They just like to talkEdit
It did not take long for the three men to prepare their mounts. Morgan filled Renna in on the morning's events as he strapped his packs to the horse she had selected for him. The stable hand gasped audibly several times while he described the encounter at Grodek's smithy.
"And you still don't know why they attacked you?" she asked quietly. She glanced over towards Zanadar and the old man. They were at the other end of the stables speaking in hushed tones.
From what Morgan could tell, the big man did not appear to be happy. Though he could not hear exactly what was being said, Zanadar was far from being the only one who was upset. Morgan let his gaze shift back to Renna. She had stopped crying, but was still visibly shaken. The ranger was angry. At whom precisely, he did not know, but angry nonetheless.
He was frustrated because he knew the big man was not being entirely upfront with him, he was mad because he had been attacked and did not know why, and he was furious that Renna could have been killed and he still did not know to what purpose.
"No, I don't have any idea," Morgan answered calmly. "Believe me, I'm just as eager as you to get out of the city and let the guards round them up."
"And you're sure they'll be able to do that?" Renna pushed.
"I have a feeling we left most of them tied up back at Grodek's," he smiled assuredly, "I'm sure the guard can persuade at least one of them to talk."
"I hope so," she replied softly. She glanced back at the stall, now closed, that Morgan had found her in, her dark, brown eyes betraying her worry.
"You were defending yourself, Renna," Morgan said, "You had no choice."
"I know," she said, her gaze still on the stall.
"Are you two about ready?" Zanadar said, as he walked over from the other side of the building. He appeared to have calmed down.
"Just about," Morgan answered. He turned to Renna, "Was there anything you wanted to bring?"
The stable hand shrugged. "I don't really have anything."
"There's nothing wrong with traveling light," stated Zanadar. "Let's get going then," he said as he started back towards his horse.
"Don't worry, I have plenty of gear," Morgan said to Renna as he climbed onto his steed, "we can share."
She smiled lightly. "Thanks."
"Which horse are you taking?"
Renna nodded her head towards Gray. "I might as well take him," she said, "Nobody else will ride him while I'm gone." She walked over to the cranky gelding and patted his head affectionately. "Besides," she said as she leapt up into the saddle, "He's a good horse, whether he wants to admit it or not."
The two guided their mounts from their stalls and slowly rode to the back of the stables where Zanadar and the old man were waiting for them.
Morgan gestured towards the stall where the attacker's body lay. "Shouldn't we... do something about that before we go?" he asked.
"Grodek has probably already contacted the guard," Zanadar answered, "They will undoubtedly be here before long, I'd just assume be long gone once they do arrive."
"Don't you think that looks a bit suspicious?" Renna said.
The big man shrugged. "We didn't do anything wrong, why care how it looks? We can explain when we get back, but for now we need to get moving."
Elandar raised his hand dramatically, nearly knocking the hat off his head. "The journey begins!" he declared.
Zanadar shook his head. "You better not do that the whole time."
"I will do whatever strikes my fancy," he said defiantly.
Renna gazed at Morgan with a questioning look.
"I'm assuming you get used to it," the ranger explained, he then shrugged and raised his eyebrows. "Still waiting, though."
The stable hand actually managed a bit of a laugh.
"Let's go," Zanadar said with a wry grin.
The stables were close to the west entrance to the city, and within a matter of moments, the four had reached the gate. The sun was only minutes away from peaking over the horizon, and already a steady stream of people were arriving and departing the city.
Several uniformed city guards briefly questioned each person to pass through the gates before waving them onward. Morgan knew that there were also a number of guards in plain workmen's clothing observing the area. Security was something taken very seriously in New Targonor. Should any sign of the undead that had claimed the southern half of Thestra ever reach the city, the entire army of Targonor would be called to duty and mobilized within a matter of days.
After a short wait in line, an imposing looking guard waved the group to the gate.
"What is your purpose for leaving the city?" he asked politely.
"Ranger business," Morgan replied, showing the guard Adlus' seal.
"Four of you? Those two don't look like rangers to me," the guard said as he looked to Elandar and Renna.
Morgan pointed to Zanadar. "He's not either. It's a long story. We're leaving for Rindol Field. We expect to be gone for about a week."
The guard nodded. "Very well then," he said, waving them through the gate, "Travel safely."
"Thank you," the ranger replied.
Outside the city, a well constructed cobblestone road lead from the gate to a small bridge, which spanned a narrow crevice leading out to the sea. The crevice was deep, and was where the Weatherfall River met with the ocean that dominated New Targonor's northern horizon. With each wave, seawater swept in and crashed alongside its walls, sending a wet spray upwards.
They rode across the bridge, which had little traffic at this early hour and stopped to survey their surroundings. To the west, rolling green hills sprawled for as far as Morgan could see in the morning light. To the east, back across the Weatherfall River the northern plains stretched out of view.
"That was impressive," the big man said after a few moments.
"What was?" Morgan asked.
"The way you handled that guard."
"I told him the truth," Morgan said, confused.
"Exactly," Zanadar replied, "Most people leaving a dead body behind them tend to lie."
Morgan shrugged, "We didn't do anything wrong. You said it yourself."
"That is true."
"I hate to interrupt," Elandar said in a tone that suggested that he did not at all, in fact, hate to interrupt, "But we are going to be traveling sometime today, correct?"
"We can just head southwest until we hit Tursh," Morgan replied, "From there we can take the road to Rindol field unless you know a quicker way, I haven't been down there very many times."
Zanadar leaned back in his saddle. "The road will do fine. I'm surprised you haven't been down there much before."
"My post is near Leth Nurae," Morgan explained as they began to ride. "I've never really had much of a reason to go to Rindol Field before."
For several hours, the party rode southwest, climbing and descending the lush green hills of the Thestran countryside. It was a bright day. Only a few puffy white clouds lingered in the rich blue sky, slowly nudged onward by a peaceful breeze.
As they crested one particularly tall hill, the village of Tursh gradually became visible. Morgan knew that from this vantage point the village appeared closer than it actually was, but that even so, they were not very far away.
"Morgan..." Renna said. "Are we stopping in Tursh?"
He thought for a moment. "As much as I'd like to, I can't really think of a reason. It will only be around midday by the time we get there so we couldn't spend the night." The ranger frowned and let out a brief sigh. "No, we'll just go around."
"Would you rather if we dropped you off in Tursh and picked you up on our way back to the city?" Morgan asked, guessing as to the meaning of her question.
"No," Renna replied quickly, "That's not why I was asking."
"Why go around?" Zanadar asked.
"Experience," Morgan said, "Every time I've tried to go through I always get stopped by someone. Tursh is not a large village and I have spent most of my life there. Whenever I come through people always want to talk."
"Well it isn't everyday their poor muddy village gets to be blessed by the likes of the all powerful tenderfoot Morgan," Elandar said sardonically, "I am sure it's a big deal for them."
"That wasn't how I meant it," the ranger said defensively, "What I mean is, all my mother's old friends always want to talk. They're dear old women and I like them all very much, but we don't really have time for that."
A grin cracked Renna's somber face. "They still bother you all the time?" she asked, sounding amused.
"They're not a bother, they just like to talk."
"You're allowed to say they annoy you, Morgan," Renna said. She narrowed her dark brown eyes and flashed a dangerous grin. "I promise I won't tell."
"I think I'm missing something," Zanadar said in a puzzled voice.
"You see, after Morgan's parents..." the girl began to explain, she stopped abruptly though and looked towards the ranger. "Sorry," she apologized.
"Its fine," he said with a dismissive wave. "It happened whether we talk about it or not."
"...After Morgan's parents passed," Renna continued, "His mother's friends sort of adopted him and Gillian. He was mothered constantly by about five old women with absolutely nothing better to be doing. Gillian took to them immediately, of course, but they made Morgan uncomfortable, I think. If you hadn't noticed, he gets a bit fidgety when he's the center of attention." She shot him a suggestive look.
Morgan frowned and made a conscious effort to avoid squirming in his saddle. He was happy to see Renna cheering up, he had been worried about her earlier but at the same time he did not particularly want to encourage her.
"If you ask me, they're the real reason you joined the rangers so young," she said.
"It sounds as if Renna has you just about figured out," Zanadar observed casually.
"They are wonderful women and I owe each of them more than I will ever be able to repay, we really just don't have the time right now," Morgan insisted, "they'd want to know why I had to leave so abruptly the other day and where we're going and whether or not it was dangerous." He sighed. "They just worry, is all. They don't bother me."
"That's an awful lot of explaining if they don't bother you," Renna teased.
Elandar's bushy white eyebrows peaked up. "Five wonderful women with nothing better to do than lavish us with attention." He straightened himself and ran his fingers through his stringy old beard. "Maybe we should stop in Tursh."
Morgan sagged his shoulders, accepting defeat.
"It's all right Morgan," Zanadar said in a comforting tone, "Going around is fine. The quicker we can get to Rindol Field the better, we do not need anything slowing us down and I applaud your efforts to keep on us on track."
"Thank you," the ranger replied.
"Besides," the big man added smugly, "I don't like old women either."
They continued on for several more hours, winding between hills and through small valleys. The sun passed above overhead as the party made their way around the outskirts of Tursh. They passed the occasional grazing cow in the tall, sweeping grass but managed to avoid any other contact with the village. Morgan looked back over his shoulder regretfully as the small farming community began to fade from sight.
