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Thread: The Red Kings : By Sel Vecanite
09-03-2002, 11:13 AM #1
The sun rose slowly over the narrow mountain valley. It should have bought warmth and light, but instead it bought a thick mist, which rose out of the forest-choked valley floor and quickly spread up the sides of the surrounding hills. Before dawn, the narrow valley had been obscured by the darkness of a cloudy winter's night, but now it was a curtain of cold, clammy moisture that restricted vision. The Mountains of the Stille Wächter were notorious for such mists. They are thick, cold, and persistent, often curling about the lower reaches of the mountains until well after noon. It was one of the reasons why few humans lived in the region. Another was the scattered tribes of goblins and other undesirables who also populated these peaks, raiding any nearby human settlements for food, gold and weapons.
Jeri of Aftane, the attractive second-in-command of Harien's Swords, a mercenary company that plied its craft among the rich nations of southern Brechtür, was only too aware of the goblins. Her company had been battling a particularly nasty army of goblin raiders for nearly four hours. Like many creatures of evil, they were also beings of darkness, preferring to strike during the darkest hours of the night, where their superior vision gave them an advantage over their human foes. Jeri had hoped that advantage would evaporate with the dawn, but instead conditions had only become worse.
Hidden somewhere in the fog was a large force of goblins, the survivors of the initial attack on the Sword's camp site. Her company, aided by a small group of the Stille Wächter rangers, had been hired to protect an important caravan carrying taxes from the eastern city of Edlenna to the capital Poden. Raiders had been expected, but the company's captain, Colier Harien, had assured her that the goblins would not dare attack such a large and experienced company. He had been wrong, and now many fine men and women lay dead or dying on the damp ground, although the dead, like the goblin's themselves, remained hidden from Jeri's vision by the ever thickening fog.
Running a gloved hand through her dark, tightly braided hair, she looked around for any sign that might help her deduce where the enemy lay. Of course, in her dark clothes and midnight-black steed, which stood out plainly against the white background of the fog, it was more likely that the goblins would see her before she spotted them. Jeri didn't see this as a problem though, she wanted to be seen. Right now, there was nothing she wanted more than to avenge those friends and colleagues who hadn't made it through the night.
She had been lucky enough to be on guard duty when the goblins struck and had been able to fight off the first few attackers long enough to reach her horse. She had also escaped injury so far, but many others had not been so lucky, dying while still asleep or perishing as they struggled to pull their swords from their scabbards. Had it not been for the fact that the caravan had been expecting trouble, they might all have been overwhelmed in their sleep, not even living to witness the dawn, as bleak as it might be.
Now though, the landscape appeared to be clear of both friend and foe. When the fog had risen, shortly after dawn, Jeri had lost sight of the rest of the company, caught up in a battle with two Goblins mounted on giant wolves. Fortunately she had proven more than a match for the Goblin cavalry and now, her only injury a narrow scratch across her upper arm, she was ready for more. However, when she turned to look for her next opponent she had found herself surrounded by a thick fog, blocking her vision of the rest of the company and the goblins they were fighting.
In fact if she didn't know better she would have though herself the only living being in the whole valley. The battlefield had gone quiet, with even the screams of dying men and the war cries of the raiders fading away. Resting the heavy shaft of her glaive against the leather saddle, Jeri scanned around looking for any signs of life. None were to be found. What had been, for the past few hours anyway, a bloody battlefield, was now a quiet, almost serene landscape, with the only sound the rhythmic breathing of her stallion, and her own beating heart.
Jeri didn't like it at all, something was definitely wrong. She had expected the fog to dampen the noise somewhat, but not to this extent. Her fingers tightened their grip around the long shaft of the weapon she held, ready in case the misleading calm should erupt into furious battle once more. When she had lost sight of the rest of the company nearly an hour ago, just after the mist first began to crawl across the valley floor, she had not expected to find herself lost. Jeri was an experienced campaigner, fighting in wars from Müden to Kiergard and she had never lost track of her companions before, no matter how furious and heated the fighting may have been.
This time something was different, and there was almost something unnatural about the calm that had now settled around her. Jeri had never considered herself a superstitious woman, preferring to believe in the strength of her steel and her will to see her through the battle, and not put her trust in something she didn't understand. Certainly, she prayed each morning to Avani, the goddess of the sun and the lady of reason, but that was more of a habit than any real belief. Now though, trapped here in this mist her mind was beginning to play tricks of her, and she was imagining things that did not exist. A tree stump becomes a crouching Goblin, and every bird call an enemy signal.
Nervously she gathered up the horse's reins in one hand and gave them a quick flick, urging the large stallion to move faster. Below she could still see the rough dirt of the road, so she knew she was not truly lost, but of her companions there was still no sign. The stallion, Desert Wind, picked up his pace as he felt his mistress' nervousness. Born and bred on the great plains to the south the horse didn't like the mist any more than Jeri. To his animal intelligence it was something new, and therefore something to fear. He was a well trained warhorse though, and had been taught to follow his riders lead, and at the moment the warrior on his back was telling him to go faster.
So onward they rode, always following the dirt path that marked the road to Poden. Jeri knew that even if she could not find the caravan again she would eventually reach the Bannalach and the small fishing villages dotted only it's shore. She would be able to wait there, although she did not relish the explaining she would have to do when the company eventually caught up with her. Of more immediate concern though were the raiders, probably still scattered throughout the valley somewhere. A meeting with a large force of Goblins, possibly with Trolls and other monsters aiding them, was not something Jeri looked forward to, at least not without a few sturdy blades to back her up.
However, it was also a meeting that was not to be avoided this morning. Just as Jeri had thought she would never encounter another living soul again, a harsh cry rang out from behind and slightly above her. Fortunately her battle skills didn't fail her and, acting almost on pure reflex, she spun around in her saddle to face whatever had cried out. At the same time she bought the glaive down and around so it's sharp steel blade was protecting against a frontal assault. Jeri was expecting battle, but even she did not expect something to happen quite so quickly, thinking that the cry had been a Goblin signal to point out her location to a group of enemy warriors.
