A light gust of early morning wind caressed his face. It should have been cool and refreshing but it was not. Riding along with the breeze was the indescribably foul odor of the army below. The smell made his stomach rebel while his senses of smell and taste were under an all-out assault. He thought about holding his breath but it was too late. It would take days or maybe even a week before food would register its normal, familiar flavors. The epic poems and bard songs never spoke of this aspect of facing off against the ancient enemies of the goodly races, the man thought to himself.
He peered over the boulder. From this vantage point the ranger could clearly see down into the valley known as Wizard Pass. Wizard Pass was the primary route through the small mountain range known as Kane’s Knuckles. The spire of Pickaxe Point could be seen distantly beyond this valley and its surrounding foothills. The cadaverous light of dawn gave the sky a dark purple color as though the mountain had bruised it. A chill started at his waist and ran up his spine. The woodsman did not know if the chill was from the cool autumn morning or from the gut wrenching fear from seeing the teaming mass of unfettered evil below.
The carrion birds had already started their incessant circling of the Despiser’s instrument of death and revenge. From this vantage the army below milled about in an age old ritual where the strong took from the weak in an effort to reinforce the social pecking order. He thought he could make out goblins, orcs, bugbears, ogres, and giants but he would have to get closer to make sure. He shuddered at the thought. There was no way he was getting any closer to them unless it was as part of a battle line.
The ranger pulled back, spoke a minor curse and tried to spit the taste out of his mouth. It was a futile effort and only served to sour his mood. He froze. What was that? His head slowly moved left to right and back again looking for the source of the sound. The image of an orc scout filled his mind’s eye, cruel and cunning, just waiting for the right opportunity to sink his blade into the man’s back. He dropped to a crouch and waited. The light woods appeared to be silent but it was hard to tell because the noise from the camp below grew in volume as more of the vile creatures woke and added their voices to the unintelligible chittering of the whole.
Sweat beaded on his forehead while he slowly unslung his bow. His eyes continued to scan his surroundings looking for a possible threat. He pulled an arrow from his quiver. His heartbeat filled his ears drowning out the din from the valley. The woodsman realized he had been holding his breath and slowly exhaled. Another chill hit him. It felt like a spider or some other hairy insect was scrambling up his spine. The primal part of his brain was screaming, “Run!” His eyes quickly focused on the bowstring as he seated the arrow. He thought that the creaking of his leather armor was as loud as a series of thunderclaps even though logically he knew differently. The intensity of the situation along with his desperation to remain silent amplified every noise to him. His muscles tensed as he held the loaded bow, ready to pull it up and fire in an instant.
Minutes passed and no enemy revealed itself. His paranoia did not decrease. In this type of situation paranoia was your friend. It heightened your senses, pumped adrenaline into your system, made you think about your next move, kept you alive. The woodsman gradually rose, his head slowly panning as his eyes darted back and forth. He could feel several large trickles of sweat plummeting down his back. Cautious, deliberate steps moved him along the wooded ridge in the direction of the rear of the enemy camp. He paused every few paces in an effort to detect anyone or anything which may be shadowing him. This slow dance seemed never ending as he covered the distance from one end of the encampment to the other.
Nothing presented itself other than a large squirrel which darted between two trees. The little creature scrambled quickly up the trunk in a serpentine path placing the trunk between the man and itself. He unloaded his bow and slung it across his back. A thick bladed knife was now in his hand. A gnome or a halfling would have considered it a short broadsword. It served as both a tool and a weapon. The ranger slowly lowered himself to his belly and looked around before he crawled to the edge.
The fire giant king, Falgar, stood out. Bright orange hair capped a black skinned body which was head and shoulders taller than any other being around him. The only exception was his mate which stood dutifully near the giant king. He wore a great breastplate and greaves which were blackened as if exposed to some extreme heat. The brute was engaged in conversation with a human sized figure dressed in a black cowled robe, a wizard of some sort he guessed. Falgar seemed to be doing most of the talking. His gestures involved a lot of finger pointing and head shaking.
