Chapter 5: Up the River   Leave a comment

Weslynn, Wulf, Zhanh, Lumlas, Perry, Gronk, Mensa, and Edurin arrived at the river docks just as the sun stuck its rim above the eastern horizon. A sky full of clouds glowed redly, promising some bad weather ahead. The streets of Khazan were coming to life behind them. They all felt certain that their names and descriptions would be circulating soon as wanted outlaws–especially Wulf, Weslynn, and Mensa. They hadn’t killed any members of the Watch, but it was not for lack of trying.  Both boats were getting ready to sail. Regular crew were loading last minute supplies. It was time to come to a deciision. Which boat would they take? Or would the split the party and take both?

Mensa suggested they flip a coin. Unfortunately, he didn’t have one, and cursed the city guards (in Kah-zahd).

Mensa REALLY cursed the watch captain when he realized that even the pretty rocks from home were taken from him. “Should have burnt place down!”

As the party neared the docks, Weslynn began her tale, after quickly gathering her companions into a huddle on the street corner, whispering her news to them quietly in the chill morning air.

“You all know my the tale of the theft of my wine, that brought me here to this city, and brought you all across my path. I have not been entirely truthful, I have suspected that the thief was more than simply using an ensorcelment and excess alcohol to bind me to sleep for three long days in my inn room. Ever since I awoke I have been filled with a gradually increasing sense of rage. A new voice whispered in my mind to slaughter everyone I met, tear them in half and feast upon their still-beating hearts. I have, through my long years working my family’s caravans, never killed anyone. Never wanted to. Until I awoke in that inn. The feelings gradually grew. I knew something was wrong with me, but I just felt I should hide it, so that I could seek blood. You all saw me try to eat bloody rare meat. I planned last night to slip away from the inn and hunt vermin in the alleys. Instead, because of my rising rage from the incomplete monster within me, I ended up locked in a guard cell all night, with Wulf. I was afraid if I waited any longer, I would go mad, berserk with bloodlust, and kill him. So…I drank his blood. He stirred and my feeding was not complete, but enough that I felt myself move towards completion. Wulf, finding himself bloodied and trapped into a cage, I think may have given in to despair, because he willingly allowed me to finish my feeding,meaning that for the first time in days I have a clear, calm rational mind again. I am myself. The thirst for blood is just that, a sated thirst, no different than that for water. I believe that now that I have completed my transformation that I will remain myself, but since I have come to trust you all in this past day, your varied wisdom of sword and sorcery, of road and folk.”

“I will say this plainly, I believe that I am a vampire, that the thief of my wine was the one who made me, though I recall little of how or why he did so, if he even said such. I pursue him, as much to find out why he turned me into this thing that I am, and enact revenge for my curse, as much as to recover the wine and my family honor. I ask you now, before we find ourselves on a river boat for days, trapped together, do you wish to travel with another monster? Judge me now, and decide my fate: shall we part ways, continue on, or will you try to cleanse my flesh of my strange new life? I ask you all to vote, quickly now, all save Wulf, for he is no longer to be trusted about me.”

Weslynn then bowed her head, struggling against instinct to entrust her fate to the others.

Mensa was alway ready with a helpful suggestion, suited to his understanding.

“Mensa help. Can use shovel to cut of your head. Wulf said that would fix vampire.”

And now Mensa puzzled to himself. Had Wulf meant “fix” as in “heal” or as in “That’ll fix them” ??
Weslynn smiled sadly at Mensa. “That might do it, but it would kill me, I believe, gentle dwarf. Truly I do not wish to die, monster though I be.”

Gronk realease a low, rumbling growl.

“Weslynn bloodsucker? Sucked Wulf’s blood? Gronk not happy…”

He scowled at Weslynn.

“Gronk go where friend Zhanh go, and Wulf go with Gronk, no matter what say Weslynn.”

Weslynn sighed. “Yes, I did. I am not happy either, though I am quite grateful for him allowing me to clear my head. It is unfortunate that he is now bound to my…suggestions..somehow.”

Mensa growled. He would keep one eye on this bloodsucker. Which meant he’d have to follow them, and stick close to the girl. These were Wulf’s friends, which meant they were Mensa’s friends, and nobody would get to hurt them….not even the girl.

Her gaze shifted to Wulf, and became quite fragile. “I had hoped to bind him to me in an entirely different manner, though daydreams about children are perhaps a thing for my past, now..”

Turning to Mensa, Gronk gently lifted the dwarf.

“Dwarf -friend OK? ”

Mensa nodded. But now he wondered if Wulf was still Wulf, and if he’d need to watch Wulf also. “Mensa OK, bull-man. Is Wulf OK?”
“Gronk hope Wulf OK, little friend.”

He placed Mensa gently on the ground. He ignored Weslynn and turned to Zhanh.

“What we do, elf?”

Wulf reassured Mensa and Gronk. “Wulf is still OK, but I seem to have lost my wolf soul mate. Do not worry about me. I will still do what needs to be done and stand by you in battle. And I will see that no one takes advantage of Mensa. Whomever tries that will have a bad day with a big barbarian!”
Mensa puzzled. Soul mate?? Well, Wulf knew more than Mensa, and it might make sense later. There were things to do Right Now, such as:

“Hey! Which boat we sit in?”

Perry crooned ‘Come on, come on, let’s stick together.’

To Weslynn he said ‘I fear that my father has been similarly infected and is, like you, a vampire. It would appear to run in my family now, if not my blood. At any rate, I am content to travel with you as a companion but would ask that you inform us immediately you are aware of the need for more blood.’

He clapped his hands togther at the sight of the boats and gave a little hop. ‘I have never travelled in such a manner before and hope that I do not suffer from the dreadful queasiness I am told afflicts all new mariners.’

“Friend Wulf need helmet! Pick one!” Mensa held up both helmets to Wulf, grateful that dwarf heads were about same size as humans.

Wulf, who now had his old veteran steel helm back, smiled, and thanked Mensa for the offer. He spoke respectfully to Zhahn. “I don’t like that Phink fellow much. My instincts make me want to bite him! The other fellow seems more honest to me, and offers us free passage. I think he would do better for us. We should get on board though soon, before a very angry Watch sets loose the dogs to track us down. I hope we can score some biscuits or porridge soon. I am starving. I may have to eat the next person who annoys me!” He smiled to show he was joking on this last comment.

“Uh-oh,” thought Mensa. “Friend-Wulf IS changing. Gotta be a way to cure him!” He kept remembering the word “Grisslegrin.” Wulf said he was a dwarf god. Maybe he would know what to do.
How could Mensa find this god?

Zhanh ran his sailor’s eye over Phinq’s boat, and over Blotar’s. “And you say that Phinq wants to CHARGE us for working passage on that hulk? I vote for Blotar.”

Lumlas agreed. “I thought Blotar sounded like a better bet last night– Wasn’t that a lifetime ago?– and nothing I see here makes me change my mind.”

“Besides,” Zhanh continuned, “Gold is even scarcer now than it was last night, and we STILL haven’t purchased any group supplies for this trip. I think we need to buy what we can find right now, before we start upriver.”

Zhanh turned to Weslyn. “It would have been better if you had told us earlier,” he said. “But now we are here, and, well, blood lost to a vampire is not really any different from blood lost to a knife wound, as far as healing goes, and Lumlas and I can both cast healing spells. So we should be able to keep you fed without too much difficulty, if the rest of the group wants to continue. I am bound for Castle Greybat in any case, and the company of a friendly vampire is better than no company at all.”

Lumlas nodded. “Weslyn, I declared you my friend yesterday. Much has changed since then, but I am not inclined to take that back.”

“Gronk stay with his friends, Gronk protect his friends,” he declared to the collective group.

