Part 4 of the On Dragons Wings saga, introducing some new oddballs
|The night was clear, the moon fat and high on the horizon, and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the trees. It was one of those perfect evenings when Darkmoon truly loved being in the forest.|
Too bad it was about to be ruined by an ambush.
True, it was only an ambush if one was surprised by an enemy attack. He knew they were there, just beyond the treeline, in the darkness where they thought he could not see them, but he did. Their dark shapes standing out in contrast to the darker woods around them. Invisible to most people, but elves were not most people.
In the brief periods when the wind shifted, he could smell them too. Foul creatures with differing scents. Some orc for sure. A goblin or two perhaps. Possibly some humans, though their scent always varied, depending on their level of hygiene. Ten at least. No more than fifteen.
Darkmoon wondered, briefly, why it seemed that they always approached from upwind. A sure giveaway to someone like him, with his peoples advanced senses. Well, if they were foolish enough to chance it, he was more than willing to show them the error of their ways.
The attack, when it came, came from both the right and left. A dozen screaming, stinking ghouls of all races leaped shrieking from the woods. Unperturbed, he reached to his right and threw back the blanket, revealing his bow with a pair of arrows already knocked. Taking it up, he rolled out of reach of the sword that came at his head. Deftly rising to one knee, he loosed the arrows and a pair of his assailants went down. Without stopping, he pivoted, bringing the bow across the face of another with a satisfying crunch as skin and bone shattered with the hit.
In motion yet again, he leaped over the firepit, diving into a tuck-and-roll between two more of the goons. Coming up, he twisted, and sent knives from hidden sheathes flying into their backs.
Turning to face the remaining attackers, Darkmoon unsheathed his sword, and the sight of it halted them in their tracks. He couldn't resist a smile.
"You recognize this? My father slew legions of you scum with it," He hefted it higher, for dramatic effect. "Behold, Anskarra. Known to you losers as the Devourer."
Without another word, he hurled the blade at the nearest ghoul, neatly separating head from neck. The blade continued to spin, cutting down another two before returning to his hand.
He looked over the remaining assailants, flashing them his most wicked grin. "Who's next?"
He motioned to throw Anskarra again, and they turned and fled. Darkmoon threw his head back and laughed...until they stopped at the forest edge and turned to face him once more.
The sudden reversal quelled some of his bravado. He hefted the sword again, though the five looked far less than impressed this time. "You do understand what this will do to the rest of you, don't you?"
Now it was their turn to laugh as a crashing in the underbrush behind them caught his attention. A dark shape, larger than any of its companions, emerged from the night, all dark, lumpy skin and rancid scent, brandishing a club as long as Darkmoon was tall. A mountain troll, he noted. I wonder where they dug one of those up?
The troll was even uglier than he had heard as he gazed upon its grotesque features in the firelight. Its body was scarred in numerous places and its misshapen head distorted one of its eyes to half the size of the other. It roared as it caught sight of the elf, slapping its club into the palm of one meaty hand.
With a gesture from one of its handlers, the troll charged, raising the club high over its head. Darkmoon raised Anskarra, knowing full well that he did not have the strength to fend off such a blow, no matter how good he was with the weapon.
The charge ended abruptly as a crack of thunder sounded through the forest and one of its eyes disappeared in a gout of blood. The beast swayed back and forth on unsteady feet. A sudden plume of fire erupting from the woods consumed its body and it staggered a step before its immolated corpse toppled backward onto its handler.
Stunned, the remaining ghouls turned to run in earnest this time. A second thunderclap rang out and another fell dead before the rest disappeared howling into the night.
Darkmoon turned in the direction the fire plume had come from, unsurprised to see the dragon now approaching through a gap in the trees on the opposite side of his camp. What did surprise him was its companion, a small, human woman, a short-bore blunderbuss in one hand, a long rifle in the other.
They stopped at the edge of the clearing, surveying the scene. The human stepped further into the firelight while the dragon hung back a few paces. The light revealed her to be surprisingly young. She looked over at the smoldering, stinking corpse of the troll, then favored Darkmoon with a small smile. "You're welcome."
"I had things under control," the elf countered.
"Sure, until their plug-ugly over there showed up," she countered with a dismissive wave of the blunderbuss, then looked him over appraisingly. "You're a little far from home, aren't you?"
"I could say the same of you. You're from the Barrows Wood, if I'm not mistaken?"
"You are mistaken, sorry to say, but not too badly. Bara Hack, just outside the Serkis Pass," she answered, casually going through the motions of reloading the blunderbuss.
"That would have been my next guess. Your accent gives it away," He regarded the dragon. "And you, my serpentine friend?"
The dragon looked to its companion as if seeking permission to speak. When she gave no indication, it bobbed its head quickly, the draconian equivalent of a shrug. "It's...complicated."