"Don't worry," Zanadar said, noticing the ranger's look, "You'll get to go back soon enough."
Morgan managed to force a weak smile and nod. He knew the big man was only trying to comfort him, and that it would in fact be quite a long time before he had the opportunity to go home again.
They rejoined the road a short distance south of Tursh. It would lead them directly to the home of the Halflings. While Morgan was growing up, Halflings frequently stopping in Tursh on their way to New Targonor with wagonfulls of goods. He had been taken to their village on occasion, but was young and could recall very little. Morgan was somewhat curious to see it for himself now that he was older. The more he thought about it, the sillier it seemed that he'd lived so close for so long yet had never gone and it was only now, that he spent most of his time much farther away that he had occasion to go there.
By the time the first of the small earthen roofs of Rindol Field became visible it was already mid-afternoon. They had traveled quickly and made very good time. Though with the exception of Gray, who looked to be perfectly fine, the horses were beginning to show fatigue.
"You know, I haven't been here since I was a small child." Renna pointed out as they neared the village.
"And now you get to see it as a fully grown child," Elandar cracked. Renna rolled her eyes and ignored the old man.
"It's a nice enough place," Zanadar replied, "Their ale is a little too sweet for my tastes though. What they need is a nice, dark, thick groggy mead."
"I happen to like sweet ale," the stable hand said winsomely.
"How much could you possibly know about beer?" Elandar quipped, his wrinkled face distorted into a frown.
"Enough." Renna answered guardedly.
"Really?" the old man pressed, unconvinced. She looked to Morgan for help. He raised his hands defensively.
"Don't bring me in to this," the ranger said, "I'm a little curious as to where this knowledge comes from myself." A mischievous grin crept over Renna's face. She started to say something, but Morgan cut her short. "You know," he added quickly, "On second thought I'd really rather not know at all."
"Probably a wise decision," Zanadar laughed. The stable hand narrowed her eyes and glared sternly at Morgan as they rode into the village.
Rindol Field, home of the Halflings, was an amicable little community. It was a stable, peaceful place that revolved around a strong sense of kinship and camaraderie. Vibrant green hills surrounded the village, creating a pleasant feeling of seclusion. Most of the Halflings were farmers by trade, and the quiet existence suited them well.
A single, worn road split Rindol Field. It worked its way in from the hills to the north and continued all the way to the very end of the village. On either side of it, small cottages and buildings were placed comfortably apart from one another. They were stout structures, with low earthen roofs and wide doors. Several young Halfling children raced back and forth across the road, darting between a handful of produce carts. They paused briefly to give an appraising look at the group, paying particular attention to Zanadar.
The big man flashed a friendly smile at the children from atop his horse. One of them yelped out loudly and they quickly scattered.
"Well done." Elandar said sardonically.
Zanadar frowned. "Children usually like me," the big man moped lamely. "It must have been your fault."
Before the old man had the chance to protest, Morgan spoke up. "I guess we're looking for the Mayor then." He gazed down the road. Compared to the buzzing streets of New Targonor the village felt almost deserted. What residents were out on the main road cheerfully went about their business, loading produce into carts or rolling large barrels down the street, seemingly oblivious to the newcomers. Off the road a bit, several older looking Halfling women stood together in a large garden. They laughed buoyantly with one another as they tended to their plants. "I'd imagine there's a town hall somewhere around here," the ranger observed.
"Sort of," Zanadar replied, "The mayor's home serves as town hall when needed, but from what I understand that isn't very often."
"Do we know the Mayor's name?" Renna asked.
"Dorbin," Zanadar said looking back to the girl. "Dorbin Gamstell. We should probably find a stable for the horses first though."
"Good idea," Morgan replied. He hopped down off of his horse and looked over towards the small group of children who had cautiously begun to gather together again. They eyed the group curiously. "Hi there," he said with a smile, "Do any of you happen to know where my friends and I could find the stables?"
One of the smaller children, a young, fair-haired boy, let out a frightened squeal, and the group once again scattered off into all directions. The big man laughed deeply as Morgan looked about with a confused expression. "Did I say something wrong?" he asked.
"I told you it wasn't me," Zanadar said to the old man as the rest of them slid off their horses.
"It was all of you," Renna chimed in knowingly.
Elandar peered back at the dark haired girl. "What?" he asked irritably.
"It's all of all of you," she explained in a pleasant tone. She looked to the big man. "You're wearing armor and a sword bigger than they are." She grinned and shifted her gaze to Morgan. "You, as adorable as you are, look like you haven't had a full night's rest ages. And you..." she said, turning towards Elandar, "Well... you're...you."
The three men stood silently for a moment, glancing dubiously at one another. Elandar arched an eyebrow back at the stable hand. "And I suppose you could do better?" he challenged.
Renna nodded. "Oh yes, much," she said seriously.
The old man gestured at the small Halfling child who had squealed. He was peeking his head out from behind a large rock a short distance off, trying to remain inconspicuous while staring wide eyed at the party. Upon realizing that he had been discovered, the fair-haired boy let out a startled gasp and leapt back into hiding.
"I hope you're ready to learn something," Renna said casually as she strolled over towards the large stone. When she got there, rather then going behind it she instead took a seat on the rock, her back to where the small child lay hidden.
She said something that Morgan could not quite make out and leaned back on the stone a bit, as if trying to find a comfortable spot. Then, after a few moments, slowly crawling along the ground on all fours, the fair-haired Halfling boy began to creep out from behind the rock. Cautiously at first, though he quickly became bolder. He looked up towards where Renna sat pretending not to notice him and grinned wickedly. Summoning up all his courage, the boy suddenly leapt to his feet, arms high in the air, and roared as fiercely as a small Halfling boy can roar.
The stable hand jumped back in mock surprise, nearly falling off the stone and held up her hands, as if to surrender. The victory was short lived though, as the boy was quickly overtaken by a relentless wave of giggles. Renna lowered her hands and began to laugh with him. She slid off the rock and sat down on the ground next to the boy, smiling warmly. They talked for a short while, Renna making exaggerated expressions and twice falling over, much to the delight of the young Halfling. Finally, after a quick session of furious tickling Renna gave the boy a brief hug and stood up. He waved fondly, and then ran off to go find his friends.
The stable hand walked back to the group, smiling broadly. "Apparently," she said, rejoining them, "the stables are right next to the tavern, which is just down this road a ways and then to the right. He says they will keep our horses for as long as we'd like and they will treat them very well. Apparently," she added, "one of his friends' uncle works there. How about that?"
"Was that all?" Elandar grumbled.
"Oh, and he has a kitten named Apple." She wrinkled her nose. "That's kind of an odd name for a cat, but I guess it likes apples," she said with a shrug. Renna then noticed the look the three men were giving her and grinned. "Don't let it get to you. It's not your fault you're all the same," she said in a consoling tone.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Zanadar asked pointedly.
"Boys..." she said rolling her eyes. "You may be bigger, stronger and smell worse but inside you're just the same as that child." She glanced at the ranger. "You can be lead around by the nose and be perfectly fine with it as long as you think you're the one in charge." She smiled. "But its okay, I forgive you."
Morgan wisely chose to stay quiet. He followed along silently while Renna and the old man bickered. As they made their way to the stables, leading their horses down the road, many of the village's residents began to take notice of their presence. They stood alongside the road or appeared in doorways to offer welcoming smiles or friendly waves.
"You'd think they were expecting us," Morgan observed.
"They probably were," Zanadar replied. The big man was right. The ranger had almost forgotten why they were here. They probably were expecting them.
"Well whatever the trouble is, it can't have them too afraid or they wouldn't be letting their children run around outside still."
"Good observation Morgan" the big man said. "I'm getting a little curious to find out what is bothering them, myself."
"I'm more curious to find out if they've finally got something good to drink around here," Elandar stated hopefully.
"Forget it, old man." Zanadar responded sternly. "Business first."
"That's right," Renna said with a mocking nod, "Business first."
It took only a few minutes to reach their destination and they quickly stabled their horses. By the time they reached the mayor's home though, it was nearly dark. The building was near the center of the village and was larger than most in town, but was constructed in the same fashion. The windows were all closed and there did not appear to be any light coming from inside the house.
"That doesn't look very promising," Morgan said as they approached the wide wooden door. He knocked. There was no answer.
"Well it isn't a big village." Zanadar said, "I'm sure he's around here somewhere."
Just then, a woman's voice called out from behind him. "Are you looking for the mayor?" Morgan turned around to see a Halfling woman standing in the doorway of a small home on the other side of the road. He squinted, trying to get a better look. She appeared to be young for a Halfling, and stood halfway out onto a small wooden porch.
"Yes we are," the ranger called back. "Has he gone for the night?"
The woman chuckled briefly. "You could say that. He's gone to the tavern. If he's not at home, you can usually find him there. You're the ones from the city, yes?"
"That we are, my lady," Zanadar chimed in.
"I thought so. Thank you for coming," she said. She then waved and turned back into her home. "You all have a pleasant evening"
"See," Elandar said, rubbing his bony old hands together, "I told you we should have gone to the tavern first."
Several minutes later, the party was once again just outside the tavern. Along with the stables, it had a higher roof than most of the buildings in Rindol Field, most likely to accommodate taller visitors to the village. Morgan was thankful for that, and was sure the big man was too.
