“For now, our only goal is to get out of the mountains,” Father Miha explained, “After that I’m going to talk some of the other orders into helping reclaim our shrine.”
They pushed their horses as quickly as they dared, which, given the mountainous terrain, translated to a brisk walk. The horses’ long legs devoured the distance faster than Roger had expected. Of course, Gallant had to trot to keep up with the larger animals. At first Roger didn’t know how to handle it, and let himself be bounced about. After doing that for a while he realized that he could stand up in his stirrups, so he tried just standing. That also felt wrong, and he eventually settled into a rhythm where he would sit and stand along with the movements of the pony. It made his legs ache, but at least he was used to that by now. He started to feel pretty good about himself for figuring it out.
Ari glanced down at him, “Your technique needs work.”
Roger replied only by glaring at the back of her stupid head.
After riding for a few hours they had come down into a high valley between one ridge of the mountains and another. Looking out across it, Roger caught glimpses of smoke from chimneys and lights from houses. Somebody was living out there.
They made camp for the night, taking refuge beneath a grove of old pines. They made a small fire to prepare some food, and Father Miha called them all over.
“There is something I need to discuss with all of you, now that we’ve gotten away,” he said.
“What is it?” Ari asked as the group gathered round.
“I have a suspicion, and I can’t seem to shake it from my mind,” the abbot said, “Our abbey may have been just the beginning.”
“What do you mean?”
“I fear that the other orders may also be in danger,” he said, sighing, “Our kingdom has more than a few enemies. Any number of them could want to destroy the shrines.”
“Why’s that?” Roger asked.
“If they were all to be destroyed, we would be cut off from the gods, unable to call upon them in our times of need,” the abbot explained, “Our people could be in very serious danger.”
“Any idea who could be behind it?” Hannah interjected.
“I don’t know yet for sure, although I have a few guesses,” the abbot said, “Best not to make any accusations without evidence, however. Will you all aid me in seeking that evidence?”
“Of course,” Hil said immediately.
“I’d love to,” Hannah said cheerfully.
Roger made a noncommittal grunt that was interpreted as agreement.
Ari stared at her hands in her lap for a moment. “I almost don’t care what happens… but,” she drew her breath in sharply, “What happened at the abbey was wrong, and I can’t just ignore that. I’ll come too.”
“Excellent!” Father Miha cackled and clapped his hands together.
Roger dozed as the abbot explained about the other gods, and the various orders that worshipped them. Evidently there were three other gods, each of which had a most holy site, or something like that. Hannah said something, and Ari made a joke which Hil found hilarious. Roger’s head was filled with fuzz, however, and soon he had drifted off to sleep.
He awoke early the next morning. The sun hadn’t yet crept over the horizon, and the sky was lit with the silvery light of false dawn. He stood up and stretched, trying out some of those weird poses that Hannah used. He was surprised to learn that they really did help to loosen his stiff joints. He logged that away for later use.
Taking a moment to lean his head back and stretch out, he watched the sky when he saw a large dark mass fly overhead. It turned, and the first beams of the morning sun glinted off rust colored scales, and, if that wasn’t enough, Roger could see the arrow sticking out its nose. The dragon from the abbey was circling above them.
“Uh, guys,” he said, suddenly hoarse, “Guys! Wake up, please!”
Ari sat straight up from where she had been sleeping, her hair a tangle. “What?”
Hannah rose a bit more deliberately and noticed what Roger was looking at. “Oh yeah,” she said, “Would you look at that?”
Hil joined them in observing the dragon. “We should move.”
They quickly packed up their things and mounted the horses, trying their best to stay beneath the trees’ protective canopy. The ground was more level in the valley between the peaks, and they pushed the horses to go a bit faster than before. The lot of them trotted along, and Roger found it easier to deal with Gallant’s gait than the day before.
All through the day, they traveled across the valley. They kept to the trees as often as they could, but they were forced to cut across open land more often than once. The meadows were filled with the calls of insects and tall, yellow grasses that swayed in the wind. The ground was moist and spongy, with springs feeding small streams that would gather together to form creeks, which happily went on their way. The air had the cool feeling of early autumn, and some of the trees were beginning to turn, their leaves tinged with red and gold.
In these open spaces they would look up. Occasionally they could spot a dark silhouette against the sky, circling far off. Often they saw nothing at all.
As they traveled, Roger saw a kind of building that he’d never seen before. They passed several large cylindrical structures that were two or three stories high, quite a bit wider than they were tall, and seemed to be made of dry stacking many flat stones together. Narrow windows with wooden shutters were set in the walls, and the only entrances were large, reinforced double doors. Crenelations crowned the tops of the walls, and colorful, intricately patterned banners fluttered over them.