"What an insightful non-answer," Darkmoon sighed and shrugged. "Very well. I suppose I do have you to thank for your assistance. I am not quite sure I could have handled the troll on my own."
"You couldn't have," replied the girl, waving the ramrod in his direction before slipping it down the muzzle of her weapon.
He glared at her, but the look did not faze the girl in the least. "Well, I could have handled it if my companion..."
A sudden battle cry from the woods and into the light of the fire leaped what at first glance looked to be a bear, but standing on two legs and brandishing a broadsword in one hand and battle-ax in the other. The girl raised her rifle at the newcomer; the dragon rearing its head back to loose a fireball. Darkmoon quickly positioned himself between them, holding up his hands to stay their attack. The newcomer, who could now be seen to be a huge hulk of a human covered in animal pelts, with a beard that stretched nearly to his waist, looked in confusion from Darkmoon, over to the girl and dragon, and back to Darkmoon.
"I was going to say that I could have handled the troll, if my companion here hadn't been late to the party," He shot the bear-man a scathing look. "As per usual."
'I was going to come up behind them, but somewhere between here and the road, they got away from me," the newcomer replied.
"How?" Darkmoon cried. "Even with your nose, you should have been able to smell them."
"Well I'm sorry I don't have your knack for sniffing out trouble," his friend shot back. "Some of us weren't born with your kind of sensitive...senses."
A gentle cough from the girl disrupted the argument. "Who're them?" the hulk asked.
"They," Darkmoon corrected. "Who are they?"
"That's what I said. Why are you asking me?"
"I suppose introductions are in order," Darkmoon sighed, rubbing his eyes. He turned to the girl. "I am Darkmoon, son of Warlance, of the village of Belli'on. My barbarian friend here is Akkabar."
The girl and the dragon shared a glance. "An Akkabarbarian," the dragon deadpanned, causing the girl to chuckle.
Behind his beard, Akkabar's face went tight with fury. He raised the ax over his head. "You mock me, dragon?"
The click of a hammer being cocked, and the girls' blunderbuss appeared inches from Akkabars nose. The barbarian looked at it, eyes crossing as he stared into the flared muzzle, then refocused on the girl. "I could still get you."
"Want to put money on that?" she asked. The barrel moved a fraction closer to the bridge of his nose.
"No, he does not," Warlance answered. "Stay your weapons, Akkabar. Like it or not, we do seem to be all friends here."
Akkabar hesitated, shooting his companion a glance. The slightest of nods from the elf and he sighed, lowering both weapons to his side. Uncocking the hammer, the girl took a step back, leaning casually against the dragon's shoulder. "Name's Kieran," she said, pointing with a thumb back at the dragon. "This here's Mohng. We were just on our way to Delva Shien when we spotted your merry little band of marauders. Didn't like the looks of them..."
"Or the smell," added Mohng.
"Or the smell," Kieran added with a nod. "So we decided to give them a follow and see what kind of mischief they had planned. Then we found you."
Warlance glanced at Akkabar, the barbarian's face looking somber in the firelight. "Delva Shien, you say?" he said, letting out a long, slow sigh. "You may want to change your travel plans."
The girl turned to share a look with Mohng. "What do you mean?"
"We are coming from that direction. I'm sorry to report to you that Delva Shien is no more, Warlance said. "Burned to ash."
"What?" Kieran cried. "How?"
"Our mutual friends here were part of a bigger expedition," He explained, gesturing at the bodies all around.
"After they sacked Delva Shien, they split up into smaller war parties, probably to hide their true numbers," Akkabar continued the narration, sheathing his broadsword and laying aside his ax as he sat unceremoniously atop the body of one of the orcs. "We figure they're going to be attacking smaller settlements all along the frontier. Seeing as they went after Delva Shien first, they must have come from across the northern sea."
Silence reigned for a long moment before the girl suddenly blurted, "Son of a bitch," She turned to the dragon. "Your grandfather was right. The Vawwn are coming. Sooner than expected."
"The Vawwn? The Vawwn are legend. Nothing more," Akkabar stated.
Warlance's curiosity was piqued and he looked squarely at the dragon. "Exactly who is your grandfather?"
"Scalebiter. High elder of the dragon council."
"And it was Scalebiter who told me that the Vawwn were going to return, in my lifetime," Kieran said. "I just didn't think it would be this soon."
That last bit took Warlance aback. "You? You spoke to the high elder? A human?"
Akkabar grunted with disdain. "The girl's been flying where the air's too thin. No humans have even been within leagues of the council mountain in decades."
Mohng gave a low rumble in his throat. "It was I that brought her before the council. Do you doubt me?"
Akkabar rose slowly, one hand gripping the haft of his battle-ax. "Aye. I doubt the word of any dragon, especially one that chooses some young wastrel for a traveling companion," he spat. "Devious, no-good, lying..."
