Knights of the Couch - Part VII - Journey to the Dark Monolith - Section 3

Elvisda walked into Haltan’s shop with Donatello and Lloyd trailing behind him.
Haltan took one look at the bard and said, “Oh no. Not you again. Don’t even think about taking out that lute of yours.”
“No worries, my friend,” Elvisda said smiling. “We are here on official business for the Baron.” He walked over and handed the merchant the note from Grellus.
Haltan looked it over carefully. Then he groaned. “Very well,” he sighed. “What is it you need?”
“Now that’s more like it!” Elvisda declared. “Gentlemen, have a look around.”
They checked the store thoroughly. Donatello found himself a pair of Spider Climbing Boots. They would enable him to scale walls and stick to the slipperiest surfaces. But other than that, there was really nothing else that would help them on this journey.
As they left Haltan’s, the owner breathed a sigh of relief. “That bard could charm the ears off a sow,” the shopkeeper said aloud.

The Baron had sent messengers to find the KOTC members. He requested them to meet him in the private chambers next to his throne room.
When they got there, the two Knights of the Rose were already seated.
“There you are,” Grellus said rising. “I was just explaining the situation to Dame Alana and Sir Cravenn here. They have agreed to go along with you on this most important quest.”
“Actually, I will be coming with you,” Alana said rising as well. “Sir Cravenn here will head back to gather a unit of knights we had left in Bendenwood forest. They were cleaning up an Orc problem in that area, but they should be finished by now.”
“I wonder if it is the same group of Orcs we ran into,” Elvisda whispered to Glorfindle.
“The unit should be able to meet up with us on the way to this monolith in the Darkwoods,” Alana continued.
“Thank you Dame Alana,” Aksel said courteously. “We greatly appreciate the assistance of the Knights of the Rose in this matter.”
“It is we who should be thanking you for uncovering this foul plot,” the lady knight replied. “The forces of evil cannot be allowed to obtain such strong magic. It would a blow to goodness and righteousness everywhere!” she declared. Her eyes flamed and she brought her fist down on the table after the last statement.
“Fiery, isn’t she,” Elvisda commented quietly to Glo and Donnie.
“Yes, quite,” Donatello replied as if in a daze. Elvisda took a sidelong glance at his companion. The elf seemed entranced by the red-haired beauty. The bard nudged Glorfindle who turned and looked as well. The two elves smiled at each other knowingly. “I think it’s cute,” Elistra commented softly, holding onto Glo’s arm.
“We still have some preparations to make,” Aksel was saying, “So we plan on leaving first thing in the morning.”
“Very good,” Alana replied. “I will be ready. May our campaign be victorious and the forces of evil flee before the swords of righteousness!” She drew her sword and held it in front of her.
Sir Cravenn drew his sword and crossed it over Alana’s.
Lloyd, caught up in the revelry, drew his blades and crossed them with both knights.
Then Donnie pulled out his rapier, walked over and did likewise.
“To victory!” the elf cried.
“To victory!” the four of them cried together.
“This is going to be an interesting journey,” Elvisda said quietly to the rest of the party.

The party gathered outside the castle gate first thing in the morning. The KOTC members, Martin, Elistra, Alana and Shalla were all present. The Baron, Baroness, Captain Gelpas and Lady Andrella had all come out to bid them farewell.
They had left the Boulder standing outside what had been the Dying Minotaur. At Elvisda’s prompting, however, they had decided to buy the inn. Now it was called the Golden Golem. The bard had also hired Shalla to manage the inn while they were away. So while the lady bard had come to see them off, she would not be joining them on this journey.
Shalla and Elvisda were off by themselves saying their goodbyes.
At the same time, Andrella had pulled Lloyd off to the side where they were having a private conversation of their own. The big warblade held the little lady in his arms. Then she reached up and kissed him soundly.
“They are adorable together,” Elistra commented to Glorfindle.
“Which couple?” the elf wizard replied jokingly.
“Lloyd and Andrella of course, silly,” the gypsy woman admonished.
“Luckily the Baron and Baroness agree with you,” Glo answered, nodding towards Grellus and Fairwind.
The two were locked arm in arm, watching their daughter and the noble from Penwick. They were both smiling and seemed quite content.
Andrella reluctantly let Lloyd go and went to stand next to her mother and father. Then Lloyd and Elvisda both rejoined the group and mounted their horses.
“Are we ready now?” Aksel inquired.
“Yep,” Lloyd said. “Indeed,” Elvisda replied.
“Then let’s head out!” the little cleric cried.
Fairwind waved Shalla to come over and stand with them. Then the five of them watched together as the little band trotted down the hill together.
“Good luck!” Grellus cried as they were almost out of earshot.
“Come back safe,” Andrella whispered. Then she threw herself into her mother’s arms and buried her head in her bosom.

