Chapter 38

Eventually, someone came to wake them up to prepare for the operation.  They were fed a warm meal before they departed and, under cover of dark, the four stealthily made their way to the giant stone walls.  The moonlight was sufficient for their travels.  It would be useless for any finer mechanical work of disarming traps, but that was what the lanterns they had were for.

“The gates look bashed open,” whispered Dhavak. “Possibly wrenched off their hinges, but I would need more light to determine that.”

The four walked slowly inside, watching for the slightest thing out of the ordinary.  The doors to the rooms just past the main gate looked to be ripped off their hinges.

“Ogres?” asked Ba-shar quietly.

“Maybe” replied Martell.

They continued across the courtyard and up a flight of stairs to the entrance of the main hall.  .  They were about to walk up when Oren motioned to stop. He pointed down to a tripwire across the ground.  He leaned down and looked across to see if he could view any more wires.  Seeing none, he motioned them to go over the wire and they continued to their goal.

Further down the path, Ba-shar put his foot down on one of the stones and felt it sink into the ground.  This caused him to stop dead in his tracks.  The trio looked around to see what may be triggered if he lifted his foot off.  A task near impossible in the dark.

“My suggestion is for us all to move away from him, he can roll back.  We have no idea where whatever is triggered will be released from,” commented Martell.

“I agree,” said Ba-shar.  He rolled back and they waited for something to happen.

They waited, holding still for a couple minutes before preparing to move on.  Perhaps it was not a trap or maybe it no longer functioned.  Either way, it was time to make their way to the doors.  Martell, having learned from the last time she was at one of the keeps scanned the courtyard for any statues.  She smiled to herself after seeing none.  Oren was busy examining the door.  He was looking for any type of seal over the entry.

“The two of you do this often?” asked Dhavak

“We were at Erridda when it was opened to free Lady Nattan.  Experience is just making for extra caution is all.  They set up all sorts of traps in these forts.  There may even be wards against creatures, keeping them in or out of this place.”  Oren replied.

“Thanks for the warning.” Dhavak retorted.

Oren found nothing amiss on the door or any seals in place.  He proceeded to push gently on the handle.  It gave way as the door swung inward with relative ease.  The room was dark and colder than outside.  Oren lit his lantern illuminating the room and giving them a better idea of their surroundings.

He saw glimpses of several wooden columns.  There were pristine tapestries along the walls with heraldic symbols he had never seen before on one of them.  Another depicted a story of some kind, but nothing he could make out.  The four made their way past the threshold looking up to see a ceiling that went up to the second floor.

The rest of the room was not as pristine as the tapestries.  There was furniture strewn about as if some fight may have occurred. There were tables turned on their side, some with burn marks others with arrows lodged in the side.  There were two doorways off the main room along with a spiral stairway going both up and down in the corner.

The doorway in one direction was missing the door while the other one was closed and still in good shape.  The group went over to the stairs and investigated for any indication of use.  Not to any surprise, there was no indication. Based on the last stronghold they had entered, Oren and Martell voted for investigating downward.

They made it single file down what was probably two floors based on how long the stairwell was.  The stairs opened up to a room half the size the one above.  They cast the lantern light around.  It revealed they were in a kitchen. There were several ovens and stoves down here with ventilation leading upward.  There was a door at the far end of the room, slightly ajar.  They searched the room and found a few old, sealed bottles of wine.  Oren, Ba-shar and Dhavak each took one and stored it in their bags for later.

They continued to be on the lookout for additional traps, still weary of the courtyard.  Oren took the lead to open the door while the other three stood back.  As he pulled the door open he saw a flicker of light down the hallway.  It was something moving away from them, best he could tell.  The hallway itself was wide enough for them to go down two across, maybe three if it were really needed. Shining a light down the wall, the area was definitely meant to be traversed by servants as the wall were rather bare except for a few places where a lantern or candle may have been placed.

The four of them continued on still in single file; along the way there were a few doors branching off.  Most of the doors were still closed and intact.  There were a couple that had been damaged and one or two that were left open.  Based on the open doors, these must have been stores for food and other goods in the keep.

As they proceeded down the hall, they started catching up to whoever had the light.  It sounded like two or three people ahead, whoever they were. They decided to close in on the group and at least see who they were pursuing.  Picking up the pace they got close enough to see three goblins walking down the hall with a torch.  They appeared to be checking doors, looking inside ones that opened up and passing on locked ones.

The goblins would look inside, mumble to each other and then close the door.  They were indifferent to the amount of the noise made and seemed to be bickering about something as they went along their business.   The four of them could easily have overtaken them as the goblins looked unarmed.  They held back trying to figure out what they were up to or if more were ahead.  Based on the lighting there was no indication of others ahead.

They continued on like this for another little bit before one of the goblins turned back and saw them.  He shouted something and the three turned to run.  Dhavak, quick on his crossbow took a shot at one.  The bolt flew well and hit the goblin in the leg, bringing it to the ground.  He tried to reload to get another off, but by then they had turned a corner out of sight. He released the second shot, finishing off the one he had grounded.

