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Chapter 8: Tales from the Riverbank   Leave a comment

Zhanh followed Gronk uneasily. This was the first time he had been in deep woods, and he really didn’t know what to expect. Lumlas, on the other hand, was more or less at home; more at home, at least, than she had been since she had entered Khazan two days earlier.

Perry watched Gronk’s strong back as the Minotaur was tended by the elf woman. For all the distaste he felt for life outside the forests, there were people, creatures who were quick to stand by others. He cast his food spell  and offered the meal to his companions.

“I have GOT to learn that spell one of these days, “Zhanh said. “It would save a lot on upkeep.” Lumlas nodded and said nothing; her mouth was full.
Zhanh walked alongside Lumlas. “Yes, it is a creepy hat. I found it on a ‘Useless Magic Items’ shelf in a shop in Knorr. I just knew it was magical, and liked the way it looked. One day I spilled some fish blood on it, and it woke up. It turns out that it cleans itself, repairs itself– an arrow went through the brim once, and it healed over– and it has a Hocus Focus spell unless it is starving. It doesn’t take much to keep it functioning, and sometimes its appetites are useful.”

“I don’t think I would want something that feeds on blood sitting on my head,” Lumlas replied with a shudder; Zhanh just shrugged.

Shouldering his pack Edurin headed to the market to pick up on gossip. He showed interest in various wares picking through the common stuff and looking for unusual items. At least item unusual to him. Sonan Ie in the far east was so different than this northern land. Home had superior cloths of cottons, silks, rubberweed, and goat hair.
Wolf forged on thru the woods checking every little bit to be sure the Pup was following him. But now the heat and the long hours began to take a toll on Wolf’s stamina. He was tired!

He turned back and encouraged Mensa to follow him into a safe clump of brush and briars. He got a good drink from a nearby brook. Then after turning around three times to check the little refuge and make sure there were no hidden hazards or creatures, he gave Mensa’s healing wounds another good licking, and then lay down to rest. He offered his big side as a pillow for his friend, and dozed off.

Now that they had stopped, Mensa was able to take a long, strong examination of the wolf. Not only was it large, and not only did it smell remarkably like his brother, but it had the same habit of looking back at Mensa and getting nervous when Mensa would wander a bit off-trail. At one point, Mensa thought the wolf was going to grab him and drag him behind it, but it had only turned around. When it saw that Mensa was looking at it, and continued to follow, the wolf continued on its way. Mensa wasn’t at all sure what the wolf’s way actually was but he was curious to find out. Mensa did like mysteries, and he felt happy in his certainty that Grimmel — uh, the dwarf god — had given him back his brother. And in almost the same form that he had been before he’d gotten himself killed!

Not sleepy, Mensa looked about, wished this was a dark, cool cave, and decided to stay on watch for awhile. He wondered if the moss on the side of the tree there was good to eat.

Wen-Wen turned to Edurin, and while packing away the melted coin and hatchet on her belt, and getting a feel for the well-balanced pike, she invited him to resume speaking of their mission, before she turned to deal with the ogre.
Perry watched the exchange between Zhanh and Lumlas and began to think he should get a hat too. Of all the hats he had seen, the one he liked the look of best was called a top hat. ‘Tell me, Zhanh,’ he said conversationally as he ambled along the bank, glad to be relaxed, ‘do you have advice for me as to where I can find a good hatmaker?’
Zhanh blinked a few times at Perry’s question. “No,” he answered, “I’m afraid not. I have never been in one place long enough to learn who did anything best. And as I was just saying, I stumbled onto this hat. Any decent leather worker can make up any leather hat you want, though; I have never seen anyone who worked felt hats outside of a city.”
‘I shall not be hurrying back to cities. Perhaps there are advantages to leather. I wonder, Lumlas, if you like leather? Perhaps we should all get hats to mark our company. What say you, Gronk? A hat betwixt your horns would be a sight for sore eyes.’

Edurin looked through the firs for something exotic looking. He spoke to one seller, “Beautiful collection of furs. Your hunters must be proud, and the preparation to preserve the furs… I am impressed.” He smiled at Wen-Wen.

Gronk looked at Perry quizzically, then actually let out a snort that sounded almost like a laugh.

“Perry, Gronk not think a hat good idea for Gronk! But if Perry want to get tattoo, Gronk agree!” he indicated the tribal tattoos adorning his arms.

Perry pushed back his sleeve and replied ‘I shall have a bull head here’ and then he pulled up the other sleeve and added ‘and a wolf head here’. He paused then pointed behind. ‘If we see Mensa alive, I shall have a dwarf head too but I shan’t show you where. It can’t hurt as much as having an arrow head removed!’ he laughed.
Wolf dreamed. He was on the scent trail of a fat rabbit, then he was chasing it, but it ran into a thicket. Then there were voices and men and Wolf was frightened. It was very dark suddenly, and then there was a large one eyed man with a spear, and two large wolves with him. Wolf felt himself calmer at the sight. “Take care of the pack, big fellow,” said the large man, and there were tones of thunder in his voice. “Your friends are coming. Be patient. And watch the pup. He likes to explore.” The big man laughed again, and then he was gone. Wolf awoke, sat up, and shook himself fully awake.
Wolf’s sudden shaking surprised Mensa (who had been leaning against the soft pillowish doggy) and almost made him drop his moss sandwich. (Wasn’t that good anyway.) With a loud belch, he stood up and smoothed the fur of the puppy’s head. “Time to find other friends,” he said to the wolf.

Wagging his big tail, Wolf licked Mensa’s healing wounds again, and then started again on their journey, proceeding cautiously, alert to the possibility of small game (a snack) or danger.

“When this craziness over, Gronk and Perry get tattoos,” he gently patted his friend on the shoulder.

He then changed pace and fell in step next to Lumlas.

“You OK?” he asked her.

Lumlas looked at Gronk. “I like being in the woods; it reminds me of home. But I am worried about our friends. I will be glad when we find out what has happened to them.”
Perry brightened again and found a fallen branch. Snapping it to a length, he began whittling and whistling as he walked, glad to keep his hands busy.
Zhanh walked along warily, always making sure that the river was in sight to their left. He was less comfortable in the woods than any of his companion, and he was more concerned than they about getting lost.
“Gronk like woods, too, better than human places. Gronk worried about friends, too,” he said to Lumlas. “We will find them, one way or other. If filthy humans have them or hurt them, they will answer to Gronk.”

“Wulf gonna be OK. Gronk remember one fight when Wulf got all hairy and crazy and turned the tide of the battle almost by himself. Gronk was glad because it was getting pretty bad. Later, when Gronk and Wulf sat and rested to eat, Wulf asked Gronk to remember if Wulf ever killed, that Gronk should try to keep the body, and not let the enemy dismember, behead, or burn it. Do not bury it. Wulf said sometimes his kind could return from the dark kingdom of death. Gronk no understand, but Gronk remember. If Gronk find Wulf dead, we must get his body, try to bring him back. Then we get revenge on filthy humans.”

Edurin chatted with Wen-Wen as they strolled the Hunt Center, “Weslynn was looking to retrieve her family’s stolen wine. Apparently vampires stole the wine and turned her in the process. I don’t know why. Vampires can only feed on blood. Wine seems useless to them. Their actions seemed focused on securing a regular supply. At least that’s how my clan would do it. Adopt a business partner into the clan to enure loyalty.”

“That…monster made me mix the blood in the wine to be served to Weslynn myself. They can enjoy, I believe, blood-mixed beverages. Yet another of her torments for me. I am like them, you understand, a vampire, though incomplete, I was tricked in my making. I want to escape this place, carry on my savior’s mission, and find blood enough in battle or in gift to complete myself. I want to carry on her mission, to find what was taken from her, discover whatever is going on at Castle Greybat. My mistress had been there, but would never speak of it, and would be me whenever I made the mistake of bringing up that place. She was a part of something, and I want to screw over anyone that thing worked with, just to spite her more.”

With that Wen-Wen spat onto the dry earth of the market road.

Perry listened to Gronk’s words carefully. He felt still the resentment of the elf-hatred as well as the anger over anything that might have happened to his missing companions. He concentrated on his whittling rather than allw the black thoughts to cloud over him.

Satisfied with his work, he cast a small Call Flame spell  and presented the wand with the flame at the tip to Gronk as a present.

Gronk smiled as he accepted Perry’s gift, and again patted his friend softly on the shoulder.

“Gronk like fire-stick!” he swirled it around gently like a child with a sparkler. “Thank you.”

“Gronk love his elf-friends. Gronk will die to keep his elf-friends safe.” He looked each of his three companions in the eyes in turn to demonstrate his sincerity in his commitment. “Elfs are Gronk’s family now.”

He turned his eyes to Lumlas again, looked deeply within them for more than a few moments, and smiled.

Lumlas smiled back at Gronk. Somewhere in the back of her mind she could hear her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother warning her about minotaurs, but she couldn’t remember the details. And it really didn’t matter; Gronk was her friend.
Edurin stopped to listen looking into Wen-Wen’s eyes, “Maybe we should be talking in a more private place. But before we isolate ourselves, which hunters would bring in the best pelts?”

As Edurin and Wen-Wen walked around they overheard some comments:

“Buncha monsters invaded town last night.”
“They killed some our finest citizens.”
“We bravely killed most of them and scattered the others.”
“Would you like fries with that?”

“The best hunters? That would be the Trehelm twins, Van and Vin. Tis said if it has hooves, if they cross it’s trail, it’s pelt will end up on the drying racks within the week.”

The Fur trader was glad to tell his tale: “We went down to the river late last night as a group to teach those $%#@ elves and their friends a lesson. One of our archers killed the &()%$ Minotaur with an arrow in the chest, but then a Wolfman came howling down the street and attacked us from the rear. At the same time some %$#@ing elf cast a stinker on us. We were kinda messed up for a while, but we took out the Wolf guy. The b*st*rd killed three of our good citizens and wounded several others before he died. Then this nutcake Dwarf killed a man, but we drove him off too. And, can you believe it, a tall one-eyed guy with a big spear threw the Wolfman’s body into the river before we could behead it and burn the rest. That makes me worry; my granny told me those $%#@ things can come back on you unless you dispose of them, like those bloodsuckers from the @#$%ing castle. Say, look at these lovely Mink furs here. Ladies in Khazan will pay good money for fine furs like these. Whaddya say?”

