by shepherding the ravenous shoals to his line and delighted in their frantic struggles to escape. But now a shadow crept over the bright surface, the outline of scudding white clouds swiftly replaced by a blanket of grey and black. “It is time to finish this,” she decided and gave the line a playful tug imagining his absolute attention fixed on the bobbing red indicator. “Are you excited now?” she asked as she swiftly tugged twice more, teasing, knowing his anticipation would be growing. From the watery depths she glanced up and watched the darkness approach, “I think it is time now for you to catch a surprise.” malice flashed in her vivid green eyes as she carefully looped the line around her hand several times and began to swim toward the middle of the lake. She felt his strike as her hand jerked, that’s it, set the hook, a smile spread across her lips as she began to struggle, tugging and twisting the line around her lithe body, feeling the tension of the line on her scales. “Now I shall take you for a ride.” she whispered and gave her broad tail a gentle beat ever mindful of the weakness of the slender line, I must not break it, she warned herself, she wanted to build his hopes, feed his fantasy, only then would she gain pleasure in his death. To take him from the pinnacle of joy to the ultimate despair appealed to her spiteful nature, she much preferred to kill the happy, and found little pleasure in drowning the depressed, sad creatures that may secretly welcome her final embrace.

Deeper into the storm she towed the small boat and soon felt the action of the waves acting on the line wrapped around her body, I can play a little longer, she decided aware that eventually the creature would admit defeat and cut it’s losses when faced by the danger posed by the tempest closing in fast. I like this new game, she sighed contentedly as she decided the time had arrived to move to the final chapter, I shall enjoy playing this again.

“You think you’ve won,” she chuckled as her struggles became more feeble and the line tightened around her waist as the creature above began to haul, but I don’t intend to make it too easy for you, she sighed as she rolled out of the coils keeping a tight grip and steady tension with her hand. Let me excite you with my beautiful tail, she giggled as she met his frantic hefting, and with a spiteful grin released the hook from between her fingers watching it shoot to the surface before playfully diving toward the depths.

Her long blonde hair billowing she beat her tail rapidly cutting swiftly through the water, far enough she decided glancing at the dark hull behind her and rose swiftly to the surface, her head breaking through just in time to watch Gondell shaking his head as he studied the empty hook.

“It is quite a pretty little thing,” she decided as she cast her gaze onto his face, or it would be without that beard, maybe I should spare it! The thought was only passing and her grin widened as she watched him dip a paddle over the side and pull hard, so you think you can go home? I have other plans for you, and silently she slipped back beneath the surface edging closer to the outline of the hull. “Say goodbye.” she chuckled and gripping the side of the small bobbing craft easily flipped it over before tearing a hole in the oaken hull.

Arms and legs flailing wildly the creature fought to breach the surface, that’s it, catch your final breath she laughed before grabbing an ankle and tugging swiftly down. Cellie’s heart soared as she looked into the creatures eyes and watched them focus, it’s expression changing rapidly from confusion to terror as the full impact of it’s predicament crystallised. “I am the last thing you will ever see.” she spoke aloud, “You are lucky, few have ever seen my beauty,” and taking a handful of his beard she began to drag Gondell struggling frantically toward the depths.

It has strength, she admitted, they have usually drowned before now. Cellie paused and glanced at the contorted face of her victim, “You can’t hold your breath forever,” she said, “Relax and let the lake take you, don’t fight the inevitable.” she shuddered as his eyes widened and the pain blossomed, “Yesss,” she hissed quietly, “This is what I love the most.” Her final words little more than a gasp as bubbles rose from his mouth, now open wide in a silent scream, “Feel the water flooding into your lungs air breather.” she released his beard and shivered sensually as his death throes excited her to the point distraction. Oh I will definitely play this game again, she groaned just as her eyes settled on the motif embossed on his waistcoat pocket.

Horror crossed her face as her mirth and arousal disappeared in an instant, and grasping his hands she surged powerfully to the surface, “Stupid,” she screamed at herself, “Oh Cellie… what have you done? He is the last, was the last. What am I going to do now?” she wailed in utter despair. Broaching the surface she rolled the limp creature onto its back and began to pound the chest frantically, her wails pitiful, her sobbing heavy with remorse, “I’ve killed the last keeper.”

“Breathe,” she screamed, “Please breathe.” her fists hammered rapidly, “Please forgive me, I didn’t know who you were.” her tears streamed as her pounding became less intense and the full impact of her actions dawned, “I knew the last keeper was one of these creatures,” she sobbed, “But why did it have to be this one?”

Her heart leapt as Gondell gasped, a rapid shallow breath followed by violent choking, his eyes flew open wide as he retched water from his lungs, “Oh Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Cellie sobbed repeatedly as she caught the limp body again just as Gondell lapsed back into unconsciousness, alarm flooded her features but relief blossomed swiftly as she witnessed his chest rise before another cough voided the remaining fluid in his system, she held her breath before relaxing as his breathing continued steadily. “I have been so lucky,” she sighed deeply secure in the knowledge that he would survive her spiteful attempt to end his life, “I would never have forgiven myself. They would never have forgiven me.”

Rolling onto her back she gently laid his body on her chest, her arms wrapped around him, so warm, she marvelled in the heat that radiated from him into her own cold flesh, a sensation that she had never experienced before, It’s actually quite nice, she chuckled and began to slowly fin toward the distant shore. I will leave him by the water, leave him in his own element, it would be safer than putting him back into the boat, that is if it was still afloat.

And so the siren saved Gondell and set him on a course that changed his life forever.

Cold shingle bit into Gondell’s face as he woke with a fire raging inside his chest, Where am I? He wondered as his mind gradually cleared, his feet were cold… and wet, he realised, why am I lying face down on a stony beach?

Suddenly memories flooded back and summoning all of his strength he struggled to his feet and in panic staggered a few paces away from the water. Vivid green eyes filled his mind, long flowing blonde hair, scales, and a face of such beauty that it stopped his heart, beautiful until she smiled, he shuddered as he remembered the viciously sharp teeth that she had revealed as she laughed, her laughter ringing out clearly a second before his lungs filled and his world had come to an end.

“What was that?” he questioned out loud as he sank to his knees and stared out across the now calm water, the storm having blown itself out.

“I am a siren,” the reply to his question drifted up from below the water, the voice like sweet music even if slightly distorted. “My name is Cellie, and I am truly sorry, I didn’t know who you were.”

Gondell shuffled nervously further from the lakes edge as Cellie gradually rose, her head breaking the surface with barely a ripple.

“A siren,” he gasped in disbelief, “I didn’t think they were real, I mean I didn’t think your kind existed,” he stammered as she drifted closer to the shore. Gondell gazed in wonder at her pale skin, her upper body milky white flecked with only small patches of shimmering silver scales, her waist cleared the surface and he saw the scales spread, she is half fish, a true siren.

“Then it is your tail that I saw?” he questioned and saw her slowly nod.

“I am sorry that I tricked you,” she whispered, “I was playing with you, I should have been more careful.”

“That is how you play?” snorted Gondell regaining a little composure and confidence, he knew that on dry land he would be safe, “Drowning innocent folk is your idea of fun?”

Cellie shrugged shyly, “It is what we do, it’s our nature.” she replied quietly, “But if I had known.” she sighed, “But you are safe now,” she added with a small smile.

“Where is my boat?” demanded Gondell, “And which side of the lake am I?”

“Your boat is gone,” Cellie cast her gaze down onto the still water. “And as we were closer to this shore I have brought you to the forest side, I do not know what you call this land in your own tongue, we simply call it the shadowland.”

“Perfect,” Gondell sighed in resignation, “No boat, miles from home… and to add insult to injury, I lost all my fish, and I’m hungry.”

Cellie shook her head sadly, “I have wronged you, is there any way that I can make things right in your eyes?”

Gondell thought long and hard, I could demand that she transport me home, he debated, but in all honesty I don’t trust her… what is the guarantee that she doesn’t get me back into the water and drown me again?

“Fish,” he declared, “Bring me a tench and I will consider a small part of your debt to me paid.” who better to catch one, he thought as his stomach rumbled. I can start a fire and with a full stomach I can begin the long march to the docks, from there I can catch a boat home.

Gondell had a small blaze started before Cellie eventually returned, luckily he always carried a small fire stone in his pocket and the white hot sparks soon caught in the tinder he had foraged on the edge of the dark forest. Pine logs crackled merrily as silently the siren resurfaced and tossed a still wriggling golden green tench far up onto the shore.

“A nice fish,” he admitted, I’ve never seen one as big he thought suppressing a wide grin, he had no intention of showing excessive gratitude, I’m in this fix because of her, and I still don’t trust her despite how apologetic she appears to be.

“So how many more of your kind are in the lake?” He asked glancing back out over the water. But his question never received any answer. Cellie had gone.

Gondell felt strangely alone as he crouched beside his small fire as evening set in, It’s much later than I had imagined, he told himself as the tree’s shadows lengthened toward the water, I don’t fancy wandering around in the dark, best if I sleep here and start fresh tomorrow at first light. He poked the glowing embers with a stick and watched sparks drift into the darkening sky. If I’m staying here tonight I need more wood he told himself and busily set about collecting sufficient fallen logs to feed his fire throughout the approaching hours of darkness.

Night had fallen before he was satisfied that his collecting had yielded sufficient fuel and dropping a heavy log onto the flames he stretched out on the springy grass that marked a boundary between water and trees, “A glass of bramble wine would not go amiss now,” he announced to the silence and smiled, “It’s been quite a day.” One would have expected that near drowning and the loss of his wonderful boat would have depressed Gondell’s mood, and to an extent it had, yet he could still smile. Always a positive soul, Gondell rarely let his thoughts linger on his losses, “Tomorrow is another day,” being one of his favourite expressions.

The stars above his head spread in the darkness of a clear sky, and not a cloud drifted across the pale moon. It will be a cold night, he thought and shuffled closer to the fire that crackled merrily, spitting from time to time as pale amber resin oozed from the log that had now caught nicely and promised warmth for quite some time. At no point had Gondell questioned why he had found such a goodly supply of conveniently cut wood so close at hand, his mind had been occupied with the strange events of the day and a comment that Cellie had made that had only just begun to nag him.

“My name is Cellie, and I am truly sorry, I didn’t know who you were.

“What I don’t understand is how she knows me?” he voiced aloud to the stars above, “And then she said… it’s in her nature to do such things… but if she’d known?

Known what? Who I am? How could she know? I’m not famous, I do not travel far, everyone that I know is in Hendle… and I’m sure someone would have mentioned if they knew a siren!

Gondell shuffled onto his side and gazed out across the mirror calm lake, the reflection of the moon almost perfect with hardly a ripple to mar the beautiful image. Is she still out there? The thought filtered into his mind, in the distance he could just make out a line of torch lights on the far shore, pricks of light even smaller and dimmer than the stars, yet in the middle distance he swore he could see a small dark shape floating, he rubbed his eyes and looked again, “It’s probably nothing,” he announced as the smallest shiver of fear crept up his spine, and she did seem very upset about what she had done, I don’t really think I have anything to fear. Yet despite his bravado he wished that he had a little company, another soul sharing his solitude on the edge of the strange and ominous forest. Even bumbling Tindell would be good company now, he admitted silently.

Gondell may have felt alone, but little did he know that suspicious eyes had watched him from the tree tops as he gathered his wood, and quiet whispers had followed his wanderings, plans and plots devised. Not for the first time that fateful day his waist coat had been studied, but where Cellie had felt deep respect in her cold heart at the sight of the motif, other eyes saw only opportunity and the potential for mischief.

“Go now, and find them quickly,” Donur the fairy whispered to his cousin Frielok, “Return swiftly, we only have until daybreak.”

Chapter 3

As sleep took Gondell’s mind away to the realm of dreams an unusual alliance sat camped on the northern edge of the dark forest. Unusual in such that as peoples Dwarf, Elf and Ogre seldom chose to ally.

Feron stretched, his yawn wide and exaggerated, “Can’t you cook any faster?” he complained and poked his heavy set companion sharply in the ribs, “My stomach is beginning to think that my throat has been cut, it’s been days since I last ate anything decent.”

“So your breakfast was not decent,” replied Ulaff as he turned a flat bread over on the wide stone he had laid in the embers of their camp fire, his tone calm as he masked his annoyance.

“Nay, do not take my meaning wrong my friend,” laughed the Dwarf, “Breakfast was fair enough, but little more than a snack for a hunter, I need meat, enough to stick to my ribs, I am wasting away on this trip.”

Tillendur opened an eye and chortled softly, “My dear Dwarf, I think it will be many weeks of short rations before you need to worry about wasting away.”

“An easy thing for you to say,” Feron replied, “You Elves barely eat enough to keep a mouse alive, you would grow fat on short rations. But I am losing weight,” he complained and cinched his leather girdle one hole tighter. “I blame Ulaff for my predicament, he may be a fair chef, but I warned you before, it is not wise to rely on an Ogre to cook, he eats more than he serves.”

Ulaff sighed in quiet resignation and poked the slender tip of his filleting knife deep into a roasting leg of mutton, a small smile broke across his thick lips as the juices ran clear as he withdrew the fine blade, “Think yourself lucky that the meat is cooked, I myself am also very hungry. Almost hungry enough to consider a slice or two of roasted unreasonable Dwarf.”

Feron looked up sharply, it had been many hundreds of years since the Ogres had been tamed, yet the old memories and suspicions lingered. “There is no need of such talk between friends.” he stated stressing the word friends, “You know that I merely jest with you, I mean no insult.”

Ulaff’s face crinkled into a grin as he dropped the sizzling leg onto a thick bed of fresh green leaves and turned his attention back to the cooking bread. “No insult or offence taken,” he chuckled, “There is more than enough meat here to satisfy my urges for at least one more day, so why don’t you fetch that cask of wine you’ve have been hiding for all these weeks, we can make this a merry meal.”

“I have not been hiding it,” grumbled Feron as he hesitantly stood and turned to the line of pack horses that followed their wanderings, “I was actually saving it for a special occasion.”

“And what occasion would that be?” asked Tillendur, “Maybe to celebrate the day that you escaped being roasted by an Ogre?” the Elf winked at Ulaff as Feron snorted and stamped away into the dark muttering.

“Yes, yes,” sighed Feron, “I had every intention of sharing,” the Ogres eyes almost glowed so intense his gaze as he spied Feron attempting to slip his small pouch of salt surreptitiously back into a pocket without his companions noticing. They had been on the road for many weeks and certain vital provisions had begun to run low. “I’ll be happy to get to Scaraport tomorrow, maybe then you will all stop badgering me, then you can buy some salt of your own Ulaff.”

“Scaraport,” whispered Tillendur, “Still far, I wish we didn’t have to delay though.”

“Just a few hours out of our way.” replied the hulking Ogre as he sprinkled a pinch of salt on the thigh bone in his meaty hand, “The trail is cold anyway, those vile creatures move quickly, but we never had any real hope of catching them before they reached the forest.”

“True my friend,” nodded the Elf sadly as he stared at the deep shadow of the ancient woodland, the flickering glow from their fire shimmering on the new seasons growth of leaves that rippled in the gentle breeze.

“Do you think it was them that you scented earlier?” asked Feron, the elvish ability of sight and scent never failed to amaze him. Tillendur had paused earlier that evening, his focus and attention drawn and intense as he sniffed gently.

“Do you smell it?” he whispered, “It is very faint, but there is another camp fire burning… far away.” Feron had snuffled noisily but detected nothing more than the aroma of pine resin and damp earth.

Tillendur opened his eyes and turned his head to face the Dwarf, “It was not them that I sensed before, I have no doubt of that. The aroma was too wholesome to be them, too fresh. I cannot be completely sure but I suspect that someone had a fish roasting.”

Feron raised an eyebrow obviously missing a connection.

“A fresh fish!” answered the Elf, “These folk do not have time to catch fish, that takes a while, and even if you ignore that fact, I believe that they march on dried food, cured meat and water only. I cannot see their captain relenting during such a driven march to allow a fire and fresh fare.”

“Then the source is of little concern for us.” noted Ulaff as he licked a thick coating of mutton fat from his fingers. “So what is the plan for tomorrow?”

“An early start,” nodded Tillendur, ‘We start before the break of dawn, I want to be at the port at first light… after that.” he paused deep in thought. “Well after that… we shall see, I shall gather news of their passing in the forest, only then can we decide our new course.”

“If it’s an early start,” answered Feron, “Then I shall bid you both goodnight. My need for food and drink is satisfied,” he declared before belching loud and long and let out his buckled girdle one hole, “Now my need for sleep is pressing.” And rolling into a thick blanket he drifted into a deep slumber despite the loud crunching of bones between Ulaff’s teeth as he finished his leisurely meal.

“Something isn’t right!” Tillendur reined in his horse and stood in the stirrups, “I sense a disturbance… it is strange, it is only a feeling, and I cannot explain why there is suddenly a heaviness in my heart. We wasted too much time in Scaraport, of that I am now sure. Come my friends, we must make haste into the forest, only there will I find any news.”

Their trip into port had been uneventful. Arriving just after first light they had soon found a merchant on the waterfront capable of re-stocking their dwindling supplies, he had studied their neatly written list and nodded slowly. He has education, acknowledged Tillendur, rarely did he meet any of another race that could understand elvish writing, especially a Gnome.

“You are free to leave your horses here,” the elderly merchant had stated as he called into the rear of his shop and began to bark orders, “They will be safe here, I will ensure that everything that you need is packed ready for your return.”

“Most agreeable,” replied Feron bowing low, “That will give me time to find breakfast.” And without further conversation he began the hunt for a welcoming tavern.

“I prefer to stay here,” Ulaff eyed the merchant suspiciously, “I had my fill last night.”

“I will accompany Feron,” replied Tillendur, “We both know that it isn’t wise to allow our short friend to become too comfortable when there is a fresh barrel open and meat roasting, I do not wish to delay for too long.” But Tillendur only revealed half of his real concern to the nodding Ogre, I cannot explain, his thoughts were a confusion, There is something unusual about today, but I do not sense any danger or threat, he paused at the front door and gazed along the waterfront. Just in time he spotted his companion disappear into an imposing wooden structure, the sign hanging above the front door proudly announcing, “Welcome to the Tickled Trout Tavern.”

“Ulaff,” he called over his shoulder, “You will find us in the Tickled Trout, inform me the very second we are ready to depart.”

Tillendur hesitated on the street outside the tavern deep in thought, but his premonitions refused to reveal more than an uneasy feeling of expectancy. Raucous laughter issued through the open door as a drunken Fairy staggered onto the street, his hat following swiftly, thrown by the bar keeper as he stood in the entrance, his hands firmly on his hips.

“And don’t come back, I don’t need your kind in here,” the short stocky Gnome bellowed. The sound of breaking wood carried clearly to the street and he rolled his eyes, “Frontier towns!”, he sighed before turning to calm yet another dispute before it escalated into violence and more damage.

“A charming establishment.” chuckled Tillendur as he straightened his soft deer skin tunic and prepared to enter, I think it is even more important now to be with Feron, his temper is too short for a place like this… and I do not wish to spend time explaining our mission to the local bailiff.

Taking a deep breath Tillendur pushed open the heavy oak door and immediately fought the urge to gag, smoke hung heavy in the stale air, thick acrid smoke issuing from numerous long stemmed clay pipes and a huge cooking fire at the end of a long wooden bar. Loud music and off key singing assaulted his ears. His elvish tastes cultured and refined, the rustic drinking songs of the Gnomes sounded discordant to the extreme.

Scanning the darkened room he soon located Feron, his loud voice adding to the noise as he clattered a hefty wooden mug of ale on the table in time with the music’s tempo. It does not bode well for a quick departure, he sighed moving lightly and nimbly between the staggering patrons, at least Ulaff is here if he doesn’t wish to leave quietly. Ulaff would be a last resort of course but knowing the massive Ogre was on call to bodily extract the jovial Dwarf came as some comfort.

“Tillendur,” shouted the Dwarf and tipped a snoozing Gnome from the seat at his side to make room for his friend, the unfortunate creature slumped to the scuffed and dirty floor but continued his deep slumber undisturbed, “Sit and drink with me my friend, I know how much your people love music… is this not the finest choir you have ever heard?” he grinned wide as the Elf grimaced, the rowdy singers doubling their efforts as the chorus came around again.

“What they lack in finesse they certainly make up for in enthusiasm,” replied the Elf diplomatically as he took the offered seat, a look of obvious distaste on his face as he glanced down on the drunken Gnome on the floor. “I cannot understand why you do this to yourselves,” he stated turning his attention back to Feron who ran his sleeve across his lips before banging the empty mug down hard and declaring, “He keeps good ale… for a Gnome,”

Quite a compliment, thought Tillendur knowing that Feron had obviously decided the beer was close to excellent, that is high praise indeed, especially when phrased so by Feron, which will add to my problems, he will be very reluctant to leave now.

Despite the drunken revelry surrounding him Tillendur remained reserved and quiet, his strange apprehension growing by the minute, I wish I knew what disturbs me, he sighed quietly and took a sip from the small glass of ale that Feron had insisted he take, “Just to appear sociable,” he had been instructed. It is actually very good, he admitted silently as the bitter flavour of hops lingered on his tongue. Yet despite the excellence of the beer his thoughts swiftly returned to anxiety as his frustration at their unavoidable delay mounted.

Now Tillendur stood in his stirrups and concentrated hard on the quiet murmurings of the woodland in the distance, too far away to be sure, but close enough to feel the tension, “To the forest quickly friends,” he cried spurring his horse forward urgently, “But I fear the news will not be good.”

Without urging Tillendur’s horse swiftly broke into a gallop, the connection between animal and rider almost telepathic, so close were their minds, so well he understood his master’s moods and feelings. Feron bounced uncomfortably behind. Dwarves are not natural horsemen, generally preferring to walk but his appointment to the Guild had demanded that sacrifices be made, and so it was that he had learned to ride of a fashion. Comfortable and proficient at a walk or steady trot but unstable at a canter or gallop. Feron admitted frequently that a sack of grain would have more balance and control at speed. “I just hang on and pray that I don’t break my neck when I fall off… which I guarantee I will do before long.” he joked, the jest covering the genuine fear he held in his heart.

“What do you sense?” asked the Dwarf quietly as he finally managed to still his excited mount. Tillendur had dismounted under the eaves of the glowering forest, his palm placed against the gnarled and deeply riven bark of an ancient and stately chestnut, “The speech is confused,” he replied, “Rumour and supposition… evil has been at work here.”

“Goblins?” growled Feron and reached for the battle hammer that sat in a sling across his back, an adaptation made for him by the Elves of the Guild, and a gift he had accepted gratefully.

“I need both hands to cling onto this beast,” he had half joked, the sling kept his favourite weapon close but prevented its bulk from hampering his horseback travels.

“I am sure they are behind this mischief,” nodded Tillendur, “But the trees speak of a breed greater in stature than any Elf, that is what is so confusing.”

“Bigger than an Elf?” Feron slipped to the ground and hefting his hammer took a few tentative steps into the gloom of the overhanging branches.

“The are gone now, early this morning… but the trees are afraid Feron, the creatures of the woodlands are frightened, all fair things quake, it is like they are holding their breath, waiting for a drama to play out.”

“What scares them? What drama? Ask them that Tillendur.”

The Elf shook his head slowly, “You know that I cannot ask them, I cannot talk to them directly my friend, I only sense their emotions, their fears, I hear their thoughts but I am not able to direct their thoughts. I see only what they are capable of revealing.”

Ulaff finally arrived trailing the pack animals behind him on a long tether, his long stride easily matching the pace of a jogging horse. “What is the news?” he asked but fell silent as Tillendur raised his slender hand, his concentration and expression intense.

“Goblins,” whispered Feron, “Big Goblins by all accounts, up to mischief in the forest, but quite what they have been doing we know not yet.”

Ulaff drew his sword, the polished steel ringing as it slid from its wood and leather scabbard, and he flourished no dainty Elf made weapon. An Ogre blade is a fearsome thing to behold, placing the tip on the floor the hilt stands high above the head of any Dwarf, and it would take the combined strength of two full grown Dwarves to wield it, the blade broad and heavy, more cleaver than sword. Yet, cumbersome as it may have looked, in the hands of a skilled Ogre it became an object of deadly beauty, wood or stone, little could withstand it’s scything arc when used in anger, armour, flesh and bone cleaving as easily as soft butter.

“Hush your chattering,” whispered the Elf, “I am close to the truth now.” his eyes closed and his expression grew serious as he gripped the tree, pain flashed across his handsome face and with a small cry he released his grip, panting softly. “It is dire my friends, and we have little time… I now see the mind of our enemy more clearly.”

Chapter 4

Donur cautiously crept closer to the sleeping figure, the glow from the dying fire hurting his sharp eyes, “Sleep peacefully,” he chuckled, “Sleep well while you still can keeper.”

His sharp ears caught the sound of approaching feet, heavy feet, he glanced at Gondell fearing that the noise would rouse the softly snoring Gnome. “So secure, so unconcerned,” he whispered quietly as Gondell continued his slumber without even a twitch to indicate any awareness of his surroundings.

Leather creaked in the moonlight, steel rang as swords were drawn, heavy breathing panted into the night, a sure sign of a fast and driven march. Donur raced swiftly toward the sounds, it may be unaware but this noise is sure to wake it, I will not risk my reward because Lord Kangan’s soldiers are clumsy and over confident, these Gnomes are sneaky creatures, easily spooked when they are aware of approaching danger.

“Softly,” he hissed as the Goblin captain came into view, “It sleeps, we must not risk waking it yet.”

“Who are you?” the captain questioned gruffly as he paused his march.

“Donur, leader of the Clan of Elowyte… at your service Oh Captain of the Great Lord.”

Donur’s heart raced, the new breed of Goblins frightened him, giants to his eyes, and not to be trusted, but now I have announced myself, they cannot cheat me of my just reward, the Lord Kangan sees all. “I have found one that your master seeks… at great personal expense and discomfort I might add.”

“You will be adequately compensated if you have indeed found the Keeper,” replied the Goblin captain as he studied Donur in the strengthening moonlight not attempting to disguise his contempt, “But it will be for my Master to decide if you have found the real keeper or not, until then you will wait, we have delivered too many imposters in recent years,” a cold smile broke across the Goblins face, “Pray to your gods that he is genuine, or you and your whole clan will feel the wrath of Kangan.”

“He wears the sacred design,” replied Donur sulkily as the thoughts of quick and easy profit died in his mind, “Why else would I call you if I wasn’t sure, I have delivered the true keeper.”

“We shall see,” growled the captain, “Lead me to it.”

Oh, he is the true keeper, thought Donur as he beckoned for the Goblin troops to follow, why else would cold blooded, cold hearted Cellie deliver him to safety, so contrite and apologetic, feeding him on his command… oh he is genuine, of that I have no doubt.

Gondell stirred from the most wonderful of dreams, his fears had melted away as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened during the day, and his sleeping mind filled with delicious images of future feasts and merry-making.

A sharp crack had woken him, his eyes opening wide, his ears straining. A half burned log sagged and shifted in the glowing embers of his fire sending a spark leaping forth to burst with a loud pop like a fire cracker. “Just the fire spitting,” he sighed and closed his eyes again hoping that he could fall back into the same dream.

Barely had his lids closed again when his quiet world turned into a nightmare of darkened faces, triumphant cries and grasping hands, his camp fire disturbed in the commotion flared into life casting dark shadows on the hideous faces that leered down on him, stark contrast to his vision as hooked and twisted noses became highlighted, ragged pointed ears illuminated, some notched like a farm animals ears are marked for identification, but what terrified him most were the eyes, cold and hard… merciless and uncaring. He saw no spark of compassion in those eyes, no hint of tenderness, only steely cruelty. Moments later he felt his hands bound behind his back and squealed as the tough leather bindings were pulled viciously tight, “Did it say something?” his largest captor sneered before swiping Gondell hard across the face, shocking him into stunned silence. “You speak when you’re spoken too my lad,” he chuckled grabbing a handful of beard tugging and twisting painfully. “If you weren’t so valuable my boys would have fun with a pretty boy like you,” the captain winked knowingly, “Lucky for you we don’t have the time, they have been marching for weeks now without any pretty company.”

“Who are you?” whispered Gondell hesitantly, shrinking down against the hard earth as the tall Goblin rose to his full height.

“You have the privilege of meeting Captain Ruaq, of his Lordships Southern Scouts, and tell me, what is your name Keeper?”

“I don’t know what you mean by keeper,” stuttered Gondell nervously, “But you have made a mistake, I am just a humble Gnome of no importance, you will get no ransom for me.”

“Your name?” hissed Ruaq grasping the helpless Gnome by the waistcoat and effortlessly lifting his bound body to eye level, “Tell me your name and explain the significance of the emblem on this fine vest.”

“My name is Gondell, Gondell Lenzen,” his voice little more than a frightened squeak, “And I don’t know what the mark means, no-one in my family has known for generations.”

Ruaq roared with laughter and dropped Gondell heavily back to the ground. “Do you hear that lads? He has no idea who he is, either that or he is a liar… but that is not our concern, Lord Kangan wishes to interrogate all potential keepers personally,” his mirth died as he turned to his grinning band, “So no funny business or clever ideas from you lot of ruffians, we keep him whole and untouched until he has met the master, on this point I am deadly serious, the first of you to touch him,” he paused, glaring from face to face, “Touch this little morsel and I will skin you and eat your still beating hearts as you watch.” He bared his ragged and uneven fangs as a warning as his party of scouts shuffled nervously, none wanting to meet his eye.

“Now we have that small matter cleared up… take a short rest lads, fill your flasks from the lake, sleep a while if you can. We march again at dawn, and we will not rest again until we reach home.”

A quiet chorus of groans met his proclamation causing his lip to curl into a sadistic smile.

Well, this is a serious turn of events, thought Gondell attempting to defeat his growing panic with calm reasoning. Let’s consider this situation rationally, he told himself averting his gaze from the Goblins that surrounded him, his guard studied him with an iniquitous grin as he stroked the edge of a curved dagger repeatedly across the flat surface of a wet-stone. An evil looking creature, it’s course features disfigured further by a wavering glow from the fire that had been stoked into a blaze.

Either it’s a case of mistaken identity, or there is much more to my family emblem than I first assumed… but what? Why did he call me keeper… keeper of what? he mused, if I am the keeper they talk about, it can’t have been that important, my family appear to have lost whatever we’re supposed to be keeping generations ago!

The leather thongs bit deep into his wrists and he shuffled uncomfortably, “Just try running,” his guard laughed and licked the curved blade in his hand, “I can carve you up nicely and still keep you alive for the Master, just think about that if you get any ideas about escape.”

Gondell shrank deeper into the course grass on the edge of the glowing pool of firelight, not doubting for a second that his guard wasn’t joking, How many of them are there? He questioned silently, and what are they? They look like Goblins, only bigger, but somehow not so fearful.

He had only seen a goblin once before, and that had been a picture in a book. But that was ancient history, he wondered as he glanced at his captors again, they were similar to the illustration, but much larger, their skin paler, suddenly realisation struck him. They are planning to march during the day, no Goblin would ever march under the full sun, or my knowledge of them is very poor. What are you? He asked himself again as the guard glared at him. I wouldn’t waste my breath asking that question, he shrugged inside. I’m sure there are many peoples in the world that I know nothing of, but they do look very much like the demons of the north.

Demons of the North, the term most commonly used to name the breeds of evil folk from the dark and cold lands beyond the wide Desert of Akar and over the high mountains of ice. Places of distant legend to the peoples surrounding the lake. Few ventured much further than Scaraport or the dark forest. Why bother, stated Gondell, there is nothing of value to the north, only burning waterless desert and sheer, inhospitable mountains.

But the demons are just myth, their kind disappeared many centuries ago… to the best of my knowledge, but I think my knowledge of these things is very narrow, lets face facts, he admitted reluctantly, everything beyond the lake is a mystery to me.

Slowly his mind turned to escape as he gazed intently out onto the lake, deep in his heart hoping to see the outline of the Siren just offshore waiting to rescue him again, in hindsight, I should have ignored my suspicions and fears and demanded that she take me home, I certainly wouldn’t be in this mess now.

Yes, he cautioned, but I may already be dead now, I am in danger here, but at least I’m still breathing.

Thirteen in total, he counted the Goblins carefully, more to pass the time and keep his mind occupied. Not seeing the welcome outline of Cellie in the lake he considered the forest. Full of fairies, and I don’t doubt that these Goblin creatures are very fast through the trees, and excellent trackers, no, my chances of escape across country are very limited, so I must be patient, he steeled his will swallowing down his fear of the decidedly uncertain future. I must wait, and spy my opportunity when it arrives.

Under heavy guard Gondell found his bonds released for a short while, “Eat,” demanded Ruaq as he thrust a strip of cured meat into Gondell’s numb hands, “Make the most of the rest, you have a long hard journey ahead of you, I will run those little legs down to stumps,” he chuckled, “You will soon regret flaunting that sign so freely.” the captain reached forward and traced the outline of the oak wreath with a yellowed and cracked claw, shuddering he turned away and spat. “When we have it, nothing can stand in our way.” he whispered, a distance in his cold eyes.

Surprisingly Gondell took comfort in the softly spoken words, They must want this thing very badly whatever it is, and I’m supposed to be its keeper… is their Master going to get a shock when he finds out we lost it many years ago.

Nothing can stand in their way? It sounds like plans for domination, the quietly spoken words began to take on new meaning as he looked at the broader picture, I have to warn someone, he paused and debated his thought, Yes, but who would I warn, the magistrate back home, what would that old fool do beside refuse to believe me? He can’t raise a defending army, we have no army beyond a handful of aged militia, and they serve only ceremonially at best… we have no enemy, we have nothing to defend against!

Gondell chewed thoughtfully on the dried meat, he had presented himself with a problem that appeared to have no solution. Centuries of peace and stability had left a land unprepared for aggression. They must be from the north, he debated further, but those peoples disappeared so long ago, oh how I wish I had concentrated more on book learning, there were wars, back in the dark times, so long ago. But the enemies were all defeated. Surely if a new power had arisen we would be aware. He paused as another thought entered his mind, maybe we are simply deaf and blind, hasn’t old weasel Wisherton been warning of this over and over, haven’t the Hobgoblins been leaving for years, isn’t it possible that they have been leaving to join their own kind, they are related to the old enemy after all?

Hobgoblins. Remnants of the ancient foe, their breed had been slaves, and as such had survived the final crushing defeat. According to history they had sued for leniency after the ultimate battle, they had been non-combatants, a case hotly argued as their fate hung in the balance. History told Gondell that they had been absolved of any guilt, and an act had been passed declaring their kind blameless and free, but conditions had also been imposed of course. Always their race would be destined to servitude, but as free beings, permitted to wander at will but never granted the right to a homeland, and never allowed to gather in significant numbers. A people fated to be always servant, never master.

And the act had been seen as fair by all, especially the Hobgoblins, they had been content under their new masters, happy to be a free people no longer under the control of dark and evil forces.

Yet they have been leaving in ever growing numbers, even old Nobbler, realised Gondell as recent events began to make more sense, where have they all been going? For hundreds of years they lived in our homes, happy to cook and clean, contented with their lot in life, they had a place in our community, they married amongst themselves, raised families… then one by one they have disappeared. His thoughts gained clarity as the pieces began to fall into place. Now I think I’m sure where they have been going… North!

Dawn began to break and birdsong heralded the arrival of a brand new day. At a barked command the troupe of Goblin scouts sprung into a flurry of action, light packs were slung over broad shoulders, and weapons strapped to heavy leather belts. Gondell was woken from a feverish dream as rough hands grasped him. In the growing daylight his initial impression of his captors proved to be accurate, in the strengthening light he noticed that although they bore an uncanny resemblance to his mental picture of Goblins, they were subtly different, their features more refined. Their cold eyes and demeanour spoke clearly of cruelty yet their faces told of a strange nobility. It’s difficult to put into words, he thought, but they look almost as though they are more than they seem.

To his relief he found his hands only lightly bound, and no longer behind his back. “Now we will see how fast you can run,” chortled his guard from the dark night before as he attached a long leather thong to Gondell’s bindings, “Soon you will beg for rest.”

“You might find me tougher than you imagine,” retorted Gondell with an edge of defiance in his voice, “We Gnomes are not as soft as you may imagine.” the wicked grin he received in reply made his heart sink, I hope I am as tough as I wish to believe, he thought, but somehow I guess I’m probably not, I think my nightmare has only just begun. And with that thought in his head the Goblins turned and quietly loped into the forest dragging the unfortunate Gnome behind.

Gondell had never stepped inside the forest before, not that its reputation had prevented him, the dense woodland held no dark or sinister foreboding in his mind, he had simply never had cause in the past. But he was living now in his present, and his first visit was not proving to be enjoyable.

The Goblin’s pace proved to be relentless, I was right to think they can move quickly through the trees, he groaned inside as his knees turned to jelly. Stumbling heavily, tripped by an exposed tree root hidden beneath a thick covering of dead leaves Gondell felt himself dragged roughly back to his feet, the Goblin guard barely breaking his steady stride, “Not so tough now my little mouse,” the evil brute chortled, “Have courage, there are many more hours ahead of you, many more miles of this before we reach the plains, be thankful we are only running slowly now.”

Gondell let out a pained groan as he settled back into the punishing pace. If this is slow, I dread to imagine what it will be like on these plains he talks of, the thought crushed his defiant spirit, what’s the use of finding an opportunity to escape if my legs are too tired to take advantage?

Several punishing hours later Ruaq called a halt.

His head swimming from exhaustion Gondell slumped trembling at the base of a tall pine. The dry needles that had fallen in deep drifts prickled and irritated, but he lay oblivious to the minor discomfort and fought to catch his breath.

“I can’t keep this up.” he gasped aloud, provoking a ripple of laughter from the tree tops. Painfully he opened his eyes to the canopy above and saw the Fairies. Vile creatures, he thought as his eyes closed again tightly, spiteful evil little thugs, it doesn’t surprise me that one of their kind is behind my predicament.