The party went over to the goblin’s corpse to look for anything useful.  A quick search found nothing, unfortunately.  They looked in the room they had left open.  Inside was a giant egg, about the size of a goblin.  It rested on a bed of straw or hay and other fibers.  Martell put her ear up to the side of it.  She could hear something inside, moving around.

“We will need to report this back.  After we take care of Casapan, we should clean these creatures out of here. The last thing the Vales need is several of these.” She said calmly.  “My guess is it is a wyvern, but who knows.”

“Why not take care of this one now?” asked Ba-shar.

“Time,” replied Oren. “Unless you know how long it would take to kill it.  I have no idea how aware and able bodied these things are when they are broken out.”

“Alright, but if we have to fight it before leaving here, I am holding you accountable to the decision.”  Ba-shar grinned.

They pulled the goblin body into the room and closed the door. The four proceeded down the hall, a little less concerned about quiet since some goblins knew they were here.  The hallway started to widen as they went further along.  They realized the walls were less brick and more stone, perhaps an indication they were going back into the mountain itself.

They got to a point where they started to see a light up ahead.   The way it acted led them to think it was mounted in place.  As they moved slightly closer they could hear voices, it was nothing any of them could make out.  It was here that Martell ordered the group to halt.

“Let’s go back up.  I think we have enough reconnaissance to return to the commanders with.” She said.

“That sounds like a wise plan.”  Dhavak said.  “I have no plan of going up four of us against who know how many goblins and possibly wyverns.”

The four turned and high tailed it out of the area.  They made quicker progress, not checking the rooms along the way back.  Oren and Ba-shar took turns glancing back to make sure they were not being pursued at the moment.  When they got to the stairwell, the adrenaline started to wear off.  The group took a moment to catch their breath before going to climb stairs.  Ba-shar would take the lead and Martell would cover the rear with Oren next to her for support if needed.

Chapter 37

As they headed into the clouds, Oren and Martell lost sight of Tabia and the several rows of people in front.  They could make out about five rows ahead of them and that was it.

The troop proceeded for hours in this manner.  Oren and Martel could see the nearby landscape change with different rocks and plants.  The air quality seemed to change with their ascent, as some took time at the side to catch their breath, others moved forward to take their place.  They would eventually fall in line when they were ready to move on.  At some point, they broke to eat lunch.  It was a tasty mix of dried meat and stale bread.  Word was they were three quarters of the way through the clouds.

As far as Oren was concerned, they could have gone around in circles all morning and he would not have noticed. The sentiment was not only his as others had started voicing concern about the endless march without much other than tired feet to show for it.  As a whole, they were willing to put up with it for the day; the issue was they were used to at least a slight change of scenery after this long of a march.

The afternoon entailed more of the same, a gloomy trudge across rocky ground. The talk was kept to a minimum as there was not much to say among Oren and Martell or really any of the company.  Oren was not certain as to how much time passed before word came down the line that the front of the column had broken past the cover.  The light started to filter in past the cloud wall as Oren got closer to the edge.  The cool, clear air was a welcome change from the dense clouds and heavy, moist air.

Oren and Martell could see Wind Gait; it lay about half a day on from where they were.  It would no longer be climbing upward, but now across the ridge of the mountains over to it. They looked back into the clouds and saw only the dense wall that they had seen for hours before.  The rest of the party was forming up into squads for the next part of the approach.  Nobody could have suspected what happened next.

There was a screech from further down the cloud bank as a large reptile sprang forth.  The creature snapped at the priest with the robe bearing a castle and two flames, rearing its head back with his motionless body in its jaw.  It landed on the ground while fumbling with the body.  The priest was tossed out of its mouth across the ground, his clothes now blood soaked.

The creature shrieked again before rearing up on its back legs, clawing at the nearby infantry that had mustered up courage to attack.  A flurry of arrows flew, most bouncing off the wyvern’s scales, with a few lucky shots penetrating.  There was panic and anger flowing through the crowd.  Martell picked up on the lack of leadership, and grabbed those close to her.

“Stand your ground!” she shouted. “Archers fire another volley.”

Some of the men looked to her and saw her preparedness to fight and followed her cue.  Others still in panic retreated for cover.

Oren heard another voice wring out, “You heard her, let’s get back in formation and attack.”  He looked several yards away to see Ba-shar building on her rallying cry.  “Vocknuera, he has insulted us and our allies.  We shall not stand for this.”

Martell and Ba-shar lead a charge of those that stuck with them to attack the wyvern.  Oren looked over to the archers to see that Dhavak was with those firing yet another volley of arrows at the creature.  It winced in pain as arrows found their way into its scaly hide.  Oren followed behind the back of the group charging the wyvern.  He felt his odds were better in the group then being a lone person right now.

The knights made it over to the wyvern and as Martell expected, most blows were not strong enough to pierce the beast’s skin.  Whether it was the strength behind the hit or the weapon itself, she could not say.  She ran to the front of the group, certain her blades would make quick work of the wyvern.  The creature raised its wing claw to swipe at Martell and all went black for a moment.  When she could see again, the beast was stumbling back as if it had just hit a stone wall.

