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|Heart of the Hound|
|1.||Heart of the Hound|
|The Tavern of Lost Souls|
|2.||The Tavern of Lost Souls|
|Escape from Guk|
|The Flight of the Mudskipper|
|The Worst Cook in Grobb|
|A Storm of Sorrow|
|Of New Friends and Troublesome Enemies|
|On the Plains of Karana|
|By the Wings of Dragons|
The denizens of Oceangreen had just begun their day when all preparation came to a stop. The villagers streamed into the streets, peering into the sky where a boat drifted through the clouds, sporting a bright yellow sail with the image of a creature that looked to some like a half dragon, half halfling, and to others, a halfling wearing a costume that made it look as though he was a dragon. Either way, it glared at them, impossible to notice and unlikely to be forgotten, disturbing their peaceful moment.
Bayle stood at the bow, watching the village approach with heavy eyes. Eylee stood nearby, everyone else having kept their distance, even Illisia - or particularly Illisia, since he'd taken her dissent the hardest.
"It was nothing to do with you," she said softly.
Bayle smiled weakly and said, "But it does have to do with my ability to lead. I guess none of you ever asked me to lead you, and maybe I shouldn't."
"No one ever asked you to," said Eylee, "but you have because you're best suited for it."
There was a sound of someone clearing their throat. Kaltuk stepped between the two of them, coming to rest against the side of the boat. For a moment, they sat in silence, watching the assembly of plainsfolk below as Fiddlewiz eased the ship down close enough that they could drop the ladders and descend.
"It's a funny thing, coming home, isn't it?" said Kaltuk. Eylee started and glanced at Bayle. The plainsman looked at him in surprise. "Ahh, don't think it wasn't obvious, lad. You've the look of someone needing to face something they've avoided. I have every reason to recognize that easily." He chuckled, and then glanced at Eylee. "I imagine we all know how it is. If we didn't, we wouldn't be out here together. We'd be at home, snug in our beds, surrounded by folks who didn't want us to leave." Eylee flushed and lowered her head, aware of the fact that she was one of the few, or perhaps the only, member of their band who left for no better reason than wanting to go.
"My situation is a little different," said Bayle, gazing ahead of him. "I didn't leave because I had a righteous rivalry with a god who'd abandoned me, or because I saved a Prince and Princess from being executed for no greater crime than loving each other, or because I was tortured by my own parents." His eyes shifted down, studying the deck of the boat. "I left because innocent people died as the result of my foolishness, and my arrogance. My own mentor, the only man who believed in me, died because I ignored his warning to be careful with an ancient, powerful artifact I didn't understand."
"Ahh," said Kaltuk, nodding, "well that is a mighty heavy load, no doubt crushing for one so young as you."
Bayle scoffed. "So it's a part of getting old, huh? Making decisions that leads to the slaughter of innocent people?"
"For a great many people, yes," said Kaltuk. "A great many good people, mind you. We don't always know what our decisions can mean, and sometimes we do, but we know do it anyway because it's what has to happen. Any king who has led his people to war has brought about the slaughter of innocent people."
"That's different," said Bayle.
"Maybe," said Kaltuk, "but then maybe not. This is a war. I don't have to tell you that. And if you'd never seen what that staff could do, maybe many more innocent people would have died."
Bayle was quiet then. Eylee smiled despite the seriousness of the conversation, because it was almost as if she could see a great dark cloud in the young man's spirit thin just a little. "Thank you Kaltuk," he said.
The dwarf shrugged and patted the plainsman on the arm. "From one outcast to the other," he said.
Bayle straightened up as the dwarf walked off, and then glanced to Eylee. She noted a new gleam to his eye and couldn't help but perk up herself.
"Let's head down there," he said.
They tied off the boat in the center of the village and made the decision that for once, they would all go down. Twiddy was slightly nervous about leaving the boat, but Fizzlewiz reasoned with him, pointing out that it was highly doubtful anyone in the village could understand how to work the boat well enough to make off with it. The halfling was assuaged and followed the rest of the crew down the ladder and into the gathered throng.
Bayle had, naturally, been the first down the ladder, and so Eylee, as the last, lost him in the crowd. She came to a stop near Twiddy and Fiddlewiz, attempting to stand on her tip toes and look over the heads of the plainsfolk. Even with the little extra height it offered her, she was still to low to see anything. She glanced down at the gnome and the halfling.