Gondell had never been a fan of the Fairy race, cunning craftsmen or not, he avoided their company, his contact with them kept strictly professional. True, his favourite rocking chair had been crafted by Fairy artisans, and had become one of his most prized possessions, yet he still couldn’t find it in his heart to respect the creatures themselves.

“Can that snivelling creature really be the legendary keeper?” a thin voice called scornfully from the branches.

“I expected more,” voiced another, “He looks more like a shop keeper.”

A pine cone dropped down from above striking Gondell on the arm but he barely noticed, so deep was his fatigue, another followed, better aimed and a chorus of mocking laughter followed as he raised a weary arm to protect his face.

“The mighty keeper,” the Fairies taunted, “Draw the sword of legend and vanquish us.”

“Just leave me alone,” groaned Gondell, “I have done nothing against you, and I am not the keeper, and I don’t have any sword.”

Donur dropped down from the branches and squatted a short distance from Gondell’s prone figure. Sharp eyes studied the Gnome, prying eyes, the mind behind working swiftly. “If you are not the keeper, why do you flaunt the design, the ancient sign?”

Gondell shifted slightly and opened his tired eyes, “I am just a Gnome, nothing more, I am no keeper, maybe in the past my ancestors were, but I am not.” He looked down at the embossed design on his waistcoat and sighed deeply, “This mark is simply family tradition, passed down to me by my father, and his father before him. We have no idea of it’s significance, if it really has any.”

“You truly don’t know.” the Fairy chuckled with almost a look of pity in his deep green eyes, “That is unfortunate for you, the Master will not be as easy as me to convince. Before the end you will wish that you did know more.”

“The end?” asked Gondell cautiously, not liking his guess at the meaning.

“Lord Kangan will spend many hours or days questioning you,” grinned the Fairy wickedly, “Believe me, it will be better for you to tell him everything you know quickly, then it may be possible that you can survive, if you are very lucky you can live out the rest of your years in the mines, or his foundries… but if you resist him,” he shook his head sadly before a glint entered his eye, “If you resist him, you will surely die in agony.”

“But I really don’t know anything.” stammered Gondell.

“That is why I said unfortunate for you,” laughed Donur, “I believe you, but he won’t.”

“Why did you do this to me?” asked Gondell quietly, his tone heavy with defeat.

“Profit of course,” the Fairy replied with a casual shrug, “Lord Kangan will pay well for you, he has been seeking you for many years, and we, his followers have been his eyes and ears. True, as the years have passed time has blunted our enthusiasm, many have forgotten his commands, many have fallen from the darkness and formed alliance with your kind, and Dwarves, and Elves. But some of us remain loyal to him.

“All the Fairies know about this mark?” involuntarily Gondell’s hand reached up and touched the sword on his breast.

“Every one of us,” chortled Donur, “Yes, I see it in your eyes, you understand now. You could have been betrayed many times in your short life, but when the Master’s day of victory comes, the traitors will be dealt with.”

Suddenly a profound respect swelled in his heart for the many Fairy artisans that had furnished his home, or acknowledged him as he passed along the river or quiet country lanes of his home county. They all knew, or at the very least some of them knew… and they remained silent despite the reward on offer. My feelings toward them have been completely unjustified. A sadness washed over him, all illusions of escape had deserted, to be replaced by a deep and saddening regret, those people could have been my friends, if only I had known how much I could trust them.

“What am I supposed to keep?” Gondell grasped an opportunity to learn more about his circumstances, the Fairy appeared more open and willing to talk than the tight lipped Goblins.

“The sword of legend of course,” Donur nodded as his eyes misted, “The ancient sword of Kalenzi… surely you have heard of the sword?”

Gondell shook his head, “I have never heard of it, but if I am supposed to be it’s keeper then your Master is going to be very upset, if we ever had it in our possession my family lost it many years ago, for generations we have maintained this mark, but none of us knew it’s significance.”

“Your line never possessed the sword, and the rulers of our world know exactly where it lies, only the location of the gate keeper was hidden… until now!”

“Rulers?” questioned Gondell encouraging the Fairy, “I only know of Kangan, are there more like him in the world?”

Pity washed across the Fairy’s face as he slowly shook his head, “You really know nothing about this world. There are no others like the Master, only pretenders.”

“Pretenders?” prompted Gondell.

“The Guild,” Donur spat in disgust, “So pious, so just… so weak. An alliance. A confederacy of weak nations, weak people,” he continued holding Gondell’s eye, “They have no strength, they rule by committee.”

“So why is this sword so special?” Gondell slowly began to fill in the missing pieces of his puzzle, he had learned more about his past in just minutes talking to the boastful Fairy, more than the last forty years of life, he thought as amazement bloomed in his mind that his family could have so easily forgotten their connection to something that sounded so important.

“Special!” laughed Donur, “Why because whoever wields it will be surely victorious, how do you think the first Master suffered defeat during the last war, it was not the might of the Elves or Dwarves, the Masters armies out numbered them one hundred to one, only the sword gave them victory, nothing else.”

“And I am supposed to keep this thing, this legendary sword?”

“Not keep it,” Donur shook his head, “You release it.”

Gondell began to open his mouth, his next question racing to his lips, but found himself dragged roughly back to his feet. “Rest time is over my little mouse,” sneered his now familiar guard, “Soon we will be in the open, then you will truly know our pace.”

Tree trunks, hundreds of them, some huge, twisted and ancient, crusted with mosses and lichen, others young and smooth skinned passed Gondell by as his forced march continued.

More like a forced jog, he thought bitterly as his legs and back complained. Usually partaking of little more exercise than a gentle stroll along the river bank, Gondell’s body began to rebel against the sudden abuse. He glimpsed the sun through a break in the canopy of branches above and quickly judged the time. Late morning, he decided as his mind drifted to home and happier thoughts. Just about now I would be putting the kettle on and preparing my mid morning snack, he glanced down at the stick of dried meat gripped in his hand, Ruaq had obviously given it to him to sustain his energy on the trail. This is definitely not what I would choose to nibble with my tea.

The guard broke his silent imaginings, “I think the Fairy told you many things that you didn’t know before.”

“It wasn’t difficult for him to tell me anything new,” panted Gondell in reply, “Considering I knew nothing before.”

“It would seem that you are quite important my little mouse, very important indeed.”

Gondell glanced up and caught a strange emotion painted across the Goblin’s face. Avarice, he now sees value in me, thoughts and realisation crowded his busy mind, he didn’t know the full story either, he was as ignorant as I. The Goblin turned back to the trail but the glint in his eye remained in Gondell’s mind. He is just a soldier following orders, he doesn’t know why he does what he does, he simply reacts to commands, but I guess now his mind is working overtime, looking for a way to profit from me personally… is that something I can use to my advantage?

“How far must we run today?” he gasped.

“Far,” chuckled the guard without pausing or looking over his shoulder, “Across the dales, always north little mouse… always north.”

A development indeed. Gondell debated the change in his captor, before he would have ignored me. Think Gondell, he demanded, find some advantage before it’s too late!

But think as he might no advantage surfaced and gradually the fire in his legs and back drove all other thoughts from his mind. Abruptly the cover of trees broke, and jogging into the bright sunshine Gondell shielded his eyes against the brightness. The gloom of the forest retreated and he stood blinking in the broad light of day, the sun directly overhead he guessed that noon had arrived, or just passed. Ruaq crouched over a patch of grey white charcoal and ash, hesitantly he picked a wilted leaf from a small pile and sniffed it, cautiously he touched it with the tip of his tongue before pushing in into his mouth and slowly chewing. “I taste Elf,” he declared, “An Elf camped her last night.” He passed his hand slowly over the ashes. “Not fresh, but very recent,” he nodded slowly as he gathered his thoughts and painted a mental picture. “More than one Elf,” he declared as he scanned the ground for more signs, “Three, but not all Elves, they roasted mutton.” he shuffled around the dead fire and sniffed the ground. “Strange,” he rubbed his chin before sniffing again, “Ogre… and something else.” Ruaq’s expression suddenly changed from inquisitiveness to disgust. “A Dwarf,” he hissed before dropping the tuft of long grass he had plucked, “It’s foul reek is everywhere.” Wiping his hands as though covered in dirt on the grass he turned to his company.

“An Elf, Ogre and Dwarf, camping together, sharing a meal… mighty suspicious lads.” A murmur ran through the group, Gondell sensed concern, worry, maybe even fear!

“You know what this means,” Ruaq continued as he kicked the dead ashes and hefted his pack.

“The Guild,” the name whispered by all.

“Yes… the Guild,” spat Ruaq, “So now lads, at your best speed, lets put some distance between us and them.”

As Gondell jogged across the open grassland his mind raced, absorbing this new information. The Guild is weak the Fairy claimed, but if they are so weak, why are thirteen armed Goblins, and big Goblins at that so afraid of only three, surely the odds are in their favour if they came to a fight!

I wonder, he mused as he looked around, the grasslands rolled on gently, seemingly open and endless in every direction, a sea of green studded with an occasional tree. They can’t hide out here, we will be obvious to anyone watching, even from miles away we can be spotted.

Gondell let out a sharp screech and instantly dropped to the ground rolling in the lush emerald grass clutching his ankle.

“Up,” shouted Ruaq with undue urgency as he glanced nervously back toward the forest, “On your feet maggot.”

“I can’t,” snapped Gondell before groaning loud and long while rocking back and forth on his back gripping his ankle tight, “I felt something snap, I can’t stand let alone run.” It’s probably only a fools hope, he thought as he contorted his expression into his best impression of agony, but I have to try to slow them down somehow. Now they will have to move more slowly.

His plan failed, obviously. Rough hands grasped him and lifted him high, they’re going to carry me, he groaned inside, of all the rotten luck. His bad luck was confirmed beyond doubt as without having to drag him along the Goblins doubled their original pace. Just perfect, I try to slow them down and delay them… all I have done is let them run faster, very foolish Gondell. As the miles passed his optimism faded a little more with each steady stride. At least I haven’t had to run myself, his only consolation, but it brought little joy as he watched the dark forest fade into the distance.

Chapter 5

“There is little to gain if we try to track them through the forest,” Tillendur turned to his companions, “Their sign will be confused and the trees will hamper the horses, it will be best if we ride around the edge and search for their tracks as they head into open grassland, there are too many of them to mask their trail, even a drunken Dwarf would be able to follow them.”

“I was not drunk,” snapped Feron, “I was merry.”

“Very merry,” laughed Tillendur recovering his smile despite the foreboding that weighed on his heart. Ulaff had been required to extract the singing Dwarf from the tavern as he had forecast, but ill feeling between the trio of friends never lasted long, their bond of brotherhood was far too strong.

They did consider each other as brothers, race had never been an issue in their friendship, unusual as it appeared in the thoughts of many.

They had forged a bond of mutual respect and trust, each knowing without doubt that his companions would stand at his side regardless of the odds. And they had stood together through many tests, for although the world lived in peace and harmony they knew that the menace of old would ever be waiting for his chance to rise again. Often he would probe their borders from his realm in the far north, but these incursions were never more than an annoyance to the members of the Guild.

When Nilgoth, the Bringer of Darkness had been finally defeated at the Battle of Akar, deep in the vastness of the burning desert where two mighty forces had clashed in a battle to end all others. The army of the Guild had been seriously outnumbered, ‘suicidal,’ many had called their final struggle, but the allied commanders knew that they had right on their side, they also had a formidable weapon in their arsenal, a weapon that had brought Nilgoth to his knees, a weapon that had cleaved his head from his shoulders and brought a lasting peace to the world.

The might of Nilgoth had been crushed, his fortresses reduced to rubble, his slaves freed and his minions scattered to the winds. His fall had been considered so deep that recovery would prove to be impossible. And so for a time it appeared that those assumptions had been correct.

But rot is invasive, the smallest blight on one insignificant apple can eventually grow to spoil the entire orchard. And so it had been with the Dark Realm, their leader may have been vanquished, but small pockets of his evil existed lurking in the darkness, brooding and growing over the long years. Waiting patiently for another leader to emerge, an entity of equal malice and cruelty, a creature driven by evil and desire.

Kangan had risen from the long dead ashes. From humble warlord, controller of a small mountain province in the ever frozen north he had cast his shadow over the icy wastes, forming treaties with some of his neighbours, crushing others without remorse or pity. Ever outward he expanded his kingdom, the Dark Realm yearned a leader to bring the scattered tribes together, to begin the rebuilding of empire. Kangan proved to be that leader.

As his reach became longer the Guild watched and waited, more and more often teams of Guild hunters were dispatched to patrol the borders of the north, to penetrate the deserts, even to venture into the frozen wastelands. “Watch and report.” Their agenda clearly defined information was gathered, lengthy reports filed, and the most important developments dismissed, or in more frightening circumstances, ignored.

For teams such as Tillendur’s the apathy displayed by the leaders of the Guild set nerves jangling, their ‘watch only’ orders a frustration.

Feron broached the subject as Tillendur leapt from his horse to study the outward trail that clearly traced away from their morning camp, “So what happens if we catch up with them?”

Tillendur sighed heavily, the same question had also been nagging his conscience as they skirted the forest. “You know the answer as clearly as I do my friend… observe, build some structure to their actions, develop the wider picture.”

“They have a hostage this time,” added Ulaff, stating the obvious but knowing the Elf’s mind better than their Dwarfish companion, “Surely we cannot allow them to take a citizen of the free world captive!”

“We still have our orders,” replied the Elf regretfully, “Without orders chaos would rule, don’t forget, we are not at war.”

“Yet!” replied Feron as he stared along the clear trail that led into the distance, “But we all know it’s only a matter of time before Kangan makes his move. Anyway, how many do you sense?”

Tillendur looked up at the mounted Dwarf and smiled, “It is difficult to say with any certainty, but I would guess… more than ten, but no more than fifteen, and they are on foot.”

“Fair odds,” grinned the Dwarf, and quickly raised his hand, “I only think out loud, I know we cannot give them battle, but if we were forced…” he trailed off leaving his observation hanging in in the air.

“Fair odds indeed,” nodded Tillendur, “And as we all know, sometimes the fight cannot be avoided.”

“In that case, we must be careful not to put ourselves in a position that could lead to conflict,” nodded Ulaff with a wink as his broad face cracked into an even wider smile.

Their intentions unspoken but crystal clear the three hunters set out along the Goblin trail with spirits high. Elf and Dwarf spurred their horses forward into a leisurely canter while Ulaff drew the pack horses around his massive bulk and began to run, on occasion he draped his arms across their withers and lifted his feet. There had never been a horse born that could withstand his weight, but two together could manage him for a few minutes, using this tactic he managed to keep his companions in sight.

“I cannot be sure, for as you know I can only estimate their speed and the lead that they have over us, but I would guess we will overtake them before nightfall.” Tillendur grinned as he turned to his uncomfortable companion, noting the fear in his eyes. Not fear for the fight ahead, no foe had ever dismayed the fierce Dwarf, it was the horse beneath him that fed his anxiety. “You would find this much more comfortable if you would just relax, you bounce in the saddle because you are tense.”

“This is as relaxed as I can manage.” replied Feron through gritted teeth, “Now stop distracting me with useless conversation, the faster we ride now, the sooner I can get off this thing.”

Hours passed as Gondell bounced across the broad shoulders of each Goblin in turn, they hadn’t paused for a second, and as he expected them to tire they had surprised him with an additional spurt of speed. My ribs hurt, he complained silently, but they will just laugh if I mention it, I don’t think the comfort of a prisoner is of any great concern to them.

The forest had long disappeared on the horizon and only open featureless grassland met his gaze as he joggled along, his only view… their heavily trampled back trail.

At least the tracks will be easy to follow, he consoled himself as the vista behind remained devoid of pursuers, hopefully it will be just a matter of time before the Guild find the trail, I still have some small hope. And slim as that hope seemed, Gondell clung to it with a passion.

All hope failed as the sun sank lower into the west and the Goblins pace slowed, for a second he imagined that they were pausing to rest, but as he was thrown roughly to the ground the illusion of his salvation faded as a large camp was revealed. Row after row of pale canvas tents marched along what he assumed to be the beginning of a valley and Goblins of various sizes and breeds scurried around loaded with weapons and provisions. Some of the Goblins looked very similar to the picture that he had seen, their features cruel, no trace of nobility there, thought Gondell as he studied the ungainly looking creatures. Slightly hunchbacked their arms appeared over-long for their stocky bodies, their arms are long, he realised as one of the Goblins stood straight to attention as Ruaq approached, its hands almost at the same level as its knees. Yet there were far more of the breed that had captured him, and in a position to compare his amazement grew. It’s like the evolution of their species, he commented silently, Yes, they are all Goblins for sure, but the differences are striking. His classical stereotypical image of the creatures fitted exactly the smaller breed, shorter and clearly stooped, almost the same height as a Dwarf, with a broad chest set atop of bowed legs, legs that looked far too spindly to carry the mass of muscle and sinew above. Ruaq and his kin, although no where near as fair more resembled the build of Elves, much taller though, he realised as he studied the captain issuing orders.

All Goblins, but their faces are so different, the smaller breed had course features, their eyes almond shaped and black as coal, many had fangs so pronounced that it appeared difficult to close their mouths. But their ears drew most attention, pointed to the extreme and large, many wore multitudes of rings lined around the dangling lobes, some wooden, some made of what looked like yellowed bone, others of gold and silver.

Ruaq and his kind were easier on the eye, their faces rounder than the long oval shape displayed by the smaller variation, and the eyes are different, he told himself, more like the eyes of Dwarves and Elves, and even Gnomes! They still have sharp fangs, but smaller, I can’t even begin to imagine how the others manage to eat. Everything about them is round, he realised, rounder eyes, rounder face, and almost rounded ears… almost like they are a cross between Goblins and the fair folk.

Another troop of heavily armed soldiers trotted into view, their leather armour heavy with metal plates shaped like fish scales. Standing stiffly to attention their height and erect posture sent a shiver through Gondell as he imagined the Guild soldiers that he had hoped were hot on his trail.

Now I’m really in deep water he groaned silently in dismay, three Guild soldiers against all of these, fifty of the cursed creatures at least! Forget about being rescued Gondell my lad, he told himself and felt his optimism die.

Feron crawled through the tall grass, for a Dwarf he could be exceptionally stealthy despite his bulk, not as silent as an Elf of course, but he still prided himself that no Goblin would ever sense his approach. Tillendur who crawled less than an arms length ahead raised his hand. Feron paused instantly, the Elf signalled caution, he held his breath before moving again slowly toward the thin line of bushes they had spied as the Goblin camp came into view. Raising his head slowly he felt his heart sink, too many, even with the aid of Ulaff’s mighty sword. Tillendur gave him a gentle tap and began to shuffle backwards, he’s obviously seen enough too, thought the Dwarf, I guess this time we will have to follow orders… watch and report.

Crouching low the two despondent hunters sprinted back to where Ulaff waited with the horses. The patient Ogre didn’t resent being left behind to manage the baggage, he knew that his body wasn’t built for sneaking and hiding, he represented their power and strength, he acted as their battering ram.

“Too many for a direct assault,” began Tillendur, ‘We are grossly out numbered… but, I have a plan.”

The trio huddled together deep in quiet conversation and Ulaff grinned wide as Tillendur’s plan took shape. “This is an action to my taste,” he chortled happily.

“To mine also,” added the Dwarf as he hefted his heavy hammer, his eyes bright with anticipation.

“So we all agree to wait until after dark,” Tillendur glanced from face to face reading their expressions. He had never been formally appointed as leader of the group, it had simply been a mutual acceptance. “Ulaff you will attack from the front, with luck many will be in their tents sleeping, Feron and myself will attack from the sides. Feron, you take this closest side, I will find a way to their opposite flank, we will attack when I am in position. Now if we are agreed, we must hide and rest until the moon is high.”

The late afternoon and evening dragged by at a snails pace as the trio of eager warriors waited restlessly in a deep gully that meandered out of the high ground that marked the final escarpment as the lush green grasslands gave over to a line of mountains, a lofty barrier before the wide plains beyond. “I hate being so far away,” admitted Feron, “But our fine Elf here is correct, too close to the camp and we would be sure of discovery… even Goblins have scouts.”

“Will night never come,” complained Ulaff as he ran a sharpening stone slowly along the length of his sword, “I hate waiting, especially when there are Goblin heads to cleave.”

“Patience, my friends, sleep if you can, the work ahead will be hard, did you not see the size of them, these are no ordinary demons, these are a breed apart.”

Tillendur had seen much more than a strategy toward slaughter when he surveyed the Goblin camp, his sharp eyes and nimble mind had gathered information unobserved by the more aggressive Dwarf.

Feron saw only the odds, battle plans and conflict, the thoughtful Elf registered the site on a different level.

Feron saw many Goblins, Tillendur saw exactly fifty four in the blink of an eye.

Where Feron saw only a massed foe, the Elf saw that of the fifty four, eight were hobgoblin servants, servants not slaves, an explanation maybe for the gradual disappearance of the smaller breed. He also saw that most of the remaining Goblins belonged to a breed unknown to his experience, taller than myself, he had thought, and broad, heavy physique, hard trained, durable… these are elite troops. The realisation had given him pause as he debated the attack, but the sight of a trembling and bound Gnome in their midst had tipped the balance from caution to calculated abandon.

He must be an important prisoner to merit such a guard, he thought as he studied the diminutive bearded figure, it is worth the risk just to find out who you are, he whispered below the register of normal hearing, the tone used between Elves who wish to share a secret when in the company of others. Telepathy many had assumed, the Elves had always smiled demurely at the assumption, happy to accept the misguided perception without contradiction. Who are you Mr Gnome? Tillendur couldn’t help but wonder if many of the answers to the larger questions that clouded his mind could be revealed by the diminutive captive.

“A bit of fire, wouldn’t go amiss now,” whispered Feron, as much to himself as his companions, the spring sun had warmed the land earlier, but with it’s setting an icy breeze had stirred and the Dwarf felt the chill eating into his bones. “If not fire, then a sup of something warming,” he declared reaching for the engraved silver flask in his hip pocket, “It is unwise to go into battle shivering… lest the enemy mistakes the shaking as fear.”

“Is that the best excuse you can bring to mind?” asked Ulaff quietly, “I think that you shake because it is some hours since you last got rolling drunk,” he paused for a second before nudging the Elf, “Sorry, I meant merry.”

“For that slur on my good character, I shall offer you not one sip.” chuckled Feron, well used to the friendly taunting, and suspecting there may be a shed of truth hiding behind the jest. “Oh will the moon never rise,” he sighed impatiently as he passed Ulaff the flask of Saurian Rum, a fierce spirit distilled by the strange scale covered peoples of the distant east, “This waiting chafes me more than the cold.”

“It will not be long now,” replied Tillendur, “It is some time since I heard any stirring from the camp, all is quiet there beside the crackling and spitting of their fires.”

“You even hear their watch fires burning?” asked Feron in disbelief, all he could hear in the still night being the gentle chirping of crickets and the distant forlorn hooting of a barn owl.

“I do, but that is also a concern, I hear only the fire, nothing else stirs. I do not believe that they are all asleep, that would be too convenient.”

“Convenient or not, should we not take advantage of their lapse?” whispered Ulaff as he passed the flask back, “I do not fear that filth, but surely it will be easier to slaughter them as they sleep.”

Tillendur pondered a moment. His concern had been growing for some time, the eerie silence that had descended seemed unnatural, even if the Goblins slept there should have been guards on duty, whispered conversation between sentries. We can wait no longer, he decided as he picked up his bow and quiver hoping that his suspicions would not be confirmed.

Ogres are not the daintiest of folk, and even concentrating all of his will on remaining silent Ulaff knew that his approach up the shallow valley must have sounded like a herd of cattle. So they have probably heard me, he excused himself, I prefer a moving target… and I’m ready for a fight, it has been too long since my blade tasted Goblin blood.

He eyed a line of stunted bushes glowing silver in the moonlight and chuckled, not much cover for me, but better than nothing. Carefully he drew his sword and crouched down waiting for Tillendur’s signal. The Goblin camp sat a stones throw ahead, and its watch fires had been built up high, their flickering light reflecting from the sides of pale canvas tents. Nothing stirred, no movement of any kind. Could it be a trap? Ulaff strained his eyes peering into the gloom surrounding the pools of bright light, hunting the shadows for movement, they could be waiting in ambush.

So deep was his faith in Tillendur that the thought only lingered for a second before being dismissed, he would have heard them, of that I am sure, this is no trap… but it is never this easy with Goblins!

A night jar called in the darkness and Ulaff felt his heart skip a beat, it called again, louder now and he tightened his grip on the hilt of his heavy sword, anticipation building, his mouth dried and muscles twitched. Tensed like a coiled spring he waited, third call, he heard the sound clearly and burst from cover, his legs pumping hard as he built momentum. Ulaff became an unstoppable force of nature when unleashed, and his heart soared as he pounded down upon the quiet fire-lit camp, sword held aloft as he sought his first victim. From the right he saw Feron charging down the low ridge, his hammer in a powerful double grip. “A creature like me,” he chuckled knowing that the same battle rage coursed through the Dwarfs veins as powerfully as his own, at that moment he felt closer to Feron than any other time. He loved and respected Tillendur deeply, but the reserved Elf delighted not in slaughter, the perfect leader for our group, he understood as his charge broke through the first line of tents, he is the voice of reason and restraint, without his influence Feron and I would become monsters.

Meeting no resistance Ulaff paused panting heavily and returned Feron’s confused stare, the Dwarf also stood frozen, his hammer held aloft but unable to connect with the heads of their shared enemy. Tillendur strolled almost casually into the camp, his bow slung over his shoulder, “It is as I feared brothers,” he announced, his voice heavy with sorrow, “We have been tricked.”

Ulaff gazed around the deserted camp as realisation filtered into his slow mind, “They have gone.”

“Yes my friend, they have gone… and I should have known.” replied the Elf as he kicked a Goblin helmet out into the surrounding darkness.

“On your feet,” snapped Ruaq brusquely. Gondell groaned and reached down to his ankle, only realising his error when a wicked smile broke across the captains thin lips, “I guessed as much you maggot.”

Gondell offered a sheepish grin as he understood that he had gripped the wrong ankle, bruised ribs or sore legs, not much of a choice, he decided as Ruaq’s attention turned to an approaching scout, one of many that had been sent out to scan the dales for sign of the Guild warriors.

“They watch us from the ridge behind you.” he announced quietly.

“Elf, Dwarf and Ogre?” asked the captain stepping closer.

“The Elf and Dwarf watch us, the Ogre is some distance away with their pack animals… do we attack? The lads haven’t eaten meat for many weeks.”

“No,” Ruaq responded instantly, “Do not forget we are under orders, you know I do not fear the Guild, but it is unwise at this point to offer battle. Go back and watch them, I want to know of their movements… and send someone down our back trail, make sure that they don’t have reinforcements following.”

The scout offered a half hearted salute and slipped away grumbling quietly, “I would also relish a feast,” Ruaq whispered, “But our prisoner is too valuable to risk in a fight, and that Ogre would kill many of my people before he could be subdued.”

“Prudence,” he warned himself, “I must consider the bigger picture.”

Gondell opened his eyes slowly, early evening he realised, and they seem to be in a panic. All around him Goblins scuttled, Hobgoblin servants busied themselves packing provisions, and soldiers sharpened swords and donned their metal clad leather armour. Tension filled the air as the watch fires were built high, mounded with fuel, we are moving on again, sighed Gondell in resignation as the soldiers formed into ranks.

Ruaq addressed his troops quietly as the final scouts returned. “We march now,” he announced, “The Guild will be upon us soon, so no chattering. No noise. We must slip away quietly,”

“They are hiding in a narrow gorge a few miles away,” the first scout to return had told him, “I think that they wait for darkness.” Ruaq had nodded, his decision made. The last scout had raised his spirits considerably as he reported that their trail appeared to be clear, “No reinforcements, they are just three alone.” he whispered, do I risk an attack? We could easily take them by surprise. He quickly dismissed the thought, I must concentrate on getting my prisoner safely back to the Master, nothing else matters.

And so Gondell found himself draped over yet another Goblin shoulder, evening had faded into twilight and the pace set by Ruaq had been punishing, Uncomfortable, but better than running, decided Gondell as scale armour bit through his breeches and shirt, even his leather waistcoat offered little protection as he bounced with every stride.

Glancing around in the rapidly failing light he noticed that his assumption that the camp had been at the end of a valley had been correct, every hour that passed had brought the sides closer. Steep cliffs had replaced the gently rolling hills and eventually the columns of Goblin soldiers had been reduced to single file. Just like a bottle neck, thought Gondell as the path narrowed further, the rocky sides now close enough to touch on either side with outstretched arms.

Moments later the passage gave way to an open glade, a circular space surrounded by high cliffs, it looks just like a giant took a scoop out of the mountain, thought Gondell as he rubbed his aching and chafed ribs, it also looks like a dead end. Looking around he saw only craggy ramparts of stone and wondered why the Goblins had raced headlong into a trap, it was only then that he noticed a deeper shadow in the darkened rock, an arched shadow. A tunnel of course, so it looks like I’m heading underground.

“We’ve made good time lads,” Ruaq praised his troops, “From here we can stop looking over our shoulders, they can never follow us through the caves, and their horses will be useless now.”

The news lifted the Goblins spirits visibly, but Gondell felt his remaining flicker of hope die, the odds are too great now, he groaned quietly.

“Next stop… the great hall,” announced the captain, “There we can rest tonight, and prepare ourselves for the crossing.”

Chapter 6

“These caves had a fearful reputation,” said Feron as the trio of hunters studied the gaping maw before them, the archway dark and foreboding in the pale moonlight, “Of course I talk of the old days, before the great war, it is said they were one of the greatest strongholds of Nilgoth, crawling with Goblins and Trolls and much worse I’m sure.”

“That is ancient history,” replied Tillendur quietly, “And I do not doubt that many unsavoury creatures still lurk inside, but that is not what troubles me, it is said that the caves and tunnels form a labyrinth, vast and complicated, full of dead ends and pit falls, without a guide we could wander in the darkness for weeks never to find the captive, and most likely never to find our own way out again.”

“Can you not follow their trail by scent alone?” asked Ulaff as he rubbed the deep scratches on his arms, scratches gained as he squeezed his massive frame through the tight passage that led to the glade where they now stood.

“That is possible,” the Elf nodded deep in thought, “But I doubt it will be that easy, this Goblin leader is clever. Ask yourselves, why did they not attack us? The odds were heavily in favour of a victory for them, sheer numbers almost guaranteed that, yet he chose to run and not risk his captive. No,” he declared, “He will have masked his trail somehow.”

“So what should we do?” questioned Feron as he eyed the tunnel entrance, “I understand hesitancy to enter in an Elf, but I think you should not worry unduly about becoming lost, we Dwarves do not easily become disoriented in caves and tunnels.”

“This I know,” replied Tillendur, “And it is not the tunnels themselves that concern me, I merely worry that we will lose valuable time, and also consider this, we cannot hope to take the horses inside.” he shook his head slowly as though reaching a difficult decision, “I too know of the legends and stories surrounding this dark place, is it not told that inside are many stairs and ladders cut into the rock? Our horses cannot climb ladders, and if we should find our way through without them, we face a long march without provisions, only what we can carry on our backs. We will lose the advantage of speed without our mounts.”

“You speak wisely,” Feron nodded, “These are points that I had not considered, so what do you suggest, is our hunt at an end?”

“Far from it,” replied Tillendur as a smile broke on his lips, “We have a long journey ahead, but we know their final destination, they are heading north, to the frozen lands. We must find a way over the mountains rather than through them, speed of horse is our ally, we must ride hard to recover the time we will lose. But I feel in my heart that we will catch up before their helpless captive can be delivered to Kangan.”

“Days of hardship and toil ahead of us, an uncertain and dangerous road to follow, what cause have you to smile my friend?” asked Ulaff, confused by the Elf’s expression.

“I am thinking of how Feron will enjoy a long and fast ride.” he chuckled and patted the stone faced Dwarf on the back, “See Ulaff, you can see his joy at the prospect clearly by his happy expression.”

As with all creatures that choose to live underground Gnomes possess excellent night vision, yet Gondell had never experienced any darkness as complete as that in the tunnel that led steadily down toward the very roots of the mountain. They have better eyes than me, he admitted after several minutes of blind jogging, for the first time he didn’t resent the leather thong attached to his wrist bindings, the steady pull gave him direction and a feeling of security. An open space, he sensed as the echoing of dozens of marching feet suddenly disappeared, the sound no longer trapped in a stone tube, free to escape into the void.

“Halt,” called Ruaq, “Torches,” he ordered. Instantly flint stuck fire-stone, the momentary flashes bright in the utter darkness, the soldiers had obviously been anticipating the command. Obviously we are deep enough now to prevent any glow reaching the entrance, thought Gondell, this Goblin is cautious.

Several torched spluttered to life driving back the darkness to reveal a vast cavern in their smoky light. Gondell almost gasped at the sight, now this is what you call a cave, he thought as he turned slowly gazing up at the domed ceiling high above.

“Welcome to the Caverns of Durth,” the guard that had led Gondell through the forest whispered, “Impressive aren’t they, but this is nothing compared to the Great Hall. This cavern is natural, but the hall was dug from the living rock by our ancestors, when you gaze upon our achievements you will begin to understand how powerful we were, and how powerful we will become again.”

“Onward,” cried Ruaq and strode toward the centre of the vast cavern, his troops falling in behind, with Gondell being held in the middle of the line. On they marched across the even cavern floor surrounded by a pool of flickering torch light, massive stalagmites rose from the ground marking a wide path lined with the tapering columns of limestone, I wish I could have seen all of this under different conditions, Gondell sighed in regret as wonder faded and his dire circumstances re-emerged.

A massive column loomed ahead in the middle of the path, the light revealing more of its carved sides with each step forward. “What is that?” Gondell whispered to his guard as he saw strange and deeply engraved runes appear from the shadows on the polished faces.

“That marks the centre of the Kingdom of Durth, a homage to the all powerful Nilgoth, The Bringer of Darkness.”

“The Kingdom of Durth?” questioned the Gnome, “I have never heard of it.”

His guard chuckled and turned with an evil smile on his face, “Of course you have never heard the name, but soon it will be known to all the peoples who survive the coming storm, soon you will come in pilgrimage to worship the true king, The Kingdom of Durth is the vision of Lord Kangan, it will be established in honour of our ultimate Lord, and here will be the site of his rebirth.”

“Rebirth?” confusion surrounded Gondell as he trotted past the massive monument.

“Lord Nilgoth will be reborn, Kangan will bring him back, then the age of darkness can begin.”

Nilgoth reborn, the age of darkness… what have I landed in the middle of? A chill crawled down Gondell’s spine. I am somehow central to all of this, well the sword is central, but from what I guess only I can release it. Damn you Cellie, his thoughts stoked a building anger, I wouldn’t be in this mess if it hadn’t been for that damned Siren! I’m not being fair, he replied controlling his anger, yes, she is partly to blame, but that Fairy is more responsible, and it appears to me now that it would only have been a matter of time before someone else had recognised the emblem, this is a situation that was just waiting to happen!

At the far end of the cavern Ruaq paused again, “You know the routine lads,” he called as Gondell spotted five tunnels ahead, clearly the Goblins had a protocol in place as the smaller stooped creatures broke away from the main group. Extra security Gondell slowly understood, five tunnels, and which one to choose? He imagined trackers reaching this same point to be faced with a conundrum, their keen noses or even hounds unsure which passage to follow, Goblin scent heavy in all. As the decoys disappeared quickly into the larger openings Ruaq led his remaining force into the smaller tunnel on the extreme right, the low ceiling blackened by the passing of innumerable smoky torches. The narrow slot intensified and condensed the torch light and for the first time Gondell could see his way clearly as the tunnel jinked left then right, climbing steadily with each stride. Deeper into the mountain he jogged and the temperature rose steadily, sulphur, he sniffed the air, and something else, he couldn’t pin point the scent, much fainter and overpowered by the stomach churning stench of rotten eggs. Moments later the source appeared as the troupe arrived in another cavern, much smaller this time and lit with an eerie orange glow. All around small pools of crusting lava bubbled, foetid air escaping like the bubbles that pop and flop in thick porridge in a hot pan.

“Be careful where you step my little mouse,” his guard grinned wide exposing uneven and sharply pointed teeth, “It would not do to cook you too early.”

Gondell shuddered and kept close behind his guide as they wove their way between the stinking and smoking pools, the path worn smooth by many years of foot traffic.

“Keep your balance, the bridge is close,” the guide called over his shoulder and Gondell risked glancing ahead for a moment, dragging his attention away from his feet, but saw nothing more than the broad back of his Goblin guard.

“The bridge?” he questioned but received no reply other than a wicked laugh.

He heart sank down into his boots as the source of light became apparent and a deep chasm opened spanned by the slimmest of stone bridges, it’s not even a bridge, he noticed as his alarm grew, just a thin ribbon of rock… too narrow. Heart beating fast he held his breath as Ruaq trotted out over the chasm before pausing half way across, “One at a time,” he shouted, “Send the keeper over first, but keep him on a long line.”

Gondell felt rough hands grab him as he was carried and pushed to the edge of the smouldering abyss, another leather thong was tied securely around his waist as he peered nervously down into the depths. Below ran a river of fire, more like an ooze than a flow, he decided as he studied the sluggish orange lava that bubbled and churned. Staring ahead Ruaq had reached the far side, his figure distorted and wavering in the haze of rising heat.

“I can’t do this,” cried the anxious Gnome, “I have no head for heights, I will surely fall.”

“Why do you think we have a tether on you,” laughed one of the soldiers, “Across you go maggot.” and gave Gondell a hefty shove toward the narrow bridge. With a small squeal Gondell turned and dived for the safety of his guard, his head spinning and panic on the verge of hysterics flooding his mind.

“I can’t do it I tell you.” he squeaked.

“And I say you will,” replied the large soldier as he drew a wickedly curved dagger, “Or I might have to tickle your ribs with this.”

