Chapter 3 - the Wounds of a dead Man

Tarn rolled over and saw the first light of dawn filter through the window in his room. Morning already. He sat up and stretched, shaking the cobwebs out of his foggy head with a flourish. Time to set out on this foolish quest. He pulled on his clothes —leather riding pants and a fine cloth shirt, as well as the stout military issue boots he still preferred —and gathered his gear into his pack as he headed downstairs. The inn was bustling even at this early morning hour. Several people were scattered about the common room eating breakfast, and the conversation was already quite loud. The room was small, however, and before long Tarn spotted Logan sitting at a table in the corner attacking a plate of eggs and bacon with gusto. Tarn crossed the room and sat down across from him. Logan looked up, and between mouthfuls said, “It really is a crime what they charge for a good meal around here these days. Back west what I paid for this would have fed me for a week. I figure that where we’re going, though, I won’t be eating good for a while, so I’ll splurge.” Logan picked up a stein full of something noxious smelling, drinking deeply before Tarn realized it was only coffee. Nasty stuff, he thought. Tastes like year old water from an unwashed canteen. He shrugged. To each his own. He ordered his breakfast from the serving girl and sat, watching the cleric put away his breakfast with gusto. Well, he eats like a dwarf, Tarn thought, smiling softly. The pair didn’t say much —Logan was simply too busy eating. Then, right about the time his own food came, he spotted Nyla coming down the stairs. He gave her a quick appraisal as she came down. He

noticed her pale white complexion, on display as she had pulled her long red hair that fell into a braid down her back. She was dressed sensibly, much as one of the cow hands that they had fought the night before had been — riding breeches, woolen shirt, and a small pack strapped to her back, as well as the spell pouches and the two wicked looking daggers at her hip. Tarn was almost convinced she knew what she was doing. She came over to the table and sat down, a bowl of porridge in her hand. Expecting her to talk, he was surprised when she simply started devouring her breakfast with focused intensity. He watched her, a bemused expression slowly crossing his face. Logan spoke up first. “What makes you think you can track these orcs, Nyla?” She paused between bites. “It’s not hard. A couple dozen orc raiders should leave enough footprints that a blind gnome could follow them. I wonder why our friend the knight can’t do it himself.” So do I, Tarn thought. “Besides that, I have had some training. Master Ulric down at the guild insists that I train in something besides mage craft, and as my worthless father was something of a woodsman” —she indicated the points of her elfin ears —“I come to tracking rather naturally. Besides, if nothing else, it is useful in helping one find spell components.” She went back to eating. Logan pushed away his now empty plate. “You’ve done similar work before, I assume?” “No.” “No?” “No.” Logan paused. “Are you even sure you can do this?”

“Yes.” Tarn couldn’t help but chuckle. Her confidence was impressive, but he couldn’t help but think Logan was right to ask the question. He turned to the priest, feigning more confidence that he felt. “Don’t worry, Logan. She’ll be fine. And if not, I have enough skill that we won’t end up lost in the plains forever.” He laughed as Nyla stared daggers at him. “Just don’t end up getting us lost, girl. I haven’t tracked anything since before I left the King’s service, so my skills are a little rusty.” The three of them finished their breakfast in companionable silence. After saying their farewells to Bear, they set out for the Keep, a good mile away as the griffon flew. *** As the three companions walked along the dusty side street that the Happy Orc was located on, Tarn recalled all he had learned about the city —village, actually — of Traazon Keep. His years in the army had required him to learn the history of the empire, and he shared some of this information with his companions, neither of whom had heard all the stories Tarn had “Why here?” Logan asked. “What makes Traazon Keep the spot where the Empire built the easternmost of its great castles?” “The location of this little city is dictated by two things.” Tarn replied. “First and foremost is the Ishkar River. Even this far north, it’s over a mile wide. The Ishkar follows its course all the way to the far south, and across the river to the east are the clan holds of the orcs. Here, though, at the end of the King’s Way, men built the last of their great border great redoubts.