He then focused all his attention on Weslynn.  “Gronk going to be watching you, bloodsucker. You hurt Gronk’s friends, Gronk going to chop you in small pieces to feed fish at sea.”

Weslynn turned to face Gronk at his works. “Gronk, I welcome your gaze. I believe I am finally myself again, full of my faculties, but I am a fledgling. I do not know what tomorrow holds, for me. Should I lose myself to the vampire, and run amok amidst my companions, then strike me down, Gronk. Please. I can bear being a vampire, so long as I am in control. “

“Perry, I give you my word, I will keep you all advised as to the state of my blood thirst. Though, I do not know how efficacious wizardly healing of my drinking would be, other than closing the puncture marks themselves… But my drinking does more than take blood, it forges a bond. It is not safe for me to feed from any of you directly, safe, Wulf. It may be that if you drain your blood into a glass or flagon it may not create the link when I drink it, but are you willing to experiment with yourselves in such a manner? If it is an emergency I would ask Wulf to allow me to feed, for we are already linked, for better or worse. I would suggest we acquire animals by whatever means for me to feed upon, we shall see if I can stomach fish ichor on this trip I imagine, if there are no rats to be caught in their hold.”

Weslynn’s gaze then returned to Wulf, and the chained sleeping Wolf within him, bound by chains of her own making. “Wulf, do you want me to set right what I did? It pains me to see you incomplete, but I will not trespass within your mind without dire need.”

Gronk snorted something unintelligible at Weslynn.

“Gronk hungry,” he said to nobody in particular.

Wulf said: “If I am fed meat regularly I can let you drink regularly. I am a quick healer. But I must have my wolf brother back. We have been together from my birthing, and losing him is like losing a much loved twin. He has always been there for me in the time of trials. But I think that if he is let out again, you will have to be cautious with him in all his manifestations. Like me, he will not go back willingly into any cage again. And he is even more violent in his rage than I am capable of being.” Then Wulf said to the group:  “I had meant to tell you all that I am a Wolfman, able to assume the aspect of a wolf to my advantage in battle. Perry has seen it. Like Weslynn, I have a ‘monster’ inside me too. But I am your monster, and I am in your debt. You came to rescue me, when you could have left me to my fate. You are my family, my ‘pack’ now. No one will do you harm while the Wolfman lives to prevent or hinder them. If my lycanthropy is a problem for any here, I will leave at once, and never trouble you again. But let us decide, and get underway before the Watch catches up with us and renews the battle.”

“Thank you for still standing by me Lumlas, I will do my best to prove myself worthy of that trust.”
“Phink seems extremely suspicious to me as well, I would lead us to any other travel option. I do not think we could find a…sketchier river captain. Some of them are of the opinion that being master of a boat entitles one to everything and everyone they can lure aboard their floating web. No desire to do that again, unless we must.”

Weslynn nodded sadly to Wulf. “Thank you Wulf for being understanding about my needs. I will do what I can to set you right.”

She moved in front of him, stared into his eyes, and concentrated upon the chains upon the Wolf half of his soul, and imagined those chains shattering as she directed her will upon them, visualizing them shattering.

Mensa gripped his shovel tightly. He watched Gronk. One thing he had learned; if Weslyn tried to hurt Wulf, Gronk would know for sure – instantly.

Perry turned to Zhanh. ‘It would appear that we will be traveling with the good Captain Blotar. Can you tell me what his terms are? Will we get to sleep in hammocks? I am well used to such sleeping accommodation since we often swing freely in the forests.’

“We will need food, if the boat doesn’t have enough for us. If so, try asking other boats if they have excess. As for me, when I become thirsty, fish or rats from the hold might well do. Wild critters roaming the shores might be good targets also. Do we have wizards who could help with such things? Or summon live snacks for me, or rations for you all?”

“Let’s travel on Blotar’s boat. He cares for his boat, and comes across as a fair man. Hurry up we need to boat. Weslynn, how infectious are you? Is Wulf in danger of becoming turned?”

Edurin sought to herd the party along, “I have a pack full of food, and we’ll earn enough to buy more food up river.”

“I do not remember how I became as I am, Edurin. I fremember being…persuaded to partake of far too much of my sample wines, and then I dimly remember being alone with the thief that night in my room. Then I awoke 3 days later with a bite on my leg and a slow building blood rage. If merely feeding upon Wulf would transform him, I believe he would be unconscious by now, as I was.”

Mensa searched his memories again. Hadn’t he heard of a sailor named “Blotar” before? Still, Blotar was a better bet than this Phink, a mike by the looks of him. Captain Phinqq saw Edurin’s gang standing at the edge of the docks and talking up a storm. He jumped ashore and walked over to them. “Are you lubbers coming or not?” he asked in a none-too-friendly tone.

“Not!” said Edurin, Weslynn, and Mensa all about the same time. “We’ve decided to ride with Captain Blotar on the Nainevver.”

“Hargh! That pirate! You’ll be sorry!” Phinqq turned angrily and went back to his boat. “Cast off!” he bellowed. Some riverboatmen pushed off with poles, and got the boat out into the current. It started to drift down stream, but then the men planted their poles on the river bottom and began to push the boat up against the current. One man who might have been a wizard stood in the rear of the boat and made constant pushing gestures. Phinqq’s Folly bucked the current and began moving upstream.

“Last call!” shouted Blotar. “You travelers joining me or not?”

“Well, too much time talking, and not enough time getting our work done,” noted Zhanh. “Let’s get aboard.”

Edurin led the group over to the Nainevver. It was a large boat, 30 feet in length with a central cabin, and ten sets of oars on each side of the boat. It had a raised poop deck with a steering oar, and its prow narrowed down to a long thin point. Blotar already had some 14 crew members.

“Permission to come aboard, Captain!” called Edurin.

“Permission granted,” said Blotar, “and step lively. You, Eddie-boy, come talk to me. You other men,” he pointed at Wulf, Mensa, Perry, and Zhanh, take an oar. Passengers, stand in front of the cabin!”

“Now Eddie-boy, who’s working crew, and who’s paying passage?”

Weslynn inspected the ship, form the prow to the stern, making sure she looked carefully at all the wood, especially the oars and the passage belowdeck. She has been on ships like this before, and wants to quickly assess the odds of her having to swim suddenly.
Wulf had done a lot of jobs in his short life, besides busting heads and fighting in battles. He gamely took an oar and emulated to his best ability what the experienced crew were doing. He chose a seat nearest the old hands and briefly intoduced himself, and encouraged them to correct him if he did not do it properly.
Having surveyed the condition of the boat, Weslynn moved over to the oars, and stood by Wulf, and then looked over at Edurin and the master of the boat. “I’ll work my passage, sir, I’ve done so before.”
Oars? Mensa could row. He stubbed over to some oars and started to pull on them or it — but stopped, realizing he should wait until everyone else was rowing too.
“The strongest take to oars, Captain Blotar. Wulf, Mensa, Gronk, and myself.” Calling back to the group Edurin asked, “Lumlas? Perry? You up for work?” He nodded to Weslynn and Zhanh, “They are your passengers. We work for them. And Captain, you’ll find us all willing to defend the boat.”
“Aye, I’ll defend this good ship, should it come to that, as well as anything else that needs doing, including taking a turn at the oars, should it come to that. This trip is something I organized, true enough, but that’s no excuse for me to rest on my pride.” Weslynn nodded to Captain Blotar.

Given her unnatural strength, and the difficulty that would be involved in hiding it, in hiding it rowing the oars, Weslynn hoped that her apparent weakness as a woman would keep her off oar duty except in some sort of emergency.

