Indeed. And if they're running into foes with access to Horrid Wilting, this may be about to take a turn for the horrific. Yikes.
I remember thinking something along the same lines...
* * * * * * * * * *
“Ah, whatever magic did this, is beyond, yes, beyond my measure.” Khalid said. “Nothing in my schooling has hinted at a spell such as this.” He glanced at Gorak.
“Pretty clear what it did,” Gorak grunted. “Sucked the water right out of the air. I can make the stuff, but none of the wisemen I ever met could pull this off.” Reaching down, he fished a small silver necklace out from under the armor of one of the bodies and, with a jerk, snapped the chain. Holding it up to the light, he studied it carefully, absently rubbing his chin.
“Ah, what's that.” Khalid asked.
“Not sure exactly,” Gorak grunted. “Seems familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. They've each got one.” He gestured at the other bodies in the clearing.
Azarek peered through the shuttered window of the cabin, before gingerly prying open the door. “There's more of 'em in here, same as the others.” Khalid joined him, peering over his shoulder into the gloom of the cabin. A peculiar dusty smell, like aged parchment, wafted out from the tiny room. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the roof where the wooden slats had splintered and buckled. Near the damaged corner of the room were three more bodies, one slumped over the broken wreckage of a table, the other two lying on the floor, on bedrolls.
“Let me see,” Gorak rumbled, jostling Khalid aside and walking into the room. The planks under his feet crumbled as he moved and the building creaked ominously. He knelt down beside the bodies and looked them over.
“So whadda ya think?” Azarek rasped. “Seems a wee bit too much carnage for a robbery.”
“I'd say somebody was trying to make a point,” Gorak rumbled.
“How so?” Shayla asked.
“If I had ta wager,” Gorak replied, “I'd guess that these two groups had nothing to do with each other.”
“Ah, what led you to that conclusion?”
“The four outside were all wearing these,” he held up the chain. “These three ain't. What's more, those four outside are woodsmen. They're wearing camouflaged leathers and carrying hunting knives and short bows. These two here, look like mercs to me. Chain shirts, broadswords and shields. Probably escorting that one,” he pointed at the body near the table, “out of the war zone.” He leaned back on his haunches. “And this obviously wasn't about the loot. They've still got their weapons and kit, what's left of it.” He stood up and walked out of the cabin. “Nope, this weren't no hold up. Whoever did this didn't want no witnesses and brought out the heavy artillery to get 'er done.”
“Ah, yes, well, then perhaps we should be on our way then,” Khalid said, glancing over his shoulder nervously.
“Not yet. I'm gonna go hunt around a bit, see if there's anything else we might help us avoid getting jumped by whoever did this.” Gorak began to walk toward the edge of the clearing. “Stay put and don't mess up anymore tracks then you already have.”
Rounding up the mounts, Khalid waited anxiously for Gorak. Half an hour later he appeared from the brush behind the hut.
“Ah, find anything?” Khalid asked.
“Not really,” Gorak admitted. “I'd say this whole thing went down a day or two ago. The woodsmen met up here, they all came in from different directions. The three inside the hut came up the road. Whoever did this came outta the bush to the west.”
“Ah, are you sure?”
Gorak gave Khalid a withering stare. “I know the difference between moccasins and iron shod boots.”
“So where'd they go?” Azarek asked.
“Dunno.” Gorak grunted, clearly annoyed. “They did a pretty good job covering up. I'm guessing they stuck to the road a while where they won't leave any tracks, then turned into the woods. They're skilled enough that I'd having the scour every inch of the tree line or risk riding right past. That is if they didn't head south and I already missed it.”
“Then we're done here,” Shayla remarked, grabbing her saddle horn and throwing a leg over the back of her. “And the sooner we're away from this place, the better.”
“Ah, yes, quite,” Khalid agreed.
The sense of dread Khalid had finally managed to shake returned with a heretofore unknown zeal. He saw the shadow of an enemy behind every tree and the rustle of branches in the wind sent him reaching for his spell components. Finally, when he though he could stand it no longer, the forest parted in front of them, stretching out into a broad meadow. The road continued on, leading them past rows of tilled earth to the small hamlet that had been marked on their map. In a distant field, a lone figure stood up to watch their passage. As they rode past, Khalid offered the man a hesitant wave but he didn't return the greeting. With a frown, Khalid nudged his mount onward.