Wen-Wen whispered to Edurin that this guy shorts the tanning process, using some powder to negate the stink and quickdry them, as well as slicing the hides too thin, so the hides don’t last like they should, the other guy across the square has better furs.

Meanwhile, back on the riverbank…

Gronk caught an unexpected scent drifting on the breeze. He recognised it immediately as human. The winds next carried a faint sound – vocal and not happy: someone was close by.

The ‘someone’ must have sensed the nearness of the Fellowship members. The next moment footsteps could be heard receding rapidly from the travelers. “Has no one searched the river for the wolfman? I understand your concern…” Edurin pulled away and guided Wen-Wen by the arm to a quieter location. “Sadly, I will have to visit the Trehelm twins later. Captain Blotar headed out to recover the Nainvvar, but not everyone was on the boat. I was a fool to think everyone stayed aboard after Weslynn came to the inn.”

Edurin headed off down river assuming Wen-Wen would join him. Her desire for revenge would need a well armed party, and his group seemed to be best equipped.

Edurin hoped Gronk still lived, and worried he might only find Wulf’s body. What little he knew of shapeshifters, Edurin knew they died just as simply as common men. Shapeshifters healed faster and were great survivors. Their animal selves granted advantages in the wilderness.

Then there was Mensa. Was he even still alive? Would he live long in the wilderness without someone to watch his back? Too many questions and no answers. As much as Edurin wanted to return to Samurai Kighe a hero, he couldn’t do it by stepping over the bodies of fellow foreigners.

Wolf continued his slow careful progress down river using his sensitive wolf nose, ears, and eyes to check for danger, and to look for any game that might serve as a meal for him and the pup. He also periodically would turn and inspect Mensa’s wounds, and lick those that looked like they might be getting infected.

“Hey! HEY!!” shouted Mensa, putting his hands up to block the Wolf. “DON’T TICKLE!!” It was hard to sound authoritative while giggling like a little girl. He spotted a lizard running up a tree and tried to break free to spear it.

Wolf misunderstood Mensa’s actions and thought he wanted to play. He took the Dwarf down, and proceeded to lick his face. He was glad that Mensa seemed to be feeling better.

Wen-Wen followed Edurin closely, out of the marketplace, and downriver.

Perry turned to his companions and asked them if they would like to be dressed in keeping for this part of the world. ‘I have a spell which will give us the appearance of these men. It lasts an hour but I can recast it easily enough. If the three of us had such a look we could, if approached, claim that we have captured Gronk. See what you think.’

So saying, Perry cast Haute-Couture and instantly was garbed as a hunter, in keeping with what they had seen in Hunt Center.

“Perry have good idea. Gronk play along, act captured.”

Zhanh smiled and shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

Lumlas hesitated. She LIKED the way she looked. Or at least she did, three days ago, when she had had a recent bath, and her clothes were clean. “I don’t imagine it could hurt, Perry. It sounds like a good plan.”

A river breeze tickled Wolf’s nostrils. Was that cow he smelled? No, bull! No, minotaur! How did he know it was minotaur? And elves! Definitely elves. Not that far up ahead.

His instincts told him to slip into the forest and disappear, but something else told him he wanted to see this group. He forgot about Pup for a moment and broke into a trot.

Suddenly, a huge wolf appeared on the trail in front of Gronk, Perry, Zhanh, and Lumlas.

Edurin set a good pace and Wen Wen struggled to keep up with him.

“You know, this isn’t safe,” she gasped. “You are taking us into the territory of the river goblins.”

“Yes, they’re bad news, Edurin! We should go another way.”

Zhanh saw the wolf coming and muttered, “Sanctified excrement!” He prepared himself to cast a TTYF, but said out loud, “Don’t do anything aggressive or make any sudden moves. If we’re lucky it will try to bluff us away, and I’m good with that.”

Lumlas muttered, “No sudden moves, right. Can I whimper?”

Mensa started when the wolf (Wulf? Wolf?) spun about and rushed into the forest. “Stop! Wolf, STOP!” If this really was his brother, the last time he had rushed into battle, he’d turned into a wolf and was stuck in that form. Mensa HAD to prevent that from.happening again! Who knew.what Wulf.would become THIS time? Or if he would even survive once more?

Wolf stopped at a safe distance (to him) from the group. The huge wolf was in an alert and ready to fight or flee posture, but seemed more anxious and excited than angry or aggressive. He sniffed frantically at the group, trying to sort out the different familiar scents. His attention seemed to be most focussed on Gronk. As old human dreams and memories struggled to the suface of his sentience, he began to whine and wag his big tail, and relaxed his stiff legged tail and ears erect stance. Why did he want to run to the Bull Man and lick him? He had been in the same pack as this group. What odd looking wolves they were! He waited for Mensa to catch up, and for the group to respond to him.

Perry stood stock still and kept his eyes fixed on the wolf. He readied his web spell. He doubted a wolf would attack with a minotaur present and sensed something out of the ordinary. He used his talent in an attempt to read the wolf’s intentions. He had been able to do this with some creatures during the course of his forest upbringing but had never before tried this with such a large predator. (Rolls 1, 3 – makes L3).

“No move, elves!” Gronk ordered. Something smelled familiar about this wolf. “Wait here,” he told the elves.

He laid his axe on the ground and slowly approached the wolf with his empty hands outstretched.

“Gronk thinks he knows this wolf.”

Crashing into the clearing, Mensa spotted (some of) his missing friends and shouted: “Gronk! No hurt Wolf! He smelled something and chased it!!”

‘Mensa! You’re alive!’ Perry gaped at the dwarf. ‘But you’re hurt! What did they do to you? And Wulf…?’ He looked from Mensa to the wolf and back again. ‘Is it…? Can it be?’

“Mensa! Gronk’s little friend is OK!”

He let the wolf smell his hand and then patted him on the head.

“Poor Wulf,” he said. “Gronk think he know what happened. One cold, nasty winter night, Wulf, Gronk, and Fat Bob huddled together in a crappy shelter to hide from rain. Bob was asleep, but his teeth chattered. Gronk no like him, but he helped keep us warm.

Gronk say to Wulf, why you not go to Wolf tonight. Wolf got warm fur.

Wulf smiled and said ‘If I give this body completely to the wolf he won’t ever give it back to me.’

Gronk say why, you no in charge?

‘To give all to the wolf is much like dying,’ said Wulf. ‘Man sometimes can accept death. But wolf have no religion or philosophy for comfort. He only sees extinction in the surrender. So he won’t give it back. It is like death to him. That is why my people do not give over to the wolf except when there is no choice.’

Gronk think Wolf is friend Wulf. Smells like friend Wulf.”

Although Wolf couldn’t really grasp all the meaning of the words these new people were saying, he was now really excited. He recognized Gronk and Perry, and saw Zhanh and Lumlas as not-enemies. He cautiously approached Gronk and sniffed, and then licked the Bull Man’s hand, all the while making little wolf noises of excitement and joy. He felt safe enough now to let Pup approach the group.
After establishing wolf friend relationship with Gronk, the huge wolf went cautiously to Perry to sniff and lick a profferred hand, then to Zhahn, and finally to Lumlas. He did not seem to like to have his head and ears rubbed though, and responded by taking the rubber’s hand gently in his big jaws. This was wolf behavior to greet and show respect to equals, though they mouthed the muzzles of other wolves, Wolf felt his mouthing of friend’s hands would have to do here. Having made the round of the pack members he then immediately returned to check on the pup.
Gronk picked up Mensa and swung him around.

“Gronk happy to see ugly little dwarf-friend!”

He put his friend down gently.

“Tell Gronk and elf-friends what happened to Wulf and you. Does Mensa know where Weslynn and Edurin are?”

Wolf gave Gronk a reproving look as he hurried to see if the pup was OK, but relaxed when he saw that no harm had been done.

Mensa looked puzzled. “Wesleywin not with you?” He scratched his head. “Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh–She meeting with fat ugly lady at tavern. Wulf and me, we run to help you. Whineywest stay at bar & grill.”
There seemed to be something else, but he couldn’t remem – Wait! He got it!
“Wulf change to wolf and humans hamburger him. But him escape – Great Grimmelgrissp save him! But now Wulf stuck as Wolf and not know how to unstuck.” Sadly, h petted his big brother, and wondered if one of his helmets would fit Wolf.

Wolf nuzzled the Dwarf’s friendly hand, and then nervously inspected the healing wounds on his torso for the umpty-umpth time that day.

“No tickle..Mensa fine, Wolf. See?” The little dwarf opened his shirt to show the scabbed-over wounds, knocking his pack and weapons off his back.

“Oops.” Mensa began picking everything up.

Gronk’s gaze hardened.

“Humans killed Wulf? Wulf changed forever, he never come back, little friend.”

Gronk knelt down in front of the wolf and scratched him beneath the chin.

“Gronk want to burn town to the ground, wolf-friend. Gronk want vengeance. But Gronk must protect Mensa and elves now, and wolf must help.”

He turned to his elfin companions.

“If Wulf was killed, and Mensa almost, too, we must wonder if Weslynn and Edurin alive. Do we return to town to find out, or head to castle? Gronk’s blood boil to kill humans.”

Mensa’s eyes tightened. “Sounds good,” and his voice had ice that they’d never imagined from the dwarf.

Then his eyes widened. There was something he had heard, something he was supposed to remember:
“We need more power. Must have more strength. Percy knows where we find magic. Wolf know where we find beasts, fight with us. We find monsters, bring them on town.
“Punish all humans,” he growled.

Zhanh shook his head in amazement. “That answers some of it, at least. Don’t get dressed so quickly, Mensa; Lumlas and I should be able to heal your wounds pretty much completely at this point.” He thought for a moment. “I would still like to try to find out what happened to Weslynn and Edurin. We should be able to get to the edge of town and do some minor scouting under a Hidey-Hole, maybe find someone who will talk to us.”

Lumlas was wary of Wolf, but hugged Mensa fiercely. “We wondered if we would ever see you again, Mensa. I’m so glad you found us.”

Wolf is still wound up trying to stay close to Gronk and to Mensa at the same time. After noting Lumlas warm response to Mensa he has decided the she elf is OK now. In addition to worrying about the pup and the next feeding, he now begins to keep a sharp nose, ears, and eyes on the surrounding woods so no one or no thing sneaks up on his pack family.

Mensa blushed.

