20 March (Continued)
After they’d caught their breath and Aramis had healed their injuries with prayers to the Raven Queen, the heroes crossed the bridge once more and approached the wooden doors. Bhavik removed the makeshift barricade they’d hastily erected and they cautiously opened the doors to reveal the tunnel beyond. It opened into a natural cavern with carefully smoothed walls and floor. Wet stone gleamed, and at least four exits were visible, leading off into darkness. Red coals glowed in the gloom of the far right-hand passageway, and crude wooden bars blocked the closer right-hand passageway. The room was littered with orcish sleeping furs, loot, and rubbish.
Bhavik moved to the wooden bars and peered through. A row of rough-hewn sapling trunks formed a crude but serviceable cage across the mouth of a small cave. A door locked with an iron padlock secured the room. Inside, he saw two figures lying on rough pallets. “There seems to be someone over here,” he observed.
“Oh, thank Avandra!” cried the smaller of the two, a halfling man. “We’re rescued!” The other, an elderly shifter woman, covered her eyes from the bright light and blinked up at the heroes.
“Are you both okay?” asked Azal. “We’ll try to get you out.” She pulled out her tools and set to work on the lock. Moments later, the mechanism clicked open and the tiefling pulled the cage door open.
“Bless you!” said the halfling joyfully, helping his fellow prisoner to stand.
“Quiet now!” Bhavik snapped. “The path to freedom does not include rescuing you from unnecessary combat. Now, are there any other prisoners?”
“Not that we know of,” said the halfling in a lower voice. The woman shook her head in agreement.
“Are you from Blasingdell?” asked Aramis.
“Aye, sir,” answered the halfling. “Geradil is my name. This is Priya. She has a small farm outside of town.”
Azal kept an eye out while Aramis and Bhavik did a quick sweep of the nearby passages for any additional prisoners. They found a large, smoky fire crackling in the center of the nearest chamber. Battered pots and kettles were stacked all over – clearly, the room served as a crude kitchen. They noticed a distinct draft drawing the smoke up through a rough hole in the ceiling.
“Okay, I think this area is clear,” said Bhavik as he and the cleric returned. “We should get these two to the surface before trouble comes our way.”
“Right,” agreed Aramis. Turning to the rescuees he said, “If we get you outside, can you make it somewhere safe?”
Bhavik scoffed at the notion. “We should escort them out of the wilds, lest they be set upon by more savages on our watch.
The cleric paused a beat then said, “Agreed.”
Azal frowned at the further delay, but grudgingly admitted, “It is the best idea. They might get caught again setting out on their own.”
“Bless you, boy,” said Priya, speaking to Bhavik. She tilted her head to the side, examining him quietly. Geradil nodded his gratitude enthusiastically but silently.
The warden nodded, “We should take you back to town.”
“I’ve nowhere to stay in town,” the old woman insisted.
“You would be safer in town,” reasoned Azal. “There are more people there, and you are still weak yet. It would be best if there was someone around to tend to you.”
“Or is there someone else at the farm?” added Aramis.
“I’d offer you a place,” said Geradil to the shifter woman. “But I’m afraid my home isn’t terribly accommodating to those of non-halfling persuasion.”
She nodded gratefully to the halfling then turned back to the heroes. “I’ll take my chances,” she said. Pausing a beat, she added “It seems unlikely they would return to a sacked farm, anyway…”
“All right, then,” Aramis said.
“Your home, then. Know you the way from here?” Bhavik said.
“It lies to the north of Blasingdell by a mile or so, west of the road. From here, I’m not sure how to get there,” she admitted.
The warden nodded. “We can be there in the hour. Let us be off then. Stay close and take cover if trouble should arise.”
The trip was wet, but otherwise uneventful, and as they arrived at the farmstead, they could see the evidence of the orc raiders’ previous visit. Anything that hadn’t been stolen had been defaced or destroyed. The farmhouse yet stood, and Priya made her way to the door, pushing it open and stepping inside. Turning back to give her thanks, she stopped cold – her eyes on Bhavik.
“Oh my,” she breathed. “I’ve just realized…you’ve got her eyes.”
Both Aramis and Azal looked from the woman to their companion expectantly.
“Her eyes?” said Bhavik evenly.
“Yes, boy,” said Priya. She stopped, doubt crossing her features. “Your mother is…was…Akuti?”