Kieran stepped forward again, blunderbuss aimed at the barbarian's head as Mohng bared dagger-length fangs. Warlance once more inserted himself between his companion and the duo. "Akkabar, stay!"
"Stay?" he echoed, his voice registering his surprise at his friends' tone. "What am I? Some kind of dog to be..."
"Akkabar, sit down!"
His sharp tone stopped the barbarian short. Akkabar looked uncertain, almost as if he would turn his weapon against Warlance. After a tense few seconds, he sat back on the orc, letting out a huff.
"Now then," Warlance said. "While your people may not trust the word of a dragon, mine do. Implicitly, in fact." He pointed to Kieran. "And if she has earned the trust of a dragon, then she shall have mine as well."
"Your funeral, mate," Akkabar scoffed, and turned away, glaring into the woods.
"You'll have to forgive my somewhat boorish companion," Warlance said.
"Boar-ish?" the barbarian turned and glared daggers. "Now you compare me to some sort of pig?"
Warlance sighed, closing his eyes and shaking his head slightly. "His people still cling to old beliefs. Beliefs that have kept the races of our lands separated for far too long. And if we remain separated much longer, it may spell the end for us all."
The dragon cocked its head to one side as it settled onto its belly. "There is wisdom in your words, despite your youth. You can't be more than, what? Fifty years old?"
The girl looked at her friend aghast. "Fifty? You've been eating those funny mushrooms again, Mohng. He's not much older than me."
"I celebrate my forty-eighth season in two moons," Warlance smiled as the girls' jaw dropped, adding, "Like the dragons, my people age much more slowly than humans."
Kieran drew closer, dark eyes scrutinizing his features before a shy smile spread across her face. "You, um, you look good for your age," She stepped back again, nearly stumbling, and catching herself with a very girlish, very human giggle. She cleared her throat. "Considering you're older than my father."
To the side, Akkabar snorted. "I think she likes you, Long Ears."
Kieran shot him a scathing look, and the blunderbuss started to rise slightly again in his direction. The move was interrupted by a low rumble from deep in Mohng's throat. Kieran hesitated, then turned the weapon in her hand and with one deft move, slid it into a sheath strapped to her back. Acting as though nothing had happened, she proceeded to start reloading the long rifle.
"It would appear that perhaps ours was not a random meeting after all," Mohng said. "Considering the circumstances and the fact that my grandfather may indeed have been correct in his assumptions about the Vawwn's return, perhaps we should consider joining forces. This may be the prelude to a much larger incursion. We should let our leaders know."
"Let them know? Yes," Akkabar said, "But will they listen?"
"If they won't," Kieran replied, slipping the ramrod back into place beneath the muzzle of the rifle as she finished reloading. "Then by the gods, we make them listen."
Akkabar laughed, a throaty, grating sound, and heaved himself off of his orc perch. As he approached the girl, Darkmoon saw her tense again, holding the rifle in both hands, to use as a club, if necessary. The barbarian stopped and reached out, grasping her shoulders in his meaty hands. "This one may be tiny, but she has fire in her soul," he declared, leaning close enough that they were almost nose to nose. "I like you."
"Thanks," Kieran replied dryly.
Warlance shared a look with the dragon, saw him smiling slightly. "I do believe we have a consensus then. We shall do what we can to warn the people of Druimoor of the threat that awaits it, and do what we must to stop it should it come to that."
He looked to the others. All three nodded their agreement.
"Therefore we shall be known as the Fellowship of the Four."
All three looked to one another, their faces showing a sudden lack of enthusiasm at Darkmoons proclamation.
"Nah," Akbar replied.
"Sounds made up," Mohng said.
Kieran shook her head. "Hard pass from me."
"Fine. I'll think of something else," the elf sighed. "In the meantime, I think we should form a plan to..."
He trailed off as he watched Mohngs body language shift. His head went up and back, as he took a long, deep sniff of the air. Though not terribly familiar with draconian facial expressions, the look on Mohng's face was still a very noticeable grimace.
"They're back," he announced. "And they've brought friends."
Darkmoon took a whiff, his lip curling into a similar grimace at the putrid smell. At the same time, a shrill howl comprised of several beastly voices broke the silence of the forest from all directions.
"Good thing I reloaded," Kieran said, pulling her blunderbuss free once more, aiming into the darkened woods.
"Our first test as a team," Darkmoon said. "How exciting!"
She shot him a sideways glance. "You and me have very different views on what's exciting."
Darkmoon grinned. He raised Anskarra before him, taking satisfaction seeing Akkabar do the same. Kieran pointed her weapons into the darkness, as Mohng growled deep in his throat, bearing those saber-like fangs.
As one, they awaited their attackers.