Finally, though, the day came to depart. Herger filled the crystal vial he had been given with water from the fountain and then the company began the descent. Once down, they spent the night at the pool before heading back toward their rendezvous with Rico.
Whether it was pure chance or the influence of the water from the fountain, they had no troubles for the first ten days of their return. On the eleventh day, Maewyn thought she saw someone or something following them in the distance. Once alerted, the others saw it, too. There were two riders, they thought, at least a half a day behind them, but definately on their trail.
Pointing out that they were being followed, Maewyn suggested that she take the last position in the group, saying that if they needed she could make it so that their track could not be discovered for at least an hour. She also sent Amber up to watch the rider and to come back if the distance they were away got any closer.
"At your leave," said Rurik in response to Maewyn's offer. "Shall we try to outpace them, or find a place to make a stand?"
"Not that I want to fight, you understand, and not that I actually contribute much to the fights, in any case, and so, of course, we must do as the *real* fighters think best," began Marri in her characteristic, somewhat rambling style. "But it seems to me," she continued, finally getting to the point, "that these are *not* people we want to have on our trail, even if they were content to stay there. So if we are going to have to fight them anyway, better at a place of our choosing than theirs."
"I agree with Mari," said Maewyn. "Let us use this to our best advantage. I was thinking if we have the trail lead into an ambush of our choosing. The trail could lead into the ambush point but is obscure from there on. This will cause them to stop and have to search for the tracks again. Hopefully this will give us enough of an advantage so we may be able to slay them."
"I also have good news of a kind the Goddess has heard my petition. I have been granted a prayer that will enchant any weapon belong to a follower of the old ways with the power to harm these Dark Riders."
With a sigh, Rurik looked toward the others. "I'm seeing growing consensus for a fight." Gripping his hilt, he draws comfort from its warmth. "We only barely survived the last encounter with the one, and this may be two dark riders on our trail."
Thinking a moment, Rurik suggested "Perhaps it would be wise to prepare to send a swift rider ahead with the water from the pool. Our survival means little if the water reaches not it's destination."
"That is true. But do we want to split up?" Marri asked.
"I do not believe that we should split up unless it is necessary. Still having a rider prepares to make a run for it if it looks like the battle wil being going badly is a good plan," Maewyn replied gripping her sword.
The riders were pacing them, but seemed unable or unwilling to close the distance rapidly. This gave the companions plenty of time to plan.
"I do wonder though," Marri said, "if they will continue to simply stay behind us as they are doing now. Or might they close the distance during the night, for example, when we can no longer see them?"
"That may be their aim, as they may have no idea our strength. All they do know is that we've defeated their champions at each meeting." Michael added. "However, if there's an offensive position under consideration, I'm for it. Our group's representative should remain in the rear with the best horse, ready to make the break if necessary."
Maewyn stepped forward. "I am willing to volunteer. I have the ability to cover my own trail and can heal myself of any wounds. On the other hand my sword or bow can be blesses so that it can damage these beast. I am willing to fight or protect the water whatever the group feel is necesary to our mission."
As they talked and rode, they continued to observe their pursuers. Even at this distance, they realized that although one of the riders looked like one of the Dark Hunters which had dogged their trail for so long, the other did not. The second rider seemed smaller and perhaps even unarmoured, for they saw none of the glints of metal that occasionaly flashed off even the black mail of the Dark Hunter.
"A mystery," mused Marri to herself "that one of them is different from the others who have pursued us. I wonder if that is better or worse."
After much debate, the party came to the conclusion that the water was the most important consideration. Herger, as the water-bearer, would ride ahead and the others would gradually slow their pace and then lay an ambush for the pursuers. Tibbiddo would escort Herger, and at the last moment, Marri pressed Traveller onto the pair, concerned that if he stayed behind he might try to get involved in the fight.
The two, with the dog, set off at a brisk pace at a moment when the pursuers were out of direct sight, and the others began to lag slightly. Nervously, they checked their weapons and began to look for a suitable ambush site.
Even knowing that they were planning an ambush, it was a nerve-racking business, for a Dark Hunter was a fearsome foe, indeed, and the other rider was doubtless some new devilment. They decided to try for an ambush just before dark, both in the hope that the dimness would help their attack and because they did not with to camp with the enemy somewhere behind them but out of sight, although if an ambush site presented itself they would modify the plan.
For the next few hours, they watched Herger and Tibbo dissappear into the distance ahead of them as the pursuers closed slowly behind.