“What are those buildings?” Roger asked as they passed yet another one of them.
“The dwellings of the mountain folk,” Hil explained, “They’re large homes that house an entire clan, and provide a common courtyard for gatherings. A home like that claims ownership of the surrounding fields and forests, as well as providing protection when needed.”
Roger looked more closely and noticed for the first time that there were people moving about in the distance, working the land surrounding the house.
“Are they like the peasants from the lower valley?” Roger asked.
“Not really,” Ari said, “They don’t really have lords, and they’re poorer, if that’s even possible.” She sniffed in disdain.
“It’s a hard life up here. The growing season is shorter, and the winters are longer,” Hil explained, “And these people have to be hard too. I don’t envy them.”
“Are you not one of them?” Roger asked.
“Ah, no, not really,” Hil said, “I mean, I do live up here, but I’m not a part of any of their clans.”
“Where do you come from, then?” Hannah asked.
“I’m a dwarf,” Hil said, “Well, half-dwarf. My mother was one of the mountain folk, and my father was a dwarf.”
Ari gave him a once over. “Really? A dwarf?” she asked, incredulous.
For the first time Roger saw something like anger on Hil’s face. “The dwarves have made me their own, taken me in. Few humans, other than the abbot,” Hil said, and Father Miha bowed his head in acknowledgement, “Have been so kind to me.”
“Well, I mean, you’re just so big!” Hannah said, clarifying what Ari had been implying.
“Oh right, that. It’s strange, if you’re half-dwarf with a human mother, you actually grow bigger than both humans and dwarves, but have more dwarven features. I’ve seen a few half-dwarves that are even larger than me, if you can believe that,” Hil explained, “On the other hand, if you have a dwarf mother and a human father, then you grow to be about the size of a taller dwarf with more human-like bones.”
Hil recovered quickly after his little outburst, but Roger got the feeling that there was more the story than he was letting on. Unfortunately, Roger couldn’t think of a good way to ask more about it. Everyone fell silent.
Roger glanced back at the roundhouse they had just passed, and saw a group of people on horses moving at a quick canter away from the building. Across the distance he could see the metal gleaming off from their helmets and hauberks.
“Hey guys,” Roger said, feeling nervous, “Any thoughts on those armored people riding toward us?”
Ari reined in her horse and turned to the side to take a good look. “I don’t like it.”
As if to punctuate her point, one of the figures raised a bow and released an arrow toward them. It fell several meters short, but the intent was clear enough.
“We need to go,” Ari suggested.
“Indeed, we do,” Hil agreed. He kicked his horse forward with one long dark glance toward the pursuers. Following his lead, all the horses broke into a canter, and they smoothly glided across the valley.
That is, all the horses except Gallant. The small horse wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up at a cantering pace, and so instead kicked ahead into a full gallop. This caught Roger completely by surprise, and so he rolled backward, out of the saddle, over Gallant’s rump, and straight onto the ground. He collapsed in a heap, and got up feeling dazed.
Coming to himself he saw his party, including a riderless Gallant, receding into the distance. Turning and looking behind, he saw a group of armored men coming toward him just as quickly.
“Oh balls,” Roger said.
An arrow landed next to him. “Oh balls!”
Not too far away lay a grove of thick, old scrub oaks. He took a step toward it, lurching slightly from riding all day and then being suddenly dehorsed. After a few steps he had gotten his legs back into working order and broke into a sprint toward the trees. Another couple of arrows came whistling and thudded into the ground near him.
He was panting heavily–hyperventilating, really–once he reached the treeline. Whether it was from the sudden outburst of activity or the fear of being shot at, he couldn’t tell. Sweat was standing on his face, and there was a tightness in his gut that couldn’t be undone. He plunged into the trees, dashing past their ancient twisted trunks. The trees here weren’t very big, but there were many of them. He continued further into the thicket.
Stopping for a moment, he peered back through the leaves and branches. A few of the armored men had dismounted and were now peeking in toward him. An irresistible desire to run overcame Roger, so he did. He crashed through the trees, pushing aside branches and crunching over the deadfall. Various limbs reached out, whipping and scratching him as he went. His clothes were soon snagged, and his face covered in red scratches and welts.