Twiddy chuckled and said, "Well, at least you had a hope of seeing something. Fiddlewiz and I would need to stand atop one another's shoulders to even try." The gnome nodded his head, a muffled sound of agreement issuing from behind his scarf.
Eylee grinned. "Where's Bayle?" she asked.
Fiddlewiz pointed into a patch of crowd where a mess of voices obscured the particulars of the conversation happening there. "Seems he knew a few people here," said Twiddy.
"Apparently this is his home," said Eylee, eyebrows laced together with concern.
"Oh really?" said Twiddy. "Well, that's good then, isn't it?" Eylee didn't respond except to let out a long sigh. "Or not," said Twiddy, tugging at his collar.
"There he is," chirped Fiddlewiz.
The crowd parted and Bayle returned, a very large man with a coppery-red hair that had begun to go white on the temples walking beside him. The new plainsman nodded stiffly to the group, and Bayle gestured toward him saying, "This is Urth, once of the Iceaxe clan, an elder of Oceangreen. He has generously agreed to hear our case."
Urth nodded to them and said, "We know the threat you fight against." The plainsman glanced at Bayle. "You were lucky to have landed here first. We believe the men of shadows you seek have already come to the Plains. We've fought against people we once knew as friends. While this wasn't anything to raise an eyebrow at in the northlands, as you may or may not know, we who migrated here came to find peace." Urth glanced around, squinting so that the wrinkles at his eyes deepened and he suddenly looked much older than he had before. "I've sent my boy to gather the rest of the elders. We will meet in the elders' chambers at the midday hour. Bayle can show you. He knows the place." The older man's eyes swept down Bayle, who visibly straightened. Urth nodded to him and said, "We'll speak privately. Come to the chambers a little earlier than your friends. Your crime hasn't been forgotten." Bayle lowered his head and nodded. "You've changed, though. I'm not blind to that." Urth gestured in farewell and vanished into the crowd.
Bayle stood before the group and said, "We've a couple of hours to do as we please. These are good people. I think it's safe to say we can put down our guard and enjoy ourselves until then." Bayle began to turn to go, alone. Eylee glanced toward Illisia, who seemed to deliberately be avoiding watching him go.
"Enjoy ourselves doing what?" asked Roadyle. "I believe I'll wait on board." He waved his hand and began levitating toward the Cloudskipper. That might have been a cue for others to do the same, but only the high elf seemed to think there wasn't something to be found below. Even Kruzz, as nervous as he looked, only glanced toward the ladder once and instead stayed on the ground.
Eylee looked up to see Illisia beside her. The barbarian woman returned the glance and said, "Perhaps you would walk with me."
Eylee smiled and nodded vigorously. It was a rare moment when Illisia took any company but Bayle's. Other groups had begun to form and break off. Nurgg and Kaltuk began walking in one direction. Twiddy and Fiddlewiz made in another, chatting in hushed tones about improvements they wished to make to the boat. Kruzz, oddly enough, had been surrounded by a group of children, who peered up at him in curiosity. The troll looked much more frightened of them than they were of him, but they gestured him to follow, and when the group of youngsters ran off, they pulled him along with them, Kruzz offering little resistance. Asharae was left alone and Eylee gestured toward her, looking up at Illisia. The barbarian woman made a bit of a face but then shrugged.
Eylee jogged up to the dark elf and said, "Perhaps you would like to join us?"
Asharae arched an eyebrow and said, "You're too kind."
Eylee smiled bashfully and said, "Well, you looked lonely."
"I meant that literally," said Asharae, narrowing her eyes. "You're too kind. Stop it. It's annoying."
Illisia stepped in behind Eylee and said, "If the Teir'dal wishes to be miserable, let her."
Asharae lowered her head and swept back a lock of hair that had fallen in front of her face. "No, I'll come," said Asharae softly. She smirked, full lips twisting playfully. "If Eylee will accept my apology."
Eylee nodded and said, "Accepted. But coming from you Asharae, I'll take it for the irony it almost certainly is, and not hold you to it."
Asharae tossed her head back and laughed, "Oh my dear, perhaps there is promise for you yet."
As the trio of women drifted out of the square, Eylee caught sight of Bayle exchanging words with a woman in her middle years. "So the Baker Caldman moved on? And his daughter...?"
"Went with him," said the woman, smiling apologetically, "not long after you... went. Perhaps a month or two."
"Thank you," said Bayle, nodding to her.
"Most welcome, young Bayle," said the woman, her tone was courteous but uncertain. "It's good to see you... in such good health."