Perry wanted to pet the wolf but thought better of it. He held out an open hand to the great beast. He glanced over at the two elves and asked if they would like to have the clothes disguise spell done while pondering Gronk and Mensa’s intentions. Having listened carefully to Zhanh, he now felt yo-yo’d again by these very different sentiments.He sighed and shook his head vigorously.

By the time everyone had gotten over the appearance of Mensa and the wolf that Gronk thought was Wulf, the sun was getting low in the west. It took even more time to heal the wounded Dwarf. The group decided that the best thing they could do was camp for the evening. That would give them a chance to exchange stories. Luckily Zhanh had brought enough food to feed everyone, even the wolf. However, when people started to settle down, Wolf slipped into the underbrush and went hunting on his own.

Just as they got the evening fire going, Gronk, who was on guard, heard the voices of humans in the distance. Wolf also perked up his ears. The big bull set off down the trail to see who was coming.
He was pleasantly surprised to learn that the newcomer was none other than Edurin, who was accompanied by some strange woman that wasn’t Weslyn. Gronk thought he remembered her from supper the night before.
Wen Wen was saying that she didn’t think the river goblins usually came this close to HuntCenter. Edurin was looking around for a place to camp. Wolf didn’t know whether he wanted to wag his tail or growl at them.

Wolf recognized Edurin and his scent and was inclined to give him the status of not-an-enemy, but the strange woman had no familiar scent and also had a disturbing smell that made Wolf think of someone in the recent past that bit him. His instincts were not inclined to trust this new she human and the big wolf did not respond in a very friendly way, trying to keep between her and Mensa. He did not growl or display his awesome teeth, but his demeanor was definitely one that said “I’m watching you, so be careful!”
Wen-Wen stopped, staring at the wolf, who by his stance was clearly on edge, and then stared further at the minotaur. “Edurin, are these your companions?”

Gronk extended a hand to shake with Edurin.

“Gronk happy to see Edurin alive. Where is Weslynn, and who is this?”

Perry bowed to Edurin and smiled warmly. He turned to the stranger and watched her closely before extending a greeting. ‘My name is Perry. I have experienced difficult times of late and hope that you are a sign that a lucky star will shine over us all this night. Please tell us your tale.’

“My name is Wen-Wen,” she bowed lightly, “I was the unwilling servant of the innkeeper, she who was slain by Weslynn.”

She raises Weslynn’s pike and hatchet, “She did not survive the destroying of my vampire maker, as she was cruelly struck down from behind by the Ogre guardsman.”

“I was tricked by my former Mistress. She offered to turn me into a vampire, like her and Weslynn, in exchange for serving her as her servant until the transformation was complete. She mixed her blood with mine, but she tricked me, diluting her blood with that of a mortal, so unlike say Weslynn my transformation has taken ten long years. I cannot complete myself without blood to feed upon, and she ordered me to consume none. When I protested, even against the blood bond, my treatment she further reinforced my slavery with bonds of sorcery. When Weslynn struck her down, like an ancient hero from the tales, I was finally freed. I am sorry I could not save her from the ogre. I have nothing for me here except for bitter memories. My former Mistress knew some of Weslynn’s fate from the man who sold her the wine, and of course she met her at the inn last night, heard you talk, and spoke to Edurin, and I heard much of this. I know you are headed to Castle Greybat, on a quest, and I ask you all to allow me to accompany you, to take up my savior’s quest in her place. Allow me to complete myself with blood, lore, and training and I will fight to protect and aid you all, as I couldn’t for her, as loyally as she would have done.”

She stopped then, alarmed slightly at the desperate words gushing from her, and she stared at the muddy ground at her feet.

Mensa WANTED to like her. There was something sorrowful about her, and he pitied her. But he had to ask:

“Why would she WANT to be turned into bloodsucker?”

The blood-tainted woman sighed, and looked up at the little dwarf. “I knew her for some time, she was powerful and strong, she showed me the magics she could perform, her strength, and her grace. She showed me her beauty, and her unnatural senses. She seduced me with immortality and power. After a time of her…teasing, I felt being just a tavern wench wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be like her, wanted to serve her, and become like her, and serve her masters too. After a time, she pretended to ‘give in’ and agree to transform me.”

Her face transformed then from wistful to harsh, her small-boned face losing it’s prettiness to become hatchetlike as she frowned. “I was played like a child. Tricked. After I was ensnared she told me how amusing it was to watch me scrub her smallclothes, her baby vampire, never to mature. She took great delight in telling me how it was a scheme she created on a slow evening as a lark. Just because she could, she destroyed me.”

Gronk snorted.

“Another bloodsucker. Why did Weslynn give her life for you? Gronk no understand, Weslynn know you before?”

“She met me at supper earlier, that’s all. I can only imagine she found my former mistress to be as abhorrent as I did, as she gloated over her portion of her stolen wine.”

Wolf lay back from the fire where he could keep an eye on Pup and Bull Man and the strange new she human. As he licked the last traces of the possum he had eaten off his jaws and paws, he perked up noticeably when Wen-Wen changed in appearance. Wolf no longer really understood language and its subtleties now, though some words had associations for him. He was very alert to each person’s body language though, and was strongly empathic where other creatures were involved.

“Your mistress had Weslynn’s wine? That explains much. Gronk no lie, Gronk not like bloodsuckers. Weslynn bit Wulf, Gronk get angry. Gronk not going to like if you bite Gronk’s friends, understand?”

His grip tightened on his axe hilt.

“She bought a portion of it off the thief as he paused here on his way upriver to the castle. As for biting your friends…I would not do so without their permission.” She looked down at the ground again.

“I am fangless now, anyway, until I have drunk blood enough.” She seemed reluctant to meet Gronk’s hostility head on.

Gronk could smell the timidity on her. She didn’t seem as much the threat as Weslynn did, but Gronk wasn’t taking any chances.

“Gronk will trust you until you give him reason not to. But cross Gronk’s trust, and you will pay. Fair?”

The former serving wench seemed quite cowed by the minotaur’s bearing and tone, and kept her gaze firmly fixed on the ground, only daring to nod her head affirmatively in reply.

Gronk felt the young girl’s fear, and felt a little guilty. He reached out to Wen-Wen, took her chin and gently lifted her face.

“No worries, you going to be OK.”

She shivered at his unexpected touch, then stopped at his gentleness, and met his eyes, and smiled at him, though still a bit uncertainly.

“Thank you.”

.

Wolf decided the new she human was not a threat to him or the Pup. As the others lay down to rest, he got up and disappeared silently into the woods again. Having had a good nap, he was not sleepy, and he felt like he should scout the camp area to make sure there were no enemies or other threats lurking in the woods there. His big nose and ears busy, he skulked silently from bush to bush all around the campsite. And if he should come upon some careless small furry creature, a little snack would not be unwelcome either.

As Wolf trotted off into the woods, Wen-Wen introduced herself to the rest of the group, seeking to get to know them, and make her situation known, and hopefully find herself a place here where she could find a new beginning and attain that which had been long denied her. Though she spoke to all of the group members, she was obviously keeping an eye on the three elves, as though shewais afraid they might turn on her, though not quite in the same manner as she was careful around Gronk.

Mensa pointed a stubby forefinger at her. “No bite Wolf!” He wasn’t going to stand for that again!

Perry took his pack off his back and pulled out a small wooden box. It had an eye carved into its lid, stained with some red juice – berry, perhaps. He carefully lifted the lid and reverentially lifted out the contents. It was a pack of cards bearing the same unblinking eye on the top side. ‘Perhaps, Mistress Wen-Wen you would care to see what your future may behold now you have joined the Fellowship of the Vine?’ He beckoned the girl to sit in front of him.

Mensa tried cleaning the wax out of his ears (and dumping it all in a pile at his feet) — He’d have sworn he heard the Percy-elf call them “Fellowship of the Vine” and he thought they had always been “Fellowship of the Whine.”

Zhanh offered his hand to Wen-Wen. “I was willing to offer friendship to a vampire I didn’t know well two days ago, I might as well do the same thing again.” When she hesitated, he sighed. “You’ve been raised to hate elves, haven’t you? You need to get over that; you don’t live in Hunt Center anymore.”

Lumlas approached Wen-Wen more carefully. “I made friends with Weslynn without knowing what she was, and felt betrayed when she told us, but she was still my friend. If I can be a friend to one vampire, I can be a friend to another, and we all need friends right now.”

Seeing that this was the Proper Thing to Do, and not wishing to be outclassed by elves, Mensa stuck out his hand too – the little finger being covered with earwax – and muttered “Just Don’t Bite Wolf. Ever!”

Wolf returned from his patrol of the woods, chewing on some poor careless small furry animal that had not seen him in time. He swallowed his snack, then made rounds of all present for a sniff and a wag, including Wen-Wen.

In their joy at being re-united, and under the heavy cover of the forest canopy, no one paid much attention to the weather. They noticed it was getting dark, and made camp–got a little campfire going–ate a bit more of the provisions Zhanh had carried off the Nain Evver. Subconsciously, the elves noticed that the wind was picking up, and felt a little cooler, but they didn’t really think about it until the first raindrops hits the leaves overhead and began to trickle through. The fire started hissing with every impact, and the downpour got stronger and stronger.

Gronk looked to the sky and raindrops pelted his face.

“Maybe we try to find shelter. Gronk think it too late to try to build shelter.”

She looked to the little dwarf Mensa and a look of bafflement crossed her face. “Bite wolf? That wolf? Whoever would do that?” Clearly that seemed supremely unsafe to her.

Wen-Wen looked uncomfortable at the subject of Hunt Center and elves being brought up. “I am not from Hun Ccenter. The only elves I’ve met who behaved like that are those elves. The townsfolk do as much to provoke them, as they do in return. I do not know where that feud started. Please don’t hold me responsible for their stupidity. I know they came down here last night in a great big mob of fools to try to kill you all.” She bowed her head again submissively.

“I would care to learn my fortune, good elf, if you will not hold my former place of enslavement against me. And thank you all for your offers of friendship. Clearly Weslynn has left a place of welcome for one of my kind, I will do my best to make her ghost proud and repay your welcome.”

.

“Do you have any idea of where we might look for shelter, Gronk? All I see is trees; if we move away from the river, we will just get lost, I think.” He pulled his hat closer over his eyes. “I DO have a five by eight tarp, but that will not do very much for all of us.”

