Moving as quickly as could, they still tried to avoid any areas that looked inhabited. Even so, as night fell, Rurik worried that they were being followed. A distant howl from behind them lent form to his concern.
"Does it sound hungry?" asked Tibbiddo fearing the answer.
Maewyn listen to the howling for a moment the glanced over at Tibbiddo.
"Sounds to me as if it more annoyed then hungry. Maybe it does not like the way we smell."
"That is good then," concluded Tibbiddo, "no one likes to eat something that smells foul," he said glancing to Marri for support.
Maewyn chuckled as she heard this.
Marri simply snorted rather indelicately when she heard Tibbi's comments and tried to split her concentration between listening and staying on her pony.
Now that they were listening, it seemed to the others as well that something was pursuing them. It didn't seem like simply hunting animals, there seemed to be intelligence behind it.
Maewyn plays closer attention to what seems to be pursing them. Trying for greater speed and hope they can out run it. She says a pray to her gods to help her accomplish this.
Marri had been fervently hoping for a little more time before they faced any more creatures, whether they were drawn to or offended by how the companions might smell. She took a deep breath, spared a thought for the bounty of the Good Esmeralda which she hoped to continue to enjoy, then began looking for a place where they might have some cover, or something at their backs, in what she suspected was about to be a fight.
Herger was of the same mind and was on the lookout for any sort of cover or feature that would provide them with an advantage were the party to be attacked.
The way they were riding passed between a rocky gulley, well suited for an ambush or a chokepoint.
Herger guided his horse towards Michael and Rurik, and suggested such an ambush.
Rurik agreed and the company began to set up the ambush. Missile weapons were prepared and they hunkered down to wait.
In a few minutes, the pursuers were visible - three orcs mounted on huge wolves. The companions readied themselves. Herger noted Rurik drawing the sword of Ryo-Aldenar as the orcs rode closer. The ambush seemed undetected, the wolves were tracking by scent. They rode closer to the killing zone and a strange expression crossed Rurik's face. He lifted the sword and in a sudden rush a jet of flame leapt from it, gathering into a ball as it soared toward the surprised orcs, and then bursting in an explosion which washed over the raiders.
The wolves howled in terror and a smell of singed fur rose into the air and one wolf dropped to the ground dead. The other wolves looked seriously injured as did two of the three riders. One seemed to have avoided most of the damage by rolling behind his wolf, which was the one that took the brunt of the blast and died.
The two orcs still mounted tried frantically to get their wolves under control as the remaining orc drew a jagged sword and ran toward Rurik.
Marri had made certain the horses, and Traveller, were secure and as out of harm's way as it was possible to get them. Then she gathered a small pile of stones. When she saw the orc running at Rurik, she began throwing at it. "I may not be able to hurt it much with these" she thought, "but maybe the annoyance will give Rurik an edge!"
Tibbiddo screamed in terror as pure as the snowy peaks.
Herger stood in open-mouthed shock at the display of power unleashed by Rurik upon the greenskins. As the unharmed Orc began charging, though, he turned his attention back to the task at hand and began unloading his bow at the other foes while they were distracted by their mounts.
Maewyn centered ther attack on one of the orc distracted by his efforts to get his mont under control. Hopefully what ever Rurik did he be able to do again. Maewy although surprised tried very hard not to let any of that show on her face.
Snarling, the usually circumspect Rurik launched himself from his point of ambush and charged the approaching orc. Bracing himself for impact, the wastelander sang out a clear, vaguely elven battle cry as he swung the sword of Ryo-Aldenar at the vile creature.
Maewyn's arrow took one of the mounted orcs high in the chest and knocked him off the wolf. He fell to the ground and lay still. Freed of any control, the wolf broke and fled. The wild gyrations of the other wolf made it hard for the others to hit their targets, both Herger and Michael's shots missed. Tibbo looked as surprised as anyone when, still screaming his fear, he rose and put a throwing knife in the orc's arm.