Instead it had been a war cry, but the first Jeri knew of an attacker was when a dark shape lunged out of the mist, seeming to fly through the air like a bird. Surprised by the sudden attack, there was little she could do but watch as the attacker impaled himself on the sharp end of her glaive. The weapon was pulled from her hand by the heavy weight of the now dead Goblin and dropped to the ground, dropping away into the ever thickening fog. Still surprised by the whole encounter, Jeri drew her sabre and looked around for another attacker, but the path seemed quiet once more.
Sliding her blade back into its scabbard she swung herself down from the high saddle and landed catlike on the damp ground. Then, with one hand still on the hilt of her weapon, she crept forward, inching towards the fallen Goblin. Her glaive still looked like it was intact, its thick oak shaft fortunately withstanding the impact of over a hundred kilograms of armoured Goblin. Reaching the side of the Goblin she checked for a pulse, just to make sure he was dead. One look at the pool of dark green blood and the blankly staring eyes though, quickly confirmed that. With a sharp tug she pulled the glaive from the Goblin's chest, still somewhat confused and amazed by what had occurred.
Then, wiping the weapon's blade clean with a piece of the Goblin's rough woollen shirt, she looked carefully around her, still a little anxious about a further attack. She almost jumped when she saw a large dark shape a short distance off, before relaxing a little when she realised that it was nothing more than a tall tree that had passed unseen in the fog. She quickly came to the conclusion that this must have been where the Goblin had come from, leaping down at her in an attempt to catch her unawares. It was only luck that she had been carrying the glaive, and managed to swing it around in time to face her attacker. Still, as her old teacher back in Shoufal had always said, a soldier makes his, or in Jeri's case her, own luck.
After poking the long weapon into the tree's branches a couple of times to ensure it was now empty of any more Goblins, Jeri moved away and headed back to her steed. Only Desert Wind was no longer where she had left him. Cursing Sera, the goddess of fortune, she called out to the horse and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when a loud whinny reached her ears from a short distance further down from the path. Picking her way carefully through the fog she reached the stallion's side. "Taking time out to eat where you?" she whispered in the horse's ear, while at the same time patting the stallion's sleek, black coat. "Well no time for a break yet, we still have to find Cole and the others."
The horse shook his mane, as if it understood her, and Jeri allowed herself a small laugh at the stallion's playful nature. Even here in the thick of battle, well in the thick of a very chilly foggy morning anyway, the horse was still playful and ready for action. Jeri on the other hand was not so flippant and, after carefully checking to make sure her weapons were secured, pulled herself up into the saddle once more, urging the horse away from his meal of dew dampened grass and back onto the trail.
For a moment she paused to consider the road, unsure which direction she should travel. Then the a distant horn made up her mind for her. It was the sound of Colier Harien's silver battle horn, the one he blew constantly in battle for some unknown reason. Her heart lifted at once, as Jeri realised that at least some of the company must still be alive. Then, through the fog she heard the distant rumble of horse's hooves, many horse's hooves. Only her company had been mounted, well except for Baron Oerwinde and his bodyguards, so that must be them. With a tug on the reins and a light, almost feather-like, touch of her knees she guided the big stallion around, heading back along the road she had been riding for the past half hour.
Then, before Desert Wind could take more than a couple of steps, there was a sudden flash in front of her and, with a enormous cracking sound, the nearby tree exploded with blue lightning. The stallion may not have been spooked by the fog, but this was something else entirely. He reared up suddenly, sending Jeri flying out of the saddle, before galloping off into the mist. Unable to react in time, Jeri suddenly found herself flying through the air. Her flight was short lived though, as she struck the grass-covered ground with a heavy thump, sending a jolt of pain screaming through her hip. Her head came to ground moment after the rest of her body and her temple collided solidly with a large rock that sat by the roadside.
Surprisingly, she didn't lose consciousness from the fierce blow, but instead reeled in pain and confusion. For long moments she did nothing and then her left hand came up to cradle her throbbing head, while her right hand rubbed at her injured hip. She felt the wetness of blood on her temple, and knew that the collision with the rock and the ground must have gashed open her head. For a moment she thought about retrieving a bandage from the saddlebag, only to remember that the bag, along with her horse, had fled off into the mist somewhere. For all she knew, he might have already been captured by the Goblins. Although she couldn't imagine the stallion allowing a bunch of Goblins to get their slimy hands on him.
Instead she reached down to tear off a strip of cloth from her shirt. It was already stained with the blood of the Goblins she had killed earlier that morning, so wasn't worth keeping anyway. Before she could do anything, however, she noticed a light off in the distance. She could not be sure which direction it came from, having long ago lost all sense of direction in this fog. It seemed to be getting closer though, and quickly. Before she could react, the light, which she could now see was a small ball of fire, tore past her. It went past the shattered tree and off into the fog. Then, almost a second later the fog was suddenly lit by a brilliant flash which glowed for several seconds before fading and dying.
The screams of wounded Goblins soon followed and Jeri realised that she had just witnessed the effects of a powerful wizard spell known as a fireball. She knew little of magic herself, aware only that wizards were extremely powerful, and very, very rare. In fact it was said that in all the world there were only a few hundred wizards. The only thing her old teacher had told her about wizards was to get clear of them in battle as quickly as you could. So Jeri endeavoured to do just that, dragging herself back to her feet, despite the pain shooting through her, and limping back down path, trying to follow the direction her horse had taken.
She had not gone far though, when a robed man stepped out of the mist, coming from the same direction the fireball spell had originated from. He was tall and handsome, with a strong frame, and a thick brown beard. Most striking though was his long green robe, edged with a ring of golden runes. This, Jeri realised, must be the wizard who cast the spell she had just seen. The effects of his power were still audible, with the groans of dying Goblins carried to her ears through the fog.
The wizard came to a halt when he saw Jeri, who was leaning heavily against the shaft of her glaive to support her weight, the butt of the weapon digging into the softened ground. For a moment he peered intently at her, as if to determine which side she fought on. The fog seemed to be clearing a little now, and as soon as her race became known the wizard's bearded face broke out into a smile. He quickly rushed to her side and helped her to stand upright, taking careful note of the still bleeding gash on her forehead.