He had to give the giant a measure of grudging respect. It was not every day that a leader could come along and cobble together an army composed of creatures who would normally cut each other’s throats on sight. The wizard probably played a large role in bringing them together but the king was the cement which bound them. Brute strength commanded respect in each of those societies. The giant had it while the wizard did not. The wizard was most likely viewed as another lackey, albeit a powerful one, but not an equal.
The ranger continued to watch as two ogres or possibly giant youths brought a prisoner before their liege. The prisoner appeared to be a male human or elf in chain armor. His hands were bound behind his back. The giant king appeared to address the prisoner who stood head down. Minutes passed slowly. A sinking feeling came over the ranger. His gut tightened with dread. Suddenly one of the guards ran the prisoner through. The business end of the guard’s blade had burst through the captive’s chest. The prisoner shuddered violently. The lifeless body flopped limply over. The other guard cut the bonds which had immobilized the corpse’s wrists.
The wizard banged out a strange cadence with his staff and raised his arms. The body kicked and twitched then struggled to its feet. Terror began to creep into the recesses of the woodsman’s mind. The thought of not being able to escape his tormentors by the release of death brought the acid taste of bile to the back of his throat.
He pushed himself back from the ledge. The ranger closed his eyes, rolled on to his back and began take deep controlled breaths in an attempt to keep the contents of his stomach from coming up. The knuckles on his knife hand turned white from the strain of his grip which had involuntarily tightened. His free hand desperately clutched at the wooden holly leaf which hung from his neck suspended from a leather thong.
The image was finely worked but would have been considered crude by an art merchant. Nevertheless it was one of his most prized possessions having been crafted by his father. His father had been a farmer by trade who filled the long winter months whittling whatever took his fancy. The holly leaf was the symbol of the god Kane, from whom all green things of the earth sprang. It only seemed fitting that a man who spent his years tilling the soil and tending to plants would pay homage to Kane.
His father presented it to him on the day that he left home to learn plant and animal craft from the rangers of the Piney Forest. It had touched him more deeply than any of the words of sorrow and goodbye either one of his parents had said to him. The token had come to symbolize who he was and what he believed as well as a reminder from where he had come and why he had chosen to lead a life only slightly less solitary than that of a monk.
Wordlessly he whispered thanks to Kane and a plea to Selene, goddess of the dead, to spare him the unending doom of the poor soul below. Normally he would find a measure of solace in communing with the gods however this time the cold worm of fear which crawled through his guts would not be banished. The danger was too palpable, too near. He was contemplating as to what he needed to do to win the gods’ favor and prevent the unsavory fate which would be in store for him if he was caught when he heard the snort from a beast. His ears told him it was large and near.
His eyes opened while his hand desperately swiped with his knife. He scrambled to his feet. His breaths were short and rapid. The man froze in place at the sight before him.
It was an elven male at least that was his best guess, standing in front of the biggest moose he had ever seen. The antlers were large and flattened with wickedly pointed protuberances jutting out around the edges. Its dark eyes were large and hinted at an intelligence beyond the norm for its kin. Another loud snort released a vapor cloud into the chill morning air.
The elf was unlike any which he had met, not that he had the acquaintance of more than a handful who were his instructors in wilderness lore. They all had been well groomed and their equipment spotless. He had wondered more than once if the elven folk even had a word for unkempt. The elf before him was the antithesis of those memories. His delicately masculine features were partially obscured by smudges of grime which seemed to be decorations. Instead of having long flowing hair, his was dreadlocked to the midpoint of his back. A smattering of forest debris clung to the mass of hair in various places. Two curved blades hung at the stranger’s waist one long the other short.
The strong smell of mint cut through the stench which filled the ranger’s nostrils. The elf held up two empty hands to show peaceful intent. The ranger’s attention was drawn to a holly leaf shaped scar on each of his wrists. A spark fired in his memory, those scars identified the elf as a wild emperor, one of Kane’s stewards. This was a rare sighting. There were rangers’ who went their entire careers and never encountered one member of this very reclusive order.
The elf bowed, “I am Myrlis and my friend is Wapiti.” His arm swept toward the moose. “You are?”
“Agriculus Farmerson,” said the ranger quickly without thinking. “Everyone calls me Gric.”
“Gric, we need to talk.”