“Gronk not sure, Zhanh. Friends all together again, so no need to move towards town anymore. Maybe we should start moving along river towards castle and see what we find. Or we could stay here in the rain. Gronk spent many nights in rain, Gronk be OK. What rest of you want to do?”

Wen-Wen moved along with the rest under the shelter of the nearest heavy branches for the shelter it would offer, while they discussed more long term plans.

After listening to all the talk about shelter, it finally dawned on Mensa. “It’s raining?”

‘When we are safe and warm, I will attempt to read your fate, Wen-Wen,’ Perry said whilst putting the cards away. He cast a Magick Umbrella spell and turned to Mensa. ‘Want to play hide and seek with the rain? Stand next to me and you will stay dry – poke your head out and you’ll get your head wet. Come try!’

Gronk snorted a laugh at Perry’s spell.

“Zhanh, maybe we can string up tarp for Lumlas and Wen-Wen and you and Edurin. Mensa can share Perry’s spell. I think Wolf and me OK in rain, soldiers used to harsh weather. If all really want, Gronk chop down some small trees and we make a lean-to and use tarp to extend roof. Gronk think building not smart because we no stay here more than one night, too dangerous. Or we can start travel towards castle now and see if we find shelter for rest along the way.”

“I’m game to keep walking,” Zhanh said, “But visibility is getting bad.”

Lumlas said, “If we have a way to get out of the rain, I am all for it.”

Wen-Wen dripped, sadly, her clothes wet through, as well as her tied bundle of clothing on her back.

Mensa gave Wolf a hug, “C’mon, brother. We go now.” He slapped Lumlas on the back. “Is only rain. We be fine!”

And, yes, Mensa had thoroughly enjoyed playing with ducking his head into the rain, then back under the umbrella. At some point, he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to play with magic, and stepped away.

Perry suggested he cast some Jeeves to carry the tarp over their heads. ‘I like to be useful with my magic. it makes me feel less sick about those men in the nets.’ His face turned ashen at the thought

“What men with nets, Barry?” asked Mensa. “Butterfly hunters?”

Wolf woke up when it began to sprinkle, and moved his big self under the nearest tree. Then he watched with some interest and puzzlement as the the group fooled around in the rain. He shook himself off, and called softly to the Pup to come join him.

Mensa was not surprised to hear Wolf call to him, nor was it surprising that he heard him in Wulf’s voice.

Wolf gave Pup a friendly face lick, and waited for the group to do something. If they stayed here, he was comfortable under the tree, and, if they left, he would go with them. Rain did not bother him much, though it made it hard to smell things. He was probably in need of a bath anyway.

Lumlas tripped and stumbled in the mud. While Gronk helped her back to her feet, she shouted, “Zhanh! If you have way to get us some shelter, now would be a GOOD time!”

Zhanh shrugged and looked for a large tree, then dropped his pack and pulled out a large bundle. In a few minutes he had the tarp slung downwind from the tree. It formed a slightly peaked shelter that was about five feet high at the tree and about three feet high at the far end, anchored to the tree at one end and by three taut ropes at the other. “I think that if we sit back to back along the center line, we can all crowd in there and have everything but our legs out of the rain,” he said.

Zhanh managed to set up his tarp to form a bit of shelter. Perry managed to keep an umbrella spell working. But the storm grew more powerful. It became difficult to talk over the roaring of the wind. The trees bent and lashed under the force of the elements. Though the forest canopy stopped 90% of the falling water, the 10% that got through was more than enough to drench the adventurers to the bone.

The group huddled together with the women on the inside and the men on the outside. The minotaur was a great help. His natural body heat helped keep the party from getting too cold. Even so, they were all wet and miserable, with the exception of Wolf. It was just rain to him. He found a spot under a bush and curled up to wait it out.

Do you know who loves storms and wetness in general?

Goblins!

The river goblin territory lay between the elven territory and the town’s territory. Knowing that a 2-day storm was coming, the goblins of Veel’s clan made preparations for a raid. This was the perfect opportunity to sneak up on Hunt Center and carry off every loose item they could find. The humans would be huddling inside their wooden caves.

Clad in frog skins and sometimes nothing at all, carrying light spears, tridents, and stone knives, thirty goblins made their way through the forest toward the town of Hunt Center. They spread out on both sides of the path that ran along the river bank. Accustomed to moving through the woods, they moved almost silently, gestures being enough to direct squads this way and that. When they found the canoes tied up on the riverbank, they knew that humans must be nearby in their forests. When they heard the voices of the adventurers, they drew back and planned their next move.

Two goblin scouts slithered their way through the forest to check on the intruders. Of course, the goblins planned to attack. Non-goblins were in their forest–it was the perfect opportunity. The scouts approached without being seen, and lay hidden in the darkness no more than ten yards from the party. They had moved to be downwind on their approach, and not even the wolf’s keen nostrils would catch their scent in this storm.

The scouts were surprised and unhappy to notice that the intruders included a minotaur, a wolf, a dwarf, and some elves. They had been hoping for a few unhappy human boatmen. But they hid their disappointment and crept off to report to Veel.

Wen-Wen huddled against her new friends, trying to keep warm in the wet, desperately wishing she had a good cloak at least.

Veel, the goblin chieftain, considered the opportunity carefully. A head-on attack against a party that contained a minotaur, and a wolf could be fatal. There were rich pickings to be had if he could get to them. He thought and thought and thought until he thought he had a plan.

They would wait until the middle of the night. When the tired adventurers were at their worst, asleep and wet and stiffening up, that is when his goblins would attack. Slash the ropes holding the tarp to the trees. Wound the wolf with spear jabs from above. Get goblins into the trees above them and hit the disoriented people with spears and tridents out of the darkness. Show a couple of goblins and try to get the warriors to chase them. Yes, this would be Veel’s greatest triumph. He grinned a sneaky goblin grin.

Lumlas had fallen asleep, as had a few others. Zhanh had the nagging feeling that some sort of watch should be kept, but why bother? They had a wolf. Surely it would warn them if anything wrong should happen.

Lumlas’s dream was as miserable as her waking had been recently. In the dream she was wet and cold, and huddled in a dark place. Something was watching her–she knew it, she could feel it, but she couldn’t see it. Then she saw the eyes. Lots of greenish yellow eyes glaring at her.

Edurin greeted his friends. He let Wen-Wen talk for herself. He added his own experience into the story, “I heard a commotion, and arrived in the main room in time to see Weslynn slay Shannazan. Her ogre-bouncer in turn killed Weslynn. There was little else to do after they both died.”

He took out a morsel of food and left it nearby for the wolf. He had never seen such a tame wolf… He was comfortable around wolves. They were such reliable creatures, consistent, and persistent. He would have to ask Gronk and Mensa about it some more.

As the storm broke, he reminded the others, “WenWen says this is river goblin territory, we should set watches. Wen-Wen and I have got the best sleep last night. We had a bed and roof. I’ll wake the next shift when I tire.”

Zhanh pulled his blanket out of his pack and gave it to Lumlas and Wen-Wen to share, then huddled in his coat as best he could. He had been through worse in storms at sea, but he was still unhappy. He decided to try singing a goblin lullaby; he didn’t think anyone would hear him enough over the storm to bother anyone, and it reminded him of home.

(In goblin)
The goblins come a hunting through the darkness of the night;
they’ll steal your food and money, and your shoelaces for spite.
The goblins are so clever as they sneak and slink and steal,
And if you chance to see them you will wonder if they’re real.
Oh, the goblins are so sneaky, and the goblins are so smart,
And it’s good to be a goblin with a clever goblin heart.”

“Thank you, Zhanh, for the blanket.” Wen-Wen wrapped herself in the blanket, and much more comfortable, stood by Edurin, and inquired about watches. “How many? How long? Should I watch with you, or take a later turn?”

She seemed surprisingly eager to contribute to the daily chores, as they were, considering she was both drenched and under dressed.

Awakened by Zhahn’s singing, and Edurin’s comments. Wolf got quietly up and started one of his look around the camp area skulks, pausing briefly to mark an occasional tree to say ‘Wolf was here’. His wolfish instincts were giving him a little buzz, but he did not know why. Never a bad idea to have a quick look about. There might even be another gopher out looking for food in the dark.

“Wen-Wen stay alert as long as possible. I want to give everyone else the most rest. Gronk and Mensa, it would be good if you could nap and rest up. Neither of you look so great. I will wake you up when I grow tired.”

He looked at Wen-Wen, “Tomorrow you’ll need to return home to pick up your and Weslynn’s gear.”

Gronk tried his best to allow the others most of the shelter, the rain didn’t bother him much. He figured, once you’re wet, you’re already wet. He positioned himself at the more opened end of the shelter to help provide warmth and further shelter from the rain to the others. Knowing Wolf, Edurin, and Wen-Wen were keeping watch, he allowed himself to doze off, but he kept his axe on his lap and in hand.

“Edurin I am carrying everything I own, and what is left of Weslynn’s gear. The ogre was making noises about burning her and my ex-mistress.”

Lumlas tossed and turned in her sleep, but didn’t wake up. Zhanh’s goblin lullaby actually seemed to frighten her. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, but she slept on.

Wolf circled the camp, alert for anything in the way that only a wolf could be alert. The rain was really coming down hard now, and the wind had died away.

Mensa had been under the bush, resting his head on Wolf. “Just rain,” he’d been saying to Wolf. “Elves never saw rain before? Pfui!”
He must have dozed off because he jerked awake when Wolf stirred. “What is it, brother?” he asked.

Mensa was probably leaning against Gronk. Wolf is out in the woods somewhere skulking around to see if there is anything unusual or edible there. (He had to pee too).

Since Wolf had not answered him (“And why NOT?” wondered Mensa.) the concerned dwarf splashed his one-horned helmet on and stealthily slipped in the mud. Picking himself up, he followed his brother into the swampy yecch.

Wolf circled the camp, winding in and out among the trees and bushes. In one place he thought he smelled frog–not too uncommon a scent this close to a river, but the scent was kind of old. Certainly no frogs were hopping around.

Then he heard a howl–sounded like a wolf, but a very sickly one, somewhere inland perhaps half a mile away. Wolf didn’t think in terms of miles, but he knew the howl was not too close, but not too far for him to trot off and investigate it.

.

Wen-Wen saw Wolf get up and trot into the forest. She didn’t worry about it. He had been doing that for hours. Then she saw Mensa get up and follow Wolf into the trees. She looked at Edurin to see what to do, but the handsome sailor had fallen asleep. She was the only one awake at the moment.

