The party had been following him for days. This was the closest they’d been to catching him in a month. To be fair, it was the closest anyone had been to catching him ever. Barrus was a wanted man in three separate courts, at the same time, he was also venerated in several more.
They had followed him over the mountains out of the nation, over into the wild-lands. Out there, man, beast, ork, and all manner of civilized and uncivilized beings lived and called home. Much of the land wasn’t fertile, just open plains with few resources not really suitable to build a nation on. It had been free land, land of nomads, tribes, and small kingdoms for countless generations, simply because the land was otherwise of no value.
They continued to follow him still. Up into the mountainous regions where the hardy elven peoples toiled endlessly inside the earth. Then they followed him south, nearing the true elven lands. Here, one could get lost and never seen again, or simply walk right past or through a grand elven city, and never realize they’d been in anything other than forest. Here, the world was thin, worn away by existence, closer to the aether almost than to the earth. Simple folk called it enchanted, magical, mystical, or even arcane. For those who don’t understand, those words work well enough. For those who do understand though, they simply called it Fey.
Unfortunately, Rothick knew Fey. And Fey is just what had found them.
“Hurry up! You don’t want to get left behind!” Charlz called out. He was half jogging away in chuckling, half running for his very life. He’d managed to shoot a deer in the forest for dinner for the troupe, but before they had managed to clean half the carcass, a larger, nastier creature had set upon them.
“You half-monkey arse wipe! I’ll be damned if you leave me here! I’ll eat you myself if we don’t make it!” Meje called back, more running for his life than anything, burdened by his gear. The two of them made it back to camp with barely enough meat for a small stew split between everyone.
“I tell you it was a giant ursid! Teeth and fangs as long as my knife! Longer than a mans hands! Ugly as hell, came right upon us! Lazy creature, running us off from our deer, I bet you it just waited for us to clean it for it, damnable animal.” Charlz half mused half sulked.
“Aye it was ugly, I’ll give you that. But it wasn’t an ursid like I’ve ever seen. It was big, but I think it was more like a great wolf.. beast.. Thing… like an ugly overgrown hound. Did you see how it came at us? Ursid don’t jump, they don’t pounce. This did. It was a dog type creature for sure.”
“Are you daft?! No dog gets that big, not even great wolves! No, it was a bear thing I’m sure of it” Charlz retorted. The two of them continued to banter back and forth as they helped Huck cook dinner for the ten of them. Descriptions of the strange beast went on, each more fanciful and more descriptive than the last. By the time they were done, the beast could have had two eyes or a dozen, it’s head big a an ox, and a maw that could eat a man whole. Every person at the fire had a different image in their head. Rothick had heard of strange beasts before, and seen several himself, though he suspected that whatever happened upon his fellows here was probably nothing more than a half-seen local beast. It was probably no scarier than a simple bear, and whatever the half-unseen part had been filled in by their imagination and competitive storytelling.
The next morning they continued on the old road through the forest. By nightfall the follow day they would have reached their destination, the first of the small courts, an elven city. Rothick had hoped they’d have reached elven lands sooner, but they had to follow every lead found tracking Barrus down. The last they’d heard he’d retreated to the elven lands through this city, but not after they’d been sent the wrong direction into the mountains. Wrong elves it seems. But what could he expect from people who’d never traveled more than a few days from their home? They couldn’t tell a mountain dweller from a forest denizen from a sailor when it came to elves.
Koontz was the first to go down. Pounced on from behind, then carried off into the forest in the confusion. Rothick was snapped into attention by his screams. He had no care nor compassion for Koontz, who was a simple hired sword on the journey in it only for the reward, but hearing a man getting eaten by a predatory beast simply wasn’t something someone didn’t notice.
“Body of God! Oh dear sweet merciful~!” Charlz was loosing a stream of curses, profanity, and swearing “Where is my sword? Out of my way you~” tripping over himself and Huck, and anyone else nearby “There! It’s over there jackass! Shoot it! Dear lord shoot it!”
“Quickly! Follow me!” Rothick commanded. He saw the beast running off into the forest, and quickly gave chase. The Piper, and another of the mercenaries where the only ones to follow at first, shortly followed by Meje and then everyone else with Charlz and Huck once they’d picked themselves up.
Piper and Rothick ran after the beast, which came to a small clearing and turned around. Koontz was beating at the beast with his fists, desperately trying to free himself. The beast threw him up in the air, caught him with his maw yet again, and thrashed him about a few times, then threw him into the ground. His body bashing into the ground, Koontz would move no more. He was broken, and the last bit of his life faded from his eyes. The beast was now protecting it’s prize.
In the clearing, one could finally see what the beast looked like. Indeed it was the size of a bear, but it had far more canine features. . It’s shape was probably closer to that of a bull-dog and a jaguar combined. Large fore-limbs, with large paws, clearly suited for climbing and lifting it’s bulk into trees, but it’s face was alien. The beast had short fur, but it’s head was almost just bare skin. It’s maw was long and narrow, but still large enough to consume a small child whole, and it did indeed have more than just one set of eyes. Someone shot at the beast with their bow, and it impacted and sunk into the meat of it’s shoulder.