"Are you all right," the wizard asked in a concerned voice.
Jeri could only nod, in awe of the mysterious being who had suddenly appeared out of the fog. Finally though she regained her voice, and in a hesitant tone asked, "who are you?"
The Wizard smiled again, and after making sure Jeri could stand unaided, he let go of her arm gave a small bow. "I am Rheulaan Greencloak, a poor travelling wizard looking for a place to settle down."
"Then you are not involved in the battle with the Goblins?" Jeri asked, her usually confidence beginning to return.
Rheulaan shook his head, "no. I just happened along a few minutes ago and just in time to see the Goblin Shaman coming after you. I think we have seen the last of him though. A quick fireball and I don't think you will be seeing him again, well unless you go looking for some charcoal for your fire."
"Goblin Shaman? What Shaman? I didn't see anyone."
The wizard raised an eyebrow, peering at Jeri with a concerned expression on his face. "You didn't see him? He and the rest of those Goblins have been tailing along behind you for the past fifteen minutes, ever since you rode past their camp. I saw you ride past in the distance, and being a little lost thought myself, thought I would ask you for directions. Then I saw the Goblins, so I hung back to see what was happening. I would have stopped the Goblin Shaman before he cast that lightning bolt, but you were on horseback and those Goblins are quite fast walkers."
"Camp, what camp?" Jeri asked again, by now thoroughly confused. "I didn't see anything, or hear anything. It has been quiet for nearly half an hour now, ever since dawn."
Now it was Rheulaan's turn to look confused, but only for a second, until he remembered that he had cast a spell earlier to allow him to see though the fog as if it was a brightly lit day. "Ah, you can not see through this fog. That would explain why you missed the camp. The Goblins didn't miss you though, and they sent a small party to kill you, the same party I have just disposed of."
"Then I should thank you, good wizard."
"No thanks are needed my dear lady, I am just doing what is right. I am, after all, a stranger to these lands and if I ever wish to settle here then I must make myself useful to the locals."
Jeri smiled. "I am hardly a local. In fact, you might say that I am as much a stranger here as you."
"I see," he mused. "Well, you still know more about this land than I do, perhaps when this battle is over I might ask you to introduce me to one of the local lords, I am sure any lord worth his title will desire a wizard to assist him, for a price of course."
Jeri nodded. "That can be arranged. My company rides with Soldar Alford Oerwinde, the Baron of the Stille Wächter, and lord of this province." She raised her hand to point in the direction she believed the Baron and her company to be. The fall from her horse had hurt her more than she originally thought though and she winced as another jolt of pain shot through her.
Rheulaan noticed the pain etched on the warrior's face and unslung his large, purple travelling bag. Tugging it open he began rummaging around inside, and his hand soon emerged carrying a tiny flask, one that shone with a bright magical light. He handed the flask over to a surprised Jeri and said, "drink this, that should make you feel a lot better."
Jeri shook her head. "I couldn't, it must be worth a fortune... any magic around here is."
The wizard let out an amused snort. "A simple healing potion, they can be bought by the dozen where I come from. Now drink up, it looks like the rest of those Goblins are headed this way, and I need someone to protect me while I blast them with my spells."
Jeri didn't hesitate any further and after pulling the stopper from the flask, flung the contents down her throat. The liquid burned as she swallowed it, but that feeling soon went away, replaced with a gentle warmth that quickly spread throughout her entire body, washing away the feelings of pain and tiredness. Reaching up to her injured head, she found that the wound there had stopped bleeding and as she felt around she could almost feel the flesh healing beneath her hands. The dull throbbing pain in her hip and shoulder lessened, and then finally faded away all together. With the pain also went her tiredness, leaving her feeling refreshed and ready for action once more.
"Better," Rheulaan asked as he took back the now empty flask and dropped it back into his bag. Jeri nodded, and as a demonstration, picked up the heavy glaive in one hand and twirled it about her head a couple of times. The wizard nodded in approval and bent down to pick up his staff, something Jeri had not noticed him with when he had arrived. Then, the strangely twisted staff now in hand, he looked off into the mists. "Get ready then, the Goblins are nearly here."
As if in response to his words the quiet was again broken with the sounds of Goblin war cries. Before Jeri could glimpse the shapes of the Goblin warriors through the mist, Rheulaan had levelled his weapon towards the oncoming enemies and with a single word of power sent a blast of green energy off into the fog.
The lightning bolt was similar to the one the Goblins Shaman had cast in Jeri's direction earlier, but much more powerful. With a loud cracking sound, it sprung from the end of the staff and flew off into the fog. There was a hideous scream of death from a Goblin, followed by the smell of burning flesh, carried swiftly in the light breeze. Jeri suddenly became aware of other smells and sounds as well. Somewhere, not far beyond where the lightning bolt had just struck, came the clang of weapon on weapon, and the coppery taint of blood began to filter through to her nostrils.
Aware now that the battle had nearly caught up with her, she drew her sabre and prepared to face off against whatever appeared out of the fog. Rheulaan Greencloak seemed untroubled by the fog, and cast another lightning bolt from his staff, with similar results to the first. Then, out of the still thick fog Jeri saw dark shapes approaching. She readied her sabre, forgetting the long glaive for the moment, as the heavy weapon would be difficult to use in these conditions. Most of the fighting looked like it was going to be hand to hand, and if she stuck to the glaive she would be left at a severe disadvantage.
The shapes soon resolved themselves as a small group of five Goblins, all warriors, and all armed for battle. Rheulaan smiled at the Goblin warriors and used his staff to create yet another bolt of green lightning that swept into the approaching enemies. Two died instantly as the energy tore through their bodies and left nothing but smoking corpses behind. The third, and largest of the Goblins though, let the energy play across his body, somehow unaffected by the brutal spell. Then, with a fierce grin spreading across his face, the large Goblin raised his axe and rushed toward the wizard, eager to end his life.