The one on foot charged toward Rurik, and Marri popped up and threw a rock at him. Although it missed it seemed to distract him momentarily, and Rurik's first shot left a bloody gash across the orc's forehead, Rurik easily evaded the counter strike, dropping to one knee and whipping his blade back across the orc's belly gutting him like a fish.
Michael had found the range now and another crossbow bolt put paid to the remaining orc. The last wolf fled, limping after the other.
The party watched them go, the slowly remounted and continued on their way.
* * * *Two weeks of running battles had left the company bruised and weary. The short rations were wearing on their tempers as well, and the scant game they could find was hardly sufficient to take the edge off. The rations off the orc raiding parties they couldn't avoid and had to kill did not look wholesome enough to attempt and so they did without.
They were making good time, though, and were only a few days away from their destination. So it was especially disheartening when disaster struck. An arroyo they had been following for the trickle of water that ran down the center, became too narrow to pass and they were forced to back-track. Riding up out of the arroyo, they knew that pursuit was possible, Amber had indicated to Maewyn that their were riders not far off. They were surprised, though, when the rode up and saw two riders barely half a mile off. Herger's forehead scar throbbed and in response one of the riders raised a hand in sinister greeting. The riders spurred their horses and began to close on the party. The second rider quickly fell a few steps behind, and they realized that although he looked to be a fearsome enough warrior, he was not one of Barsnarg's chosen Hunters.
"Blast! I am so tired of all this fighting -- and never time for a proper meal!" Marri cried when she spotted the riders. It was a measure her increasing understandings of the tactics of battle that she barely paused to draw breath before adding "Shall we try to get clear of this so we can't be trapped, or shall we stay so we have some cover?"
Herger grimaced in pain as his head continued to throb and reached to massage the scar with a free hand. He looked to Rurik and Michael for a plan of action.
"I would rather not get trapped in here, either." Rurik states as Herger looks his way. Looking at the party and the number of pack animals, Rurik frowned, "However, I don't think we can outrun them to the neck."
Shrugging, Rurik states his opinion. "It's too late to set up an ambush. Unless anyone has an idea what we might gain by waiting here, we may as well meet them." With a sigh, the man from the north finishes, "Who knows... Perhaps they've come to chat; maybe even lend assistance."
The party spread out and prepared their weapons. No one truly believed them to be friendly. The riders approached quickly, at the last moment bringint their mounts to a full charge.
An initial hail of arrows and bolts met the charging riders. The entire company had chosen to fire at the warrior of chaos. He swerved to avoid Maewyn's arrow and it glanced off his ornate helmet. Herger's shot, too, did little damage, skittering off his pauldrons. The turn had, however, opened him up to Michael. The heavy crossbow bolt slammed through a gap in the back of his leg armour and pinned him to the horse. Blood jetted from the wound and in seconds the warrior collapsed. The horse, screaming in pain, turned aside and ran, the warrior held in place by the quarrel through this leg.
Above the fray, Amber circled invisible to all save Maewyn watching for any other enemies.
Rurik drew the sword and went forth to engage the Hunter while Maewyn and Herger fired at him; Maewyn's arrow hit but did no damage that anyone could see. From behind a rock, Tibbo popped up and threw a dagger which failed to penetrate the rider's armour. Marri threw rocks at the horse, but also missed.
"How has it come to this?" Rurik thought to himself; the world around him slowing into vibrant focus. Mere months ago the only thoughts were finding a quick score and bedding feisty skirts. What brought him to this place that he must square up against a Champion of Chaos? Perhaps one of the others will escape to tell the tale of this day, spreading at least as long and as far so as to reach what's left of his family.
Compressing his palm and fingers over the grip of his new companion, Rurik drew comfort from the chill heat. Errant thoughts fade from his mind as the Dark Hunter approached, only barely noticing the others coming to his aid. He moved lightly in response to the movements of his foe, and as the others drew close, they could hear a muted 'chant' borne deep within his chest - growing in volume as the Hunter neared.