Gronk took a place at the oars where he could keep an eye on Wulf and Mensa.
Zhanh looked at all of the activity taking place. “I could work the oars as well, Captain, but I am also skilled with a lead line, if you have any doubts about the channel– and from what I know of rivers, there is always SOME doubt…”
Wulf felt good using his powerful muscles, and was filled with no little relief and elation when he suddenly became aware of his wolf brother again for the first time since the dreadful night in the gaol. He plied himself industriously to the oars, but hoped secretly that someone would offer him a drink of ale or water soon. And any sort of food would be nice too. Rowing took a lot of energy, and the heat of the day made it a thirsty business as well.

Perry rolled up a sleeve and inspected his muscle or lack of it somewhat ruefully. ‘I am chagrined at my lack of attention to the more physical pastimes of the forest. I fear I would not keep to your stroke and would foul the rollocks or some such. Perhaps I could cook, clean or use my magic to aid the security of this splendid vessel?”

Whatever his duties, Zhanh was glad to be out of the city, and to have his pack safely stowed and off of his shoulders; this was the way things SHOULD be.

Lumlas realized that everyone else seemed to be looking for work to do, and decided that at least ONE of them ought to pretend to be a paying passenger, and it might as well be her. She found a quiet spot and got busy with a combination of napping and sight-seeing.

Though this ship’s captain and crew seemed far less scurrilous than the other ship, there was no guarantee of honesty on everyone’s part. Weslynn said she would work, because she knew two things – the crew of a ship was far less likely to be jealous when you’re working alongside them – and jealousy often leads to unfortunate incidents. Secondly, if the captain or crew was planning something against some or all of their passengers, mingling with the crew as one of their own would make it  that harder to hide from their victims.
Wulf was getting pretty thirsty and hungry, and asked one of the sailors near him if and when he might get a drink and a bite to eat. He mentioned that he and his friends Gronk and Mensa had had a long bad night without food or drink too.
At midmorning a crew member who introduced himself as Jakuk came around and passed out biscuits and hardtack and a cup of grog. Blotar pulled the boat over to the bank, and announced, “First stop! There was a log cabin set back on top of a nearby hill. Blotar and two of his regular crew went up to the cabin, stayed a few minutes, and came back carrying a deer’s carcass, already cleaned, and ready for cooking.

“This is a good hunting area, but Ranger Rau says the elves are getting too numerous around here.” Blotar told the crew. Then he noticed he had elves in his crew. I’m not talking about you civilized elves,” he looked at Zhanh and Lumlas when he said that, “but there are wild elves that like nothing better than to pick off a boatman or two with a long arrow shot.

“Let’s get back on board and out to the center of the stream. Rig the shields.”

A few minutes later the Nainevver was back in the main current and moving slowly upstream. The river was swifter here, and the rowing more difficult. Blotar manned the tiller, and his mate, an incredibly hairy man named Udd stood in the center of the rowers in front of the cabin and provided rhythm. “Heave! Heave! Heave! Rest! Heave! Heave! Heave! Rest!” Over and over and over.

Some crew members had taken about twenty old target shields, much battered and pockmarked and fasted them to the ship’s railings, one above each rower. They didn’t make a complete barrier, and it looked a bit odd, but they would offer some protection from incoming missiles.

Just before noon, a flight of arrows fell out of the sky onto the Nainevver.

Mensa didn’t mind the hardtack, but hated the biscuit, and tried to pass it to Wulf, who was much hungrier than Mensa. About then, Mensa heard the unmistakable sound of a sound he’d never heard before (whoosh, THUNK), but seemed to worry everyone else.

Wulf devoured the biscuit and thanked Mensa warmly. Later, Wulf, an experienced warrior, took the captains warning seriously, and added his large spike shield to the others. At the first hint of incoming missle fire, he dove for cover. [rolled 2+5 +2 for level on Luck 13 = 22 for SR] In an instant he was up, grabbed his shield and looked to see if Mensa or Gronk or any of the rest of the party was hurt.. “Furschluginna cowards,” he growled. “Hiding in the trees. If they come out here after us, I will give them a warm welcome!”

Lumlas faced the unseen archers indignantly, pointed at her ears, and shouted, “Hey! Elf!”
The sailor prayed for salvation. The ‘wild’ elves had to respect their civilized kin right? Edurin hunkered down making himself a smaller target while taking in his surroundings. Rope, check, oars, check, how far were they from the shore? Hmmm, he might just be able to do something…

He gathered together extra rope, lashed one end to the boat railing. He grabbed an extra shield and mounted it at his station. Edurin looked to Captain Blotar, “Captain, how many elves might we face?” He then looked to Perry and Lumlas, “What do you think?”

Ouch! Mensa had to think again, and it was always difficult.
They were under attack – check!
It was arrows – check!
Bigguns were crouched down behind shields – check!
Mensa was short enough that he didn’t need to crouch – check!
Crazy pointy-ear lady was standing up, shouting “Elf!” and making herself a target – Wait! That wasn’t right! Mensa reached over to pull her down below the shields.

Perry had no idea yet what Edurin had in mind but he listened whilst hunkering down as best he could and instructing the Jeeves to hold whatever it could find that was solid and roughly shield-sized over his head.

Then he calculated the distance to the river bank and the place the bowmen were firing from. He knew it would do no real harm but (assuming they were no more than 100′ away) he cast Ice Storm to make life as uncomfortable as he could over a 20′ radius for his over-aggressive half-brethren (rolls 5,4 – makes L2 INT SR).

‘Chew on that, nancy boys!’ he yelled from what he hoped was a very safe place to cast gratuitous insults from.

When the talk of possible elf archers passed round the crew, Weslynn took station with the oars on one side, sitting on a rower’s bench to take her chances amongst them.

Mensa pulled Lumlas down and held her. “Crazy pointy-ears gonna get killed stay down behing shield”

“Perry! You know ice spells?!” Edurin suddenly got a new idea. “Can you cause the river water to harden into a shell to shield the boat? Then we just row on by…”

Wulf plied himself to his oar. If the fire was coming from one side of the river, he wondered, why not pull closer to the far side? But he had to admit he knew little about these elves and the range of their weapons. The elves he had fought with and against had been formidable bowmen. He also had to consider that there might be more archers on the far side waiting for them to draw nearer. He hated not being able to charge these foemen with his shield up and his ‘star whirring its death song!

Mensa knew a song which “Dad” had sung….and it seemed appropriate here. In his loudest, deepest voice, he began singing:

“Oh, elves in trees all mate with birds and pigs.
That’s because they’re small where other folks are big.
They shoot from cover in the wood,
Too scared to fight as brave folk would!
Cry themselves to sleep each night,
Afraid they might get inna fight
Or hurt themselves by stepping on a twig!”

He ended with a loud Bronx Cheer. “That’ll rile ’em,” he said.

Lumlas looked up from the deck, startled, after Mensa tackled her. “Thanks,” she said. “I don’t know what got into me.” She scuttled toward the nearest cover.

Zhanh took what cover he could, then looked into the woods hoping for a glimpse of a wild elf. He doubted that one would come within range of a TTYF, but maybe he could blast a tree somewhere along the line of sight; it would at least be a distraction. On the other hand, maybe it would be better to save his kremm for healing…

The arrows came down from both sides of the river. The unseen bowman practiced high arcing shots that came down from the sky above. Many of them missed the boat entirely. Most of the others hits shields or the cabin, or the deck. One hit Bornding, a member of Blotar’s crew–came right down through his throat, Another hit Edurin’s leather jerkin, punched through it, and just broke his skin for a single point of damage. That was enough, of course, the arrows were poisoned.

Blotar urged the men to row faster. Working like crazy they drove the boat upstream against the current.

Perry struck back at their unseen attackers by calling an ice storm down on one side of the river. When the ice started falling, the arrows rapidly stopped.