He wouldn’t dare, Gondell thought as he eyed the cruel blade, I am too valuable, but he declined to put his theory to the test as the Goblin stepped forward levelling the blade ominously. “All right, all right, I’m going,” he muttered, “But untie my hands first. How can I hope to balance trussed up like a chicken?” The soldier glanced at his bound wrists, doubt and confusion in his eyes. “Oh come on!” exclaimed Gondell in exasperation, “You still have a lead around my waist, and honestly, think about it… where could I run?”

Doubt remained in the soldiers eyes as he placed the razor edge of his knife on the leather bindings before drawing swiftly back, the bonds dropping to the ground, “Don’t try anything.” he hissed, a sound loaded with menace.

Don’t try anything! Of all the stupid things to say, Gondell laughed as his eyes were drawn down to the smoking river below, a nervous laugh attempting to bolster his courage, a laugh that failed dismally as his mouth dried and his legs began to shake.

“Get on with it,” hissed the soldier behind as he took another step forward, “We don’t have all day.”

Don’t look down, Gondell cautioned himself, Just look straight ahead and take tiny steps. Hesitantly he placed his foot onto the narrow bridge and closed his eyes, willing his trembling to cease. Slow and steady, he encouraged himself as he opened his eyes again, setting them firmly on Ruaq in the distance before shuffling unsteadily forward.

Some minutes later he had almost reached the middle, frequently he had paused and squeezed his eyes tight shut to calm the spinning sensation that threatened his unsteady balance. Only another hundred paces, he consoled himself, over half way, I can do this. In that moment of growing confidence Gondell made his greatest mistake, in glancing down his world began to spin and slide as vertigo grasped him, for a moment his heart stopped beating and his breath caught in his throat, panic blossomed and he felt his knees begin to buckle.

“Oye.” cried the host of Goblins in alarm as he passed into a dead faint on the narrow causeway, only pure luck preventing a fall into the depths, his mind blank he lay motionless for long moments an arm dangling over the edge. Slowly sense returned to his clouded mind, where am I? he asked, seconds before reality rushed back and nausea engulfed him.

“Get up,” shouted Ruaq as he hovered on the brink, “Keep moving.”

Gondell pressed his cheek against the comforting solid rock and took a deep breath, “I am not getting up,” he gasped, unconcerned that his voice hadn’t the strength to carry over the noise of hissing and spitting far below, I’m fine right here.

“If you can’t stand… crawl.” ordered the captain, his patience obviously wearing thin, ‘We don’t have all night, get on with it.”

Yes, I can probably crawl, decided Gondell as he shuffled hesitantly to his knees, obviously a comical sight as the hoard of Goblins behind roared with laughter.

“Like a suckling pig ready to roast,” one called.

“Hey Grundash, his bum is in the air ready for your spit, we all know how you like them young and tender.” cried another earning the leering Grundash many comradely pats on the back as he pretended to drop his raw hide breeches.

Gondell flushed, not only as a result of the stream of ribald comments, the heat rising from below had become intense and the palms of his hands smarted as they singed on the hot rock. With his head clearing fast he began to crawl, slowly at first but as his confidence grew so did his pace, only a minute or so later he collapsed panting and sweating onto the cool safety of the ground at Ruaq’s feet.

“Finally,” laughed the captain, “But you have courage for a maggot, many a proud warrior has failed that test the first time.” Gondell couldn’t be sure in the flickering orange glow but he could have sworn he caught the smallest hint of respect in the Goblin captains eyes as he offered his hand and helped him to his feet. Gondell nodded his thanks at the curious act of kindness before retreating further from the edge as quick steps signalled that the host had begun to cross.

“Captain Ruaq,” he called in a strong and steady voice, “You have my word that I will not attempt any escape if you will leave my hands unbound, it is not comfortable and unnecessary, and where is there for me to run?”

Ruaq studied the serious Gnome and for a second and his stern expression softened slightly, “So be it,” he declared slowly, “But I warn you, do not make me regret my decision.”

“You will not,” replied Gondell as he bowed low, a sign of respect, “My word is my bond.”

“You have your own perception of my race,” replied the captain quietly, “Much of it well deserved I do not doubt, but some of us still recognise honour, I accept your bond in the spirit that it is offered.”

Amazing, thought Gondell as he sat with his back against the safety of solid rock well away from the gaping chasm, I didn’t think honour could exist within such a black heart. Without the influence of evil, could these be a decent and compassionate people? But that is a question that can never be answered, he admitted sadly, not while leaders like Kangan and Nilgoth exist.

Chapter 7

“Here looks as good a place as any others we have seen,” ventured Feron as he turned to Tillendur who studied the steep path carefully in the first light of dawn. The trio had retraced their steps back into the valley and urgently sought the first safe place to climb up onto the ridge above, each minute that they trailed back became a growing frustration as they imagined the Goblins scuttling through their dark tunnels.

“I agree, we can try here,” replied the Elf, “It pains my heart to lose so much time.”

“Let me try first,” suggested Ulaff, “It makes sense, if I can manage… it will be easy for you.”

Tillendur nodded, the Ogre sometimes proved a limitation on their speed and agility, always he had to consider the shortcomings that marched hand in hand with Ulaff’s sheer bulk, but not for one second would he consider his friend a liability, Rather we spend a whole day seeking an easy route than do without his power during a battle, the benefits presented by their lumbering companion far out weighed the drawbacks.

Using stunted trees to steady himself Ulaff managed the ascent without undue problems, and quickly slithering back to the valley floor took the lead reign of the first pack horse, “Let me get the baggage up first,” he announced as he dragged the wide eyed beast toward the scree covered slope. Iron shod hooves scrabbled and slipped, chips of stone flew in all directions, Ulaff hauled lustily on the lead rope but the sheer slope proved too steep for the frightened animal, its eyes rolling exposing the whites. “This is no use.” grumbled the Ogre as he slid back to the solid ground.

“We must move on,” indicated Tillendur, “We will find an easier place.”

“No,” Ulaff snapped, his expression set hard, determination in his glowering eyes, “We can make it here.” and without another word be snatched up the terrified horse under one massive arm and hefting it high began to climb. Slender limbs thrashed and slashed the air as panic filled the feeble equine mind, Ulaff released his grip on a tree and using his free hand gave the animal a gentle slap on the side of its head stunning the fight out of it, “Steady you soft bugger,” he whispered, “You have nothing to fear.”

The horse looked pitiful as he deposited it back onto shaking and splayed legs on the crest of the ridge, head hanging low, and its body drenched in a nervous sweat.

“Remind me to graciously decline if you should ever offer to help me up a hill,” laughed Feron as the final pack horse stood shaking high above his head, “But I fear you may have to help mine, I have not the skill to guide it up mounted.”

“My strength is not without limit,” panted Ulaff as he stood bent over with his meaty hands on his knees recovering his breath, “But I can probably manage just one more.”

“You will need only one more trip,” Tillendur whispered before stroking his horses neck gently, and leaning far forward he crooned soft words in old elvish into the flickering and attentive ears. The animal responded instantly with a snort and a stamp of a front hoof before bounding easily up the slippery slope, his rider light in the saddle and holding a loose rein.

“Nay, you could not have done the same,” he smiled at Feron and shook his head, “My horse is light and agile, your mount is of a different breed, he has power to carry your weight, but he has not the grace and agility required for such a feat.”

“I am ready,” announced Ulaff straightening his back, “We must make haste.”

Tillendur smiled again, a deep compassion and respect in his dark eyes, “Nay my friend, recover your strength a while longer, we should take a bite of breakfast now, we have a long and hard day ahead of us.” And so, as their horses grazed free on the rolling dales the three friends shared a meal of preserved meat and hard baked biscuit, the type that will keep good for many months if kept dry.

“Keep your bow handy as we travel,” suggested Feron, “A few roasted rabbits, or pigeons would satisfy a growling belly later.”

“We will see,” replied the Elf as he gazed into the distance at the outline of jagged mountain peaks. Feron, unencumbered with the burden of leadership could relax, the only pressing concern in his mind being his next hot meal. Tillendur however felt the weight of responsibility on his slim shoulders, the mountains loomed ahead and he did not know the terrain. I have to find a path, a pass between the peaks, we may not find much time to cook. Lightning flickered across the dark clouds that wreathed the highest peaks and he felt his joyful heart chill. Given more time I would lead us around… not over, he admitted and swiftly calculated the time needed to detour, but we do not have the time, I must trust to luck that I do not lead us astray. Lowering his gaze to the thick woodlands that populated the lower slopes his spirits rose. There in the forest I will find peace to think clearly, maybe the whisperings of the trees can give me some guidance, or possibly there are forest folk friendly to our cause.

Never depressed for long Tillendur smiled at his friends before whistling the horses, who, with pricked ears returned at a gallop. “To the forest, and hope for guidance.” he whispered and began to pack his small belongings.

By mid morning they had reached the head of the valley and stared down into the circular glade. Tillendur glanced up at the sun judging the angle, “They have at least twelve hours lead,” he sighed, “I know not how long it will take them through their tunnels before they emerge again on the Plains of Akar, how shall we know if they paused for rest during the night, even Goblins must sleep!”

“They will use the Iron Gate,” Ulaff nodded, “It is the most direct route north, the western gate is only used if heading for the sea.”

“You know that land?” questioned Feron looking away from the tunnel entrance far below.

“That I do,” Ulaff replied, “But it is many years since I last cast my eye on the gate.”

“What is the country like there?” Feron asked with interest, “And what took you so far north?”

“I have not always been a warrior of the Guild,” replied the Ogre quietly, a sadness showing in his eyes, “Many years ago I was a hunter, along with my brother. We often journeyed to the plains to track the herds of Auroch, the horns and hide brought a fair price back then, but that was many long years ago, though I doubt the plains have changed a great deal… wide open spaces, nothing but grassland for miles and miles in every direction… all the way to the edge of the desert. Further than that I have never been.”

“You never spoke of a brother before,” said Tillendur as he saw a flash of pain in the Ogres expression, “Forgive me,” he apologised quickly, “I do not wish to pry.”

“You do not pry my friend,” sighed Ulaff, “He passed away a long time ago, ambushed by a Goblin patrol.” he swallowed hard before continuing, his eyes squeezed tightly closed, “I found them preparing his body for their feast, forgive me my friends, I do not wish to drag these memories back into my mind.”

“Say no more, and forgive my intrusion,” replied the Elf quietly as Feron shuffled uncomfortably in his saddle and tugged his horses tufted mane, his gaze locked on his fingers.

It explains a great deal, mused Tillendur as he studied his massive friend, I understand the hatred he holds for all Goblins now, I would probably feel the same way were I in his position.

“Tell me, which route did you use to get to the plains? Have you ever been over the mountains?”

Ulaff swallowed his emotions and coughed before shaking his head, “I have never been in these mountains, I always used the Gap of Akar far to the east, but that is many days ride from here,” he caught Tillendur’s eye and shook his head as though reading his mind, “No brother, it is too far, we could never make up the time. If we are lucky and they rested during the night, and we can find a convenient pass, we should be able to catch them on the plains, it will take them many days on foot before they reach the desert.”

“Then let us hope we can find a pass, and quickly. Onward my friends, we still have much ground to cover before we reach the forest.” Tillendur turned his horse from the edge and began leading toward the still distant mountains, his companions following deep in private thought.

“Keep a steady aim.” whispered Feron earning a raised eyebrow from his Elf companion as he carefully drew an arrow from his quiver never taking his eyes from the boar as it snuffled below an oak tree on the edge of the forest.

“I will heed your valuable advice.” replied Tillendur, an edge of playful sarcasm in his quiet voice.

“You know my meaning,” chuckled Feron, “Just don’t miss, I can taste him already.”

“Her,” replied the Elf as his taut bowstring twanged, the arrow speeding to its mark with absolute precision, “Her, not him.”

“Forgive me,” laughed Feron, slapping his friend on the back as the wild pig dropped without a sound, dead the instant the arrow pierced its heart, “I was only looking at the haunches, but male or female, wild pork is still wild pork regardless of how many teats it has.”

“We should make a small camp on the edge of the forest,” advised Tillendur as Ulaff lumbered across to retrieve the carcass, “It is not wise to start a fire under the trees, concern will confuse their speech, and I must hear their whisperings clearly,” he turned to Feron quickly, “Build it some distance away, use only fallen wood, there will be plenty if you take the time to seek it out, I must wander amongst the oak and ash, pine and elm, I must hear their thoughts and search for sound advice.”

“They are a strange breed… the Elves.” said Feron as the Ogre returned with the boar draped over his shoulder.

“That they are,” he agreed, “Strange and wonderful.” and without further ado he drew out a small knife and began to dress their evening meal.

“How long have you stood here?” Tillendur whispered as he placed his palms against the moss covered bark of an ancient elm, what stories could you tell?

His sensitive fingers tingled as the forests voice became clearer, ethereal conversations flowed through him as disjointed whispers, the sun and rain, optimism for a fair growing season ahead before autumn signalled a time to sleep again, all of the topics that interested growing things. I sense nothing that can help me, he sighed, the woodland is at peace, there are no rumours, no foreboding, evil has not visited here for many years. Still he listened, their thoughts soothing, as restful as sleep, he thought before reluctantly deciding to break his contact. Unwilling to return to the camp too soon Tillendur strolled deeper into the forest and discovered a glade filled with gently nodding bluebells, their blooms vivid in the dappled sunshine of late afternoon, “I shall rest here a while,” he decided as he sank down onto a fallen log and closing his eyes allowed his mind to wander. “Elouise,” he whispered aloud as the image of his partner emerged from the mists, “How long since we last wandered in the woods together.” Many years, he admitted sadly, when this task is complete I will return to you my love, his thoughts brought pain to his heart, too many years!

As eternal beings Elves do not count time as other races do, a year could be as a second to mortal peoples, and with heaviness in his soul he understood that more than thirty seasons had come and gone since he last held his Elouise. “Time to go home until I am needed again,” he decided before thoughts of his friends emerged to trouble him. But they are mortal, he sighed, they will be old with long grey beards when next I see them, I can wait a few years more, for their sake, my Elouise will be waiting, and we have eternity to be together.

“I hear you breathing,” Tillendur spoke clearly without moving or turning toward the sound, “And I hear your bowstring straining, lower your weapon, I mean you no harm.”

“Maybe,” a musical female whisper drifted to his sensitive ears, “But what of your companions, can you also vouch for them?”

“I do, you have my word that they will not interfere in any way, you are safe.” a small smile played on his lips as the taut vibrations of a straining bowstring ceased, “I am Tillendur, of the House of Thamina, and a member of the Guild of Free Peoples.”

“The Guild means little to me,” she replied, “But an Elf will always be welcome in my forest. I am Fiorina.”

“Well met Fiorina, may I be permitted to look upon you?” Tillendur replied adhering to the strict rules of propriety when meeting woodland Nymphs.

“Well met indeed Tillendur of Thamina, I will permit you to look upon me should you wish, and if you understand your jeopardy.”

“I understand,” Tillendur nodded and slowly turned toward her voice as she stepped lightly into the sunlit glade. Of all Nymphs he had met Fiorina had to be the fairest in his eyes and he began to understand the risk that mortal creatures took when they gazed on such beauty, “Beautiful indeed, if I had a weaker will I would also fall in love.” he nodded as she walked slowly toward him, no shame or embarrassment in her calm expression despite her total nudity. Other Nymphs had taken to covering their bodies with sheer gowns woven from shining threads of silk and new green leaves, yet Fiorina had not succumbed to the growing trend and wandered the woodlands as nature intended, young, beautiful and nubile. Her bow slung over her shoulder, the string nestled between her small firm breasts and a finely wrought gold chain belt that followed the contours of her hips carrying a slender pearl handled knife were the only trappings that adorned her milky white perfection.

“And what brings so fine an Elf to my humble forest home?” she asked giving a small pout, a teasing action so common to her species.

“My companions and I are tracking a band of Goblins, they have taken a free worlder captive, and we seek a way to cut them off.”

“No Goblins have passed through my woods,” she whispered tracing a slender finger across his chest as she flickered her long eyelashes, “I would know if they had, it has been many long years since they last defiled this clean air.”

“Yes, I know that they did not travel this way, they have taken the tunnels beneath our feet, but I seek a short cut through the mountains, I wish to arrive at the Iron Gate as quickly as may be.”

“That is a long and dangerous path,” she whispered into his ear, “Surely you should consider resting here with me for a while before beginning such an arduous journey.” she gave him a saucy wink before sinking to her knees in the bluebells.

“Fiorina, surely you must understand, I am an eternal like you, and flattered as I am, sadly your charms have little effect on me.” Tillendur sighed deeply and sat beside her searching her eyes for reaction to his rejection.

“I know that,” she whispered, “But I still had to try, I live a very lonely existence, it is many many moons since anyone wandered into my realm.”

“That would explain your nudity,” replied Tillendur quietly, “You know it has become fashion for your sisters to wear a covering now, to avert the gaze of the folk that pass through your homes.”

“I knew nothing of this thing,” she frowned, “And it is a trend that I cannot comprehend, why should I hide myself from those who ask so politely for a glimpse?”

“Sometime less refined folk fail to ask politely, times are changing Fiorina,” sighed Tillendur, a deep sadness in his voice, “And not all changes are for the best.”

“There have always been those that act without decorum, it is nothing new, but this fashion for covering the body is a change that I do not like,” Fiorina set her dainty jaw in defiance, “And certainly not a change that I would ever adopt, I am happy living as I am.”

“I respect your views,” answered the Elf as he looked deep into her startlingly blue eyes and moved a wisp of silken blond hair from her face, “But there are changes coming that will affect us all, I fear that you will not be safe here, you will not be able to live as you please. Evil times are coming, evil times filled with dark and sinister people.”

“These things mean little to me,” she replied with a smile, “I lived through the dark days of Nilgoth. His Goblins troubled me not.”

“A darker power is rising, I feel it in my heart.” Tillendur rose slowly and picked up his own bow, “But maybe those days may be delayed if I can find my way safely and quickly through the mountains. Fair Fiorina, for the sake of free and decent people everywhere, can you not advise me, is there any path of which you know that can speed me on my way.”

Fiorina stretched out on her bed of bright blue flowers and hummed a quiet tune, her expression serene. “I can help you,” she nodded before a wicked grin spread across her pouting lips, “But there is a price!”

“Ask, and if it is within my means I will willingly pay.” replied the Elf earnestly.

“I know that you can afford my price,” she giggled, “All that I ask, if you are successful, you will return here and spend some time with me, relieve my boredom, I crave company.”

“You have my word,” replied Tillendur solemnly before bowing low.

“Your word is sufficient for me,” Fiorina nodded and kissed him lightly on the cheek, “Now you must return to your comrades, meet me here again at first light tomorrow, come alone, and keep your friends from straying into the forest, they must not see me, even for a second. I sense that your mission is vital, so we must not risk confusing their minds. Sleep secure tonight knowing that I watch over you.”

“I am deeply in your debt,” replied the Elf bowing again, “Until tomorrow.”

“We were wondering if you had become lost,” called Feron as Tillendur emerged from the darkened forest.

Time passed quickly under her spell, he realised noticing that the sun had set, the last thing I remember is her lying in the bluebells bathed in the soft light of early evening. How easily mortals must fall in love with her kind if she can influence my mind so dramatically. He glanced back into the trees and his sharp night eyes caught her slim shape high in a tree that overshadowed their basic camp, she returned his smile before vanishing quickly into the thick cover of fresh new leaves.

“I needed time to think,” he replied to Feron’s comment, “But we are in luck, I met someone who has agreed to help us, tomorrow morning the best path will be revealed… How is that boar coming along Ulaff?” he asked quickly deflecting questions, “Relief has brought a great hunger on me, and tonight I will risk a drop of wine.” I can sleep secure, he told himself as he felt an overwhelming weariness, she will allow no harm to come to us tonight.

“So what manner of creature did you meet in there?” Feron gestured toward the forest with his knife as thick yellow pork grease trickled down to his elbow.

“A friend,” replied Tillendur, a sleepy distance in his eyes, and why am I grinning like an idiot? he cautioned himself as he chased the vision of Fiorina from his mind, I have been too long without the company of a beautiful companion. He shook his head dislodging the cobwebs in his mind, Focus, he ordered himself, now is not the time for distractions.

“A close friend by the expression on your face,” Ulaff chuckled as he stripped the succulent flesh from a shin bone.

“If circumstances were different, then I am sure we would become very close friends,” he sighed, “But some things are not meant to be.” he glanced up into the branches and caught her saddened expression and felt a pain in his heart. When he looked again Fiorina had disappeared.

The hours of darkness passed slowly as Tillendur lay awake listening to the heavy snoring that rumbled and rasped from his friends, yet sleep evaded him. Always her face drifted into his mind, how could she affect me so deeply? He questioned silently, she warned against clouding my companions minds, if she only knew what she has done to mine. He turned on his blanket and gazed up into the branches secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of her flawless visage and sighed deeply to find the branches empty, she is here, he acknowledged, but my words earlier hurt her, I saw the pain in her eyes, she will not break her promise, but I will not see her again tonight. And with that thought in his mind he closed his eyes and drifted into a dream tormented sleep.

The sight that met him as he stepped back into the bluebell glade as the first glow of dawn drove the deep shadows away stopped his heart for a second.

“Fiorina, is that really you?” he gasped as she stood slowly and turned to face him.

“I have changed our deal,” she offered a small smile and tugged uncomfortably at the deerskin shirt that covered her slender torso, “I made these last night,” she continued quietly as she followed his eyes down to the matching breeches, “Did I get it right?”

“I don’t know what to say,” stuttered the Elf taken aback, and for the first time in his calm and ordered life struggled to find the words to express himself, “You look wonderful, and yes, you definitely got the design right.”

“I have decided to guide you,” she stated resolutely, “That is the new deal, refuse me and find your own way through the mountains.”

“How could I refuse,” laughed Tillendur regaining his composure, “But I would not wish to put you in any danger, the path that we tread is fraught!”

“Do you think that I could have lived as long as I have without experiencing danger, you must not fear for me, I have my bow, and my knife, I will be safe.”

“I understand,” he nodded, “But what of my companions, what of your influence on their mortal minds?”

“I see that you do not wish to share me.” she teased as Tillendur swallowed hard.

You do not know how close you are to the mark, he thought before denying the revelation, and clearing his mind he took a deep breath. “I talk of distraction, my friends must not lose their focus, it will be dangerous for them, for all of us if they spend their days mooning around you like lovestruck teenagers.”

“I understand,” she giggled and gave him a knowing wink, “But you need not fear competition, I have prepared a potion, it will give immunity to my charms.” and with a grin she revealed two small cork stoppered glass vials filled with a pale green liquid.

“Only two?” he asked as he took them into his hand and stared into her hypnotic eyes.

“Do you truly wish for immunity?” she asked, her eyes searching and anxious.

“I will ensure that they drink it, follow me when you are ready.” he replied without answering her question. I cannot tell a lie, he admitted silently and felt a strange and confusing mixture of emotions; concern and guilt swirling together with heady elation.

“What is it?” asked Feron as he eyed the vial suspiciously while trusting Ulaff poured his dose into his mouth before swallowing hard, disgust registering on his face.

“It’s bitter, that’s what it is.” he coughed.

“Protection.” replied Tillendur understanding that his nature would not permit an open deception. I speak the truth, he justified in his mind, I merely omit to mention protection against what.

Feron shrugged and downed his vial before smacking his lips and sighing deeply, “I like it, do you have more?”

“Sadly no,” answered Fiorina as she stepped from the trees, “That was the last.”

“A great pity,” announced Feron as he turned toward the sound of her voice before shock registered in his expression.

“This is Fiorina, our guide,” Tillendur made a nervous introduction and watched a small smile cross her perfect lips as Feron leaned closer to whisper.

“Could you have not found a guide that is a little easier on the eye.”

“I am pleased to meet you also Feron the Dwarf,” she replied and gave Tillendur a knowing wink. “And also you Ulaff.”

Deep confusion spread across the Ogres face as he looked first at Fiorina and then at Feron, “It is a pleasure to meet you also Miss.” he replied taking her dainty hand in his before understanding bloomed and he turned to Tillendur with concern in his eyes, “May I speak to you for a moment in private?” he asked, his tone firm.

“This is a dangerous game for you to play,” he turned suddenly as they reached the horses, “She may fool Feron, but she cannot blind me as easily, tell me Tillendur, are we truly travelling with a Nymph?”

“You know what she is?” asked the Elf as he glanced back to camp nervously.

Ulaff chuckled, but his voice held no mirth, “Seriously my friend, she is beautiful, beyond beautiful… I think I can recognise a Nymph when I see one!”

“But the potion!” stammered Tillendur.

Ulaff raised a meaty hand, “It worked for a second but the effect soon faded, but you took no potion did you, that is why I told you that the game is dangerous that you have decided to play, she can influence your mind my friend. She will toy with your emotions,” he saw the Elf’s involuntary glance back at the beautiful young woman, “She is already twisting you inside, she has a grip on you.”

“No one controls me,” Tillendur snapped defiantly, “And we can trust her, she is the only hope that we have to get through the mountains in time to stand any chance of catching the Goblins.”

“I do not doubt that,” replied Ulaff quietly, “I just want you to be careful, they are dangerous creatures, if you lose your heart to her you will never find rest again, and eternity is a very long time.”

“That is my security, my immortality” answered the Elf drawing back his emotions, “My heart belongs to another, that bond is too strong to break… do not worry, I am in no danger.” he paused for a few seconds before continuing cautiously, “But what of you my friend, what of her influence over you?”

Ulaff laughed softly before placing his hand on the Elf’s shoulder, “As a people we are too far apart, the gulf between us is huge, I see a pretty girl, but I feel no attraction, and she knows that well.”

“So, how do we proceed, do you still trust me to lead this mission?”

Ulaff gave the Elf’s shoulder a squeeze, “Lead me into the smoking fires of Nilgoth’s furnaces, you will always have my undying loyalty and trust.” he replied quietly.

“Then let us not mention this again my friend,” Tillendur smiled and felt his eyes drawn back to the irresistible Nymph, “We must break camp, the Goblins will not be waiting for us, they are moving fast.”

Chapter 8

I wonder what time it is out in the world, Gondell asked himself, It was night when we entered, but how many hours have I been walking and climbing… and crawling, he grinned nervously as he remembered his terror crossing the river of lava. I’m sure it must be daytime, will we never reach this Great Hall? Ruaq had promised rest in the hall, rest before the crossing? Gondell wondered, but what are we to cross, another lake, a sea, an ocean?

What Gondell did not know, in the world above dawn had broken and at that exact moment Ulaff the Ogre questioned his leader about the dangerously beautiful new member of their tightly knit group.

“Finally,” he gasped as the tunnel that had compressed his body and mind for so many hours suddenly opened out into a truly breathtaking hall.

“Is it not everything I promised?” laughed his now familiar guard, with his bindings and tether gone, the Goblin had jogged at his side and answered a variety of questions, questions posed as Gondell explored the mind of his captors, an attempt to understand how an entire race could blindly follow a sinister leader into the darkness without question.

“It is all of that, and more,” Gondell answered honestly as he gazed in awe at the feat of engineering. “And your people dug this place by hand, it is not a natural cave?”

“Dug by fifty thousand slaves,” the guard boasted, his eyes filled with pride.

“Then it is not a Goblin achievement,” sighed Gondell as his feelings shifted again, to believe I was actually beginning to respect these vile creatures. Stop being a romantic fool Gondell, they are pure evil despite the small acts of kindness and compassion, their hearts are black… every one of them.

“It was our vision that brought this magnificent space into existence, who cares who did the work, is that not also the way with your own people, the intelligent dream, and the stupid labour?”

“That is a very different scenario,” responded the disgruntled Gnome, “There is a big difference between a labourer and a slave… choice!”

“How noble of you,” laughed the Goblin as they stepped out into the vast hall, “Labourer or slave, they are both the same, the weak will always serve the strong, the poor will always bow down to the rich, your own poor are little better than slaves.”

“You missed my point,” insisted Gondell, “The meaning of choice.”

“It is you that is misguided, your poor have no choice, or at the best a bad one, starve or labour, at least we fed our slaves, they wanted for nothing.”

“Except maybe freedom! Oh why am I wasting my breath? Arguing morality with a Goblin!”

“It is almost a pity that you have to be delivered to the Master my little mouse, I am growing to enjoy our debates.”

“So don’t deliver me,” laughed Gondell, “Surely he won’t miss one small mouse.”

“You are a clever one my friend,” the Goblin winked, “Playing to my soft heart, but tell me something, what is the secret to release the sword, I am curious?”

“Not as curious as I am,” he answered honestly, “I have told the truth from the beginning, I really know nothing about the sword, or my role as the keeper, that is if I truly am!”

“The captain believes you are, that is enough to convince me, I just hoped that you were holding a little something back, some information you might share with me, information would improve my standing in the legions, maybe put me in a position where I can shield you a little from the torments ahead… you scratch my back and I can scratch yours.”

“Then I am truly sorry that I know nothing,” replied Gondell sadly, “Believe me if I did have information I would share it with you.”

“I like you my little mouse, so I hope that the Master is merciful and kills you quickly, The lads and I will drink to your good name as we feast on your remains.”

That one statement reopened the void between Gondell and his captors, clearly intended as a compliment Gondell felt sick to his stomach that he had lulled himself into believing that the Goblin race could be brought into the light and become civilized. They are monsters, and always will be, he decided with a heavy heart.

“The toil of fifty thousand souls, their blood sweat and tears, that is what this place represents.” whispered Gondell as he gazed around the massive hall. If this place had a better history I would say that I am in awe, but impressive as it is, I find no wonder in it now. The group had reached what he considered the centre, possibly because an austere building stood towering above him, the highest point that he had seen during the long walk from the entrance tunnel, only one of very many dark tunnels in the distant walls that he had noticed.

Except this isn’t a building, he observed as closer inspection revealed greater detail, not a building at all, this is a carving. The whole structure has been carved from the living rock. “What is this place?” he asked the guard.

“This is the Temple of Nilgoth, come my little mouse, step inside with me, and then tell me if it is not truly a marvel… despite being the work of slaves.” he gave the Gnome a playful prod and grasping his shoulder steered him through the massive arched entrance.

Gondell had lead a sheltered life, always content to stay within sight of friendly and familiar places, so his adventuring had been restricted to the pages of his many books. Now he found himself stood within an adventure, seeing sights through his own wide eyes rather than the memory or imagination of artists. His footsteps echoed around the vast temple as he cautiously stepped forward. It’s an amphitheatre, he gasped as his eyes adjusted to the light thrown out by row upon row of braziers that hung from the domed ceiling high above. Just a few paces from where he stood the polished floor disappeared diving deep down to the mountains roots in a series of wide terraces, each lower than the other, and at the bottom, at least one hundred metres below the level of the floor stood what looked like a black granite altar.

The guard followed his gaze and chuckled, “There lie the remains of Nilgoth, in his mausoleum he waits patiently for the time to return.” dropping to his knees in prayer the guard whispered quietly, “The time is here at last Lord, your long wait is almost over.”

“Nilgoth is here?” Gondell shuddered as he gazed down at what he now knew to be a tomb and not an altar, “I thought the Guild burned his body on the battle field? Well, that’s what the history books say.”

“Guild lies,” hissed the guard, his expression rapidly shifting toward anger, “Is that what your books teach you, that the Guild defiled our Lord? All fallacy, his body was carried with respect away from the field by his generals, they did not burn him, he is here, I have seen him with my own eyes.”

“And you believe that he will be reborn?”

“If you are the keeper, yes, he will return soon, Lord Kangan has the power to raise him, he is a powerful necromancer, the most powerful the world has ever seen.”

“But why I am I important?” demanded Gondell, now believing that he could be the keeper, even if ignorant to the facts, “And why the sword?”

“The sword took his spirit,” came the whispered reply, “But Lord Kangan will release it again, but he needs the sword first… and that is why you are important my little mouse.”

Until that moment in time Gondell had viewed his predicament as a nightmare, a terrible dream that continued hour after hour, and his stubborn optimism had refused to face facts, he would wake eventually back in his own bed, in his cosy hole, back to his comfortable life. But in that moment of perfect clarity he understood the truth and felt a mountain of responsibility on his shoulders, the fate of the free world is in my hands! He wondered if his thoughts were conceited, unfortunately not, he accepted with deep sadness, it would appear that I really am that important. Suddenly he knew that a momentous decision had to be made, without me their plans will fail, they need the sword, obviously for some ritual or other, and to get the sword they need me. He swallowed hard before allowing himself to consider the options, face facts Gondell, if you are not around, they can’t get their filthy hands on the sword, the choice is simple.

There has to be another way, he pondered as he looked down at the terraces below wondering if the fall would kill him, I would just break myself, but still live long enough for them to get what they want, he decided. But what other option do I have?

Gondell took a step forward, edging cautiously toward the drop down to the first level.

“Hey, not so close,” called the Goblin in alarm, “We don’t want you to have any accidents before the Master can meet you.”

“And when will I meet your Master?” asked Gondell as the first inkling of a desperate plan began to form in his head.

“Many days from now,” the Goblin guard nodded, obviously counting days in his head, “It depends on the desert, but not less than two weeks I would guess.”

Gondell stepped back from the edge and sat on the smooth polished black floor, “I don’t even know your name, and we have talked for hours.”

“Grignasch,” replied the Goblin as he sat at Gondell’s side, “My name is Grignasch.”

“It seems a little late for formal introductions,” the gnome chuckled, “But I’m Gondell, and I wish I could say I was pleased to meet you,” he laughed, “But I would probably say that if we had met under different circumstances.”

The Goblin turned with a curious look in his eye before slowly nodding, “To us you free worlders are all enemies, but I have to admit, I enjoy your company, our conversations are refreshing. My comrades have limited appetites for discourse,” he chuckled, “It has been nice to debate on subjects other than drinking and whoring and pillage.”

“When we finally get there, to where Lord Kangan is… I won’t have long… will I?”

Gondell studied the Goblins expression intently, hunting for a spark of sympathy or remorse but found none, “Only hours,” Grignasch nodded, his face neutral.

I can’t get to him through compassion, he understood swiftly, but what about greed? “I’m sure Ruaq will be rewarded generously for my delivery.” he added making the comment sound almost as an afterthought and sensed the Goblin flinch slightly.

“Ruaq!” the guard spat the name as though saying it left a bitter taste in his mouth, “Oh our captain will be a hero, the saviour of our people.”

Gondell laughed, mockery deeply embedded in his mirth, “It doesn’t seem fair to me, you did all the work, it’s you who has guarded and delivered me, not him.”

“Exactly, I gain nothing from this, but if you have remembered something?” he turned with expectancy in his eyes.

“No, sadly not, Grignasch, you have to believe me when I say I have never known anything, so it’s impossible for me to remember something I never knew. But it still seems an injustice that you gain no benefit.”

Grignasch nodded before turning to the Gnome, his expression loaded with suspicion, “Why would you be concerned about me?”

Gondell grimaced and swallowed hard, “I’m a realist, there is no escape for me, I accept that. The fact that we have come this far tells me that I can forget the Guild, they can’t track us through the tunnels. Grignasch, my fate is sealed, now that I have accepted that I just wish that a friend could benefit… rather than his captain.”

“I think that I understand you,” the guard nodded, “But what is there to do, we cannot change the past. Ruaq has you, that is a fact that I cannot change.”

Gondell rested his head on his knees for a moment, deep in thought, “Maybe we can’t change the past…” he began hesitantly before grinning, “But we can change the future.”

“What do you mean?” Grignasch asked cautiously.

“Well,” Gondell chuckled and gave the Goblin a wink, “What would happen if Ruaq lost me along the way?”

“He would be executed,” laughed the guard, “But how does that help me?”

“Well, wouldn’t it be a miracle if after mighty Captain Ruaq has failed, a humble scout named Grignasch recovered the prize?”

“It would certainly put me in good standing, and the reward and praise would be mine alone… but why do you suggest this, even if it is possible?”

“Time,” gasped Gondell, “More time. Grignasch, I am doomed, I know that is fact in my heart, I have two weeks left. Tell me something, how long have your people waited for an opportunity to resurrect Nilgoth?” he asked nodding down toward the tomb.

“Over one thousand years.” came the dispirited reply.

“So after waiting that long, what is another month or two? Grignasch, I don’t want to die, but I am wise enough to understand that it is inevitable, I want to buy some time, time to prepare my mind, is that so much to ask?”

“Two months is not so long,” Grignasch replied as his cunning mind worked swiftly through the presented opportunity, “But it will take serious thought to make this work, what you have overlooked in your little plan is that if you get lost along the way, it is me that will be executed first, or is that what you had in mind?”

“Of course not,” snapped Gondell forcefully, “But I don’t have all of the answers, we have to do this together, you know the road ahead, there must be places that are suitable for me to disappear, you must find a way to be relieved of guard duty, I cannot do these things for you. I gave you the idea, and I also give you my word that I will assist you where ever I can, but it is your responsibility to make it work.”

“You speak the truth my little mouse,” replied Grignasch thoughtfully, “I must think on this in depth, we will need a good share of luck, but I think it is possible.”

Two months! It’s not long, but better than two weeks. Gondell admitted as he studied his guard, the seed now sown. A great deal can happen in two months, and maybe it will give the Guild the time they need, I just hope I’m as important to them as I am to the Goblins.

Chapter 9

“It is not in my heart to deceive you.” Tillendur turned his head swiftly to face Fiorina as she rode alongside him.

“Where did you learn this trick?” he demanded, amazed that the Nymph had the ability to converse with him in the special Elf tone, her words beyond the hearing of their companions.

“There is a great deal that you do not know about me,” she replied, “But I thank you for defending me earlier.”

“I don’t need your thanks, Ulaff merely stated what I should accept on my own, you do have some influence over me Fiorina, and it scares me a little.”

“I only influence you in a good way,” she laughed, “I mean you no harm and I will never put you or your friends in danger. You must believe that.”