Jeri stepped out in front of Rheulaan and without a word raised her sabre to fend of the Goblin's attack. It never came though as the Goblin warrior pulled up his charge as soon as he saw her appear. Slowing to a walk the large Goblin began to flip his axe from hand to hand as he considered Jeri as a potential opponent. This was all the time Rheulaan needed, and he cast another lightning bolt, this one striking the Goblin right in the middle of his chest. Like before though, the large Goblin was unaffected and instead of leaving a smoking hole in his chest the lightning seemed to be reflected off, sending shards of magical energy in all directions.
One of the energy shards sliced across Jeri's arm, tearing through the thick black material of her shirt and leaving a red burn mark across her arm, almost like the lash of a whip. Ignoring the pain Jeri called back to Rheulaan, "leave him to me, it looks like he is immune to your magic."
"But how can that be," was Rheulaan's muttered reply as he began to back away from Jeri, careful to keep an eye on the large Goblin and his two remaining companions as he did. The two more normal sized Goblin quickly turned to follow him, despite their interest in the warrior woman who now faced up against their leader.
The large Goblin merely smiled as the wizard retreated and dismissing him turned his attention back to Jeri. "So human, you think to match swords with Gazrok," the Goblin said in badly accented Brecht, the language of Rheulgard and the other kingdoms of Brechtür. "Best you give up now I think, or I will surely kill you and feast on your blood." Gazrok then sniffed at the air, as if trying to pick up the Jeri's scent. He looked disappointed for some reason and said, "you are hardly worth my effort, pitiful girl. Best you surrender I think and be my slave."
"I don't think so Goblin," Jeri said firmly, her hands tightening around her weapon until the knuckles bled white. Despite her outward appearance, she was very concerned by the prospect of battle. Gazrok was large for a Goblin, and she could sense something powerful about him, an aura of strength that had not been present on the other opponents she had fought in the past few hours. In fact the last time she had sensed such an aura had been during her first meeting with the Baron last week.
Then it struck her. Gazrok was obviously one of the blooded, the few lucky or cursed mortals who had within them a bloodline that was descended from the ancient gods. This made him much more dangerous than a mere mortal such as herself, and despite her finely honed battle skills, Jeri began to worry just a little, wondering if this time she had found an opponent who would defeat her. She quickly glanced around, looking for anyone else available to assist her, but there was no-one else. Even Rheulaan had vanished, along with the other two Goblins that had arrived with Gazrok. There were sounds of battle all around her now, but as far as Jeri was concerned she was still just as alone as she had been when she was lost in the fog earlier.
Further contemplation on her situation proved impossible, as Gazrok used her brief lapse in concentration to swing his heavy axe at her head, obviously aiming for a quick kill. Jeri was to disappoint him though, as the reflexes that had kept her alive for so many years came into play and she raised her sabre in time to fend off the Goblin's attack.
Sparks flew as the two weapons collided and Jeri found herself forced to her knees by the power of the Goblin's blow. She held her ground though, despite Gazrok's obviously strength advantage, and stopped the downward motion of his weapon, even forcing it back a little. The Goblin just grinned, exposing the black fangs that filled his mouth. Jeri shivered slightly, realising that the jagged, obsidian-like fangs were certainly not the usual yellow-white teeth that most Goblins possessed.
Jeri tried to ignore the goblin's foul breath, and the obvious relish he was showing for the battle, and with a blinding move she rolled to one side and quickly came back to her feet, while at the same time rotated her weapon so Gazrok's axe slid off to one side. The Goblin's momentum carried him forward, exposing his back to Jeri's counter attack. She did not lose the opportunity and drove her sabre down towards the Goblin's vulnerable back.
As it struck there was a sudden spray of sparks, the steel weapon striking the breastplate the Goblin had hidden beneath the loose, tattered cloak he wore. The sabre cut a deep gash in the strong steel of the armour, but failed to cut through to the flesh beneath. Still the Goblin gave a grunt of pain as he tumbled forward out of the reach of her weapon. Before Jeri could move to press home the advantage, Gazrok was back on his feet and he was easily able to fend off her next strike with his axe.
Then it was the Goblin's turn to attack. He swung his heavy axe towards Jeri's head, forcing her to duck to avoid being beheaded. Then, before she could respond, he swung the axe head back again, aiming for her chest this time. Jeri was forced to retreat, her smaller blade little use against the heavy battleaxe the goblin was swinging. Try as she might, she could not find an opening through the Goblins furious attack, and if she used the sabre to try and block the axe it would be swept aside by the strength the goblins was eagerly displaying.
Further and further she was forced to retreat, and as she did the grass and dirt she had been standing on changed to rough, loose gravel. Somewhere close by, Jeri's ears picked up the sound of water running over stones, and she realised that they must be close to a stream. For a moment she thought about turning and running towards it, but dismissed that idea as she knew the Goblin would most likely just throw his axe at her back. Given the skill he had displayed so far, Jeri didn't want to risk his aim on the off chance that she might escape. At least this way she could see the killing blow coming.
Then, as she took another step backwards, her foot caught on a protruding rock and she was pitched backwards into the cold pool of water that she didn't even know was there. Gazrok, in the process of swinging his axe suddenly found himself without a target and was unbalanced, spinning around with the weapon and stumbling forward. Then he too tripped over the same rock as Jeri and fell forward towards the water.
Jeri was just trying to pull herself out of the water when the heavy Goblin fell towards her. Unable to prevent it she could only watch as his heavy body collapsed on to hers, while at the same time her sabre, almost forgotten in her hands, drove into his chest. There it found the Goblins black heart and pierced it firmly, sending a flood of dark blood gushing out of his body and over Jeri. Then Gazrok's dying body crashed into Jeri's, crushing her beneath it's weight.
Still conscious, Jeri looked up into the fierce face of the dying Goblin as he twisted and turned, trying to pull himself off Jeri's blade. With a final burst of power he did just that, hauling himself up onto his knees and letting the sabre slide out of his heart. As it did so though an explosion of dark energy played along the weapon, arcing down the blade and entering Jeri's body. Gazrok looked down with confusion and horror filling his face as his lifeblood flowed from the wound, and spread across the clear water of the pool like a dark ink stain. Then with one last gasp he toppled sideways, landing with a splash in the pool next to Jeri's still prone form.