Roger leaned down to catch his breath, and heard a thunk. When he stood back up, an arrow was stuck, quivering, in a tree right where his head would have been if he hadn’t bent over. Looking back, he saw one of the men, his simple kettle helmet gleaming in the sunlight, drawing his bow back to take another shot. Roger stumbled back, trying to put some cover between himself and the bowman.
Roger heard the creak of a bow string being released and the whistling of an arrow in flight. The man in the kettle hat spun to the side, releasing his arrow off wildly into the trees, before collapsing with a thick shaft protruding from near his collarbone. Hil appeared next to Roger with a concerned look on his face, another arrow already nocked.
Roger grabbed the half-dwarf in a tight embrace, very nearly wrapping his arms all the way around him. “Thank you,” Roger said repeatedly in a soft, desperate voice. After a couple minutes of this, Hil put his hand on Roger’s head and gently peeled him away.
“We have to hurry back to the others, Hrothgar,” Hil said, “We hid as best we could, but I fear that they might be found.”
Hil slipped silently through the trees, an impressive task for a man as large as him. Roger followed after him, noticeably louder. They walked for a few minutes until Hil said, “We’re almost there.”
As they drew nearer Roger began to hear the sounds of various objects being struck together and human exertion. Ahead, through the trees, he could make out the bodies of horses, and people moving. Getting closer he saw that the horses had been tucked away in a thicket, and Ari, Hannah, and Father Miha were working together to defend them from a few of the hauberk and helmet wearing men.
“Quietly, this way.” Hil led Roger to a position in the trees where he could set an ambush on the attackers. Roger was surprised how close they were able to get without being noticed. Hil took position, most of his body covered behind a tree, his bow trained on its target. He waited for an opportunity to release, but for now he couldn’t do so safely.
Roger watched as his friends fought for their lives. Ari, as ever, showed her proficiency with her staff, managing to always keep at least one of her opponents out of distance from being able to use their swords. On one side, the abbot had his cane in one hand and another stick that he had picked up which he used to control his opponent’s weapons. To the other side, wielding a sword and buckler, the only sharp weapons in the group, was Hannah. She struck with serpentine fluidity, moving her enemy’s weapons aside as though pushing low hanging branches out the way as she struck with her sword. One foe already lay bleeding from a neck wound on the ground beside her.
Unfortunately, despite all their ability, they were having a hard time of it. Ari’s staff more often than not harmlessly deflected off helmets, and Hannah’s sword couldn’t penetrate the mail shirts.
Suddenly, newcomers appeared. To the left, a woman came through the trees, dismounted and began to string her bow. To the other side Roger saw another person sneaking through the trees, trying to come up beside the horses and attack his friends from behind. Hil immediately rotated and released his arrow at the archer, but it was deflected by a branch. The woman looked up and after a moment of searching, found Hil in the trees and released a returning shot. He was forced to duck behind a tree as he nocked his next arrow.
Hil looked toward the attacker sneaking through the woods toward the horses, then at Roger, and tweaked his head to the side. He then rotated back around, drawing as he did, releasing an arrow toward the other archer again.
Before he could think too hard about it, Roger started creeping as quickly as he could toward the person in the woods. She wasn’t wearing armor like the rest of the attackers, but instead a simple linen dress with a dark green surcoat over it. Both were just long enough to touch the top of her feet. Her hair was a loose black mass that was restrained by a simple barbette and polished metalic fillet.
He caught up to her just as she reached the horses. She crouched down next to Gallant, one hand resting gently on his flank, the other extended forward toward the combatants. She didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons.
Roger drew his knife, considered thrusting it into her unsuspecting body, and decided against that. He had never harmed anyone, and she didn’t even have any way to hurt him. Instead he grabbed her hand that was resting on Gallant and tugged her around to face him, pointing his knife threateningly at her face.
“Uh, hey. You! Stop there!” he said, attempting to sound authoritative, but instead coming across as lame. Truth be told, Roger hadn’t often been near enough to women to touch them, and he felt kind of nervous. Making matters worse, this woman was undeniably beautiful. Her black hair framed a face with soft features and large, amber eyes. Her skin was clear, light with a yellowish tone, and she had the slightest touch of a blush on her cheeks. Roger started sweating.
Her expression changed from shocked surprise to anger in an instant. She pushed Roger’s knife away with one hand while breaking free from his grasp, and bringing her fist toward his neck. He would have been completely screwed if Gallant hadn’t kicked her in the ribs at that exact moment.
Something crunched and she staggered heavily to the side before catching herself on a tree. Roger again stepped toward her, holding his knife out at arm’s length, point toward her.
“Uh,” his voice cracked, “I said stop.”