“I want to believe you, or I think that is what I want, I am confused now, which desires are truly mine, and which have you planted?”

“I did not plant the desire that you have for me,” she giggled, “That became very clear when we lay together in the bluebells.”

“We did not lie together,” the Elf replied sharply, “I asked you for help, nothing more.”

“Search your memories,” she whispered, “I put you under no spell, I merely clouded your recollection so that you would not be distracted from your quest. I touched your mind when we joined Tillendur, I know of your mission, I know about your Elouise, I felt the emotions that rage inside you.”

Tillendur gasped as his memories re-emerged, the lost hours of the previous evening returning in a rush of passion and vibrant sensations.

“I did it for you,” she whispered, “If I had not covered those memories you would have thrown aside what is most important to you. I seduced you, that is true… because I am so very lonely, but as our bodies and minds became one I regretted my selfishness, you have a destiny to fulfil, there is a great weight on your shoulders. Tillendur, I can share that burden with you, I know your mind, I know our heart.”

“If you wished not to distract me, why did you uncover my hidden memories?” he asked quietly as he closed his eyes and gasped as he lived through the experience again, to his mind for the first time.

“Because your heart wanted you to know, your heart needed your mind to be aware… and because I do not want to keep secrets from you, I want you to trust me Tillendur.”

“How can I trust myself now?” he asked opening his eyes and gazing into hers, “How can I trust myself around you, how can I resist?”

“Why would you resist?” she giggled, “I didn’t make you fall in love with me, your heart did that on it’s own, I merely opened it to the possibility. I cannot make you love me Tillendur, and I cannot make you fall out of love, these things are only within your control, the decision is yours to make, not mine. You talk of resisting me, but why would you if it is what your heart craves?”

“You make it sound so simple,” he laughed sadly, “But my life is far more complicated.”

“You make it complicated,” she replied softly, “But you have to accept a few facts. Elouise, I see in your heart that you love her, but Tillendur, the Guild is more of a wife to you. Don’t interrupt…” she added quickly as he began to react. “Do not misunderstand my words, yes you love her, but your honour is paramount, you feel that what you do defines you, and to a certain extent it does, but you are hiding within the Guild. Thirty years Tillendur, that is the time that you have been apart, yet I sense that you will delay longer, you use your mortal comrades as a scapegoat. Think about me Tillendur, search your heart and tell me that I lie, would you have come to me so willingly…” Fiorina trailed off knowing that the understanding of the reasons behind his willingness and infidelity had to come from within, not facts pointed out to him.

“So much confusion.” he replied.

“Denial, not confusion,” she replied, “But these are comprehensions that you must achieve on your own. But understand this clearly, you are not alone, I am here for you, I am with you now to the bitter end. Whatever lies ahead I will be at your side, to strengthen and comfort you.”

“You make it sound so simple,” he laughed as the mists of confusion began to clear in his mind. “Oh Fiorina, you really are wicked,” he chuckled as he saw through her playful deception, “You put that idea in my head, finish the mission and return to your forest, live happily ever after with you in the bluebells.”

“There, that proves my point,” she giggled, “I can put the idea in your head, but I cannot make you act on it.”

“Who says I won’t.” he responded with a smile.

“Don’t tease me,” she laughed but smiled knowingly as his thoughts were revealed. “Believe me Tillendur, I will never put you in danger, and I will not distract you from the mission. I agree with so many of your suspicions, but before I met you they were not my concern. Now I feel as strongly as you, but I do have a concern of my own.” she paused and tugged at the uncomfortable shirt that chafed her delicate skin, “Personally, I think that this Gnome is more important than you assume, I know Goblins as well as any of you, and from what I read of your thoughts and see in your memories, I think he has even greater value than you give him credit.”

“What brings you to that conclusion?” he asked wondering how deeply Fiorina could penetrate his mind.

“Interrogate and then eat, that is their way,” she replied almost casually, “If he were not important they would have tortured any information that they wanted from him, and then devoured him. Tillendur, they need him alive, which is both good and bad news for him.”

“The good news being that he will remain safe and alive, at least for a while, the bad news can only be that he is destined for Kangan himself, this captain that holds him has authority, but that poor little chap is headed toward the ultimate authority.” he turned to her, gratitude in his heart.

“You need say nothing,” she replied with a smile, “I want to help you, and sometimes two minds can be better than one.”

“You two are very quiet,” Feron called from the back of his steed as he trailed behind earning wide smiles from the lead riders.

“Why talk when there is nothing to say,” Tillendur called over his shoulder, “And the peace has given me time to put my thoughts in order.”

“We are close to the boundary of my realm now,” announced Fiorina aloud after they had ridden for over four hours, “My marker is just ahead.” she pointed to a moss covered boulder that sat alone in a brightly lit glade, the short grass surrounding its base dotted with white daisies and glowing yellow celandines. “Beyond this point we must be more wary, from here the land grows more wild and lawless.”

“I have no influence over evil when we pass this place,” she warned Tillendur privately, “We are all at risk, Trolls abound in the mountains.”

“Surely they do not venture this far south?” questioned the Elf wondering what else she was protecting her home against.

“I hear you,” she replied quietly, “But more than Trolls linger close to here!”

“Satyr?” Tillendur suddenly understood, he was beginning to sense her mind probing his and many of her own thoughts were becoming clearer, “You have set up a boundary to protect yourself from the Satyr. But I was under the impression that they were irresistible to your race, your chosen mates?”

“They are, you are correct,” she replied and glanced into the bushes that lined the clear track leading away from her boundary stone, “But you must understand, I am the last of my kind here, and the Satyr are many, they are drawn to me… so many.” she gasped. “I had become a plaything. I could not live with that knowledge… Your people consider me a user of the male, entrapping them for my own gratification, as and when I desired, is it not ironic that the user became the used?

“Are there so many here?” asked Tillendur in amazement, “I always thought them scarce.”

“They are drawn to me,” she conceded sadly, “I am trapped within my small boundaries by my own attraction. But do not become alarmed, they pose no risk for you, they are not a dangerous people, only persistent.” the emphasis she placed on her final word spoke volumes, but Tillendur blanked out his own thoughts, not wishing to distress her further.

“I think you have little to fear in our company,” he spoke softly, “Feron and Ulaff are fearsome allies, I doubt any amorous suitors will dare approach.”

“They are all around us now,” she nodded toward the deep undergrowth, “Watching.”

“I know,” replied Tillendur, “That is why I spoke aloud of our comrades.”

As they journeyed on the path became more and more overgrown as the forest closed in, branches hanging low, blackened with mildew and laden with dangling creepers, lichen clustered on dead wood alongside fungi of every description, red capped and spotted in ivory through to drab and brown frilled like wasted and rotten fingers.

“This feels like a woodland in decay,” announced Ulaff quietly as he tossed a rotting branch aside to clear a path for the pack horses, “Death hangs in the air.”

“It is rotting and wasting away, gradually but surely,” replied Fiorina sadly, “A shadow has fallen over this part of the forest, a blight from the north, nothing wholesome grows here any more. And it spreads a little further south with each passing year.”

“It is a worry,” she told Tillendur, “It will reach my boundaries soon, and I doubt that I have the strength to hold it back, my home is in peril.”

“All the more important then that we crush the growing power of Kangan, this is his doing, he is giving evil a place to flourish, he is spreading his wickedness. But the Guild sits secure far to the south, and they do not heed our reports with the gravity that they deserve,” Tillendur sighed deeply as the Guild’s apathy saddened and repressed his usually joyful spirit, “We must take a proof back that will force them to act, so many years of peace have made them complacent and soft. The warriors of old have died or retired, and the new generals have never tasted conflict or danger, they are unprepared for the doom that hangs over us.”

“We will find your proof,” Fiorina nodded with an air of certainty, “Your proof lies within that bound and captive Gnome, of that I am certain.”

“Many eyes watch us,” announced Feron, glancing around the dense cover of trees and bushes that crowded the path that had now become little more than a well trodden animal track. “I do not see them, yet I feel their unfriendly gaze upon us.”

“Satyr,” replied Fiorina clearly, “But have no fear Master Feron, they pose no threat, they are simply curious, and they will not follow us when the woodland breaks and we begin to climb into the foothills of the mountains.”

“Fairies watch us also,” she warned Tillendur, “They will not be able to resist some spiteful mischief if our intentions are revealed, we must not discuss anything openly now.”

“They are sympathetic to the enemy?” questioned the Elf as he scanned the branches above.

“Not just sympathetic, they are in league,” she replied, “Many are harmless, wishing for nothing more than freedom and peace, but many follow Kangan. They tread a precarious path, the fine line between good and evil. I have heard it said that in the south many support the Guild, but we are not in the south, here they are not to be trusted.”

“Are there any peoples here that can be trusted?” asked Tillendur with a serious tone, “I makes me uncomfortable to ride openly toward the enemy, and it would ease my heart if there were at least one ally ahead.”

“I doubt you would call them allies, but not all races have succumbed to Kangan’s will, the Ursidaen still walk their own path, as do the Griffin Riders of Mount Valkir, but we cannot consider them friendly to the Guild either. The Ursidaen are a scattered race, solitary and suspicious. They care little for the machinations of Kangan or the affairs of the free peoples. They are very powerful when roused, but fortunately that is something that happens rarely. No, we cannot rely on the bear people to aid us.”

“I know of the bear people,” answered Tillendur as he pictured his last meeting with their kind. It had been in the woodlands of Urath far to the east, and it had not been a comfortable experience. Camped with his two comrades he had awoken to find many eyes shining in the shadows that surrounded their smouldering fire. A deep voice had growled from the darkness, the eyes set in a darker hulking shadow that grew as the great creature had raised up, standing erect on shaggy powerful legs, a creature twice his own height, a creature that dwarfed even mighty Ulaff.

“This place is sacred,” it had rumbled, “What gives you the right to defile our place of worship?”

“Stay your hand.” Tillendur had warned urgently as Feron sprung to his feet, his battle hammer hovering ominously in a steady grip. “We meant no offence,” he had called into the darkness, “We are weary travellers who simply sought a quiet place to lay our heads for the night, but we apologise and will move on as soon as may be, it is beyond our understanding that this glade serves as your temple.”

The eyes dropped slowly down as the giant bear lowered his bulk back onto all fours and slowly lumbered into the firelight. Black as coal his shaggy thick coat, yet around his snout a sprinkling of silver grey revealed great age. His eyes had locked onto the awed trio, the gaze intense and questioning, a shrewd mind clearly working as options were weighed, assumptions tested, their worth judged.

“Well armed for weary travellers,” he had stated, “But I shall accept your words, for I do not think that the Elves have changed over the long years, I wish to believe that you remain a truthful people.”

“That we are,” nodded Tillendur, relaxing slightly, “But as you rightly observe, we are armed. But only for our own defence… these are dangerous times, and we journey far to the north from here.”

“That is beyond my concern and interest,” replied the black bear as he stepped closer to the fire, his massive paws raising small clouds of dust from the dry ground that hovered in the pale light from the glowing embers. “It is forbidden for others to see this place, the centre of our realm, the sacred site where the Great Mother first lifted us above the other creatures of the forest and gave our race the gift of speech.”

“We have already apologised for that indiscretion,” voiced Feron, his patience wearing thin, “So leave us to depart in peace, for as you have already observed, we are well armed!”

“And so speaks the diplomat,” chuckled the bear as he turned his full attention to the bristling Dwarf, “And what of you Ogre?” his gaze switched, “How feel you? Are you prepared to risk all as your friend here threatens, or do you value the ancient art of gentle discourse as do the patient and sensible Elves?”

“I favour discourse,” nodded Ulaff, “But I do not fear conflict should diplomacy fail.”

“Well said,” laughed the black bear, “A blending of your companions. But you do not need to grip the hilt of your sword so tightly, and Master Dwarf, lower your hammer… you will have no need of it tonight.”

“That is my only experience of the Ursidaen’s,” Tillendur sensed the Nymph reading his thoughts, living his memories, “But you spoke of another people, the Griffin Riders, these are a race that I know not.”

“I do not know that much about them myself,” admitted Fiorina, “They rarely leave their mountain domain, and I know that they do not look on my kind with a favourable or sympathetic eye.”

“Perhaps the beautiful woodland Nymph’s have led too many of their males into madness and obsession,” joked Tillendur before catching her wince, “I see that my arrow struck close to the mark,” he laughed uncomfortably as she closed her mind to his searching. “And I sense guilt.”

“They are a race apart,” she began, “They are fair to the eye and strong, yet their hearts are hard and savage. But not cruel or dark,” she added swiftly, “They have the capacity for greatness, yet they lack culture, they are like babies without guidance. So much potential, yet no one to guide them away from savagery, no leader to bring them to enlightenment.”

“So the Nymph’s decided to entice them toward the light?” Tillendur questioned.

“Oh no,” Fiorina laughed wickedly before opening her mind and memories to him, “We never wanted to tame them, we used them only for our own pleasure and satisfaction.”

“They are close to Elves,” Tillendur stated as the images in her mind became clearer, “Yet different.”

“They are taller and stronger than your race,” she sighed, “Powerful, but without nobility. They do not have your temperance, yet they practice moderation of a fashion. They are a complicated people, so like you in so many ways, yet akin to the Dwarves and Ogres also. To my mind, they are an amalgam of the best, and worst, of all the races of fair folk.”

“They sound like unstable allies.”

“I have already told you,” Fiorina reminded him, “We should not rely on any assistance from them, and certainly not any form of alliance, the most that we can hope for is that they will allow us to travel unhindered through their valleys, for our path leads through the very heart of their lands.”

Tillendur turned and studied her beautiful face, searching to catch the source of the sadness he had glimpsed in her thoughts.

“I appreciate your concern,” she nodded, and gave him a small smile, “But you have no real need to worry, I will be safe if you state that I am acting for, and under the protection of the Guild. It is true that they despise my kind, but they do respect the authority of the Guild.”

“There is more,” stated the Elf as he held her deep blue eyes, “You know far more about these people that you choose to admit… how can you be so sure that they acknowledge the Guild?”

“Because they fell from grace and into the darkness, but they are still just and true, the Griffin Riders will honour the Guild before they bow to Kangan,” Fiorina sighed, “Their fall is an old story, and little known outside their own race, for it is their greatest shame.”

“And I feel from your own emotions that you may have played some small part in that shame?”

“Yes,” she sighed deeply, a sound of pain and regret, “It is not true, the rumours about us, about Nymph’s,” she began, “We do possess a conscience, we are capable of feeling guilt over our acts or complicity… we are not heartless.”

“You do not have to explain anything to me.” replied Tillendur quietly.

“But I do,” she gasped, an intensity burning in her eyes, “You have to know the truth, maybe then you can begin to trust me.”

“I do trust you…” he stated.

“Not completely,” she added cutting into his thoughts quickly, “But let me explain what happened, then we will see. Many lives of mortals have passed since that time.” she began, “So many years, yet I remember as if it were only yesterday. The Griffon Riders had two leaders at that time, brothers, twins.” She paused and allowed him into her memories, “They were both so handsome, so amorous… and both devoted.”

“To you?” Tillendur saw he nod slightly, the pain clear in her expression.

“For a long time I managed to keep it a secret,” she continued, “I played with them and there is nothing that they wouldn’t do for me. I would send one on a quest while lying with his brother… I made fools of them both,” she sniffed and wiped away a threatening tear. “They were the forefathers of their race in a way, and because of me their people were torn asunder, they became divided. Krossus and Manus, my lovers. Of course it is the way of this world that eventually my tricks were discovered, Manus came to my forest as I lay with his brother.” Fiorina closed her mind and squeezed her eyes tight shut as though trying to drive away the forming image in her head. “They fought Tillendur, over me, they battled for the love of a creature incapable of the emotion.”

“Incapable?” interrupted the Elf, wondering again about her intentions toward him.

“I was incapable of loving them,” she sighed, “But that was many years ago, and I have grown since then… and do not forget, they were mortal, both have been dead for many centuries. I can love, but I must give it to another immortal, for when a Nymph allows her love to blossom it is given forever.”

Tillendur remained silent but fully understood the meaning hidden behind her words, merely smiling as he felt her joy that he hadn’t dismissed the idea she implanted in his mind. “What became of them?” he prompted.

“Division, hatred, rebellion… those things and more. Oh Tillendur, if I could turn back the sands of time I would, I would have left this place if I had know the damage my games would lead to. They became two tribes, the People of Krossus and the People of Manus. In their old language Hew Krossus and Hew Manus, but over time they simply became known amongst themselves as the Kros and the Man. The Kros inhabit the mountain passes that lie ahead of us.”

“And the Man?” asked Tillendur, guessing the answer to his question from the pain in her eyes.

“They went over to Kangan,” Fiorina wiped away another tear, “I turned a great people over to the darkness, maybe now you understand why I need to help you, maybe I can find some small way to atone for the damage that I have done.”

“You are being too hard on yourself,’ Tillendur attempted to console her, for the first time seeing her in a different light, “You could not have known the consequences of your actions.”

“I am a Nymph,” she declared, distaste heavy in her words, as though the name were in itself an accusation, “We never consider consequences, we simply act on our own desires, our own selfish needs. Have I not displayed that clearly to you already, did I not seduce you because of my loneliness?”

“Maybe,” the Elf nodded, “But you ensnared only me, you did not play my friends against me, that act alone proves clearly to my mind that your actions have been based on your solitude rather than any desire to cause conflict or mischief.”

“Thank you for your kind words and understanding, I knew I had made the right choice when I looked into your heart… and no, I did not take your own choice away,” she laughed, her expression brightening, a wicked glint returning to her eye as he began to react to her answer, “Your heart chose willingly, or do you forget that fact, search your memories again, remember how willingly you came to my soft bed of bluebells.”

The long afternoon began to fade as the sun sank ever lower into the western sky, it’s colour changing from a warm and natural yellow to a deep and fiery orange as it touched the tops of the tall trees that still surrounded the travellers.

“We will not be able to venture much farther today,” said Fiorina, her words welcomed by Feron, who, not being a natural rider had found the long hours astride his mount both tedious and numbing.

“That is music to my ears,” he declared happily, “I do not know which will be more relieved to be parted for a few hours, my buttocks or my horse, I am beginning to feel that they are becoming as one.”

“There is a place just ahead where we can make our camp, beside a cool clear stream.” Fiorina turned her head to Tillendur and smiled, “I have a friend who lives under the waterfall, she will be able to advise us in more detail as to how the wild has changed since I last came here.”

“I thought we had no allies ahead!” stated the Elf, questioning.

“She is an old friend, but not your ally, of that you can be assured, I must bargain for you all, convince her to allow you safe passage for she is not a lover of the fair folk.”

“Safe passage?” Tillendur raised his eyebrow.

“We must all cross her stream, she is a water sprite, a Naiad, and a complicated character.” Fiorina turned away, obviously satisfied she needed to explain no further.

“Why should a water sprite pose any threat to us?” probed Tillendur, not satisfied with less than half of the story.

“Because you are all free to wander as you choose, she is not. She is jealous of the fair folk, she craves freedom but is trapped within the confines of her home.”

“Why is she trapped, is she a creature like the sirens, has she fins rather than legs?”

“She has legs,” chuckled the Nymph, “How little you know my fine Elf. She is doomed to live out her life in the waters of her birth, she has the length of the river until it reaches the briny sea as her domain, but she can never stray far from the water, if she did… she would die.”

“And we must cross her stream?” asked Tillendur quietly.

“We must,” the Nymph nodded, “And that will all depend on her mood. If her disposition is fair, it will not be difficult to obtain safe passage for you, but should her mood be fey,” she paused for a moment, “Well, I will have to use all of my powers of persuasion. There is a small glade ahead, there you will make camp and build a fire, I shall continue on foot, but I warn you, it may take me some time to convince her.”

Chapter 10

Fiorina crept away from the glade and the tethered horses, and with a deep sigh of relief shed the clothes that had rubbed her milky skin almost raw during the hours of daylight. I wish that it could be different, she thought as she squeezed the juices and oils from a fat grey toadstool and rubbed the thick and soothing liquid into her hurts. But I must remain covered, she chided herself as she considered returning to camp comfortably nude, I promised not to distract him, it is difficult enough to guide his thoughts away from me without adding extra temptation. She glanced again at the hated and chafing deerskins before sighing deeply. And turning, walked quietly toward the merry sound of cascading water that marked the waterfall.

This is much better, she sighed, as the chill waters gurgled around her calves. Being from a race that never wore clothing of any kind, Fiorina felt no cold. Even when snow lay thick around her forest home she would wander freely, skipping through the deep, white drifts. So the chill spring melt waters that flowed from the white capped peaks above merely soothed away the aches of a long day in the saddle as she slipped below the surface and dived down into the submerged bowl at the base of the falls, the millennia of churning water having cut deep into the bedrock. How long has it been? she asked herself, since I last came here. Many years, she realised. Her self imposed imprisonment had cut off so much of her world, but better than the alternative, she acknowledged with a shudder as memories of the veritable herds of lustful Satyr that had haunted her footsteps flooded into her mind.

Below and behind the waterfall lay a cave, an ancient formation created when the world had been born of fire and molten rock. A cave that connected to the labyrinth of subterranean passages that snaked and wound through the heart of the mountain like worm holes through a rotten apple. A cave that signalled the end of a deep and dark tunnel, that if followed, would bring a traveller to the very heart of the Goblin’s deep dark domain. Not that any Goblin would travel that path, the passage having been sealed centuries before, for they all knew that to wander into that darkness meant suffering and certain death.

In that cave Shilla had made her home. Not that many would describe the cold vacant space as a comfortable home. Ever dark, solely a place to lay her head when the need for sleep took her, and little more.

And so Fiorina stepped from the water and called a name softly into the darkness.

“It has been many years my sister.” a thin voice replied, a cold voice, a voice without feeling or compassion.

“Too many years.” agreed the Nymph as she stepped deeper into the cave, her keen eyes searching the absolute and everlasting night. “But I come to visit now, and to beg your indulgence.”

“I know of your companions,” replied the sprite quietly, “The forest is alive with gossip and rumour,” she laughed, the sound almost mocking. “At first I dismissed the whisperings, a Nymph clad in the skins of forest animals, this is surely a jest, I told myself.”

“It is no jest,” replied Fiorina quietly, “And maybe that understanding will lead you to believe that it is vital that my companions be permitted to cross your stream, we do not have time to travel to the bridge.”

“Fiorina. Destroyer of hearts, the eternal temptress, divider of nations… why are the lives of these creatures important to you? You have never lowered yourself like this before… your heart is as cold as mine!”

“A plague is coming,” sighed the Nymph, “Maybe it will touch you not, this I understand, except…” she paused, drawing out the moment, hoping to add a little more gravity to her words, “Except if the new power that is rising opens the deep passage to your home.”

“Of little consequence,” Shilla replied dismissively, “They blocked the path because of me, to keep me out. I am the horror that lurks in the darkness… they fear me. Those creatures bother me not.”

“As you say sister,” Fiorina sighed, understanding that she would not be able to use fear to sway the cold hearted Naiad, “But this new power will threaten my kind, and all of the other free races of the world.”

“Free races,” spat Shilla in disgust, “Free. At liberty to wander, to explore at will… I hate them all, be they pure of heart or filled with the purest evil. Come not to me to bargain for them.”

“Then I ask for me. Sister, let them pass safely for my sake.”

Shilla slithered from her comfortable hole in the rock, her form changing from the lithe and sinuous slipperiness of an eel into the more pleasing form that matched the shape of her visitor. Pale skinned, nubile, beautiful, the form that she used to lure her victims into their watery graves.

“You implore me on your own behalf, but you never answered my question… my sister. Why are these creatures important to you? Why do you debase yourself… covering your beauty, ignoring your instincts… begging!”

Fiorina swallowed hard, the admission that flooded her heart and formed her words a confusion. A solitary tear trickled down her cheek as she whispered the words that she had long felt herself incapable of uttering.

“Because I am in love.”

“The Elf?” asked Shilla quietly, seeing the Nymph nod.

“Then this is momentous news,” she continued, “And you are prepared to give up everything that makes you what you are, for him?”

“I am,” Fiorina whispered, not trusting her own voice as emotions flooded, I am prepared to give up everything, she admitted to herself for the first time, a firm commitment rather than speculative thought, “I have been lonely for too long… and so has he.”

“Are you truly sure that you want to begin this journey with him, are you positive that he is the one?”

“I have never been as sure of anything before, the time has come, and he is the one.” Fiorina declared with confidence, “So will you permit us to pass… for me?”

“For you,” Shilla nodded. “And now I have news for you, and a warning. There are whispers that the Wulver are gathering on your trail, the Fairies are talking.”

“The Wulver!” Fiorina shuddered, within her boundaries, they troubled her little, fearing to enter her realm, but outside, in the dying forest…? “Do the Fairies say how close they are?”

“Maybe a day behind you, but they travel fast. Take my advice sister, cross before the break of day, and do not pause until you reach the mountains. The Wulver and the Kros hold no great love for each other… but, if memory serves, the Kros hold no love for you either. I’m afraid that you will soon find yourself between the hammer and the anvil, and only you can decide who will strike you the hardest.”

“I thank you for the warning,” replied Fiorina, an urgency now in her voice, “I must leave you, I must warn him.”

Shilla smiled, some small part of her stony heart joyful for her friends happiness. “Have no fear of the Wulver, none will cross my river and live, they will be forced to take the bridge. That will buy you a few more hours.”

“I am deeply in your debt,” whispered Fiorina as she wrapped her arms around the sprite and hugged her close, “I will never forget your kindness and understanding.”

“Be happy,” Shilla whispered as she watched the Nymph slide gracefully back into the water, “And good luck, my sister.”

“Mushrooms!” declared Feron with delight as Fiorina stepped into the ring of firelight cast by their blazing camp-fire, her arms laden with edible fungi.

She had needed time to think, so many thoughts and emotions had flooded her mind since the admission in Shilla’s cave. Elation and joy filled her heart, and her spirit soared as she realised that Tillendur truly was the one, the partner that destiny had brought to her door. And he loves me also, she laughed, I have no need to ensnare him, he has given his heart freely to me… yes, he still has doubts, but he will soon understand my devotion to him. Yet despite her joyfulness a dark shadow threatened her mood, a menace loomed large over their journey casting an icy chill on her heart. We need not fear the Wulver, she decided, they are still far behind, and Shilla will not let them pass, we will be safely in the realm of the Kros before they set their filthy paws on the northern bank. But how safe will I be? Their memory is long, do they still lust for vengeance, or have they forgotten me completely? With a sigh she had accepted that before the next moon rose she would have the answers to her questions.

Returning to her folded deerskin shirt and breeches her defiant spirit rebelled, a little while longer, she thought with a shudder, delaying the moment that the skins would obscure and irritate her natural form. And with a playful laugh she turned and plunged deeper into the forest gathering herbs and fungi as she wandered.

“Cold cuts of wild boar, and hot smoky mushrooms, a feast fit for any king.” chuckled Feron contentedly as he wrapped the thick and juicy fungi in the herbs that Fiorina had gathered and dropped them into the glowing embers.

“What news of your friend?” asked Ulaff as he mixed flat-bread dough in a wooden bowl.

Fiorina smiled, he had avoided addressing her directly all day, his comments pointedly directed through Tillendur.

“The news is both fair and foul,” she nodded, “We may pass the waters safely at first light, but there is a growing threat behind us… the Wulver are on our trail.”

“This is not good news,” Feron turned from his mushroom parcels, concern clear in his expression, “How does your friend know of these things?”

“She hears whispers, as do I, and Tillendur, but this is her home, she is attuned to the quiet speech around her more than we are. But it is not all bad news, they are far behind, and they will not follow us across the water, they will be forced to divert to the bridge, which is a great distance downstream. It is many hours travel, even as the wild wolves run.”

“That is some small consolation,” nodded Feron as he returned to his cooking, flipping each charring herb wrapped parcel in turn, “So we will have a good lead over them when we have crossed the river, mounted we can easily outrun even the most determined pack.”

“The Fairies alerted them,” she told Tillendur privately, “As you know they delight in gossip and spite.”

“This is true,” replied the Elf, yet his thoughts and worries became clearly revealed as Fiorina probed his mind.

“I am sure that the Fairies know nothing of our purpose,” she assured him, “They simply wish to cause trouble for a small group of wanderers, they wish to sit comfortably in the treetops and watch the sport develop as the wolf people hunt us down.”

“You are probably correct,” Tillendur agreed, “But that is not my greatest concern.”

Fiorina nodded gravely, “It had also occurred to me. They may have spread their mischief to the north, the Kros probably already know that I venture out of my enclave and journey into their realm… Yes Tillendur, I am frightened,” she nodded as she read his thoughts, “But no, I will not turn back, my place is at your side.”

“Then we have a decision to make,” he nodded as his expression turned more serious, “I will fight for you, to defend and protect you, as will Ulaff, I know this without asking, but can we ask Feron to walk into danger, to protect you, when he does not know the truth of what you are?”

“You know his heart and mind better than I,” she replied, “It is a decision that only you can make, but regardless, I will not reveal my true form to him, I understand the minds of Dwarves. They are loyal creatures, but their greatest flaw is their obsession with all things valuable and beautiful. Even the love that he has for you will not be strong enough to protect him from his feelings for me should he see my face.”

“Then we are agreed,” nodded Tillendur, “Remain veiled, and I will tell him as much of your story as required to win his heart over to our cause.”

“Our cause, or the cause?” she questioned with a playful wink.

“The two are the same now in my mind.” he whispered and felt her joy blossom.

Chapter 11

“Well this is a strange turn of events!” declared Feron as he chewed thoughtfully on a lump of pork, seared in the flames of their fire until blackened and smoking, “Nay lady,” he held up his hand, “I hear your thoughts as though spoken aloud, I do not wish to see thee. You were wise to hide behind this hideous mask, for you understand the hearts of my people well. I do not wish to take that test, for of the tales I have heard of your kind… I know for sure that I would fail. But now I will be able to look upon the shell that you present to my eyes and know that beauty beyond imagining hides inside. In that knowledge, I am content, I do not wish for proof.”

“Then you understand that our journey into the mountains now carries an extra risk!” warned Tillendur seriously.

“Aye, that I do,” grinned the Dwarf, “For the honour of an old and warty hag I may have been reluctant to fight, but for the sake of a Nymph, my hammer is ever at your service,” he stood and bowed low, a sign of the greatest respect, before shuffling close to Ulaff and whispering into his ear, “Did you know?”

“That I did,” the Ogre chuckled quietly, “Her draft clouded my eyes but for a minute, the potions of her kind have little lasting effect on me.”

“So you see her, in her natural state?” gasped Feron in disbelief, “Tell me friend… is she…?”

Ulaff smiled, “All that you imagine Feron… and much more, she has the deepest blue eyes, hypnotic and beautiful, they glow like perfect sapphires filled with a divine fire, and her hair is like fine spun gold. I have never seen an angel, only in my imagination, but I know in my heart that an angel would hide her face in shame if compared to fair Fiorina.”

“She has entrapped you?” a slight concern edged into the Dwarfs voice as his lumbering companion turned such a lyrical description, he had expected the Ogres usual gruff answer to such questions, ‘Aye, I suppose she is passable enough,’ but to hear such eloquence raised alarm.

“I love her,” nodded Ulaff, “I love her as the partner of one of my closest friends.”

“Partner?”

“They are together now,” Ulaff nodded, “He is deeply in love, but not besotted,” he added quickly, “It is clear that she has given her heart to him, no small thing for a Nymph to do, for she has condemned herself to a life of faithfulness. We must accept that she has become a part of our lives also now Feron, where he goes, she will always follow.”

“Then my heart swells with joy for him,” chuckled the Dwarf as he slapped Ulaff on the back, “Let you and I retire with a small cask and celebrate his good fortune, and give them a modicum of privacy.” he added with a knowing wink.

Far to the south a keen nose snuffled in the undergrowth, gathering facts, clues and hints. “Their scent is old,” he growled, the hair on his back rising in a ridge along his spine. “Many hours old, we must travel fast my brothers,” he spoke in the common tongue of the south, the language shared by all races, both fair and foul.

A lieutenant bristled at the alpha’s side seeking the scent, “They ride on horses, we cannot match their speed, we are too late lord.” instantly he felt the pack leaders teeth at his throat as he collapsed into the leaf mould fighting for breath.

“I decide when it is too late,” he growled through his clamped jaws as the submissive lieutenant simpered and fawned, “They travel with an Ogre, or did your pathetic nose miss that fact, they travel at his speed. We have plenty of time before they reach the mountains.” he added as his jaw slackened and the cur debasing itself in the dead leaves drew a strained breath. “But we must move quickly, we have many miles to cover.”

As the first pale light of dawn crept amongst the deep shadows on the forest floor Ulaff heaved a heavy pack onto his shoulder and patted the lead horse in his team. Feron busied himself dousing water on the embers of the camp-fire, a fire he had built up before his companions had risen. He had craved a warming breakfast for the night had been chill.

“We must leave now,” said Fiorina glancing back into the deepest part of the forest that lay behind them, “They are close now, I feel them.”

“The trees also whisper of their approach,” added Tillendur as he released his grip on the smooth and shining bark of a beautiful young silver birch tree, “We must make haste.”

The animal track that had guided them the day before led on, the trees swiftly thinning as the sound of cascading water grew in their ears.

“Shilla awaits us,” Fiorina announced aloud, “We must cross quickly, I hear the Wulver clearly now, I can almost smell them on the breeze.”

At the waters edge Feron leaped down from his sturdy mount and thrust the reins into Ulaff’s hand as he unslung his hammer, “Get him across, I will delay these hell hounds… now go,” he cried as the crashing of racing bodies in the undergrowth carried clearly to his ear.

“Come swiftly, have no fear,” called a thin cold voice from the water, Shilla rising slowly above the surface, “You may cross in safety.”

“Go,” urged Tillendur as he snatched his bow from his shoulder and swiftly drew an arrow.

“Not without you,” replied Fiorina defiantly drawing her own short bow and releasing an arrow high into the air, it’s golden fletching catching the first light of day above the trees, flashing for an instant before plunging back into the forest, a terrible yelping scream following just seconds later.

“A mighty shot,” laughed Feron as his battle rage mounted, spurred on by the sounds of the mortally wounded wolf, “Now come to me you worthless puppies,” he shouted into the dark forest.

“Do not tarry,” Shilla shouted from the river, “You must flee from this enemy, I can hold them back, have no doubt of that.”

Tillendur spurred his horse forward circling in front of the sturdy Dwarf, “There is no shame in retreat,” he cried with urgency, “Turn to the river brother, we must cross.” Another of Fiorina’s arrows flickered above, and another chilling scream rung out in the trees. “The danger lies ahead, not behind,” the Elf urged, his relief clear as he saw the mist clear from Feron’s eyes.

“Then let us face that danger, and leave these flea bitten hounds to the water demon,” he nodded, and turning swiftly raced toward the river.

“Cross now,” Tillendur shouted over his shoulder, his cry directed at Fiorina as he released his first arrow into the chest of a Wulver who broke the cover of the undergrowth and came bounding down the track.

“Follow me now,” she cried back, “Ulaff and Feron are across, they are safe… follow me.”

My love, he heard her thoughts clearly as he turned his trembling steed, the howling of the approaching wolves unnerving the beast. Follow me my love, her plea filled with concern and anguish.

“My love,” he cried aloud and charged into the swiftly flowing water, the lead wolf snapping at his horses heels, “I am coming.”

The sight that they witnessed that morning lived with them for the remainder of their lives. The Wulver, many in the form of giant wolves, many transforming into great hair covered creatures that stood erect on solid legs plunged into the water, their cries of dismay pitiful as they found the clear liquid as thick and resisting as treacle, like crystal clear amber that clung to their legs, both those on four and those on two, “What is this madness,” screamed the leader as he backed away from the edge, shingle flying from beneath his paws in his dismay and panic.

“I cannot move,” screamed his lieutenant in shocked disbelief as the water ran swiftly around his legs yet held him firm as though trapped in solid ice.

“You shall not pass,” hissed Shilla as she rose above the surface of the clear water, her visage terrifying. A demon in every aspect, revealed in her true form, dark and sinister, an horrendous vision of glistening serpentine scales and wickedly curved teeth. Tillendur turned away as the lieutenant screamed and the river turned a deep crimson.

“We should leave,” whispered Fiorina dragging her eyes away from the carnage, the shredded corpses that floated free on the current, released from the waters hold as their lives ebbed away. “Shilla has the rage upon her, we cannot trust her in this state.”

On the far bank The Wulver howled and bayed, some in their rage diving into the water, snapping ineffectually at Shilla, stoking her fury, goading her to frenzied slaughter.

“I see you Nymph,” the leader howled from the safety of the shore, “And the rest of you, I will feast on your flesh before this day is over.”

A shrill and mocking laughter rung out in the trees above the frantic wolves. “Feast on this,” cried Fiorina as she loosed an arrow striking the fairy in the centre of his chest, “Dine on your informer, eat that sneak, and enjoy foul hound, for you will never taste us.”

“What I did was very wrong,” she excused to a stunned Tillendur as they turned away from the water, “But we are in grave danger because of his wicked tongue, for so many years I have been tempted to silence him, he was the worst of a bad breed, now he can tell no more tales.”

“You have shocked me,” replied the Elf recovering his wits.

“He threatened your life, he has put you at risk, all of us… there is nothing that I will not do to protect you,” she whispered in reply, “Nothing.”

“I knew I liked her,” laughed Feron quietly as he rode alongside the towering Ogre, “If I had any skill with a bow, my heart tells me I would have done the same.”

“And I,” nodded Ulaff, “I think that before we reach the end of this journey she will prove many more times to be a valuable and capable companion. Have you ever seen ought to compare with her skill with a bow?”

“Never,” agreed the Dwarf, “She hit those Wulver by sound alone, for I do not believe that she could see them.”

“A deadly lady indeed.” sighed Ulaff as he looked up to the towering mountains, “But I feel that her greatest test lies just ahead.”