Herger and Tibbo set a good pace, trying to not to worry that they had left their companions to a horrible fate, but knowing that if they water was lost, many more would fall under the sway of Chaos.
After a few hours, Herger and Tibbo passed through a rocky area covered with scrub brush and looked at each other. Both realized that the spot was perfect for an ambush. They moved on.
A few hours later, the others approached the same area and Michael, the military man, saw the potential. He said as much and they reined in to consider. They decided it was the best option they were likely to find. They pursuers were still a little too far away they felt, so they ate a small meal as the enemy drew nearer.
Then it was time. They rode through the ambush site and a littl ways beyond, leaving a trail along the path they wanted the foe to take. Then Maewyn dismounted and prayed for the Earth Mother to aid her. She felt the beneficience of her deity and told the others it was time to go. They began to loop back, in single file with Maewyn taking up the rear. They travelled in this mode for fifteen minutes or so, leaving no trail, then split to go to their ambush points. Maewyn and Rurik took up a position on one side, ready to engage quickly. Michael took up his post a little further away, ready to volley with his crossbow, and Marri hid a little ahead of the others with a pile or rocks near to hand.
Then came the waiting. Finally, the riders approached. One was clearly a Dark Hunter, the fear which oozed from him like a miasma was as unmistakable as the weapons and armour. The other, however, looked human, although his features were twisted by hate and depravity. There was a sword at his side and a staff lashed across his saddle.
Then it was time, Rurik stood and from the sword of Ryo-Aldenar, a fireball sped towards the pair, Michael took that as his cue to stand and fire, and Maewyn prayed fervently that the Earth Mother would bless her sword.
The fireball slammed home. The horses screamed and the human was thrown from his horse. He seemed badly hurt by the fire and the fall. The horses seemed more scared than hurt, and the Dark Hunter seemed almost completely unaffected. Michael's crossbow bolt went wide and he dropped the weapon and prepared to charge down to join Maewyn and Rurik as they engaged. The Hunter kept his mount and brought it around to face the elf and man as they closed, while the other staggered to his feet and began to run down the road away from the incipient clash - straight toward Marri's hiding place. The riderless horse ran back down the way it had come.
Maewyn, Rurik and Michael charged the Dark Hunter who moved to ride down Maewyn and Rurik. Marri pitched a rock as hard as she could at the horse. She struck it right on the knee, which broke with a horrible crack pitching the Hunter off the horse. The trio closed in as he rose.
The human looked up at the halfling readying another rock, raised his hands and chanted some arcane words. Fire leapt from his hands and rocketed toward Marri. Marri dodged as best she could but she fell screaming amid the flames.
The Hunter, afoot now, closed with Maewyn and Rurik, as Michael charged to close. Maewyn's swing went high and with two swift butcher's blows, the Dark Hunter chopped her down to the ground. The wizard targetted Rurik as he closed in and fireballs raced toward the marine, who also fell beneath the flaming assault.
Rurig realize he was in trouble. The Hunter cut left and right, leaving bloody traces whereever the blade licked. He fought back, landing a solid blow to the Hunter's body, but it was too little to late and the Hunter cut him down as well.
As consciousness fled, Rurik saw the Hunter raise his head as if listening, then turn impatiently and begin to stalk off in the direction Herger and Tibbo had been following. A casual swing of his sword silenced the still screaming horse. Then all was blackness.
* * * *Herger and Tibbo made as good time as they could and then spent an uncomfortable night waiting for their friends to join them. When they didn't, they feared the worst and rose early.
They saw no pursuers, but also no sign of their friends and did not slacken their pace. The days became weeks of hard riding and short rations, for most of the food had been left with Marri.
They were fortunate in that when they did reach the mountains, they recognized landmarks immediately and found Rico's camp without delay. He had a small fire going and fresh meat roasting, which he pressed on them as soon as they dismounted. He then began pestering them with questions, which interefered with their ability to eat. Where were the others, was the quest successful, when would they be leaving?
Herger tried his best to answer Rico's questions as he ate, but his attempts were foiled by his hunger. He hoped that Tibbiddo's characteristic story-telling would help fill the silence as he was filling his belly. He did manage to make one comment between two large mouthfuls of food, "We need to leave at first light."
"Without the others?" Rico wondered. He looked at the two, "You're being pursued then?" He turned to Tibbo, "What happened, Master Halflng?"