Still unaware as to what exactly had just occurred, Jeri watched the black energy that had surged from the Goblin's corpse seeming to flow down the sabre and into her body. As each arc of energy struck her it caused a jolt of pain that left her whole body numb and cold. She had a sudden urge to flee, and dragged herself to her feet and staggered off into across the stream. She could only manage a few steps though, before collapsing into the water in agony. Her chest was screaming in pain, feeling as though her entire ribcage had been shattered and she could feel a cold numbness beginning to fill her body, as if death were approaching.
With a whispered cry to her goddess, Avani, she fell forward into the water, her mind slipping into unconsciousness. As she did so, her hand opened and the sabre, still stained with the blood of the Goblin dropped from it into the cold water, followed shortly afterwards by her body. As her last conscious thoughts slipped from her mind she heard the sound of someone or something rushing across the stream, coming ever closer to where she now lay.
By Sel Vecanite © 1998 - 2000Let me claim your Birthright!!
09-03-2002, 11:14 AM #2
By Sel Vecanite © 1998 - 2000
It is said that before the coming of humans to the continent of Cerilia, even before the great Elven nations rose from their savage beginnings, the Tarvan plains had been a lush and verdant land. Great herds of antelope and other animals roamed the land and now mythical creatures, such as the ancient Giants, and even Dragons, hunted the rich game. But, just as the great Elven forests of the west were diminished by the axes of mankind, the northern grasslands of what is now the Khinasi plains states dried up and became desolate. Unlike the most recent changes to the west though, this was not due to human settlement, but a more dangerous race of creatures, the great Dragons.
Even in the days before the rise of Elvenkind in Cerilia the number of Dragons in the world was growing small. Their time was passing, and soon the younger races would arise to claim the world. But one of their kind choose not to accept the eventual fate of his kind, and decided to go down fighting. Bending the wills of many of the younger Dragons of Cerilia, he formed a mighty horde and made war with the Giants and those Dragons who would not join his cause.
Eventually though, even this mighty beast, who's name has been lost to the ages, was defeated and finally killed over the Sea of Dragons to the east, his blood joining with the ocean. Behind him he left a ravaged land. What was once a lush grassland had been devastated by the Dragon's fiery breath. Despite the passing of many millennia since those time the grasslands have never recovered.
Today, the Tarvan Wastes is considered by many travellers the most inhospitable land in all of Cerilia, with perhaps the only acceptations the icy northern lands of Vosgaard. It is an empty, desolate land of duststorms and infertile, rocky plains, home only to savage humanoids and equally savage humans. There are no roads in this land, only the endless expanse of dusty plains. The reputation of the Wastes however, did not seem to be preventing two travellers from making their way across its harsh landscape, despite the harsh summer sun that beat down mercilessly on the plains.
Near the southern border of the Wastes, slowly drifting across the province of Ras Bedra, a cloud of dust marked the passage of the two riders, who were heading south towards the powerful coastal sultanate of Aftane. Despite the conditions the two riders rode at a fast gallop, in a land where a horse travelling around midday would normally be reduced to a slow walk, unless of course its rider wanted his steed to drop dead from exhaustion. Also, the riders would have normally faced attack from either Uigher tribesmen, or even a raiding party of ferocious Gnolls. For some unknown reason though, both races had left these two travellers alone this time. But then, neither of these travellers could be considered normal.
The woman who rode at the front was mounted on a massive black beast, a horse obviously at home on the dry plains. Her slim figure rode the high saddle gracefully, and she appeared like one born to ride. Her long, dark hair flowed out behind her and her black robes fluttered wildly in the breeze created by their passage. Despite long years in the northern lands, her skin was still the same, light coffee colour it had been when she last travelled these lands, nearly ten years ago.
The second traveller could not have been more different. He was tall and handsome, with a strong face that was almost covered by a long, brown beard. Unlike the woman, his skin was pale, but, despite this disadvantage, he had somehow managed to avoid sunburn. He wore a long emerald green robe, ringed with golden symbols of an arcane nature, while over his back was slung a large purple bag. He appeared ill at ease on the saddle, but his massive white stallion knew its job, and carried him along in the woman's wake.
Reaching the border of Ras Bedra province, where it met with the north-western Aftane province of Shoufal, the two riders pulled up their steeds, coming to a stop on the top of a small hill. "Nice spell, Rheulaan," Jeri said, wheeling her horse, Desert Wind, around the face the wizard. "I think we probably set a record for crossing the Wastes on horseback."
"I have found it to be of great use in my travels," the tall wizard replied with a smile. As he spoke the last remnants of the spell he had cast on the horses, and their riders, faded away and the oppressive heat of the Khinasi plains began to press down on the them once more. Rheulaan had cast the spell only a day earlier on the northern border of the Tarvan Wastes, and now here they were in the south, a journey of about one hundred and twenty miles gone in less than a day.
"This is where we part company I am afraid," Jeri said, pointing down at a distant city. "There is Shoufal."
Rheulaan squinted, forced to shield his eyes from the glare as he peered off into the distance, until he could just make out the shape of a large city through the shimmering heat haze. "I hope this is what you want," he said. "It is not too late to change your mind and come back with me to Rheulgard. Your companions may be gone, but I am sure the Baron could use a warrior of your skill."
Jeri shook her head sadly. "I don't think that would work out," she said. "I worked with the Great Bay Company for nearly ten years. They were my family, and without them I don't think I could work for anyone else. I only stayed on over the past month to help repay my debt to you for saving my life. And I don't think you need my help any more, Lord Rheulaan Greencloak."
The wizard smiled at the mention of his title, given to him by Baron Oerwinde of Rheulgard in return for his assistance in stopping the Goblin raid on the royal tax caravan. "Perhaps not, but I still owe you a lot," he said. "Without your assistance I would never have been so well treated in Rheulgard.
"Nonsense," Jeri said. "Around here, everyone wants a court wizard. The Baron would have snapped you up no matter if I had been there or not. You will do well working for him. I don't know what things are like where you come from, but in Cerilia true wizards are very rare."
"So you no longer need my company then," Rheulaan teased. "I thought I was your friend."