Just as Edurin was coming up with the idea to enclose the boat in a tunnel of ice, the arrows stopped falling. They had won past the ambush zone. It wouldn’t have worked anyway. Perry probably couldn’t create that much ice, and the current would have pulled it away from the boat in seconds.

“Any casualties?” bellowed Blotar.

“Looks like Bornding is a goner–took an arrow through the throat. He’s bleeding out now, I doubt if he can last more than another minute or two,” said Udd.

The blood gushing from the sailor’s throat made Weslynn hungry again. She wasn’t really hungry, but it seemed like such a waste.

“Probably better for him to die quickly,” said Blotar. “They say Elf poison is nasty vicious stuff.”

As he vigorously rowed on, Wulf noted the scent of the area and looked for landmarks. He made a mental note that if he ever came through this area again, he would make it a point to chew some Elf arse or throats if the opportunity arose. He could see the unfortunate sailor and his wound, and thought it was a lost cause, but as he continued to row, he sang a quiet little song for the wounded and dying.

Mensa wasn’t sure what was happening. He couldn’t recall seeing anyone die before, and seemed unduly strange that Bording’s life would pour out like that. He had heard the group talking about bloodsuckers, and he guessed this must be blood. How very interesting. He wondered if carved dwarves could bleed. Goldy had said Mensa wasn’t – what did he sat? – not baked right or something?

He didn’t know how to help, and he hated feeling helpless. He removed his helmet, held it to his chest, and hoped the man wasn’t in great pain, because even Mensa knew that pain hurts.

Wulf rowed on, sad for the dying sailor, and softly crooned, in his old Wolf Clan tongue, the song the Shaman taught him:

“Gray clad Reaper, See this Brother.
Ease his suffering, guide him home.
There to rest with friends and loved ones
Never more away to roam.
Life is short and Fate is cruel.
Death is always near to all.
Offering his hand to guide us
When it is our turn to fall.”

Perry looked at Edurin with tears forming. He knew that elf poisons were truly nasty. ‘I know not what my vile second cousins twice removed on my mother’s side may have used to dip their craven arrows with but I fear that it bodes ill for you, sailor friend. I would that I could see you stand upright as a mast that we could all pin our colours to for you are of noble nature. I am but a callow youth remiss in the understanding of the conjuror’s arts but I must attempt your salvation. If you will permit me the slightest of touches juxtaposed to your impalation, I will assay alleviation of your adipose tissue.’

The intermittently loquacious youth checked to see that Edurin would accept his succour (and perchance if he had fallen into slumbers) before casting Strawberry Fields Forever, a spell that summoned a fresh and nutritious meal, which when eaten would help restore health.  Sometimes Perry wondered where things like food, and ropes and spirits came from, but he had no answers for those questions.

Lumlas ignored the mention of poison and rushed to aid the injured sailor; she had been doing very little since sunrise, and had kremm to spare. She rushed to Bornding’s side, snapped off the protruding arrow head, –which caused Bornding to scream, or at least gurgle, in pain– pulled out the shaft, and threw all of her available kremm into a healing spell.
Weslynn stared at the displays of wizardry performed or discussed in these few minutes: calling of ice, healing, and conjuring food. How she wished she could contribute something more to this mission than lost cargo and blood lust. Her aunt tested her as a child of course, but she was not deemed strong enough to require the training.  Great usefulness her vintner’s training would be now.

“Edurin, you’re scratched, I can smell it. If it is poisoned as they say, we can try to suck it out, as well as perform Perry’s spell craft.”

Edurin waved over to join Perry and called Weslynn over to his side. He spoke softly to conserve energy, “Weslynn perhaps a little blood letting along with fine strawberries. Perry, thanks for your help. It is very appreciated.” Edurin adjusted his jerkin handing his concealed purse to Weslynn, “You seem honorable… Just in case…” He stripped off his jerkin and pulled the arrow out of the leather. “I’ve suffered worse… Well we’ll see about the poison.” He enjoyed the strawberries Perry provided while tending the wound. “if the spell doesn’t work then I am happy to let you suck the poison out.” He winked at Weslynn.
“I have done it before, for a snake-bit guard. Though I worry I might cause other problems should I do it. Wulf! You’re the toughest, I think, should it affect you, grab a knife and get ready, to suck out the blood in the wound.”
Weslynn did however take Edurin’s purse, tucking it into one of her belt pouches. “Just relax, Edurin, Let’s do this quickly as we can.”
Wulf hurried to the group.”In the Werwald we had big dangerous vipers. Our shaman taught to suck out their venom. The key is not to swallow it! I will gladly try to do this if you wish it.” The wolfman removed his helmet and prepared to do his thing.

An argument broke out over whether ‘sucking out’ Elf poisons was effective or safe. Wulf waited patiently for a few moments, then shrugged. “If you want me to do it, you know where I am,” he said, and returned to his station with the other rowers. He was surprised to see the wounded sailor was still alive. Wizards creeped him out sometimes. He silently thanked Omvar for the miracle.

Perry’s prompt spell action healed Edurin of the minor damage he had taken and took the edge off the poison. Still . . .

Blotar bellowed an order when he saw Wulf run over to volunteer to help the wounded Bornding. “Oarsman, stay at your post! We need to keep this boat moving upstream against the current, and dropping an oar can mess up the timing of the other rowers.”

“By Vrill!” swore Udd. “That’s twice now you’ve abandoned your post without orders. If you were a regular crewman you’d forfeit your pay for such activity.”

“I don’t plan to pay him anything, unless he proves more valuable to us than he has so far,” muttered Blotar.

“One more lapse, and I’ll ask the captain to put you ashore,” Udd warned the barbarian.

Udd started yelling at all the rowers again. “Heave you sluggards! We don’t want to drift back into arrow range again. We got off lightly this time.”

Bornding was surprised to find himself still alive and with his neck now whole and unblemished. Still, his throat didn’t feel exactly right–kind of thick and burning. And he felt very weak and dizzy. (Loss of blood will do that to a fellow.) Then the flesh on his neck where the arrowhead had punched through it began to turn green–a faint lime green at first, that darkened with each second. “Fee er starr injj” said Bornding thickly. He could not enunciate better than that. The green tint to his flesh reached the edge of his short brown beardm but emerged a few seconds later on the cheekbones above the hair.

Edurin had his jerkin off and his chest bare as his comrades discussed whether they should try to suck the poison out or not. He looked down and saw a spot on his chest about the size of a gold piece that was just turning a faint greenish color. The flesh felt funny–kind of burning and thick.

Jakuk stepped up to the stern deck to talk to Blotar. “How long do you reckon those elves will keep shooting at us, Captain? It has been almost 2 years now, and it seems like they try to shoot us every time we go by.”

“They probably won’t rest until they wreck the boat, and kill us all,” said Blotar. “You know we probably shouldn’t have messed with their women, but all we wanted was a little fun, and they were on the river without any clothing to speak of. It was an honest mistake.”

Wulf muttered apologies to the sailors and to Udd and applied himself diligently to the oar. Overhearing the comments of the captain about the Elf women, he felt less hatred for the elves. His own people had great esteem for and valued their women too, and he could only imagine his response had someone violated his mate or female relations. He now had decided that it was probably best that he had not put his lips on Edurin’s wound, but he still worried about sailor and his friends. Caught up in the rhythm of the rowing he meditated on the Wolf Father and the songs of his long lost people.
Gronk thought naked elf-maidens sounded like fun. He thought naked elf-maidens and much ale sounded more fun.

“Gronk thirsty,” he said to Udd.