Veel chortled over his plan. He only hoped the fake wolf howl would lure the animal away from the group. The rest of the group had come up to about 20 yards from the campsite, and now waited in the lower limbs of the trees. It was the most excellent kind of forest–one where the tree limbs interpenetrated and a nimble goblin could move from one tree to the next with little difficulty. The branches were slippery in the rain, but goblins were used to it. They knew just when to slide on a branch and when to jump to the next.

The hoot of an owl alerted him that something unexpected had happened. Veel quickly moved to that point in the circle, and his scout indicated something blundering through the underbrush–something not much bigger than a goblin, but somewhat sturdier. Of course, it had to be the dwarf. Veel wondered if there might be some way to capture him. Having a pet dwarf could be fun for a while.

Wolf debated in his wolfish mind whether to answer the howl, but his wolf memory and instinct reminded him that he was a sojourner here in these unfamiliar woods, and he might draw undesired attention if he sounded his presence here. And he remembered there was a large bear creature in this area which he had no desire to meet again.

Edurin dreamed:

Desolate Retreat
Image of home rain and stone
Goblins skulk in shadows

“Edurin, wake up!” Wen-Wen shook the sailor awake. “That wolf and the little dwarf have crept off into the woods suddenly. I do not like this.”

She stood and turned around, looking for something out of place in the wet forest, cursing her merely mortal senses, save for the scent of blood that teased her constantly.

“Should we wake the others, Edurin?” Wen-Wen continued looking around in the dark rain, feeling almost more exposed now than she did being compelled to entertain some stranger in the night.

Wolf knew better than to howl in return, but he wanted to find out who the other wolf was, and why it would howl on a night like this. In his single-minded wolf fashion he began to trot in the direction of the howl. As he made his way through unfamiliar forest he heard the other howl again. It as a very weak howl–perhaps the other wolf was hurt or dying. He corrected his path and moved a bit more swiftly.

“Huh? What?” Zhanh said sleepily. He looked around sleepily and saw that Wen-Wen was standing, He wondered what had gone wrong this time.
 
Wen-Wen turned to the elf was was waking up. “The big wolf ran off into the forest again, like he had been doing all night, and then the little dwarf ran off after him, he seemed upset, he was so upset that he slipped and fell, picked himself up, and kept running, without a word to me.”
 
Zhanh scowled, and then smiled. “Mensa does that. If he is already out of sight, there is no chance we will find him without clear skies and daylight. The wolf will bring him back, though, if nothing awful happens.” He struggled to see Wen-Wen more clearly through the rain and the darkness. “Does cold bother… people with your condition? The same way it bothers the rest of us?”
 

Wen-Wen reflexively clutched the soaked blanket Zanh loaned her closer around herself. “Right now, I feel the cold as much as anyone, if I were complete then not as much, and the older and stronger the vampire, the less such mundane things bother them, I have been told. Certainly that hellion at the inn did not bother to bundle up at night during the winter, even when it was a howling blizzard outside, and ice covered the windows.”

She sighs. “If only I had the blood. Ten years of cooking meals for the inn, ten years of burning my meat black, on her compulsion, so that I might not get a drop of blood that way, nor was I allowed to sample the raw meat. Ten years craving it. I thirst for it like they do, curse her. Ten years!”

And Perry slept on…Edurin woke with a start. “Wha… Huh?!?” He shook is head taking in Wen-Wen’s worried face. “Thanks…”

He was more than a little upset. Last he remembered was standing guard. Aboard ship, sleeping during a squall would be fatal. He got up, pulled his blanket over head as a simple cloak, and took to circling the camp site weapon in hand looking outward for movement. He would be wet, but no different than aboard ship during a squall.

He wondered if river goblins were any different than the mountain goblins back home. He spent a lot of his youth wandering the highlands of the Desolate Retreat. A lot of weapon practice conducted while facing mountain goblins. Mountain goblins liked to hide in the rocks or a top cliffs. No rocks here… Enough trees to worry about.

He scanned the tree tops irregularly. He used his spear to tap out a simple time rhythm to track the minutes.

As midnight approached the rain slackened to a steady drizzle. Clouds overhead obscured the sky–very little moonlight or starlight got through them. The night was as dark and as damp as it could be. Even with their enhanced darkness vision, people were little more than darker shapes in the obscurity.
Edurin got up and started staggering around like a guard. It wasn’t like they had a natural clearing or a campfire to defend–just a wide spot in the trail and a tarp tied to a couple of trees.
Gronk awoke just as the goblins made their attack.
Some 400 yards from the camp Wolf reached the ambush site. He had just decided to quit chasing the howls when something dropped down out of a tree behind him, and jabbed at him with a spear. He had a moment of regret that he could be taken unawares in this fashion, and then the barrage began. Four flint knives came at him out of the darkness, and he heard the high-pitches shriek of goblins on the attack.
(Wolf, make a L4SR on either SPD, DEX. or Luck–your choice, and then tell me what you attempt to do when you become aware of the attack.)
 make a SR on my 18 speed and of course I missed it -less than a 5% chance to score here. Sigh.))
Wolf, at the first sign of surprise attack, did what any wood wise creature and predator would do. He made a valiant effort to get away from the attackers (Speed 18; Agility 16), and he then panicked at the thought that his pack might be in danger. (If anything gets in his way, he will bite it with a great deal of prejudice, but his primary concern now is that the pup and the pack may be in danger, and he will high tail it back to camp as soon as the opportunity presents itself. I am willing to wager the Goblins can’t run as fast as he can.)
Mensa staggered more or less blindly through the forest. Veel, the goblin leader thought it would be fun to capture him and take him back to the grotto as a slave-pet. Veel set 6 of his minions to accomplish this task.

They started the capture process by bombarding him with a bunch of small branches torn or cut from the trees. One moment, Mensa was blundering through the forest yelling for Wolf–the next he was half buried in a deluge of soggy leaves and branches. (Mensa make a L6SR on CON).

Edurin was moving around the camp, literally beating the bushes when four goblins jumped out at him. They were swinging clubs, spears, and tridents, and they mostly swung low, attempting to beat him down rather than kill him. (Edurin, make your combat roll and follow it by a L4SR on CON.)
The plan to take out the Minotaur revolved around throwing a number of spears at him before he could really get up and get moving. Gronk is asleep when the attack starts, but quickly comes awake as things develop.
A torrent of screeching goblins rushed the tarp right after the volley of spears sailed in at Gronk.

Wen-Wen knew Edurin the best of the party. She took Weslynn’s old pike and went to help him fight the goblins. 

Gronk awoke to a shower of spears clattering about him. With a roar, he jumped to his feet, axe in hand, and began swinging at the first goblins to close.

Zhanh decided that the best reaction at the moment was to shed a bit of light on the situation, so he cast a Will-o-wisp spell. 
 
This wise old alpha wolf knew better than to hang around and try to fight a mob of enemies in the rainy darkness. Ducking, dodging, and juking he hurled his 200 pound bulk against any foe that barred his flight, snapping with his dagger like teeth as he sailed over or past, and headed back for the camp as fast as his powerful wolf legs could carry him.
Perry was shocked out of sleep and gaped in horror. He watched to see exactly what was attacking them.
 

Edurin nearly jumped out of his skin when the goblins attacked. First few blows were aimed at pushing them back. He stabbed viciously at the strongest goblin. Focusing his main attack on his goblin of choice, he struck low seeking to cripple the goblin.

Lumlas realized someone was attacking, realized that Zhanh had already provided some light, and cast “Little Feets” on Gronk.The stone knives came flying out of the darkness at Wolf. He instinctively dodged as he sensed the first one. It missed, as did the second, but not by much. The third and fourth hit him squarely. One of them penetrated the thin fur on his flank (2 points of CON damage), but the other glanced off the heavy ruff of fur around his neck and did not penetrate.

He leaped to the side, and so evaded the spear thrust coming from behind him. With a yelp of surprise he fled, sideways into the forest, looking all the time for something he could strike back at. But, no goblins appeared in his path. They were all in the trees above him, except for the one that had tried to spear him. When he got clear of the ambush scene, he stopped and shook himself violently. The dagger lodged in his flank flew out and fell on the ground, leaving only a bloodstain behind.

Wolf had an instinctive sense of direction, but it was somewhat disoriented by the storm, and by the fact that he had never been in this part of the forest before. Ordinarily he would follow his own scent trail backwards to retrace his steps, but he had been driven away from the direct path. He set out in a semi-circle, curving back the way he had come, nose down to pick up his own trail. The rain was slackening, but it was still a steady drizzle, and he would have to find his own backtrail soon or lose it.

The avalanche of tree branches took Mensa by surprise. They didn’t hurt much, but one sharp branch almost hit him in the eye, and as he flinched from that, he stepped on another that turned under his foot, and went down heavily on his back. He had left his war shovel on the ground back in camp.
Before he knew what was happening there were goblins, really just thin dark shapes with glowing green eyes, cavorting all around him, and beating on him with what felt like sticks. One blow knocked his helmet off. Another cracked into the side of his head and left him seeing stars. He tried to struggle, and he heard a screech of pain as one of his flailing hands accidentally hit a leaping goblin and knocked it five feet away from him.
Then he felt a rope tossed around his upper body and drawn tight, pinning his arms to his sides. The blows kept coming, more and more toward his head. He had time for one last yell before the darkness claimed him.

Perry opened his eyes to wild confusion. An amazingly bright light had appeared in the air not far from Zhanh who was still gesturing magically. A thrown spear ripped through the tarp over his head and stopped only inches from his face. Another hit flatlings and rattled off his boots. In the flickering spell light he could see small thin figures armed with sticks and stones (spears and flint knives) leaping toward him (and the others). They didn’t come in a straight path, but seemed to leap from side to side, and sometimes tumble and roll toward their prey. Goblins!
Weapon hafts beat at Edurin as he surged into battle. He felt a series of impacts, but they seemed to be glancing off and doing no real damage. Then Wen Wen jumped into the fray.
 