“The second reason is Watch Hill.” Tarn pointed toward a hill that rose several hundred feet above the surrounding prairie. “The locals, in fact, call it a mountain.” Logan, who had grown up among the mountain citadels of the dwarves, knew better, and only half-stifled a chuckle when Tarn said that. Tarn smiled as he replied. “I know it’s not that high, but it is true that the hill is the highest piece of land in leagues. That fact, when you consider the relatively shallow depth of the river here, made this place a natural spot to build both a ferry across the river and that fortress up on the hill; which, even now, four hundred years after it’s construction, is still called: Traazon Keep, named after the first Baron who watched the orc clans across the river.” There were other forts and villages along the river —and even a few homesteads on the other side, Tarn mused. Men, being what they were, would and could live pretty much anywhere they put their mind to, and so a few people did live across the river in spite of the constant danger from the orcs. Logan pursed his lips. “There are other castles, though, right? I mean, I can’t believe that this is the only spot along the whole of the river that men have fortified, right?” “Oh, yes.” Tarn chuckled. “Villages dot the border with the orc lands from the mountains up north to the hill country of the elven forests down south. Traazon Keep, however, is the largest of the Empire’s garrison castles. When trouble comes, as it has now,” he gestured to the people thronging the busy street they had just turned onto, “people flock here for protection.” “What about before the wars?” Nyla asked. “My master told me that once, back before the great wars, humans had

tried to conquer the land across the river.” “He’s right,” Tarn nodded. “Before the great wars, men tried to take more land from the orcs in the same way that they took the Empire of Averim we know today. I’m sure your master taught you that in ancient times, the orcs controlled all the plains between the oceans from east to west. Then, inexplicably, fifteen hundred years ago, the humans came from across the ocean.” In human minds, this time lived on only in legend. Men had suddenly come from across the great sea in a fleet of ships from a land no one remembered, to this land —a land that had never seen their kind before. They brought no records, no tales of their homeland, no technology that made them seem special in any way. The people themselves only said that they had fled a great evil in their homelands, and that they had built the fleet upon the gods’ direction, and then sailed for months. Nyla nodded in agreement. “My master told me that even scholars today debate how they could do it; that even the most accomplished mages and scribes have never been able to determine where men came from, and no ship of man or elf can stay at sea as long as those ancient humans purportedly had. He told me,” she deepened her voice, trying to sound older and masculine, “ ‘As mysteries go, it’s right up there with why dragons deigned to deal with men at all, instead of simply killing all they could.’ ” Tarn smiled as he continued his tale. “The elves, however, have a small number tales that survive from those chaotic days. Those tales tell of a treaty between man, elf, and dwarf that promised the newcomers all the lands between the elves’ forests and the dwarves’ mountains. All they had to do was chase out the orcs. Both of the older

races, while curious about the newcomers, were sure the orc hordes would simply slaughter the new refugee tribe and move on. “Men, however, proved to be more than a match for the orcs. Over the course of several centuries, mankind conquered all the land between the ocean and the great river Ishkar, and seemed bent on taking the rest of the Plains of Grummish for themselves as well.” Logan interjected a comment here. “Yes, we learned of this in my education before I took my clerical rites.” He grew caught up in the story, and continued the tale. “We learned that when the orcs seemed doomed, their dark god made a pact with the human king of the city-state of Averim to save his children. Norazon the First spent thirty years unifying the human city-states into the modern Empire of Averim. It was hailed at first by elves and dwarves as a great achievement, but the older races didn’t know about the pact that lay behind those conquests. The war he started, originally as one of unification, became one of conquest as Norazon set out to conquer first the dwarves, then the elves.” “I’ve never heard this before,” Nyla murmured. Tarn raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Your master never taught you this?” She shook her head, and Tarn shrugged. “Well, the ‘hundred year’s war’ as it is now called, served the orcs well. Their god saw to it that they were saved by the wars men fought with the older races. By the time those wars were finally over, the border between men and orcs was fixed on the great river, and men, for our part, were sick of war and had no desire to conquer more lands. And the orcs,” he paused, snorting softly as it to show what he thought, “The orcs, by their own right, had learned from