Tibbo filled in the tale of the fountain and of the pursuit, concluding with the sentiment that he had accompanied Herger since he would be best suited to getting him safely across the mountains.
Rico nodded, then jumped up and began to bustle around. "As Herger says then, we'll leave at first light, in case your pursuers are still on your trail."
Herger finished up his meal then began preparing the camp for sleep and a quick departure in the morning.
The next morning, the trio began to retrace their steps. Having made the trip once, they hoped to be able to avoid false starts and make better time back.
Herger moved along purposefully towards his destination. His sincere hopes were that his friends were once again able to fight off the terrible creatures and that they would be able to catch up with the trio in Lin-Adelle. However, his sense of foreboding was steadily growing.
He pulled his cloak tighter about him and muttered, "Sigmar, preserve us."
Rico contributed a quick prayer to Taal with the same devout wish.
They moved quickly the first few days, since Rico had roamed over the region in their abscence and knew the area around the rendezvous camp tolerably well. After that, they still moved more quickly than they had on the trip out, for Rico had marked their path with the subtle signs used by those who made their living in the wilds.
Once they feared attack by wolves and passed an uncomfortable night awake around the fire, but the animals must have found easier prey elsewhere for by morning they were gone.
They could not tell if they were pursued or not, for the paths through the mountains were twisted and uneven and often they could see no more than a mile or two back their track, sometimes less. On those few occassions where they did find themselves on some high point, they were struck by the stark beauty of the panorama, but could not say what might be hiding on the far side of the peaks around them.
Suffice it to say, if there was pursuit, it did not overtake them by the time they climbed the last ridge of the mountains and looked down on the forest which hid the keep of Lin-Adelle. A half day would bring them to the edge of the forest and then two days more would see them safely with the elves.
* * * *Much to Rurik's surprise, he woke up. He was in a shallow cave, and his wounds had been bound. His companions were nearby, and all had likewise been attended to.
"Aye, so yer awake then?" said a grating voice off to one side. Rurik turned and saw what could only be a dwarven slayer, the strip of bright orange hair and elaborate tatoos were unmistakable. "Yer a lucky man. That thing didn't care much about you. He and his Chaotic wizard friend," the dwarf spat, "mounted up on your horses and left without a backward glance. I'm Bloodaxe. This is, well, I call him Scaley and he doesn't seem to mind." Rurik shifted his view to a lump near the dwarf that, as it stood, resolved itself into a centauroid creature with purply scaly skin and bright intelligent eyes.
"Greetings," it hissed in a low grinding voice.
"Yer friends are wakin' now," said Bloodaxe. "Let me build up the fire a bit and get some tea on."
Marri opened her eyes and looked around a bit woozily. She became sure she was indeed dead when she a large, improbable looking purple creature standing in the room. "Well," she managed to whisper "at least Blessed Esmeralda's cauldron contains some interesting creatures to look at while I'm waiting to be reborn. But I didn't expect being dead to leave me so thirsty!"
"Yer not dead, little Mistress," said the dwarf handing her a mug. "'Twas a good thing they were more interested in whoever they were following than in finishing you off. That's water in the mug, but the tea is coming."
"Argh. I'd like to give yonder Chaotic wizard a piece of my mind....how long have we been down?" Michael asks.
"Three days," said 'Scaley,' in slow Reikspiel. "Your injuries were severe. Bad burns you and she," he pointed at Marri. The two looked at each other and saw that burns still covered much of their bodies. "Rest still needed," continued Scaley. "These two also hurt." Something like a frown crossed his ophidian face, "Strange poison from the sword wounds. Sleep was better all around."
As the group took in more of their surroundings, they realized the cave was a more or less permanent dwelling. The furnishings were not all that portable, and there was a high shelf - convenient for the centauriod - with rows of jars on it.
Maewyn, after racking her brain during the preceeding exchange, managed to identify the creature facing them, he must be a Zoat! Zoats, she knew, were an ancient but extremely reclusive race. Most people thought them legends, but they had sometimes contacted druids in the past.
Marri slumped, simply holding the mug she had been given for a bit, only half convinced she really was still alive. Suddenly, Scaley's words sunk in. "Three days!" she squealed, sitting completely upright. "THREE DAYS! But... But... the riders! They followed Herger and Tibbi! We MUST move! We have to get to them! Three days! Anything could have happened!" She threw back her covers, and tried to leap of bed.
With surprising speed, the Zoat was there. "No little one," he said blocking her escape. "Rest you must."
