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CHAPTER 14 - Preparing for the Unexpected

Baron Mournfell grabbed the body of the dead squire
and tried to shake him back to life, even though he knew it
was too late. “This was Sir Gondrath’s squire. He was in
command at the main outpost up along the river road….
Only three miles from here! What do you suppose attacked
him?”

Tarn looked down at the boy, examining the slashes
across his chest. He knew what had killed the boy.
Gulping down his fear, he answered, “Milord, I believe the
Soul Stealer did this.”

“How can you know?”

“These wounds look like what Alec described to us,
and what Logan said that the dead orc boy had taken.” He
ran a finger gently down the largest slash. The blood oozed
out in a thin viscous jelly, as if the body had been dead for
days, yet it was warm to the touch. “This certainly isn’t like
anything I’ve ever seen,” Tarn murmured softly.

His intellect now overcoming his grief and shock,
the Baron said “I would tend to agree with you. We must
send aid. For now, we must make sure that this body is
prepared for burial. Tell the Castellian too….”

Tarn cut him off. “Burn it, milord. And quickly!”

Lord Mournfell responded with a raised eyebrow.
“Burn it? As the pagan orcs do? Why?”

“It isn’t right, milord. Look at the body. From what
Logan has said, it bares something similar to the taint of….
Undeath.”

Tarn watched the shudder run down the Baron’s back.
“Are you sure? The boy’s family was well connected. I want
to be sure before I burn his body.”

He simply nodded, and the Baron grunted
acknowledgment. “Well, I will have my priest bless the body
first. Surely you can find no flaw in that?” Tarn shrugged.
“Very well, then. I will call out a score of our remaining
mounted men-at-arms, Tarn. Fetch your companions
and meet me at the northern gate. You seem to be the
closet thing we have to experts in this creature around
here. You have one hour.” With that, the Baron strode off,
calling again for his squire to fetch Sir Tonath, and yelling
impatiently for the squire to hurry up. Tarn, momentarily
dumbstruck, left the audience chamber, his heart pounding
in his chest before he even started to run.

***

Tarn raced down the hill, following the well-
worn path to the city. He realized again how thoroughly
indefensible the city was, especially for a city than had
been designed as a border outpost. There were no terrain
features apart from the river and watch hill, no places to
anchor a defense at all – besides the castle itself. If war
came to this place, the populace could survive within the
walls of the keep, but the city would be lost. The river was
simply too long to prevent orcs from crossing at a place of
their choosing, and once an army was across, there was no
way that men could stop an orc horde short of the castle’s
walls. Certainly not, at any rate, without Alec’s men.

He skidded to a stop in front of the inn, and saw
Bear was standing behind the counter polishing a stack
of ale steins. Tarn walked up to the counter and asked,
“Where are the others?”
“You seem to be in a hurry.”

Tarn nodded. “Yes, I am. We’ve been summoned
back to the castle. Something has happened with… our
friend, and the Baron has requested out aid.” Bear’s
eyebrow rose higher. “I can’t explain right now.”
Bear took the hint and nodded to the stairway off to his
left. “They’re up in their rooms. Can’t you tell me what’s
going on?”

Tarn shook his head. “Not now. I’m sorry I can’t
explain. Just trust me that my silence is best for everyone.”

Bear shrugged as he pointed toward the stairs. “You
know the way, Tarn. Whatever’s happening, I’ll take your
word. You haven’t steered me wrong…. yet.” Tarn nodded
and headed up the stairs.

Soon enough, he could see that two of the doors were
ajar. He poked his head into the first one, and saw Nyla
poring over the scrolls.

He whistled softly, and she shot Tarn a dirty look
for a moment before she realized who it was. “Grab your
gear, girl,” he ordered, “and anything you need for your
magecraft. Meet me downstairs as quick as you can. The
stealer has been sighted near the city.”

Without bothering to shut her door, Tarn quickly
went down the hall way to the other open door. He peaked
in and was relieved to see the cleric sitting there, oblivious
to his surroundings as he also poured over some scroll.
“Grab you gear, Logan. The beast has been sighted, and
the Baron has asked us to help his guardsmen since we
are, as he put it, ‘The experts on the stealer around here.’ ”

Logan rolled his eyes, but he grabbed his breastplate
and began strapping it on. “Tarn, this scroll is very
interesting. It appears that the only way to get rid of a
stealer is to trap it with a binding spell, and then kill it.”

“Kill it? How?”

Logan smiled sarcastically. “With, I’m afraid, sharp
pointy things.”

Tarn snorted. “That shouldn’t be too hard - if the
Baron can provide enough men. Can you provide the
binding spell?”

“Me? Gods, no. I have nowhere near enough skill to
do that. Shield Brother Tordek could, perhaps, but he has
little practice in such matters, and isn’t certain he could do
so under the stress of combat. Tarn, I caution you – killing
it after binding it isn’t as easy as you might think. The
beast’s defenses are formidable – and we’ve seen what it
does to those it strikes. It has other abilities that the scroll
is vague on. We should be prepared for the unexpected.”
He stood up and grabbed his axe.

Tarn looked at him as he headed for the door. “I’ve
never understood that statement. Just how in the hells do
you prepare for the unexpected?” He slipped down the hall
before he could hear if Logan said anything in response.

***

The three companions collected their horses and headed
for the outer gate of the garrison. Tarn quickly filled in his
companions on what had happened, and by the time they
arrived, the other two were virtually dripping with anxious
anticipation – or fear. Tarn wasn’t sure which was the
stronger emotion.
As they rode up Watch Hill toward the Keep, Tarn
could see the mounted men forming up, and he could
hear Tonath shouting orders. One thing’s for certain.
Tonath never does anything by half measures. He quickly
counted over thirty mounted men. The horses chafed
with anticipation, and he was certain that their riders did
as well. Tarn nudged his horse closer to his old battle
companion and called out, “Hail, Tonath. I return with my
companions, as the Baron asked. Are your men ready to
move out?”

The other man nodded. “Aye, we’re ready to go. Was
just waiting for you, in fact. Just wish I knew what the fuss
was all about. Baron just told me that I was to gather every
man who could ride and shoot a bow, an’ to form up here
an’ wait for your return. Said you’d fill me in, and I was to
listen to your instructions.” Tarn raised an eyebrow. He
hadn’t expected that.

“Well, I’m not sure exactly what we’ll find up the road. If
you’re ready, I’ll fill you in as we go.”

By the time they reached the northern edge of the city,
Tarn had filled the other man in on everything he could.
Tonath, never one to pale before a fight, seemed noticeably
worried for the first time in all the years Tarn had known
him. Even worried, however, the other man kept his
composure, and quickly passed instructions to his men.
Soon enough, they crossed over a low rise, and Nyla, her
eyesight as keen as ever, shouted a warning. “Look, off in
the distance! Smoke!”

Tarn called a halt, and Tonath said, “Yeah, I see it too.
That’s about where the outpost is, right, Jahn?” One of the
men, squinting in the sunlight, nodded his head. “All right
then, wedge formation. Jahn, you’re on point. Protect the
priest at all costs.”

Logan didn’t know whether to be flattered or worried – or
both. Before he had time to consider which one was more
relevant, the cavalry troopers had formed up and started
forward. Tonath dropped his horse back and fell in next to
Tarn.

“How far do you think we have to go yet?”

Nyla cut in, “Smoke’s pretty thick, so I’d say, oh, half a
mile or so.”

Tonath looked back at her, unsure of weather she was
being serious or not. “You’re sure about that, girl?”

She laughed and pulled her hair back from over her
ears, flashing their points to him. “I’m sure.”

Then they heard the scream.