Jeri smiled, remembering how the young wizard had helped her, both during the disastrous battle and afterwards. "I will always be your friend," she said softly, moisture beginning to form in her eyes. "But I have not been home in a long, long time. I have lost my adoptive family, and now I need to see my real family. Perhaps one day I will return to Rheulgard, if I am successful in forming a new mercenary company."
"Then I wish you luck my friend," the wizard said, pulling back on his horse's reigns so it reared up in salute. "Remember to look me up when you return. I will await the day eagerly."
Then he turned away, and with a final wave headed back toward the northern lands, his horse once more caught up in a spell of swiftness. Behind him, Jeri waved until he had passed out of sight. Then with a sigh, she turned her own steed around and headed south again, toward the distant shape of Shoufal city, her childhood home.
It had been ten years since she had fled the city, running away from an arranged marriage to one of the Emir's many sons. In that time she had changed much. But, despite her long exile, the city looked as though it was still much the same as it had the day she left. She could only hope her father had forgiven her for the way she left. For a woman in Aftane, disobeying the wishes of her father was close to treason on the scale of crimes. Her rank in Shoufal's society only made the betrayal worse.
Forgetting about the past for now though, she rode on to the city. As she rode, the harsh midday sun began to beat down heavily on her uncovered face. Without the wizard's spell to protect her from the sun and heat she was quickly beginning to feel drained. Reaching into one pocket she pulled out a large white scarf and tied it tightly around her lower face, warding off the dust that was being driven into the air by Desert Wind's hooves. Next, she tightened her robes, making sure almost all of her previously exposed flesh was covered and out of the sun. Then, prepared at last for the conditions, she guided the horse towards the trade road leading into the city.
The trade city of Shoufal shone brightly in the midday sun. The white, almost mirror-like, surfaces of the high walls reflected Avani's light and gave the whole city an unearthly glow. To a distant observer, looking at the city for the first time, it was a place of beauty, an oasis of life in the dry and dust choked plains of northern Aftane. However, as the observer travelled closer to the city, it began to lose a lot of its sheen. From a distance it might look white, but up close the walls were dirty, stained after decades of neglect by Shoufal's rulers.
In the past, back when the el-Sirani family had ruled the city, the wall would have been whitewashed every second year, and the streets keep clean of rubbish. The last of the family to hold the title of Emir, Jakim el-Sirani, had been a kind and gentle man, who had spent his wealth on improving the conditions of all his subjects. Since his death, just over sixty years ago, the city had been ruled by a succession of greedy Emirs, usually appointed by the Sultan of Aftane. They were all men who were more concerned with lining their own pockets, rather than caring for their people.
Despite its distance from the capital, the job of Emir of Shoufal had become a much sought after title in the Aftane court. Shoufal was an important trade city, built on the longest road in all of Cerilia. Stretching from the Djafran city of Nurida in the far east, the great trade route travels all the way across the Rain Serpent mountains, through Djafra and the Black Spear Tribes and into Aftane. There it crosses the mighty Zhaïnge river and passes through the fortified city of Aftane before heading across the dry plains to Shoufal. From Shoufal the road continues, over the Tarvan Hills and into the domain of the Awnshegh known as the Sphinx. Through the monster filled badlands, past the ancient ruins of Irbouda and into the nation of Binsada. Even there the road does not end, despite having travelled across most of the Khinasi lands. Instead it turns north and passes through Sendoure, then on into the Brecht nation of Rohrmarch before heading across the Iron Peaks and into the great western empire of Anuire.
With such a great distance covered, it is no wonder that the city of Shoufal is of great importance as both a place to rest after a long journey, and as a crossroads of trade. For not only did the great trade route from Djafra to Anuire pass through the city, but another road travelled south to the city-state of Ariya, one of the oldest and most important of the Khinasi cities. Despite the Sphinx's bandits now raiding many of the caravans that travelled along the road to the west, and many merchant now shipped goods by sea instead, the route still remains as a very important link in trade between Anuire and Khinasi. At least once a week it was possible to see a long winding caravan entering the city, either coming from Binsada and Sendoure in the west, or Aftane and Djafra in the west. The income from this trade made Shoufal one of the richest cities in the plains states, and also one of the more fought over.
In fact, for several centuries now, the city, and the province it was built in, had been hotly disputed by two powerful nations, Ariya and Aftane. The wars between the two went on for many years, before finally ending in 1965 MA when Ariya suffered a great plague. Before then though, the Shoufal and the three provinces around it were know as "the ricochet lands." Starting in 1497, when Aftane first invaded what was then the four northern provinces of Ariya, control of Shoufal changed hands so many times that historians lost count. First Ariya would attack and retake their lost lands, and then the Sultan of Aftane would send his arms to counter-attack. Little was ever accomplished except the spilling of much blood.
Even today, after fifty years of relative peace, there was still a region just south of the city that was littered with the bones of the dead. It is said that on especially dark nights the barrier between this world and the next grows thin and the creatures of the Shadow World creep into Cerilia. The battlefield was one of the places were sightings of these undead monsters was common. In fact, they had become so common of late that the temple of Avani had been force to set up a permanent outpost near the battlefield to destroy any skeletons or other undead that came through from the Shadow World.
Today though, the city was peaceful and quiet. In fact, it was so quiet that the only signs of life were the scattered splashes of bright yellow marking the locations of the guards marching along the city walls, and the small line of camels and horses that stretched out in front of the city's gates. The citizens of Shoufal were all indoors, hiding in the cool shade wherever it fell, and trying everything they could to avoid the fierce glare of Avani.
To some the hot summer was a sign from the sun goddess that she was displeased with the people of Aftane. But the heat affected all the Plains States this year, so if Avani was angry, then she was angry with all her followers, not just the people of Shoufal. To the priests of Avani though, the situation was much less desperate. The large temple devoted to the patron of the Khinasi rose above the streets of Shoufal, and provided a cool place to spend the worst of day. It also drew in a steady stream of visitors praying for the return of the more temperate climate. With them came an equally steady stream of gold and other valuables, given as donations to the priests so they could pray to Avani.
