The Curse of the Wounded King

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Asmodeus, Sep 27, 2012.

  1. The Wounded King

    Chapter One: The Mask of Velgovis

    There is a saying among the Caldane Order: that a story begun in blood will never wash itself. It will be steeped from start to finish and teach us nothing.

    It was the belief of their founder, Saint Pleodine, that if the junctures of paradise could be documented, then man might prevail against the calamaties that befell all things. His interest was in first causes, in original states and pre-conditions - in the way things were before they went awry. With this he drew the destitute and the dreamers and made of them an order offering wisdom to those in power.

    They won mixed fortune, as any who would bring a moral compass to the realm of politics. A noble seeking reform; a chieftain wanting godly validation; a minister struggling with the weight of office. By their generosity the Order would wend its way, and with each footstep leave the whisper: that perfect things may be kept so with neither tears nor bloodshed.

    It is thus a mercy and a tragedy that those monks would never realise... that with their deaths would begin the greatest story our world has ever known...

    One day had passed. No more.

    Tristan had fled Elswich in the dead of night, as the barbarians put his village to the sword. He had carried a message, from the last of the monks to die, and then had himself been struck by an arrow. He had passed out at the gates of Argeria, then had had that message stolen from him by the local thieves guild.

    And in the bloody deeds of reclaiming that scroll he had made the fast friends and allies who now accompanied him.

    But still, only a day had passed.

    Now, as sunlight stirred behind the smoke clouds and pierced the treetops of Clendale Forest, Tristan Faulkner stood again in the village of Elswich. And he beheld the ruin. More than leaf litter on the ground. More than fruit in the trees. Those bodies the barbarians had not strung up had been left amid the rubble of burned homes and trampled fences. All was washed in a pall of smoke, from fires which had burned throughout yesterday, as Tristan and his allies rode from Argeria.

    The church had been gutted, every valuable plundered, and the women and children hidden there made captives of the Hill Tribes. They had been dragged away as the village burned, past a horror-gauntlet of slaughtered men. And the livestock had been taken with them.

    Tristan came down off his horse and picked his way through the aftermath. His allies were dismounting behind him and conducting their own searches: Kendrick, the man who had funded this journey; Juliet, another survivor of the barbarian raids; Desmond, the traveller they had picked up on the road; Scar, an old acquaintance of Kendrick's; Arlette, an apothecary who had agreed to help Tristan through the worst of his fever; Sable, a one-time student in the Caldane Order; and then Xavier and Brill, two rough-looking Southlanders who had helped Tristan regain the scroll in Argeria.

    A fellowship of nine, forged by circumstance and promise. Now humbled in the sight of tragedy.

    In time Tristan found his bestiary. The house which he had lived in since his father's time had been razed to the ground, and amongst the ruin were remains of birds and dogs and rodents - anything the marauders had not deemed fit for food or training. And of course the body of the priest, Friar Jaime, who had burst into his Tristan's stables in the dead of night, passing him a scroll before falling to the blade of a charging marauder.

    It had all happened so quickly. Tristan had saddled a horse and fled the village, just as the barbarians began their attack.

    They had been following one priest... just one survivor of the butchered Caldane Order... and for this a hundred villagers had shared their fate.

    Now Tristan sat in the ruins, staring at the desolation, speechless. And in his hand was the sword... the falchion he had taken from one of the barbarians as he fled... a weapon of fine Western steel... a weapon that no barbarian should have carried.

    Someone had sent the barbarians here. Someone had driven them to kill the monks then chase the last survivor here, to Elswich. And of one more thing he was certain. The scroll in his saddlebag, the one the priest had given him, the one he had almost lost in Argeria... was the reason for all of this.

    The bodies of villagers swung in the corner of his vision, hung from the trees. Tristan forced his eyes shut.
  2. "Seems your friends deserted you, Westerner."

    "That makes two of us."

    The fight had been confused, panicked, a din of sword-strikes, yells and footfalls through the hook-marked back alleys. Brill, still drunk on Brahmsberry Wine, had made little sense of it all. His gang had tried to kill him, but had been interrupted by another band. People had scattered, wounds had been dealt, and now the leader of this second posse was pointing a sword at him.

    "I have no quarrel with you," Tristan breathed. Brill could see blood running from a wound on the man's leg, and his arm trembled as it held up his falchion. Tristan was on the verge of collapsing, but Brill was no better for his intoxication. "I just... your friends took something from me. I need it back."

    One such of those friends lay in the alley between them, his gut sliced open. Gunlen, an orphan rat who served Filger, wisp-haired and past his prime. He was just one of dozens of street thugs who, like Brill, ran protection for Filger, the Crooked Man of Argeria. But old Gunlan was now quite dead, and his service to the crime lord was at an end.

    His blood, however, did not drip from Tristan's sword... but from Brill's.

    His comrade had tried to kill him. And it was only Tristan's arrival that gave Brill the distraction he needed to repay the backstabber.

    "I need that scroll," Tristan repeated, the falchion wavering. "I'll kill you all if I have to."

    Brill could not help but smile, his own blade ready. "Many a fool kills for paper, friend."

    There were more shouts in the alleys. Tristan's allies were approaching. They had all but scattered Filger's gang. "Please..." Tristan swayed. "Just tell me where they took it..."

    Brill glanced at the dead betrayer by his feet. "Much as I'd like to help, I don't think I'm welcome in Argeria anymore."

    "Then that's something else we have common." Tristan, likewise, glanced at the corpse. "Your people don't want you. But I need as many swords as I can buy." He took a breath as blood dripped from his leg. "Help me get my scroll back... and you can ride with us."

    Brill belched, steadied his sword, and gathered his thoughts. Down the alley behind him the Honeysuckle Inn loomed black and grey, the headquarters of the Crooked Rats. That was where the scroll they had stolen from this messenger would be kept. And that was where the order had been given for Brill's employment to be terminated.