Gritting his teeth, Bhavik retorted, “If you’ve anything ill to say of her, I must warn you that your recent tribulations will grant only so much favor in my eyes. I don’t care what the people around here think. Akuti was my mother, and I won’t have her insulted, especially in death.” Azal stepped up beside the warden, placing one hand on his shoulder in silent support. Aramis frowned in confusion, knowing he’d missed something.
She winced at his tone, nodding in understanding. “Please come in,” she offered softly. The heroes and Geradil slowly entered the cottage. Priya’s belongings and furniture were tossed haphazardly across the small space. “Don’t mind the mess,” she said, adjusting her skirts. “Orcs and all. No time for tidying up for company.” Once they were all inside, the aged shifter continued.
“The people…they may have reason for feeling so, and not all can so cage their anger, however long ago it was. I found your mother on the battlefield after the slaughter, dying but not yet dead. I was…angry at her, too. Everyone was saying she’d betrayed us and brought down the Great Ulfe’s wrath, but…I pitied her. We were friends, you see.”
Aramis turned a chair right side up and took a seat, listening quietly. Priya righted a teapot on the stove, then looked forlornly at the cracked water barrel in the corner. Azal offered to fetch more water, and she and Geradil went off to do that. Smiling after them Priya said, “I knelt down beside her and held her hand until the end. I carried her off the field myself and buried her in the hills.”
“You were her friend,” Bhavik said. “What could she have done that was so horrible her friends would barely even sit with her at death’s door?”
“I don’t know the details. But the betrayal of one’s own people…” Priya sighed. “Whether or not it was true, they believed it was.”
“The whelps seem to believe what they have been told. You say this transgression was long ago? Who is alive that would know what really happened? Now that news of my mother’s alleged transgression has had time to sit with me I must know more of it. Certainly there is someone who would know the details.”
“Akuti’s fellow warriors first brought word of the betrayal, but the Great Ulfe and his hordes came down almost on their heels, and they were slain to the last. Perhaps there are some who would know the tale in greater detail, but I know not who.”
“Surely, there must have been more evidence than that,” said Bhavik, his tone angry.
“When the ogre lord came down to battle that day, they carried Akuti aloft like a war banner, lashed to his standard.” Azal, having just returned with water, grimaced at the description. Priya continued, “She was a warrior-scout, off for weeks or months at a time. I heard she was captured for awhile, but escaped or…I don’t really know. But they hit us hard in our weakest point. It was not much of a leap for most. Those that survived needed someone to blame for the horrible loss. Fair or not, Akuti received that,” Priya finished softly.
“If she’s a traitor for succumbing to torture, if even that occurred, then I’ll challenge anyone in town to lay their grievances at the end of my blade. Judging one for such a thing is unspeakable,” Bhavik said bitterly.
“Oh, Bhavik,” she says. “Your loyalty is admirable, but your vitriol perhaps misplaced. The truth is she was labeled a traitor. I’m probably the only one who could see past my fear and confusion enough to give her the benefit of the doubt. And it’s been twenty years. It’s as good as fact for them now. I suggest you leave it be. I doubt you’ll convince them, and will only bring trouble on your own head.”
The warden drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, mastering his emotions before he allowed himself to reply. “These sound like mysteries for a wiser tribe. If no one even knows the truth of her treachery what hope is there of other details finding the light of day? Still, I thank you for your candor. The rumor mill in town seemed much less inclined to shed light on the object of their disdain, if even they had such knowledge.”
Aramis steepled his fingers, not sure he had enough information to get involved. Azal and Geradil set about tidying the small house and preparing a small meal from whatever they could find in the stores.
Changing the subject Priya said, “I can’t believe she could have hidden a pregnancy so well from her fellows, but they were all killed, so…maybe they knew. I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t bring her child back to the tribe, though,” she mused. “Maybe she saw what was coming and couldn’t bear risking you. It was one of the last things she told me – that she’d had a child. I was surprised, of course. She was a warrior and had been out in the field for well over a year. I asked her about the father, but she only shook her head miserably – in too much pain to say more.” She paused a moment before saying, “Tell me… Do you know your father?”
“My father was never part of the life I knew,” said Bhavik.
“If Ulfe yet lives,” Aramis said finally, “he would know.”