He could hear music and laughter coming from inside the building. As Zanadar opened the door, he expected to be blasted with the same stench of sweat and watered down beer that the tavern back in New Targonor reeked of. He was surprised though to be surrounded by the pleasant aroma of a fresh oaken fire. It conjured up images of being back in Tursh. He much preferred that.
The inside of the tavern was remarkably clean. Halflings, both young and old filled the building, sitting around tables and lining the walls. The fireplace was along the far wall and three Halflings sat next to it on small stools whistling out playful melodies on simple wooden pipes.
A stout, rather chubby Halfling came rushing up towards the entrance. He looked to be middle aged, and had thin brown hair that was beginning to bald. He was wearing a spotless wool shirt and a pair of finely stitched work pants. In one hand, the Halfling held a sticky looking pastry and in the other a large tankard. "You must be the rangers from New Targonor," he exclaimed cheerfully. "Welcome to our village! I'm Dorbin Gamstell," the mayor said, introducing himself. "Thank you for coming so quickly."
"Our pleasure," Morgan responded politely. "My name is Morgan Derek, and these are my friends, Zanadar, Elandar and Renna," he said, gesturing towards each of them.
"A pleasure to meet you all," Dorbin said kindly.
"So," Zanadar asked, "What seems to be the problem?"
Not so mighty nowEdit
"Well..." Dorbin began expansively. He then stopped abruptly and gave the party an embarrassed look. "Where are my manners?" he asked, "Please, come sit down."
The Mayor ushered the group to a large table near the rear of the tavern. At it, two more Halflings sat on high stools. They each appeared to be roughly the same age as the Mayor. They raised their mugs and greeted the party with friendly smiles.
"These are my cousins, Nelton and Reinor," Dorbin said, "They help me keep everything organized. Nelton oversees all of our finances and trade matters and Reinor is our chief envoy. I don't know what I would do without them."
"You would do about a third as much," Reinor teased. The Mayor's cousin had a stocky build and like the Mayor, thinning brown hair. He wore a fine white shirt underneath a buttoned surcoat and a pair of well made brown pants.
Dorbin's brow arched into a good-natured frown, and then softened. "It's true I'm afraid," he conceded as the group sat down around the table.
Nelton turned towards the party. A sly twinkle beamed from his chestnut colored eyes giving his face a youthful appearance, despite the wrinkles beginning to appear. His hair was lighter than Reinor's and he was a bit thinner. "Don't let Dorbin trick you into thinking he doesn't do anything," he said jovially while rolling up the sleeves on his patched tunic, "As much as he would have you believe otherwise, he is the one who keeps Rindol Field intact."
The Mayor finished his pastry and shrugged. "It isn't hard to stay on the right path when you were placed on it from the start," he said, licking his fingers. "But we're getting off track, I apologize."
"I would not have requested the rangers' assistance had I the means of dealing with this problem myself," he began, "but with all those dang blasted ants in these parts lately I simply don't have the resources to deal with it. You should see those things," he paused briefly, "The ants, I mean. Just last week I saw one nearly as large as me! Fortunately, they only seem to be interested in our crops unless provoked, but I'll feel much better once we are able to get rid of them."
"So the ants are not the problem then?" Zanadar asked.
"Oh they're a problem all right," Nelton said seriously, "But not the reason we sent for you."
Dorbin nodded. "Rindol Field is a peaceful place, we aren't accustomed to trouble, but the ants are more of a nuisance than anything. A very large crop destroying dangerous nuisance, mind you, but one I think we are capable of handling," he said, "No, we called for you because of another matter entirely.
"About three weeks ago now," the Mayor continued, "One of Jon Harkin's-"
"-Jon is a local farmer," Reinor interjected.
Dorbin grinned a bit sheepishly. "Sorry," he apologized, "I tend to get a little ahead of myself."
"Its quite all right," the big man replied patiently, "Go on."
"A few weeks ago, a few of Jon's pigs turned up dead. At first, I figured the blasted ants had just gotten sick of swiping our crops. But then he showed me the pigs..."
"What happened to them?" Morgan asked.
"You tell them, Nelton," Dorbin responded with a shiver, "You saw them too."
The Mayor's cousin grimaced and shook his head. "It was not pleasant, to say the least," he said, "They had been torn apart pretty thoroughly. We found pieces of them littered about Jon's entire field."
Renna brought a hand up to her mouth. "That is horrible."
Nelton nodded sadly and set his mug down. "They were the friendliest bunch of pigs I've ever seen too."
"So how do you know it wasn't the ants though?" Morgan said.
"Well, a few reasons," Dorbin explained, "When they decide they fancy something they never leave pieces laying all about. They take every little bit back to their holes. As much as I don't like those pests, one thing they most certainly are not is wasteful." The Mayor took on a thoughtful expression. "Then we started to find ants in conditions similar to the pigs, and I've never seen them fight one another before. I don't think that they do."
"Besides," Nelton added, "I'm not sure they would even be capable of doing something like that. They were not clean wounds. Whatever did that used brute force."
"So then what happened?" Zanadar pressed.
"Well like I said," the Mayor replied, "At first I thought it was the ants, but we ruled that out. Then I figured Jon's son, Durton was involved."
"He's not a bad boy," Reinor offered, "He just seems to have a knack for finding trouble."
Dorbin nodded in agreement. "And it isn't uncommon that he disappears for a few days only to turn up again after something suspicious has happened."
"However," Nelton chattered on, "Durton assures us he had nothing to do with it. And as easy as it would have been to just blame the boy, I believe him. It just doesn't seem like something he would do. Its true, he does get into a good deal of trouble, but it's always he just pilfered this or swiped that. He's never really hurt anything before."
"Nelton is a shrewd one," the Mayor continued, "He can usually tell when someone is trying to pull one over on him. I have to admit though, I wasn't entirely convinced that Durton wasn't involved. I never thought he had done it personally, but he's got friends from the city who come down here every now and then." Dorbin's eyes narrowed slightly. "Very shady friends."
Zanadar blinked wearily. "But you don't think it was his friends?" he asked.
"Well I did," Dorbin said, "until just last week. It rained one night and the next morning we found some tracks around another torn up ant."
The big man arched an eyebrow, his interest piqued. "What did they look like?"
The Mayor shrugged. "Nothing I've ever seen before." He held his hands out a few feet apart, eyeing them carefully. "They were about this size, I'd say. What do you think Nelton, is that right?"
The other Halfling nodded his agreement. "They were quite large. They certainly were not made by one of us."
Zanadar leaned forward a bit. "Was there anything peculiar you remember about them?"
"I wouldn't know where to begin," Dorbin answered. The big man gave the Halfling a frustrated look. "But we thought you may want to see them so we covered one to keep it safe. We'll take you to see it first thing in the morning," the Mayor said with a grin.
"I think he was about to come right over the table at you," Reinor observed casually to his cousin. Zanadar coughed and tried not to look too guilty.
Over by the fireplace, the three Halfling musicians finished their performance and set their pipes aside. The crowd applauded graciously as the troupe took a bow. Nelton and the Mayor both clapped and shouted their praise.
"Those three always do a terrific job," Dorbin said blithely, looking at the party.
The crowd inside the tavern quieted somewhat and the group continued talking at the table. Dorbin asserted there was no reason to start investigating that night and insisted upon treating the entire party to supper.
Pausing briefly to eat, the Mayor and Nelton shared several longwinded but entertaining anecdotes. Reinor remained quiet for the most part, occasionally tossing in his own somewhat sardonic perspective. The crowd in the building seemed only to grow after the meal. Morgan found himself having a good time.
A short while later, Nelton peered through the crowd at a small group of children who sat near where the musicians had been performing earlier. They kept shooting curious looks towards the table and giggling amongst one another whenever they caught one of the group's gaze. Morgan turned around in time to see one of the older children approaching where they sat, her friends watching intently from behind. The ranger recognized a few of them from when they had arrived in the village earlier.
Nelton grinned at his cousin. "I think you're going to get a request for another story," he said to the Mayor.
"I've been telling the children stories after dinner lately," Dorbin explained, "I think they've come to expect it." He chuckled softly for a moment. "I don't know that many more to tell though," he said.
"Mayor Gamstell..." the young girl said as she reached the table. She looked up at Dorbin with big brown eyes. Dorbin melted almost instantly.
"See what they do?" he accused, "They know I don't stand a chance. They're really quite devious."
"Mayor Gamstell, will you tell us a story?" the girl asked hopefully, "...please?"
He smiled back down at the child. "Well now," Dorbin replied in a serious tone, "What kind of story are you interested in hearing?"
She thought for a moment, pondering what was to her a very serious issue. After a moment, she looked back up. "A story about magic," she said decisively.
"A story about magic," the Mayor repeated to himself, thinking, "I'm not sure if I know any of those. I know lots of stories about farmers."
"It just so happens I know somebody who can probably tell a few stories about magic," Zanadar cut in. He gestured towards where Elandar sat. The old man though, appeared to have fallen asleep in his chair, his head tilted back slightly and the mug in his hand hovered dangerously close to slipping free from his grip and spilling onto the floor.
Morgan tugged politely on the sleeve of Elandar's robes. The old man snorted and pulled away. Zanadar leaned over and poked him sharply in the ribs. Elandar spat out briefly as his eyes shot open. Straightening himself, he scowled at the big man. "What?" he asked crankily. "Did those three finally get to the point about the pigs?"
"Sort of," Zanadar said, flashing a quick grin at the Mayor. "But we have a request for a story about magic." He gestured towards the group of children back near the fireplace, all anxiously awaiting the old man's answer.