Martell took this moment to plunge her short sword up beneath where the wing attached to the body.  The wyvern howled in pain with the hit.  Meanwhile, several of the men had broken out ropes to throw over the beast and restrain it from thrashing around anymore.   It was mere minutes later they gained control of the situation and the wyvern was dead.

Oren looked around to see that a few of the knights had gone over to the priest and were trying to save him.  From what he caught, they were unable to do anything to counter the damage from the mauling he had just received.  They feared he would be dead before nightfall.

Oren went over to the carcass of the wyvern.  He poked around at it with the staff a little, still uncertain that it was dead.  He was slightly annoyed that it got blood on the end of his staff, but he continued to look at the beast not worrying about that for now.   Oren, like most people had never seen one before and felt both with fascination of its existence and fear that others may be lurking in the peaks.  He was not the only one curious about the beast; others came over to have a look at the carcass as well.

“Impressive creature,” Martell said walking over to him. “They will take that body back when we finish our campaign.”

“What for?”

“The scales mostly.  Its hide is tougher than many things; you saw the arrows bounce off of it.  But then, there are some who will want to study it, learn what they can.  One of the orders will want to study it to learn its weaknesses.”

“I see.  I thought they might use some of it for making talismans.”

“They might…Never thought I would be up against one of these.  Really happy we had an army here to take it down.  I would not have stood a chance alone.”  Martell paused in thought, “So is that darkness what you experience when you shield yourself?”

“Yes, disorientating at times since you don’t see what is going on, but preferable to the alternative.  You would have taken a claw to the face.”

“I missed it until it was too late.  So unwieldy, I prefer something my size that I can track in entirety.”

“Martell, Tabia wants to see you.”  One of the knights said walking over to the two of them.  “You as well Oren.”

“What about?” asked Oren.  “She has been keeping us out of discussions till now.”

“She did not say.  All I was told was to find the two of you and have you report back to her.”  The knight hesitated for a moment, collecting her thoughts and then spoke, “Also, thanks for rallying us Martell.  That beast caught us all by surprise, and could have done more damage if panic had settled in. Some of the men you have fought with said you were with Tethinger in the past.  After hearing of the order’s betrayal, many had concern as to what to expect from you.”

“I am curious as to why the priests or the commanders of the orders are not more organized and let that assault happen.”

“Well, the priests were leading from the front and the commanders were at the rear of the column,” she explained. “I do not know their logic for any of this.  Clearly, if I am out running errands for them, they don’t feel the need to consult strategy with me.”

“Indeed, you are to follow commands like a good little knight,” Oren jabbed.

“You, master Oren, we do not know what to think of you.  Originally, we were told you were here from a merchant house.  Though you are not like any merchant we have ever met and you have talismans that perform in ways that even my superiors can’t recall seeing before.  I would watch your belongings, though we strive for higher morals here, we have not yet all achieved them.”

“Why thank you for the information.  I will make sure I heed your advice.”

They arrived at the tent where Tabia was.  While they had been musing over the corpse of the wyvern, the army had been doing a decent job of setting up a camp and perimeter for the evening.  The knight bowed to them and pulled back the flap for them to enter.  After they walked in, she closed it and stood guard outside.

Inside the tent was a board on the ground with a few papers laid out.  They recognized a crude map which had been drawn up with the surroundings and the stronghold.  Inside the tent were the three commanders of the orders, along with the two priests and both Ba-shar and Dhavak.  It took Oren a moment to see that the third priest lay over in the corner; he looked pale, but was very alert.

“Good, Alana found you quickly.  That means we can get started sooner.  She’s a good knight, though she does occasionally dawdle.”  Tabia spoke.  “Let me do some introductions.  Oren and Martell these are the leaders of the orders.  Knight Commander Aarika of the Vocknuera Order under priest Gera the Silent of Dahl, Knight Commander Kala of Edostera Order harbinger of Latl’s return, and finally we have Knight Commander Attilio of Kaddock Order under priest Obadele of Casapaten.”

“A pleasure to meet you all,” Martell responded.  “How can we be of service to you?”

“We would like the two of you along with Ba-Shar and Dhavak to sneak close to Wind Gait and confirm we can enter.” Tabia spoke calmly.  “We had a couple scouts report back the gates to the stronghold are open and there is no sign of anyone present.”

“This sounds like you are sacrificing us to trigger a trap,” Oren shot back.

“On the contrary, you should be able to keep safe the small group and the other three have proven their prowess in the field above all others.”

“So you think they are gone or do they just not care about us?” Dhavak asked.

“We are uncertain about that,” Kala spoke.  “However sitting out here night and day guessing what may come will get us nowhere.  I also suspect the longer we linger here the more likely another wyvern will assault the camp.”

“Agreed,” Aarika consented.  She continued, “The one out there is only a juvenile, likely that he has family that will eventually come looking for him.”

“So, is this a morning operation or are we to nap and head in under cover of night? Ba-shar asked.

“This will happen tonight.  You will rest once you leave the tent and after the moon rises you will be sent over to check out the fortress.”  Attilio commented. “We wish you best of luck in the infiltration.”