Smoke from hearth fires curled lazily into the clear blue sky from the roofs of low wood houses. Here and there, between the buildings, they could see villagers going about their business. The road seemed to pass through the center of the town and since there were no walls or gates, they walked into the village unchallenged. Ahead, a young child darted out of a side street, chasing after a wooden ball. Surprised, the girl stopped running and stared at them. A middle aged woman hurried out after her, clucking her tongue disapprovingly until she noticed the strangers. Before they could even offer a greeting, the woman had scooped up the child and vanished into a building, closing the door behind her with a bang.
“Ah, well, yes, not the friendliest bunch, are they?” Khalid commented. “What should we do?”
“Can't really blame 'em. If there's an inn or a store in this place, you gotta figure it's on the main road,” Gorak replied with a shrug. “Keep an eye out for a sign.”
They continued on for a while, passing a few old men sitting on worn wooden chairs under the shade of a porch. As they approached, the men stopped talking and watched them pass in silence. This time, Khalid didn't even offer a greeting. After they passed, one of the men spat on the road behind them.
“I gots to say,” Azarek rasped, “travelling with you lot really takes the pressure off.”
“I don't think we're exactly winning them over.” Shayla muttered, a hard edge in her voice. The attitudes of the villagers were clearing irritating her.
“Yeah, well, fer a change it ain't me they're all bunched up over,” Azarek replied with a laugh.
“What do you mean?” Shayla asked. “They done everything but throw rotten fruit on you.”
“He's right,” Gorak growled, glancing over his shoulder at the young men that had stepped out of a house behind them, and were trailing along, acting casual but looking anything but. “It's me they got a problem with.”
“How do you know?” Shayla asked, scowling at the two men following them.
Before Gorak could answer, a door ahead flew open and two young boys tumbled out, tangled up in a furious wrestling match. Arms and legs flailing, they rolled on the ground, both struggling to gain an advantage until the larger boy flipped smaller one over and pinned him down, almost at Gorak's feet. He raised his fist to give the helpless boy a good whallup when he looked up and saw Gorak staring down at him and froze. The boy on the ground seized the momentary lull to push him over and jumped to his feet. He was about to capitalize on his good fortune when he too realized they had an audience.
“Orc!” he shrieked and took off running up the street, followed only a step behind by the other boy.
“Bet we get us a proper welcome now,” Azarek rasped, pulling his shield off his back and resting his hand on the haft of his war hammer.
“Easy,” Gorak grumbled. “Let's not give 'em any excuse.”
Minutes later, they were intercepted by three stern looking, heavily armed, men. With a sinking feeling, Khalid realized that there was little chance of it being a pleasant conversation. The men were all dressed in a similar fashion to the four bodies outside the hut in the forest. Their leather armor was well worn but expertly maintained and all three had a bow on their back. The one in front looked to be in his late fifties, judging from the lines on his face and grey in his hair, with a physique that would have been the envy of a man half his age. The man on his right looked to be about the same age, with a full grey beard and heavy brow, while the woodsman on the left was a fair bit younger.
“What do you want?” the older man demanded.
“Ah, a chance to obtain fresh supplies and perhaps a warm bed,” Khalid replied.
“We don't have anything to spare,” the man said. Looking past Khalid, at Gorak, he added. “You're not welcome here.”
“Ah, yes, of course, well then we will be on our way,” Khalid said. “But have spent many weeks travelling through the Southlands. We have news that may be of interest to you.”
The older man looked as though he was going to refuse, when the younger man put his hand on his arm and spoke. “We haven't had any word from the south in almost a month. We should at least hear what they have to say.”
Glaring at each one of them in turn, the old woodsman finally relented. “Fine. But they're your responsibility, Geoff. And I want them gone tomorrow, before the sun peaks.” With a jerk of his head, he indicated the other man should follow him as he left, leaving them standing in the middle of the street with Geoff.
Suddenly aware that about a dozen villagers were now staring at them, from windows and doorways, Khalid broke the uncomfortable silence. “Ah, yes, well, while we have nothing to hide, the tidings we bear are grim, and are perhaps best discussed in private.”