King Greyler raised himself onto powerful hind legs, muscles filling out as he stood tall, his lupine muzzle fading into the flattened face of his alternate form, as tall as any Ogre, yet lithe and agile. Snarling he gazed at the swiftly flowing water, now running clear, his savaged servants but mere memory. “You will pay for this act of betrayal,” he growled as Shilla matched his transformation, taking on the form that duplicated Fiorina’s, slender and beautiful, a pleasing façade to hide the cold heart that beat steadily in her chest.

“Betrayal?” she giggled, “Who have I betrayed?”

“We had an accord!” snapped Greyler.

“I agreed not to kill your people when they quenched their thirst with my cool clean waters, I owe you no loyalty.” her mirth turning swiftly to menace. “Had I not prevented your crossing… now that would have been true betrayal. Fiorina is my sister, our races are closely related, as you well know… oh mighty king,” she added, the mockery clear in her voice, “Do not play with words and threats, you cannot harm me, I was old and strong when you were just a helpless whelp sucking on your mother’s teats, and I will still be strong and vital when you have rotted into the ground like the worthless cur that you truly are. But mark my words wolf king, never again will your drooling packs be welcome in my domain, any and all that I find who dare defile my waters will be slaughtered without mercy. Be gone cur, before my wrath grows again, make for the bridge if you dare, but remember well, if as much as one hair of your breed touches the waters, death will follow swiftly.”

“Lord Kangan will hear of this insult,” Greyler snarled as he backed cautiously away from the water, “You will answer to a greater authority soon enough.”

“The words of the small and desperate,” Shilla laughed loud and long, “Bid him come when he is strong enough to match me, until then, be gone, you begin to bore me with your puppyish whimpering.”

Dropping back onto the shingle Greyler assumed his lupine form, and baring his long yellowed fangs turned to depart. “Run, with your tail between your legs,” hissed Shilla as she grew large in the stream, a writhing serpent of flashing scales and vicious teeth, the shock of her sudden transformation causing the wolf king to yelp in fear, and adding to his fury, his tail did actually dart between his legs.

“Oh, she will pay for today,” he growled silently, before gathering together his depleted pack, “To the bridge, there is still time.” he ordered, and with a yelp, he began to run.

The trees thinned yet further as the ground began to climb steadily, pine grew in place of oak and birch, the fresh green of young leaves faded into memory to be replaced by the sombre darkness of everlasting needles.

“What are the chances of game in these mountains?” mused Feron, no stranger to rock and ice, “Do you think that any goats survive up here, it feels an unwholesome place.”

“In the past this was a place of great beauty,” replied Fiorina, “And at this time of the year the slopes were smothered in a riot of colour, so many beautiful flowers, yet now, it feels withered, as though a Dragon passed over and laid it’s fire across all fair things that grew here.”

“This talk is depressing,” stated Ulaff, “We have enough ahead of us, the Kros, Trolls, probably giants and evil mountain Goblins, yet now you speak of Dragons, can we not find a happier subject?”

“And what subject would you like to discuss?” asked Fiorina playfully, “Love?”

“Nay, let us not step onto that battlefield.” laughed Feron swiftly, “Better to walk in silence.”

“The word scares you?” she asked, exchanging a look with Tillendur.

“Scares me?” chuckled the Dwarf, “Nay lady, it does not scare me… it terrifies me, it is like a disease that can strike all, from the highest to the lowest, it robs a sound mind of reason, turns a wise man into a gibbering fool, talk not of love dear lady, it is not a fitting discussion for warriors.”

“Then if we may not discuss the darkness, and talk of the light is also forbidden, what in between can we discuss?” she asked, before winking playfully at Tillendur.

“Better to remain silent in our own thoughts,” replied Ulaff, “Each to their own.”

“Look ahead, do you see the ridge?” she faced Tillendur but their words were private.

“I see it.” he replied.

“That is the southern border of the Kingdom of Kros,” she sighed, “From there we can expect to be free of the Wulver, they will hesitate before crossing that line.”

“We are being observed,” realised the Elf suddenly, wondering if the awareness had been planted as he gazed high into the clear spring sky to see two circling shapes, like giant eagles or vultures turning on outstretched wings, “They watch us from above.”

“It is as I had feared” she remarked quietly, “We are expected, and I can only assume that they know that I am in your company.” She reached across the gap between their horses and placed her slender hand upon his knee. “It is not too late, the path ahead now is clear and easy to follow through the mountains, I can still turn back if that is what you desire.”

“You already know the answer,” he replied solemnly, “You know my feelings now.”

“I do,” she replied, “But I need you to tell me, I need to hear your words.”

“Then hear me well,” he placed his hand on hers and gazed deep into her eyes, “Never talk of leaving me again, my heart could not live without you.”

The mountains of Krossus, as they had become know, barely rated as mountains at all, more a gentle ripple and uprising on the edge of the great plains, yet to the travellers they appeared a lofty and forbidding obstacle. Their feet clad in forests of pine and fir, their heights barren and snow capped.

“Do you know how many hours at wolf speed to the bridge?” asked Feron as his stomach growled angrily.

“Even if they run hard without stopping, they cannot have reached yet,” Fiorina glanced at the sun as she answered, judging the passage of time by it’s height. “And there is no clear path this side of the river, for they must travel the same distance back before they can pick up our scent again.”

“Then may I suggest that we pause a while,” continued the Dwarf, “I feel hollow inside, I do not relish a fight on an empty stomach.”

“A fight?” questioned Tillendur.

“You have said nothing… yet,” chuckled the Dwarf, “But I have seen their sentinels as clearly as yourselves, I see them spying on us from above, let us linger here a while, eat a little, then we will be better prepared when the moment arrives.”

“I agree with Feron,” announced the Ogre, “But for different reasons, do not forget friends, you ride comfortably, but I walk. It will prepare me better if I can rest my weary legs for a space.”

“This plan makes sense,” Fiorina nodded as she slipped down from her mount, one of the original pack animals who, in so short a space of time, had fallen utterly under her spell. “We are standing on the border of the Kros kingdom, maybe it will be seen as respectful if we pause here a while, rather than simply enter their lands without permission.”

“Call it diplomacy if you wish,” laughed Feron, “I care not, especially while my belly growls so.”

“They watch us even now.” Tillendur said silently as he scanned the cliffs and crags that formed the walls of a great ravine before them, their path leading onward into the gloom of shadows thrown by the high stone walls. “It will be wise to wait here a while, let them study us, I feel it in my bones, they will approach us soon.”

“I have also seen them,” replied the Nymph, a nervousness in her voice. Her situation clear in her mind, a tension had been growing steadily as they climbed. the Kros had no argument with the Guild trio of warriors, beyond a natural curiosity and suspicion, but they have justified cause to despise me, she thought as a dark figure slipped from view behind the rocks slightly ahead and above.

Tillendur released his horse to graze on the short alpine grasses and shrubs, secure in the knowledge that the animal would return the moment he whistled, should he be needed urgently. But that is not an issue, he admitted to himself as a dark cloud settled on his heart, if this should come to conflict, what use running on a horse if your foe is in the air, and what choice do we have if we flee, ahead are the Kros, behind the Wulver, we have but two options, to fight, or to talk, only they can decide which path we follow.

Although not being a warlike soul, as his companions, Tillendur would never step down from a fight if right were on his side, yet the possibility of combat disturbed him for the first time in his life, it is more concern that I feel, he admitted, concern for her safety, not my own.

“I can fight as well as the rest of you,” she cut into his thoughts, “So you should not be worried on my account.”

“I know that you fight well,” he replied instantly, “But that is not what grieves me, I do not doubt your abilities, I worry for myself, I am being selfish, I would not wish to lose what I have so recently found.”

Tillendur never received a reply to his statement, for in that very instant an arrow struck the tree above Fiorina’s head and stood proud quivering as all eyes turned to the ridge above.

Chapter 12

Time passed slowly in the Great Hall, but Gondell didn’t complain. Sitting around certainly beats marching, he concluded, chuckling silently. But quite why I should find any reason for mirth, considering the fix I’ve found myself in, but Grignasch does seem to have warmed to my plan. The Goblin guards reaction may have outwardly appeared positive yet guarded, but Gondell had seen clearly the excitement in his eyes, he could almost hear a cunning mind running at full speed, ideas and potential meshing like metal cogs and gears, I’m sure that he will find a way!

Yet despite his positive frame of mind, a realisation that he had been avoiding and ignoring struck him hard as he sat in the semi darkness. An acceptance that forced its way into his mind, strangling hope and quashing optimism. At best I’m only buying myself a few weeks, he admitted sadly, and I’m fooling myself, trusting to blind luck that an opportunity to escape will just pop up. And seriously, what are the chances of that? Forget about the future being bleak, its non-existent.

Sombre now, Gondell understood that a deluded optimism had fed his spirits since his capture beside the lake, bad things don’t happen to good people, and Gondell considered himself to be good. I’ve never done anyone a bad turn, well, not intentionally, he stated as a dark depression began to cloud his mind, the futility of hoping now clear.

I need to think about taking matters into my own hands, he decided, fighting off the spreading malaise. Even if Grignasch finds a way for me to disappear for a few weeks, he may put me somewhere even more secure than here, and that would be just as hopeless!

He looked around the vast hall and wondered. There are two ways to look at this Gondell lad, this place is big enough to get lost in quickly if I could make a run for it, that’s the positive point. But on the negative side; I’m right in the heart of their stronghold, I don’t know which of these tunnels leads out, and the place is crawling with the filthy beasts.

And indeed, the hall was literally crawling with Goblins, small Goblins, huge Goblins, ugly stooping Goblins with dark skin and vicious looking teeth, the tall and almost normal looking kind that he had become so accustomed to. And those look almost handsome, he decided, spotting a group that appeared to be keeping themselves apart from the bustling throng.

I don’t think they even are Goblins, he gasped as he concentrated hard, his focus intense in the gloom. Their ears are different, rounded like mine. And their teeth, they’re normal, not sharp or pointed at all, he noted as one of the creatures opened his mouth to laugh. “What can they be?” he whispered softly as he ran through a mental list of all the peoples that he knew, or had heard of. Their height excluded most of the fair folk, and the are much taller than Elves, he told himself as he dredged the depths of dusty and faded memory. A mystery, he declared silently, and I’m probably very wrong, but they don’t look that evil! But not that good either, he warned himself, or they wouldn’t be here.

Setting the question aside he returned to his study of the Great Hall. The massive temple structure formed the centre piece, grand and imposing it stood aloof, surrounded by much smaller buildings. Actual constructed buildings, he noticed, their walls raised from blocks of shaped stone, the same stone as the temple, black and shiny, hard looking like obsidian.

A series of huge columns marched down the length of the hall in regular rows, their stone faces again perfectly smooth and polished, black as jet, reflecting the light cast by huge iron brassiers hung from their smooth faces on heavy brackets, a multitude of spluttering torches attached to the sides, surrounding mounds of glowing charcoal, the torches giving just enough light to understand where he was, but not really enough light to actually see.

“Eat,” said Grignasch, breaking into Gondell’s thoughts as he thrust a wooden bowl into the Gnome’s hands, “Make the most of it, this is the last hot meal you will see for a long time, we march again in one hour.”

Gondell studied the steaming stew and thanked the low light. It’s probably better if I can’t identify it, he half joked while pushing away the images forming in his mind, I really don’t want to think about what these animals usually eat.

Lifting the crude wooden spoon he took a deep breath before tentatively tasting. Actually not bad, he thought, convincing himself that the dark lumps of meat were beef, very spicy though!

The hot sauce burned like fire, taking his breath away, but his hunger overcame the sensation as he ate rapidly, mopping up the remaining sauce with a very passable flat bread.

“Not bad.” he called as Grignasch returned with his own bowl.

“Now you know the flavour of Elf,” he chuckled, a sound that transformed into a deep belly laugh as he watched Gondell’s contented expression transform into disgusted horror. “I joke with you my little mouse, that was Auroch, the giant cattle of the wide plains. But I wish there were fresh Elf available today, that would be much more to my taste.”

“Did you consider what we discussed?” Gondell asked quietly as he set his bowl aside and fought back the wave of nausea that had washed over him seconds before.

“Say nothing,” the Goblin nodded, and drew closer. “But prepare yourself. In a few days, when we near the end of the plains we will make camp before starting our crossing of the desert… it is there that I will make my move, be ready.”

Well, at least that appears to be going in my favour, thought Gondell as he watched the broad back of Grignasch disappear into the gloom.

After only an hour of steady yet relentless jogging Gondell began to realise that his short rest in the Great Hall had certainly not been sufficient as his legs began to complain bitterly, and cramps constantly threatened. Gritting his teeth he tried to run through the discomfort, but the pain of strained muscles and sinews grew more intense with each step.

“I can’t keep this up!” he groaned before stumbling to his knees, tripping the Goblin that dogged his footsteps. Cursing and swearing, three more tumbled over the hapless gnome to land in a disorganised heap, blocking the tunnel.

“What’s all this?” shouted Ruaq angrily as he called a halt and raced back along the line from his position at the head of the column, arriving just as the disgruntled soldiers regained their feet.

“This slug refuses to run,” snapped Grignasch, “And I’m sick of his pathetic whining.”

“So, carry him!” ordered Ruaq.

“You carry him,” Grignasch retorted defiantly, “I’ve told you, I’m finished with the moaning little maggot… I’ll stick a blade in his guts before I’ll carry him one step.”

Gondell saw the captains mind working fast, obviously weighing the confrontation rapidly developing, Does he react to such a blatant flouting of his authority? Gondell thought, You don’t trust Grignasch not to follow through on his threat, the realisation clear as he saw fear and indecision bloom in the captains eyes, the next move is yours captain!

Gondell switched his attention to Grignasch as Ruaq looked around his troops, just in time to catch the smallest of winks. Turning back to his captain, Grignasch hardened his look of defiance and fingered the curved dagger that hung in its sheath at his side.

Ruaq, obviously not wishing to risk injury to his prize, snapped at the trooper that Gondell had tripped, and clearly afraid the hapless soldier sighed quietly, before scooping up the Gnome and tossing him over his shoulder.

“Wait until we get into camp!” Ruaq hissed ominously, provoking little more than a nonchalant grin from Grignasch as he drew his blade a fraction.

“I shall look forward to that… Captain.” he replied calmly.

I have to give him credit, thought Gondell as the march continued through the seemingly never ending tunnels, his ribs soon becoming as sore as his legs had been, he spotted an opportunity and grasped it quickly… but I’m sure I don’t want to be around when we do get to camp, they both look very serious… and it will help me little if Grignasch gets himself killed!

Hour after dreary hour the march continued, the tunnel sometimes wide and echoing, at others it narrowed tightly, the sound of leather and plate armour scraping the rough walls clear in the darkness. Goblin boots slapped down on hard stone marking a regular beat, perfectly in time, not a step out of place to mar the constant rhythm.

Gondell found his eyes closing, jerking awake several times, his waking mind in confusion… before reality dawned as the mists of drowsiness cleared. Will this never end? he thought, and shuffled uncomfortably as an errant fish-scale armour plate worked its way between his ribs. How many hours has it been in this beastly tube? And how many more to come? Questions that he couldn’t answer, and his attempts to chat with his new guard had fallen on deaf ears and sullen silence, obviously not as affable as Grignasch, he decided, not that I really want to talk, I just want a few answers.

It may not have given Gondell any small comfort to know that he had passed through the heart of the mountain, and that dawn had arrived ushering in a new day in the world above. At that very moment the Water Sprite Shilla heaped her fury down on King Greyler’s Wulver, and his would be rescuers were preparing for their ascent of the mountains. Had he know, the last shreds of hope would have died in his heart, the bulk and towering heights of ancient rock stood between himself and salvation, many miles of toil and hardship lay ahead of them before they could reach the Iron Gate that opened out onto the plains, and if their progress were not impeded, it would still take more than a day of hard slog before the Guild warriors finally stood on the wide grasslands.

Ruaq called another halt as the tunnel opened out onto another cavern. But this was not like the others, this space felt fresh to Gondell. The Great Hall had been vast, yet the air had a heat to it, and the stuffiness of air breathed by too many lungs, stale, he had described it, with the ever present tang of volcanic gases that filtered out of deep dark tunnels. I’ve never felt so happy to see the light, he told himself as he watched dust motes hover in a bright beam of light that stabbed through the gloom from an opening in the rock ceiling high above, pure sunlight, and suddenly he felt a compulsion to stand directly in the golden beam, to feel something clean and wholesome. That single shaft of sunlight burned away the darkness that had enveloped his heart, and his optimism bloomed afresh.

Things always do seem much worst in the dark, he told himself, and not half as bad or frightening when day finally arrives. I’m not ready to give up hope yet.

The last of the column trotted out of the tunnel and into the light, and only then did Gondell understand just how many soldiers had joined his original band of fifty, five hundred now… at least, he gasped, probably many more. Even more hopeless for the Guild, even if they have followed me, three against fifty would have proved impossible, but now! Escape is in your own hands Gondell my lad, I just have to hope I can make some opportunity when Grignasch snatches me away… I have to trust to luck.

Now assembled in the light Gondell could study the tall outsiders that had brought up the rear more clearly, if they are Goblins, then I’m a troll, he declared silently. Not as fair as Elves, yet much more refined of face than Ogres or Dwarves. A breed unknown to me. He chuckled quietly at his presumption, here I am pretending to be knowledgeable. There are probably hundreds of races that I know nothing of, reading is an excellent thing, but if the book only tells part of the story!

He sensed more than heard Grignasch as the Goblin sidled quietly behind his back whispering hoarsely, “Four days from now, be ready for my move. I will not be speaking again openly… as you already know, I have grown tired of your whimpering,’ he laughed and nudged Gondell in the ribs, almost a gesture of friendship, or if not that, a conspiratorial camaraderie at the very least.

“I understand, and I will be ready, but Grignasch, answer one question for me, what manner of people are those? He gestured furtively across to the outsiders and heard Grignasch spit.

“The Man,” he hissed, “Try not to speak to them, they are not soft hearted and understanding like me.”

Man, thought Gondell as he rolled the unfamiliar word around in his mind, another race to add to my list, but despite what Grignasch says, they still don’t look that evil to me, proud and aloof maybe, but not evil.

Rubbing the ache of many hours across a Goblin shoulder from his ribs, he sat quietly and watched the comings and goings around him. The cavern appeared to mark the end of the tunnels as not far ahead a huge arched entrance spilled bright light and a glimpse of green, grass or trees he couldn’t be sure, he simply understood that the long trek through tubular darkness had probably come to an end. What lay ahead, he didn’t know, but his heart felt more at ease to be finally leaving the Goblin tunnels.

Goblins all around him now donned leather helmets, they wouldn’t offer much protection in a fight, he thought before understanding slowly dawned. Each helmet had a fine leather veil that dropped down over the eyes, a pair of small slits cut for forward vision. Well that explains a lot, he nodded to himself, that’s how they cope with sunlight. As creatures of the darkness and shadows, Goblins avoided the brightness of day, their keen night eyes blinded by daylight, perhaps my understanding of them is flawed, he considered, I always thought they couldn’t go out during the day, but maybe these are all a different breed, and with such eye protection, the sun would give them no pause.

His new theory appeared accurate as Ruaq gathered his forces together and staged what Gondell thought looked a very disorganised parade. All different sizes, he noted, not like any troop of soldiers I could ever imagine. Gondell held a mental picture of a smart squad of warriors, all standing erect and proud, equal in stature. What he saw assembled in ragged lines could only be described as mismatched, some short and stooped, some tall and powerful looking. Only the Man soldiers met his mental ideal, all of similar height, their bearing proud and confident, their leather uniforms matching. But I don’t think they are under Ruaq’s command, he guessed as they remained apart, some sneering openly at the Goblin display, if they are allied to the Goblins, I would guess that it is only for convenience, there seems to be little friendship between them.

“Are we nicely rested?” asked Ruaq, his tone mocking as he dragged Gondell to his feet, “The time has come for you to run again, the wide Plains of Akar now lie before us. Does your word of honour still hold you keeper, or must I bind you again?”

Gondell found himself nodding, the small part of him that held such pacts sacred shuddering as he calmly lied, “On my honour Captain, leave my hands free, you have my word.”

Dragged into the centre of the line, Gondell jogged into the light, his new guard at his side, Goblins ahead, and Goblins behind. Many of the five hundred had remained in the cavern, clearly on errands in different directions, but the force that marched out into a narrow green valley, Ruaq at its head, still numbered more than one hundred. Even though my situation is grim, he thought, it still feels good to be outdoors again, the sun warms my heart just as it warms my bones. Glancing aside he studied the high cliffs that marched down the valley, too steep, he decided, but even if they weren’t, what is the use of escaping on their doorstep? Much better if I start looking for opportunities on the plains, besides, they are all alert now, let some hours and miles pass, wait until their guard begins to slip.

Chapter 13

A pair of huge iron gates slowly swung open, soundlessly they moved on massive hinges. To either side stood bleak and imposing grey stone built towers, the entrance to a fortress, Gondell understood as he gazed in awe, and when the gates are locked I can’t imagine any force that could breach them.

The gates were set in a high and wide wall, solidly built between the towers that were set into the cliffs that pinched together before opening out onto the rolling plains. Impregnable, Gondell decided as he looked up at the towering stonework, on the top, crenellated battlements stood black against the sun like a row of uneven and broken teeth. Even a whole army of Trolls couldn’t break into this place, he decided, Troll’s coming to mind as the only creatures he considered strong enough to offer the fortifications any real test.

As he trotted through the great barrier he understood that his potential to escape on the grasslands would be slim. A verdant ocean rolled endlessly away from his feet unmarked by tree or bush. Only fresh spring growth as far as the eye could see in every direction. Well Gondell lad, he thought as his rekindled hopes faded and flickered away, unless the scenery changes drastically forget about sneaking away unnoticed out there, not a bush or rock to hide behind, and unless I can crawl away on my belly like a snake I will soon be spotted, and I don’t doubt the cover of night won’t help me much either, these Goblins have better night eyes than myself.

And so it was, that with a sinking feeling of desolation and defeat, Gondell began his long march across the Plains of Akar.

In happier days the grasslands had teemed with life, all manner of game had wandered in vast herds, a never ending supply of meat on the hoof for the southern hunters who braved the hardships of the long journey around the mountains and the hovering rumour of wild and terrible desert creatures that ventured from their desolate and sun-baked home in the sands to prey on the unwary. But the herds had gone, the antelope and wild horses hunted to extinction by roving bands of Goblins, only the mighty Aurochs now survived in scattered pockets, wary beasts, ever watchful, always roaming ahead and out of range of their hunters, some strange sixth sense giving an awareness of approaching danger. Their flaring nostrils constantly sampling the breeze, and beady bovine eyes forever scanning the featureless horizon. At the first hint of peril they would shake their heads and bellow, and as one the herd would flee, a stampede of heavy bodies and massive horns that caused the ground to shake with its passing.

All other game had disappeared, leaving behind only rodents and serpents and a multitude of insects that claimed the plains as their own.

A clear path stretched out into the distance, its course, straight as an arrow ran to the horizon, a shimmering heat haze forming as the sun gathered strength. A path of red baked earth, worn smooth by countless marching feet and iron shod wagon wheels. A trade route? Questioned Gondell as he attempted to keep his mind occupied as the miles and hours passed slowly by, maybe the only road from the north down to the mountain stronghold. Casting his mind back to his youth he tried hard to remember the maps that he had studied with such interest, at the time he had longed to see the sights that had been named in his books, now all he wished were to be back in his comfortable home, the kettle singing merrily in the hearth and a fine midday meal of fish on his table. Stop thinking about food, he warned himself as his stomach groaned at the mental images flooding his mind. Since his meal of stew and bread in the Great Hall he had eaten little, and what he had been given would barely keep a mouse on its feet and satisfied. The strips of cured meat that served as trail food tasted little like the rich Aurochs flesh, yet despite his worst imaginings he forced the meagre food down, ignoring the protests and suspicions that flooded his mind.

The sun had risen high overhead before Ruaq called the first halt and the Goblin soldiers threw themselves down onto the dusty path, casting aside heavily laden packs. Well, I’m not lying in the dust, Gondell declared silently before laying his weary body to rest in the thick lush grass.

“Get up, fool,” snapped Ruaq only seconds after Gondell had closed his eyes, the warm sun on his face lulling his aching body toward sleep, “Do you know nothing of the plains?”

“Of course I don’t know anything about the plains,” he snapped in reply not opening his eyes, “And I was very comfortable knowing nothing, I didn’t ask to come along on this trip with you.”

A ripple of quiet laughter sounded around him as Ruaq roughly snatched Gondell from the soft grass, “Idiot,” he hissed as he dropped the Gnome onto the track. “The grass is infested with scorpions and venomous snakes.”

“Don’t forget about the ticks.” laughed one of the soldiers, at which Gondell automatically began to itch.

“Yes, millions of bloodthirsty ticks,” agreed a grinning Ruaq,”Millions of them just waiting for a foolish runt like you to offer a meal, they would suck you dry without you noticing, and then leave your shrivelled carcase for the carrion birds… Why else do you think we rest on the road?”

Even less chance of escape now, Gondell thought dejectedly as he searched his small body for parasites, heaving a sigh of relief to find nothing. If the grasslands really are that bad, how long would I last if I did manage to get away? Probably not very long, he decided.

Dejectedly he sat in the dust and nibbled a stick of dried meat, the group of Man soldiers had also paused at the rear of the file, yet they had not cast themselves down as the Goblins had, they sat silent and proud, ever watchful of the road behind. They seem almost as an escort, Gondell decided as his attention focussed on their bearing, they carried larger packs than the Goblins, yet they seemed little fatigued. They must be incredibly strong and hardy, I’m carrying very little yet I am so tired, they are marching under heavy packs, yet they look still fresh. His attention was drawn away as a small Hobgoblin offered water, the warm and stagnant liquid served with a ladle straight from a leather bucket, how many others have supped from this same ladle? thought Gondell with distaste, but need overcame his scruples as he realised that a diet of cured and salted meat fuelled a burning thirst.

It felt only minutes that he had slept, but marking the position of the sun as he reluctantly opened his eyes Gondell understood that he had been asleep for at least an hour when Ruaq ordered his troops back to their feet. Oh well, he groaned, here we go again, how many more hours on my tired feet?

Afternoon passed slowly into evening, and the steady march continued. Gondell felt his strength ebbing with the setting sun, and as the shadows cast by the Goblins around him lengthened so his stamina shortened, stumbling frequently as darkness surrounded him he felt himself being passed by the ranks of following soldiers. Slowly but surely he found himself nearing the back of the line, his appointed guard clearly unaware of his lagging. For just a moment he considered escape, fatigue had dulled his Goblin captors, why else would they pass me? he wondered, maybe the others don’t know the importance that Ruaq attaches to me, if the prisoner escapes it’s no concern of theirs. A flicker of hope sparked in his heart as he heard the marching feet ahead pulling away. He was now in the space between the irregular Goblin lines and the small company of Man soldiers bringing up the rear, and an idea sprung to mind. But I have to act now, he cautioned himself urgently as his mind raced, if I dive into the grass and lie still in the darkness, perhaps they will pass me by.

His heart beat fast, the sound of pumping blood loud in his ears, it’s now or never, he thought as the sound of Goblin feet disappeared, to be replaced by the faint steps of the following group. I have to trust to luck, he decided, if they pass me by I can wait for a few minutes… and then run as fast as my legs will carry me back along the path, if I can make it back to the gates without being caught I can get into the mountains. The towering, snow capped peaks filled his mind as he took a deep breath and quickly dived headlong off the path. “I don’t care about a few ticks if it means I can get away from these filthy creatures,” he whispered as he strained his hearing, anticipating the steady clumping of heavy boots that approached rapidly from the track that led back to the mountains, the path back to freedom.

Long moments passed and time appeared to stand still as Gondell held his breath, his body frozen as he strained to make no movement, please just pass, he begged silently, and for a moment his spirits rose as the steady beat of feet on earth maintained their regular rhythm, they didn’t see me, he began to hope, they are not slowing.

His heart sank down into his sturdy leather Gnome boots as, without breaking stride or pause, the leader of the group of Man grasped the back of his waistcoat and scooped him easily from the darkened grass.

“You appear to have tripped, Keeper,” the Man chuckled, “But luckily for you, we see well in the darkness. So don’t worry, there is no risk that you will get lost or left behind on this journey, this is not a place to be alone, many fearsome creatures prowl in the shadows here, some natural and some beyond your darkest imaginings.”

His voice matched what Gondell had imagined, deep and resonant, confidence clear in the tone and timbre. I still don’t believe that these people are truly evil, Gondell told himself as he dropped back onto his feet, his short legs pumping hard to match the long strides of his new guard, there is something about the way that they carry themselves, they don’t stoop and skulk like those Goblins, these are proud people, they might be hard, but I would like to imagine that they can be fair.

“I think that you should continue the journey with us,” stated the leader firmly, “It will be too easy for you to get lost if we rely on those animals.”

An uneasy alliance, just as I guessed, Gondell congratulated himself as he heard the distaste in the tall Man’s voice, they are allied, but certainly not friends.

“You or them, it is the same to me,” replied Gondell in quiet resignation, “I’m still a prisoner regardless of my captors identity, the front of the line, or the rear, it means little to me.”

“But it should mean a great deal,” laughed the Man, “Not all jailers are the same, and I think that you should have already noticed, your race would appear to share much in common with ours, more than you share with those snivelling tunnel rats, for we were also once considered one of the fair folk.”

“And you aren’t now?” asked Gondell, feeling rather pleased with himself that his assumption, made on face value alone, appeared to be close to the mark. They do seem civilized, he nodded as the leader began to reply to his question.

“We fell from grace,” came a sad reply, “But that happened many generations before my time, I am just a humble captain in the service of my king, who am I to ask questions or have doubts.”

“But I hear regret in your voice.” replied Gondell, prompting deeper discussion, all the time his quick mind searching for hidden opportunities. He does seem sad to be involved in all of this… whatever this is?

“Not all the servants of Kangan are evil, there are some who wish for a better life, a peaceful life.”

“Then why follow?” Gondell’s question direct and to the point, earning a quiet laugh in the darkness.

“As I mentioned, I am but a humble captain in the service of my sovereign lord, I am his tool, let him use me in the best way he sees fit.”

“Do all of you feel this way?” asked Gondell, wondering why the Man voiced his dissent so openly.

“All of us here,” came the reply, “And many more back in the capital, but we are loyal to our king.”

“It can’t feel good to know you’re on the wrong side.” Gondell sympathised, instantly a chorus of quiet tutting could be heard throughout the marching ranks

“The wrong side? What do you know of right or wrong, especially when it comes to sides in this matter, we do not believe we are on the wrong side, nor the right either. We simply wish for a lasting peace, a time without the constant threat of war that is imposed upon the race of Man. No young keeper, we believe not in sides, or who is in the right or wrong.”

“Surely you don’t believe the Guild threatens you?”

“Who else?” replied the captain, “There are always reports coming to the capital, their forces lurk on our borders, waiting, ominous, ready to strike.”

“Well, such news never reaches us,” Gondell replied, “In fact, all that we ever hear is rumour that it is your armies that gather on our borders! But my home is far from here, who can say what is true, and in all honesty, I seldom listen to the rumours, they don’t concern me.” Or, they didn’t concern me, he thought, that is until I got dropped right into the middle of this mess.

“This is interesting,” the captain replied, his tone thoughtful, almost cautious, “So in your land there is no great mobilization, no preparation for impending war? No movement and gathering of troops?”

“Oh dear me, no.” Gondell laughed aloud at the absurdity, “We have no army, only a few bailiffs, and all that they do is settle disputes, of which there are few, and patrol the county.” They really don’t do anything, he realised, “In fact, I’m not sure why we even have the bailiffs.”

“No standing army of any kind, maybe a reserve force?” asked the Man, disbelief and incredulity in his deep voice.

“We don’t need any army, we haven’t needed one for centuries.”

“This is news indeed,” Gondell heard a slight confusion in the Man captains tone.

“Of course, I only speak for my own race, who knows what happens in the Dwarf homelands, but they are many miles from Hevershire, we rarely see any Dwarves in Hendle.”

“I would like to believe you,” a hesitancy in the captains voice, in the darkness Gondell imagined the Man sifting through new information, trying it for size, seeing if he could make it fit into his view of the world. “But all reports would point to lies, disinformation.”

“You are free to believe what you want,” Gondell retorted, slightly annoyed that his word could be doubted, “It makes little difference to me, if you prefer to think that Hevershire is crammed full of battle ready soldiers, so be it, suit yourself.”

“That is my concern,” replied the Man slowly, “I detect no dishonesty in your words, and I consider myself to be a fair judge of character… what you say conflicts with all of our beliefs and understanding, yet I suspect that there is a truth in your words, a truth that has been hidden from us.”

“And, if you don’t mind my asking, who feeds you this information? Fairy spies?”

An uncomfortable silence followed, I appear to have struck the bullseye, thought Gondell, puffing slightly as he struggled to maintain the pace. “I’m correct… aren’t I?”

Long moments passed before the captain spoke. “That is more than I know, possibly you are correct, but I do not know from where our information comes.”

As good as an admission, Gondell gave a wry smile before continuing. “So your understanding is probably based on the word of the most spiteful and dishonest of the free people, this sounds to me to be a very unwise way to plan strategy.”

“I am but a humble captain…” the Man began, before being cut short by Gondell.

“Yes, yes, you have already told me that, in the service of your king. Your duty to follow orders without question, even if your orders are based on falsehoods. Have you ever seen the massed and threatening Guild armies with your own eyes? If you have, you will not have seen any Gnome in their ranks. Our greatest concern is to gather enough provender to see us comfortably through the dark months of winter. Wars and aggression… Bah, I have never heard such rubbish.”

“You have given me much to think upon, keeper. But I am big enough to admit, I have not seen the Guild armies, only small patrols of scouts. Now they may be hidden as most say, but they hide their numbers well if it be fact. I must ponder a while, these thoughts that fill my head unsettle my heart.”

Plant a seed, Gondell suppressed a small chuckle, maybe it has landed in fertile soil, maybe it will grow and spread. For all that I know the Dwarves and Elves may have huge armies, but I told him no lie… there is no threat from my people.

Chapter 14

“We are emissaries of the Guild of Free People,” Tillendur shouted up to the seemingly deserted ridge, “On who’s authority do you threaten us?” His voice echoed from the rocks but silence returned without bringing any answer. “I say again,” he shouted standing tall and proud, showing no outward fear, “We are agents of the Guild, you have nothing to fear from us, show yourselves, and then let us talk.”

“Deliver the demon to us first, only then will we feel disposed to any discussions.” a deep voice eventually rang out.

“I know of no demon,” replied Tillendur, “We do not keep the company of such creatures.”

“She knows of who we speak,” the voice spat, a sound laden with fear and hatred.

“It is worse than I had feared.” Fiorina whispered.

“You are secure.” replied the Elf, hoping that his assurance would not prove to be as hollow as it sounded to his own ear. Stepping forward a pace and slowly sliding his bow from his shoulder, he looked up to the rocks above. “Fiorina is an agent of the Guild, and as such, she enjoys their full protection… you have no right to demand anything… or are you in league with Lord Kangan?”

A second arrow whistled in a blur to bury itself deep in the ground between Tillendur’s feet. “You dare to enter our lands in the company of our greatest shame, and then you casually insult us. Is this what the Guild calls diplomacy?”

“I might ask you a similar question.” shouted Tillendur, his voice heavy with defiance, “Shoot first… ask questions second? Is that how you treat all friendly guests?”

“You are all still alive,” stated the voice, “And how do we know that you are friendly?”

“If you truly oppose Kangan, then the Guild is your friend, as you should well know, we protect all free and peace loving peoples, be you members of the Guild or no.”

“This I have heard told, and maybe I can accept that your intentions here are not hostile, but you keep strange and dangerous company Elf. Even hiding behind clothes we know her, and be it a thousand years, or a million, we will always recognise the temptress.”

“Then what is it that you wish?”

“Hand her over for judgement, then let us talk of your Guild.”

“Judgement,” laughed Tillendur, “You would deem yourselves fit and qualified to judge her for an act that has been festering in your hearts for a millennium? Give me your name, it insults me to bandy words with a faceless voice.”

“If you desire a name, then you may call me Gygax.” the Griffin Rider responded.

“Then Gygax, hear the words of Tillendur of the House of Thamina. On what charge do you insist we release Fiorina to you. Is she accused of the crime of beauty, is that why you try her… because she is too fair to resist?”

“She is a temptress and a demon.” he shouted, a growing anger in his voice.

“She is a Nymph, not a demon,” snapped Tillendur in reply, “That was a fact well known to both Krossus and Manus. You dare not try her for being what she is. Do you think that you can punish her for her nature, that would be like judging the birds in your court because they have the ability to fly, or punishing a fish because it can swim. She is what she is, she is not responsible for your shame. Rather look to your own weaknesses if you want to apportion blame, you do not blame the bottle should you drink wine until you puke, blame yourselves Griffin Rider, and when you have seen the truth, put aside your weapons and let us pass in peace.”

A heavy silence lay on the mountains, and all of the company thought that Tillendur had said his piece, but they were proven wrong as he drew an arrow from his quiver. “Let us pass without further let or hindrance, for our mission is greater than the sum of all your people and your insignificant land, the very fate of the free world is in our hands, and you delay us with petty quarrels that have seethed in your small hearts for a thousand years. Now in the name of the Guild, I demand that you let us pass, I tire of your pettiness.”

“Proud, yet dangerous words,” shouted Gygax as he stepped from behind a ridge of stone, revealing himself against the bright blue sky, “You are outnumbered many times over, one hundred arrows are trained upon you even as we speak.”

“Then loose them and have done.” shouted Feron, “Or ease your bowstrings and let us pass, we have no time for this delay.”

“Of what mission do you speak… Elf?” replied the Griffin Rider ignoring Feron’s outburst.