"Aye," said Bloodaxe. "There's little you can do now by any measure. They're three days agone, and your friends have either won free or ..." He turned away. "The tea water's ready." He began to pour. The Zoat bustled around preparing a mug for each of the wounded.
"But... there must be SOMETHING we can do!" Marri cried, tears welling up in up in her eyes. She gestured wildly with her mug, splattering water everywhere. "We can't just lie here and leave them to face ... well, everything all alone!"
"In another few days ye'll be well enough to travel," said Bloodaxe. "Where do ye wish to go? Yer down two horses as well. The big ones. Probably yourn and yourn," he said pointing to Michael and Rurik.
Marri sniffed, and brushed the tears from her eyes. "It may we cannot catch up to our friends, but, I at least, shall try. Perhaps at the least we might be able to catch up to the ones who pursue them. And... perhaps by then we may have thought of something, or found some way to defeat them." She focused on Bloodaxe and Scaley. "Good sirs, you, do not by any chance, know of a way to defeat the dark ones who follow our friends?"
"No," said Bloodaxe and a strange glint came into his eye, "but I'd like a chance to try my axe on them. Have ye a tracker? The scent will be cold, but we can try to follow it. If not, do ye ken where they may be heading?"
"Oh! Do you mean you would be willing to come with us?" Marri cried, gesturing and again splashing liquid about. "That would be wonderful! Maewyn and her... friends could no doubt track them. And in any case, we do know where they are headed! Oh! But two more days!"
"If you'll excuse the expression, what axe do you have to grind with those two?" Michael gestured out of the cave as thought the agents of darkness were standing nearby.
Bloodaxe ran a hand through his spiky orange hair, "They are agents of Chaos, eh? I'm a Slayer. If I can kill them, that's good. If they kill me, so much the better." He turned back to Marri. "Ye know where they're going, then? Good. Scaley here knows this place like the back of his hand. Where are they headed?"
Marri looked a bit confused at Bloodaxe's statement that having the creatures of chaos kill him was "much the better" but she suspected there were things it was best not to know, and simply answered his question with the location of the place they had left their guide camped.
Bloodaxe conferred with 'Scaley' for a few minutes, then came back, "He thinks he knows the place from the landmarks you gave. We'll lead you there, then, as soon as Scaley says you are ready to travel."
Maewyn shook her head; meeting a walking legend had left her speechless - not that she was a woman of many words to begin with. Let the halfling talk it was something they were good at. Maeywn always felt she had a tendency to put her foot in her mouth as soon as she opened it.
"I will be able to lead you back. Sorry I did not say anything before this I was a little overwhelmed by all that has happened to us lately."
Taking a sip of her drink she smiled at Marri, "I also wish to add my thanks for what you have done for us. To have you with us will be a benefit that words can not express the gratitude."
The zoat nodded while Bloodaxe just waved his hand looking somewhat embarrassed. He mumbled something about checking the perimeter and picked up a well-worn but well cared for two-handed axe and stumped out of the cave. The zoat bustled around checking bandages and making sure his patients had each finished their drinks before settling down near the fire. "Rest," he rumbled. "Soon we may go."
Although they were down a few horses, the skill of the Zoat in finding trails compensated. He also showed an amazing ability to find both edible plants and fresh water, so they all ate better on the return than they had on the way out. Even Maewyn found that the edible plants drew more small game and she was able to feed herself easily.
Finally, they arrived at the mountains not far from where they were supposed to have made their rendezvous. The friends recognized their landmarks and soon rode into the camp. It was empty, and clearly had been for some time. Maewyn and the Zoat examined the tracks in and around the area and decided that their companions had left about a week before, and a day or two after that a single rider - on Rurik's horse - had reached the camp and then set out after them.
"Is there anything we can do to catch up?" Marri cried after hearing the assessment of the trackers -- looking intently from one to the other. "We must be there to help them if we can! Is there nothing we can do to go faster?" And then she burst into tears, overwhelmed by a combination of frustration and fear.
"We cannae overtake them," said Bloodaxe. "Unless they are delayed."
Maewyn walked over placing an hand on Marri shoulder, "They will be alright I am sure the gods watch over them. Take heart it wil all work out."
"On the other hand, the best thing we can do is to continue on their trail. Let's go!" said Michael.
"That's the spirit lad," said Bloodaxe. "Where are they going, though? Scaley may know a better way."