As Perry listened in on Gronk’s mutterings he wondered if one day he would be able to invent a suitable spell to meet the minotaur’s needs – something like ‘Bottoms Up’, he thought to himself, or maybe “Night on the Piss’…
Weslynn stared at the two poisoned companions and cursed her helplessness.
As he continued to row, Mensa thought “Not good. Bad way to die. People be afraid when two die before even getting to bloodsucker castle.” They all needed cheering up. So Mensa reached into his well-memorized repertoire and loudly sang, as only he could (or would):

“ROW, ROW, ROW YER BOAT. DEMPSEY FOUND THE STRING!
MARY LEE, MARY LEE, MARY LEE, MARRY ME.
LIKE A BUTTER CREAM”

Weslynn smiled, somewhat to her own surprise, at Mensa singing. “Have you ever considered becoming a bard, good dwarf?”
Wulf wondered what the dwarf had been taking (or smoking) but, despite his bewilderment at this latest happy song’s odd lyrics, kept rowing in good rhythm with his companions. He found it hard not to smile.

Mensa asked bloodsucker lady, “What’s a bard?”

Gronk didn’t like the smell of the elf-poison, bad stuff.

Gronk did like Mesa’s singing.

“Sing more, little dwarf. Gronk like.”

Lumlas looked at the green stain spreading on Bornding’s face in horror. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I tried.”

Zhanh noticed the effect that Mensa’s song had had on the rowers, and decided another song was in order.

Singing:
Oh, just what’s the use of this looting and pillaging,
Swinging my rapier through blood, guts and gore?
Raping and robbing and boozing grow boring;
The life of a pirate’s no fun anymore.
No fun anymore, no fun anymore,
It’s only a job, it’s no fun anymore.

It’s always the same all the planning and ambushing:
Pouncing, attacking, and hauling away.
The whoring and boozing and passing out afterwards;
It’s getting monotonous day after day.
Day after day, day after day,
It’s boring as hell fighting day after day.

I’ve got me a plan to go do something different:
Find a good farm and a nice buxom bride,
Raise some tall crops and a lot of fat babies;
Complacency’s one sin that I’ve never tried.
I’ve never tried, I’ve never tried,
Playing good citizen I’ve never tried.

Perry felt ashamed of himself. He had been so intent on rifling through all the spells he knew to impress his companions that he had quite ignored the strength that had won him the opportunity to study the arcane arts in the first place.

At last, he woke up to himself and smelt the coffee…and slipped over to Weslynn and placed his hand atop hers. ‘Fret not,’ he whispered. ‘I see your consternation. Your time will come and your new friends shall have sore need of you. We must all take our time at the tiller on still waters but we know not when the elements will demand our fiercest efforts to keep safe those we care for.’
He left a pressed heartbalm flower he had carried since he left his forest home in Weslynn’s palm.

When he finished singing, Zhanh threw his hat to Lumlas and told her to use it to mop up the spilled blood. She gave him a puzzled look, but did so; the hat absorbed the spilled blood readily, and actually seemed cleaner when she was done than when she had started. She threw the hat back to Zhanh along with another puzzled look.
Perry recognized the poison after a while. It was a subtle form of elvish revenge that turned flesh and muscle to springy green wood–not immediately fatal unless it got to a vital organ.

Edurin wasn’t badly poisoned at all. He had a green spot on his chest about the size of a gold piece, and it felt a little different from the surrounding flesh. It might even be a conversation piece for him in the future. As the hours went by and Borndring didn’t die either, the party began to feel that they had gotten off quite lightly.

About an hour before sunset they came to the town of Huntcenter, a mostly human town carved out of the woods that blanketed both sides of the river here. Blotar had the Nainevver maneuvered up to one of the docks built out into the current and tied up.

“We will be spending the night here,” Blotar announced. “Morben and Dilgnordu, you two have guard duty. Norli, Dannn, Zolt, get those barrels of wine from the hold and come with me to the Big Buck tavern. We have a delivery to make. The rest of you, be back by dawn.”

Weslynn, after finishing her hours long explanation of bards to Mensa, with a slightly dazed expression on her face, headed over to assist Norli, Dannn, and Zolt with moving the barrels of wine from the hold to the tavern. A little piece of normality would be just the thing.
Edurin waved everyone off. The green patch was weird. He’ll have to find out more information. He put his jerkin back on.  Then he got his money pouch back from Weslynn.

Anyway, the boat came to dock and Edurin’s sailing habits kicked in. “Captain, let me and Weslynn help with the barrels.” Edurin wanted a good look at the barrels and this was a fine opportunity to learn how to transport and evaluate wines.

“Where you two going? Gronk hungry and thirsty,” he asked Wulf and Zhanh. Gronk patted Mensa on the head, so the dwarf knew he was being spoken to as well. These three, and the one called Perry, he trusted the most. This time, he wanted to try and keep his friends all together in a group. Much safer for all.

“Yes, let us hope the seals on the barrels are still good, and the hold is properly cool. Otherwise the wine will have degraded, or spoiled entirely.” Weslynn was hoping the Captain would agree, she’d not actually done anything in the way of work on the boat yet, and this was right up her alley.

Perry was keen to stick close to his friends. He asked Wulf if he knew anything about this town. ‘Do you think they will take against elves? I will try to act as human as possible.’
Wulf pulled a bucketful of water up from the cleaner part of the river, and washed off some of the sweat and grime from his skin and hair.

“Friends,” said Wulf. “I will go with you into the village. “I have been a traveler for many years, and know how to behave myself in new towns. I am unfortunately without coin of any kind. I won’t be much use except to advise you and help keep the natives from abusing you if necessary.”

Blotar took Edurin by the arm. “Come with me, my young friend. We must talk.” Then he took a stand on the gangplank. Jakuk had already gone ashore to tie the boat to its anchor point, but everyone else was still on board.

“Pay attention!” shouted Blotar. “I wouldn’t have to say anything if you were all regular crew, but those of you who came aboard with Edurin, and the two I hired back in Khazan yesterday won’t know how things work.”

Norli, Dann, and Zolt continued to manhandle a tun of wine up out of the hold. It weighed as much as any two of them, but the barrel was stout and well banded in iron. The rest of the crew turned to see what the captain was saying.

Mensa wasn’t paying attention. He started to sing, “Marry me . . .” but a crewman frowned at him and said sharply “Shush your mouth, dwarf!”

Shocked by such rudeness, Mensa fell silent.

Weslynn watched as Blotar led Edurin to the gangplank to have a chat, curious as to what he would say, listening intently.
“There are two taverns in this town,” said Blotar. “I usually stay at the Big Buck, which is where I’m delivering the wine. When Shannazan the tavern mistress pays me, and when Edurin here does, I’ll have some coin. Crew that deserves payment come see me there at sunset.’

“I’m hungry,” said Gronk.
“You worked hard on the river, bull-man, but your work was to pay for your passage. Come to the Big Buck, and I will buy you supper.”

Blotar looked at everyone with a bit of a sneer on his heavy features. Then he started pointing “I don’t really have yer names yet, but you have earned supper and a drink–just one–by yer work. Barbarian,” he pointed at Wulf, “dwarf,” he pointed at Mensa, “woman,” he pointed at Weslynn, “elf for saving Borndring,” he pointed at Lumlas, “and you Eddie-boy. You two were basically passengers and owe me for the trip.” He waved loosely at Perry and Zhanh. “You make yer own arrangements for the night, but I wouldn’t advise you to sleep in the streets. Ya can sleep on the boat if ya wish. We leave again at dawn.”

“Get those two barrels ashore and wait for the wagon,” Blotar directed that command at the three who were straining under the weight of one large wooden barrel of wine. “Jakuk, Eddie, and I will go get it.”

The captain turned and headed into town.

Udd pulled Weslynn aside. “If you want to ask about wine, come to the Big Buck and talk to Shannazan,” he told her.

“I will, thank you. I am curious to the vintage, now let me help them get that out of the hold, and ashore.”
Gronk turned to Zhanh and Perry.