    It was now time for Brill to decide which employer he preferred.

    Rot hung heavy on the air, the rusty taste of blood carried on the wind. He spit, swinging off his horse and crushing the dried leaves beneath his feet. He'd no sooner hit the ground than drawn his wineskin from belt and gulped another refreshing taste of Brahmsberry wine. Swilling it through his teeth and tongue, he cut out the taste of blood and ashes. Tristan was ahead of him, Western falchion in his hand, quiet. Boy always got quiet when talk of home came between them. Now the truth of his gnawing horror was laid bare for them all.

    His horse nickered and Brill shrugged off its inquiry. No explanations need be made. Barbarians armed with tempered steel. Easily the work of a General, but from which side? Kneeling where the entwined bodies of a barbarian and a village defender moldered, Brill freed an axe from the fallen hill tribe and examined it. It showed signs of use, but only recently. The beasts were likely armed shortly before their attack. No insignia, of course, this was a secret. Not even the mark of a blacksmith shadowed the gleaming axehead...but the work was exquisite nonetheless. Taking the axe, he slipped it into his belt. Maybe he could get it appraised. Work like this, especially as well sharpened...and in such quantity...someone would know this craft.

    "Ashes to Ashes," he called out to the monk, upturning his wine and pouring out a libation to the fallen, "Bones to dust. Omond, Spirit of Death has his hands over this place, not to linger." He knelt, crossing himself with dirty fingers as prayers to the Twelve rattled on nervous breath. There had once been a day he had scorned the Gods, the Spirits, their dominion and their place. Such arrogance had led him here, sellsword for a homeless boy and his band of fleabitten travelers. Women, too many women. They might as well have sold their services as a brothel, and he might as well be a guard dog for some highborn lady.

    Of yet, he had not voiced his concerns for their fragility, assuming they would reveal themselves in time.

    Certainly the potions girl had her place. Poultices and bindings on his own injuries were soon to leave him. Had not her quick hands mended his flesh, he might have brought more than scars from Argeria and Filcher's wretched servants...plague lived in the open mouthed wounds of any man, save the hand of a surgeon to clean it.

    She was a woman. But she was a damn good one.

    Walking past his employer, Brill squatted down near the tracks of hooves, boots, and blood, measuring their gait and direction. They left a different way than they came...perhaps a staging area? Or were they bringing the survivors elsewhere to be interrogated? Tristan had spoken little of the attack, but he seemed to be the only survivor. So desperate for that scroll, it seemed that perhaps the barbarians did not find what they were looking for.

    Otherwise, there would be far less prisoners.

    "They traveled South," He called back to the party, taking a handful of dust and running it through his fingers, "Not the way of their Mountain home. Perhaps they have a meeting to keep." He measured the width of the path, stepping across it and scratching the back of his head. "Still a fair number of them, too many to slay in our number anyways." He chuckled, "Poor bastards..."

    He cast a glance back at Tristan and the others.

    "Did they get what they wanted? Or do you hold the object that damned these people to the torch and blade?" He was not frowning, a smile ghosted on his lips instead, a reminder of his perverse sense of humor. One survivor, the only one to escape, and the only one with what the marauders wanted. Someone paid very good money for very little results. The villagers would be interrogated, tortured, and likely slain...or at least any that saw the mastermind of this plot. The rest would bed with barbarians and breed barbarian children.

    Hillfolk took their prize through force, lived through force, and died when their force was outmatched.

    Vicious. Brutal. Efficient.

    "Return ye, oh survivor hero!" Brill sang, passing beneath the tree of hanged bodies, knocking their swinging corpses side to side, "What now for us? Avenge the dead? Sentry a tombyard? Fancy us grave diggers, then?" He laughed.

    "Or have we come this way to record your sorrow? Your transgression of survival to bear witness to this."
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  3. "Hey!"

    Desmond stopped short, his flute falling silent on a strangled note. The voice had startled him from his reverie. For two hours he had sat by the creek and for two hours he had played. But now someone was shouting at him. Standing up from the rock where he had sat, he looked back along the creek to see a robed man stooping over the water and filling a wineskin. He had spotted Desmond and called out.

    And Desmond, not sure how to react, simply lifted a hand in acknowledgment.

    "These roads are not safe!" the stranger shouted, and began a steady pace towards him. Desmond could see that he dressed like one of the Western sages, with the distinctive red sash to indicate his caste. He had not expected to see a sage in the heartlands, nor for one to be giving him warnings. "The Hill Tribes are raiding these lands."

    Desmond, of course, had heard of the Hill Tribes - barbarians driven to avenge the ancient wrongs that made them exiles. They carried a vendetta of generations, stretching back to the days of Ranthos, when whole legions of soldiers returning home were denied a plot of land on which to make a living. So in the hills and the wastelands they had festered, with hatred as their only crop.

    But no Hill Tribes had ever come this far down from the hills. So Desmond, unsure of how to answer these wild claims, settled on saying nothing, even as the Westerner came up to him.

    "You shouldn't linger by water. The marauders set ambushes."

    Over his shoulder, at the top of the creek, Desmond could see others on horseback. This stranger travelled in a fair-sized group, women and warriors among them.

    "Where are you headed, friend?" the man asked and narrowed his gaze at the traveller. Desmond simply shook his head. "You'd best travel with us. These are dangerous lands now." He extended his hand. "I am Tristan of Elswich."

    Desmond took the hand of Tristan and was pulled to the ground. He nodded at the large group behind him eyeing many of them. Desmond was unsure about joining this group but he was always ready to take a kind hand. Desmond shook hands with Tristan exchanging words. He gives a proper introduction, which seems rather pompous. "I am Desmond Thistletounge of Moonshadow." He introduces himself to the other members of the group. Many bows were given, handshakes, hugs, and even a kiss on the hand to Arlette. After Desmond pulled out a parchment and wrote something on it, many of the group wondered what he was doing, then he folded it and tucked it in his pocket. He looked upon the group unsure of what their intentions may be, but as long as they keep him safe he will travel with them, for now. (His thoughts the day before.)