Bayle smiled weakly and nodded to her, pacing away. Eylee looked back to Asharae and Illisia. Neither of them seemed to have noticed, though the wood elf highly doubted that Illisia ever missed much at all. If the barbarian had caught the exchange, and taken it to mean what Eylee had, she probably would not want to comment on it. Any other woman, maybe, but the hardened scout was a person who kept every facet of her emotions bound up deeply inside of her, and was not likely to let it show.
Illisia glanced down at the younger woman and her face creased with a half smile. "I thought perhaps we could see the horses," she said. "That is the one thing about riding in a ship. I miss the horses."
Asharae snorted and gestured as she spoke, saying, "Well, I certainly don't. Saddle sores! Spending every morning rubbing away the stink just to smell of them all over by nightfall!" She glanced at the other two and shrugged, saying, "I suppose they are pretty beasts, though, if you don't have to ride them. I'll go."
"I've no objections," said Eylee.
Illisia nodded and the three very different women walked together to the horse stables of Oceangreen.
When they came together once again to stand before the assemblage of elders, they seemed ready for whatever would come. It had been good to see life in its most ordinary movements continuing, with no agenda except to enjoy it; the sights, smells, and sounds of the village reminded the travelers that the world had not been turned so sincerely on its head as it might have seemed from the deck of the Cloudskipper. However, there was a touch of something in it all that led Eylee to believe things were not quite right in the town of Oceangreen. Though hardly dressed for war, men and women wore weapons at their hips -- strange for a group who professed to be searching for peace -- and outside of town, she thought she saw signs that there had been a battle in their fields. It was obviously a couple of months old, as grass had grown over the scars left by whatever skirmish had happened there, but the gouges were still visible beneath that layer of veneer. The signs were not so much that they ruined her afternoon, but it did linger at the back of her mind, coloring the taste of the homemade bread they bought from a good wife and causing her voice to tremble just slightly when she appeased the request for a song from a group of children. It was the same children who had stolen away with Kruzz, and the troll sat with a child on either side of him, listening raptly to Eylee's song -- identical expression on both the monster's and the children's faces. None of these comforting moments could clear out the sense that there had been violence here, and the thought still hung over her as she assembled with the others in the elders' hall.
They had lined up in a straight line, and Eylee stood near one end between Twiddy and Kruzz. A group of seven plainsfolk sat before them, all wearing the rich dressings of the well respected. Urth sat in their center, arms folded in his lap.
"Please sit," said Urth.
Bayle nodded to him and took a seat on a pile of animal skins. The rest followed, stretching out or folding up in a way that was comfortable to them. "Have you become leader then, Urth?" asked Bayle.
Urth smiled and shrugged. "When we came here, it was with the intention of keeping a simple council. Naively, we believed the council would have no more important duties than supervising planting seasons and solving land disputes. Maybe we never truly believed it, only hoped. When it was clear that though we ran from warfare, it had followed us, the need for a leader became stronger. I can't say I will stay in this position, but it seemed to have chosen me for now."
"You are a wise man, Urth," said Bayle. "I'm certain you are well suited. Now, tell me, what has the fighting been?"
The elders exchanged glances. Urth cleared his throat and said, "At first, it was a simple matter of travelers not returning. We passed it off as ill luck, as the attacks of beasts, but then it happened more and more, until finally one man did not disappear, but stumbled into the village, bloodied and battered. Once he had rested long enough, he was able to tell us what had happened. He'd stopped into a settlement to the north to spend the night, but was set upon in his sleep. The man was dragged to a dark portal, similar in description to the one that opened here, and a shadow slipped from it, traveling across the ground slowly toward him. Fueled by terror, he fought his way free, and though injured, made his way here. Two days later we were attacked by a band of fellow humans from the north; humans with double shadows who fought alongside beasts similar to that which tore apart our own town. We were ready, though, and had prepared for the attack. A number of them fell into pits we had dug out on the perimeter of town, and others dropped after volleys of arrows and spears that our best fighters had at the ready. We lost a few of our people, but not nearly so many as they did." He was silent for a moment, studying ground. "The strangest, and most terrible, thing of all was that it wasn't just strong men and women who attacked us. There were children, and old folk, and they all fought with the same ferocity. It was like they had no mind left in them."
There were collective sounds of dismay from the travelers. Eylee felt herself gasp at the thought of cutting down a child.
"Bayle, you brought something terrible to this town," said Urth, "and many people died. But we believe now it was coming anyway. Do you still have that staff?"