“EEEERRRROOOOOOOOOAOOAOAOAOARRR” it howled, charging into the group in rage. It’s paws came down on Huck first, slashing his chest open and throwing him onto his back. It then lashed to the side with it’s maw and threw the captain and one of her men back as well. Charlz and Meje lunged in and slashed down on it with their swords, wounding it, but then were thrown back handily themselves. The beast then went in to finish off poor Huck who it still had pinned to the ground.
Rothick murmured a few un-words that he had been taught, and that had been inscribed into his sword. No one could have heard what he had said. Equally so, no one could have NOT seen the oily blue and purple fire dribbling off his sword. The runefire burning brightly off of the hidden inscriptions, they now shone in the daylight as if a lantern was shining out into the darkness. Smoke dripped down from the weeping runes as Rothick near silently spoke in the eld-tongue and moved in. It was so staggering to see, that Meje who was about to lunge back in at the beast was given pause; the beast was terrifying, but this, this was arcane secrets that any normal man rightly feared. The Piper was the only one who seemed unperturbed at this, and merely gave Rothick an acknowledging nod.
Rothick gave a great underhanded swing up into the beasts throat right before it bit down into Huck. He cut through half the throat of the beast and nearly severed it’s head. He reversed his sword and with a cry plunged the sword down into the beasts skull, killing the staggered beast. It collapsed where it stood, half crushing Huck.
Everyone helped move the beast off of Huck, who would survive his wounds, but would scar badly. The Piper set to work bandaging him up the best he could. The other mercenaries checked Koontz’s body. No one got close to Rothick. The captain was the first to make a comment.
“Where your sword hurt the beast, the flesh is charred, as if it was burned, but it is also as if it has been frozen and crackled… What are you?” She demanded. Everyone else stood behind her, using her as a shield between themselves and Rothick.
“I am a man just like the rest of you, that’s all” Rothick said casually, as if this weren’t out of the ordinary.
“No, you are not. That was magic, that was something arcane. Normal men do not possess such power. Who are you and why are you with us? You’re not just a mercenary like the rest of us are in for the reward are you? And neither are you piper, you are the only other person here un-alarmed by this sorcery” She was calm, but also fierce. She was angry. This was her band of men, and their journey after this bounty. They had accepted a few more mercenaries to go along with them, bringing their number from six to ten. Charlz and Meje good woodsmen and guides, the piper was an other sword, and brought his music along with him. She had thought that Rothick was just another sword after the bounty. She liked men who were simple and only in it for the money. They were easy to understand, predictable. You knew how they would act, and what they were after. But now, Rothick, to her, was no longer a sword. He was something she didn’t know how to predict, which made him dangerous, and a threat.
“I demand to know who you are and what you’re doing with us.” Her words had steel in them, they rang with finality. Rothick took a breath, and looked at her. He knew there was no dancing around what he’d just done at this point.
“I told you. I’m just a man. But I’m after more than just the bounty. Once I had heard where Barrus had head off to, I decided to follow along. My journey leads me to the Elven lands, and since he came this way, I decided to join up. Why not earn money and go along with a heavily armed band in the process? I need to eat as well afterall. And my journeys are not free. I just happen to have some extra skill and knowledge your men do not possess.”
“You are dangerous, and I do not like that, I do not trust you.” She almost spat the words. She almost wanted to send him on his way, but she feared his magic, and did not want to have to fight him. She did not know if she could win.
“You have my word. I’m no threat to you, but I do not need everyone to know my secrets either.”
Huck was the next one to speak up. “Ma’am. He saved my life. He may have saved several of our lives. If nothing else, I trust him for that. If he was going to do anything foul to us, he probably would have done so weeks ago.”
She looked at Huck, then back to Rothick. “Fine. You can continue to travel with us till this is over, but I will be watching you. And you! Piper! I’m watching you too! You weren’t alarmed at his magic, so there is something about you that I do not find all too settling.”
With that, she walked off back to her men, and started issuing orders to strip Koontz of his gear and to bury him. It was not the first time she had lost a man, and it would not be the last. It was never a pleasant thing though. And she had not had a very good day at all so far.
They reached a long large stone bridge about midday the following afternoon. It was across a large chasm, beneath a large beautiful river coursed through the ravine, then out into a lake off in the distance. They could see the start of a large city at the edge of the lake below merging and disappearing off into the forest that surrounds it. They were close to their destination.
Before they had walked halfway across the long bridge, something materialized at the end of the bridge. Materialized as if out of smoke, since they simply didn’t walk up to the bridge, but they didn’t just appear either, they were masterfully stealthy. They, because there were many of them, and made even more impressive by their large goat-like horns that protruded from their skulls and back around their ears like a ram, and the fact that each stood half again as tall as the largest man of the captain’s group. In fact, they looked like rams or goats, given human form, and made the size of a giant.
“Elthwere took nacht newiend Dallos” said the large one in the front, seemingly the leader. Taken aback, the captain looked behind them, and unsurprisingly, they were trapped in the middle of the bridge.