The four took this as a single that it was time for them to leave the tent.  It was not the most diplomatic of goodbyes in Oren’s opinion.  But it did prevent any of them a chance to decline participation.  They wandered back to their tents for a vain attempt at rest.  Oren and Martell were starting to get weary of Tabia; this was not the calm, rational priestess that had met them initially outside Abbysta.  She had changed and was showing less signs of her initial self.  Martell was worried that someday a similar fate might befall her sister.  Oren reassured her that all would be well, but it was little comfort to either knowing that they had no way to control this if it truly was the goddess’s influence.

Oren lay staring up at the roof of the tent unable to sleep.  Martell had passed out a while ago.  In a short while he would be putting his life at risk and for what he wondered?  Would he have been better off having ran like Martell had suggested when there was still time?  How would he deal with Lady Nattan of Casapan if they were really inside the stronghold?  Regardless of them being present, what traps still lay in Wind Gait?  He had learned a few things on disarming traps since his first venture into one of these places, but he was uncertain if his skills would be enough.

The time passed slowly for him in the quiet of the tent.  He could see that the sun was setting from the changing tones of the tent’s tan fabric.  He knew this would be a long night and sleep was not going to come in time.  He figured the other two, being used to this lifestyle had probably also gotten some sleep.

Mockingbird

Mockingbird sing me your song
Listening to the wind sing along
The trees’ leaves sing as they sway
Their song is the same every day
Mockingbird you change your voice
With each song expressed with choice

Mockingbird sing me your song
Of where you have been, in voice strong
Tell me of dawn horizon sight
Lyrics of great lune lit flight
Ballads’ of hunters spurned
And tales of lessons learned

Mockingbird end here your sing
Ready for flight, spreading wing
Go forth and spread your cheer
Bounding from rooftop far and near
Other birds may chirp a tune
But mockingbird come back soon

Acceptance

I accepted many things early on
Acknowledged temporarily things were gone
This would go on longer than told
From each who agenda sold
But then I was told I needed to change
Not anxious or scared was strange
This was not the way I dealt
For this contrary to what I felt
Yet at times I mimicked the word
Though to me it seemed absurd
The pause caused many to think and vex
Were winds changing where it directs
I watched on screen the reaction
Some rebelled without traction
Others stressed and bellowed
As time went some mellowed
Thoughts and theories still abound
While other lives ran aground
I will never know what this changed
Could have been without paths exchanged
I accepted many things in the end
With the curtain long till it descend

Processing

I spend time setting up life for stability
While it is a forever changing probability
Each morning comfort is my routine
Like a thief mocking and obscene
I find plans now disheveled
And ambitions to so leveled
Yet never will this all last
Learn my lessons from past
Though not the end it is an end
My choices are to break or bend
Learn to go forward a new way
Or else in wreckage here I can stay
Blindness to the evolution of life
Forever stuck reliving in strife

New Day Dawning

And a new day dawn
The lines have been redrawn
Rules have again changed
What in my life is rearranged
Some family is close by today
The rest is kept away

And a new day dawn
The lines have been redrawn
Distance crossed safely for me
Fortunate my life still be
Stress and anxiety do hide
Closely on both side

And a new day dawn
The lines have been redrawn
Stories of hardship and need
As I isolate in my greed
Time is what it all takes
More are less content with the stakes

And a new day dawn
The lines have been redrawn
Make no changes to our lives
Spoken while sharpening knives
People tire of this game
Where can we place blame

And a new day tomorrow dawn
What lines have been redrawn
Looking to the past
An end to excitements fast
The highway rut is calling
Are you ready to give up lolling
Or is that a change of mind
Something inside did you find

Searching in Isolation

Searching for a word
I cannot talk of the absurd
Looking for hope in snippets
And all I am finding are crickets
Is it my job to be upbeat and stable
Uplift those around me when able
When my foundations are weak
And feel my strength begin to squeak
I do not demand others to uphold
I lack courage to be so bold
Instead I am left shore up my own bed
Shaking the rot from my own head
Looking for the light of a new day
Listening to the gentle winds sway
I miss all that was familiar in life
The way it was cut without knife
Lends sight to holes we filled
With everything that was billed
Patch them now with new growth
Fill them not with new loath

Chapter 36

The trio had made fast progress up the hill with the nine other scouts. Since the number of pathways was limited, the groups had staggered their departure so as to not go up all at one time as a group of twelve.  Oren’s group went up in third place with one more scout group following behind.  The path was not well marked; the lead group was leaving signs of directions taken.  The difficulty in progressing lead them to rotating off with the other team as to who was in the lead.  Oren’s group periodically caught up with whoever was second and listened to their reconnaissance of paths not to take or dead ends into rock.

It was noon when they all met up again.  The path branched off in two directions for quite some distance.  It was here that they split with five people each pursuing a path and two of the other scouts staying behind in case the main body caught up before the correct path could be discerned.  Oren’s group was joined by two other knights to proceed up one path.  After a while up the path, Martell halted the group’s progress.