"It seems a wizard as mighty as yourself would know lots of magic stories," Renna offered, smirking.
The young girl's eyes widened in amazement. "You're a wizard?" she asked excitedly.
Elandar shot the big man a dangerous look before turning back to the child. "I happen to be a mighty wizard, young lady," he replied sternly, gripping his worn staff tightly in his bony old hands. He thought for a moment and then narrowed his eyes down at the girl. By this point, much of the tavern was watching the interaction with a keen interest. "I may know one..." he trailed off briefly. The crowd seemed to lean in closer. "But I'm not sure if I remember it all. Perhaps if I had a few more drinks it would help freshen my memory."
Almost instantly, shouts erupted from the patrons and tankards full of sweet ale began to appear on the table at an alarming rate. The young girl backed up and rejoined her friends seated in front of the fireplace. All eyes were now rested firmly upon the old man, who sat glaring at the collection of mugs on the table before him.
He grumbled bitterly to himself and then leaned back in his chair. "Fine then," Elandar said with a frown, "One story and one story only."
The group of children cheered gleefully, as the rest of the patrons in the tavern could not help but to smile with excitement. After a moment, the crowd settled into their seats comfortably and focused their attention on the old man.
Elandar eyed the room full of Halflings dubiously. He repositioned his chair and briefly adjusted his robes before sitting down once more. "This particular story," he began abruptly, "happens to be quite old.
"It takes place in a more peaceful time, centuries ago," the old man said dramatically, with a peculiar gleam in his eye. "Before the fall of Targonor, before your village existed, before the taint of the dead had even arrived in our lands.
"Thestra was a much different place then," Elandar explained, his voice changing tone. "There was a culture of learning. Knowledge was more valuable than any lost treasure. And no where was this more the truth, than in Leth Nurae, the majestic city of the elves.
"After what seemed to be an eternity of war and rebuilding, the elves had finally returned to their homes and were free to pursue that which they coveted the most. Ancient knowledge thought forever lost after the breaking," he paused, "began to reemerge.
Morgan smiled quietly to himself. He had heard this story before, many times in fact. It had always been one of his favorites. He glanced at his companions sitting around the table. Zanadar was leaned back in his chair, his large frame barely able to fit on the seat. The big man listened politely. The mayor and his two cousins all gazed at Elandar attentively, excited expressions on their faces.
Equally enthralled was the stable hand, Renna. She sat contently, elbows on the table, with her chin resting firmly in her hands. She'd had a long day. They all had. Sleep would come easily tonight. The ranger looked back to Elandar. Had Morgan not known any better, he almost would have suspected the cranky old man was enjoying himself.
"The greatest mages in all the lands flocked to Leth Nurae, to take part in these exquisite discoveries. But the elves were very protective of their secrets," the old man continued with a shake of his finger, "and so they turned away all but their own.
"For years they continued with their research. Delving continuously deeper, into their long forgotten past. Among them, one in particular stood out. A mage," Elandar said darkly, "and one of considerable power. For it was this mage who made all the most important discoveries and it was this mage who gained all the power with which they came."
"What was his name?" one of the small Halfling children asked.
Elandar drew back sharply as the crowd leaned in. "His name," he said in a whisper, "was Silas Lucertae."
The old man continued on. "Silas was one of the most respected leaders in the elven community. He, for years, unearthed discovery after discovery and gradually began to assume political power within the city. He ignored it for the most part, caring only for his research. Silas spent weeks upon weeks arduously laboring over single passages in ancient tomes, hoping to unlock whatever secrets they may be hiding.
"Then, one night something happened. He found something in one of those passages. Something he had not anticipated. He locked himself away in his home and entered a frenzied study of his new obsession.
"It was not long after," Elandar said quietly, "that he began to summon forth magic not seen in over a millennia. Powerful magic. Though nobody knew to what extent, it changed Silas. He emerged from his study invigorated and began to take notice of the titles and positions that had been bestowed upon him.
"In a small amount of time Silas became the most prominent figure in Leth Nurae. And though he took a keen interest in the running of the city, he seemed distant - aloof. He continued to gain power at an alarming rate. So much, in fact, that many of the other mages began to fear him.
"This was a fact that Silas very much took advantage of, as he bullied and intimidated all those who opposed him. He grew arrogant, and venomous. He viewed the other mages as beneath him. Powerless magicians, whose purpose was simply to further his own interests. His arrogance grew to contempt, and he guarded the secrets to his power jealously.
"For a while, there was an uneasy understanding among the elves. They feared Silas, but there was nothing they could do to stop him. Until one day, his boldness took him too far. During a dispute with another ranking mage, in a bout of anger, he killed the elf. There were many witnesses and a trial was called almost immediately.
"He was stripped of his authority and forbid from continuing his research. This only angered Silas further though, and he struck out against his peers," Elandar exclaimed sharply.
The old man went on to describe, at some length, the atrocities which Silas inflicted upon his own people. His voice rose and fell, hardened and softened at all the right moments. The old man was a skilled orator, which for some reason surprised Morgan. He was also most certainly enjoying himself.
Elandar continued with his story, telling of the effort to subdue the rogue elf. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Silas could not be contained. All who rose up against him were beaten back viciously, powerless against his newfound magic.
"Why couldn't they stop him?" a small boy asked at one point.
Elandar raised an eyebrow and peered back at the young halfling. "Because he was too strong. Lucertae, as he was now called, was unrivaled even amongst the most powerful mages."
"Was he more powerful than you?"
Elandar huffed at that, and leaned back in his chair with an amused expression. He stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment. "He was mighty," the old man said, "but he was no Elandar."
Zanadar groaned audibly and rolled his eyes back in his head.
"How did they stop him?" another boy pressed.
"Well if you'd quit asking questions maybe I could get to that," Elandar scolded. He let his hand fall away from his thick beard and continued. "The elves lived in a constant state of terror. Trying desperately to appease Lucertae, but the more power he gained the more insatiable his lust for destruction became. Any who disturbed his study were slain, and their homes destroyed.
"All those who challenged him were tossed aside, broken, as if they were mere children. Conventional weapons were useless against Lucertae and no mage in Leth Nurae had the power to oppose him. He closed the city, allowing no one to enter or leave. Any who tried were put to death. His evil began to taint the very earth upon which the city sat."
The crowd remained silent as the old man then told of a peculiar stranger who arrived one night, somehow managing to avoid Lucertae's detection. He was adorned in full, dark robes, which masked his features, and spoke with a deep, commanding voice. In the night, he made his way through the city, gathering what few high mages remained alive from wherever they hid.
The small group of wizards, just six men strong marched through the darkness towards the entrance to the city. Led by the mysterious robed man, they began to cast a spell. It was not long before Lucertae stalked into view, eyes blazing.
"What is this?" he demanded. His voice was twisted, and no longer recognizable. "Who dares defy me?"
The six wizards continued their spell, ignoring Lucertae. The air around them began to shimmer and blur. The tainted elf roared furiously and began to cast a spell of his own, but before he could finish the robed man suddenly broke his concentration and looked up sharply, directly at Lucertae. He spoke a word and in an instant, all seven mages vanished.
Elandar paused as the crowd inhaled audibly. He went on to describe the wizards appearing leagues away and the immense magical battle that ensued. This was, of course, the best part of the story and Morgan found himself watching the crowd rather than paying attention to what the old man was saying.
The young children by the fireplace gasped and covered their eyes as Elandar described how Lucertae battled the six mages. The older Halflings all sat still, paying full attention to the old man, occasionally sipping their drinks. They were a good audience, and Elandar surprisingly enough, was a very good storyteller.
With a grand sweeping gesture he brought the tale to a finish. Lucertae was defeated, but at a great cost. Only a single mage from the six survived. He returned to Leth Nurae, badly injured and incoherent. He lived for a short while, but in the end his wounds proved to be too grave and he passed. The bodies of the other four elves were never recovered, but a tomb was erected in their honor.
"And that," Elandar said expansively, "is the end."
The audience applauded the old man loudly for several moments. Elandar bowed his head once and then continued to scowl until everyone had taken their seats. By now, the sun had long since fallen and the crowd started to disperse.
The young boy who had spoken earlier walked up to the table, a curious look on his face. He stopped a few feet shy of the old man and looked up at him politely.
Elandar glanced down at the boy out of the corner of his eye. "What?" he asked.
"What happened to the man in the robes?"
The old man shrugged. "What do you think happened?"
The boy thought hard for a moment. "I think it would be better if he got away," he replied.
"Then that is how it happened." Elandar answered. He turned back to his mug and began to take a deep drink.
"I don't know though, the evil wizard was very powerful," the boy continued, "How much magic did the robed man have?"
Elandar swallowed and turned back to the boy. He looked at him for a moment, and then held his hands several feet apart. "This much."
"How much magic do you have?" the young halfling asked.
The old man frowned. "Don't you have parents?"
Zanadar grinned and leaned forward. "In other words," he said, "Less than that."
The party spoke with the mayor and his cousins for a short while longer before deciding to retire for the evening. They would meet Dorbin the following morning at Jon Harkin's farmhouse, which lay a short distance outside the village.
The inn had a few larger rooms upstairs directly above the tavern area. They had been built specifically to accommodate visitors of larger stature, and had a handful of moderately sized beds in each. The innkeeper led Morgan, Zanadar, Renna and the old man to an empty one and thanked Elandar again for his story. The halfling lit a few large candles, which adorned the walls, before bidding them goodnight.