“That information is our own, and I feel disinclined to discuss while the threat of doom is upon us. Lower your weapons Gygax, then come in peace and friendship, you have nothing to fear from us, and maybe much to gain.”

“Pride and defiance, even under the threat of certain death,” laughed Gygax, “It would appear that you are worthy of a little trust. And you spoke true words, we do resist the whispering of Kangan, he seeks to tempt us, he offers gold and power for our allegiance, but we stand firm, even though not yet openly against him, so yes, maybe we are a little sympathetic to the cause that the Guild pursues.”

“Then lower your weapons, and join us, let us talk. But.” he added in a clear, strong voice, “Set aside all ambitions that you may have toward Fiorina, relinquish your claim upon her, or shoot now and let us waste no more time.”

“You have my word.” Gygax called from above, “While she is under the protection of the Guild, none from my kingdom will raise either hand or bow against her… but mark well my words, our enmity runs deep, be not found alone in our lands, Nymph, for you will find our judgement swift and severe.”

“This is the best we could have hoped for,” Fiorina signalled privately seeing Tillendur nod slightly, his keen eyes scanning the cliffs above.

“I agree,” he replied, “But be wary, I feel their hatred, so strong it is that I can almost taste it on the breeze. Caution my love, do not relax. I will only be happy when we have passed through these mountains and the Kros are far behind us.”

“My love.” Fiorina whispered, and with a smile embraced his words, words given so freely, and spoken directly from his heart.

Gygax stood across the sunlit glade, flanked by a small guard, and held his open and empty hands aloft. “I bring no weapon, I come forward in the spirit of trust and friendship.” he announced before stepping from the shadows cast by a line of tall trees, and into the bright sunshine.

“Well met, Gygax,” replied Tillendur, bowing his head in respect. “I am Tillendur of the House of Thamina, and with me my brother, Feron of the Clan of Felstog, first cousin to King Felstog of the Dwarf Kingdom, and Ulaff, my brother who represents the realm of Ogres. And of course, you are already aware of the identity of our fairer companion.” He held Gygax’s eye, studying his reaction, testing if his comment be taken as a taunt. Gygax’s expression remained impassive, and Tillendur allowed himself to relax slightly. “Keep up your guard,” he warned Fiorina, “But I sense that he will remain true to his word.”

“Then tell me of your mission,” Gygax signalled for his guard to sit, before stepping forward and lowering his bulk of defined muscle to the grass, sitting cross legged, relaxed, a small smile playing on his lips. “It must be of great import to risk so much, it would have been easier and safer to detour around my realm.”

“Your realm?” asked Feron.

“My realm,” nodded the Griffin Rider, “I am King Gygax of the Kros, so now you may relax, be secure that my words carry ultimate authority in these mountains, none shall hinder you.”

“Well met indeed,” replied Feron with a growing respect, and sat himself upon the short cropped grass, laying aside his hammer.

“We pursue a band of Goblins,” Tillendur began, “But they took the tunnels beneath these mountains, and they move at great speed, which is a concern, for they have a free world captive with them, a Gnome. Normally we consider those people to be quaint and of little importance in our greater struggle against the darkness spread by Kangan, but the Goblins must consider him of value.”

“A prisoner?” King Gygax tugged and twisted his long beard, deep in thought, “I must agree, we know much of those dark creatures that teem beneath our feet, they take few captives. Your Gnome must be of great importance to them.”

“Teem?” laughed Ulaff as he joined the discussion, “I thought that the tunnels were all but deserted?”

Gygax looked up quickly, his expression serious, “Is that what the Guild believes… deserted!”

“You know differently?” Tillendur felt his stomach tighten into a solid knot, fearful that his long held suspicions were about to be confirmed.

“For many years the caves and tunnels were empty, bar a few wandering and dark creatures, but the Goblins have returned, and in great strength.” King Gygax looked up, catching the concern on Tillendur’s face. “It is the truth that I speak, for almost five years they have grown in numbers, and with numbers comes courage. Openly they have opposed us, sent scouts and raiding parties into my kingdom. They prod and poke, test my resolve and power, I fear that we are on the cusp of outright war. Then, my fine Elf, it would seem that the people of Kros will be forced to take sides, maybe even ally with the forces of the Guild, if they be prepared to intervene in what many would consider little more than a territorial dispute.”

“I cannot speak directly for the Guild.” replied Tillendur, “But I can assure you that they are unlikely to consider this development as simply a dispute over territory, the fact that the forces of Kangan are building this far to the south will be considered a serious threat. Now it would appear that our mission is of even greater importance. King Gygax, on behalf of the Guild, myself, and my companions. I say thank you for your understanding and tolerance, but we must depart immediately, we have even greater need for speed now, if we are to rescue this captive Gnome before the Goblins reach the desert.”

“They will use the Iron Gate,” Gygax nodded, “Pray tell me, what manner of lead do they have over you, hours or days?”

“I know not how long it takes to come through the mountains using their tunnels, but I estimate that they entered no more than fifteen hours ago.”

Gygax turned to his guard and whispered quietly, instantly a broad soldier jumped to his feet, and hand clenched tightly against his chest, bowed, before turning to run into the line of tall trees.

“If they did not pause, it is possible that they may have reached the Iron Gate by now, but have no concern for the moment, I have sent scouts to spy upon the plains, within the hour we will know if they are still beneath our feet or no. So, Emissaries of the Guild, I invite you to break bread with me while we await the scouts return.”

“An offer that we gratefully accept,” replied Tillendur, as he heard Fiorina agree quietly.

F
or those not familiar with Griffin, some explanation may be in order. They are dangerous and unpredictable beasts, unless raised in captivity, and even then should be treated with the greatest of caution. Standing taller at the shoulder than any horse, they are an astounding and confusing amalgamation of eagle and lion. Look first to the head, and note the powerful and viciously hooked beak, large and sharp enough to sever the head of an Ogre, a superb design of nature providing more than sufficient power to crush and snap the spine of the monstrous Aurochs of the plains, their preferred prey. Note also the black and shining eye, far seeing, sharp and cruel. Watch as that cold obsidian orb studies unblinking your every movement, know also what passes through the mind behind, and if you be alone, feel fear. Let your gaze wander, note the wide folded wings, the feathers constantly preened and maintained in perfect order. When spread, feel the rush of wind and the sun blocked from view by the span. Notice also the solid legs, scaled below what would be considered the knees, and above, small soft feathers. Talons like steel hooks grip the rocks below its feet, the feet of a giant eagle, talons that close like a spring trap driving deep into living flesh, their deadly embrace inescapable. From behind the shoulder and the axis of the powerful wing the feathers become more scarce as close lying hair takes prominence. The body of a giant lion, muscle ripples under the sleek coat and sinew stands proud in solid hind legs, legs designed for running and leaping, the paws armed with smaller, yet no less formidable claws. A creature of awe and great beauty, savage and noble in the same instant. A beast to fear, yet also provoke sensations of wonder and respect.

Feron felt all of these mixed emotions as he scrambled thankfully from the close fitting leather saddle that nestled just behind his mounts wings. Such strength and power, it carried both me and it’s rider so effortlessly, the thoughts brought with them additional awe.

And this is a capital city like no other I have ever seen, he declared silently as he gazed wide eyed around the stone spires and towers that stabbed high into the clear sky. Little wonder that these Kros should appear so secure and confident, few can challenge them up here!

Set high up in the mountains, the city nestled in a huge bowl-like depression, a space almost as if cut out of the highest peak, sheer cliff face behind, smooth and secure, a deep abyss to the front. And there is no path or road that leads up, Feron noticed, a city only accessible by air. A secure fortress, war can rage on the plains, yet these people need never worry.

Buildings ringed the circular plaza where his Griffin had landed, clearly made of the same rock as the mountains, their walls shone in the late afternoon sunshine, parts of the façade, worked, natural stone, polished to a mirror finish, other sections white washed, gleaming and clean. The plaza itself Feron considered a work of art, the floor laid out with intricate mosaics, many months or even years in the making, and set with such skill that barely a single joint could be seen. “They have some cunning craftsmen among them.” he stated, as Tillendur slipped from his feathered mount running a casual hand over the shining cream and brown plumage, the Griffin cocking a wary eye at the unaccustomed touch.

“Skill within a warrior race, that is not so unheard of, your own people display similar traits.”

“True,” agreed Feron, “If I did not know to the contrary, I would almost suggest that there is a Dwarfish influence in their masonry work.”

“We are as comfortable with a chisel as with a bow, or sword.” said Gygax overhearing the exchange, “Masons and artists are held in high esteem amongst my people. We were once only concerned with battle and conquest, but those days are over, now we prefer the pursuit of culture and beauty.”

“And what of the Man?” Ulaff asked, placing his bulk protectively between the King and Fiorina who looked frail and vulnerable stood in the heart of the city that housed so many of her sworn enemies. “Have they also found culture, or has the darkness touched their hearts beyond hope of redemption?”

“We know little of them,” replied Gygax as he glanced furtively at the members of his guard.

Even I see the lie, noted Feron, I would guess that he knows much more about the Man than he wishes to admit… but for what reason the secrecy?

“It has been many generations since we last had contact with them, but the divisions between us are deep, and painful, beyond repair.” added Gygax, regaining his tone of confidence.

Honest people do not lie well, and it is obvious that lies do not issue easily from this king’s mouth, thought Feron, but why this deception? I must speak privately with Tillendur, I begin to trust these people less and less… and now we are completely at their mercy, unless we can sprout wings of our own and fly away.

“Come friends, my scouts will soon begin to return bringing news of your quest. On foot it is many hours hard trek to the Iron Gate, but astride a Griffin, the distance counts for little. I have instructed them to fly high and far out across the plains. Soon we will have news, let us eat while there is time.”

The four companions were led into a grand hall, a central fire drawing the eye, while a small army of cooks raced hither and thither, carrying groaning spits laden with slabs of beef and whole lambs.

“This is our public house,” announced Gygax, “And as you can see, both nobles and commoners mingle freely, we stand on little ceremony here.”

“Are all of your people within the city?” asked Tillendur as he took the low padded seat offered.

“But of course not,” laughed Gygax, “I would be a very poor king if the entirety of my subjects could be counted in only one city… we have many such places throughout the mountains, from here to the Gap of Akar, and in the opposite direction, our largest city overlooks the sea. Do not underestimate the Kros, we may be dispersed out, but we are many.”

“And you could easily hold the mountain passes… should an army march from the north?”

“A curious question to ask, considering that we have no formal allegiance with the Guild,” Gygax replied with a cunning grin, “But if we were to speak hypothetically, between friends sharing a mug of ale… then I would reply; there is no army, regardless of numbers that could pass these mountains without my leave.”

“Then between friends, I would say that this news gives some comfort to my heavy heart. So hypothetically speaking, the only threat would come from the Gap of Akar, or from the tunnels beneath our feet.”

“What you mention is fact,” nodded Gygax, “But personally I should not become over concerned about the tunnels, in many places they narrow to the point where two cannot walk abreast, it would not be possible to move an effective army by that dark path… unless time were in abundance. More I would worry about the Gap, it is true that the valley is also narrow, but it would be possible to march a significant force from the plains, a force that could be difficult to match if not met before it deployed upon the open dales to the south.”

“A point well noted,” Tillendur nodded, and accepted a rams horn of wine, ruby red and rich. “A fine wine indeed,” he remarked after his first sip.

“Our finest vintage,” chuckled the king, “And a commodity that we rarely share with outsiders.”

“Then I am honoured,” Tillendur bowed his head in respect, “King Gygax, I fear in my heart that Kangan is planning an opening strategy, I also regret to say that many of the Guild Council do not wish to accept this possibility. That is why I feel that the captive Gnome is vital, and must be rescued at all costs. It becomes more obvious with every passing minute that he is of great value to Kangan, and this is my greatest concern. The question will not leave my mind, it will not leave me to rest… why is he so important?”

“I know little of Gnomes,” replied the king, “Tell me, are they great warriors? Strategic thinkers, maybe creatures of political influence?”

“None of these things.” Tillendur chuckled now, amusement clear on his face, “I can find little use, but no fault in them, lest it be a high degree of selfishness. They care little for world events, and possess no intrigue or influence, and I doubt that there is one warrior among them.”

“Curious,” Gygax studied the Elf with serious eyes, “I now understand your urgency, something of so little obvious value, yet coveted so highly by the darkness must hold a great secret, or is maybe the key to a much wider move.”

Fiorina broke into his thoughts, she had remained silent up until that point, yet her own concern had built as she followed the discussion. “I must talk with you soon,” she pressed, her suspicions mounting as pieces fell into place in her mind. Pieces dragged from ancient memory, parts of a puzzle, her conclusions frightening. “I think that I now understand why this Gnome is so important to the enemy. Tillendur, search your memories, is not the keeper of the sword a Gnome?”

Fiorina felt sickness flood the Elf’s body as the colour drained rapidly from his face, “Pray that you are wrong,” he signalled back, but couldn’t disguise the horror that filled his soul.

Chapter 15

The darkness became absolute as an ominous mass of cloud obscured the pale new moon, a deeper black hovering against a starless sky. Well if that doesn’t top it all, Gondell sighed, if it had been this dark earlier, maybe even these sharp eyed people would have passed me by. But his regret soon passed, he faced a difficult time ahead, yet with the company of Man he felt some small comfort. I don’t trust them, yet I trust them more than the Goblins. At that very moment another realisation struck him, but if I’m marching with them, how will Grignasch get me away when the time is right? They are more alert and observant, and I would like to guess, a great deal more intelligent than any Goblin. Good fortune and rotten luck, all at the same time, he groaned silently before tripping over his own tired feet, his waistcoat grasped before he could tumble to the ground. Good luck to be with more decent people, yet bad luck that they will probably foil my best possibility to escape.

As his sight failed, other senses sharpened, he could smell the Goblin hoard ahead, sour and unwashed, a primitiveness and savagery, raw and dangerous. Of the Man soldiers around him he detected no other odour than leather, not roughly tanned like the scaled armour of the Goblins, the scent of supple hide, clean, well prepared and conditioned with lanolin or some other oil. They are refined, he concluded, I can understand why they were once among the lists of fair folk, I wonder what he meant when he said that they had fallen from grace? Making a mental note to explore his question when the opportunity arose Gondell set his jaw and tried to ignore the growing pain in his back, the long miles and even longer hours of jogging having taken their toll.

It must be well after midnight, he thought, how much longer before we can rest again? His answer came almost instantly as he detected a pale glow on the distant horizon, a glow that grew steadily as the weary minutes passed. Torchlight, he decided, and a fire. The glow strengthened and individual figures began to emerge from the darkness, he saw the column of Ruaq’s troops clearly, now some distance ahead, and some of them are staggering, he noticed, so for all their bragging, there are some finding this as tough as myself.

“Here we shall rest until dawn,” the Man captain announced quietly. “Heed my advice, keeper. Set aside all thoughts of escape, and stay within our ranks. This is a way-point that we approach, a place for us to resupply and rest. But for them!” he paused, giving a scornful laugh that carried clearly above the sound of marching feet, “They waste their time and energy on wine and whoring and fighting. We march out of dedication and honour, to do our king’s will, these filth march because of bribery. Kangan knows his soldiers well, Goblins can suffer great hardships, but only if there is the promise of plunder or debauchery at the end. Here you will find many different squads mingling… mark my words, before the first light of day there will be blood spilled.”

“Then why do you stop here, if this place is so dangerous?”

The captain laughed aloud, “A fair question. We have no other choice, beyond lies the desert, bleak and waterless, yet these plains are deceptive, you may see green growth all around, but the plains are equally treacherous. There is no water, only from the wells that have been sunk at these way-points.”

“Well how do the Aurochs survive without water?” asked Gondell quickly, not wishing to directly contradict the captain, but doubting that no water existed except for the wells.

“There are seeps of water on the plains,” the captain replied, “But without exact knowledge, or a nose that can smell water from miles away, you or I would die of thirst long before we stumbled across any pool or spring by accident. That is why we must use this accursed place… but we camp on the outskirts, at the edge of the light, we do not wish to become embroiled in petty Goblin squabbles and drunkenness.”

“I feel pity for you.” Gondell announced. The jogging march had slowed to a walk as the glow of torches revealed a sizeable camp of roughly build wooden structures and shabby tents.

“Pity?” questioned the captain, the soft light illuminating his face, his eyes glowing warm, maybe even revealing a soul, thought Gondell as he caught traces of decency behind stiff military reserve and duty.

“Yes, pity,” the Gnome repeated, “You say you don’t care about sides, but it is clearly obvious to me that you don’t like the side that you have been forced onto, you cannot deny that you have little or no respect for Goblins. That is why I feel pity, I conceive that at heart you are decent folk, and I believe that it pains you to ally with evil against the fair folk.”

“We want, nor ask for pity,” the captain replied, his voice harsh and defensive, the instant and instinctive response of a troubled conscience, “Yet…” his expression softened, “Such choices and decisions are beyond the reach of common soldiers, we are blameless of our actions if we remain loyal. Do not resent the dog that attacks you, if it bites at its masters bidding.”

“As you wish,” Gondell chuckled, “Hide your feelings behind orders and loyalty if that helps ease your conscience, but whatever you say with your voice, your eyes betray your true thoughts.”

“You see and understand many things that are unspoken,” the captain smiled sadly, “In another life and another time I feel that we could have been friends.”

“I am not the enemy, nor are my people,” Gondell replied with a heavy sigh, “And I would welcome the chance to become your friend, but I am afraid that will not be an option for me, my days are numbered.”

Uproar from the Goblin column cut short any reply that the Man captain may have been contemplating. Panic rang out in Ruaq’s voice, quickly replaced by fury as he drew his long curved sword. “What do you mean? You don’t know where he is.”

“He was by my side all the way, I swear captain… I can’t explain what happened, he just vanished.” the unfortunate soldier squealed as he jumped aside, narrowly avoiding the full force of a glittering blur of steel, Ruaq’s blade glancing harmlessly off plate armour. “Now captain Ruaq, there is no need for this, he can’t have got far,” he added breathlessly as he parried another furious blow with his own sword.

“For you own sake, hope you are right,” hissed Ruaq, his blade poised ominously as he fought to regain his composure, “Get back along the trail and do not return without him… You, go with him.” Ruaq turned to his second in command, “And if the keeper is not found by dawn, execute this worm.”

“Have you lost something Captain Ruaq?” the Man called, his voice laden with ridicule, “Is it not lucky for you that my troop follows behind, repairing your mistakes, and picking up what you let fall?”

“That belongs to me,” spat Ruaq as he spotted Gondell standing between two giant Man soldiers.

“That is a matter of debate, surely the finder of something so carelessly lost also may hold some claim.”

Fury flared in Ruaq’s eyes, and the still-drawn blade in his hand trembled. Gondell thought he saw uncertainty mixing with the rage. Uncertainty or calculation? One or the other, Gondell decided, he doesn’t know what to do, this Man frightens him. Does he attack? He has superior numbers, but I don’t think he dares, I think the Man soldiers are too skilled and powerful, this could be an interesting development.

Ruaq relaxed visibly, and a smile covered his bared fangs, “So true Captain Steig, to the finder go the spoils, and so it should be, except, this trifle belongs not to me, it is the property of Lord Kangan himself… and for our lord, no such amicable rules apply… I think only of your own health in this matter.”

“Concern yourself not for my health,” Captain Steig replied, “I do not answer to Kangan, yet neither would I wish to be considered a thief. Kangan will receive his property, but until we reach the city, the keeper will remain under our protection. Possibly our attentions will be less lax than your own.”

“As you desire,” Ruaq managed a wide smile and shrugged, “But he must be returned into my care when we enter the city.”

Steig returned the smile but gave no answer, yet understanding between the two captains lay thick in the air. There will be trouble before the end, thought Gondell as he saw the eyes of Man and Goblin locked together, smiling expressions barely masking the contempt felt by both sides. And I’m stuck in the middle!

The way-point as Captain Steig had called it sprawled across a large circle carved from the rolling grasslands, and ringed by a tall wooden fence, it proved to be just as foreboding as the captain had warned. Most of the ramshackle wooden buildings appeared to have been set aside for entertainment, of all kinds. Gondell watched a short, and very stooped trooper staggering from the doorway of the closest establishment supported by two grotesque females. Just as ugly as male Goblins, he mused, in fact, if it were not for the more obvious differences on display, there would be no way to differentiate their gender. Gondell shuffled closer to the boundary fence as a scuffle broke out amongst another group, blades were drawn and as Steig had promised, blood flowed freely. For the first time since his capture, Gondell felt truly threatened and in danger. Future threat, is fear postponed. But the fear that filled his trembling body was present fear, urgent and immediate. More and more Goblins joined the drunken brawl. Opposing factions? maybe different tribes? thought Gondell as he peeped cautiously around the solid torso of a Man soldier who had placed himself, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to repel should the disagreement spill over into their small camp. They certainly are savages, how foolish of me to believe that they could ever be civilized, this is their true nature revealed.

“How are you enjoying the Junction?” asked Steig with a chuckle as he dropped his heavily muscled bulk beside Gondell. “That’s what this pit of depravity is called, it has no proper name, but the Junction suits its purpose, for it does mark a junction of sorts. Tomorrow, in the light, you will see that there are many gates in the fence, and many roads that spread out across the plains like spokes from a cart wheel. Some lead to the sea, some to the Gap of Akar, even more to the edge of the desert, but only one leads directly south.”

“Well, it’s certainly entertaining,” Gondell replied, wincing as he saw curved steel pass clear through a Goblin body to emerge stained and dripping black.

“Charming creatures, are they not.” Steig declared, distaste clear in his expression and tone, “Now you can think yourself lucky to have fallen in with us. Be we on the wrong side or not, you may find our company a little more stable and decorous.”

“You would rise yet higher in my estimation, if you have food that is fit to eat.” answered Gondell hopefully as his tight and empty stomach rumbled. “Do you hear the echo?” he asked indicating his belly, “Hollow inside, like a cave.”

“Emptiness is an ill that can be quickly remedied, and you must accept my sincere apology that I did not take hunger into consideration, my mind has been drawn to other equally pressing matters,” Steig answered formally, yet with a teasing edge to his voice. “Maybe our fare will be a little more palatable than that offered by your former hosts, but I cannot promise a banquet, we also march on trail foods.”

“Anything that I can identify without having to ask will be gratefully accepted,” answered Gondell, suppressing a small shudder as he remembered the sticks of salty dried meat that had been his main sustenance for so many days.

Only minutes later Captain Steig returned with a light metal bowl and platter. “We call this Rosta,” he explained as he set the bowl down on the ground, “They are smoked and dried on the coast. But leave it some minutes to soften in the water, soon you will find the flesh tender, and the water is good for drinking, salty and smoky at the same time…” he leaned forward, whispering, “It also helps to wash down the biscuit, they are bland, hard and dry, but give strength and stamina.”

“Fish!” exclaimed Gondell, not attempting to hide his delight, “Smoked fish, this is a banquet to me, of all the things I could dream of eating, fish would be at the top of my list.”

“Then eat your fill, we soon become tired of Rosta, so there is plenty to spare, I will give instructions for more to be prepared.”

“Now I know that you are truly civilized and enlightened,” joked the hungry Gnome after his first sip of the hot broth, all thoughts of the continuing battle between the Goblins disappearing as his concentration focussed intently on his meal, “You have not merely risen in my estimation… you now soar up with the eagles.” The reaction to his statement surprised him as a look of pain crossed the captains face, quickly hidden, but obvious.

“You honour me with your words,” Steig replied, “No greater praise can be given amongst my people.”

Well done Gondell lad, it looks like you touched a raw nerve, and created another question that begs an answer, he chastised himself. Steig’s reply had been respectful and polite, yet there lurked an obvious pain beneath the calm and refined surface. Yet it seemed an innocent enough compliment, he thought, but not for long as the flaky smoked mackerel swiftly drew his full attention away. Better than any banquet, he sighed contentedly as the first mouthful slipped down his throat.

The hours of darkness passed slowly at the Junction, and exhausted as he was, Gondell found sleep difficult. Steel ringing against steel frequently cut through the general noise of the bustling encampment, arguments fed by strong ales, and even stronger wines flared constantly, the calling and cajoling of the Goblin prostitutes rang shrill in his ears, many daring to approach the sombre and sober camp of Man, receiving scornful rebuke and refusal for their pains.

“I never imagined such a place in my wildest dreams… or my worst nightmares,” he confided in Captain Steig during a rare lull in the hubbub, “Is it always like this?”

Steig nodded slowly as he touched a glowing taper to the tobacco in the bowl of his long stemmed clay pipe, “Aye lad… always,” he replied as his keen eyes scanned the camp, “Sometimes much worse, but tonight is really quite quiet, there are not so many different squads here, this that you witness is how Goblins behave between friends.”

Gondell shook his head sadly, “Are there any decent Goblins? I mean, the Hobbies always appeared decent enough.”

“Hobgoblins are a strange breed,” Steig nodded again before drawing on the pipe, “Yet they are clever and resourceful… I doubt that your people ever understood the resentment in their hearts as they served. Decent is not a word to describe their temperament… rather, patient suits them better, for they have shown great patience over the long years since the last battle. You saw a race humble and contrite, a race that shared none of the guilt, distanced from their larger more aggressive cousins. But they were complicit, and actively involved, despite what history tells you. They have watched and waited, for many generations, and even as Kangan rose to prominence, still they paused before making their move… No keeper, I would not describe them as decent. But to answer your question, there are few among Goblins, regardless of breed, that do not possess a black heart. Trust none, you see clearly what they do to their closest friends,” he nodded toward another scuffle that had broken out, “Do not think that they can show mercy toward an enemy.”

“Until a few days ago I didn’t believe that I was enemy to anyone, how little my people know of the world, all of this,” he indicated the camp, the Goblins, “We couldn’t dream of Goblin camps and armies, those are things relegated to the pages of history books, they don’t exist today… or so we thought. We have become insulated, maybe introvert, so wrapped up in our own small lives that we blind ourselves to the larger events around us.”

“Innocent!” stated Steig.

“Maybe,” Gondell nodded, “But I have opened my eyes, and I don’t like what I see of the world, maybe the Gnomish peoples are simply in denial, and we have been in that state for so long we have forgotten that the world is not perfect.”

“Denial or innocence, it would appear that your people have managed to live a carefree existence for generations, I envy you that.”

“Only carefree because we firmly believed that we had no aggressor, no threat looming. I think that we are simply naive.”

“I prefer to believe you innocent. Living a blissful existence without thought of threat.” Steig sighed before relighting his pipe. “My true calling in life is music,” he turned to Gondell, a fire in his eyes, “In happier days I wrote music, played music, sometimes I would even sing my own words… but then came the news of impending war, all men of age were to enlist, to swell the ranks, I became a captain because I have a good education.”

“But I don’t believe that war is imminent,” Gondell stressed, “Even my people would have heard if war were close, warnings would have been issued.” He worked hard to dispel the ravings of old Mayor Wisherton as they forced themselves into his mind, they were rumours, not a proclamation, he assured himself, and wanting to encourage the soft mood displayed by Captain Steig he continued. “I do not believe that the peoples of the south are preparing for any war, I think that you are being fed lies and fabrications. I wish someone up here could wake up and see sense, we should be friends, not preparing for a pointless battle, a conflict fed by Fairy rumours. You should be making music, I should be at home, catching fish. But because of stupid rumour, you are a captain, and I am the legendary keeper, and I am sure that neither of us wishes to carry such a title. Captain Steig, I know in my heart that you are a decent and sensitive person… is there no way that this approaching disaster can be avoided?”

The look that Gondell received fed his deep confusion, the serious captain paused, his mouth opening, a conflict showing clearly in his eyes, as though debating his next move carefully, moments later his expression of indecision faded, replaced by steely resolve. “You talk of a perfect world, filled with reasonable people. But keeper, this world is far from perfect, and many of its people… far from reasonable. There are fanatics and the misguided, on both sides, there are also the malicious who lust for war, simply for the sake of conflict. You talk of a world that cannot exist, surely good must be balanced by evil, can it really exist alone? How shall we measure what is truly good if we have nothing to measure it against?” He paused, his expression softening,”What you ask is beyond reach now, too much hatred and mistrust exists in the hearts of our leaders. I am truly sorry to say that I feel conflict is inescapable, but you spoke one great truth, I would wish to return to a quiet life, a life where only my music mattered. But we shall see keeper, sometimes miracles happen, and events unforeseen change the direction of future history, keep some small hope in your heart, maybe not all will be lost.”

There is a message behind his words, Gondell studied the captains eyes, his reply had begun in a firm tone, but had ended in hope, yet his words did not speak as clearly as his eyes. The mouth can tell lies, but the eyes always speak the truth, Gondell told himself as he tried to fathom the mixed message. Changing direction Gondell steered the conversation onto a new course.

“What brought your company so far south?” he asked, “From what I have guessed, you are a people of the north… and also, you spoke of yourselves as men earlier, I thought you were the Man?”

Steig laughed softly, “So many questions, I will answer the second while I debate the first. We are of the tribe of Man, named after our first king Manus, originally we called ourselves in our ancient language Hew Manus, the People of Manus, but the Goblins, in their ignorance began to call us humans. We then shortened our name to the Tribe of Man, the Goblins again sullied our name, referring to us as man in the singular, but men in the plural… men means worms in their native tongue, they believed they insulted us without our knowledge. They did the same with the name of our partners, from Woh Manus, the companions of Manus, they arrived at women, the companions of worms.” Steig grinned, “But these are just words, and over the years they have lost their meaning, we adopted the new words, they hurt not for we are aloof, above such pettiness, reaction and anger only feeds such spite.”

“And my first question?” Gondell prompted.

Steig smiled, a small smile, yet his eyes shone. “Simply business of the King, nothing more, nothing less.”

Oh much more than simply business, or your eyes lie, acknowledged the Gnome silently, feeling that a great intrigue hid behind the simple reply.

Chapter 16

“I had my doubts about them,” stated Feron as his relief to feel solid ground back beneath his feet strengthened his shaking knees, “And I regret those doubt now, for they have been most gracious hosts, but a great pity that they would not carry us further onto the plains.”

“They do not wish to appear to be taking sides,” replied Tillendur as he calmed his mount with soft words. All of the horses stood trembling in fear, their cries of terror had rung loud across the deserted mountain slopes as they dangled beneath mighty Griffin, held securely yet gently in steel talons. “But they have cut many hours from our journey, I would estimate that they are no more than six hours ahead of us, on horseback, that is a small lead, we will catch them quickly now.”

“The scouts told of a column numbering over one hundred, plus an escort of twenty Man soldiers, surely these odds are too great, there are only four of us.” Ulaff voiced the thought that troubled them all, “A surprise attack on fifty as they slept seemed fair odds to me, yet now… I do not rate our chances.”

“I agree, the problem is vexing,” Tillendur nodded, “But luck has been kind to us so far, we must track them, maybe an opportunity will present itself, I advise patience… after all is said, our orders are to gather information, attack and rescue are plans of our own devising.”

“To watch and wait… that is your plan?” Fiorina questioned silently, disbelief in her tone.

“What else remains?” Tillendur turned to her with pain in his eyes. “As Ulaff says, the odds are greatly against us, if it were not for the company of Man, I would feel more confident.”

“I have a feeling that we need not worry overly about them, I feel that the Kros are withholding information, did you not sense Gygax, his deception and indecision when questioned about the Man?”

“I did,” Tillendur replied, “Yet I can find no reason for deception, it was an innocent enquiry, one that could have been answered honestly.”

“Alliance,” Fiorina chuckled, “I think that an alliance is being forged, most probably in its earliest stages, but I sense the divided on a converging path.”

“Could that also not be your conscience hoping, and twisting suspicion into a conclusion that would ease your own feelings of guilt?”

“How well you are growing to know me,” she giggled, “But as appealing as that thought may be, it is not what drives my conclusions, Gygax had an aura around him, and he also had a great joy inside, I could feel it striving to break forth. I believe that the Man may be coming back into the light.”

“Could it not just as easily be read that the Kros are going over to the darkness.”

“You tease me of course,” the Nymph replied happily, “Joy is when an estranged, yet much loved brother turns his back on evil and steps back into the light, there is little joy felt if turning to evil merely to be closer to that brother. Tillendur, fates are changing, and I believe that the Man soldiers will not pose any threat to us.”

“I wish I could be as sure as you,” he replied sadly, “But for the moment, and do not feel that I am dismissing your advice, we must err toward caution, we will watch and wait.”

“As is your wish,” she replied demurely, “I will always respect your decisions.”

Throughout the afternoon and evening they followed the well travelled path, and set a good pace.

“We will soon eat into a six hour lead if we continue like this.” said Ulaff as the sun sank slowly into the western horizon, “But the horses must be allowed to rest and graze for a spell, they lack water, at least the fresh grass can add some moisture into their bodies until we find a suitable supply.”

“Wise words indeed,” replied Feron, “And a subject that has been pressing my mind for some time, we carry enough water for ourselves to see us through to the ponds that mark the transition from plains to desert. But we do not have sufficient for our animals.”

“There is water ahead,” Tillendur replied quietly, “But it is guarded. Gygax told of a settlement, a place on the plains for the Goblin hoards to resupply, a den of iniquity if his warning be correct, there we will find water… but, they will not welcome us in, I fear that we will have to fight, our only other option, to turn back and forsake the chase.”

“Then we have but one option open.” laughed Ulaff. “Let us rest now, and then march with a clear purpose in our minds, I for one am not prepared to turn back now.”

“Nor I,” voiced Feron staunchly in support, “This trip has been far too much marching and not nearly enough fighting, I stand with Ulaff.”

“I side with them,” Fiorina spoke aloud, “But I urge caution, did not Gygax also say that during the hours of darkness all of the Goblin columns and patrols congregate there, within the security of the fences. An attack under the cover of darkness may be attractive, but an assault during the daylight hours may be easier, there will be fewer warriors to defeat.”

“Wise words,” Feron nodded, his forked and plaited beard waving in time, “So let us rest here and then march before first light.”

“We are in agreement,” answered Tillendur solemnly, “But we must remain wary, this path is well used, we must set a watch during the night.”

“Let them sleep longer,” Fiorina whispered into the darkness as she sat at Tillendur’s side, “They are mortal after all, they need more rest than us.”

The Elf smiled, she spoke the truth but he had also been thinking along similar lines. The time to change watch had long passed but Elf and Nymph had been content, sitting in silence, exploring each others minds and thoughts, posing questions, sensing answers… learning, always learning.

“I have no need of sleep, simply relaxing my mind is sufficient rest for me.” he replied welcoming her suggestion.

“We are not alone,” whispered Fiorina, “We are being watched, but not by the enemy.”

“Then who? What?” asked Tillendur tensing as he reached for his bow.

“You have no need of any weapon… yet,” she replied softly, “I feel no threat or malice, only curiosity. We are being studied, but not with an evil eye. I feel confusion, uncertainty, a small mind like that of a wild creature… maybe it is some plains animal that I sense, that would explain why I feel no danger.”

“Possibly an Aurochs or antelope,” ventured Tillendur as he strained his hearing for any small sounds to give away the position of their observer.

“No, I think not,” replied Fiorina silently, “Those are herd animals, this is solitary, alone, I feel no other presence. It is a confusing sensation, to feel it’s curiosity but not its intentions. “Now…” she paused for a moment, alert. “It moves away.”

Tillendur relaxed his grip on the bow ready in his hand, and gave a small sigh of relief. “And you could not sense what manner of animal it was? I could see and hear nothing.”

“It was unlike anything that I have experienced before,” Fiorina admitted, “Almost as though its mind were closed to me, allowing only the knowledge of its proximity and curiosity, but masking all else. Yet despite that, something inside told me clearly that it held no hostile intentions toward us.”

“Strange indeed,” Tillendur nodded before pulling her closer to his side, “Does it still move away?”

“It walks north, following the path, but far to the side, it is probably nothing of concern, perhaps its mind is so small that what I sensed as masking is merely a lack of capacity.”

Tillendur accepted her explanation, yet sensed her doubts. She had given words of comfort, yet he felt her uncertainty.

Out in the grasslands a solitary figure had stalked the four travellers and their pack animals for most of the evening, its sharp sense of smell picking up the pungent scent of horses from a great distance. But hunger had not driven its cautious and stealthy observations, curiosity filled its mind.

The sheer uniqueness of the party perplexing. Goblins he saw by the hundred when he travelled from the vastness of his desert home, yet these were creatures that he had not seen for many long years. More years than I can count, he told himself as he delicately sniffed the air. Elf, Dwarf and Ogre. Ogre is most familiar, they came here often at one time, the Elves and Dwarves less frequently… but what is this other scent that I detect? So unfamiliar, yet pleasing in a strange way.

And so, driven by curiosity, Jebez had assumed his travelling form, and with long loping strides traced the tantalising aroma to its source. Silent as a cat, and ensuring to stay downwind, the hyena had followed a parallel course, always remaining out of eye shot, snuffling constantly as the strange aroma drove his base instincts, attraction and fascination.

What manner of creature is this female? He questioned as the sun sank beneath the horizon and he dared to creep closer. A being of great beauty, he acknowledged as his sharp night eyes focussed on her face, and she senses me also, he gasped, closing his mind quickly to her exploration. A question to be sure… many questions, he decided as he studied the Nymph. Why after so many years do they return? Surely the Goblins are still their enemies, yet they sit exposed on a Goblin highway. And in the company of one so fair, do they not understand the risk that they run? Suddenly he felt an unexplainable fear, a feeling that twisted his stomach and brought a pain behind his eyes. What if they discover her, almost alone and unprotected, his concern a confusion, yet driving all other thoughts from his mind. I must stand watch, they do not know how close they are to the danger. And with that overwhelming compulsion, he sloped away into the night, following the road, before settling on the outskirts of the Goblin camp. Here I will watch for movement, I can return to warn her of any approach, before it is too late. Not for a second did Jebez, the Ghul, the desert Jinn, understand that he had fallen under the enchantment of a Nymph. All that he understood clearly was that he felt a deep, yet irrational duty to protect her.