When the group reached the edge of town, they found Ruka waiting there. She was sitting on a rock a few yards past the last house on the south road.
“Well it took you long enough,” the young girl said rising up and jumping down to meet them.
“What are you doing here?” Glorfindle asked, surprised to see the young Greymantle sister.
“I’ve come to join you on your quest,” she declared. “Ves filled me in on what you were going to do. I thought I would come along and make sure you stayed out of trouble.”
“Plus you thought there might be loot where we’re going,” Seth finished for her.
“You know me too well,” the girl replied smiling broadly.
“Wait a second,” Donatello said, “you can’t be seriously thinking of letting this girl join us. She’s just a child!”
“Who’s the new elf?” Ruka asked Glo.
“Oh, this is Donatello,” Glo replied.
“Greetings to you young dame,” Donatello said dismounting his horse. He bowed low and said “And who might you be?”
“I am Rukastanna Greymantle,” she said staring at him curiously. “And I can handle myself thank you.”
“Trust me…she can,” Alana spoke up. “This young woman beat me fair and square in the Restenford tourney yesterday.”
“This young girl beat you?” Donatello cried incredulously.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I did,” Ruka replied angrily. “But you were very good,” she said looking at Alana. Then she looked back at Donatello and said, “And if you don’t believe her, I can show you right now how I did it!”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary,” Donatello said hurriedly throwing up his hands. “If Dame Alana says that you are that good, then you are that good. My apologies for thinking you were just an ordinary girl.”
“Apology accepted,” Ruka said matter of factly. “Now can we get going, or are we going to stay here all day.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Seth commented.
“Let’s go then,” Aksel said. “Do you want to ride with one of us Ruka?”
“No, I’ll just fly,” the young girl replied. “Glo, can you let your raven loose? It would be nice to have some intelligent company to talk to up there.” She shot a look at Donatello.
“Surely,” the elf wizard replied. He sent Raven aloft.
Then Ruka shape shifted into a hawk and flew skyward joining Glo’s raven in mid air. The two birds spiraled around each other for a minute and they took off down the south road.
“Nice going their Donnie,” Seth needled.
“I didn’t know!” Donatello protested.
“It was obvious you meant well,” Alana told him.
“Thank you,” the elf swashbuckler replied. “At least someone appreciates me.”