The room, while bigger than most at the inn, was still quite cozy. A small window about midway up the far wall overlooked the back of the building. The wooden floorboards creaked slightly as they walked into the room and the muffled voices of the few patrons who still remained at the tavern below could barely be heard through the thick timber. Morgan was tired though, he knew the soft noise would not bother him at all.
The old man glanced around the room, muttered a few curses under his breath, set his staff against the wall and placed his hat atop it. He then collapsed into bed, falling into a heavy slumber almost immediately. Within minutes, the big man had removed his traveling gear and also lay stretched out, sleeping deeply. Morgan sat on the edge of his bed and took off his boots. He rubbed his eyes wearily and looked towards Elandar. The old wizard was snoring loudly, he sounded oddly content.
Just then, Morgan felt weight on the bed next to him.
"I bet he's doing that on purpose," Renna said quietly, sitting down beside him.
Morgan nodded in agreement. "That would not surprise me at all." He turned towards the stable hand. She was staring at him, a peculiar look in her large brown eyes.
"What?" he asked suspiciously.
She shifted her gaze away from the ranger, eyeing the two occupied beds on the other side of the room. "What are we doing with them?" she asked seriously. "I don't understand anything that has happened today."
Morgan yawned slightly and exhaled. He looked down to his worn backpack, which sat on the floor at the base of the bed. He stared at it for a moment, and then shrugged. "We're here to see what is killing the Halfling's pigs," he said finally.
"And you need them for that?" Renna retorted, unconvinced.
"I don't know why Adlus sent Zanadar along with me... or sent me along with him. Or why Elandar is even here."
"And what about this morning? What was that?"
Morgan could only shake his head. "I don't know," he said helplessly.
"Those men ..." she trailed off.
He gave the stable hand a reassuring look. "I don't think that had anything to do with us."
She threw her hands up in exasperation. "Morgan!" Renna whispered harshly, her voice catching briefly, "They tried to kill us."
"Listen," he said, "All I know is that the worst place to be right now is in New Targonor. We should just stay down here for a little while, find the wolves that are probably killing the pigs and then go back after things have settled down. We don't even have to go back with those two," Morgan added, "We can let them go first and follow later.
"I don't know why what happened this morning happened, Renna, and I don't know what it is they aren't telling us. But what I do know, is that I will not let anyone else try and hurt you, all right?"
She gave the ranger a crooked smile. "You'll protect me from anyone?" she asked with a mock innocence.
Morgan frowned. "Don't push your luck," he said, trying not to sound embarrassed. He hated it when she did that. She always did that.
Renna smirked, then stood up and began to walk back towards her bed. She paused after a few steps, and turned.
"Morgan?" she whispered softly.
"Yes?" he said, still frowning.
As most had recently, morning came sooner than Morgan would have liked. He awoke to a bright ray of sunlight streaming through the window and across his face. He squinted and looked around the room.
Elandar was still sound asleep. Renna sat on her bed, running a simple looking brush through her long dark hair. The big man was nowhere to be seen, his sword and armor noticeably missing.
"You look like you are not ready to wake up yet," the stable hand observed, seeing Morgan look about the room.
"When this is done I am going to sleep for a week," the ranger stated matter-of-factly. Morgan groaned audibly and sat up in bed. He had a sour taste in his mouth and an uncomfortable cramp in his neck. "Where is Zanadar?"
"Downstairs," she answered. "He said to wake Elandar up and come down whenever you are ready."
Morgan stretched his arms out in from of him for a moment, and then yawned expansively.
"You don't look ready," Renna offered.
"I'm fine," the ranger protested. He swung his legs out of bed and stood up gingerly, peering over at the sleeping old man. "This ought to be fun," he said under his breath. He glanced at the dark haired stable hand, "I don't suppose you would like the honors?"
She shook her head and smiled sweetly. "All yours."
"Wonderful," Morgan muttered as he walked over to the other side of the room. He stopped just next to Elandar's bed and leaned in closer, though making a careful effort not to touch the old man.
"Elandar," he said briskly, "We need to go."
He did not move.
Morgan sighed and sagged his shoulders. "Elandar," he repeated, louder this time, "wake up."
Still, there was no response from the old man. The ranger leaned back for a second, thinking. He glanced contemplatively at the old man's staff, which was leaning against the wall next to the bed. He looked back to the sleeping wizard and cautiously began inching his outstretched hand towards it.
Just as the tips of his fingers were about to touch the worn old stave, Elandar's eyes shot open, immediately focusing squarely upon Morgan, with a markedly unfriendly look. The ranger recoiled back, taking his hand away from the staff. He smiled slightly.
"That worked well," Renna called from the other side of the room.
Elandar, still glaring at Morgan, shot the stable hand a quick sidelong glance, his beard twitching slightly. "What worked well?" he asked dubiously.
"We need to go, get up so we can go downstairs," the ranger explained.
The old man narrowed his eyes. "I see," he said coolly. He slowly rose from bed, snatched his hat from its perch and placed it on his head. He turned back to Morgan, his wrinkled purple robes swishing about, staring at him coldly.
"Stay away from my staff," he growled.
A few minutes later the three were coming downstairs to meet Zanadar. When they arrived back at the inn's tavern the big man was sitting at a table, tapping his foot impatiently.
"What were you doing out so early?" Elandar inquired.
"I was just looking around a bit," Zanadar explained.
"Oh?" Morgan said, his interest slightly piqued.
"Yes, we need to go right now."
"Why is that?" Renna asked.
"Because I saw the footprint Dorbin was telling us about."
Morgan tried to search the big man's face for answers. "What did it look like?"
Zanadar leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the table in front of him. "We are not dealing with wolves."
So Much for the WolvesEdit
Elandar shivered mockingly. "Oh no!" he exclaimed. The old man sniffed at the air and glanced around the room. There were a handful of scattered patrons seated sporadically across the tavern, each seemingly content to eat their meals quietly while minding their own business. "I smell something cooking," he observed with a hungry look in his eye, "what's for breakfast?"
Although Morgan was eager to get going, the pleasant aroma of whatever was being prepared back in the kitchen had stirred up his appetite. He put a hand to his stomach. It murmured its agreement.
Zanadar sighed and sagged his shoulders in defeat. "Fine."
The party ate a quick breakfast, with the big man tapping his foot impatiently all throughout and then departed. It was a pleasant morning in Rindol Field. The crisp air was somewhat cold, but the rising sun would quickly remedy that.
Jon Harkin's farm was located on the outskirts of the village. Along the way, they passed many of the townsfolk in the street, most of whom were already hard at work tending to their gardens or carting in produce from the fields. Morgan recognized many of them from the previous night at the tavern. They smiled and waved politely at the group as they passed, before returning to their work.
As the party passed the stables, Renna glanced in their direction, a concerned expression on her face.
"Don't worry, I'm sure they are fine," Morgan said, noticing her look. "If the Halflings are anywhere near as hospitable to them as they are to us, we will probably never convince them to leave."
That seemed to ease the stable hand's worry a bit. She nodded, and then an impish grin spread across her lips. "They're probably having a wonderful time with Gray."
They arrived at Jon Harkin's farm a few minutes later. A small house sat along the edge of the property. Behind it, a large field stretched out into the countryside. A worn down looking barn with peeling paint stood a ways beyond the house. Despite its dilapidated appearance, it was quite obviously well built.
"The print is back this way," the big man said, gesturing towards the field. Zanadar lead the group around the side of the farmer's home and back into his neatly planted rows of crops. A variety of vegetables and other plants grew in the field, each given their own large area.
They trudged through countless rows of turnips, radishes and onions, occasionally scaring up a small flock of birds or startling a rabbit out of hiding. Morgan stepped carefully, to avoid damaging any of the knee-high plants.
The ground began to slope downward slightly, and the ranger could see Mayor Gamstell and another halfling, presumably Jon Harkin, perhaps a hundred paces in front of them. They were standing close together and looking at something on the ground.
Dorbin glanced up and noticed them approaching. He waved and gestured towards the ground in front of them.
"Over here," he called out.
"I was beginning to think you had forgotten about us," Jon said to Zanadar as the group reached the two halflings. The farmer appeared to be middle aged. Wrinkles lined his hazel eyes and forehead though his brown hair still maintained most of its youthful color. He was clean shaven, and a bit skinnier than the mayor. He wore simple workman's pants and a loose fitting, knit shirt. He grinned crookedly at the big man.
Zanadar frowned and pointed a stern finger at Elandar. "That one held us up," he accused.
"I wasn't the only one who wanted breakfast," the old man spat back indignantly.
Dorbin let out a deep laugh and clasped his hands together. "Well, we're all here now," he said, "That's what is important." The mayor was dressed much the same as he had been the previous day. He turned towards Morgan and Renna, "It is good to see you two again this morning. I hope you slept well?"
"Very," Renna said pleasantly, "Thank you."
"Well, Zanadar here has already seen it," Jon said as he leaned over and began to pull several plants out of the way so that the others could see, "But here it is."
Morgan looked down into the exposed soil at the print. The big man was right. It was large, much too large to be a wolf. The shape of the print was entirely different from a wolf's as well. It was sunken deep into the dirt and rather than looking like a paw, it instead had a large sole and three thick, oversized and elongated toes.
Renna squinted at the print. "It looks kind of like a big bird."