There was a trip wire across the pathway.  Following the mechanics Martell found it connected to a release that would have triggered a rock slide.  Based on the construction and condition of the materials, she figured it a relative recent creation.  Clearly, someone was trying to dissuade visitors.  She and Ba-shar proceeded to disassemble the trap while the others stayed on the lookout.

The group advanced slowly for the next several hours disarming traps along the way.  One of the other knights was sent back to check on progress of the other team and if they had any clarity as to which path was correct.  It would be a while till they heard back.

The quartet managed their way up the mountain with a few close calls to falling in obscured pits or almost stepping on a trigger for some other misfortune.  The further they made it the more Martell thought this the work of goblins.  The traps were well hidden and placed tactically, but the simplicity of their mechanical workings and the poor quality of the materials implied their constructors.

It was while disarming a trap along the path that the group was taken by surprise.  From above came several arrows from an obscured position.  They hit the rocks around the group, briefly causing small fires to break out as the arrows shattered on impact.  The liquid splashed just missing all four of them.  The two split up with Ba-shar and Oren taking cover behind one set of rocks and Martell and the other knight behind another set of rocks.  They could hear the shouts of what was assumed to be anger coming from the goblins.  Another volley of arrows was released, with some hitting the rocks they used for cover while others landed just past the group.

Ba-shar looked over at Oren, “You ever fight goblins?  This is them at their best.  If you stand up they will hit you and once they hit you, you are going to hurt.”

“No, never had the privilege and I had really hoped to avoid it.  Any advice on what to do?”

“Stay down, wait till they run out of arrows?  They are closer to the trap,” he pointed over at Martell, “If they can get ahold of the bows she might be able to fire back.  Otherwise, the other one has a crossbow on him, but I don’t think that verse all of the goblins will help too much.”

“Should we retreat?” Oren asked

“No, they would strike us down.  Not enough cover from the outcrops.”

Oren looked over to Martell; several fires had started already between the two of them where arrows had hit the ground.  The smoke was not too thick as the goblins seemed to be basing their volley on how much was in the air or if they thought they had a good line of sight on them.

“Ba-shar, how do you feel about enchantments and things of that nature?”

“Anything to give us an edge is fine by me.  Do you have something to get us out of here?”

“Nothing of that nature.  I am going to do something that will make me disappear. When you next see me I will either be further up the slope or behind the goblins.  That should be the disruption you need to move.”

“Nice trick if you can pull it off.  I hope you get behind them and not in front.  If it backfires, then sorry to see you go.”

Oren focused on finding a spirit to transport him.  He found several in the area but not many were willing to do his bidding.  That was okay for his purposes, he would be using several more later to shield him once he moved near the goblins and they would bend to that request.

Ba-shar and Martell watched as Oren slowly faded transparent and then gone.  Martell had to reassure the other knight that all was well and there was no need to panic.  It seemed like a blink of an eye to the three but an eternity to Oren as he guided the spirit to where he wished to end up.  The longer he found himself traveling the more fatigued he felt for focus on his end goal.  The spirit’s will fought back arguing that Oren should either return to his existence or lose itself in the spirit realm.

Oren arrived unnoticed behind a group of goblins.  Before they could react, he swung his staff twice knocking one of them to the ground and stunning another with the blow to its head.  He then proceeded to parry a blow from a third one that had been quick to react with an attempted stab at him.  He then started calling for a spirit to shield himself as he sensed a series of arrows would soon be upon him.

Martell and the other two saw the disruption happen and proceeded to charge up the slope in the confusion that followed.  They dodged the few arrows that flew down at them from a group of goblins that had managed to maintain focus.  The knight with the crossbow, Dhavak, proceeded to shoot and take out one of the archers and give the others with him pause as to which threat they should be facing.

Martell and Ba-shar proceeded to rush to where Oren was, causing panic in the goblin ranks. Some choose to retreat while a handful stayed for the melee.  The fight was over in minutes with only small cuts and bruises being suffered by the four.

They regrouped under cover of an outcrop of rocks.  “It is only a matter of time before they get over their panic. I am going to collect a few of their arrows, see if I can do something to use them,” said Dhavak.

“Okay,” Said Martell, “I say we wait for word to get back to us on if we need to proceed up this path further.  I do not want to risk my life killing goblins when all they are doing is protecting their home.”

“We should still do something about them,” Ba-shar spoke up.

“Not now,” replied Oren.  “This is not a trade route and if we are to take on a keep, we will need all the manpower we can get.  This would be a wasted effort for now.”

They had cleared the path of the bodies and another trap before word got back to them.  This was the proper path for them to be trudging up.  The other route went to a small cabin, possibly some hunter or trapper’s summer residence. The other scouting groups would be over shortly, so for now the group of now six moved on with Dhavak and his two companions taking the lead.

It was evening when they started getting to the clouds that hovered around the mountain.  The order was to find a suitable place below the cloud line for a camp to be setup.  The twelve scouts would be first fed and free of all evening duties for their service.  The view from the mountain side was stunning; had Oren and Martell been on their own, they may have taken a day just looking out over the vales and beyond.