Wen-Wen came at a goblin from behind, swinging Weslynn’s pike hard at it’s head.Tne goblins leaped at Gronk. They weren’t all on the ground and in nothing like an orderly line of battle. Some were bouncing off tree trunks at him. Others seemed to be dashing at him on all fours like attacking weasels. Still others, clad in costumes of frogskin leaped at him like giant frogs.
Gronk felt something hit him–it felt like an electrical charge. Then the world seemed to slow down, and he was moving as he had never moved before in battle.
The small humanoids surrounded the mighty minotaur and his female ally and beat at him with fast blows and cunning slashes in a flurry of incoming weaponry. Gronk, himself was a blur of motion in the fight, striking at one foe and then spinning to carry his attack toward all that approached him. For an instance the combat results hung in the balance . . .
Perry moved close to Zhanh. Then he cast a spell.
 

As Wolf frantically searched for a scent trail that might lead him back to the camp, pure bestial rage began to boil in his wolfish heart . Ambushed and away from his group, he stopped to listen to see if he could hear anything that might help him. A savage growl rumbled in his throat. If these cowardly little frog men had hurt the pup, Wolf promised himself that someone or something was damned sure gonna die. They had lured him away and betrayed him with a false howl. Let them then hear what they had raised up!
He threw back his great furry head and howled the furious battle howl of his kind that promised hell and doom to his enemies. Then he continued his systematic search for some scent or sound that might let him find his way back to the pack he loved.

Zhanh heard the wolf howl in the distance and wondered if it was their friend, and if so why was he so far away. Maybe…

“Gronk!” Zhanh shouted. “Call for Wolf as loudly as you can; help him find us!” Then, realizing that their opponents were goblins, he switched to the goblin tongue and tried to sound like a goblin as he shouted, “Run away! They’re too strong! #@$?! Mommy! Oh, the goblinity!” and anything else he had ever heard a panicked goblin shout while he was growing up.

 

Perry followed Zhanh’s lead ‘They’re deadly! The magic! Ayiee! Run! Run! ‘Ware the invisible fiends! Ah, mother! The claws of the beast!’
Some part of Mensa knew he was dreaming, and that his real body was tied up. In this dream, he couldn’t move his arms, but he could walk – and there was a stern, wise khzd with many gems in his beard, telling him something which Mensa could not understand.

 

 Gronk  kicked a goblin and knocked him flying as he spun and tried to hit them with his axe. That goblin flew backwards, dazed and bleeding.

Veel saw the magical light spring into existence. He saw a minotaur moving faster than he thought any minotaur could possibly move. He sensed another spell going off, although it didn’t seem to do much. “Magic!” squeaked Veel. “They have magic! Run away!”

It probably helped that the elves were also speaking goblin and telling them to run away. That just wasn’t right. They didn’t need much more urging.

“Let’s get the prisoner and go home!” commanded Veel. The goblins didn’t need much urging. Going home was always the default for when things went wrong on a raid. As suddenly as they had attacked the goblins were gone, three of them carrying their wounded companion.

Perry had tried a desperate distraction, but he obviously hadn’t been thnking clearly. In a forest, at night, in a rainstorm, during a fight, there were few rocks and pebbles to be enchanted, and the fighters were too busy with combat to be distracted by greed. Perry felt the kremm loss, and knew he really hadn’t helped that time.
Gronk suddenly felt kind of weak, and his knees buckled and he sat down. There were 9 cuts and punctures in his hide, most of them on his legs and back. He had a new respect for goblins. They were actually fast and vicious fighters. Wen Wen looked down and saw that she too was bleeding, though she didn’t remember when she got hit. 
 
Veel and half a dozen of his best warriors reached the spot where they had ambushed Mensa. The goblins left behind had finished tying up the dwarf. “Get him and let’s go!” ordered the goblin chief.
They heard the distant howling of a wolf. “I guess we didn’t kill the wolf,” snarled Veel. “Let’s take a path leading away from him at an angle.” The goblins set off downriver and toward the hills from which they had come. Four of them carried the bound and unconscious dwarf.
Zhanh heard the howl of a distant wolf, and he guessed it was their wolf. “Gronk, bellow, give him something to follow.”

Gronk tried to bellow, but hardly more than a cough came out. It was a loud cough, but in the storm it wouldn’t be heard over any distance.

“I don’t feel so good,” said Gronk. At about that time, Zhanh got close enough to see that the minotaur had several minor wounds.

“How do you feel?” the elf asked the minotaur.

“Woozy or is that wouzy?” Gronk replied.

“You have probably been poisoned,” said Zhanh. “Goblin poison isn’t very strong, but it can sap anyone’s strength. Let me know if you feel sleepy.”

“Sleepy! After a battle? That doesn’t seem like . . .” The minotaur stopped speaking in mid-word and his mighty head dropped onto his breast.” He began to snore.

“I feel tired too,” said Wen Wen. She crumpled to the ground.

Wolf ran through the forest searching for the way back to his pack. He felt a bit of lethargy now that he was clear of his foes. The trees thinned out, and suddenly he found himself running between a couple of houses. He had emerged from the woods in Hunt Center.
 
The warband came together again about a mile from the ambush site. It hadn’t been such a great raid–one hurt and no loot to show for it, but they did have a dwarf. He should be very entertaining, and perhaps even worth a ransom. Veel decided that the night hadn’t been a complete waste after all.
 
They trotted onward through the early morning hours until dawn came–just a general lightening of the gloom to a wan gray light. By that time they were in the hills and on a secret trail that led to their underground home.

Sometime during the night Mensa awakened and started to struggle. Veel whacked him with a spear haft) and barked in Common, “Stop that or we will hurt you!”

Since water was currently plentiful, Zhanh took a moment to rinse Gronk’s wounds, then put all of his available kremm into a healing spell.  “Stupid webbies tore up my tarp. I can mend it, but it will never be the same,” he growled as he worked.
Perry looked ruefully at the little good his magic had done and wrung his hands, apologising to the others. He cast another Jeeves, kicking himself for the omission earlier on. Then he asked where Mensa was. He suddenly felt very concerned for the little friend who thought he was a sissy. He saw how occupied the others were and moved quietly away from the tarp, determined to make up for his fault that might have cost Mensa so dearly.
“Hmmm,” Zhanh said, when he notice Wen-Wen had fallen. “I didn’t know that goblin poison worked on vampires. This might be interesting.”

Lumlas scowled at Zhanh, and then went to see if she could do anything to help Wen-Wen.

When he saw he was in the outskirts of the hated town and smelled its familiar stench, Wolf turned, and, and having gotten his bearings again, headed back down river as quickly as he could. Where was the pack and the pup? His rage had subsided now, but his parental anxiety was bubbling over again. And the last thing he wanted to do was hang around anywhere near Hunt Center!
 
 
(to be continued)
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Chapter 7: Aftermath   Leave a comment

The flies woke Mensa up–them and the shafts of sunlight spearing down through the forest canopy, one of which now shone on the side of his face. He found his torso crusted with blood, and he hurt worse than he ever had before, but in truth, the sturdy dwarf was already starting to heal from the glancing axe blow he had taken the night before. For a moment he didn’t know where he was, or why. Then he remembered a terrible night and a terrible fight. Wulf was dead, and Mensa was lost.
Trying to walk, Mensa found the world spun about him in blurs and with overlapping vision. He crawled. Fury filled his soul, and he’d have sworn he heard Wulf in his head. “They killed Wulf! They killed brother!” he muttered, and the words gave him more fury and the fury burned more life into him. He crawled, hungering for a cave, searching for any hole in which to hide and rest. A hollow tree, a hole in the ground, anything! There in the dark, he would recover, he would find moss to eat, would pull healing from the very minerals and things of the deep, dark earth — and he would be strong. Strong enough to destroy the villages of humans.

Humans killed his brother. Mensa would kill humans.

Perry sat down on his haunches on the Nainevver, looking first at the bloody oar in his hands and then at the mangled men in the web. There was no doubting that he had done them to their deaths but he hadn’t meant to do more harm than necessary to knock them unconscious. What had happened? Was his hatred of the racist bigotry that he had been so shocked to encounter the driving force within him now? Thoughts of his father were just not there…he still felt there were men back at the village who should not be walking free.

And then he thought of Wolf and Mensa, Edurin and Weslynn. ‘Zhanh,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘can you find out from these two men if there is anywhere we can drift to where we might make a camp? I do not think we can take this boat back to Blotar.’ He summoned Jeeves again and began searching the dead men..

The wolf having fed on his recent kill now felt a need to find his pack. He knew they were upriver from him, or had been, so he set out at an easy but mile eating pace up the bank. As he went he watched and sniffed carefully for danger. He knew the risk if he entered the territory of another wolf pack and was alert to their scent marking. But he also knew that the scent of the remains of his kill downstream would probably interest them more than pursuing him

Wolf stopped to drink and noticed that there were bodies of men floating down the river, blood in the water. The scent of the dead men was not familiar to him so he hurried on upstream still searching for the ones he used to know in his dreams.

“Gronk not let anything happen to you, Lumlas. Gronk protect you.”

He turned to Zhanh and Perry.

“We must go back for Wulf, Mensa, and the others. We must rescue them, or avenge them. We are a pack, as Wulf says. We must go back.”

Perry sighed. ‘There were so many of them, Gronk. Wulf and Mensa had no chance. If we go back we will die too. Zhanh, you or Lumlas could go back in your Hole but I think we should stick together. We could perhaps get a message to Blotar, Weslynn and Edurin – if we can moor this boat, they could meet us. I am inclined to approach the elves who attacked us yesterday. I think we should offer this boat to them in exchange for their help getting our friends back and teaching those one-eyed village savages a lesson.’

Zhanh checked the boat’s progress again, and determined that while the anchor was dragging, it was dragging VERY slowly; they were moving downstream at some small fraction of a mile an hour. That was good enough, for now.

“Perry, I agree that we need to try to make contact with our surviving friends, or at least find out if they DID survive. I definitely want to moor, or maybe ground, the boat on the Hunt Center side of the river. The best thing might be if we can ground her in the shallow water on the outside of a river bend, because the grounded boat will serve as something of a fort for us.”

He sighed, and then continued, “I see things a little differently that you do as far as the boat is concerned, Perry. We were crew on this vessel, and we have an obligation to restore it to Blotar, if we can. Trading the boat away would be piracy. I cut the boat loose because it was best for us, but I think it was also best for the boat; mobs are stupid, and I think they would likely have killed these two gentlemen (he indicated the crewmen) and damaged the boat badly.”

He looked at the woods on either side of the river. “I have no idea how we will deal with the local elves; we are still traveling with humans. I have no idea what other dangers might be in the woods. I have no idea how we will find out what happened to our companions, or make contact with Blotar and his crew, without getting killed; I don’t think that any of us, except perhaps these two men, can re-enter the village safely. For now, we need to get the boat to shore, and deal with that arrow in Gronk’s shoulder. THEN we can worry about our next move.”