The road between Restenford and Garrotten had once been referred to as the Knight’s Road. These days it was called either the Old Knight’s Road or just the South Road.
The road itself had been built in the old days, when Thac was still young. The ancient spells were still in place keeping the cobble stones clear and smooth. Not even the grass grew near the edge of the road, at which point brambles, thickets and wild hedges grew in abandon.
Few farms attempted to take hold in the wilder lands south of the eerie silhouette of Bone Hill and north of the ill-reputed town of Garrotten. And once one travelled a half day’s ride out from Restenford, none of the old homesteads appeared inhabited.
It was off to the east side of the road, in a small clearing surrounded by a rare dense stand of pine that the party made their first camp. Martin had picked the grove as the perfect place to spend the night out of sight of any watchful eyes. The more observant members of the party noticed that the archer eyes continually wandered to the sky. All in the group had heard rumors of a huge Green Dragon seen to the north before leaving Restenford.
Alana had suggested camping on the edge of the road, “So that if any on the road at night need help, they may clearly see us. However, if they wish ill, then let them also easily find us, so we may deal with them accordingly.” Alana seemed totally unaffected by the ride, in fact both she and her warhorse seem ready not only to ride on through the night, but to gallop the whole way if necessary.
Aksel made the final decision. “It would seem best to camp a little away from the road so that our mounts and casters can get their rest. But, as Alana suggests, we should also be close enough to keep watch upon the road”.
A lone hawk circled the grove in the near twilight sky overhead. The wizard Glorfindle looked to his raven that nodded knowingly back at him. Ruka would not land until they had set up camp for the evening.
“Yes“, the wizard agreed, “far enough to stay hidden but close enough to observe.”
Martin quickly and quietly set up camp. The archer seemed happiest when he was occupied. Alana, who was a veteran of campaign trails despite her youthful appearance, pitched in with practiced ease. Normally the irrepressible Donatello would also assist. He was obviously smitten with the Dame Knight and had taken to following Alana around with deft hands, and a charming tongue. But this evening he seemed engrossed in one of his drawings, his pastel stained fingers flying across the small canvas as if in a race with the dying light of day.
The soft strumming of the bard, Elvisda, gave melodious backdrop to the Aksel’s evening devotions. The quiet gnomish chants and clear bardic music was a familiar backdrop to Glorfindle as he pored yet again over the familiar pages of his travelling spell book by a small light conjured on the end of his staff. The seer, Elistra, sat across from the mage, cross-legged, meditating and oblivious to all.
Lloyd stood first watch near the road, carefully oiling and sharpening one of his two long blades. The other blade, of black adamantine needed no sharpening, for its enchanted edge would never dull. He looked hopefully towards the road, wishing for some chance encounter to stretch his ride-weary muscles, but none appeared.
The little ninja, Seth, set out invisibly into the surrounding woods. His stated objective was to scout the area for dangers, but the party members that knew him well suspected that he was attempting to sneak up on Ruka. The two seemed to have developed a repore’ since the night of the Serpent Cult attack. None of the other companions were ever sure where Seth was. But the young shape shifting girl seemed to have a knack for pinpointing the stealthy ninja’s location. Seth had found an excellent partner with which to train his skills. And Ruka seemed to enjoy the exercises as much as the little halfling, if not more.
When the camp prep wound down to dinner, Elvisda stepped in. Clearing, pitching tents, hauling water, and fire building were one thing, but he wasn’t going to risk dinner on someone else’s cooking. And those who had tasted Martin’s attempts at what could only loosely be called food, whole heartedly agreed. Alana claimed no skill with the skillet either, but Donatello eagerly waited for Alana’s turn at meal prep for he claimed that anything touched by her glorious hands could only “sing to the heavens”. Glo personally thought that Donnie was going a bit overboard with his constant praising of the red-haired beauty, but Alana did not really seem to mind.
As the contents of the stew pot began to send out tendrils of steam across the clearing, Ruka appeared among the horses at the edge of camp. Not a whinny or shuffle from the animals betrayed her arrival; even Aksel and Seth’s riding dogs just wagged their tails. She greeted each of the animals in turn before joining the others at the campfire. She had a half dozen large trout on a string at her side.
“Did you see Seth out there?” Glorfindle asked.
“Nope,” Ruka said, settling in at a large stone by the fire. “Heard him, smelled him and crossed his trail twice, but never saw him.” Glo smiled. Those two were cut from the same cloth he thought. He gazed over at Elistra who had finished her meditation. She nodded towards Ruka and smiled at him knowingly.