“You did not wake us.” Ulaff complained as he woke with the soft light of early dawn in his eyes.

“We had little need for sleep,” replied Tillendur with a smile, “You, on the other hand, spent yesterday afternoon and evening on your feet, running. Your need, I deemed to greater than ours.”

“I see that Fiorina brought consideration with her when she joined our group,” Ulaff joked, knowing that his accusation was unjustified, Tillendur being the most considerate person that he knew. “How was the night? Did you hear or see aught?”


We had one visitor,” replied the Elf, “But only some kind of wild plains animal, no threat to us.”

“Then we must rouse Feron, the horses are in great need of water now, they begin to suffer, and it saddens my heart to see them so.”

“We are close to the settlement,” Fiorina added, “I ventured there before the daylight broke, it is very few miles ahead, and even as we speak many Goblins are on the roads, marching toward the north and the sea. If we leave now we will find the place almost deserted, only bar tenders and brothel keepers remain.”

“Then let us not delay,” called Feron as he opened his eyes, “You deal with the brothel keepers as you see fit, but promise that we will leave at least one of the bar tenders standing, marching is thirsty work, and even Goblin brew sounds tempting at this moment.”

“We go for water,” laughed Tillendur, “That is the only drink that must pass our lips this morning. We are close to the captive now, so we must keep clear heads and wits sharp, our opportunity to rescue him may be unexpected and brief. We must be ready to react, and we must be sober.”

“I jest,” Feron lied, “But let us act as Fiorina advises, let us strike while all is quiet.”

“We must leave no living thing behind,” Fiorina spoke secretly and felt Tillendur blanch, “My love, you know that I speak the truth, and it grieves me also, but we cannot leave any to report our actions this morning. We will have the entire Goblin nation on our trail before sundown.”

“I cannot murder innocents, regardless of the risk, I could not live with my conscience.” the Elf replied quietly, his voice heavy, aware of the facts, yet reluctant to follow through with an action that he knew in his heart to be prudent.

“As you wish, my love,” she sighed, “But think on my advice, if not for your own safety, think also of your friends.”

“Sometimes the weight of leadership is too great for me.” he admitted sadly, “Oh that the choice were not mine to make. To simply follow orders, to be able to say that I am blameless.”

“When the time comes, you will make the right decision,” Fiorina replied softly, hoping to comfort. “I have confidence in you.”

As they approached the quiet camp surrounded by a high wooden fence Fiorina felt her heart breaking as she sensed the turmoil that roiled inside her lover. His heart is too pure, too good to sink to the level required today. Oh why can he not delegate this task? The Ogre, even the Dwarf would not baulk at what has to be done. Yet he takes all responsibility upon himself. My poor troubled and sensitive baby.

“It looks deserted,” whispered Feron as he peeped cautiously around a solid gate post into the sprawling mess of tents and shanties. And indeed, not a soul moved, sleep having taken most of the inhabitants, recovering in preparation for another wild and dangerous night ahead.

“Stealth rather than attack,” whispered Tillendur as he spotted the object of their desires. A huge cast iron hand pump stood close to the fence, and alongside it sat a wide and deep trough, brimming with precious water. “They have set no guard, obviously they feel no need here, this is the heartland of a new territory that they have claimed. With luck, we can water the horses and refresh our own flasks, and if we are quiet, we can be away without them realising that we were ever here.”

“Optimistic, but worth a try.” Ulaff agreed, secretly doubting that their luck would hold out, and turning he crept back to where the horses were waiting patiently.

“Our observer is back,” Fiorina warned as she scanned the grasslands, “I see him now, he crouches in the grass, watching, sniffing. It is a creature unknown to me. Not as great and powerful as a wolf, yet a predator just the same. Solitary, and I think that it has closed its mind to me, it has intelligence, yet still I sense no hostile intent… it is strange, this feeling, a predator without aggression.”

“Let him watch,” signalled Tillendur silently, “We have greater worries at hand.”

The team of horses drank greedily with much stamping and swishing of tails. The small sounds amplified by nervous ears until the silence felt shattered. Still nothing stirred within the camp.

Beyond all hope, minutes later the four hunters crept in a wide arc around the fenced enclosure, keeping a safe distance away to avoid the creaking of leather harnesses or the steady clump of Ogre boots from waking any of the inhabitants.

“I cannot believe our luck has held.” Tillendur gasped aloud as they rejoined the worn path, the Junction fading into the distance. “Fate and destiny are with us,” he declared happily as the dreaded order that he had been rehearsing faded into bad memory.

I hope so, whispered Fiorina, a small smile playing on her lips as she saw the hyena loping quickly back toward the camp. I am sure that he is not really a spy, but why does he go toward the camp?

Jebez watched and waited all through the hours of darkness, returning often to their small camp, each time drawing slightly closer, revelling in her beauty, before chiding himself over her safety. How can I warn her of approaching enemies if my mind is away from the road, he chastised himself, quickly returning to his sentry post.

She is a true immortal, he realised, before considering his own condition, a thought that had haunted him for more years than he could remember. “What was I before I became this?” he prompted his failing memory with a low whisper. He had shifted to his upright form, a closer form to the travellers, yet still bestial, with rampant hair and crooked canine hind legs. Perhaps it is for the best that I cannot remember who I was before, that life ended deep in the desert. He looked down upon his body, a mixture of disgust and despair filling his heart. To live yet not live, he sighed, to be dead yet never die, what fate is that to endure… I simply exist. To feel nothing but the hunger… Until now! She has brought a new emotion to this worthless mind and filthy body. A strange and disturbing feeling. He hunted for the word that he once knew so well… to care, that’s it, I care!

His mind drifted back in time, to the point he last remembered, I was mortal then, he nodded and struggled to recall his last fateful moments with greater clarity, another like me found me, I neared death… no water, so thirsty. The memories emerged slowly as if from a mist, It was another like me, I remember the pain of its bite, the infection, I died, yet lived. The un-dead! We called them Jinn, I remember now. Yes Jinn, or Ghul, ghouls, the desert demons… is that truly what I have become? Until that moment Jebez had simply existed in the desert, occasionally making trips far out onto the plains, to satisfy the hunger, he justified. The hunger filled his mind, the desire driving him to the point of distraction until satisfied. But once satiated, he lapsed back into a numbing acceptance, drifting aimlessly until the hunger took hold of him again. Is that what I have become, is that the sum of my existence, to kill and then drift until the need arises again?

But this female has brought a new feeling, inexplicable, frightening yet beautiful and wonderful… I never dreamed that I could feel wonder again, or acknowledge beauty. What manner of creature is she?

He still pondered upon his question as he watched the travellers cautiously arrive at the camp, and felt a sharp alarm as she entered. “No… It is not safe for you,” he gasped aloud, and saw her turn her head, just a fraction, “You can hear me?” he whispered, her nodded reply almost imperceptible.

I hear you, she replied directly into his mind, I know not what manner of creature you are, you are new to my experience.

As are you to me, he replied, wondering if she would hear his thoughts, or if he should whisper.

I hear you clearly, she replied instantly, I am Fiorina, I am a Nymph.

Nymph? I may have known what you are before, but my mortal memories have faded, now there is only a dark emptiness in my mind, I am sorry to have lost such knowledge, for your beauty has touched me deeply, and awoken feelings long forgotten.

What manner of being are you? She asked again, his mind a confusion to her, memories swirling but almost as if in a thick fog.

I am unsure, I was not born this way, I was made what I am. I believe that I am a Ghul, a Jinn some say, others call me a desert demon or ghoul. But once, when I was mortal, other people called me Jebez… my name, or my race, of that I have never been sure.

You feast upon the flesh of others, their living flesh… I have heard of your kind, but never met one.

This is true, Jebez admitted, a deep sorrow in his thoughts, but even if the hunger were raging inside me now, I could not harm you. I cannot explain this feeling, but I could no more hurt you than hurt myself… I think the correct word is ‘care’, I believe I care about you.

I understand Jebez, for that is your name, not your race. Your feelings are not unusual, Fiorina laughed softly, that is my curse, all that look upon my face begin to care deeply for me, it is a feeling that you must fight, for I am promised to another.

Now Jebez laughed. I am dead inside, so I welcome any emotion, even the hunger, but you need not fear me, I am a creature of the desert, I doubt that I could ever leave, so I would not follow you, but I shall take great comfort to know that over the long years to come, I will have some sweet memory to sustain me in my loneliness.

Then I no-longer consider my beauty a curse, for the first time some good has come of it. It warms my heart to hear your words. Jebez, can you tell me, is there any way to find water on these plains, I think that we are lucky this time, she noted as Ulaff quietly led the horses away from the now empty trough, but I do not believe that we can be so fortunate twice, or three times.

Water is scarce here, but tell me Fiorina, why do you travel such a dangerous path, the road ahead becomes steadily more hostile and unforgiving, would you not consider turning back?

That I cannot do, my friends and I track a Goblin host, for they have taken a hostage, an important hostage, and we must get him back… at all costs.

They head north?

Yes, we believe so, she replied. Mounted now she skirted around the silent camp, sensing that her path would lead her close to where Jebez crouched in the grass.

You cannot follow this road and expect not to meet more Goblin’s than you can handle, during the daylight hours there are many patrols, but they do not venture into the grasslands, I can guide you to water, take you around the host of which you speak. You will be ahead of them, waiting for them as they arrive at the edge of the desert. They will have to travel for two whole days and nights without water. They will be weak and disheartened, I have seen them in such a state many times, that will be your best opportunity to attack.

Jebez, I trust you, but I have to discuss your offer with my friends. Fiorina replied, in her mind no doubt existed as to his sincerity, he had fallen under her spell, of that she was sure.

I understand, Jebez replied, an urgency in his voice, as though distracted Fiorina thought, I have a small task to perform here, I will rejoin you on the road north shortly. And at that she sensed him moving through the grass, but saw nothing more than the faintest of shadows jogging toward the camp.

He is no spy. He will not betray us, the thought becoming a certainty in her mind.

What had awoken the Goblin sentry had been the mundane. “I will not piss myself on duty again.” he laughed quietly while staggering to his feet. “Falling asleep is acceptable,” he added, “But piddling again, that I would never live down.”

With a growing urgency he shuffled closer to the fence, all the time frantically tugging at the stubborn laces of his breeches the rising pressure in his bladder driving out all other considerations.

“Just in time,” he gasped as the knot popped, followed quickly by a rush of acrid fluid that hit the wood in a steady stream. “That was too close, I shouldn’t have drunk so much ale last night.”

It was by pure chance that he glanced up, and then quickly glanced again, not believing his eyes. Hastily he retied the lace, and rubbing his bloodshot eyes in disbelief stepped around the fence and out onto the path. Sure enough, in the near distance he spied horses, “Horses and riders,” he gasped, “Here!”

The lingering effects of ale clouded his judgement for a few moments as he stood open mouthed and wide eyed wondering what to do. “Raise the alarm… idiot,” he cried, the gravity of the situation finally registering.

“I think not,” a sinister voice spoke quietly at his side.

“A Ghul?” Feron gasped, “You want us to trust the word of a Ghul?”

“Yes,” Fiorina replied, her tone short, “I expect you to trust a Ghul. What is so strange about that? You trusted a water demon on my word alone!”

“Aye, you are correct,” the dwarf replied thoughtfully, “But a Ghul?”

“I see no distinction between the two,” she continued, “And he can lead us to water, he knows these plains well, and he can also get us ahead of the Goblins. He says that there is a place where they will be weak from thirst and fatigue, the perfect place for us to lay an ambush.”

“It would give us a great advantage, they would never expect an attack from the front, and if they should enter the desert, the odds against us rescuing the Gnome will be slim. I say that we listen to what he has to say before we reject his offer.” Tillendur stated, feeling Fiorina’s joy that he had backed her proposition.

How are you so sure that we can trust him? he asked privately.

Because he is besotted, she giggled, We did not know, but he stood guard over us all through the night. He is not false my love… he will do anything to protect and help me. We can trust him with our lives.

Then his coming is a blessing, he replied, I will admit freely that my hopes were dwindling, but if they will be exhausted and weak, a surprise attack may have a good chance of success. If you trust his word, then so do I.

His name is Jebez, and he approaches even as we speak, she nodded to the grass on the right hand side of the path, seconds before a curious shape emerged onto the road ahead.

“You move swiftly my friend,” Fiorina spoke aloud, and the company reined to a halt.

“I had some small business to take care of in the camp,” he chuckled, “But it is finished now… did you discuss my offer?”

“We have discussed,” answered Tillendur, “And if you are prepared to lead, we are prepared to follow.”

“A wise decision,” Jebez nodded, “And we must leave the road very soon, a band approaches, they are still far away, but they move swiftly, there are very many of them, I feel their marching boots through the soil beneath my feet… there are far more than five can handle.”

“Then lead the way, Jebez,” replied Tillendur, his smile returning, “We are in your hands now.”

“Well, this mission gets stranger by the day,” Feron whispered as he turned his horse to follow the Ghul as he led them directly away from the path.

“I hear you brother,” replied Ulaff, “But did I not say that we would thank her more than once on this trip.”

“Aye lad, you did, but lets wait and see what happens before we thank her for this move… I will be honest with you,” he whispered, “I like not this development.”

Chapter 17

“Here we may rest for a while.” announced Jebez after they had ridden steadily for many hours, “Let your horses drink from the spring yonder, it will be evening before the next chance, and we have far to go.”

“How do you know with such certainty where to go… this place is featureless and barren?” Ulaff asked, his respect growing as Jebez guided them unerringly to the spring.

“I have wandered these plains for all eternity, or so it seems to me. I know every blade of grass, there are many signs that are clear to those who know how to look. We are now only a few miles east of the road, and unless I have lost all track of time, we are now ahead of the Goblins. Rest friends, I will return soon, I wish to check on their progress.”

Before their astonished eyes he melted into a cloud of mist, only to reappear seconds later in the form of a hyena. “I travel more quickly this way,” he laughed, and with a quiet yip, he loped away across the plains, heading almost directly west.

“What say you now?” Ulaff prodded Feron and handed him a slice of cold beef, a parting gift from the Kros. “Do you still doubt his sincerity?”

“On the surface, he would appear to be true enough, but I still reserve judgement.” Feron grunted.

“Would it hurt so much to say you were wrong?” Ulaff teased.

“I reserve judgement,” Feron reiterated, “But I may have been wrong,” he chuckled, “And that will be my last word on the subject… so expect no more.”

From the position of the sun Tillendur could see that Jebez had been gone much less than an hour when he returned.

“They rest also,” he said as he rose back to his full height, “And I see the captive, yet he is not amongst the Goblins, he is with a smaller guard. I do not know what those creatures are called, but I have seen them on the road many times, yet they are not like any breed of Goblin that I have ever seen before”

“They are called The Man,” Fiorina answered, “And it makes me happy to know that he is with them, they are hard, but not cruel.”

“Tonight they will camp again at another crossing point upon the road, it is much larger than the previous. Also it will be the last time that they can top up their water supply. I have seen it many times before, it is not possible for them to carry enough to last until they reach the edge of the desert, tomorrow night they will drink their last drop on the road, maybe they will make camp, maybe they will continue through the cool of the night, it is of little consequence, we will be fresh, we will have an abundance of water, we will always be ahead of them.” Jebez paused deep in thought, suddenly his voice became clear to Fiorina as he concentrated his thoughts toward her. I will enter their camp tonight, is there any message that you wish me to pass to the captive?

How? She asked, alarm in her thoughts, It is too dangerous.

Only a small risk, he replied, they will suspect nothing. He sensed her confusion, and began to explain. You understand that I have the ability to change my form? Fiorina nodded. I can also take on the shape of the last creature that I killed and fed upon. I returned to the camp earlier because a sentry had spotted you, he would have raised the alarm.

He saw worry flash in her eyes but simply smiled. You have no cause to fear, I silenced him before he could cause any problems, but you now understand, I can enter the camp tonight as a Goblin, and I can pass on a message of encouragement to the captive.

I would not wish for you to take any unnecessary risks, Fiorina replied, yet if you are determined, I will speak with Tillendur, I see both benefit and additional risk in alerting the captive of his impending liberation.

How so? Replied Jebez, were I in his position I know that I would take heart in the knowledge that plans were in place for my rescue.

True, as would I, but nervousness and overt anticipation, even well masked can alert an attentive captor to impending action, I must discuss this, maybe Tillendur will consider the risk worth taking to learn more about this Gnome.

And so it came to pass that under cover of the moonless night, Jebez crept into the Goblin settlement, feeling relieved yet strangely dismayed to find the sentries on the main gate to be unconscious, empty flagons in theirs hands, snoring contentedly.

They have no discipline, he shook his head at the sorry sight and began to wonder why their conduct should concern him. There is so much about my mortal life that has been lost, he lamented, so much memory gone, but perhaps I had a military background, why else would these guards disgust me so?

The encampment sprawled across another meeting of roads, and though much larger displayed little structure or planning. The only permanent structure stood as a foreboding shadow of deeper darkness against the faint glimmer of starlight. A solid and ugly stone build block, a barracks and a sure sign that the influence, and confidence of Kangan had reached far into the south.

I am lucky that they do not hold their prisoner inside, thought Jebez as he skirted around the thick stone walls, getting inside would have proved troublesome. But he faced no such dilemma, for he knew exactly where to find Gondell. True to their ways, the camp of Man had been established on the outskirts of the settlement, close to the fence and far from the bars and brothels that still displayed a brisk trade despite the lateness of the hour. These are soldiers indeed, he declared silently. Alert and sober, professional, aware of everything. Why could they not also be lax, it seems that getting into the camp may have been simple, yet talking to this strange Gnome creature may prove to be impossible… but I have to try. His mind drifted back to fair Fiorina, so beautiful, I have to try, if only for her sake.

For many long minutes he crouched hidden beside a pile of crates and observed, the Man sentry appeared to be infuriatingly alert. I am a Goblin, and the chances of him leaving me alone with the captive are nil, he decided, it is vital that I deliver the message, and ask the question… but how?

Several minutes later he was unexpectedly given his how! Standing and stretching, the imposing Man glanced around into the darkness, checking and scanning for any threat or movement before he began to tug at the leather laces that secured his breeches, and with a last lingering look, crept away toward a gap in the fence. As quick as lightning and as silent as a cat Jebez grasped the opportunity, I probably don’t even have one minute, he realised as he crouched beside the sleeping Gnome. No time for introductions or polite conversation. And with that thought in mind pressed his cold hand firmly over Gondell’s mouth. The Gnome awoke, fear and panic clear in his eyes. “Quiet,” hissed Jebez softly, “Do not struggle or react. I am a friend, and I cannot explain now, but you must believe me that I am not a Goblin,” he sensed Gondell begin to relax, the struggle and tension leaving his small body. “You have friends outside the camp, they are of the Guild, if that means anything to you, and they are planning your rescue. Listen carefully, remain calm, do not show anticipation of nervousness, but when you reach the ponds that mark the beginning of the desert they will be waiting in ambush… be ready. Two nights from now.” Gondell nodded enthusiastically, and Jebez saw hope blossom in his eyes. “Time is short, and I have an urgent question for you.” he paused for less than a second, remembering Tillendur’s words. “Are you the keeper?”

A loud coughing from the fence line froze the Ghul, the sentry had finished his business and was returning to his post, “Are you the keeper?” he hissed again, his panic building, to be replaced with relief as Gondell nodded rapidly. “Be patient, and be prepared.” his parting words as the sentry walked back into view missing the faint mist like cloud and skulking shadow of a hyena as Jebez transformed and loped silently and unseen into the thick grass outside the main gate.

“Our worst fears are confirmed,” groaned Tillendur and pressed a thumb against his temple as a headache bloomed.

“Are you telling us that this Gnome is the keeper, the key of legend?” asked Feron, awe in his voice.

“Sadly yes,” Fiorina added, “I had hoped that my guess be wrong, but my heart always knew it to be the truth.”

“Then this changes the situation, this is far greater than just us and a free world captive,” Ulaff spoke quietly. “Tillendur, we cannot fail in this mission, should Kangan hold the key, it marks the end of everything… a fact that you know only too well.” His expression became suddenly hard and stern, “If we cannot rescue him, you know what has to be done?”

“That is something that I refuse to consider.” the Elf replied quickly, his expression serious.

“It pains my heart,” Feron interjected, “But brother, if there is no other hope… it has to be done. The risk is too high in this game of chance that we have found ourselves playing… and we do not have the strongest hand, Kangan appears to hold most of the cards.”

“I will not think about that ending until all else has failed, not while there is even the smallest glimmer of hope will I give up on his rescue… for do not forget, if the keeper should die, the sword is not only lost to Kangan, it is lost to us also,” he shook his head sadly. “Kangan’s forces are probably far greater that ours. Friends, I remember the last battle as if it were only yesterday, Nilgoth’s hoards outnumbered us one hundred to one at the very least, without the sword the free world would have been plunged into darkness and misery. We cannot afford to fail, we cannot afford to lose the keeper.”

“If I might add something,” began Jebez cautiously, “I do not pretend to understand your debate, or the significance of this keeper, but, I do feel that the original plan has a good chance of success. Do not forget, I have wandered the desert and plains for more years than I can count, but over all of those years there is always one constant. Two nights from now, however large the force that marches toward the ponds, they will be no match for the five of us. Consider, they will be half mad with thirst, weak and confused. Despite my failed memory, I still recall that there are few who can match an Elf with a bow, and the might and power of Feron and Ulaff combined with my own particular abilities, be there over one hundred, we will be victorious.”

“I can think of one who surpassed the skill of an Elf with her bow,” chuckled Feron, “And Jebez, you have given me fresh hope in my heart, the darkness that threatened my spirit has lifted. I say lead us on, let us prepare an ambush, and make them pay… including the Man should we have misjudged them and they decide to take up arms against us.”

Fiorina felt the pain inside her lover, sensed his turmoil and hesitancy. “If all else fails, you know it must be done,” she said to him privately.

“I am not sure that I can,” he replied, his torment obvious.

“I will be at your side to the bitter end if things should go ill for us,” she replied, her tone sympathetic and comforting, “But ease your conscience my love, if that time should arrive, with my last breath, and my last arrow… I will deny Kangan his prize. I would spare you that pain.”

Chapter 18

Gondell lay awake in the darkness trembling. If I hadn’t seen him, it, well whatever that creature was that came to me, if I hadn’t seen him disappear in a cloud of dust and reappear as that strange dog-like being… well, I would almost imagine that Ruaq were playing a cruel joke on me. But that was no Goblin, so I have to hope. He studied the Man sentry who had taken up his watchful position again, alert and upright and felt a gloominess fill his heart. I wish they weren’t on the wrong side, I quite like these men! I hate to think of them being injured or killed. In his mind he began to imagine massed Guild forces assembled at the ponds, maybe waiting hidden, preparing an ambush, a hail of well aimed arrows felling both Goblin’s and Man. I hope it doesn’t come to that, Captain Steig really is decent. In all honesty, when he lets his guard down and relaxes, well… he would admit, he doesn’t want to be here any more than I do. Such a terrible waste, he acknowledged, yet, I do not dare warn him. He is still in bed with the enemy, and his loyalty is to his king, not to me, and certainly not the Guild. That is a risk I dare not take, no matter what my feelings are toward him.

“You cannot sleep?” the sentry spoke softly as Gondell shuffled.

“I am far from sleep,” Gondell agreed, his mind racing, filled with anticipation and thoughts of freedom.

“Then sit with me a while… if you wish,” replied the man, “You may share my rations, and my boredom,” he laughed quietly.

“What time do you think it is?” Gondell asked as he shuffled alongside the Man, and accepted a thick slice of what he could only describe as a pleasant mix between biscuit and chewy cake, flavoured with honey and laced liberally with nuts of all kinds.

“It is just after midnight by my reckoning, five hours or so until the dawn. Many hours of tedium ahead of me,” he sighed, “But maybe we can chat a while to pass the time. Tell me, what of your homeland, what is it like, and the people?”

“There is not much to tell,” laughed Gondell quietly, “We are not a very adventurous people, in fact, we could be best described as reclusive, we keep ourselves to ourselves and bother not over much about the ways of the world outside our own country… which is very green and homely,” he added as a wave of homesickness washed over him. He pictured his cosy hole, and not for the first time longed to wake in his favourite chair to hear the kettle singing, only to find that recent events had been nothing more that a disturbing dream.

“The Captain tells me that you have no great force of arms, no standing army?”

Gondell chuckled, “We have a few old militia, we call them bailiffs, but no more than a handful in the whole country… there has been peace for so long that all of the old swords and armour have rusted away to nothing. Captain Steig speaks the truth. We are not aggressors, and never will be.”

“Peace,” the sentry sighed as though trying an alien word for size, “That would be a dream come true. To live our lives without fear and threat.”

“Oh dear,” Gondell laughed sadly, “I think Steig only listened to half of our conversation, or at best only believed half. There is no threat as far as I am concerned. The only threat comes from the northern armies, if rumour is to be believed, and that is only casual rumour at home, like the rumour that it might rain later when heard on a cloudless day, the rumour that one can admit is a very slight possibility, but very unlikely… if you understand my meaning!”

“It must be a pleasure to live in your country,” the Man nodded, “What is your profession?”

“My profession…” Gondell debated, “Well, that is quite difficult to answer, for I have no trade as such. Maybe you could call me a fisherman, for I do sometimes sell part of my catch to earn a few extra coins. But I have never really wanted for anything, like many others of my race, I inherited wealth from my father, and my needs are few and modest, so I rarely need to spend anything beyond my normal day to day requirements.”

“A nice life to live,” the Man replied as a distance came into his eyes that were illuminated by a small watch fire. “I also fished, many years ago, out on the wide Median Sea. I was a youngster then, and they were happier times.”

“Did you catch the Rosta?” asked Gondell eagerly.

“That I did,” the Man smiled, his expression revealing obviously happy recollections, “I crewed aboard the fishing ships, some catching on long lines with many hundreds of hooks, some dragging vast nets, but that can be a dangerous life. The deep is home to more than just fish.” he added with a grin. “So I returned to life ashore and learned the art of carpentry, I repaired ships rather than sailed in them.”

“So you are not a career soldier?” Gondell asked, wondering if any of the stern and well trained Man soldiers had actually chosen the profession.

“Grief no,” he replied, “When the draft came, we all had no choice but comply. We do have a standing army, many thousands strong, but they are in barracks, they defend our homeland. It is true that we trained, and trained hard, but we are not soldiers. In our company here, there are no professional soldiers, no born warriors, we are carpenters and musicians, farmers and yes… even a few fishermen.” He passed Gondell a small flask filled with a light and flower scented liquor, “Take a small drink with me, it is not strong, but it will keep the chill from your bones. I am called Gradden.”

Gondell blinked away the tears welling in his eyes, and felt a deep regret that the Man had shared his name.

Why could you not have displayed some evil or cruelty? A small voice nagged inside his head, why do you all have to be so good at heart? Any act of wickedness would ease my conscience, but you are good people, good people who have been misled and lied to. How can I remain silent now? How selfish would that be? And how would I ever live with myself if any of you die because of me?

Those questions writhed and squirmed in his mind and at the pit of his stomach long after he had made his excuses to end the uncomfortable conversation. And closing his eyes, he pretended to sleep while he wrestled with the guilt that he felt deep inside.

Daylight crept into the camp, and still Gondell struggled with the conflict that raged inside as the Goblin host milled around, some nursing aching heads, some wounded more grievously.

“They are no better than animals,” Captain Steig confided as he hefted his heavy back pack, “They reduced in numbers last night, fighting with troops from the resident garrison. Mark my words, more heads will roll when they get back to the city and face their officer commanding. Ruaq has not displayed great leadership on this sortie.”

I have a feeling that heads will roll much sooner than that, Gondell thought, but returned Steig’s grin. I cannot let them walk into a trap, he decided finally, but I need not say anything yet, tomorrow when the desert is in sight will be close enough, they only need a few minutes warning, if they are as reasonable and respectable as I believe, it shouldn’t take long for the good captain here to make his decision.

“One word of advice,” continued the captain, “Drink as much as you can now, and then spare your bottle today. There will be no opportunity to refill it again until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.” he glared at the motley band of Goblins, “They have not the sense to prepare, they begin this march with wine in their veins, and water bottles half empty. Some will fall along the way, for the air from the desert drains the body of moisture. Tomorrow will be a hard day.”

Harder than you imagine. Gondell clamped his mouth shut tight, avoiding the warning that raced toward his lips. I trust you Captain Steig, for my heart tells me that it is safe, yet, you have no need to know just yet.

There is little to tell of that long day of marching, except that Gondell began to understand Steig’s warning as he felt the air changing. Faint at first, subtly the heat crept upon the marching columns. Gondell blessed the captain many times as that long day drew on, ahead the Goblins, tired and dehydrated from a long night of debauchery began to suffer. Many took long gulping drafts from their leather water skins, despite Ruaq’s frequent orders to the contrary.

This air has even sucked the water from the grass, Gondell noted. The green fresh shoots of the previous two days trek now shrivelling to shades of yellow and rusty browns.

Struggling out of his leather waistcoat, which had suddenly become very heavy and stifling Gondell submitted to the thirst that had begun to rage and tugged the stopper from his still full flask.

“Use caution and restraint,” urged Gradden who strode alongside, “Take only enough to wet your dry mouth. Later, when the night has fallen and the temperature has dropped we will all drink. We have made this journey many times before. Heed our advice Gondell, then you can laugh with us as these worms drop like flies tomorrow.”

And so it was that finally the sun sank slowly into the west and Ruaq called a halt, shouting. “We rest now, but tomorrow we move again before the dawn.”

As Ruaq called his halt, across country, and very far ahead Ulaff sat cross legged upon the dry ground and busily plucked the feathers from a small pile of sand grouse.

“This is the best place to stay tonight,” Jebez had advised as they rode down into a deep crater-like depression, a feature unnoticeable until they stood at the very edge. “I can only guess, but I think that this place may have been a lake or pond many years ago. There is still a small seep of water in the middle, more than sufficient for our needs. Here we can relax with a fire tonight, and the surrounding grasslands hide abundant food for those who know where to look.”

“Easy for you to suggest a fire,” snorted Feron, “But pray tell me, what do we burn? I have seen not one solitary tree for over two whole days now.”

“There is plenty of fuel here, a fuel that burns hotter and longer than any wood. Its collection is the task that I had in mind for you. Fair Fiorina and Tillendur will accompany me, with their sharp eyes and skilled bows. Ulaff has work enough caring for your horses and preparing camp. You have the privilege of collecting dung Master Dwarf.”

“Dung?” cried Feron, looking from face to face amongst his companions, seeking any mirth.

“The dried dung of Aurochs, you will easily find many wide pats, desiccated by the constant wind. Complain not, it is nothing more than dried grass… or do you wish to eat your meat raw. Cooked or not, it is all the same to me.”

“I have done many base things for the good of my friends, but this is the first time that I have been required to collect dung.” he stated, “But, for the good of the group, I will agree, but never breathe a word of this after today. The king is my cousin… you do know that!” Being the statement that Feron made whenever he wished to point out that he forsaken personal dignity for his friends.

“I swear that no mention of this will ever pass my lips.” replied Tillendur solemnly.

“I also promise to say nothing,” Ulaff grinned, “Unless very drunk, or provoked.”

“Just make sure you bring back plenty to cook,” huffed Feron as he turned and stomped off across the plains hunting for dried brown pancakes.

Tillendur and Fiorina had not disappointed, their arrows flying straight and true as Jebez, in hyena form had flushed brace after brace of grouse from the dried grass.

“You are truly amazing,” the Elf thought to her as another bird fell to the ground and she lowered her bow.

“Many years of practice, and a keen eye.” she replied happily.

“No, although your skill with a bow is without doubt impressive, I refer to your influence. A Ghul, you can enslave even the living dead.”

“It is also a curse,” she replied quietly, “And something over which I have no control. And also a growing worry in my mind. Tillendur, to be with me is to accept what I am, and to understand that while I may not welcome the advances of all that see me, they will still advance. Jebez is harmless, he understands that even if I did not belong to you, he would never dream of achieving me for himself. He is in a strange world, an existence between life and death. But there will be others, many others as the years pass, and they will be drawn to me despite my unwillingness. I worry that it will be a difficult life for you to accept.”

“Promise me that it is only me that you desire, and I will walk through fire for you.” Tillendur responded, a passion in his voice. “I have heard told many times, as you have also mentioned yourself, that when a Nymph finally gives her heart, it is forever, and unshakable. Tell me again that this is true, then never mention it again. Fiorina, I truly love you, but my eyes are wide open, your influence over me is strong, but not absolute. If I so wished, and though it would break my heart, if I harboured any doubts I could walk away from you. Believe me now and search my feelings, you will find no doubt in my mind… or my heart.”

“Then I am truly happy,” she sighed contentedly, before giggling wildly and loosing another arrow without taking aim, a speeding grouse falling to her skill. “Feron was right,” she whispered as a grin played on her lips, “I do not need to see my target, only hear it.”

The evening surrendered to night, but the fire that Feron had built gave a warm glow that drove away the sudden chill in the constant breeze.

“It is always so in the desert,” Jebez explained, “By day always heat upon heat, but at night, it is as if some giant sponge soaks up that heat leaving behind only chill and loneliness.”

“Have you no idea how long you have wandered in this form?” asked Tillendur, reading the hidden words behind those that the Ghul spoke openly.

“Many hundreds of years, yet now, I know there is some limit. You have talked about the great battle that took place. This I did not see.”

“So you can be sure that it has been less than one thousand.” Fiorina added, sensing his pain and frustration at the uncertainty he had concerning his own past.

“Yes, but how many years exactly is a mystery to me.”

“Jebez, do you trust me?” Fiorina asked, prompting his mind for silent response, “Do you trust me enough to open your mind completely to me, I feel your hesitancy, the way that you lock away your deepest shame, I believe that I understand what you hide from me.”

“I do trust you Fiorina, believe me I do, but there are memories inside me that I would not wish for you to see. Fiorina, I am a savage beast, a creature of depravity when the hunger is upon me. This is a side of me that I would not want you to witness.”

“Jebez, you have nothing to fear. I know who, and what you are. There is a beast lurking inside every one of us, even inside the Elves, although they deny the fact and bury their feral instincts deeply. I will not judge you, I understand the hunger. Trust me and open your mind, I may be able to help you remember your mortal life. I may be able to answer some of your questions.”

The Ghul met her gaze across the fire and felt his heart melt. “How could I ever refuse you,” he whispered as he closed his eyes and invited her inside his mind.

Feron flinched as the Ghul stiffened and groaned, his eyes flying open to expose glowing white orbs in the dim firelight.

“Say nothing,” warned Tillendur as he laid a restraining hand on his friends arm, “He is well, and this will soon pass.” The Elf had caught snatches of her conversation, and his heart swelled with pride, fed by her deep compassion. I hope she can lead him toward a greater understanding he thought, maybe she can help him find a little peace within himself.

“Take my hand,” she whispered. Jebez had felt his head spinning before complete darkness had enveloped his mind. Now his eyes were open, and she stood beside him, offering her slim pale hand.

He looked down at his own, tanned hairless skin glowed in the sunlight. “You are of the race of Man.” she said softly, “And tell me where we are now?”

Jebez looked around and suddenly his focus cleared, he found himself stood in the middle of a bustling market place. “I know this place,” he gasped, “This is the market place in my village, but how is this possible?”

“Trust me,” she whispered, “I can lead you, but you must tell me what you feel, your memories.”

“This is not real.” he sighed.

“It is real, these are your deeply hidden memories, I cannot make you see these things, you were here, you did see this… we just have to work out where and when.”

“Well, this is Pendle Market, so it must be a Wednesday, yes look, these are my vegetables, this is my stall. Oh Fiorina, it is flooding back now, so clear and strong. I am a farmer. I was a farmer. I have a wife,” he gasped as the vision of a woman drifted before his eyes. “I am twenty three years of age… and my name is Jebez, her name is Amaril… and she is pregnant, she carries our child now.”

“Think Jebez, what time of the year is it, can you remember any event of significance.”

Tears flooded his eyes as he turned to her. “I know exactly when now. It is early summer, and exactly one year before the great war. Fiorina, I am scared now, the memories are coming back so fast, I’m not so sure that I want to recall any more, for I am set to leave soon, I have been called up, the king is under the sway of Nilgoth, the Bringer of Darkness. Preparations are being made. Fiorina, I am excited, I have been selected for the Royal Guard. Please no, no more.” he cried, and felt her squeeze his hand, transferring a peace and tranquillity to his mind. “We can leave at any time you wish,” she sad softly.

“I was so young and naive, I couldn’t see his true evil, stupid and impressionable, and so proud to be selected for his personal guard.”

“You cannot change the past Jebez, but take comfort that today you can recognise your mistakes, you grew as a man, you have grown understanding.”

Jebez squeezed his eyes tightly shut and a tear rolled down his cheek. “I had a son, but I never saw him.” he shook his head sadly. “I was in the desert when Amaril gave birth, patrolling rather than caring for my family. Separated, ambushed!” he gasped, “They tricked us, they lied to us.”

“Who?” Fiorina asked, her tone soft and patient.

“Goblin scum,” he hissed savagely as the memories assaulted his senses, “They betrayed us, turned on us… for water, I remember now. We became lost. We had no water, completely lost. We always carried more than the Goblins, and they attacked us, to take our water.” He winced as pain flashed in his eyes, “One of them stabbed me, but I killed him. There are so many bodies around me, I see them clearly, my friends are dead, all of them, I am alone.”

“We can leave here at any time you wish,” Fiorina reminded him as she sensed the end of his mortal life loomed. “You do not need to recall the end.”

“But I do Fiorina.” he stated, turning to her, a fire burning in his eyes, “I have held suspicions for so long. Only yesterday I felt that I must have been a soldier, in their camp I was disgusted to find the sentries drunk and asleep, I found it almost as an insult. Now I have confirmed, I was a soldier, and I must have been a very good soldier to be selected for the Royal Guard. I wish to see who gave me this existence, I wish to remember his face, for should I ever meet him in the desert or here on the plains I wish to repay him for his horrendous gift to me.”