“Of course. There's nothing you'd call an a proper inn here in town, at least not anymore, but I can find a place for you. I'm afraid you're going to have to endure my company for the evening. The situation here is...tense, these days, as I'm sure you can appreciate.” Khalid, speaking Eastern, made the introductions as they walked. “You'll have to forgive Erik,” Geoff said as he directed them into a one room cabin just a little past the centre of town. “Responsibility weighs heavy on him. It's been a difficult time.”
“You don't know the half of it,” Gorak grunted when Khalid translated. Pulling Sousee out of her basket, he laid her down on the floor.
“Tell me.” Geoff replied in passable Western.
“Caer Morag has fallen. 'Bout three weeks ago. The Hub was still holding, when we rode through, but they hadn't faced anything 'cept the forward skirmishers. The land bridge to the eastern kingdom is blocked, with Dwerro dug into the hills on the coast. That's about the farthest north we seen 'em so far. There's a village east a few days that hasn't seen any sign of Dwerro. And the way stop south on the road was hit, but can't say exactly whut done it.”
Geoff's expression, already grim, hardened even more. “What do you mean hit?”
Khalid replied before Gorak had a chance, trying to come up with a way to soften what he knew would be difficult news, and mostly failing. “Ah, yes, well, when we passed by, there were several bodies outside, and a few more inside. The four outside, ah, well, yes, I suspect they were from your village. They were dressed like woodsmen. Those inside appeared to be fleeing, yes, fleeing the war. Whatever did it was powerful, yes, powerful, and fast. I don't believe they had the opportunity to fight back before the magic overwhelmed them.”
“What kind of magic?”
“Ah, nothing any of us has encountered before. It was as though all of the water was pulled from the air. All of the plants in the area were dead, and the building heavily damaged.”
“I need to talk to Erik, right now. Don't go wandering about until I get back.”
“That an order?” Gorak grunted.
“Call it a suggestion made in everybody's best interests. The last thing we need right now is an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“Fine,” Gorak grunted. “But don't take all day.”
They didn't bother to unpack their gear after Geoff left, sensing that their stay in the village was likely to be short. Although not overly concerned for their safety, Khalid was discouraged by their reception in the village. The months of constant trekking through dangerous territory was beginning to weight heavily on him, made worse by the knowledge that many more weeks of arduous travel lay ahead. They passed the time quietly lost in their own musings, until Geoff returned bearing the same troubled expression.
“So,” Gorak grunted. “You wanna tell us whut's going on 'round here?”
Pulling back an empty chair from the table, Geoff sat down heavily, rubbing his brow with a thick, calloused hand. “Much of what you've told us, we had already deduced for ourselves. The Dwerro advance was rapid and precise. Word of the fall of Drak'nor had barely reached us before the South road was cut off. Some refugees made it through, but not many. From them, we learnt of the siege of Caer Morag. To those that made it, we offered what aid we could but ours is not a large village. The forest provides for us, but it is not without its perils and we are not its only residents. Several tribes of Orcs call the woods home. For the most part, they have kept to themselves, past encounters having shown them the folly of harassing us.”
He sighed and took a pull from his water skin before continuing. “After the patrols from the South stopped, they became more bold. We did what we could to discourage them, but they began to push further into our hunting grounds, even going so far as to attack refugees upon the road.”
“Well,” Gorak rumbled. “We ain't got nothing to do with that.”
“Trust me, I know the difference between the forest and desert tribes,” Geoff replied. “But others are not so forgiving, especially in light of recent events. From what our scouts have been able to determine, a new leader moves among the Orcs, rallying them to his cause. Enmity between the forest clans has always given us an advantage but this new warlord...” he trailed off. Shaking his head, as though to deny the unpleasant reality, he continued. “Not only has he welded the forest orcs together under his rule, now tribes from the plains are filtering in. One of my men even caught sight of the markings of one of the hill tribes. Those lot haven't united under a single ruler in a hundred years.” He paused, shifting his gaze to stare out the open window. “Folks around here are cut from tough stock but without Caer Morag to support us, we're going to be hard pressed.” Geoff pushed his chair out and stood up. “I wish we could offer you more, but there's little enough to spare these days. Now, if you'll forgive me, I need to organize a search party.”
“For who?” Shayla asked.
“We sent out seven trackers to keep tabs on the orcs last week. Two return and you found four of them dead at the way stop. There's still one unaccounted for, and he's overdue.”