Most of these donations came from the rich merchants and nobles. With the taxes the latest Emir levied, few of the poorer classes could afford their own meals, let alone to give anything to Avani. While most of those with money could afford indoor pools, plight of the poor was a lot worse, many dying from the fierce heat. But none of the people could even dare think of rebelling against their greedy ruler, not while he held the city in an iron grasp.
The instrument the corrupt ruler of this land used to control the people of Shoufal was the powerful Lion Guard. Trained in the river city of Aftane they were loyal only to the Emir, and of course the goddess Avani. They would attack any enemy that threatened their master and not stop until they were victorious or dead. Right now Shoufal was home to three units of these feared warriors, nearly six hundred in total. While perhaps not as large as the army of Ariya, the great city-state to the south, the western armies of Aftane were better trained and equipped, and were backed by priests of Avani and their magic.
Today though, the city's guards could snooze in the midday sun secure in the knowledge that no army was marching towards them intend on their deaths. In the past they might have been more watchful, knowing that an Ariyan army could be on its way north at any time. No invasion looked likely, however, not even the Ariyan Prince-Paladin was stupid enough to march his forces through the blistering heat that scorched the savanna south of the city. So instead of standing guard, most of the soldiers were clustered in what ever shade was available, playing games of cards and dice. Only a few new recruits were left to march post along the walls, just in case the Emir poked his head out of his harem to check.
A cloud of dust rising in the north soon attracted their attention though, for in that direction lay the vast Tarvan Wastes, home to bandits, nomads, and other undesirables. The guards at the main gate, quickly looked towards the lookout perched high in the tower. When there was no warning signal forthcoming they soon relaxed. The dust was probably from a small group of riders, or maybe just due to the wind. The walls of Shoufal were strong, and a small group of nomad raiders would never breach them without magical assistance, and the only wizard of any power in the region was the Emir's personal sorcerer, Albin el-Reshoud.
The cloud of dust quickly grew closer and soon the guards could see the dark shape of a single horse and rider galloping across the desert towards the city. As the rider drew nearer, it was possible to see even more detail, including the bright sparkle of reflected sunlight as it struck bared steel. The guards grew wary again, as it became clear that the rider was carrying weapons. They began to wonder if they had been too hasty in dismissing this rider as unimportant.
One the walls above several archers, armed with the curved bows typical of Khinasi armies, moved away from the shade of the tower and spread out across the wall, two even going as far as to notch arrows in their bows. Below, outside the city gates there were only two guards on duty, and they looked nervously at the approaching rider, wondering if some suicidal Uigher raider hadn't come to try and take on the city on his own. Such things had been know to happen in the past. Tribesmen, driven mad by the heat, had thrown themselves against the walls. In such case it was usually the guards outside the walls who were first to fall.
However, as the horse drew closer it soon became apparent the rider was not a Uigher tribesman, instead it was a woman. The swell of her breasts were plainly visible, despite being somewhat hidden beneath the thick robes she wore. Her features though, still remained out of sight beneath her black robe, dark breeches, and the white scarf she had wrapped around her lower face. With the black, knee-high boots, and dark gloves the only flesh that was visible was the small strip from her forehead to the bridge of her nose. It was the typical garb of a nomad from the Tarvan Wastes, although few women from that barren land ever became warriors.
But it was obvious this woman was just that. For, although her features were hidden from view, her weapons were displayed very prominently indeed. Strapped to her back was the tall shape of an Anuirean glaive, a weapon that was almost unknown in the desert lands. It was a weapon used primarily by entire regiments of soldiers, usually against cavalry charges, and not one that was common in the hands of a single warrior. But, if that warrior was skilled enough, it could still be a very dangerous weapon indeed.
As the woman rode even closer to the gate the distinct shapes of a Khinasi sabre, as well as a long nomad dagger also became visible. Both were attached to a leather weapons belt strapped loosely around her waist, as were several small pouches, again in the fashion of the nomads. The two guard currently assigned to the city gates turned away from their work and focused their attention on the rider. If she was from the Wastes she wouldn't have much money on her, but they still saw the opportunity for some fun.
Guarding the gate was generally a boring job, but there was never a lack of volunteers to take up the position. The current Emir spent more time in his palace and harem that any of the previous rulers, and so never checked up on the job his men were doing. So those guards lucky enough to be assigned to the city's main gates used every opportunity they had to extort money and goods from unwary travellers. As the warrior-woman rode past the caravan gathered outside the city, they stepped out into her path.
The two guards stepped forward just as the rider neared the gate and crossed their spears in front of her, their free hands dropping to their swords. "Halt," they both cried in unison.
The woman on the horse tugged sharply on the reins and the large, black beast skidded to a stop just in front of them. Through the gap between her turban, and the white cloth wound around her neck and mouth they could see her dark eyes flashing with intense anger. The beast she rode seemed to reflect her anger, stamping its feet and snarling at the two guards.
"For what reason do you stop me," the warrior woman asked in a voice made harsh by hours of riding through the hot, sandy wasteland north of Shoufal. "In all my many visits to this city I have never been stopped before, stand aside and let me pass at once."
"Things change," the taller of the two guards commented in a voice filled with boredom. Obviously this was a conversation that he conducted many time each day. When the woman did not move out of the way he sighed and continued with the rest of the speech. "All visitors to the city of Shoufal must now pay a small entrance fee, and allow their belongings and caravans to be inspected for illegal goods. Please get down off your horse so I can begin the inspection."
"This is outrageous," the woman complained in a suitably incensed tone. "Never in my many years of travelling have I been forced to pay to enter a trade city. Even the greedy merchants of Müden do not try to extort money from visitors to their cities. They are at least courteous enough to wait until the visitor tries to buy something from one of their stores."
The tall guard shrugged. "As I said, things change. All I know is that I have to collect one Shetel for every traveller who enters the city." He let out a short chuckle. "Of course if you don't like it you can always go somewhere else, why Ariya is only a little over a weeks hard ride to the south. Without water though, I don't think you will make it more than a day."