Ruka spread out a cloth and began cleaning the fish. It was a curious ritual that Elvisda had assured her was better for digestion. It seemed wasteful, but not as perplexing as his strange habit of tossing the flesh in a pan and searing it before eating. She understood cooking land animals before eating, it seemed a hygienic necessity for most; but fish was just better raw.
The adventurers were just starting on the stew. Elvisda offered her a steaming bowl; it smelled exceedingly tempting.
“What’s in it?” Ruka asked diffidently.
“Secret seasonings known only to the ancient Elvish Lords” Elvisda replied, proffering the bowl to her with a flourish.
“No, I mean the meat” she said with obvious temptation to take the bowl, but something held her back.
“Ah” said Elvisda, “it is venison.” He cast a reproachful glance at Martin. “It was supposed to be pork.”
“Not my fault,” Martin protested between mouthfuls of stew. “The pig farmer wouldn’t sell me any. He made up some crazy story about a little dragon stealing his whole pen.”
“Oh, then I think I’d rather not,” Ruka paused for a moment, then went on. “I just spoke with several deer. I don’t think I could eat one of their relatives with good conscience.”
“Mom always told me never to name any of the animals that we were going to eat. I don’t think talking to your dinner is wise either” Alana said. She paused for a moment as the companions all looked at her; then she shrugged and took another bite of stew.
At that moment, Ruka held up her hand, her head cocked to one side. Then she smiled, took the bowl from Elvisda and held it out to her left.
“No fair, my stomach growled” said the disembodied voice of Seth. The bowl seemed to float in the air for a second before Seth appeared, sitting down hungrily to start in on the stew.
“Yeah, that was a close one; I didn’t hear you at all until then. Thank goodness for Elvisda’s stew.” Ruka remarked, still grinning. Seth grinned right back at her and sat down to eat.
Looking at Ruka grinning like a kid across the campfire like that, it was hard to imagine her other than as the young girl she appeared. Glorfindle had to remind himself that she was far more than just a shape shifter, and he strongly suspected that her current form was not her true shape.
“Then why eat fish?” Elistra was asking Ruka as Elvisda handed her a plate of trout.
“The bounty of sea and stream are the just due to the masters of wind and wave”. Ruka had a faraway look, and seemed like she was quoting something. “We honor their life and respect their death as they feed our children.”
The group was silent in thought for a moment.
“Oh, and fish are stupid and not worth talking to” Ruka added with a crooked grin.
“Respect all beliefs, but hold true to your own,” Alana said as she rose. “I’ll stick with the bounty of the lands that the gods provide, and by the hand of our fair elf friend it was deliciously rendered and most appreciated. Excuse me all, I shall go relieve Lloyd in his guard duties so he may also enjoy this meal.”
“Wait fair lady, I shall accompany you!” Donatello rose in one smooth motion, spinning an empty stew bowl on a finger; he tossed it to Elvisda. The bard gave him a nudge with his elbow and an exaggerated wink as he passed.
“There is no need really” they heard Alana say as the two headed up the path towards the road. “To miss a moon rise on such a lovely face as yours would be a sin to all artists!” they clearly heard Donatello’s reply. “But you’ve forgotten your paints…” came Alana’s voice faintly. “Ah, but there are so many forms of art…” Donatello’s voice faded into the darkening woods.
Elistra and Glorfindle exchanged amused looks. Only Aksel and Seth noticed Ruka’s as she watched the two depart. Her bright green eyes seemed to develop amber flecks in the firelight, her pupils briefly contracting vertically like some great cat.
“Feels like a storm coming” Martin commented, his eyes on the camp dinnerware he was collecting for cleaning. He too had noticed the electric charged feeling in the air, though not its source.
Elvisda began playing a pleasant, and rather calming little tune on his lute.
Ruka blinked once, her eyes returning to normal. She seemed perplexed, perhaps by her own feelings.
“Well, you people can sit here snuggling, playing house with your tents and eating poor forest animals!” Ruka suddenly spat out angrily. “But there are real monsters out there…” she paused, seeming as surprised at her outburst as the rest of the companions. “Somewhere” She concluded almost wishfully, and began storming out of camp.
“You did notice that, didn’t you?” Seth muttered quietly to Aksel beside him. Aksel just nodded.
At the edge of camp, Ruka turned briefly to Elvisda. “The fried fish flesh was actually quite tasty. Thank you.” He just nodded, his fingers still plucking out a soothing tune on his lute.
“What’d I miss?” Lloyd asked, just entering camp. “Did I hear someone say ‘monsters’?” His hands on his dual blades, he seemed rather hopeful.
“The usual,” Seth quipped, “you missed everything”. He was heading to the edge of camp. “Don’t worry” he continued, “the biggest little monster in the area already left”.
Seth waved once to Aksel and vanished into thin air, leaving Lloyd standing there confused until Martin placed a bowl of stew in his hands.

Knights of the Couch – Part VII – Journey to the Dark Monolith – Section 4

Knights of the Couch - Part VII - Journey to the Dark Monolith - Section 3

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