“Ulfe lives,” said Geradil.
Aramis turned to the halfling, “You’ve seen him?”
Geradil nodded, “He didn’t have any interest in us, but I saw an old, scarred ogre passing through the tunnels now and again. I think I heard the orcs refer to him as Ulfe.”
“I guess we’ll find out,” said Azal. “Lunch is ready.”
Everyone had a seat and ate the modest meal prepared by the tiefling and halfling. After they’d finished, Geradil offered to stay with Priya and help her clean up before he would head back into town himself. The old shifter woman inclined her head at Bhavik as they stood ready to leave. “I am pleased to have met the son of Akuti. Doubly pleased that it was in such a circumstance that we could…help one another. I am sorry I do not know more. I truly am.”
“Perhaps our quests will lead to their door, and I can have my knowledge in spite of civilization. It won’t bring peace to our name but then what good is that for a soul like me anyway,” Bhavik said with a slight comical snort.
In a more serious tone he said, “The kindness you’ve shown my mother in spirit is not unnoticed. You’ve also given me the benefit of the doubt and I appreciate that greatly.” Priya smiled sadly.
. . .
The return trip to the Stone Tooth was equally eventless, and took far less time now that they’d made the trip a couple of times. They found the chambers they’d already cleared undisturbed and without additional occupants, and took this as a sign that Fate had not yet turned against them. Heading up a short tunnel to the north, they came to another narrow cavern littered with haphazard stacks of crates, barrels, sacks, and bundles. The orcs appeared to have had some success in their raids of the small settlements and mountain roads in the area. To the north, two finished stone passageways led east and west; to the south sat an old well filled with murky water.
They decided on the western passage to the north, and made their way down the hall. Twenty feet down, a short flight of stairs from the south wall led up to a large, ironbound door. A bloodstained human skull was fixed to the center of the door by an iron spike. Passing by this grisly token, they came to the corner of the hall where it turned abruptly north. The statue of a fierce-looking dwarf in heavy mail armor stood upon a pedestal at the end of the passageway. The seven foot tall stone warrior held a sword in one hand and a smith’s hammer in the other. A closed wooden double door graced the center of the western wall of the short corridor.
Bhavik considered the statue, and turned to ask Azal to search it for traps, but Aramis had already started walking toward it. “Could this be Durgeddin the Black?” asked the cleric. He felt a small click from the floor beneath his feet. The statue’s bearded face slid open – rather like an oversized nutcracker – and greenish gas billowed forth! The poisonous mist enveloped both priest and tiefling, and they found themselves blinded and choking.
Hearing footsteps from beyond the door, Azal managed to jam it closed before dragging Aramis from the mist to where Bhavik waited anxiously. The three heard something banging on the door for a few seconds before they finally burst open, revealing more orcs. Moments later the mist receded and the green-skinned warriors joined battle with the heroes – briefly.
They entered the large chamber beyond the doors to find it filled with rough-hewn bunks, tables, and chairs. The floor was strewn with filthy pelts, and at a glance it appeared that perhaps a dozen or so orcs might be squatting there. They searched the main chamber and the two smaller bunk rooms adjoining it. Bhavik found a loose stone on the south wall concealing a sack containing three star opals, a potion, and several dozen gold coins. He also found a secret door on the west wall behind a small card table. It opened to a narrow stair leading to another secret door, behind which sat the guard room at the end of the archer’s hall.
Abandoning the northwest portion of the stronghold and bypassing the doors adorned by a human skull once more, the party moved east to another set of double doors. Bhavik flung the door open to reveal chamber with walls lined with barrels, crates, and sacks of foodstuffs. Among the loot, several oversized straw pallets and other simple furnishings show that the room also served as a barracks. Two more bunk chambers led off from the main room, but of more immediate concern was the lone occupant of the barracks – an orc warrior apparently ready and waiting for them. It nodded in silent salute then shouted, “Attack!”
More orcs with clubs spilled out of the darkness of the smaller bunk rooms, but despite their superior numbers, they fell swiftly to the heroes’ blades and prayers. The orcs had stashed more gold in an old iron cauldron hidden underneath one of the vermin-infested beds. A small sack concealed in another orc’s bedding concealed a golden crown. They paused for a break and idly wondered if it was all going to be so easy.