Rowenn was keen to hear about the day’s events.  She relayed that word in camp was that Oren was in possession of a powerful talisman capable of teleporting.  He felt no need to correct it, as he did not want to deal with explaining the truth of his power.  Rowenn was thankful her sister had made it through the ordeal with the goblins and then made certain Oren knew he was to protect her should such things happen again.

The two of them settled in early, as the day had been physically and mentally exhausting to them both.  For the evening, the guard was doubled and watch periods staggered in fear the goblins may sneak down and attack. The cold howling of the winds reminded Oren of someone singing him to sleep as he relaxed curled up with Martell.

The following morning it was decided that Tabia would lead for the first half of the day up through the clouds.  The company would follow by twos; Oren and Martell were near the front.  They were forward enough where they could still initially see Tabia and the four ahead of her.  The plan was that midway through the ascent the priests would rotate as to whom would guide the troop.  The leaders of the order would be left in the rear to make sure no one was left lost in the fog.  Rowenn and the camp were to be left here along with a score of guards.

Chapter 35

Oren woke up in the tent where he had gone to sleep.  He heard the sound of a fire going outside his tent.  Martell was asleep beside him.  He reached over to his belongings; the talisman was still there in one piece.

“Where did you get that?” Rowenn asked.  She had just come back in to the tent and saw the talisman in Oren’s hand.

“It was on the Tethinger Captain.”

“That is a key to something.  The key to the Varelle temple that Tabia has is similar to that.”

“So you are saying it would open up a temple door somewhere?”  Martell spoke up stirred from her slumber by the conversation.

“It might, but it may open a door to some other ancient structure.  Might open something at Wind Gait or the place itself.” Rowenn spoke. “May I see it?”

Oren handed it over to her.  “Lady Nattan wants it, so it had best be kept safe.  She tried to take it.”

Rowenn looked confused, “But there was no one outside or inside here when I came in.”

“Dreams, she has some way of traversing them to contact people and retrieve items.  I think it would be why they have not found any correspondence or messengers from Casapan or his operatives.  She probably delivers word directly to her agents and then they pass it on to lower rank and file.  The problem is we have no idea what type of loyalty he has.  He clearly has influence in the Tethinger Order and some of the former lords loyal to the Drémore family.”

“I think fighting alongside Tabia and the other priests makes sense,” said Martell.  “Though, I don’t know if Oren and I should both fight up front or if one of us should stay with you, Rowenn.”

“I think you should be together.  One of you does not need to babysit me while being nervous about the other’s fate.  Varelle will watch over me as she has done.  The Sienna Paladin has more to it then what we have seen.  I talked to Tabia about them.  They have a way of anticipating your needs and can do simple tasks like fetch items.  She was slightly envious for not having one but, you cannot chose or force them to favor a certain priestess.”

“It is agreed then, we will serve, best we can, the assault force on Wind Gait.  Oren and I will let them know later today.  For now, let us all get some rest; Oren you had best continue to hold on to that key.  You have done well to protect it so far.”

Oren got a few more hours of sleep, with no further visits from Lady Nattan.  The morning was peaceful on this side of the hill.  The day was going to be a bit warmer than the last and just as sunny.  It would be spent idling as they waited for the reaming forces to catch up with them.  The Dahl priest had decided that a prison was the fate for their prisoner.  Though, if he tried to do anything further to aid Casapan, death would be swiftly served.

Martell passed the time sparing with the Vocknuera Knights.  She was pleased with their skill level, though probably not the Vocknuera elite, they would be above your average footman.  She also did some training with Oren to improve his fighting with a staff.  Though not as familiar with his weapon as her own, she could fight in a variety of ways that would encourage him to think about how to best defend and parry attacks.  Martell knew the truth was he was never going to reach her level of combat skills.  Then again, direct combat was not his largest asset.

Oren talked to the spirits residing in his staff.  Eager as they were for combat and the taste of blood, he learned that the thrill of near death, like in the dream last night, also sated their desires.  They were capable of aiding in blocking the attacks Nattan did in this reality much like the dream.  This came with the caution that the spells used here, not in the dream world, would be stronger in effect, so how much they negated would be different.  In other words, if he could dodge out of the way it was still the better choice.  Interestingly, if they did block the attack, they were quite certain they could figure out a way to repel it back at the original caster.  This would take some practice for them to figure out, so again, best not to rely on this as a default defense.

Rowenn spent the time talking with Tabia.  Oren and Martell were uncertain what they discussed.  The assumption by the two was it included something relating to the priesthood.  The Dahl priest sat with them, occasionally penning something and showing it to them.

Everyone at the camp took a turn through the day looking out for the remaining army and keeping watch for any possible return by goblins to the area.  Oren took the last watch; he was scanning the mountain and hills in the direction of Wind Gait.  He saw something flying in the distance.  At first he thought it a hawk or some other raptor.  But then, using the distance of the mountain peaks it flew around, he realized it had to be much larger.  He called over the rest of the group.