“Gronk agree with Zhanh’s plan.”
‘Very well. Unless you need me, I shall mourn for the dead,’ Perry began a slow, soft wailing chant, sitting cross-legged in the bow of the boat. As he chanted into the dawn, resolve knotted itself into his spine and psyche.

Zhanh called Lumlas to Gronk’s side. “What I think we need to do here is heal Gronk as completely as we can, recover our kremm, and then take the sharpest knife we can find and re-open the wound and pull the arrow out, then heal him again. It isn’t going to be pleasant, but I don’t see another way.”

“Gronk agree. Arrow must come out. Zhanh have good idea.”

Mensa didn’t travel far–perhaps another hundred yards before he found the burrow–too small to be called a cave, too deep for an overhang. It was, in fact, a goblin hole that led deep into the earth, but no goblins had used it for quite a long time. Occasionally forest creatures like mice, snakes, or thiggles used it for shelter. It was large enough for Mensa to fit into–too small for most of the things that would hurt him to enter. Mensa crawled inside, licked moisture off one rocky wall, and passed out again. His sturdy Dwarf body continued to heal on its own.

In Hunt Center, the mob started to break up shortly after the Nainevver drifted away from the dock. Although some of the men had boats of their own, there was no way they were going to follow killer elves into the darkness beyond town.

One man came to Megil and said, “What shall we do about the dwarf?”
“What dwarf?” asked Megil.
“While you were attacking the boat, we were attacked from behind by a wolfman and a dwarf. They killed four men. Vard, Blinny, Shardo, and Kadello killed the barbarian. The wolfman killed Denk, Larrigh, and Dumtt. The Dwarf killed Perrin, with a shovel, of all things, then it attacked me. I wounded it and deflected it with this axe,” the man held up his still gory weapon, “and it ran off between those houses, still screaming and moaning something.”
“That could turn into a problem later,” said Megil, “but I’m not going into the forest after him in the dark. Maybe we can track him tomorrow and see if you killed him or not.”
“I feel a bit sorry for him,” said the man. “I saw him earlier when he got off the boat. He seemed like such a happy little fellow then. He probably thought he was just defending his friends.”
“Could be,” said Megil. “I’m going back to Red’s Place and try to get some sleep before dawn.”

Wolf was still picking his way upstream when the sun came up. This was all new territory to him, so he went more slowly than he thought, and the land was not conducive to simply trotting along the riverbank. He passed the Nainevver sometime during the night as it slowly dragged downstream.

And he grew sluggish. The deer meat in his stomach needed to be digested, and Wolf’s instincts told him to find shelter and sleep. He began to notice traces of man in the forest–a hunting trail with old man-scent on it, marks on the trees. Finally he decided that he had to rest. Traveling by day was not natural for a wolf. He trotted deeper into the forest, found a hollow beneath a thranberry bush, walked in circles a few times, and settled down for a wolfish nap.

Zhanh’s analysis of the situation was correct. Talking to the two sailors he could tell that all of them working together were not enough to row the Nainevver back upstream against the current. They would have a hard enough time even getting it to shore.

Just as he finished explaining the situation to Perry, the anchor caught on something, and the boat jerked to a halt, shuddering at the end of the anchor rope, and swinging back and forth unpredictably.

En-dario came up with the most logical plan. “There are a couple of canoes on board,” he told them. “In the morning, we can send two of us in a canoe upstream and back to town. One of us boatmen should stay on board to protect the Nainevver. Someone who looks human–that would be you, Perry, should go with me on the canoe. If we stay here long enough some riverboat will pass us. They might help us, or they might just appropriate the boat.”

Ruben, the other boatman added his two copper pieces to the talk. “If’n I know Cap’n Blotar, he’ll send Jakuk or somebody after us in the mornin’ when he sees the boat is gone. We could just sit tight here till som’un finds us. That is, if’n the River Goblins don’t show their ugly faces.”

Lumlas looked tired. “I have done all I can to heal Gronk,” she said. “It will be hours before my kremm is strong enough to do more. Surely Gronk can survive for a few more hours with the arrowhead inside him.”

In the end they decided to get what rest they could and wait for the sun to come up.

In response to Lumlas’ pronouncement, Zhanh decided it was time to try his luck at another healing spell. He threw all of his available energy into a healing spell for Gronk, on the assumption that the healthier he was, the less likely his wound would become infected.Edurin pulled away from Wenwen as he got up. Neither felt like doing anything more than sleeping last night. His clothes were starting to smell rank. He needed to find a laundry.

Edurin slid his boots on and secured his dirk, and headed down to the kitchen. He rummaged around for some breakfast. He… He would need something substantial after last night. Eggs, grain, vegetables, maybe an apple or two and some wine. Definitely some wine. He took a moment and prayed to the powers of the universe. “Grant me luck to find fortune, avoid destruction, and patience to understand.”

With a little more peace in his heart, Edurin retrieved some fire wood to stoke the kitchen’s fire from bedded embers back to full flame. He sat back and enjoyed his breakfast. Next step, find some soap and head down to the river to wash his clothes and mend the holes. He would take his spear.

Wolf lay in the sheltered shadows of the brush and dreamed of hunting and running and of other wolves that ran with him. But, then, they were gone and it was dark, and there were men and other creatures in the woods. Wolf did not like it. Where was the pack? And where was pup? And there was a huge wolf with horns in the dream whose scent was strong and friendly. Then there was pain and fear and helpless rage. A large one eyed man was putting him in the river, wrapped in some kind of metal garment, and he had to struggle and fight to escape, and swim frantically to reach the surface. Then there was a deer, and eating, and the dreams gave way to rest again.

But the desire to find the pack again burned like a furnace in his wolfish heart and brain.

Perry turned to Zhanh. ‘I will go back to that village,’ he jerked a thumb viciously in the direction of the mob, ‘if you think, truly, that I can pass for a human without doubt and that I can be disguised somewhat so that I will not be recognized. They will kill me if they know who I am. I doubt I can pass for a crew member but I will do as asked.’

Then he turned to Gronk. ‘If you wish it, I will cut the arrow head from your chest on yonder bank and these wizards can heal the damage once they have recovered their magical forces.’
“Perry, I think you are likely the best person to do the surgery; I have gotten the impression that you have the steadiest hands. I don’t know about going back to the village, either. These sailors seem to think you could pass for human. If you aren’t willing to go, then we will have to talk both of them into going, and leaving the Naiewer in our hands. Of course, it is more or less in our hands already…” He looked to the bank again, to assure himself that downstream drift had stopped. “Let’s set a watch, and get some sleep. In the morning, we will all think clearer, and we will be able to try the surgery by daylight.”

“Gronk grateful, Zhanh. Feel better. Gronk think Perry should stay with us. Every time we seperate, something bad happens. Gronk trust Perry to cut arrow out. Gronk trust Zhanh and Lumlas to heal. We sleep, get off boat in morning and cut out arrow on shore. Then heal Gronk and we all go to town to find Wulf and Mensa and others, and get away from here as fast as we can.”

Perry nodded and settled down in the boat again, below the deckline. He focussed his thoughts on the surgery he was to undertake and pictured the arrowhead coming out cleanly and Gronk being healed again by Lumlas.

Zhanh said, “I’ll take the first watch; who wants the next one?”

“Gronk will take second watch.”

Perry searched the dead men before he threw them overboard. He found 3 swords, 4 belt knives, 1 great axe, 37 gold pieces, clothing, boots. The swords included 2 sabers and a falchion; the knives were 2 dirks and a katar.

As Perry separated the loot into piles, En-Dario said, “You murdered those men. Now you’re going to rob them?” He looked disgusted.

“En-Dario, be quiet!” blurted his companion, Ruben. “He didn’t mean anything by that remark,” the other boatman stammered. “He’s just upset by all the violence.”

Edurin went down to the river to clean himself up, and noted with some dismay that the Nainevver was gone. He checked its mooring position and found two severed ropes.

He asked a citizen who was working on the dock what had happened to his boat, and learned a little about the fight, and that the boat had drifted off. Just as he got this explanation, Blotar, Jakuk, and the rest of the boatmen arrived.
Blotar was amazed and horrified to find that his boat had vanished. “This is piracy!” screeched the captain. He looked about ready to explode. Then his eyes fell on Edurin.
“Where are your companions, Eddie-boy?” he asked, a nasty taunting tone entering his voice. “Your little commission has brought me nothing but bad luck.” He was red in the face and having a hard time controlling his breathing.

Wolf slept and had uneasy dreams. About noon he awoke when something that walked like a bear, but smelled vaguely like a man, passed within a few steps of his shelter.

It hurt to move, and for the longest time that was the only thing of which Mensa was aware. Mechanically, he pulled roots from the earth surrounding him, and strained dirt through his teeth when he sucked moisture from the walls and ground. They had destroyed his entire family, for such was how he now misremembered his fellow travelers. And one thought kept going through his dreams: “Who is Grissslegrimm?”

For all his anger, he was still Mensa and hoped for someone, this god perhaps, to tell him what to do. He was finally admitting that his mind was weak, and he cursed his weakness now that both his mind and body were weak!

Perry said to the boaties ‘I understand your shock. I myself am in the greatest state of shock of my life – violence, murder and slavery has been continually aimed my way in the last 24 hours. These men wanted to murder us for being elven and they have paid an unfortunate price but not a surprising one. You, too, may have a share of these men’s possessions – it will not aid them to tip their chattels into the river with their bodies. Then you must help us get the boat to the river bank and there secure it. After that, you must inform your captain that he may have his boat back and that we are keeping it safe until he comes hither with our friends. You must explain to him what you saw – a large, drunken mob sought to murder us and that we defended ourselves. Will you do all this, thus ensuring our goodwill to you and the return of your captain’s boat?’

Wolf’s instincts brought him immediately to his feet. But the shred of human intelligence kept him still. He took a defensive stance, legs stiff, hair raised, ears back, tail up. The huge wolf (he is twice normal size and mass) looked about carefully trying to see where the intruder was, and attempting to assess the threat. He wanted no fight, all he wanted was to continue his search for the pup and the pack. He hoped the other creature would think a wolf his size would not be an easy meal!