“You two stay with Gronk and the rest of us, we figure things out. Nobody alone here in strange town, we stay together. We all go to Big Buck for supper, then maybe sleep on boat. Everybody agree?”

“Sounds good to me, Gronk,” Zhanh said. “It looks like we will be drinking water and eating the house stew tonight, Perry.”
Wulf said “I like this plan. There is strength in numbers, especially with friends. I am happy for a drink and a meal, and I have slept in far worse places than a boat in my days. I recall a certain gaol that I hope never to see again…” He smiled. “Come, Mensa, my pup! Try to stay close. When we get back we will let you sing us all to sleep!”
Mensa didn’t even have to try to think. “Mensa stay with Friend-Wulf and Friend-Gronk.” …then added, “Humans cranky.”
Wulf laughed. “Lucklily you have not seen Gronk or Wulf at their “cranky” worst yet. Come, short warrior, and Elf friends. Let’s go score some ale and a bowl of soup. I am famished!”
Perry thanked his friends for his inclusion. ‘I am inclined to think that the good Captain is not blessed with a good memory – otherwise he might have given me some small credit for deterring those elven bowmen with the ice storm. But it is as it is. Good Zhanh, I can attempt my strawberry meal spell again if there is nothing else for it. I can perhaps offer some service for beds if it comes to that.’

Perry raised his fingers and twisted them adroitly, his face a mask of concentration. He cast Jeeves again, figuring the earlier spell that he had cast just before they left to free those in jail would expire before they returned to the boat. ‘To be without a Jeeves in such circumstances,’ he said to Wulf, ‘would be as you without your ‘star.’

While walking with his friends, Mensa tried braiding his beard using all ten thumbs. The beards he’d seen in the city looked So Cool braided. He tried to remember to look up every so often to make sure his friends hadn’t wandered off…

By this time Wulf had learned not to let Mensa out of his sight, and he nudged Perry and whispered for him to watch their little friend too. If Mensa showed a tendency to walk off on his own, Wulf swiftly, like a good wolf mommy, brought the ‘pup’ back into the sphere of attention, so there would not be another ‘Oh hraka, where did he go now??’ moment again.
“Gronk share his meal with elf-friends. If everyone share a little, there will be enough for all.”

Gronk noticed Mensa walking blindly as he tried to tie knots in his beard. He picked the dwarf up and placed him on his shoulders.

“Dwarf can tie knots in beard up here.”

Mensa suddenly found himself flying into the air, and was now riding on Gronk’s roomy shoulders. He heard an unfamiliar sound, then realized it was himself. He was laughing!

“Thank you to you, Friend-Gronk!
“Human friends live, though green. Good friends like you and Wulf and Bloodsucker Lady and elf-friends. Good life.
“Mensa most happier than ever tonight.”

“Mensa,” Lumlas said, “If you would be willing to wait until we have a bit of piece and quiet, I can probably help you with braiding your beard. Time is often cheap for elves; we learn things like that.”
When the wine was out of the hold, and everyone was standing around waiting for the wagon, Weslynn turned to her two wizard friends who used their magic to save people today, “I am proud of you two, using your powers to heal Edurin and Borndring. My aunt told me that wizards have methods to teach their spells quickly to others. Could I prevail upon you both to teach me the healing magics you know? I would not be so helpless again.”
Perry again felt sad that he did not possess the teacher spell. How good it would be to assist others on their journeys through this life. ‘Perhaps a jack of all trades has no cause to regret being master of none!’ he mused. ‘I am sorry that I cannot help you, Lady. However, these pure elven mages may well put be in the shade and even to shame.’

“I see. My aunt gave me the impression every apprentice was taught such, though of course it may be that I misheard her, or misremember. It has been some time, after all, since she passed. Perhaps you can aid me Lumlas?”

Wulf was himself feeling better about the way things were going. His wolf was back and ready to go. Mensa was happy, Gronk was happy. He was part of a ‘pack’ again. Then he reminded himself that there were still people about that might wish him and his family harm. As they trooped to the Inn for supper and a brew, he made himself stay alert for any perils that might lie in wait to ambush them. Woe to any who dared attack them this time!
Huntcenter was a one-street town carved out of the forest that swept down to the riverbank on both sides of the Khazan River here. It had one main street about twice as wide as a wagon. Houses, shops, and other buildings made from wood crowded together on both sides of the street with narrow alleys between them. Plenty of smoke was coming out of the chimneys. As the travelers walked along behind Blotar, they got a good feeling for river life. Humans were everywhere–most of them seemed to be working. The ringing of a hammer on an anvil was the loudest noise, but the braying of mules, the whickering of horses, the shouts of men and women all contributed to the general din. Children screamed and laughed and dashed around like demented chickens.

As they passed a tavern called Red’s Place, a man came flying out through the door, about seven feet off the ground, and landed with a thud and a cry of pain. A voice bellowed, “And stay out!” The man in the street only groaned, and lay there.

Which might not be a very good plan because Weslynn’s wine wagon was approaching and it certainly looked like it would run right over him.

The Fellowship of the Vine got many a curious look as they walked through Huntcenter. People pointed in awe at the mighty Gronk with a dwarf on his shoulders. They looked curiously at Wulf and Perry. Many of them stepped widely around Zhanh and Lumlas. Some of them frowned and cast angry looks at the elves. Others, particularly women, made a curious sign with their fingers, gripping the middle finger of one hand with the other hand, bending if backwards, then letting it spring forward again.

They usually looked disappointed when neither of the obvious elves responded to their signals.

Weslynn shouted “Hold up!” to the wagon, and then ran forward, doing her best to pull the man out of the path of the wagon as fast as she could.
Gronk was annoyed by the stupid pointing humans, but he was getting used to it.

“Stay close to Gronk, elf-friends.”

“Wulf, Zhanh – Gronk think sleep on boat good idea. Humans no seem to like elf-friends, and too curious about rest of us.”

“Humph!” said Mensa. “Told you humans cranky.” He thought he would accept Lumlas’s offer to learn how to braid his beard, especially as he had all his fingers stuck in knots now and was trying to pry them loose.

Wulf wondered briefly who or what was bouncer in Red’s Place. He kept his own bouncer’s eye on the people around his group, and looked off a couple of more scurrilous individuals that were obviously sizing them up. ‘Not here and not now’ was in his scowl with the promise of a busted head if ignored.

He was happy for the presence of Gronk who alone would tend to discourage all but the stupidest pickpockets from an attempt to rob them. He was hoping the Inn they were headed for was a quiet one. He was worn out from tuggind and pushing on an oar all day.

Lumlas responded to Weslyn’s request for spell teaching with a smile. “I would be happy to teach you any spell I know when we get a quiet moment; I am sure the same goes for Zhanh.”

“Certainly,” Zhanh added. “The question is, are you able to learn them? And I fear that unless you are a trained wizard, you will only have a one use pattern of the spell in your mind, which will fade once the spell is cast.”

Later, as they walked, Lumlas and Zhanh both noticed the odd gestures that some of the women seemed to be making. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?” Lumlas asked Zhanh quietly.

Zhanh shook his head. “No, but I have a feeling that there is some kind of black market in magic or maybe herbal remedies. We could always ask, carefully. And you are better at being charming than I am.”

Lumlas chuckled at that. The next time they saw the gesture from a woman who was not too near anyone else, Lumlas approached her. “You made this gesture,” she said, repeating the sign. “We are not from around here, and do not understand. What does it mean? Are you asking for something?”

Zhanh watched alertly, ready to react if something went wrong.