    Once Desmond and the group reached Elswich. Desmond seemed rather sickly as he saw the scattered dead bodies scattered around Elswich. He looked over the bodies with horror in his eyes. Never had he seen so many dead bodies and he begin to gag. Slowly he perched himself over his knees, his body was telling him to expel his breakfast but his will wouldn't let him. So, he stood back up and walked with the rest of the group through Elswich. He looked at his other group members on what he should be doing. As Tristan found his home Desmond knew that he should be even more quiet than he usually. The look in Tristan's eye were grim and sad. Desmond wasn't sure what to think of all this, but then he thought about what happened when people died back in the village. He played a sad tune on his flute to commemorate his loss. This was something Desmond had never experienced before, many deaths cloaked in mystery about the origins of this attack. What was Desmond to do about this situation? Even if he was good at fighting he truly was not a fighter. He thought about this as they walked around. He perched himself on a stump looking at the members of the group. Desmond wasn't trying to be excluded but he didn't know how to engage himself. He took himself off the stump and moved closer toward the group. Relying on the things he learned about this place he began to talk to some of the member. In particular he spoke to Xavier who was interesting enough to keep a conversation. After that he awaited orders from Tristan.
  4. "What's this then?" Xavier asked as he held up the scroll. In his other hand he had a burly teenager at knife-point. One of the Crooked Rats - what passed for Thieves Guild henchmen in this heartlander town.

    "The boss telled me to run! Tha's all! I wuz jus' runnin'!" the teen was wide-eyed with terror. Clearly a new recruit, still green around the gills.

    Or it might have been the fact that Xavier had cornered him barely fifty feet from the back door of his hideout. Behind them the Honeysuckle Inn was being ransacked - a group of men having broken in and dispatched Old Man Filger, the crimelord of this city. Xavier had been watching these amateurs for days and now, when it seemed that Filger's kingdom was imploding, Xavier had made his move.

    The man running out the back of the thieves hideout usually had the best loot.

    "That's not what I asked," Xavier said and pushed the blade a little deeper. His other hand twirled the scroll he had taken from the boy. "What's in the scroll, sewer rat?"

    "We taked it from a Westerner," the henchmen blurted, "A messenger. Boss says it tells where th' Wounds is. Buh we can't read it. It's code or summin'!"

    Xavier's interest peaked. Then suddenly he was not alone. A trio of men appeared at the alley corner, no doubts the ones who had just turned over the hideout. A man in a cloak with leather armour, a scarred man in plate mail, and... leading them... a Westerner in robe and messenger sash.

    How fortuitous.

    Xavier made his mind up quickly. He threw his elbow forward, knocking his prisoner clean out, then smiled at Tristan and his allies. "Good timing, my friends." He held out the scroll in his other hand. "I believe you were looking for this?"

    It was time to play the long game.

    As Xavier entered Elswich with his new found allies, the smell of death and ash arouse into his nostrils, and made his nose twitch. The sight was very saddening. The children were not even spared, every single member of Elswich was murdered by the barbarians. Although Xavier was not one to show much emotion or talk much, he still frowned at the sight of all of the dead inhabitants. As the group took a stop in an area of the town, Xavier pulled on the horses reigns before it came to a halt. He then took his left leg off the left side of the horse, before jumping off into a puddle of ashes. He then look around, at all of the rubble and all of the dead. These people were not even going to have a proper burial. "Damned barbarians..." were the only words he rendered. He then looked at Tristan, who seemed to be more distraught about the event than anyone else. But that was to be expected, for he is from Elswhich.

    These are all of his people, and Xavier could not truly feel what Tristan was. Xavier smiled slyly though, behind the bottom of his cloaks hood. Maybe the scroll that he gave to Tristan will get him one step closer to getting the blade of the Wounded King. Then his master plan would unfold, but for now, he had to keep his true intentions to himself, and help the others for now. He then walked over to the mask man of the party known as Desmond, and engaged in a conversation with him. He seemed like an interesting fellow, even though didn't seen like much of a talker. But Xavier did not care, for he was not much of a talker either. He would let Tristan look around in this ruined town to find what he needed. Xavier is a patient fellow.
  5. The blade made no sound as it was drawn. The first Askari knew of it was when it touched her neck. She froze on all fours, half suspended over the man beneath the blanket, her hand on the scroll case in his travelling pack. The moonlight piercing the treetops of Clendale Forest showed his eyes were open and staring up at her. He had a falchion of fine Western steel against her throat.

    "I hope you're lost," Tristan said as he held the thief at blade-point. His companions slumbered nearby. He could alert them with a single shout.

    Askari's eyes twinkled in the shadow of her hood, and from it fell stray curls of red. She was smiling. "I hope you don't want children."

    With that Tristan became aware of the blade pressing between his legs. The thief had drawn much quicker than he.

    "You want gold," he whispered back, "I'll give you gold. But that scroll case..." He nodded to the object Askari was reaching for. "You'll have to kill every one of us to win that loot."

    Askari twitched in her stance. Her limbs were getting tired. The blade was cutting into her neck. But her eyes remained defiant green. "That... can be arranged."


    The third voice startled them both, and each almost dropped their blade. Slowly they turned their heads to see Kendrick pulling off his blankets. The man was rubbing his eyes and staring at Askari.


    Tristan saw the look of recognition pass between them.

    He lowered his blade.