As the guard spoke a gust of wind blew across the plains, gently ruffling the clothes of all waiting to enter the city. The white scarf the warrior had wound around her face, to ward of the effects of the sandstorms that often raged across the Tarvan Wastes, lifted just a fraction, exposing her lower neck. At once both the guard's attention, until then little more than bored indifference, was focused by the bright glint of gold hanging around the woman's neck.
Unaware of the two guard's sudden interest the woman continued her tirade, "A silver Shetel? That is outrageous. For a poor traveller such as myself that is a lot of money just to enter a dirty city like Shoufal."
The short, fat guard laughed. "That is a pretty fancy necklace for a poor traveller," he said, pointing towards the gap that the wind had opened between her robe and scarf. "Something like that could buy a lot of meals for us poor guards."
"I think it is wine you are thinking of aren't you Gerad?" the taller guard asked, before they both broke out into laughter.
The warrior quickly smoothed out her clothing, hiding the view of the gold chain. As soon as the two men had stopped chuckling she said, "it is a family heirloom, I can not afford to part with it."
The tall guard shrugged, "have it your way, but no payment then no entry. There are plenty of others who want to enter." He turned his gaze towards the first in the line, a fat wine Anuirean merchant with several camel loads of barrels stretched out behind him. The guard licked his lips at the thought of the wine tax he was going to apply before dragging his eyes away from the merchant and back to the warrior woman. "If you want to enter, hand over the necklace, otherwise go back to the desert where whores like you belong."
The warrior's eyes narrowed and her hand slid downward toward the hilt of the sabre that hung from her belt. The tall guard shook his head and said, "I wouldn't try that if I were you." He dropped his spear point so it came level with the warrior woman's throat, then with an evil grin inclined his head towards the top of Shoufal's walls.
The warrior's eyes followed his gaze and quickly spotted the forest of gleaming metal arrowheads pointed in her direction. Silently she cursed herself for wearing the necklace. She was hoping to save it to use later in an emergency, but now she would have to use it now, and there was still no guarantee it would work, she could only hope the guards were stupid enough. The tall one was right though, there would be no fighting her way out of this mess, those archers would cut her down in seconds. Not even the enchantments woven into her robes by Rheulaan would be enough to deflect all the arrows they would be sure to fire at her should she cut down one of their own.
Carefully she moved her hand away from her sword hilt, and up towards the gold chain that hung around her neck. The fat guard grinned and chuckled softly to himself as her hand retreated. "That's right girl, hand over the gold." He moved one hand off the spear and dropped it to his belt, slowly undoing the buckle. "Unless you want to make some other arrangement of course."
The warrior glared at him in disgust and anger. Then, with a swift tug, pulled out the amulet that had rested between her breasts, just hidden beneath her robe. Holding the gold and amber amulet out in front of her she spoke haughtily, "I am Jerenia bint Farid el-Sirani, daughter of the merchant Kassim el-Sirani. My family have been nobility in Shoufal for centuries, and I am a distant cousin to the Sultan himself. Allow me to pass or I will have you punished."
The guards looked nervously at each other as she displayed the amulet, and the tall one even took a quick step back, as if her were moving to get out of her way. The fat guard though, looked up at her and said, "and how do we know that is real. I didn't even know old el-Sirani had a daughter."
"You dare to question me?" She asked in amazement, "Do you know what I could do to you for this display. I can have you stripped naked, whipped through the streets, and then tied down on a fire ant's nest. I think I would enjoy that, watching as a thousand tiny ants tore the flesh from your body, piece by tiny piece. They say the agony is incredible, and sometimes it can take hours before they eat enough of your body to kill you. Believe me if you do not let me pass that is what I will do."
Then she glared at them angrily, while waving the necklace around in front of their eyes, letting the sunlight catch the valuable stones and give them a faint glow. "Do you not recognise the symbol of the Royal Merchant's Guild. Surely you know what will happen to you if you disobey the law of the Emir. I have been on an important mission in the Wastes, and right now the lord of Shoufal awaits my report. Surely you do not wish to keep him waiting."
The symbol of the Merchant's Guild had given the guards cause for concern, but her words spurred them into action. They stumbled over each others feet in their sudden need to clear her path. All in Aftane knew that those who served the guild in fact served the Emir, mainly as merchants, but also as spies and assassins. Still with an angry glare on her face the warrior shoved the amulet back inside her robe, letting to fall back down between her breasts, out of sight once more. Then she gently dug her heels into the massive stallion's flanks, urging him forward and past the two, suddenly subservient soldiers.
Had the two guards looked beyond their fear, they may have seen the gigantic hole in her story, the small fact that the royal order of merchants does not accept any women into its ranks. The current Emir was a man of tradition and he would never allow a woman into one of his guilds. The reputation of the powerful organisation had clouded the guard's judgement though, allowing the warrior woman access to the city.
As soon as she had passed, the guards walked cautiously back to their posts, although their gaze followed the gentle bounce of the warrior's shapely backside as she rode at a leisurely pace through the city gates. When she turned back to glare at them though, their eyes quickly snapped forward. The warrior smiled as she saw their fear and snapped the reins of her horse, sending it trotting down the street towards her favourite inn, and a glass of cool wine to quench the thirst she had built up after the long ride across the Tarvan Wastes. Behind her the guards shook off their fear of the Emir's retribution and instead focused on the waiting wine merchant, both unconsciously licking their lips in anticipation.
In the city beyond, Desert Wind's hooves clattered loudly on the stone paving of the street, while Jeri looked around with great interest in her surroundings. It had been ten years since she had last ridden through these streets. Then, she had been a noble, the only daughter of one of the oldest noble families in Shoufal. Now, she was nothing more than a foreign warrior, an object of mistrust and scorn. Around her though, the city still looked the same, and the only difference were a few shops with different names, and a slight increase in the number of beggars hustling for coins.
After parting with a few coppers to fend off the more insistent beggars, she turned down a side street. As she rode into the cool shade provided by the overhanging balconeys above, Jeri wondered what the guards at the gate would have though had they known that beneath her robes she carried a fortune in gold and gems, money gathered after a decade of mercenary work across the continent. That thought keeping her amused, she headed towards the poor quarter, and the wineshop of her old teacher. She could only hope that it was still there.Let me claim your Birthright!!
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