Morgan knew that it was no bird though. Whatever had made the track was much too large and much too heavy to be just a bird. The ranger placed one boot covered foot next to the print. It was barely as long as one of the toes alone.
"Bears, wolves, deer, badgers... I would know any of those if I saw them," Morgan said, "But I've never seen a track like this before. It walks on two feet, but that's about all I can tell you right now I'm afraid."
Dorbin's face fell somewhat, he looked a bit disappointed. The ranger noticed the mayor's expression and apologized.
"I'm sorry, Mayor Gamstell. I don't know what it is," he looked towards Zanadar. "What about you?"
The big man eyed the three-toed indentation silently for a moment, studying it carefully. "No." he said finally, in a flat voice. "I don't know either."
Renna shot the big man a peculiar look.
"Well some help you two are," Elandar chimed in, waving his staff at Zanadar and Morgan. "It's a good thing we came all this way. I don't know what they would have done without us."
Both Dorbin and Jon laughed at that. "Oh don't you worry about it," Jon said empathetically, "We haven't the slightest idea what it is either, but between us I'll wager we can get to the bottom of it."
Morgan knelt down next to the track and looked at it more closely. "I am assuming it was raining the night this was made?" he said looking up towards the farmer.
Jon nodded. "Indeed it was. There's a few others scattered about but this was the best looking print I could find, so I made sure to take special care of it until you got here, so nothing would ruin it."
"I appreciate that," the ranger responded. "How long ago was it made?"
"This one..." the farmer thought for a moment, "about a week ago. If you look hard enough you can find them all over my field though. Whatever it is has been back as recently as two nights ago. It doesn't seem to ever go up this hill, and I've taken to herding my pigs into the barn at night. It has stayed away so far, but I would rather not give it the opportunity to kill again.
"Even without taking more of my pigs," he added, "it's still doing enough damage to my crops. Whatever it isn't digging up and eating, it's just trampling into the dirt."
"And you've never seen the creature?" Morgan asked.
Jon shook his head. "I'm in my fields nearly the entire day and I've not seen a thing. It comes during the night. I tried sitting on top of the barn after the sun has gone down on several occasions but never have I managed to spot the beast."
"None of us have," the mayor interjected, "It only comes when it's dark and until recently hasn't come very close to the village, so we weren't too worried. But it has been coming farther and farther up this hill. Slowly, yes, but with each visit it ventures closer. That's the reason we decided to send for you. We do not have walls or fortifications, and as you saw yesterday our children are quite fond of playing outside during the day..." he trailed off.
"I understand completely, Mayor Gamstell," Morgan assured the Halfling. He turned towards Jon, "Do you mind if I look around at some of the other tracks?"
"Of course not," the farmer responded, "Do whatever you need to do." He gestured down the hill, "Most of them are down that way, there's a few up here but not many."
"Thank you," the ranger said as he continued further down into the field. The others followed close behind. While descending through the rows of crops Morgan could make out faint impressions of where the animal had stepped. He carefully pushed the farmer's plants aside, spilling the morning dew from their leaves onto the ground, to get a better look. None were nearly as well preserved as the first print. As the ground began to once again level out though the tracks became clearer, and much less difficult to find.
"Why are they so much easier to spot down here?" Renna asked, looking back up the hill to where Dorbin and Jon stood talking to one another.
"Farmer Harkin said it had rained recently, most of the water probably ended up down here and caused there to be quite a bit of mud. It dried, and apparently it has not rained again since, which is fortunate for us," the ranger explained.
"You know Morgan," Zanadar started with a grin, "You're much better at this than I thought you'd be."
"Thank you... I think."
The big man laughed. "Don't worry, it was a compliment."
Elandar poked at one of the footprints with his staff. "Not good enough to know what it is though," he grumbled.
"Well, I can tell you that whatever it is," the ranger said towards the old man, "that there is more than one of them."
Zanadar nodded. "He's right," he pointed towards a group of crushed plants. Their leaves had been stomped into the dirt. Two partially faded sets of tracks ran through them. "Look, they aren't the same size. They're close, but these were definitely made by two different animals."
"So what does that mean?" Renna asked.
The big man shrugged, "Just that there were at least two."
Elandar leaned on his staff and peered to the south, past the edge of the farmland and into the sprawling green fields, which seemed to roll off into the distance forever in the clear morning air. Their tall grass waved gently in the light early breeze. "I don't see anything," he said.
"Well," Zanadar stated, "You are quite old, you know."
He glared dubiously at the big man and gripped his staff tightly. "Don't you start with me, meathead, my eyes are just as good as they ever were and you know it."
Zanadar looked amused for a moment, and then narrowed his eyes as he too gazed out into the fields. "As much as I hate to admit it, I don't see anything out there either."
"The tracks clearly came from the south though," Morgan added.
The big man grinned widely, "So I guess we'll be going that way, won't we?"
Elandar grumbled audibly and looked back up the hill towards the village. "After we get our horses." Renna seemed to brighten a bit at that.
Morgan and Zanadar exchanged a quick glance and both nodded. "Fair enough," the big man said. "We will be able to cover a lot more ground that way. With any luck we'll be able to catch whatever they are sleeping."
They turned and began to hike carefully back up the hill, the ground was wet and slick still at this early hour.
"Did you find any more tracks?" Dorbin asked as they made their way back up towards the two Halflings.
Morgan nodded to the mayor and explained what they had seen down the hill. "Right now we are headed back to the stables to get our horses then we're going to ride south a ways and see what we can find."
"Oh my," Dorbin responded. "Do be careful." Jon echoed the sentiment. "If you need any supplies see Nelton," the mayor called out as they started back towards the village, "they will be free of charge, of course."
Elandar rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Free of charge," he hummed to himself.
"Don't get any bright ideas." Zanadar scolded. "I sincerely doubt by supplies he meant any sort of ale. Besides, I thought you didn't like Halfling brews."
"They are better than nothing," the old man shot back, as they entered once again into the village.
Renna tugged on Morgan's sleeve and pulled him aside as the other two men argued. "Morgan..." she said quietly.
"What is it?"
"You know when Zanadar said he didn't know what made those tracks?" she whispered, keeping an eye on the big man.
"He was lying."
"Lying?" Morgan repeated, surprised.
"Not so loud!" the stable hand whispered harshly. "Yes, he was lying."
"How do you know?"
Renna arched her eyebrow and shot the ranger a pointed look.
"All right," Morgan conceded, "I guess you would know."
"So what are you going to do?"
The ranger shrugged.
"It doesn't change the fact that we still need to find out what did that to the fields."
Renna grasped Morgan's arm sharply, causing him to flinch. "All they have done is lie to us, and you're just going to follow them blindly and not ask any questions? What reason do you have to trust either of them, especially Zanadar, he almost got you-both of us-killed, or had you forgotten about that already?"
Morgan started to respond, but the big man noticed the commotion and turned away from Elandar. "And what are you two arguing about?" he asked, grinning broadly.
Renna nestled her head up against the ranger's arm and flashed a sweet smile. "Who says we're arguing?" At that, Morgan began to blush furiously, which elicited only a larger grin from the big man.
"I see," he said.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," the ranger mumbled quietly after Zanadar had turned his attention elsewhere.
She looked back up at him. Her large brown eyes narrowed slightly as a fiendish smirk spread across her lips. She gazed at the ranger coolly for a moment, which made him quite uncomfortable, then abruptly laughed and turned away. Morgan was not quite sure how he was supposed to take that, but was convinced talking would only make it worse. He let out a brief sigh and continued into the village.
The worn road leading back through Rindol Field now teamed with activity. Halflings pushing carts of all shapes and sizes full of a variety of crops from the fields weaved in an out of larger wagons drawn by small teams of ponies. Though even with all the movement the town's residents still managed to appear relaxed and generally content.
It did not take long to reach the small stable building. The party quickly gathered their horses, apologizing profusely to an irate young stable boy whom Gray seemed to have offended dearly, and after a brief stop to gather a small amount of supplies, departed.
On horseback, the group stuck out from the rest of the crowd, and attracted quite a bit of attention. Taller visitors were fairly common to Rindol Field, but visitors wearing armor and weapons such as Zanadar's were not. Elandar received many friendly waves as townsfolk recognized him from the previous night, each of which he returned with a dark glower.
"How odd," Renna observed as they continued back towards the farm, "They seem to like you, Elandar."
"They're Halflings," the old man huffed, "They like everything."
Soon they had reached Farmer Harkin's field again. The party rode around the side of his modest home and began down the hill. The mayor seemed to have left, but Morgan could see Jon off in the distance tending to a group of plants. He looked up as they passed and waved. "Good luck," he called out.
The tracks were not hard to follow at first. They continued down into the muddied valley and stayed mostly on lower ground. Morgan had tracked animals much smaller working on much less many times before. Though the grass was tall and thick, this was relatively simple. Even someone who did not know what they were looking for could have very well followed this particular trail.
They rode at a leisurely pace, talking idly while Morgan surveyed the ground around them. "There doesn't appear to be any particular pattern here," the ranger observed after a while.
"What do you mean?" asked Renna.
Zanadar pointed at the scattered imprints in the ground. "He means it looks like they just wandered aimlessly through the valley until they reached Jon Harkin's farm."
"Right," Morgan said, nodding, "And there is no consistency to their movement. Sometimes they are running, other times they are walking. At times they're going straight and others just in circles."