Michael ran behind Rurik, crossbow forgotten now. Then the miasma of horror that hung around the Dark Hunter, the aura of corruption, brought him up short. Terror clawed its way up his spine and he froze as the Hunter rode past him, almost casually slashing him across the head as he did. Cold fire burned in the wound and he dropped to one knee.
The Hunter continued on toward Rurik, ducking under a shot from the Wastelander. He turned his mount, but had miscalculated the distance and the sword of Ryo-Aldenar slammed into his chest. A hideous shriek came from the Hunter.
Maewyn drew her sword and ran to help Rurik. Praying to the spirits of the land that her elf blessed sword could actually be able to do some damage. Herger was right behind her, mace at the ready. As Herger reached Michael, the pain from his scar increased and he stopped short near the kneeling marine. Maewyn continued her charge.
The Hunter drove the point of his black blade into Rurik's sword arm, and Rurik now felt the spreading cold of the cursed blade. Taken aback, he went on the defensive but the Hunter chopped again and again, opening a wound on his leg and another on his arm.
Seeing their comrade being butchered galvanized Michael and Herger and they began to close in. Suddenly a rock, hurled by Marri, struck the horse just as the Hunter laid Rurik's cheek open with another blow. The Hunter slipped off the horse and Maewyn landed a blow that didn't penetrate his armour. The Hunter whirled and cut Maeywn's leg deeply, pain blooming in the wound and the chill seeping out in its wake. Turning quickly, the Hunter exchanged blows with Rurik. Almost as mirror images, the pair buried their blades in their foe's legs.
Both Rurik and the Hunter were limping now, and the company swarmed the enemy. Their blows landed but seemed to have little effect. A vicous backhanded blow from the Hunter drove Herger to the ground, but left the Hunter open and Rurik slammed his blade home. Mail split, blood surged from the wound and the creature took steps before falling to the ground and lying still.
Tibbiddo, sensing safety, tumbled out from his cover and gazed upon the carnage. His eyes fell on the black blade, and then the snow stained with red from his colleagues. "The poison, how? How can we help you?" he began to blubber looking about for a druidic grove in the stark wasteland.
Marri assessed the situation quickly and hurried to Rurik. She drizzled a few drops of the Meaghuthan into his mouth, then did the same for Maewyn and finally Michael. She took the time to close the precious silver flash and stow it back in her bag before beginning to issue orders sharply.
"Tibbi, put a tourniquet on Maewyn's leg! Tight mind, but don't cut off the blood flow entirely! Michael! Sit down and find a cloth to press to your head! Firmly now!" She then began to tend Rurik's wounds.
Maewyn held her silver sickle and prayed to the spirit of the Earth, asking for the Great Mother's aid in her time of need. The power of Nature swept through her, and she shook with cold and then with heat. When it was done, the combination of her spell and Marri's work had accomplished it's goal. The chill effect of the weapon was gone.
Maewyn moved to Rurik, praying over him next. She was pleased to see the same shiver and shake come over him, and Marri saw a more normal colour come into the area around his wound.
Then it was Michael's turn. This time, for whatever reason, the poison resisted Maewyn's entreaty. His wound was smaller, but the chill remained and the blue color did not diminish.
Maewyn stood a little unsteady on her feet but looking as if she were determined to continue onward. "We should move, if not on to our destination at least out of this area."
Tibbiddo offered up whatever he could do, eyeing the slain Hunter. "Perhaps we should try to hide the body, or bury it somehow," he said teeth chattering.
The company gathered up the Hunter's horse, which seemed to be a normal beast, and made some effort to hide the body. Then they set off. The pace was slow, but they wanted to get some distance between them and the site of the fight.
The spent a nervous night, and Marri went to all the injured changing bandages and cleaning wounds. In the morning, Michael's injury looked better and they decided to press on.
Whether the gods were looking out for them, or they were just plain lucky, they managed to avoid any encounters for the next week. Every day, Mount Adnor grew larger and larger before them until finally, the ground began to slope upwards. They had reached the mountain bruised and bleeding, but alive.