“So be it,” she sighed, and led him deeper, “But bitterness and revenge are not easy bedfellows to live with.”

“But Fiorina, you misjudge me.” he replied, his tone serious. “Yes, it is true that I seek retribution, but you have given me a gift that is far more powerful than bitterness and regret. You have given my Amaril back to me, now she is back in my heart, and although I now know that she has been dead for almost one thousand years, she will always be alive in my mind. Her memory will ease my loneliness.”

“Then I am content,” Fiorina smiled, despite her own feelings of unhappiness, guilt and distress.

“None of this was your fault, for I know that you blame yourself. I know who you are now.” he added knowingly, “Even though I were only a babe when King Manus led my people from the mountains and across the plains, everyone knew the name of Fiorina, the Nymph. But I hold you blameless, because now that I have seen you through mortal eyes, I accept that there would be nothing that I wouldn’t do for you. I hold you blameless fair Fiorina. Now please, guide me to the end, then my story will be complete.”

“He was once a Man,” said Fiorina as the Ghul stalked silently away across the crater and climbing to the ridge dropped down into the grass. His memories restored.

My selfishness goes far beyond even my own guilty imagining, she told herself as she picked half heartedly a small grouse carcase, he may claim not to hold me responsible, yet if I had resisted temptation, his people would have not been led to the north, he would not have found himself alone and thirsty and injured in the desert. He would have never met Him, and been given such a terrible choice.

She shuddered as the images flashed back into her mind, the burning red eyes and slavering jaws, the pure evil of the nameless one, the original and most powerful of the Jinn, the Desert Demons.

How like evil to lie and cheat, to offer a life of immortal bliss and wonder, but give only misery.

“I am filled with the flesh of your comrades,” she heard the words spoken clearly, “My hunger is satisfied, even my delight in killing is blunted, so I offer you a choice young Man. I can end your pain and give you life eternal as a creature such as I, a life of power, or I can tear you apart now.”

“I am already dying,” Jebez had replied, his hands clutching the ragged puncture wound in his gut, so to end this quickly would be a blessing of kinds.”

“Then as you seek death, I will give you life… of a kind.” and with one savage bite from yellowed fangs dripping with foam and saliva, Jebez had awoken to find himself alive, but consumed with an overwhelming urge to kill, and devour the flesh of his own kind. His mortal memories erased.

Chapter 19

“You did a good thing for him.” Tillendur glanced up at the moonlit ridge. Jebez sat alone, highlighted, his hyena form somehow more insulting now that his true story had been revealed.

“In his heart he wishes that he had been left to die, his regrets are deep. Yet he forgave me the part I played in his downfall.”

“Hardly any part at all,” Tillendur retorted, “You cannot be blamed. What I said to Gygax is the truth, the blame for any injury or mishap lies squarely with Krossus and Manus, you did not draw Manus to the darkness, he walked unaided.”

“We could discuss and debate these points until the end of time, and still never agree,” she sighed, “But his forgiveness is sufficient, I may sleep a little easier now.”

Feron broke into their silent thoughts, his own respect and sympathy for the Ghul now deeper. “Have we news of the Goblins? I saw him creep away before the light failed.”

“They have made camp.” Tillendur nodded, “So it is unlikely that their march will continue through the hours of darkness. Jebez feels sure that they will begin again before first light, but he assures us that we will remain well ahead of them, we will have plenty of time to scout the area that he suggests for an ambush.”

“I hope he is correct,” Ulaff added, “That they will be weakened.”

“I never thought that I would hear fear in your voice.” Feron replied quietly, as the Ogre voiced is own unspoken doubts.

“More a feeling of concern than fear,” Ulaff corrected. “Over one hundred and twenty against five, even if they are tired, the odds are not in our favour. If the Man soldiers do as we hope, and stand back, then my worries are small, but if they fall in against us…” he shook his head sadly, before murmuring, “Then, I think we will be hard pushed.”

“We must hope that a day without water will make them more open to discourse.” Fiorina added to the conversation, she had read Tillendur’s thoughts, always he searched for a diplomatic solution to the problems faced. “It is possible that fatigue and thirst will drive them to surrender after our first assault. Even I would not wish to kill all, if talk and sense can save even a few.”

“Noble sentiments,” snarled Jebez as he slunk back into the circle of firelight, “But do not set your hopes too high, I know these Goblin scum, as should you. They will ask for no quarter.” He slumped down beside the fire, his eyes glowing, the normally amber flecked yellow catching the wavering light and shining a deep orange. “But recent discovery has given me a heavy heart. My own kind still march with them, and with recollection has come morality and conscience. How can I slaughter my own?”

“I still believe that they will take no part.” Fiorina offered, “And I cannot explain why I hold this belief… but the feeling is strong.”

“I hope you are correct,” Jebez sighed deeply, “For the first time in a thousand years doubt haunts me.”

“Then you should feel blessed,” Tillendur reached forward and placed a hand on the hyena’s shoulder, its flesh twitching at the unexpected intimacy. “Your mortal soul has been returned to you. Given the choice, I think I would prefer to live with regret and conscience, that live a life unfeeling.”

“Easy words to speak for those without the weight of guilt and shame,” Jebez shuffled away from the friendly touch. “But my burden is heavy, maybe too heavy for me to carry, for my crimes are heinous, and many, and I know that eventually the hunger will take me again, and that is a great fear in my heart. As yet, I cannot feel blessed, but given time… who knows?”

“Aye lad,” Feron grunted as he located yet another tick clinging to his calf, “Guilt is a terrible burden to carry, but consider this, with every act of honour and decency, the weight will be reduced.”

“That thought offers me some comfort.” Jebez stood and smiled, if the curling of his lip to expose yellow canine teeth could be recognised as such. “Now friends, the night draws on, and we must leave early, sleep if you can. I must wander alone for a space, I need time with my memories.”

“There is much commotion around their camp!” Jebez ran over the lip of the crater calling aloud, “They have spent many hours searching, scouring the plains around.”

“What can this mean?” asked Ulaff as the hyena melted to be replaced by the vague image of a Man, deformed and half canine, yet now his true heritage clearly to be seen.

“I know not,” he panted, “Possibly they came under attack during the darkness. I have been remiss, I should have been watching them instead of roaming and sulking.”

“What of the keeper?” Tillendur’s tone became urgent.

“I did not see him, but do not presume too much, I was unable to creep close too the camp, for the Goblins were thick upon the plains, I did not want to risk being seen. Now they have resumed their march, so we must make haste.”

“We are ready.” said Fiorina as she glanced to the east, the glow of dawn chasing night from the sky, “Lead on Jebez, and let this day play out as it will.”

“I feel torn.”

Fiorina nodded as she heard Tillendur’s words, “I also, half of me wants to go forward and wait as planned, yet my other half cries that we should detour, try to make some sense of the questions that hover over their camp site.”

“Exactly,” Tillendur replied, “I do not like uncertainty, but we have no choice in this matter, we must go forward and prepare. It will aid us little to discover that last night had been nothing more than a petty squabble, if the prize slips through our fingers into the desert.”

“I feel the desert now, I smell the sand and heat, we are close,” Fiorina tugged at the collar of her deerskin tunic, “It is strange, I have never experienced the feeling of cold, even in the depths of the harshest winter, yet this heat is becoming an agony, I feel its intensity, and this outward show of modesty begins to strangle me.”

“Be strong my love,” the Elf drew his horse closer and laid a hand on her thigh. “I cannot pretend to understand how these clothes stifle you, but I beg you, offer no distraction yet, we have hard and earnest work ahead, we all need our minds to be clear.”

“As you wish,” she sighed, “But understand me well, when all of this adventure is behind us, when we can find peace in the woodlands together… never again will I hide myself away.”

“Nor would I want you to,” Tillendur laughed quietly, “Then I will welcome the distractions.”

Onward they rode as the sun travelled in a wide arc to reach its zenith. A fierce and burning wind swept across the plains, devouring moisture and sapping strength. The riders sweat constantly, but received no cooling as perspiration dried almost the second it appeared. Ulaff faired worst. He jogged between the horses, often resting his weight across their broad backs, but the relief he gained proved little, they were also suffering, their stamina faltering.

“How far now?” he panted as he called a rest, and drawing the cork stopper from his bottle he drained the contents in one long gulp.

“No more than two hours,” Jebez replied, “We have made good time, we will reach the pools many hours ahead of the Goblin host, we will be well rested when they finally arrive.”

“I have more confidence now,” Feron agreed, nodding as he stroked his beard, “Even carrying enough water I feel weak and drained, I can only imagine how they must feel, having had no sup today. Certainly not prepared to fight, of that I feel sure.”

“They wasted many hours of the cool dawn in their search, they will be paying for that delay now,” Jebez growled, “But come friends, we must move, for although you drink, your horses suffer. But take heart, soon they will smell water on the wind and their hearts will strengthen, and their pace increase. Let us away!”

True to his word, it seemed only minutes later that the horses reacted, their ears flickering, nostrils flared wide as the aroma of life-giving water wafted over them, carried from the very edge of the desert.

“I can smell it too,” laughed Fiorina as she patted her now attentive mounts solid neck, “So let us go forward quickly, then you can drink your fill.”

Gently the land began to slope, always gradually down. The horizon steadily became a blur, the grasslands shimmering as the travellers stared into a heat haze that seemed to distort even time.

“Two hours, that’s what you said!” Feron glanced up at the searing sun, shading his eyes with his hand. “My apologies lad, that time has not yet passed, but it feels to me that we have ridden many times two hours now.”

“These plains, and the desert feed confusion to the minds of those not accustomed,” answered Jebez quietly, “But have no fear, the pools lie close by, only minutes away. If it were not for the haze, already you would see the swaying palms.”

“Then let us make haste, my thirst is raging… and if you were to offer me a foaming cask of ale, or a gallon of plain water right now, I would surely choose the water first. Never before in my life have I longed so much for something so easily taken for granted.”

Ulaff fell headlong into the cool blue-green water, emerging some minutes later with an expression of ecstasy on his broad face. “Never has anything tasted so sweet,” he laughed, “To gain such joy from something so simple. And I feel my strength and vitality returning even as I speak.”

Tillendur smiled, he had not suffered as his mortal friends, but it warmed his heart to witness their happiness.

“You do not drink?” Feron turned to the Ghul who sat apart on his haunches.

“I have no need, my body requires no fluid, I am between worlds, never drinking, never sleeping… never dying,” he added with a pained whisper, memories of mortality weighing heavy in his mind. “But I would give a great deal to be able to feel, to feel thirst, to feel the sun or the wind on my face. All that this body is capable of feeling is the hunger.”

“I am sorry,” Feron bowed low, “Please forgive my careless words, there is so much that I do not understand about your kind.”

Jebez laughed and walked down into the water, “No offence taken, I complain too much. But tell me, does it truly feel that good, is this water cooling?”

“Aye lad, it is cool and refreshing, and after the heat of the plains… well, let me say this, the pleasure compares to a fine meal, washed down with ruby red wine, and the company of a warm and willing companion.”

“Some of those things I remember,” Jebez chuckled, “So it must be pleasurable indeed. Now let us rest a while in the shade of the palms. I am sure that we have still at least five hours before they arrive. Eat and allow your confidence to grow, for I am sure that their whole company will not arrive. Many will have fallen along the road.”

The edge of the desert was marked by a long line of pools, some large, almost lakes, others no more than shallow ponds, their waters muddied by multitudes of feet, the feet of many creatures both great and small, that relied on them for life.

Tillendur and his company rested beside a crystal clear pool, fed from below by a spring that forced its way up through the rocks, its waters always fresh and cool. Fringed by stately palm trees the pool offered relief from the constant wind, while the trees cast dappled shade, perfect for relaxation and recuperation.

“I cannot understand why there is no settlement built here.” mused Ulaff, “There are two on the plains, but not here on the edge of the desert.”

Jebez, who had assumed his more human form simply shrugged. “Who can say for sure, but there is a settlement close by in the desert, a very large settlement with many thousands of Goblins and their kin. Only two or three hours walk ahead, maybe that is why they have never defiled this place. Usually they stagger from the plains, slake their thirsts, and after a few hours of rest they hurry on again.”

“We must soon prepare our ambush,” sighed Tillendur, his shoulders down, and expression troubled as he thought of the conflict ahead. “Right here, using the trees as cover would be the perfect place, yet it burns my heart to imagine these pleasant waters sullied by black Goblin blood.”

“Then we shall meet them on the road, they will be too weak to outflank us. And I am sure that they will try to drive directly through to the water. I vote that we meet them head on, take the fight to them.” Feron growled, his strength restored he anticipated the action ahead.

“I am with my brother,” Ulaff nodded, a grin breaking out, “As I feel now, give them all to me, I will reap them like wheat.”

“Then it is agreed,” Tillendur added with a sigh, “But still your passions for a while, there will still be many, let Fiorina and I reduce their numbers with arrows before you charge.”

“A wise plan,” Jebez concurred, “You confront them on the road, I will circle around their flank, and when you offer battle, I will fall upon their rear, we will have them between the hammer and the anvil.”

Tillendur nodded his agreement and felt Fiorina encourage him quietly, “There is still some hope my love,” she hinted, “They may not have the spirit to fight.”

“If they beg for mercy, we must curb our rage, I would have none killed upon their knees. We are warriors of the Guild, we are not barbarians!” Although Tillendur encompassed the entire group with his statement, both Feron and Ulaff knew that the order had been given for their ears alone, and both their heads nodded solemn agreement.

“Then, as the sun is now travelling rapidly toward the west, let us march, and meet them before the evening, offer battle or accept their surrender while the sun is still high and fierce.”

In silent accord the band set out, Tillendur and Fiorina leading, bows ready, Ulaff and Feron followed, sword drawn and hammer poised. And aside, slightly ahead, a hyena loped through the dried grass, his sturdy legs rapidly putting distance between himself and the four warriors on the road.

“I see them, on the horizon” whispered Fiorina.

“As do I,” replied Tillendur, confusion in his voice, “But they are very greatly reduced in numbers. It is difficult to count through the haze, but I see no more than twenty or so.”

“You are correct,” Fiorina gasped, “And they are the Man, I see no Goblins.”

Moments later Jebez appeared from the grass, rising to his feet in a mist his expression matched Tillendur’s confusion. “You have seen for yourselves?” he questioned before glancing ahead at the party of soldiers in the distance.

“There are no Goblins among them?”

Jebez shook his head, and pain flashed in his eyes. “There are no Goblins, not one, only Man, my own people.” He turned to Fiorina slowly, dragging the words painfully from deep inside. “There are no Goblins… and no Keeper… he has gone!”

Chapter 20

“Well, that could have gone much worse,” Grignasch panted as he loped into the darkness, Gondell under one arm, a heavy pack under the other. “When those pale skinned fools took you into their group I said to myself, ‘Well Grignasch, this complicates our plan, but you are clever and resourceful, there has to be a way for me to rescue my little mouse,’ and see, just as I promised, I have whisked you away to safety, never doubt your friend Grignasch’s sincerity.”

Gondell could have cried at that moment, he hadn’t forgotten his hastily concocted plan with the greedy Goblin, but as the Guild ambush had been planned for the same location, he had dismissed the threat. How was I to know he would act early? I could never have guessed, he bemoaned yet another stroke of ill luck. But maybe the Guild agents are watching even as we run. They would surely follow back along the trail if they are unaware of what happens now. They know that I am their precious keeper, they will not give up the search, I will be found quickly.

His rescue had come in a blur of confusion and hissing, urgent fingers grasping, and a hand across his mouth. In one hopeful moment he thought of the Guild, sneaking liberation rather than frontal assault, and in that split second Steig and Gradden came to mind with a rush of relief, they would survive. But that relief and optimism were short lived as Grignasch’s unlovely leering features came swiftly into focus.

“Quiet,” Grignasch hissed, “It is time for us to leave.” In hindsight Gondell realised that he should have reacted, shouted, even squealed. But shock held his voice as his wits deserted.

If I had shouted, the men would have rid me of this menace, he thought as the Goblin jogged steadily across the plains, now I’m really in a mess, what if the Guild aren’t watching, what if they are all at the ponds or whatever they’re called, on the edge of the desert? But there is still hope, Gradden is alert, he will soon realise that I have gone.

Gondell listened intently for the first sounds of commotion behind, his confidence in Man efficiency and alertness high. But his listening proved to be in vain, for his disappearance would not be discovered until the break of day, and his friend Gradden lay in the dry grass on the edge of their temporary camp. His blood soaking into the thirsty earth.

“What is this place?” Gondell asked in amazement, “I thought that the plains were featureless and barren, just grass and ticks and nothing else.”

“Not barren to those that know,” chuckled Grignasch evilly. “They don’t know these places, but I do, oh yes Grignasch knows a great many things that are hidden to others. Before the great war, these plains had many peoples, and even more animals. I stumbled upon this place while on deep patrol, long abandoned and forgotten, deserted and quiet. You will like it here until I return, a nice little mouse hole to keep you safe and secure.”

Gondell eyed the metal trapdoor suspiciously, overgrown with thick and course grass, he realised it would be impossible to detect unless a searcher stood right beside or on top.

“There was much industry in the old days, and there were many mines like this, lots of deep dark tunnels. The old people found precious stones, and gold here, until it ran out. But that is fortunate for us, it helps our plan. The secret of this place is ours alone, it is lost to all other memory.”

Grignasch hunted in the grass for a few minutes before stooping to flip over a flat stone, “Let me open the front door for you,” he grinned brandishing an ancient and rusted key. “It has been many years since last I came here, but I am sure it will have changed little, underground there is a good supply of water, so you will not suffer thirst like those who insist on following the road, and I have brought you fine food to last for weeks.”

He pushed the key into a huge and solid looking forged iron padlock, and to Gondell’s dismay the key turned easily. Well, I don’t fancy my chances of finding any escape on my own, if you gave me a hammer, and a week, I doubt I could break that lock.

The heavy door squealed on corroded hinges as the Goblin heaved it open letting it fall flat on the dry grass with a heavy thud, revealing a dark square tunnel. Gondell squinted in the strong moonlight, silver beams illuminating stone carved steps that led down into the darkness.

“Are you sure it is safe?” asked Gondell dubiously, “If it’s from before the Great War, it must be over a thousand years old, surely the supports and lintels will have rotted away to dust.”

Grignasch laughed and grasped the Gnome by his shoulder, ushering him toward the pit. “Have no fear, these mines were dug with great skill, you will find no wood down there, only hard stone, these shafts will still be good after many more thousands of years have passed.”

Hesitantly Gondell shuffled onto the first step and peered below, “There is light?” he gasped, “But how?”

“There is something in the bedrock, an ore of some kind,” Grignasch replied, “An ore that gives a strange luminance, ever it is the same, day or night, winter or summer, always some faint light. You should thank me, for I have found you a comfortable home until I return.”

Panic began to flood Gondell’s mind, but he clamped his jaw firmly. Yes, if Grignasch is killed in the attack tomorrow, then I am probably doomed to die alone in this deserted place. Yet if I alert him, not only do I sentence many good soldiers and agents to death, but I also guarantee that I will be delivered to Kangan, and isn’t that what I’m trying to avoid… regardless of the personal cost?

He took a few tentative steps down, his eyes rapidly adjusting to the low light. Now look on the more positive side, he urged himself, if Grignasch is killed, surely they will come searching for me, he must have left a clear trail here… I hope, and if he doesn’t die, well, then he will return for me, probably alone, and we still have the desert ahead of us before I can be delivered to Kangan. That gives me a few more days to hunt for an opportunity or some good luck. I stand a much greater chance of escaping from a solitary guard, rather than over one hundred.

Feeling a little more positive he reached the bottom of the steps and stood staring in awe. The tunnel opened into a hall of sorts, not wide or high or structurally impressive, no great work of skill or ingenuity, but breathtaking all the same, for the walls glowed with a soft green light, the veins of luminous mineral tracing intricate patterns in the dull and hard surrounding rock. “It’s really quite beautiful,” he gasped, “I wish we could get such stone back at home, I would be the envy of the county.”

“If times and circumstances were different, we would quarry here, as partners.” Grignasch chuckled quietly, “But sadly for you, my valuable little mouse, our destinies lead us down a different path.”

That had been a good many hours before, and as Gondell heard the heavy trap door clang down, and the old padlock click, he felt a weariness envelop him. I can explore later, he told himself through a wide yawn, I think I have plenty of time to look around because I don’t think I’m going anywhere quickly. And curling up with the pack as his pillow, he drifted into a deep sleep.

Now for many, to be locked in those tunnels would appear a horror. But not pragmatic Gondell, he was, after all, accustomed to tunnel life, so he woke feeling refreshed and filled with a strange feeling of optimism.

“Now then, let’s take a look around,” he told himself aloud after a frugal breakfast of cured meat and several sips from his bottle. I need not worry over much about water, I can smell it everywhere, it’s just a matter of finding it. But what does make me wonder… how well did that sneaky old Goblin explore these mines? Not completely I would guess, so I might just get lucky and find another entrance. “Probably locked,” he added aloud, his voice echoing from the low stone ceiling. Probably, but that doesn’t stop me looking… and hoping. And with an irrational positivity he began to explore.

The mines had been abandoned over twelve hundred years before, and when completely worked out and worthless, the ancient miners had left behind an intricate labyrinth of tunnels and branches, exploratory delvings and well worked faces. A veritable maze. Yet Gondell strode forward with confidence. It is an amazing fact that tunnelling peoples have a remarkable sense of direction when underground, and aided by the green glowing walls Gondell wandered with impunity. He met many dead ends, short shafts that had chased seams of precious metals until the vein tapered away and pinched down to nothing, and there, digging had stopped. But many other branches continued, some snaked their way through the bedrock to terminate in deep store rooms, or annexes, others dipped down into still and cold water. I will explore these last, Gondell decided, being very aware that he had no change of clothes, but also painfully aware that he had not washed in many days. Let me exhaust all of the possible exits first, after that I can think about washing clothes or scrubbing myself. And so, after many hours of advancing and backtracking, he finally satisfied himself that the mine had only one entrance, and hence only one exit, the way that he had entered, a way locked with iron.

“Well well Gondell lad,” he told himself as he sat on the steps naked, his clothes dripping away on a makeshift line that he had improvised from the leather straps from the back pack. He peered up at the imposing trap door above and shook his head, Either a full day has already passed, which I doubt greatly, or that door is so snug that it allows no daylight through its seams, which is far more likely. It looks like the only thing to do is sit and wait.

And wait he did, for what felt like all of eternity.

Chapter 21

“Make no sudden movements,” warned Tillendur quietly as the leader of the Man soldiers approached slowly, his hands empty and held above his head.

“He is injured,” signalled Fiorina silently, her expression neutral, “I think he has quite a tale to tell.”

“We wish no conflict, only to pass to the water in peace.” announced the soldier as he halted, his eye drawn instinctively to Fiorina, wonder blossoming.

“We will not bar your passage, if you come forward in friendship,” replied Tillendur, resisting the urge to rush his questioning forward.

“Then I offer my hand in friendship,” replied the Man, lowering his arms and wincing as a scarlet trickle traced from a gash in his leather armour. “I am Captain Steig.”

“Tillendur, of the House of Thamina,” nodded the Elf, “And an officer in the army of the Guild.”

Captain Steig’s eyes widened, but no alarm registered in his expression, only a small smile formed on his lips as he shook Tillendur’s hand. “You are a long way north.”

“We have urgent business,” nodded Tillendur, “But call your troops forward, drink and relax, then we may talk for a while, and maybe learn the answers to many questions.”

“Maybe I have some small knowledge of your urgent business, maybe not. But let us set aside all past differences, for my throat burns, and naught but dust flows through my veins, I have great need of cool water.”

And so it was that conflict had been avoided, and Fiorina had been proven correct, the Man had no desire to fight, in fact, they had cause to be happy to meet members of the Guild.

“We have been on a mission in the south, a secret mission for our king,” Steig finally admitted after many hours of cautious discussion.

“You met with King Gygax!” Fiorina stated with certainty in her voice, “Do not attempt to deny Captain… your thoughts are revealed to me as clearly as any spoken word.”

“I do not deny this,” he nodded, “It is long overdue that we sat with our cousins, and brothers and sisters. We have been a people divided for too long.”

“This is as music to my ears,” the Nymph sighed happily, “But I am sure that the news will not sit well with your dark overlord!”

“This is true,” Steig laughed, “And were you not of the Guild, I would not have uttered one word, even if my life depended on confession. He knows nothing for the moment, but a day of great jeopardy approaches quickly, he will see it as betrayal, for Gygax will not submit to his will.”

“You had a Gnome in your company?” Tillendur mentioned passively.

“The keeper,” Steig laughed for a moment before concern clouded his expression, “I know of his importance, and I took him under my protection,” he shook his head sadly before continuing quietly, as if speaking to himself. “But my protection proved lacking, for he was stolen away last night, where he was taken I know not. But our intention is to return back along the path and hunt for him until he is found.”

“And if you should find him before us, what are your intentions? To take him to your Dark Lord?” Feron bristled, not attempting to hide his suspicion.

“Nay Master Feron, we only seek to protect him, and deliver him safely from danger. When we learned of his capture we were in the heart of Kangan’s stronghold under the mountains to the south. Our secret business with Gygax completed, we paused to resupply. The city buzzed with rumour that the keeper had been finally found, so we attached ourselves to the scouts that held him.”

He paused for a moment deep in thought before continuing. “They are not attentive guards, and soon he lagged behind on the march, I seized the opportunity quickly and claimed him, much to the dismay of that worm Ruaq. But he did not dare argue openly, they fear us. But I knew that he would form a plan to snatch young Gondell back before reaching the capital. I planned to break away here, and then follow the edge of the desert all the way to the sea. I have friends in Ironhaven, they would have taken him away to safety by boat. But my planning failed. Last night my dearest friend Gradden was murdered, stabbed in the back while he stood watch. My friend killed, and the keeper snatched away from under my nose. We all searched for him of course, but those animals have no discipline, soon all traces of any trail were trampled under Goblin boots, curse them.”

“So you have no idea who took him, or how?” asked Fiorina, cautiously probing his thoughts, hunting for deception, but finding none.

“Suspicions, but no facts,” Steig nodded. “At first it seemed inconceivable to me that one of the Goblin guard could have taken him. Taken him where? I asked myself, the plains are vast and barren, there is nowhere to run, only the road offers safety and guidance. Yet later I began to think, who else could have taken him? There are no people on the plains, only animals and the dark creatures of nightmare, but such monsters carry no blade.”

“It is unwise to talk of monsters,” Feron retorted gruffly, “Not all are such, be careful of your words in this company, be not too quick to judge that which you do not understand.”

Fiorina smiled, so quick to jump to the defence of a friend, yet he is the one of us who doubted most at the beginning.

Steig bowed his head in apology before continuing his retelling. “I decided that the only way for us would be to move forward, we still had some small supply of water, but not sufficient to conduct a thorough search. Marching double time, we headed for the pools, in our minds to refill our water bottles and return, hoping against hope that we could pick up a fresh trail. It is on the road that they turned upon us, almost one hundred of them, and only twenty of us. Crazed from the lack of water they attacked, but deep inside I suspect that Ruaq had already planned similar, he had threatened as much, if not spoken clearly his intentions had been plain. The battle was close, the advantage swinging wildly, at one time I thought that they would overpower us, but in that same moment, their attack stalled, and several deserted, three or four ran onto the plains, darting hither and thither, no decided course in their minds, only the urge to flee. Yet one ran in the opposite direction, and he ran with a purpose, as though his direction were known. This is my suspicion, he took the keeper, and now we must track him.”

“This is a sound deduction,” Jebez spoke for the first time as he stepped from behind Ulaff, “For if you had not already guessed, I am one of the monsters of the plains.” he watched Steig’s face flush but held up his hand to stem the apology. “Say nothing, for you were correct, I am a monster, at least in my own reckoning,” he smiled as he patted Feron’s shoulder. “But you know nothing of the plains, for those who know where to look there are many places to hide, it is completely conceivable that this Goblin took your keeper, the plains around here are riddled with tunnels and passages, the old mine workings abandoned before the great war. If he knows of these, I guarantee that he is behind the abduction.”

“Then our course is clear.” Tillendur stood and threw his quiver over his shoulder, “We must follow, an early alliance of the Guild and the tribe of Man, if that is acceptable to you, Captain Steig?”

“Wholly acceptable,” the captain nodded, “But I would beg a few more minutes, many of my comrades are injured, I would let them rest a while longer, we have marched far, and fought hard today.”

“As you wish,” Tillendur agreed, glancing nervously at the westering sun, his nimble mind working quickly, and hope failing as he understood that darkness would have fallen before they could reach the site of the battle.

“I would suggest another course of action,” Jebez growled as he melted away to reappear as a sleek and muscular hyena, amidst gasps of amazement from the Man soldiers. “Darkness approaches quickly, but I move swiftly in this form, and my nose is unmatched, I can follow any trail in the darkest of nights. I will leave now. I will find your keeper. No Goblin can match me for speed and aggression. Relax here, tend your wounded and rebuild your strength, you will move with more purpose after a night of rest.”

“You are a Man of honour,” Feron declared pulling the Ghul aside, “Now you are sure to feel the burden of which we spoke lightening.”

“Friendship between a Dwarf and a Ghul,” Jebez mused, “Is that so unheard of or impossible?”

“I think not, for that friendship is already forged.” Feron replied, patting his strange friend on his shaggy shoulder.

“It is a relief that Jebez can continue the pursuit,” said Tillendur, “Now we must look to our own safety. I think it unwise to sit on a Goblin road, in plain view.”

“The pools form a line along the edge of the sands,” replied Steig, “Only a few miles to the west lies another, quiet and secluded. And well hidden from the road, there we may rest tonight in safety.”

“Then let us move, while there is still some light,” declared Ulaff as he gathered the horses together, “And set up a camp, for my stomach growls and complains like a drunken Dwarf.”

“I must speak to you,” Fiorina signalled, drawing Tillendur’s attention, “I cannot camp with you tonight, I must distance myself.”

“I have seen their eyes upon you.” he nodded.

“It is a strain,” she gasped, “I hear their thoughts, I sense their lust, it is wearying for me, to turn their thoughts aside.”

“I understand my love, you must do as you feel best.” he replied, “But stay close, I worry for your safety in this wild place.”

“I am much safer with the animals and creatures of the night, than I would be if I stayed in camp,” she laughed, “They remind me so much of Krossus and Manus, so strong and powerful… but my love for you is stronger than desire, as is the vow that I have made.”

“Temptation stalks you?” the Elf asked, his concern clear.

“Only fleeting moments,” she whispered, “But I love you, and do not forget, only recently did I turn my back on a life time of seduction and flirtation, I am still adjusting to faithfulness.”

“We both knew this would be hard, for both of us, but I trust you, and I love you… just be safe, and return to me in the morning.”

“I will be watching over you,” she whispered, “As I did that first night on the edge of my forest. Do not worry, my love for you is strong.”

Fiorina sat beside a still pool, the fire in Tillendur’s camp a small flicker in the distance. “Solitude, at last,” she sighed contentedly as the deerskin tunic slipped from her fingers into the water, followed swiftly by her breeches. “I must not soak them,” she told herself, “Lest they shrink and become useless, now is the time that I need these things most. I must hide myself from them, for their minds are weak.” She shuddered as she recalled their feelings of lust, and revelled in the fantasies that she had drawn from their minds. “Calm yourself, Nymph,” she snapped, clearing her thoughts, swiftly replacing their desires with images of her true love, “Bathe, and enjoy the darkness,” she instructed as she slipped into the cooling water, feeling the heat and dust of the day float away from her skin. “I will wander in the desert for a while,” she decided as she ducked her head below the surface, “The sands are clean, and cooling, and deserted… there I will be safe from temptations.”

Moonlight cast stark shadows across the dunes, hills and ridges of sand shaped by the constant wind, silver shining on their crests like foam on a rolling wave. “A place of stark beauty,” she acknowledged aloud, before scaling the shifting sands to stand nude and proud on the ridge. Glancing back over her shoulder she caught the distant glow of the fire, the tall palm trees standing black against a faint orange radiance. “I will be happy with him,” she sighed, all thoughts of temptation melting away. “Let me wander for a while, let the desert cleanse my soul,” she whispered, before sliding back down the ridge and strolling along a deep and narrow valley of sand.

Lost in her own thoughts, she wandered, without intention drifting ever closer to the continuation of the road that carved a path through the dunes, the glow of Tillendur’s fire a memory behind her.

Whispering stopped her instantly as she strained her hearing, a low sound; furtive.

“I tell you, I saw it.” insisted a low voice, an evil sound, deep and gravelly.

“You saw nothing,” scoffed a second, “Imagination, or the bottom of a beer pot.”

“I haven’t touched a drop all day, on my honour,” replied the gravel voice, his tone indignant, “And I did see a light in the distance, someone has lit a fire, I swear it.”

Fiorina reached instinctively for her knife, but found only naked skin. Of all the times to let down my guard, she berated, I was too keen to shed those dreadful clothes, how stupid of me, I’m not at home now.

The quiet voices began again, “So lets assume that you are not drunk for once, I suppose we must investigate, come on lads, lets go and find this elusive fire.”

Lads, Fiorina’s mind raced, more than two of them, and Steig assured that they would be safe, Tillendur will have not set a watch. I must find out how many there are.

Cautiously she crept forward, guided by the soft sound of creaking leather and the occasional rattle of scale plate armour. A spear head glinted as the moonlight caught its polished face, slowly a small forest of spear shafts emerged from the darkness, Fiorina counted quickly, there are many, she gasped silently as her count reached twenty and still the quiet column came on. I must warn him, her thoughts screamed as she spun on the sand and raced along the valley. On she sprinted, turning and scaling the steep side of a dune without breaking her pace, praying to catch a glimmer of light as she reached the summit.

“There!” she heard a shout from the Goblins hidden in the darkness, but not far behind, “On the ridge, there is someone on the ridge.” instantly she ducked, crouching low.

“I don’t see anyone, but use caution lads, none of our own are supposed to be out here, if there is someone here, they can’t be up to any good.”

Fiorina’s mind raced, I must avoid the ridge crests, there is too much moonlight, and slithering on her stomach she slid down into the next sandy valley. Speed is my advantage, she nodded as she listened hard for sounds of movement, I must run fast, and only when I have put some distance between myself and them can I risk cutting toward the trees, I just hope that I don’t run too far and pass the camp.

Uncertainty filled her mind as she sprinted through the soft sand, at a walk the sensation under her feet had been almost sensual, but at speed her dainty feet dug deep, the sand feeling like thick treacle, sapping her energy and tripping her often.

“Far enough,” she gasped aloud, and turned to the sheer dune face, climbing as fast as the free flowing sand would allow. To her eternal delight a clear warm glow emerged as she reached the top. I’m close, she sighed in relief, and risking a few seconds she paused and scanned the desert around for any sign of the Goblins. They are moving cautiously, she realised with relief, and wasting not one second more, she ran as fast as she could toward the light.

Confusion filled the quiet camp as drowsy minds attempted to process the image of a beautiful, and very naked young woman tearing through the trees and into the firelight, her voice high and urgent.

“To arms, soldiers of Man,” she shouted, “Tillendur, Feron, Ulaff, awaken, the enemy is almost upon us.”

Long seconds passed before wide eyed amazement faded to be replaced by steely determination as weapons were drawn and battle lines set facing the trees.

“Lend me this,” whispered Fiorina as she plucked Tillendur’s slender bladed dagger from its sheath on his belt, “And worry not for me my love, I have work to do… but be careful, there are many.”

With her words ringing in his ears Tillendur watched her slip back into the shadows of the trees.

“Now, let the fun begin,” he heard Ulaff’s deep voice at his shoulder, “I have felt a deep disappointment since earlier today, when only the Man marched into sight, but perhaps now I can scratch the itch that has been annoying me.” And as he spoke, the first line of Goblins crept blinking into the circle of light.

Fiorina darted from the deep shadows cast by the trees and scrambled quickly over the first low dune, casting herself into the shadow of the valley behind. Their voices were clear and a mixture of their emotions washed over her as she crouched in the darkness, fear and trepidation she felt in many, doubt in others, and the thrill of battle rage in the front ranks. The difference between Goblins and Man, she thought. In camp she had felt their confusion as she raced naked into their midst, but that had cleared swiftly as minds adjusted and absorbed fact. Not one mind held fear, she realised with swelling pride. But now I must be stealthy and alert, for I am sure that they will send a runner back for reinforcements… and I cannot allow that to happen.

Cautiously she crept forward and smiled as she heard their whispered orders, “Only an enemy would camp far from the road, why would they not continue into the desert? All of our friends would head straight to the barracks.”

“We should send spies forward,” a voice suggested, a new voice, fear edged.

“Maggot,” came the reply, “Spies my hairy arse, scurry back to camp and return with another squad if you have not the stomach for a fight.”

“I have the stomach,” the second voice hissed in surly reply, “And I also have some sense, look before you leap, that is sage advice. But if you wish to walk into the lions den before counting how many are in the pride, then be my guest. Personally, I will take your advice and bring help, but I will instruct them to carry shovels rather than spears, for I fear it will be a burial squad.”

You will never reach your camp, Fiorina shuddered as she thought about the work ahead, but no revulsion did she feel, only a keen sense of anticipation.

The Story Continues

Dear Reader, if you are enjoying the adventures of Gondell, Tillendur, Fiorina and company, please download the full edition of Gondell’s Quest – Destiny here

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Gondell's Quest - Book 1 - Destiny - Free Sampler Edition

  • ISBN: 9781311031952
  • Author: PMO Publishing
  • Published: 2016-06-30 17:35:13
  • Words: 73449
Gondell's Quest - Book 1 - Destiny - Free Sampler Edition Gondell's Quest - Book 1 - Destiny - Free Sampler Edition