Renna leaned off Gray's back slightly and stared at the ground suspiciously. "You can tell all of that just by looking at some footprints?"
"It has to do with how deep and how far apart they are." Morgan explained, "Once you know what to look for it really is not that hard." He gazed across the valley. "Though it is going to more difficult. The trail looks like it is going to lead up over that hill, which means it will be harder to follow."
"...Because it's not where all the mud was." Renna said.
"Exactly," Zanadar replied, "We will have you tracking with the best of the rangers in no time."
She looked at Morgan and grinned. "I already am," she boasted playfully.
The big men held up his hands. "I stand corrected," he agreed as they neared the end of the valley. Despite Zanadar and the stable hand's joking, Morgan did his best to follow the trail up side of the hill. There were very few solid tracks but several moderately sized patches of displaced dirt amongst the tall grass suggested recent activity.
Unfortunately, the patches seemed to have no point of origin. They were scattered over the hillside in no particular order and worse yet, did not continue up past the crest of the foothill. He frowned.
"What is it?" Zanadar asked.
"I am having trouble picking up the trail," the ranger admitted, "There's no prints here and though I would wager a good deal those dirt piles came from them too, they don't go anywhere."
"Don't worry Morgan," Renna teased in a reassuring tone, "We still think you're the best. Don't we Zanadar?"
"Right," the big man replied. He peered down off his saddle at the ground. For several moments he scanned the area for any signs of passage, leading his horse in small circles through the grass. "I don't see anything either," he reported at last.
"I knew a blind ranger once," Elandar stated suddenly.
Morgan blinked, still concentrating on the ground. "What?"
"He could track better than both of you combined."
The ranger looked up. The old man had ridden a short distance ahead, stopping at the top of the hill. "All right..." he said uneasily, unsure exactly how to respond.
"Do I have to do everything myself?" Elandar muttered something under his breath and pointed out in front of him. "Look," he said as he peered out into the countryside.
The rest of the group rode up next to the old man and followed his gaze down the hill. "What are we looking for?" Zanadar asked.
"You don't see it?" Elandar replied, sounding somewhat surprised.
Morgan surveyed the landscape before him. Rolling green hills continued to stretch out beyond his vision. Trees of varying sizes springing from the high grass littered the countryside. Small pockets of bushes grew around their base and frequently spread out farther into the landscape.
It was nearing midday. The sun now sat almost directly overhead, warming the usually brisk Thestran countryside. A large flock of birds soared through the sky in the distance, calling out to one another as they dove and twisted about in the air.
The big man let out an annoyed curse. "Don't answer a question with a question. What am I looking for?"
"I'm not quite sure what you want us to see either," Morgan offered.
Elandar held out his staff and pointed off into the distance. "Look," he said, "Near the tree on that hill."
The ranger narrowed his eyes, trying to spot what the old man was pointing at. The hill looked to be fairly close, but he knew it was actually deceptively far. It would take them at least a few hours to reach it.
"I still don't know what you're talking about," Zanadar said between clenched teeth, nearly growling.
"Do you see that brown patch on the ground? It's a pile of dirt similar to those behind us."
"Similar?" the big questioned acidly.
"They are the exact same thing, meathead. Whatever made these made that. Don't use that tone with me."
Morgan could barely make out the brown patch. Had the old man not labeled it as such he would have never noticed it. "Are you sure that's what that is?" Morgan asked politely, "I can't really tell."
"Of course I'm sure, tenderfoot." Elandar shot back, "You think just because I'm old that means I can't see anymore. I will have you know that my eyes are more capable right now than yours will ever be."
The ranger gave Zanadar a questioning look.
"Well, we don't have much else to work off of," the big man replied, "We might as well go and see."
They rode in silence for a time, each seemingly content with the company of their own thoughts. Morgan continually scanned the ground beneath them as the horses trudged onward. A few times, he spotted marks that could have been made by the creatures they followed. Or they could have been made by wolves, he had no way of telling for sure and was beginning to have doubts that the old man had in fact, seen what he had claimed.
By the time they reached the point Elandar had spotted, it was mid afternoon. The sun hung heavily in the sky and had long since dried the morning dew. Though it was a pleasant day, a steady breeze kept the group chilled. As they crested the hill, Morgan could clearly see the large patch of displaced dirt. It sat a few dozen paces to the side of a lone, gnarled tree. Its thick trunk was short, and sprouted off into several directions just a few feet above the ground. The tree's branches stretched over the hilltop and were thick with leaves, forming a near canopy over all beneath.
Scrubby bushes spread out from under it and back over the other side of the hill. It looked as though something had dug a shallow, circular trench into the soft earth, piling the loose soil up on one side.
The dirt at the bottom of the trench had been packed tightly into the ground. Morgan slid out of his saddle and kneeled next to it to look closer. He stood up and gazed back at Elandar, a look of surprise on his face.
"It's very faint, and I can barely see it but there is definitely a track in there," he reported. "I never would have seen this, Elandar. How did you spot it?"
"Great, now he'll never be quiet about it," Zanadar muttered under his breath.
The old man shot Zanadar a caustic glance. "My hearing is even better than my sight, you know." He turned his attention back to the ranger and shook his staff with one bony old hand, "And by the gods, I'm a mighty wizard! How do you think I spotted it? Don't look so surprised."
The big man peered into the shallow trench from atop his horse. "It looks like a shelter of some sort," he said conclusively. "They probably slept here, which would explain why the bottom is packed so tightly."
Morgan nodded. "That's what I was thinking." He peaked out over the side of the hill. His face brightened a bit as he saw the land stretched out before him. Several small bushes had been quite obviously trampled by something heavy. Beyond that though, there was nothing. "Well, it isn't much," he said, "But I can tell you they went this way."
"It's a good start," the big man replied. He rode around the dirt shelter, next to where the ranger stood and peered out over him to the south. "And judging by the looks of that," he gestured at the next closest hill in the direction Morgan had indicated, "They stayed in the valley. The soil is loose and rocky, and the incline too steep. It would be easier to just go around rather than try to climb up."
Zanadar and Morgan both looked down into the valley with their eyes narrowed, they gazed appraisingly at the land below.
"So did they go east or west then?" Renna asked finally, after a long silence.
"Hard to say," the ranger answered, "Upwind most likely, but we don't have anyway of knowing which way the wind was blowing when they passed through here."
"Well," the big man said with a shrug, "The wind is blowing east now."
"East then?" Morgan asked.
"Wait a minute," Renna interrupted, "You're just going to guess? You don't have any kind of ranger tricks to tell you which way they went?"
"A great deal of tracking is guess work, Renna." Zanadar answered for Morgan.
She frowned. "That isn't a very reassuring thing to hear."
"The trick is to guess right," he said with a grin, "That's what separates the good trackers from the bad."
It took only a few minutes for the group ride down into the valley. As suspected, there were no additional tracks or signs of the creatures to be had, so they continued on to the east. They stuck to low ground as they circled through the dense grass around the base of the large hill.
Gradually, the ground began to slope upward to meet the hilltops and they found themselves rising out of the valley. There was still no sign of the creatures, but they continued nonetheless. Soon, the group stood atop a small knoll among a narrow cluster of trees overlooking the surrounding countryside.
"We haven't seen anything for a while now," the big man pointed out. He glanced up at the sky. The sun was beginning to sink into the horizon. "If we're going to circle back we need to make a decision soon, we only have another hour or so of daylight left."
Morgan surveyed the area around them. Behind the party, to the north, the hills rolled back into the distance and out of sight. To the south, the land flattened into a grassy field and gradually sloped downward. With a sigh, the ranger turned back towards Zanadar. He opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short. Several hundred paces out into the tall grass something moved. Something big.
He looked to the big man.
Zanadar nodded. "I saw it too."
Shades of GreyEdit
It moved again. The creature stood up from the concealing grass, tilted its stout head slightly and sniffed the air. It had rough, splotchy gray skin and a bulky, hunched body. Its long, muscular arms reached down from its broad shoulders and disappeared into the brush. At this distance and with the covering it was impossible to determine the creature’s exact size, but Morgan could quite plainly tell that it was bigger than he was.
Renna stared wide-eyed into the field. “What is that?” she asked quietly, her gaze trained on the beast.
Zanadar peered intently at the creature for a moment and then tightened the straps on his armor. “It’s a troll,” he said simply, testing the grip on the sheathed sword across his back. “And it’s been causing the trouble at Jon Harkin’s farm.” He noticed the stable hand’s uneasiness. “It’s quite all right. We’re upwind, and it doesn’t see us.”
Renna did not look convinced. “Why didn’t you tell us what it was before? You were lying when you said you didn’t know what made the tracks.”
Elandar’s eyebrow arched. He gave the big man a slightly amused expression. “It seems you aren’t nearly as clever as you think you are,” he said with a grin.
Zanadar shrugged. “I suspected they were troll tracks, but I didn’t know for sure, and I didn’t want to cause any excitement if I was wrong.”
Morgan did not believe that for a second, but something else was bothering him. “What is a troll doing here?” He asked, “I’ve never even heard of one in this region.”
“You’re right about that,” the big man answered, happy to change the subject. “It is a long way from home. Your guess is as good as mine as to why it’s here. Trolls tend to do most of their thinking with their stomachs. I’d wager that had something to do with it.”
“So what are you going to do about it?” Renna asked, still carefully watching the beast.