“Thank you Lumlas and Zanh. I appreciate your offer to help me out. When we get that quiet moment I will tell you my aunt’s tale, and you’ll see why this occurs to me now to ask.”
Weslynn scurried ahead of the wagon, gripped the fallen man by the shoulders, and dragged him to the side of the street. He let out a cry of pain as she grabbed him, and then passed out. There was no doubt that he was seriously hurt. And seriously drunk. His breath practically knocked Weslynn over when she put her head to close to his while moving him. Though she could easily have picked him up and carried him, she did not think that would look right for a woman of her size and apparent strength. She left him on the porch of someone’s house across from Red’s Place.
When Lumlas approached the woman who made the gesture, the human turned pale, and started to run. A hunter with bow in hand several yards further up the street noticed, and plucked an arrow from his quiver and set it to bowsting.

“Hey, you! Elf! Leave that woman alone, or I swear I’ll skewer you!” He lifted the bow and half drew the arrow.

“Sir,” Weslynn looked at the man she had dragged to the porch. “How badly are you hurt? Do you require a healer?” She looks for obvious injuries – broken bones, bleeding, and the like. She also tried to reach out her vampiric senses and see if they could help her assess his level of health.
Gronk grabbed Lumlas by the collar and dragged the elf to his side, roughly.

“Not happen again, sir,” he called to the hunter.

He looked at Lumlas with fire in his eyes. “I told you stay near Gronk, humans afraid of elf-friends. Want whole village to stick us with arrows?”

Perry took in the scene of more hostility towards elves. He moved closer to Gronk. Then he instructed Jeeves to go up to the man, ready to nudge his arm if he did not unstring the arrow. When (assuming) the man relaxed and stood quiet, the Jeeves carried out his second instruction and firmly but briefly squeezed the man’s testicles and then withdrew. Perry made sure he did not look at the man.
Wulf, his keen senses and experience noting the atmosphere of growing antipathy towards his friends, did his best to encourage them to hurry on to the tavern where food and drink awaited them. He did his best to project a no nonsense image to any who were looking like they might want to start something. He reserved his ‘growl and a scowl’ for any who looked stupid enough to actually take some kind of action.
Lumlas growled at Zhanh. “Any more bright ideas?”

Zhanh shook his head. “Except maybe to stay as far away from the locals as we can, no.”

Mensa whispered to Gronk (easily) and Wulf (required leaning out from Gronk’s shoulders). “Maybe Mensa should hit humans onna head with shovel?”

Gronk whispered back, “Not now, my friend, no shovel now.”
Mensa grumbled, but behaved. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
“Peace, my friend,” said Wulf softly. He showed his big right fist with the knuckleduster on it to Mensa and Gronk. “If anyone needs hitting, Wulf is ready and willing to do it. Come Elf friends. Let us suffer fools gladly and hie on to the Inn. I think I can smell the food already, in spite of this cess pool of a street here. I will take the point, and woe to any who try to give offense to Gronk from behind. Being kicked by a Minotaur is a very bad moment indeed!”
Perry winked at Wulf and asked him if he’d seen how the bowman was faring. ‘I wonder if he is entirely comfortable – just a thought!’

Weslynn was looking forward to a night with her companions, and certainly agreed with the idea of sticking togather and sleeping on the ship. But before she could do that, she needed to make sure this man she drug off was not dying. She had enough on her conscience already…

Perry whispered to Weslynn ‘If he’s drunk and thrown out of the tavern perhaps he’s not a good man. I could put him under my control and get him to come back to the boat with us. He could do some rowing and be a sort of emergency snack for you…better him than one of us and I’m beginning to take a hard view on some humans in these towns and cities.’
She whispered back to Perry, “Aye being thrown out of a tavern isn’t a good sign. I don’t want to start trouble with the locals though, if he’s going to be missed. Though perhaps he could be ‘convinced’ to help if there’s going to be trouble here.” Weslynn’s tone conveys her lack of respect for the sort that brawls in taverns excessively.

‘Maybe if we ask the Captain and tell him we can guarantee the man’s good conduct and usefulness…he might be the judge of whether or not this violent, drunken bully (it I read him aright) will be missed in this sort of town,’
With that, Perry looked for the Captain with the intention of asking him if he would accept another rower if they all vouched for his behaviour, the wizards offering their skills to underwrite this promise. He had no intention of straying from his friends if the Captain was not close by.

“Perry,” Zhanh said quietly, “I get the impression that, since your spells come to you naturally, and without study, you have never had a course in the ethics of Wizardry.” He chuckled. “Of course, long lectures on the evils of slavery didn’t stop my master from treating ME like a slave…”

Lumlas looked at the fallen drunkard. “Does he NEED healing, Weslyn? I am sure I could help a bit.”

The hunter started to relax and put his arrow back in its quiver when he saw the elves back off and leave the woman unharmed. Then he felt invisible fingers grip his bollocks and apply pressure, this despite the fact this his leather breeches protected him well from the intrusions of the forest. It startled him so much that he dropped his bow. Was this elvish magic at work? The elves were uncanny and strange. Meddling with them always brought disaster . . . for somebody. When the uncomfortable feeling faded, he picked up his weapon and walked rapidly over to Red’s Place and went inside.
The wine wagon rolled on past Weslynn and the drunk she had rescued. Despite her attempts to be helpful, the riverboat crew didn’t really seem to like her much. They weren’t overtly rude, but they took every chance to leave her behind and out of what they were doing. Perhaps they were afraid that the captain would give her some of their money.

The man was unconscious. Her questions fell on deaf ears.

Lumlas came over and offered to help. It was obvious to the elfin healer that this man was badly injured.

The main group of walking boatmen, including Wulf, Gronk, Mensa, and Perry left Weslynn and the elves behind. They found themselves approaching a large sprawling building at the end of the street. There were hitching posts in front of it with a couple of mules tied to them. A lot of gray smoke came out of two chimneys at opposite ends of the roof. A stuffed figure of a 12-point buck stood near the front door, which was both wide and wide open. Fiddle music cackled inside, brisk, foot-stomping music.

Blotar and Jakuk and Edurin stopped for a moment in the doorway. A really large hand blocked their path. The captain put a coin into it, and the obstacle vanished. The three men strolled into the tavern.

As they vanished into the darkness, the sailors outside could see that the door guard was an ogre. Udd said, “Anyone with a gold piece to tip the door guard can go inside. I’ll just wait out here till the captain comes back.”

Two boatmen, Brundle and Sammik stepped up to the door, offered a coin, and were issued inside.

“Lumlas, I believe he does indeed require healing. Alas, I have done all I can for him.” Weslynn looks at her hands, as if they are insufficient. “I see they’ve gone on and left us behind. How kind of them. At least this time they didn’t ‘accidentally’ drop anything on me. That boat hook scuffed my good boot.”
Perry asked Gronk and Wulf if they wanted to go in or go back to Zhahn and then the boat. He wasn’t very keen on a place that need an ogre as a doorman and he told them so.
“Gronk no like elf-friends alone. We should find them.”
Wulf rolled his eyes in frustration, and growled. “You are tall,” he said. “Put Mensa down here, and lift me up to see if I can see them. Mensa, please stay close to Gronk here. Don’t wander off.”

Lumlas decides to try to heal the drunk for five points of damage. (Level 2 saving throw, 23 INT plus roll of 6,2, total 31, made. Ten points of kremm spent.)

Perry said to Mensa ‘I think we shall sleep on the boat tonight. Have you ever done that before? Let’s stick close to the big friends!’

MEANWHILE, as Mensa hopped down from Gronk, he pointed: “I saw them. Thattaway.”

“Good on you, Mensa,” exclaimed Wulf. “Come, Gronk. Let’s go fetch our comrades. Mensa, stay close to Gronk and Wulf!” He set off briskly in the direction Mensa indicated.

Mensa examined himself. How had he gotten good on himself?