men the skill of diplomacy, and agreed to the border. They may have never accepted it, but they never again tried to reclaim their old lands.” At least, not until now. Tarn had fought too many orcs to think that the fire of reconquest burned in their souls no longer. *** When the three companions reached the castle, Sir Alec was waiting. “Well, Nohmahl. I’m surprised you’re sober enough to make it here this morning.” Tarn merely nodded, refusing to be baited. Alec called for horses to be saddled and brought to the main gate. He looked straight at Nyla and said, “Since you volunteered for this mission, I expect you to take good care of these horses, girl. I’ve lost too many good mounts to orc raids already this season. “Now, as to your mission.” He drew his sword from its scabbard and used the point to draw in the dirt. “This is Traazon Keep. Here,” he indicated a point northwest of the city, “is the village of Redwatch, about two days’ hard ride from here. From what the refugees have told us, we’ve been able to determine that the orcs must have a base somewhere on this side of the river —probably somewhere in here.” Alec drew a circle to the west of Redwatch. “Beyond that, I can’t tell you much. This band can’t be very big — I haven’t heard of them hitting anything larger than single farms, but it is getting to be a problem. I can’t spare the men to hunt them down, but if you find them, I can sendmen to rid ourselves of them.” Logan mused over the map. “Any Wargs?” he asked. Tarn shuddered quietly as he remembered orc warriors charging at him, riding on massive wolf-like creatures that were like wolves in the way that a wolf is like a lap dog.

Orcs were difficult enough foes by themselves. Adding wargs to the equation increased the danger five fold. Alec’s words ripped his attention back to the present. “A few. No more, thank the gods.” “Anything else we should know?” Tarn asked. Alec paused. “I’m not sure.” Tarn raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh, not that I wouldn’t tell you, Nohmahl. It’s that I don’t know what to make of it.” He paused, obviously collecting his thoughts. “Go on.” Alec looked at him first, then the other two. “Well, the reports we’ve got back from some of the villagers say that the wounds the dead have taken aren’t….. right.” Logan goggled at him. “Aren’t right? What exactly is that supposed to mean?” “You tell me and we’ll both know, Shield Brother. All I know is that they say the wounds didn’t seem like axe or blade wounds. That even though the victims were dead, the wounds weren’t.” He paused. “I don’t know what it means anymore than you do. Just keep your eyes open.” He turned toward Nyla. “You have need of weapons, equipment? I can provide them to you out of your pay if you need them.” Generous bugger, Tarn thought. Logan turned back to the Knight from where he had been watching the men train across the way. Tarn noticed an almost wistful grin on his face. “No, Sir Knight. I think we are set.” He touched the wicked looking battle axe strapped to his hip. “At least I am.” The other two nodded that they were as well. Just then, two pages came up, leading a pack horse.

Alec patted the chestnut mare’s shoulder. The horse whickered in response, and, as if from thin air, Alec pulled an apple out of his tunic, giving it to the horse. He always was good with his horses, Tarn remembered. “If you find any bodies, bring them back —that is what Sandy here is for. She carries feed for the others as well, should you need it.” He patted the horse once more, and looked at Nyla. “Just be careful. Nothing heroic, ok? Information only. Now, if you have no more questions, I have loads of work to do.” No one said anything. “Well, gods willing, I’ll see you in a week.” Alec strode off, leaving the three of them alone. Tarn laughed as he mounted his horse. “Well, let’s get going,” he called out. Nyla looked up at him curiously. “What’s so funny?” “Oh, nothing,” Tarn replied almost flippantly. “It’s just that, for a second, I almost thought Alec gave a damn whether we lived or died.” He touched his heels to his horse’s side, and headed for the gate.

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