There was speculation at first was like Oren’s, that it was just be a large bird. Then it moved closer and, whatever it was, in relation to the ground was larger than anything they had ever encountered.  They all stood watching it fly for a bit, no one choosing to voice their thoughts.  But it was the same thought they each had, was it a wyvern and did Casapan have control over it.  Oren knew his own thoughts went beyond that. Could they already be at Wind Gait and occupying the fortress?  Was this a creature that they had control of back in the Drémore Kingdom?

The silent mulling was broken when Ba-shar called their attention to the approaching forces of the army they had been waiting for.  The priests would talk this over with the captains tonight and tomorrow they would move. The lapse of attention to it made the group lose sight of the flying creature.  This did not remove any shadow of concern they now had in assault.

Oren and Martell were kept out of the planning.  Their roll was seen as helping fill in for the lack of the Tethinger Order’s troops.  Rowenn was part of the planning as her role as a priestess gave her some authority in the campaign.  She tried to protest that Martell was better to have in the discussion, but ultimately lost the debate.

Oren and Martell spent the evening together outside the camp area.  It had been a long journey this far.   And how much longer they had to go was uncertain.  They were sitting on the hill side, looking out to where the flying beast had been.  Martell was resting up against Oren; he could tell she was relaxing by the increasing pressure against him.  This was the most relaxed he had seen her since they met.  She still had some of her armor on from earlier in the day, the cold of it brushed against his neck, waking him up.  A full moon rose on this clear night lighting up the hills and mountains, looking past the mess immediately below, Oren could see the clouds lingering around the tops of certain mountain.

“You know we could leave.  Just let the knights here do their job and go home.”  Martell mused with a relaxed tone.

“What about your sister?  Are we not here for her?  Also what should I do about Lady Nattan and her persistent assault in my dreams?”

“Rowenn already expressed to me that we have done more than enough for her.”

“That is a tempting path to take.  Leave the key here with Rowenn and be off, away from all this.  I could get used to spending my life with you, quietly not being the focus of anyone’s attention other than yours.”

“I had the same thoughts, but I know we will not leave.  Neither of us would rest easily not knowing what happened here.  And if the campaign failed we would be left knowing we may have changed the outcome.  Though once we help out Rowenn, I think I could rest easy with you by my side.”

Looking across the landscape and taking in the stars in the sky, Oren let the words sink in as he pulled her closer.  She reciprocated the sentiment and snuggled closer to him.  They sat for a while enjoying the quiet, cold evening.  Oren’s thoughts periodically drifted all over the place. One moment content with Martell in his arms and the next fearing what would happen in the next couple days.  He concluded from the fluctuations his goal was to get Martell through it alive.  He smiled to himself in his head at the thought; in reality, it would more likely be the reverse, as it has been in several encounters already.

It was some time later when the moon had scaled up the firmament that the voice of Rowenn calling to them broke the intimacy they had found.  She was to relay their orders to them, but she was not going to do it out here.  She ushered them back to the camp where some warmth was to be found for them.

They settled around one of the fires in the camp.  There were several other groups talking around the fire, each involved in their own conversation, but everyone present was really after one thing, some time away from the cold.

“I found out that there are five approaches to the Wind Gait. We will need to get closer to determine what methods we are going to use as we don’t know if they have even entered the keep.  There are a few old tunnels the priests know about if we need to get past the gates.  The concern we really have is what type of wards and enchantments are in place.  Based on what Tabia said about Erridda, I shudder at what they may have waiting for us.”

“I had been putting off dwelling on that…” Oren uttered halfheartedly.

“The two of you will be on one of the scout groups.  Since you are not part of one of the squads that train together regularly, they felt it would be better to use you to search ahead and dispatch any traps and relay information.  Oren, they are uncertain how good you will be in a fight so they want you to stick close to Martell at all times.  I was unable to give them any additional input on how to use your skills better.”

Oren took the tone of her voice as she left his ability unmentioned to anyone.  He was good with that. He did not want to have to deal with being called an enchanter or whatever they might designate him.

“I will be sheltered in the rear with the cook and a couple of blacksmiths.  Our orders are to retreat if we feel the need, but under no situation engage the enemy.”

“Sounds like we should have stayed in the back with you,” Martell joked.

“The other scout that will be with you is Ba-Shar, apparently we made a good impression with him and he wanted to team up with you.  You and three other groups of three will leave at day break with the rest of us moving on at mid-day.  You are to clear the path till you see the fog and report back anything that may hinder the company’s movement.”

Chapter 34

Oren was not keen on the underlying tensions he picked up in the small camp and was feeling ever more so the need to go dig around or root for something.  He had contented himself playing with some coins he had in a  pouch but the desire to do something more active had made itself known in the past couple minutes.

He walked over to the corpse and began rifling through the mess.  He was surprised by how indifferent to the blood he was.  It was as if his expected reaction had been shelved to be addressed later and another part of him may be contented hunting and foraging for a morsel of something…knowledge…treasure…no or yes maybe.  He pulled the captain’s backpack out from under his corpse.  He opened it to find clothes and assorted trail rations.  Oren dug deeper, past some changes of clothes, till he found a stack of paper.