"To the elves, of course" replied Marri, looking a little surprised they had forgotten to mention that before, "in the keep of Lin-Adelle. Can we start now? And perhaps if we slept a bit less..."
Bloodaxe looked confused, "Lin-Adelle? Where is that?"
The zoat spoke, "I know it. There is a way." He leaned his head in close to the dwarf and they spoke in hushed tones for a few moments.
Then Bloodaxe looked up, "If yer sure that's where they're going, we may be able to make up a few days, not by followin', but by taking a different route."
"Anything to make up some time is good, I would think," Marri answered. "What is this route?"
"A little south of here, Scaley knows a way through the mountains that is forgotten by the greenies, and if truth be known, by dwarves. This way," he pointed, "has no such easy road."
The company set out on their new path. Scaley did show a remarkable knowledge of the terrain and the false starts that characterized their previous crossing were nowhere to be seen. The crossing which had taken them thirty days, took only twenty seven days on the way back.
Scaley's path returned them to the trail that Rico had taken them a day or so out from where it came out of the mountains. Scaley and Maewyn quickly determined that the Dark Hunter was now only a day or so ahead of them. They pressed on and as night was falling, Amber gave a warning. The company advanced carefully and found Rurik's horse! He was still saddled and there were clear indications that he had been so for some time, and that he had been on his own for a few days. They searched for tracks and practically stumbled across a strange pile in the middle of the trail. A sleeved mail coat and coif, both stained black lay next to a black cloak. A sword belt was nearby with a sword and dagger hilt but no blade for either. In short, all the equipment that the Dark Hunter had worn or carried was in loose pile, scattered slightly as if it had fallen from a height of five or six feet.
Michael dismounted and began to examine the fallen bits and pieces.
While Michael appeared to be picking over the *remains*, Marri caught the horse. Talking softly to it, she unsaddled it, and after looking it over to see if it was wounded, tended to its needs. "I wish you could tell me where your rider is, brave boy. And how he is... how they all are! Oh, how I wish you could do that!" she whispered to the animal.
Maewyn walked over patting the horse as well, "In time I may be able to do that but alas now I do not have that skill."
"Do you think we might make better time now? With another horse I mean?" she asked the others, managing to look worried and hopeful at the same time.
In answer to Marri's question, Maewyn just shrugged.
Rurik, who'd been unusually taciturn since his 'death', drifts over to his horse and begins stroking it's long, strong neck. He takes comfort at regaining some of that which was lost. After a few moments with his horse, the wasteland speaks softly into the equine's ear, "Let's go find the others."
Leaving the wreckage of the rider where it was, the troupe continued on their way.
A few days later, the rode into the keep of Lin-Adelle, exhausted but happy that their journey was over. Everywhere, they saw signs of mourning - the traditional white ribbons were tied on trees in great profusion.
Even before they could dismount, Tibbo was racing out of one of the elven dwellings to greet them. A few steps behind was Herger with relief apparent on his face.
When the company was dismounted and lodged, they refreshed themselves and were escorted to a clearing where the Lord and Lady greeted them and over a meal whose subtle flavours and techniques set Marri's head spinning with new ideas, Herger and Tibbo's story came out, with Herger provided the basic framework and Tibbo emboidering as the spirit moved him.
They had arrived in Lin-Adelle, elated that they had beaten any pursuit but distraught at the thought that their companions might well be lost in the badlands east of the mountains.
The concerned Lord and Lady greeted them and inquired about the success of their mission. Hearing of the plight of the others, they declared the keep in mourning for the fallen, which was the reason for the ribbons, all now removed. Their sorrow mingled with relief when they learned that Herger carried the precious vial. They took it and bid him and Tibbo rest.
The Lord took over the narrative at that point. He fed the water to the root of the tree, and aided by the spells and prayers of many of the elders, strengthened the tree and the stasis. It was a terrible time, for they were fighting both law and chaos at once, trying to force a stasis, but a stasis which would deny Barsnarg access to the realm, trying to both close and bar the door at once. In the end, they were unable to close the gate completely, but they did close it further than it was closed at the end of the Incursions of Chaos. "Barsnarg," said the Lord, "is less able now to affect this land than he has been for several hundred years." As they closed it, wisps of chaos floated back through the gate, and two of the elven mystics were drawn through as well and lost. Sad though that was, it seemed a small price to pay for the victory.
"And now," said the Lady, "we find that so many fewer were lost than we feared. Fortune smiles on us all. You must stay and pose for our sculptors so that we may properly commemorate this great day."