    "Ho..." Askari halted her horse, uncomfortable. She had trained him to respond to verbal commands as well as physical, and now regretted it as she broke the silence. Her eyes widened as she took in the surroundings. She had never looked upon such a sad place. I must not cry. She thought to herself, her body tensing. I'm going to have to get used to this... These poor souls... and Tristan... she glanced at him, feeling a mixture of empathetic emotions well up inside of her. She forced them to the back of her mind, determined not to appear weak. As far as she knew, these men could think like her father, and getting emotional would cause them to look down on her for the rest of the time they were together. I must be strong. I am strong... She briefly fought to convince herself of this before dismounting and allowing herself to take a closer around. She noticed Brill pick up an axe and decided to bide her time searching for a new weapon, carefully examining each find to be sure they weren't too covered in gore before picking them up and inspecting them further. These weapons were far better than most, if not all that she had seen in her lifetime. As she continued, she was sure to keep an eye on the others and listen intently, not wishing to miss anything important.
  6. Neighing broke the heavy air surrounding the dead and the living; the horse bucked his head wildly, unsettled by the bodies swaying from the trees. Juliet dismounted and buried her face in the thick neck of the steed, refusing to look at the death around her. Stifling a sob, she wrapped her arms around the horse’s head and patted its nose. Lips wrapped around her fingers looking for a treat, a commendation, for all of its work, but she had nothing to give the poor beast.

    In fact Juliet had nothing at all when she met Tristan again. Sinking to her knees, the memories rushed back. When she opened her eyes, darkness invaded her senses, bark tore into her knees and back, the smell of sap permeated her nostrils. Juliet was back in her safe haven.


    With a cry the girl spilled from her hiding place, limbs uncurling from their contorted state. She had crammed herself inside a fallen oak when she heard the men coming. But now they had discovered her. Juliet sprawled on her back, gasping for breath, and felt a hand grip her shoulder.

    Horror took over. It had been less than a day since she escaped the barbarians and she had thought herself safe out here, by her mother's secluded cottage. There was no way they could have found her.

    "It's Tristan! Faulkner's son!"

    The voice made her blink, the name made her focus. Juliet looked up at the man knelt over her. His face was framed by treetops and the pale light over Clendale Forest, but it was him sure enough - Tristan. And of all the faces that had flashed before her in the last few hours - faces of barbarians raiding the circus caravan, faces of friends and fellow-performers frozen in death or screaming in terror, the face of the knife-thrower who had given his life so she could get away - Tristan's was the sweetest she could have hoped to behold.

    She had thought she was alone - that everything she had known while travelling with the circus troupe and touring the Elswich Valley was gone - leaving only her ailing mother out here in the forest. But now, as if from nowhere, Tristan had appeared - her childhood friend. She had known him from year to year, whenever the troupe passed his village or called upon his talents with the animals. She had told him of her travels, and he in return had taken her messages and watched over her mother. They had shared a sense of not belonging, a sense of being outcasts. And now, it seemed, they shared their survival of this tragedy.

    Juliet's face subsided from fear into relief. She came up and Tristan threw his arms around her. There were other shadows behind him - Tristan's companions - but they kept their distance from the reunion.
    "Tristan!" she whispered, and could not help the tears.

    "I thought you were all dead!" the man whispered back, and only hugged her tighter.

    She traded her mother’s loving embrace for bodies. Rising from her kneeling position she tried to brush off her knees. A rancid smell hit her as she knocked off a clump of dirt. Bringing her hands to her face she realized it was human feces she had knelt in, probably from the bodies that littered the ground. Sighing, Juliet brushed the worst of the excrement off of herself. After the attack, nothing seemed to upset her anymore. The barbarians had shown enough brutality and gore to break her.

    Mordecai, the knife thrower, used to exploit her squeamish stomach, giving her the dirty job of cleaning the big cats' cage. He would throw the bucket and mop at her with enough force to knock her over. “Get to work you ru-.”

    Juliet’s Mordecai was interrupted by her foot hooking under a body, causing a stumble that almost launched her into a pile of body. What was wrong with her? Why was she having so many flashbacks? Juliet bit her lip walking her way back to the middle of the group, riddled with questions.
  7. "What do you need?"

    Arlette spoke without looking up, her greeting unconscious. She was weighing powdered ochre on her merchant scales and it was an act that required concentration. The last customer, a surgeon who should himself have been lobotomised, had accused her of watering down the spirit vinegar, and that argument had left the apothecary in no mood for further visitors. This early in the morning it was only household servants that came to her shop, clutching the lists their masters had prepared for them. So when the door opened again, she had no reason to look up.

    But what echoed through her workshop, past the glass-lined shelves, across the spice drawers, and between the dyeing vats were not the quick footsteps of some busy errand-boy... but instead a slow, uncertain gait and a breath slightly laboured. With it came an air of pain and apprehension.

    "I've bought some horses," spoke the voice was... numb... distracted. "One has colic. I need.. er... gailsberry juice if you have it."

    Turning from the scales, Arlette observed the customer and, after a moment, smiled with recognition. "Ah, the Elswich boy?"

    Tristan hovered by the shelf nearest the door, as if afraid to come closer. One hand was on his hip, where a dressing had been bandaged. And through the window behind him a band of companions were gathered with horses, some waiting, others checking equipment. It seemed the messenger had recruited quite a posse. "Yes."

    "It's four rants a bottle," Arlette answered whilst climbing a ladder. As she retrieved the gailsbury medicine from the upper shelves, she asked, "And how is the Elswich bestiary?" There was no answer, but she continued anyway. "I remember the falcon you brought last winter. Did its wing mend?"

    As she came down, checking the bottle label, she froze. She realised what she was hearing. The short, hissing breaths of grief. Looking again at Tristan she saw he was still by the doorway, with a hand covering his face. His shoulders were trembling. He was crying. The question she had asked had somehow broken him, removing the last bonds of adrenaline and denial that had kept him stoic.

    "What is it?" She put down the bottle and came out from behind the counter, approaching the messenger as he slumped against the doorframe. "What happened?"