He pulled out the papers and leafed through them.  The first couple were blank, the next was an incomplete letter addressed to a relative maybe.  He went down a couple more and found something from the Tethinger Order.  It started as a list of the people under the captain’s command.  That was followed by opinions of expected behavior in the field.  Buried in the expectations was a mention that they should not proceed past Elman’s pass.  The orders were signed Commander of Tethinger.  Oren browsed the remaining documents and found nothing of further interest.

Oren was still unsatisfied with his need to look around.  He continued to look for anything else of interest on the body.  It was in a belt pouch where he found something that caught his attention.  It was a ruby about the size of his thumbnail, housed in a gold fitting and the end of a clay rod.  All in, the rod was the size of a small fist.  The rod widened halfway down from the jewel, and then narrowed again.    Etched in the clay was the word “Amar”.  It was an odd trinket, nothing Oren had seen before.  He assumed it was a talisman of sorts, but uncertain as to its function or why the captain had not been using it.  The identifying markers for craftsmanship had been removed or worn down.

Oren came back over to the group and presented the papers to Tabia and Martell.  “This is what I found as far as orders.  Do you have any idea how far Elman’s pass is?”

“We would have reached that tomorrow,” replied Tabia.

“Do you know what lies beyond that point?”

“More mountains, but really, it would be another couple days past that till we would need the gods to direct us to the proper path or be lost going in circles.”

“Sounds like your goal was not achieved and they knew it was only a matter of time till you came for them.”

“I agree, so now we will wait and proceed up as an army.”

The party moved their camp back to the other side of the hill for the evening.  The sun settled for the day and there was much not said about the ordeal.  This was not something that any of the survivors were looking to brag about.  The one prisoner looked to be coming to terms with the fate that awaited him.  Tabia was not the same person Oren and Martell had traveled with earlier.  Rowenn felt uncertain as to if she should treat Tabia as an equal or superior.  For the first time, she looked to have some distress about her role as a priestess of Varelle.

Oren woke to find himself in a stone room.  There was a hallway off of it and, after a minute of thought, decided he may as well see where it leads.  He had no sense of if this was a building or a dungeon he was in.  There were no windows to the outer world so orientation aside from the stone room was all he could surmise.  It was not particularly damp or dry, cold or warm.  The more he dwelled on it the more he realized it may be not real. After all, he had just been in the mountains with people around him.  What made this time different was his staff was here, not a dreamed up version, but the actual staff.  When he touched it he could sense the spirits inside.

“O-ren, O-ren, I don’t think you are content with things.”

Oren could not place the voice he heard from down the hall but it knew him.  It was a young, female voice. He wandered down the hall, the voice getting louder as he moved.

“O-ren, you have something of mine.  This really needs to stop happening as I might make the mistake thinking you want to help me.”  The voice was a young lady, it was looked like Lady Nattan, but the voice was off. “O-ren, why do you not stay where I put you?  I locked you away for safe keeping and even left you a playmate.  Yet here you are chasing me and bringing me items.  I would not think you such an obedient mutt.”

“What are you going on about?”  Oren was uncertain about what any of this meant.  He saw a spark of lightning shoot off the tip of the staff when she got closer to him.

“Oh my, little O-ren, you should not play with sticks I do not have you fetch.  I may get hurt.”  She said in a mocking tone, the same patronizing one that someone might use with a pet dog they were playing with. “No, I want the fancy stick you have. Put the large one down please.”

Oren took a defensive stance, ready to parry any move she made on him. “I have nothing for you little lady. Nor am I your errant knight fetching you trinkets.  He is dead, and the more you toy with me the closer you get to his fate.”

“O-ren whatever did I do to you that hurt you so bad?  Clearly nothing that stopped you from having your freedom.”  She reached into a pouch and pulled out a sphere. “Here boy, fetch!”  She threw it at him before he heard her shout a familiar word.  The sphere burst into flame.

He heard one of the spirits in the staff reach out to him in his mind, “I can handle that.”  Oren moved the staff in front of him and as the staff and fire made contact the fire disappeared and a small wooden ball rolled across the floor to Oren.  She was no longer standing on the other side of the fireball.  He had missed her movement.

“And you learn new tricks too?  Oh, if I could only have had you play nice.  No matter, Uncle Casapan will delight in your company.  But now that I relieved you of my property I can go.”

Oren took her banter as initiative to rush to her, he slipped his staff between her legs and tripped her to the floor.  She rolled out of the way of a follow-through hit from his staff and got up.

“Oh, you do have fight in you.  And I see you got my trinket back.  I have asked nicely and you will not comply. Perhaps it is time I did something more…confrontational.”  Lady Nattan uttered a couple words with her palm pointed downward.  Oren felt himself sink into the ground, unable to pull away. “You are in my realm and if I do not like the outcome I can just change it.  This is easy work for me but I can tell you are running out of strength.”

As she said those words, Oren felt himself weaken.  A feeling of sleepiness started to come over him.

“Not to worry, I just need this one item.” She reached to take the talisman he had found on the captain.

He leaned his body making the item fall from him and hit the ground shattering the object to pieces.