“Swords! To arms, with me!” the captain rang out, and her men followed. There was no escape, the only way was through, and they had no advantage but to turn the ambush into a surprise counter attack. If they had hoped for a quick surrender, they would not find it with her.
With a grin (if you could call it that, Meje later said how that visage gave him nightmares), the leader drew his sword and waited the charge. The captain was the first in, sword falling and slashing and bellowing in rage. Each of her blows was deftly deflected by the goat-man’s greatsword. Her men fell in around her swinging, chopping, slashing, raging, all desperate to break through.
At first they seemed to gain a few steps through, almost to the end of the bridge, they just needed to break through so as to not be surrounded. They then failed. They had not managed to hurt a single one of the goat-men. Their slashes would hit, but slide through as if moving through thick black smoke, then the smoke dissipates and the goat-men remain unharmed. Quickly their charge turned to folly, and they where thrown back. Charlz was lifted off the ground by his shirt and thrown three paces back. Someone gave a scream as their arm was nearly slashed through, and the captain herself was kicked in the chest by a hoof that threw her back messily in a pile next to Charlz. They were failing, and they were being pushed back. Clopping could be heard as other goat-men closed in from the other side of the bridge. They were trapped, and the trap was closing in.
Rothick quickly spat out some eld-tongue un-words, “Nicht Elthwere, Dos lemn-du TOOK CHA’R’WE NAH!” The charging goat-men were staggered as a sudden wind blew across the bridge. Anyone over six feet tall was hit with an iron wind, blown from the east. This mostly messed up the human’s hair, but the goat men standing so much taller, took it in the chest and were pushed over. This gave Rothick a chance to close in on his own terms.
“Ta’r’e Du, Nicht dos Haw-THRoom, Na’iervahre” A voice rang out, but not in the ears, but in the minds of all those present. The words their mind heard was an echo of the words just spoken by Rothick, the echo “Turn you, Not to, Hand Thrown, never there,” Astonished, the goat-man gave pause. Rothcik punched through the first goat man, and the force threw all those before him back. The next unwords he spoke ignited the bindings on his sword and the runes began to dribble their oily smoke and fire, and he lunged in. The lead goat-man back on his feet met Rothick, but he was unprepared for such an attack. Each time their steel met, Rothick’s sword would freeze and chip into the other’s, biting it. The goat-man began to lose ground, but it would not last. Rothick was outnumbered and eventually he could not keep up the blows enough to hold them all off.
Slashed, lower left leg. Stabbed, right arm. Cut, right rib, hit, left hand. Kicked, left leg, knee down. Blocked, then staggered back. Rothick fell. He was losing the fight. One of the next few blows would be the last. One of the next few blows would end him.
They did not fall.
“Dallos nacht Niewiend, nicht-tach, I have an offer for you” said the Piper. Squinting into a grimace, the goat man held off his fellows and spoke spoke in Anglic. “Who taught you how to speak our language, little man? You are not of the Fey-land, and have no fey-spirit in your blood. This one here now’s some of the eld-tongue but speaks it as most of your kind do. Awkwardly, haltingly. And here you speak our language as if you were reared it.”
The next few words spoken by the piper were not understood even by Rothick, since they weren’t just un-words, they were true language. The eld-tongue is the mother of all the fey languages, and share many things in common, but Rothick was still learning more and more of it, and it is not spoken as a language even in the elven lands. He could not however speak fluently in the elven tongues, much less the dialect spoken by the goat-men.
“What’s going on?” The captain asked Rothick, pulling him over to the rest of their small group, those left standing or not. “I don’t know. I don’t really understand what they’re saying. Something about a song, or their mother, I don’t know..”
“Silence manling! Piper. You may play.”
The goat man rested his hands on the pommel of his sword, standing with his sword tip on the ground, and closed his eyes and listened as the piper began to play.
“I don’t get it, what’s going on Captain?” Meje was the first to ask after a minute or two of silence. Rothick was the one to answer him “The Piper is playing something, but it’s not something for our ears to hear, it’s not in a tone we can possibly hear.. How he learned to play something like that I don’t know.”
Minutes passed. The sun slowly moved overhead. A few low melancholy notes here or there could be heard occasionally. The goat-men stood silent, all listening attentively, and stood as if they were stone. After what seemed like an age, the piper stopped playing.
“You may pass. Thank you Piper.” The goat men stood aside, and a path was cleared for the group to pass through, helping the wounded along slowly. The Captain, Rothick, and the others could see tears streaming down the eyes of many of the goat-men. They all stood silently with their eyes closed until they had passed, they then turned and walked away as if walking into black smoke and they were gone. More than a few of the men were wild eyed and bewildered. No one knew what had just transpired.
“Piper, what did you just do? What was that song?” Rothick questioned. These were a type of the Fey to be found here, and an armed band of them, highway bandits, but on a much higher level than could be found in human lands. They should not and would not have survived but for this odd series of events.
“All-mother’s song. A song I wish never to have to play again.”