    The scene was grim, there was no life but that of the group to be seen. This whole swath of land seemed to have been painted the same hopeless gray, as though by an artist with a brush and heavy hand. There had been blood spilt here, that much was beyond contest, but there was not even a trace of it left to give some contrast. Likewise, there was nothing left of the fires that had obviously wrapped this town in tongue of flame, it had smoldered out and left only ash and some charred remnants in place. A breeze stirred some of the ashes up, a fine silver snowfall if one did not see the destruction that gave it substance.

    To Arlette, the town was sad, but also hollow. As much as some of the others seemed sobered and depressed by the sight before them, she could feel only the stir of anger in her breast. This was a travesty, a mark of a land unified by no common law. Such a transgression as this should be punished, but there would be no punishment for these folk lest it was dealt by the hand of these people gathered. She cast a look amongst them and thought to herself that perhaps those responsible might never be punished. Still, it was at least refreshing - if slightly irreverent - to hear Brill chattering away like a crow. And some had called her talkative.

    "If there is nothing left here that we require, Tristan, then this place should be left to regrow. To dwell here will only increase your despair. Hold this sight firm, to strengthen your resolve, but otherwise, we should begin to track them. Especially if they managed to take that which we seek. Which, if Brill is to be believed, seems the truth of the matter. Heading away from their home is not a good omen if you were hoping they'd not found what they came for here. If anyone else survived what you did then by now I doubt there would be anything I could do for them, save to numb their mind to the last pains of the body."

    Glancing around, Arlette's eye was caught by something sparkling in the ash and only for the pained look on Tristan's face did she restrain herself from going to examine the glint. Her self-restraint seemed unnecessary, however, as she turned her head away from the ruin before her to see what Brill was doing as he sang to no one in particular.

    "Careful touching those bodies, now. You don't know if they were in good health or if you will get infected with something. I can't be treating you for some terrible sickness while we're trying to do battle with whoever stands in our way, or some other thing of that nature."
  8. Arlette's warning drew Tristan's attention. He rose from his grief and followed her gaze through the ruins to where Brill stood, jostling the hanged bodies. And in an instant, that grief became rage.

    The others could not understand. They came from harsher lands to north and south, lands where the wilderness got into the bones and infected the space between people. But Tristan was a Heartlander, like Juliet and Arlette - and by this apt name they felt these things more closely.

    These were their people who had died.

    Brill made no effort to move as Tristan crossed the rubble between them in a few rapid steps. Nor did he flinch as Tristan swung the falchion. The hilt of the weapon struck Brill's cheek, staggering him against the tree where the bodies hung. And there might have been a second blow, had not Kendrick and Scar moved between them, separating the men in their struggle.

    "IS THIS WHAT I PAY YOU FOR?!" Tristan yelled as Kendrick blocked him. There was blood on the pommel of his sword and his eyes, tearstained and furious, fixed on Brill. "I SHOULD HAVE LEFT YOU TO THE OTHER RATS!"

    The shouts found echo in the deathscape, resounding between ruined walls and smoke-charred trees. Silence followed and the party tensed, expecting further violence between the men. But Tristan only turned and stormed away. He found a spot by the wall of the village church and there he retched, expelling tears and anger with the bile.

    Despite his insolence, Brill was right. The barbarian tracks led south, with the footprints of what prisoners they had spared. They were moving away from their hill camps. But where were they going? Argeria lay to the west, and the pilgrim roads ran east. To the south were only the coastal provinces, thousands of leagues away, and before them further wilderness. It made no sense. The Hill Tribes had not left their territory in generations; and now it seemed they were to cross Elswich Valley and abandon the foothills altogether.

    It made no sense.

    In time Tristan came back amongst his allies, moving past them to his horse. He reached into the saddlebag and removed the scroll - the one the priest had given him when the barbarians attacked. He drove his falchion into the ground, the pommel glinting bloodstained in the morning sun. And with both hands he unfurled the scroll. On the parchment were only odd marks, glyphs and shapes. Falcon-tongue, the ancient language of messengers, known amongst the Western Sages and the herald families of the Ranthos aristocracy. It was likely Tristan was the only one in the party who could read it.

    When he next spoke his voice was calm, as if the fight had never happened. "The priests were digging in the earth. They had excavation sites around Elswich. The man who gave me this scroll spoke of barbarians attacking the dig sites - slaughtering everyone there. They took great pains to silence the monks..." He glanced around the ruins once more. "...and my village suffered for being in their way."

    He held up the parchment, tracing his finger over the glyphs. "The scroll says that the monks found something. Something which was buried..." His fingertip rested on one of the symbols, and he almost whispered the words, "Cruorex maletenb... the Wound of the Lost King."
  9. Death and desolation was not all the barbarians left behind.

    Within the pillaged wreck of one of the houses, a limp body stirred, roused by the sound of Tristan's shouts. Blood stained his face, a red trail leading down from the wound on the side of his head--a lucky blow with a farming implement. Groggy and disoriented, the injured barbarian slowly pushed himself to his feet, smearing the blood clumsily out of his eyes with the back of one hand as he stumbled into one of the walls, knocking over the wrecked table.

    "Damned... whoresons...!" he swore, as he became aware of the silence all around him. The sounds of battle were over--he'd been left behind. Damn them! He glanced about him for his sword, finding it still resting within the body of the man who's home this had been; he gripped it's hilt, bracing his boot against the man's gut to yank the blade free.

    Wielding a weapon of steel was still new to him, but he enjoyed it enough that he wasn't about to give it up yet.

    Holding the bloodied blade still in his hand, he managed to make his unsteady way to the door, shoving it open and peering around at the ruins of the village blearily. His vision was still clearing, but it was plain his comrades had left some time ago, and he cursed again, spitting on the ground as he stumbled out of the house properly. He stopped short when he heard something, however--horses, and voices. But that didn't sound like his horde. Perhaps some fool travelers whom he could slay for a horse. That would make the journey south far easier!