“We have to kill it,” Zanadar replied, “They are vicious, violent creatures. If we don’t, it’s only a matter of time before it feeds on Halflings instead of their pigs.” Zanadar frowned. “It’s probably a little late to be asking this, but how well trained are these horses?”
“They’re the best we have,” the stable hand said, “They won’t spook.”
“Well, at least that’s good news. Morgan, how skilled are you with those maces of yours?”
“Why?” the ranger asked dubiously.
“If I charge it, it may run. I need you to circle around the side and keep it between us. Can you do that?”
Morgan had never seen a troll before, let alone fought one. “I can try.”
“Good. Let’s get this over with then. I’ll circle around to the west,” the big man pointed his mailed glove in the opposite direction, “You go around to the east. Just don’t let it get by you. I’ll do the rest.” With that, he nudged his horse into a subdued trot and looked back over his shoulder to Renna and the old man. “You two stay here. As long as you don’t move, you shouldn’t draw any attention to yourselves.”
“I was slaying monsters before you were born,” Elandar rebutted, “Worry about yourself.”
“Be careful, Morgan,” Renna called softly as the ranger began to slowly ride around the opposite side of the troll. Morgan carefully removed the darkened maces from his traveling pack, all the while keeping his eyes on the creature, which seemed preoccupied with something in the waving grass.
Morgan had not known what to expect after finding the tracks. But a troll? The ranger would never have guessed such a creature would wander this far from its home and end up in the peaceful land of the Halflings. Yet here it was. Morgan grinned. After all that had happened in the past several days, he did not know why he was the least bit surprised now.
He could see Zanadar circling around the creature on the other side, gradually inching closer. The troll batted playfully at whatever it had discovered on the ground, probably tormenting some small animal. Across the field, Morgan stayed even with Zanadar, while keeping himself at a safe distance. He was nervous and found himself holding his breath as he inched silently around the beast.
Suddenly, the wind changed direction, gusting strongly towards the troll. Morgan froze in his saddle. His horse bayed nervously side-to-side as the troll’s head shot up and sniffed the air suspiciously. It turned its gaze in the ranger’s direction.
Morgan tried to keep himself low, a feat not easily accomplished on horseback, but it was too late—the troll had spotted him. The creature rose out of the grass, its icy stare locked onto the ranger as it reared back and then charged. It barreled through the fields toward him, pounding forward with its large, muscled arms. Despite its size, it was surprisingly quick.
Zanadar spurred his horse. The big man’s mount raced through the grass, trying to catch the beast. He shouted something that Morgan couldn’t quite hear as he drew the large sword from across his back. Barely slowing, the troll threw back its head and let loose a deep, penetrating roar.
A pair of large patches of grass behind the creature began to twist about awkwardly as two more trolls stood up in the brush. Morgan heard the big man curse as he pulled up hard on his reigns and narrowly missed colliding with one of the beasts. His horse stumbled to the side but the big man managed to stay mounted. The ranger silently scolded himself. Of course there were more, they knew that from the tracks.
The first troll continued its charge toward the ranger. This was not going how Morgan had hoped. He was not sure how to deal with the beast but was confident that standing there was not the answer. He kicked his horse into action just in time to avoid the troll’s rush. The creature let out an angry wail as its charge came up short, then it spun around and lunged at Morgan.
At its full height, the troll stood nearly eye to eye with the mounted ranger. Grasping the reigns tightly in one hand and his mace in the other, he did his best to beat away the beast’s powerful claws.
He managed to fend off most of the troll’s attempts to maul him and connected a solid blow to the creature’s knuckle. The strike only further enraged the beast. As Morgan tried to ride out of its reach, the troll growled viciously and snatched the hind leg of the ranger’s horse. With a sharp tug, it pulled the frantic steed to the ground and sent Morgan sprawling into the grass.
The ranger took the fall well and quickly rolled to his feet as the troll turned its attention toward him, allowing the horse to recover and gallop off. So much for it being well trained. Morgan certainly did not blame it though. He readied himself as the beast reared up on its legs to attack. It towered over Morgan, its shadow enveloping him completely. Its rank breath seeped into the air as the troll seethed and furiously hurled its fists at Morgan.
The ranger was outmatched and he knew it. On foot he was at a serious disadvantage, though he had little time to dwell on it. He barely managed to jump aside as the troll’s rocklike fists pounded into the ground beside him. Moving quickly, Morgan swung fiercely at the creature’s wrist, leaving a painful contusion that began to swell immediately from the impact of the heavy blow.
The troll bellowed loudly in pain and jerked its arm back. It snarled at the ranger and grabbed at him with its uninjured hand. Morgan tried to dodge but faltered and stumbled into the creature’s grasp. It gripped him painfully around the torso, its long, thick fingers squeezing the air from his lungs as it lifted him from the ground. He struggled to break its hold, swinging feebly at its arms, but the troll was too strong. It secured its grip with its wounded hand and began to squeeze, crushing the ranger.
As the beast tightened its grasp Morgan began to feel light headed. “Morgan!” he thought he heard a voice call out. The troll looked momentarily back over its shoulder, allowing the ranger to glimpse Renna breaking from the cover of the trees, galloping full speed towards him on Gray. The large horse looked angry, and gnashed at its bit as it charged through the grass. Elandar called out for her to stop, but if the stable hand heard the old man’s shouts she ignored them.
The troll paused briefly at the sight of Gray racing through the field and loosened its grip on the ranger. Morgan began to wriggle and the creature turned its attention back toward him just in time to catch the ranger’s boot on the underside of its chin. The beast was unfazed and pulled Morgan closer, baring its teeth in a menacing snarl. The ranger quickly drew his mace back and, summoning all of his strength, swung it at the beast’s head.
It slammed into the troll’s temple with a sickening crack. The beast staggered backward, releasing the ranger. Morgan fell to the ground, gasping for breath. A crimson patch stained the side of the troll’s head as it whirled about awkwardly, trying to stay on its feet. The ranger heard the thundering cadence of Gray’s steel-shod hooves and looked up just in time to see Renna leap from the mighty horse’s back and into the safety of the grass, rolling to a stop perhaps a dozen paces away.
The troll, still reeling from the blow, made a weak attempt to defend itself from the charge. But Renna’s horse simply powered through, crashing headlong into the beast with tremendous force. The troll was hurled backward several paces and crumpled to the ground in an agonizing wreck. It cried out pathetically and tried in vain to rise to its feet, much to the delight of the angry horse, who gleefully stomped the troll into one final, broken heap.
Morgan wheezed for air. “I’m glad he’s on our side.”
“Me too,” Renna said as she rushed over to where the ranger lay. “Are you all right?”
His chest ached and it was difficult to catch his breath. “I’ll be fine,” Morgan answered stoically. “Thank you.” He struggled to his feet and looked around for Zanadar, spotting the big man back toward the center of the field. The tall grass around him was spattered with red. Zanadar grappled with one of the trolls but the other was nowhere in sight. With a deep, painful breath, the ranger began to rush toward him.
Zanadar broke away from the creature, clenched his fists and landed several powerful blows to its midsection. It reeled forward, lashing out at the big man. He stepped aside easily, letting the attack brush past him and leapt onto the troll’s back, driving the creature into the ground. Morgan could not see what was happening in the tall grass, but a moment later the troll stood back up. Zanadar still clung to its back. His strong arm was wrapped tightly around the beast’s neck, choking it. The big man kicked at the back of the beast’s knee. It buckled, sending the two back down into the dirt. For several seconds they thrashed about wildly in the grass. Then, after a long pause, Zanadar emerged. He brushed off his hands and glared down at the ground, looking genuinely annoyed.
“Are you all right?” Morgan asked, panting, as he reached the big man.
Zanadar cursed. “Yeah,” he replied, “I cannot believe I didn’t see them.” Though the grass was splashed with streaks of blood, none of it appeared to be from him. Except for his stormy expression and the absence of his sword, Zanadar appeared to be fine. Then he looked up. “How about you?”
“Nothing that won’t heal,” Morgan said, as Renna led Gray up behind him. “I had a little help.” He gave the big man a peculiar look. “Where’s your sword?”
Zanadar muttered something under his breath and stalked off into a particularly large patch of red grass. He reached down into the brush and, with a stomach-turning, wrenching noise, pulled his sword out of what Morgan presumed to be the other troll—though at this point it was somewhat hard to recognize. “It got stuck,” he explained sourly. He gave the messy blade a disgusted look and wiped it off on the grass.
Elandar emerged from the cover of the trees and casually strolled over to join the group. “Fool girl,” he said, “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“When the alternative is cowering behind a tree with you,” she chirped back tartly, “I’ll risk it.”
Morgan bent forward and put a steadying hand on Gray’s saddle for support as he erupted into a brief fit of coughing. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Zanadar asked.
The ranger held up his other hand. “I’m fine,” he assured him as the coughing subsided, “I’ll just be sore for a few days.”
Elandar looked around, scratching at the rim of his hat as he took in the surroundings. “Where is your horse?” he said to Morgan.
“It ran off after the troll grabbed it.”
“It couldn’t have gone far,” Renna added, “It shouldn’t take us too long to find it.”
“Well,” Zanadar said expansively, “We’d better start looking then. We don’t have much daylight left and we need to find it before dark.”
Renna looked confused. “Why?”
The big man gave the stable hand a hard look, and then replied. “Because these trolls weren’t fully grown, which means that tonight, there’s going to be a very unhappy mother out.”