Bayle nodded and unstrapped it, setting it on the ground before him. Everyone's eyes locked on it. "I've coaxed it to do what it did here many more times," said Bayle. "With just one difference, I've been using it to close portals, rather than open them. We have another artifact that helps us find the portals. Asharae?"
Asharae glanced at him, startled, and narrowed her eyes slightly. She untied the pouch and opened it slowly, removing the Scryona. Urth held out his hand, but Asharae smiled. It was a smile not without cruelty but, Eylee doubted, intentionally malicious. "You don't want to do that, elder," she said. "It stings. The dwarf can tell you. It's powerful, though, trust that." Kaltuk ruffled at the mention of his folly, no doubt recalling the excruciating pain he'd felt when simply touching it with a fingertip.
Urth nodded to her and said, "For all you can say about the Teir'dal, they do have powerful magic at their command. I trust you, lady elf, at least in this."
Asharae slipped the Scryona back into her pouch with a look of satisfaction and tied the lavender strings around it tightly, settling back against her hands, legs stretched out in front of her.
The elder stroked at his beard. "What do you want from us, Bayle?" he said. "You came here to enlist our aid, but what can we do for you? You have your strange ship, and what seems to be a capable band of fighters. I recognize you, Illisia Iceheart, Hound of Zek." He nodded his head to Illisia.
She colored slightly and said, "I'm not the Hound of Zek any more, Urth Iceaxe. I'm Illisia Marrsheart now, servant of Erollisi Marr. I left Princess Unna and Prince Erasmus in a village not far from here, but only after mending any wrong I had done to them."
Urth chuckled and said, "And I'm not Urth Iceaxe any longer, child. I didn't mean to accuse you, just to point out your reputation. Hound of Zek, or Daughter of Marr, having you by his side means Bayle has a great ally. And I'm sure the rest of you, though I don't know you, are just as capable. I'm just wanting to know how it is we would fit in to all of this."
Bayle seemed to pause and consider his answer, but not for long. After a few moments, he said, "I didn't know what I was going to find here. We had an idea of how far this was spreading, but couldn't know any specifics. I would hate to ask you for more than you are already doing, especially when you came here to stop fighting."
Urth let out a low sound and said, in a deep voice that rose and fell at just the right moments, "We may have come here seeking an end to the constant, petty bloodshed of the north, but we are still the children of those icy peaks, hardened by a life of fighting against ice and snow. Maybe our children, or our children's children, and those who come after, will forget it, and be tamed by these gentle plains, and their lives will be the better for it. But we are still those warriors, and we can still fight. And I hope that no matter what, our children's children's children will still have it in them to raise swords against their enemies in righteousness anger, for the sake of defending home and family; just not for anything less than that, not simply to prove that they are 'better' than their neighbor, nor fill their halls with trophies and empty plunders. So we are ready to do what we can against this enemy, for our homes, and for our families, and for the promise of a future where our descendants will find better ways to face their troubles."
Bayle was stunned, looking at Urth. This reverence was mirrored throughout the room. Eylee realized she had been holding her breath, wrapped up in the powerful man's even more powerful words.
"Truly, the gods chose you to lead, Urth," said Bayle. "I'm humbled."
A smile played on Urth's lips. "Don't be so humble that you can't tell me what there is to do next, boy."
Bayle rose and opened his hands, saying, "This will be our united front. This is where the war must truly begin..."
And there it did begin. A turning point. Urth Iceaxe lead the united plainsfolk alongside us to establish a territory the Void would no longer touch, and bands of warriors - human, as they had begun calling themselves, warriors - traveled to us when we called for them.
There was talk for a time that he might become the first king of those united humans, but Urth Iceaxe fell in a battle against the Void, slaughtering dozens of them before he went down. He was mourned by many, and in his wake, there was once again no united leader. I have no doubt some day another will rise. In fact, I know it. Following the end of our discussions, I finished the canto that had been plaguing me. When it was complete, I performed it for Urth and left the only copy with him, for it described that future he had so animatedly described for us in the elders' chambers that day. It told of a great leader who would lead the humans to an age of enlightenment. When I was finished, I noticed that he had begun weeping, and I apologized profusely, but he assured me that it was out of joy, not sorrow, and embraced me. I like to think that maybe it will be our example, the unity of many different races working toward one goal, that will help lead these humans to their future.
Those days were touched by something magic, and we rode high on the success, but we always knew it would turn again, as things have a way of doing.
- Eylee Zephyrswell.