    Of course, making his way around the side of the house to where he could actually see the sources of the sounds soon proved this plan to be impossible. A couple of travelers he could have taken--an entire armed band, now that was a different stor

    For a moment, he simply stood and stared at them, and they at him. The one in the red sash came to his senses first--
    "Barbarian!"--and took up his sword.

    Marrow loved a good battle as much as the next barbarian, but even he knew when the odds were totally against him. So he did the sensible thing; swearing, he turned and ran.
  10. "Don't run... If you run he'll chase you."

    Tristan slowly reached out and gripped Arlette's hand. She did not look at him. Her eyes were locked on the tiger, barely twenty feet away from them, stood between the pine trees. It was watching the apothecary, tail swishing low and tensely.

    "It's a tiger..." Arlette whispered, her face turning pale in disbelief. She had only left the camp to gather herbs. She could not have predicted this. No one could. It was as surreal as it was terrifying to see this beast here, black and orange striped amongst the dark green trees.

    "Tigers only kill if threatened or surprised." Tristan's voice was low. He was just a few feet behind Arlette, arm outstretched to grasp the girl's fingers. "Spread your arms out. Your legs too. Make yourself bigger."

    Tense seconds passed. Then the tiger gave a short growl and turned, padding over to another tree as a figure approached. A woman was coming through the foliage, a chain lead swaying in her hand. Finally Arlette exhaled and Tristan stepped in front of her, facing down the stranger and her unusual pet.

    Sable regarded them both as she knelt to stroke her tiger. "I'm seeking the Caldane Order," she said. "I've heard they travel these parts."

    Arlette looked to Tristan. And Sable saw the sorrow pass like a shadow behind the man's eyes.

    Tristan lowered his head. "I can take to you them... for what it's worth..."

    Sable walked with Kinicki close by. He was lazily padding through, searching for food. She was having to jerk back his chain, eliciting growls and snarls as they walked. He found a fairly unburnt corpse and began feeding. Sable let go of the chain and began searching the ashes. Some of the ashes were still a little warm which meant that some fires were just dying. She dug around and found a half burned doll. Sighing, she stood and looked at the bodies strewn about the ground.

    Quietly, she lifted up a body and looked at its bloody throat. It was a messy and amateur job. All of the kill cuts seemed to be sloppy at best. Frowning, she dislodged a spear from the chest of yet another corpse and walked over to the tree. She started cutting down bodies, letting them hit the ground with a dull thud. Sable pulled off the nooses and started looking at them carefully. Again, the fatal wounds were sloppy. Most of these people were hung post-mortem, but there were a select few--most of them appearing to be elders--that were hung while they were still living.

    "They knew who they were looking for, but they were obviously untrained," she said as she stood. "If its any sort of a condolence, most of them were dead before they were strung up."

    Sable looked over at Brill and whistled sharply. Kinicki ran over and pounced on her. She was knocked back and she smirked slightly as he chewed on the leather arm protectors playfully. Sable swatted his nose and he released her arm. Kinicki was a powerful creature, something she too would soon become after she got what she wanted out of the Caldane Order. After that, she could be a supreme ruler, much stronger than the Kings if old. When she would gain control, those fools would look like ants beneath her reign over man.

    When Tristan and Brill started arguing, she watched them with distaste. Tristan's response she could understand, but Brill was just being a bastard again. When she saw the runner she grinned sadistically and chuckled. She snapped and let out one sharp whistle. Kinicki growled loudly and went after the escapee with precision and speed. That fool wasn't going to get far.
  11. Xavier turned his head to look towards the men quarreling. Obviously there was some heat in between the two that he could not understand, but he only half cared about that. As long as he was on everyones good side, he was fine. But he was still wondering whether any news would come up about at least one of the Wounds. But he did notice that once Tristan was done arguing with the man, he held up the scroll that he had retrieved from the fool hardy and novice thief. It was obvious to him that Tristan saw something or some writing on the scroll that interested him. But Xavier was to far away to notice what was on the scroll. It could have been something that applied to one of the Wounds, but if it wasn't about the swordlike wound, he did not care.

    But what he did notice out of the corner of his left eye, was the barbarian that rose up from the ground. He smirked slightly and his right hand slowly moved to his back, but the barbarian sprinted away, to fast for him to get a precise shot. He heard a sharp whistle, and turned to face one of the women of the group, known as Sable. She sent her beast after the barbarian, which was obviously useless. If the barbarian did get away, he probably wouldn't find the others of his kind. And sending out such a valuable asset to get rid of such a small nuisance was single handedly the most dumbest decision he has ever seen been made. Xavier shook his head at the girl.
  12. Desmond again was left in silence, the group's mood became dark and angry. He looked upon Xavier for guidance but he didn't make a remark. This group was becoming a mess and he needed to help but he didn't know how. At times he would try to say something but wasn't able to form the words. It became mostly impossible. Desmond began to twiddle his thumbs thinking to himself about what to do, maybe he should leave and continue his mission on his own. Then he heard a loud scream "Barbarian!" Desmond immediately pulled his katana from his side and held left over right and looked around for the source. He turned himself looking around and positioning himself on the stump that he once sat on before. Desmond waited until he saw the tiger run toward an escaping barbarian. He turned toward the barbarian throwing his katana toward him. It spun in a circle before only cutting the back of his leg. The barbarian stumbled but continued on running. Desmond sprinted toward the running away barbarian not thinking about the group. He picked up his katana from the soft dirt that it lay in. Swiftly he ran behind the tiger before tripping on a root. Desmond tumbled and rolled until he came to a complete stop upside down leaning against a tree. He looked like a fool...
  13. Angry words drifted through the air along with a katana that was carelessly thrown. The barbarian that had emerged from the house was injured, and she quickly dismissed him as an immediate threat. He seemed something to be watched and measured not directly attacked. However, it seemed her companions thought differently than her. The flash of orange fur from the tiger seemed comical amongst the black and gray scenery. The sickly taste in her mouth grew even more sour with the conflict. "Making a scene amongst the dead, you should be ashamed." Juliet shook her head at the antics of the group. Not even bothering to draw the dagger from her hip, she treaded lightly toward Xavier, who seemed to feel the same as her.

