Rise of the Thrall Lord
The Road to Vermoorden - Part 1
The Old Knight’s Road cut a bold swath through the lands from Ravenford to Vermoorden. The ancient spells still defying weather and wilderness alike to keep the cobble stones clear and smooth. Even the grass seemed subdued to a uniform one rod’s distance from the edge of the road, at which point brambles, thickets and wild hedges took hold with a vengeance as if to proudly challenge the road’s dominance of their domain.
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 Vermoorden. And once one travelled a half day’s ride out from Ravenford, 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 Companions made their first camp. It was not the Elves in the group who picked the spot. Two of the three in the party were of the urbane sort of High Elf, common in Thac in current times, who cared little for woodland lore. The third, a Grey Elf wizard named Glorfindle was deep in quiet conversation with the seer Elistra on some point of magical theory.
It was the normally quiet and retiring archer, Martin who presented the grove as the perfect place to spend the night out of sight of any watchful eyes. The more observant members of the party would notice that his eyes were not cast upon the road as he said such, but more to the sky. All in the group had heard the rumors of the huge Green Dragon seen to the north.
Dame Alana, Knight of the Rose, suggested camping on the edge of the road, “So that if any on the road at night need help, they can clearly see us. And if any upon the road wish ill, then let them easily find us as well, so we may deal with them in kind.” 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.
As usual, the Companions turned to Aksel, the gnomish cleric of Garglittergold, for a decision.
“It would seem wisest to camp as securely as possible to afford rest for our mounts and casters, but also we should keep watch upon the road” he stated after some consideration.
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. He glanced to the empty saddle of the riding horse that they had ostensibly purchased for the young shape shifter, Ruka to ride. She had spent less than ten minutes in the saddle before declaring riding too boring and slow to continue, and leapt into the air that morning in the form of just such a hawk.
“Yes“, he agreed, “this is a fine spot to camp.”
Camp setup was initiated quickly and quietly by Martin, who seemed happiest when so 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, usually following Alana around with deft hands, and 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 sonorous evening devotions of Aksel. 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 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 was forever keen. He looked hopefully towards the road, wishing for some chance encounter to stretch his ride-weary muscles, but none seemed imminent.
The gnomish rogue, Seth, set out invisibly into the surrounding woods. His stated objective was to scout the area for dangers, but the Companions suspected that he was attempting to sneak up on Ruka again. None of the other Companions could ever be sure where Seth was. But even cloaked in invisibility and creeping as quiet as a mouse, the keen senses of the shape shifter seemed able to pinpoint the stealthy rogue without fail. It was a challenge.
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 the Companions who had tasted Martin’s forays into what could only loosely be called food, whole heartedly agreed. Alana claimed no skill with the skillet either, but Donatello eagerly waited Alana’s turn at meal prep for he claimed that anything touched by her glorious hands could only sing to the heavens.
As the contents of the stew pot began to send out tendrils of hunger stirring aroma 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 Companions 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.”
She 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 Companions 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. She seemed to enjoy the stealth game more than Seth.
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 Companions were 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 stalwart Lloyd in his guard duties so he may partake.”
“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” the Companions 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, perhaps inspired by the boldness of the flamboyant swashbuckler.
Only Aksel and Seth noticed Ruka 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.
“Freaky” 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 green-eyed 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.