Gorak, an uncharacteristically pensive look on his face, spoke. “It might be that I can help you out wit that, witout you having to risk any more of your men.”
“Forgive me for being blunt, but what do you want in return.”
“Look, take it or leave it pal, makes no difference to me. I just thought maybe you're a little short on friends these days and could use a hand.”
“You've got that right,” Geoff said, having the good graces to look chagrined. “These days, it seems like the whole world is out to get us. If you want to help, they're gonna strike out tomorrow.”
“Works for me. Meet me tomorrow morning, just before daybreak. Bring me something that belonged to that fella, and point me in the direction of some fresh water. Pool'd be best.”
Geoff nodded and stood up. “Tomorrow then. I'm going to have to ask you to stay here for the night. Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm going to have to post somebody outside the door.”
“You're putting us under guard?” Shayla asked, a hint of irritation in her voice.
“It's as much for your safety as it is ours. If you need anything, just ask him, his name is Hekter.”
After he left, Khalid turned to Gorak. “Ah, what did you have in mind?”
“I told you before, everything is connected. If this lads boots touch earth, or even if'n he's buried under it, I kin find him. Won't take too long, and we can be on our way.”
They passed a quiet evening under the watchful eye of one of the rangers. He responded to their few requests politely, if somewhat impassively. They weren't provided any food, which wasn't unexpected given the circumstances, but they were given clean water and bedding for the four simple wooden cots in the room. Khalid, more then a little curious about what Gorak had planned, forced himself out of bed early. Gorak had just finished his morning commune when Geoff knocked on the door.
“So if you still want to help, now's the time. The scouting party is going to set out in the next hour or so.”
“We're ready,” Gorak rumbled. “You got something that belonged to this fella?” When Geoff nodded, Gorak continued. “Good, then lead me to some fresh water and we'll see if we can't spare your boys a stroll.”
Geoff led them through the early morning gloom, across the fields and into the woods. Pockets of mist, sheltered from the weak sunlight beneath the trees, swirled and eddied around them. After about an hour, they were able to pick out the sound of a gurgling stream ahead. As they approached the banks, Geoff stopped and looked in both directions. Nodding to himself, he pointed. “There's a bend in the creek, up this way a bit.” Following him a few hundred yards further, they reached a small pool, where the bend in the stream created a swirling back flow.
“Ayup.” Gorak grunted. “This'll do.” He settled to his knees. “Alright. Give me something of his. Wouldn't hurt if you described him to me.”
Reaching into his pack, Geoff pulled out a wadded ball of cloth. “Hope this will work,” he said, handing Gorak a set of smallclothes.
“Well, it don't get much more personal than that.” Azarek laughed.
“He's out on a walk. His place was pretty empty.” Geoff explained, with a hint of a frown, as though the sound of his own voice rattled a bit. Turning to Gorak, he said. “He's about my height, brown hair, brown eyes, hair past his shoulders. Scar on his right cheek. He'll be dressed like me, sporting two short blades and a long bow, green fletching on the arrows.” He added a few more details, while Gorak finished his preparations.
“Alright,” Gorak said finally. “Gather round, cuz if this works, it ain't gonna last long.” He began to chant in his deep voice, his right hand clenched into a fist and holding the clothing in his left. At the culmination of this spell, he brought his hand down and broke the surface of the water. As he pulled his hand out, the water behind began to freeze, spreading out into disc about four feet wide. Slowly, images began to coalesce on the frozen surface. A youngish looking man, dressed as Geoff had described appeared in the center, leaned back against the base of a tree at the foot of a small hill.
“He's alive,” Geoff said, breathing a long sigh of relief.
“Ah, he's not alone.” Khalid said, catching a flicker of movement at near the edge of the ice. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked, furrowing his brow.
“Surely he can hear him.” Shayla muttered under her breath, as the Orc crept through the brush, sword in hand. The woodsman, oblivious to the danger, remained seated with his weapons sheathed. Khalid held his breath, awaiting the inevitable bloodshed.
The ranger suddenly realized he wasn't alone. He stood up and spun around, hands on the hilt of his swords. The Orc raised his blade, a wicked snarl on his lips. They stood there for an instant, then the ranger through back his head and laughed, offering out his hand to the Orc. The Orc, mirroring his grin clasped him by the forearm.
“Ilsadora save us,” Geoff exclaimed. “He's doomed us all.”