    Swiveling her head towards Xavier, Juliet scowled.
    “Xavier, why is it we bring a tiger along with us? Isn’t there enough ridiculousness in this group?” Her words were tinged with sadness. All she wanted to do was help a childhood friend out, but her distaste for the group was growing steadily throughout the day. She squinted to get a better look at the scene. Desertion lingered on her mind.
  14. Tristan’s wrath, his approach…all of it was provoked. Brill remained smiling, even as the falchion handle caught his face and sent him staggering backwards. His back impacted the tree, disturbing the beast girl from her examination. He’d reared for a second blow when Kendrick caught him, pulling the struggling monk away from Brill. The mercenary offered him only laughter, wiping the trail of blood from the cut scored across his cheek and the blushing bruise that followed.

    “Pay me for?” Brill asked him, flicking the blood away and unlatching his crossbow from his belt. Movement had caught the corner of his eye, shaggy and unkempt. Certainly not a villager, but one of their murderers...perhaps the only one. Hillfolk were rutting savages, sure enough, but to leave one of their own alive?

    Not something he was accustomed to seeing.

    The gods were cruel to him, it seemed...or perhaps good to their company.

    He loaded the crossbow, his fingers fast and muscles straining to wench back the string before sliding the bolt into place.

    Holding it out toward the retreating Tristan, he turned, wheeled even, and dashed up the hill toward the retreating warrior, leveling his crossbow.
  15. By a line of sheds that bordered the canal, a brass railing was wrapped with white linen and wine-soaked bandages. At its base and skewered on top were respective copper tins. These were the symbols of hair and bloodletting, and the only advertisment the surgeon of Argeria needed.

    The surgeon in question was currently cleaning his tools in the river, and had left his two customers in a yard beyond two of these sheds. They stood between buckets of vinegar and clucking chickens, facing one another. And they were nothing like the boat-handlers or fishermen of Argeria. One wore a dark cloak over leather travelling gear, while the other had the robe of a Western sage.

    Tristan finished tying a sash around his waist and checked the dressing on his thigh. The barbarian arrow had been removed that morning and the leg was still sore. But it would hold his weight. Looking over at the man who had paid for his treatment, he spoke up in a dry-rasp voice. "I'll need coin for horses."

    Opposite him, Kendrick sat on a table laid with blades and clamps. His feet were propped on a mahogany chest that overflowed with linens. Of all the charitable souls who had aided Tristan since he arrived, half-dead, in Argeria, it was Kendrick who had remained most loyal. "You'll have it."

    Tristan could not fathom his companion's motives. As he looped his sheath over his shoulder, securing his falchion blade to his back, he fixed Kendrick with a stare. "You'll risk your life and your fortune on this journey. And all for a stranger?"

    Kendrick only smiled. The smile of a man with his own agenda. Yes, he would fund this expedition, but there was vengeance in his eyes and ambition in his bones. "We should make haste," he said as he came off the table, rattling vials of hemlock juice and laudanum. "The barbarians who sacked your village will still be roaming the Heartlands. If we are to get around them, we must take the Clendale Woods."

    Tristan nodded and retrieved a scroll-case from the straw where he had lain. Inside was the message he had almost died to protect - the testament of the Caldane Monks and the first clue to the Mask of Velgovis.

    The scroll that Kendrick, a stranger, had helped him protect.

    "Then let us find a farrier," Tristan answered, and together they set out onto the streets.

    Kendrick drifted out of his memories at the sudden burst of commotion from within the group, his first instinct to stop Tristan's advance before he decided to bloody the field beyond it's current state of saturation. Blocking his path seemed to impress on him his thoughts, leaving it silently at that while the rest had started up about the distress of rampant tigers and masterwork weapons thrown like children's toys. Turning his vision slightly away from Tristan, Kendrick watched as Askari relaxed her own posture and departed the blockade, leaving Brill's words hanging in the air in a matching manner to the mood of the scene that they were now walking through.

    "There's some truth to those words", he said sternly, though he could not keep the undertone of lament out of his voice as he watched the figure in the distance speed off as some of the group gave chase. "The grand kingdom was forged in blood, the kingdom divided with blood, there will be no difference for any path that leads toward the Wounds." Resting his left hand on the pommel of his sword, still sheathed at his side, Kendrick clapped Tristan once on the back, taking several steps over to Askari and lowering his voice. "I'd yell at you once more for being here, but plenty more than I can see you enjoy fighting a bit too much to call it less than an obsession." he gave her a look of half serious mockery before continuing on. "...and if I had known any better in my youth, I might have done better than to help spread that to you in the first place." With a small sigh, his thoughts weighing heavy with bittersweet nostalgia of home, he loosened the leather tie around his neck and pulled back his hood. The breeze on the wind still felt a composition of blood haze. With a grunt to clear his throat, he broke off of the subject, not wishing to pester her for more information about home than he had in the days since their reunion.

    A second too late with his thought pattern, as he recalled to home, to the execution. Rather than dwell where he had for so many hours already, he merely called ahead to the rest of the group. "If any more of the bastards are alive and uncooperative, I claim first rights to a head, my sword arm is growing restless." Pulling back up his hood, Kendrick refastened the leather straps at his collar.
  16. "I do not know Juliet... It may seem preposterous but that tiger could be a valuable asset to the group, whether we think so or not... But that barbarian, I just realized that we need him, for information that is... I don't care what happens to him after. And I am pretty sure that Tristan would feel the same." He said, though his voice wasn't loud. Maybe he should have taken a shot at the barbarian, even though he had a high chance of missing. But there was no use on dwelling on that fact. "I think the girl sent the tiger after him with the intent of killing him though. So we will probably not get any information out of him.."