She rolled her eyes at him, breathing out as her lips moved soundlessly.
Roger awoke about five minutes later, his body slumped between a couple of tree trunks. The last thing he remembered, he had been standing about three meters over that way, and the tree the girl was leaning on had been more like a tree. Now it looked like a broken twig that had its leaves painstakingly plucked off. The girl was nowhere to be seen.
Ari was crouched next to him. When she saw him wake up, her annoyed face turned to something a little gentler, but nothing like friendly. “Looks like we had enough between the two of us to manage it,” she said to the abbot.
Like the last time Ari had “healed” him, Roger felt like a herd of bison had just had a party on his body. He stood up, checking himself, feeling out where the sore bits were. It turned out that everywhere on his body was a sore bit, but nothing hurt so bad that he couldn’t use it.
He looked at Ari, and she gave him a smile out of kindness. Or pity. He couldn’t really tell. “Thanks Ari. I have no idea what happened.”
“No?” she asked, “We were kind of hoping you could explain, because we also have no idea what happened.”
“Yeah!” Hannah interjected, half of her body completely soaked with blood. She didn’t seem to notice, “One second we were fighting, kicking ass and taking names, and then there was this huge boom, that tree straight up fell over, and we found you jammed between a couple of trunks.”
“Well,” he said, trying to straighten out his thoughts, “There was this girl? She had black hair and wore a green dress… Gallant kicked her, and then she kind of… Whispered something, I think?” His mind was kind of hazy. The only thing he could focus on was the memory of her surprised face when he had grabbed her arm. Mostly all he could think was that she was really cute, but he didn’t feel like the others would be interested in that detail.
Ari nodded, “Right, and then?”
“And then I woke up over here.”
Ari sighed loudly, and stomped a few steps away from him.
Father Miha looked thoughtful. “I’ve heard of this kind thing before,” he said, “It’s a heretical power. Those who would not know the gods have tried to use it for years to gain abilities like those of a priest. However, I’ve never heard of it coming to much, or ending well.” He put his head down, considering.
“What is it, then?”
“What?” the abbot said, “Oh, it’s magic.”
Roger was confused, “Wait, doesn’t Ari do magic?"
“No, I’m imbued with power from my vow to the god, Oir. At least, I was until the shrine was broken. I’ve been substantially weakened since then.” She frowned.
“Exactly, a priest’s power is from a contract with its deity,” the abbot explained, “Magic is something else. It’s more…” he searched for the word, “Primal. It comes from communion with other spirits, beings other than gods. Entities that can be fickle and unpredictable.” His face darkened. “It is quite a dangerous power.”
“What does it mean?” Hil asked, his face troubled.
“I don’t know yet,” the abbot said.
“Regardless, we should keep moving,” Ari said, mounting her horse, “We need to make sure the other shrines didn’t suffer the same fate as the Shrine of Oir’s Chosen.”
“Agreed,” the abbot said, moving to get on his own horse.
Later, Roger was riding on Gallant beside Hannah’s larger red horse. It was late afternoon, and the air was warm and still.
“Hey, Rog, look at this,” Hannah said excitedly. She fished around in her old, worn out bag, and pulled out one of the kettle hats their pursuers had been wearing. She put it on her head. Its polished surface gleamed, and it slumped down over her eyes.
“Not bad, eh?” she asked, tilting her head back so she could see him.
“Yeah, not bad,” he chuckled, “It doesn’t fit very well though.”
“I think there’s a way to adjust the liner so that it will be better,” she replied, taking the hat off and inspecting its insides, “Anyway, the point is, I got you one too!” She grabbed another one of the helmets from the bag and handed it down to him.
“How did both of those even fit in there?”
Hannah shrugged, smiling.
Roger took the helmet in his hands. The metal was smooth, polished, and well oiled. It was constructed from a few plates, fastened to a joining strip of metal with rivets. The only flaw he could find was a small nick on the edge of the brim. Inside, a liner made of four cloth segments was tied together at the middle of the head. By untying the string, Roger could adjust the liner and the fit of the helmet. A chin strap dangled from the sides.
“Thanks Hannah. This is really cool,” Roger said.
“No problem,” she said, before adding, solemnly, “You came really close to dying there, you know. If Ari and the abbot had been a little bit slower you would be dead.”
A chill shot through Roger’s body. “I’ll try to be more careful.”
“You had better be. I already feel bad about killing you once, but I’d feel even worse if some other reaper ended up harvesting you before I get to kill you the right way,” Hannah said emphatically.