Zhanh stayed close to Lumlas, but kept his head up and looked around nervously. Hadn’t he just suggested that they stay away from the locals?

Lumlas touched the drunk and poured her energy into healing him. The pallor left his face, and he stopped moaning, Then he opened his eyes and looked up into her lovely elvish face.

“Aaaaaaahhhhh!” he screamed in surprise. He rolled over and scrabbled away from her on all fours.

Wulf, Gronk, Mensa, and Perry came walking back down the street and joined them.

“Blotar promised us a meal at the inn,” said Weslynn, “and I don’t think Edurin will let him forget it. We need to get back to the Big Buck.”

Mensa responded to the drunk’s actions with a snort of disgust. “Humans cranky AND crazy. Yes, would druther sleep on boat than near them!”

“Why elf-friends no listen? Gronk say stay close, leave villagers alone, and twice you don’t! Do elf-friends want to make villagers angry? Do elf-friends want to make Gronk angry?”

He snorted at Lumlas and Zhanh, and cast a nasty look at Weslynn.

“Bloodsucker stop putting friends at risk over drunk strangers in the street.”

‘What are we going to do about food?’ Perry asked them all. His stomach was rumbling. ‘Can we buy something without having to go into that tavern or do you want me to create food for you on the boat?’ Then he remembered Edurin. ‘Do you think Edurin will be safe with Captain Blotar? If you do, perhaps we can go into the other tavern and all stick tight together while we eat and then go back to the boat to sleep. Wulf ought to be able to put an order for food in at the bar without getting into trouble. After all, he doesn’t have the curse of elf blood.’ Perry frowned and clasped his hands together in an effort to stay calm.

“Would you have him be run over by the wagon, Gronk? You all were strangers two days ago, too.”

Weslynn walks over to Gronk and looks up at his eyes. “I have treated you all with basic respect, regardless of your origin, race, profession, or blood curses, save for the incident with Wulf, which I admitted to when I was able.”

She then takes a step forward, staring intently up at Gronk, focused on him alone, so their chests are almost touching. She makes her final points, punctuating them with firm taps on his chest as she does so.

“Letting the wagon run the sot over would have certainly gotten us into the local jail. Keep in mind, should I have hauled him out of the road, and walked off, and he died, I or we all could well have been blamed. Outsiders often are. I am not looking to cause trouble here in this new town. .”

“Now let us stay together and catch up to the captain & crew.”
She turned, gathered everyone’s gaze with her own, and moved towards the Captain’s choice of tavern.

Gronk seethed. He grabbed Weslynn by the arm and swung her back into his gaze.

“Yes, we all strangers two days ago, and I rowing up river for a few barrels wine, risking everything for you, because Wulf is my friend for long time, not two days, fight many battles together. I here for Wulf first, not you or any of the others, and you attack my friend and drink his blood. Gronk smell it in the cages. You only alive still because Wulf wants it. Dwarf and elfs my friends now, too. Next time, let wagon hit filthy human, not your wagon, not your human, not your problem. You put Gronk or friends at risk again for nothing, you answer to Gronk!” He snorted fiercely as he emphasized his name, and visibly squeezed the hilt of his axe. He then addressed all.

“Now we go back to find Edurin and Captain, eat our meal, and sleep on boat. Anybody not agree?”

Mensa finally got ALL his fingers untangled from his beard-knots. He absent-mindedly looked up at Gronk, asking “Did I miss anything?”
Gronk looked down at Mensa.

“Nothing important, little friend. We go find Edurin and get food.”

Mensa smiled, even to Cranky Lady. Not long ago, he was all alone, not knowing who or what he was. Now, he had good friends and actual adventures. He’d learned that humans were dumb or cranky, and alternated between the two.

“All in all,” he said to Friend-Gronk, “it’s been a good day.”

Zhanh caught Gronk’s eyes and threw up his hands. “Don’t look at me, Gronk; I was just following a girl.”

Lumlas scowled at Zhanh, and then said, “Fine. I was following Weslyn. And it is very hard for me to walk away from someone in pain. Though I doubt I will do it again for anyone in this village.”

Zhanh said, “Perry, all of the others, except you and I, have a meal and a drink waiting for them at the tavern. Perhaps the two of us should have stayed on the boat, and let your magic feed us, but we are in the middle of the town, now. At worst, we can eat conjured food and drink water once we are ALL back on the boat.”

“Gronk willing to share with friends. If all share, there will be enough for all to eat.”
‘I’ll come with you all, of course I will. Thank you Zhanh, thank you Gronk. If they are as vile as the people in Khazan I hope we can have another Hiding Hole and then I shall be happy to watch you all break bones and smash heads. One day, I shall invite you all to my forest home and we shall relax and tell great stories together. But for now we must make those great stories and all live to tell them.’ He gave his little bow once more and almost felt alliterative again.
Wulf said, “Come now, my brothers and sisters! Mensa and I will take the lead. Stay by Wulf, Mensa. Point is a place of honor, and important. Weslynn and others behind us, and Gronk I trust to guard our backs. To the Inn and the Ogre bouncer, and, hopefully, something to eat and drink. I am hungry enough to eat the furschluginna ogre if he won’t let us in!”

“Gronk, how is committing murder on a drunk local watching Wulf’s back?”

Weslynn looked up at the minotaur. “If all you will do is wave your axe around instead of thinking, then perhaps I can do without your aid.”

“Gronk no say murder, Gronk say no get involved. You no want Gronk here? No problem, Gronk can go. Gronk think this all stupid idea anyway, we all going to get killed for stupid wine! Wulf! Mensa! Bloodsucker want Gronk to go, what say you? We go or we stay?”
“I just want you to think, if you can, instead of running around like an angry bull. Your impulses are as dangerous to the group as my problem earlier. Can’t you see what a bad idea running that man down was? Or do you know, and are you just campaigning against *anything* I do because of what I did to Wulf?”
Perry checked his memory…had he really cast Firestorm of Protest over the group? What a dumb ass he was! He’d have to work hard on the Pipes Of Peace spell he’d been thinking would be a better bet since he first began practicing the conjuror’s arts.
Mensa clopped between Weslynn and Gronk. “Cranky Lady leave Friend-Gronk be!”

Wulf rolled his eyes in frustration, and turned on the group. “Stop all this bickering,” he growled. “Gronk! You are a tower of strength to us here. Weslynn! We are committed to helping you. Why are we snarling and nipping at each other? We are in an unfriendly place surrounded by hostile people, and we make enemies of each other here? Get your heads and hearts together. Once we are fed, and have had a brew we will all feel better, and can argue then. On, to the Inn!” And he tried to herd this bag full of wildcats up the street to their destination.

At the seeming insult of being called an unthinking angry bull, Gronk snorted and growled.

“Bloodsucker need to back off, Gronk losing patience fast. You only one worried about human, men driving cart are eating food and drinking with Edurin and Captain right now! Gronk finished talking, if Wulf want Gronk to stay Gronk stays, or Gronk leaving!”

Gronk wanted to chop the bloodsucker in half, and just might have if Mensa hadn’t stepped between them.

Weslynn sighed, and turned her back on Gronk again, heading towards the tavern. “Wulf, can you talk some sense into Gronk for me?”

Edurin paid the ogre the gold coin tip and followed Captain Blotar. He quietly joined the Captain and kept eye over the establishment, “Captain, we can tally the total owed after your business concludes. Your help has been greatly appreciated. Is this the farthest up stream you go?”

Lumlas caught Gronk’s eye and smiled her best smile. “*I* want you to stay, Gronk. I’m sorry if what I did upset you.”

Zhanh nodded. “We need you, Gronk. At least I think so. Our chances of surviving this mission are much higher if you are with us,”

Gronk smiled at the elves.

“Gronk stay with friends.”

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