    Xavier smirked at Desmond though. "That was a bad throw, don't you think Juliet?"
  17. "I think the girl sent the tiger after him with the intent of killing him though. So we will probably not get any information out of him.."

    The man was a little too quick to count this barbarian as dead.

    Marrow had seen and slain his fair share of wild beasts, living out in the wild hills with the rest of his ilk. The tiger's roar behind him made his pulse quicken, but he did not feel fear; one did not enjoy the rush of battle as he did, and feel fear at the approach of a mortal beast. He kept running, aware of the creature catching up to him, and tightened his grip on his sword; he'd wait, wait for it to get closer, to be ready to pounce, before turning to meet it's fangs with his steel.

    ...or at least, that was his intent, until he was nearly sent sprawling on his face by a thrown weapon that sliced the back of his leg--fortunately not deep, but enough to startle him. He glanced over his shoulder to see--a sword!? What sort of halfwit threw a sword?! Perhaps these warriors were not as experienced as their appearances would lead one to believe. Or perhaps it was one of the women. That would make sense.

    Either way, the beast behind him was too close now, and running any further would merely allow the creature a clean opening at his back. Abruptly skidding to a halt, Marrow turned and swung his sword, forcing the tiger to stop with a snarl as he shallowly nicked it's ear, nearly taking it clean off. It roared and swiped at him with it's claws, and he swung his blade again, keeping it at bay and letting out a roar of his own, baring his teeth savagely at the beast. "Raaaaargh!"

    The problem was, stopping to keep the beast from killing him, meant given it's human companions the chance to catch up and finish the job.
  18. The tiger complicated matters. Stranger in a strange land, it blazed like fire on a hill of ash and dirt. It was an eyesore, a tactical error. If Tristan intended on keeping its master in attendance, he'd have strong words about covering its fur in mud. Likely that the thing would be killed and skinned.

    Maybe it would be him.

    He could use a new cape.

    Step by step he charged after the barbarian, too slow in his armor to overtake the fleeing figure. The wound to his leg, however, and being forced to wheel on the tiger gave Brill the distance he needed to level his crossbow and fire a bolt.

    Hissing through the air, Marrow was too distracted with the tiger to throw himself prone. The quarrel buried into his dominant shoulder, unbalancing the brute and sending him crashing to the ground. Casting aside the crossbow, Brill pulled both shield and sword from their respective places and charged in. Marrow's weapon had bounced from his grasp when the shock of the fall and injury forced his hand to spasm. The tiger wheeled, hungry and vicious, rearing up above him to deliver a fatal blow.

    Lowering his shield and charging, Brill caught the creature in the side, pushing it away from Marrow's body. Up came its claws, scouring at steel as it roared. Brill stood over Marrow, shield out and sword raised. All smile had vanished from his face. Marrow's hand crept toward his weapon, but Brill stomped on it with his boot, grinding the hand into the dirt and stone.

    "Move again and I'll let the cat have its mouse." Brill snarled, eyes now focused on the predator.

    Denied its kill, the animal snarled. Simple creature, all instinct and basic training. It roared and pawed at him, claws clashing uselessly against his steel shield. Brill was almost knocked off his feet by the force of the animal, but quickly countered, digging his feet into the ground, twisting his shield up, stepping forward, and clobbering the monster against the head with it.

    "Call off your cat!" He yelled down the hill, "Or I'll make a cloak of its skin!"

    Tristan stared up at him, surrounded by other idle hands. Juliet, Desmond, and Xavier idly chatted, more a waste of manpower than any he'd seen. Kendrick was preparing himself to look for other survivors...not a terrible ploy.

    Of course, it might be more advisable to save a comrade from being eaten by an armored cat...but perhaps he'd overestimated the Northerner's culture.

    Maybe feeding people to wild animals was custom.

    "You pay me to kill, Tristan," He shouted over the tiger's roar, "You pay me to protect, to maim, to murder, to slaughter, to torture, and to track. If need be, you pay me to die...but I'd hope not at the hands of another sellsword, YOUR sellsword. So call the damn thing OFF!"
  19. The tiger was called off with a single command from Sable, and as it returned it dashed past Tristan, who was pulling Desmond to his feet. The leader had given no reaction to Brill's shout. Falchion drawn, he strode up the slope, brow furrowed and circled to regard their catch.

    A fine trinity they made - like three phases of humanity - the noble Tristan, the barbaric Marrow, and Brill caught somewhere inbetween. Tristan's eyes met Marrow's, victim to violator, sage to savage. And then he lifted his blade - the one he had taken from a marauder just like him. "Who gave you this steel?"

    The barbarian, held beneath Brill's boots, half-faced in blood, answered only with a grin. Tristan came to his knees and gripped the bolt in Marrow's shoulder, twisting. Their faces were inches apart as he yelled. "TELL ME!" And the other hand brought the falchion across his throat. Tristan's eyes, still red from weeping, were tinged now with vengeance. He knew firsthand the pain he was inflicting - the pain of a crossbow bolt, buried deep in the flesh.

    If only this savage could be visited the suffering of a hundred villagers. If only he could feel as they felt when the village burned. If only Tristan could write despair and terror into this man's bones. Maybe then it would be enough to correct the world.

    "TELL ME!"

  20. Being saved from the tiger did not make the barbarian glare any less hatefully at Brill as his boot ground down on Marrow's hand; the sharpest blade in the armoury he may not be, but he had an inkling of what was afoot.

    The sage's question confirmed it. Marrow's face twisted, teeth grinding against the pain. He'd suffered wounds before, certainly, but it didn't make it any less agonizing. His loyalty to his tribe was already strained, for more than just today's abandonment--but after being left behind for dead, he had no intention of dying now for any lingering sense of duty.

    "The chief!" he finally spat out. "And only the crows know where he got it from, the damned bastid's been addled of late!"