“I agree Captain Blotar. This trip has been under a dark cloud. But look, the ropes have been cut. It seemed some villagers thought to rouse our elves from the Nainevver, first wild elves then wild villagers and a crazy vampire. Do you think it would have been better if everyone had stayed in the inn? Let’s find your boat and rescue what we can from this trip.” Edurin shook his head in disbelief. Next port he might just find a tavern, a nice local woman, and enjoy the city. “I’ll grab my gear and some food from the kitchen to stave off hunger while we go boat hunting. I’ll follow your lead Captain.”
When Zhanh could no longer keep his eyes open, he awakened Gronk and then crawled off to sleep.

When the dawn came, and everyone was awake, they helped themselves to a breakfast from ship’s stores, and then Zhanh said, “Our first order of business is to ferry the four of us– Gronk, Lumlas, Perry, and me– to shore by canoe, and then remove Gronk’s arrow. After that… If the four of us are going to head up river on foot, that is what we will do. Otherwise we will have to figure out who takes which canoe upriver. Or we can wait here, and hope that help arrives from outside. I suspect that once we are all ashore, we may just want to continue walking, and be done with the river for now.”

The grazzleber recognized another predator within his hunting area. This could not be tolerated. It lunged at Wolf.

Wolf saw a creature that was something like a bear, only larger, and with more of a gleam of intelligence. It wore a belt, and strapped to that belt was a large broad-bladed knife. It stood 7 feet tall at the shoulder.

Wolf had never seen or heard of a grazzleber before. They were rare, but a small family group of them lived in this part of the woods. They had established contact with the human hunters years ago, and worked out a trading agreement. Sometimes they would lead the hunters to prey; sometimes help them take down larger creatures like the aurochs. The best hunters knew about them, and the recognition signal that would prevent attack. The grazzlebers served as a sort of woodland guard.

Wolf feinted left and broke right as the grazzleber swiped at it with a massive paw.

Mensa awoke after a brief round of sleep. He felt a little better. He licked more water from the damp stone, then crawled out of his hiding place. He had already eaten everything there that was edible. In the distance he heard the faint sounds of the human town. He got to his feet and pushed deeper into the forest.

“Gronk want away from the river,” he said to Zhanh. “Gronk want to find friends.”

Mensa pushed deeper into the forest, seeking some answer to the fire in his breast. He needed to be stronger. He needed much power to punish humans. He needed to be one with the rock, the gold, and the gems of the good nurturing caves.

Zhanh said to all aboard, “Whatever we do afterwards, our first order of business to to get Gronk, Lumlas, Perry, and me to shore, so that we can remove that arrow head. Do any of you have any experience with canoes? I fear I have next to none.”

Perry shook his head. ‘I can swim if I have to though.’
“Gronk never use canoe, but will try.”

Morben looked Perry in the eyes. “I don’t want stolen goods. We can just put them in a chest in the captain’s cabin, and let the authorities give them back to the relatives of the men in town.” He put his hand on his belt knife and looked at En-Dario. “Am I right, En?”
The boatman had to back up his companion. “Of course, you are, Morben. It’s not like having a couple extra gold pieces would make any difference to us, anyway.”
“There’s something shifty about you, man” said the boatman, never taking his eyes off Perry. “I see you muttering to yourself all the time. You look human, but you’re too small and pale. I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t half goblin or something.”Wolf dodged the grazzleber’s swipe and scooted deeper into the forest, keeping to the dense brush where he didn’t think the larger creature could follow. He was right. The other creature didn’t even try to follow him.

Soon, Wolf turned upriver again. Normally, a wolf would sleep through the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, but Wolf was worried about the cub, and upset by the strange creature that had threatened him. He seemed to remember that he used to sleep in the night instead of the day.

An hour later Wolf reached the south end of town. The bitter and rancid smells of a tavern assaulted his nostrils, and he seemed to remember the place, but not with any feeling of liking it. He turned away and scouted through the woods south of town, keeping his nose down.

And then he smelled blood. Some wounded creature had crept through the woods here. The smell was tantalizing. He had smelled something like it before, but . ..

Edurin’s soft words and sensible suggestion turned aside Blotar’s growing anger. As he stood there thinking, another riverboat came down the river and started to tie up at the dock. It was a strange boat with a chimney coming out of the mid-deck cavern and some kind of big wheel attached to the stern.
“That’s the Twayn steamboat,” said Jakuk. “Aren’t you friends with her captain, Blotar? Maybe he’d be willing to help us find the Nainevver.”
“Yer right,” said Blotar. “I’ll go talk to him. Gather the men, Jakuk. We need to get downriver or upriver, wherever the Nain has gone.”
Edurin started to follow the captain toward the paddlewheel boat. Blotar turned on him and said, “Get away! Here’s where we part company. You and your companions have brought me nothing but ill fortune. And you owe me 40 gold pieces.”

Gronk didn’t like the sailor’s tone, words, or actions, so he stepped up behind Perry and let roll a rumbling growl. He squeezed the haft of his axe with both hands.

Perry looked at both men coldly. “You would have joined that murdering, craven mob, that much is clear. You saw their mindless aggression towards us. I am weary to the core of elf-haters. Zhanh and Lumlas are elves, I am half-elven and have lived all my lives with elves. Before yesterday morning I had never offered harm or insult to a human. You can jump – now! – and swim to the south side but first take this payment for your captain.’
Perry dumped the 37 gold pieces at the feet of the men and added 30 pieces of silver to total 40 gold exactly. Then he readied himself for a web spell lest the crewmen failed to be cowed by the minotaur.

Zhanh watched what was happening with a sinking feeling. “Morben, En-Dario, you have to understand that Perry is looking at these men as fallen enemy soldiers, whose bodies would normally be looted. This is a misunderstanding; you knew these men in life, we will leave their goods with you, for their families.”

“For now, my friends and I wish to go ashore and try to heal Gronk. I think, if you would help us get to shore, we will go our separate ways after that. I am sure that another boat will be along shortly to carry work of your location back to Blotar.”

Lumlas still felt sick about the dead townies, and found the confrontation between Perry and the boatmen disturbing. “I can use a canoe,” she said.

“Perry!” Zhanh shouted. “Just…stop. We don’t need more violence today.” His glance shifted from Perry to the boatmen and back again. “Everyone hates everyone; it is the way of the world. I have been hated for being an elf; I have been hated by elves for sounding like a goblin. I have been hated by townies for being a sailor; I have been hated by sailors for being a wizard. I don’t have the energy to take offense.”

He gestured toward the shore. “The local elves are at war with the boat men; we have seen that ourselves. These two men have seen you bludgeon men that they knew to death. We, together, appropriated their boat. They have reason to distrust us. And now you are going to throw them into the river? What good will that do anyone?”

Lumlas, listened in horror and tried to put Gronk between herself and everyone else.

Edurin nodded, “That is your choice Captain Blotar.” He fished a handful of gold coins slowly counting out 40 as if they were the last coins in his purse. “Good wishes for you to find the Nainevver in good condition. Here, if you find any of my companions on the boat please bring them back here.” Edurin handed Captain Blotar another 5 gold. He bid the rest of the crew a good day and retrieved his gear from the inn.

Edurin sought out Wenwen to console her. “You have such a love of life. It is refreshing to find someone who throws herself with such passion into life. I would love to learn more about you.”

Wolf thought the scent might belong to Cub. He decided to follow it, and a few hundred feet away it led into a hole in the ground. The hole was too small for him to enter. He began to whine and scratch at it.
Mensa awoke to the sound of animal noises. He looked back toward the entrance to his cave and saw a great taloned paw scraping at the earth, then he heard whining and whuffling. Something big, and probably hungry was trying to get in and at him.

Edurin struck up a conversation with WenWen. He saw that she had appropriated Weslynn’s weapons, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Then she asked how long he would be staying at the Big Buck Tavern. And if he was in the mood for some company?

While he was walking around, it occurred to Edurin to see if he could find out anything about what had happened to Wulf and to Mensa.

Morben backed away in alarm, then turned and ran to the captain’s cabin. He passed En-Dario and grabbed him by the sleeve. Before anyone else could react, the two boatmen ran into the captain’s cabin, slammed the door behind them, and bolted it.

Mensa readied his spiked throwing stick. He now knew he could be hurt – and probably killed. If the Thing did not give up, he would smash its paw and cut it, making it scream and run away!!

But now it was whining. Mensa stopped. Smelled like doggie. Sounded like doggie.

“Back!” he yelled. Then, softly, “back. Lie down. Good doggie.” If it backed away, Mensa wanted to get a good smell of this doggie. And he REALLY wanted to see it. By its paw, it was HUGE!

Perry looked at Zhanh intently. ‘Since these men have locked themselves away, I shall abide by your words. Let us get to the shore. I am sure we shall be blamed by someone else soon for thinking to save our own lives and doubtless there will be another attempt to murder us. I wish to remove the arrow head from Gronk. It may do me as much good as him.’

“That simplifies things,” Zhanh said. He walked to the door of the cabin and shouted, “We’re taking both canoes. We will leave them tied up somewhere not very far down stream on the south side of the river.”

He turned to his friends. “Lumlas, you can contradict me, but I think we should tie the canoes together, bow to stern, with the longest rope we can find. We’ll put Gronk in the bow of the first canoe, and you in the stern. That will make it inclined to head down river, and you should be able to steer it to shore. Perry and I will follow in the second canoe, and try not to pass you or otherwise complicate things. As soon as Gronk can grab something on shore, he will, and with him as an anchor, we will reel in the second canoe. Perry, do you want front seat, or rear seat?”

Lumlas thought about it for a moment and then said, “I think that will work.”

‘Thank you, Zhanh. I should like the front seat. I will jump out when we reach the bank and seek to secure the canoe.’
Wolf heard a familiar voice and his memory of the scent was stronger here. He heard the command to get back and lie down which registered with his faint human memories. He backed off a little ways, still whining softly in his excitement, and sat down, his whole attention focussed on the hole. He was almost sure that he had found the lost pup.
The doggie obeyed!

Mensa slowwwwly poked his head out. After all, it wasn’t a human, so it couldn’t be THAT bad. And he saw the biggest doggie he’d ever seen….and it smelled – familiar.

“Good doggie,” said Mensa, wondering what he could offer it in the way of treats. He looked through his pack and his pouch to see if those rotten human guards had taken his jerky. Absent-mindedly (How else would Mensa do something without straining?) he petted the doggie and smoothed its head. There were cockleburs in its fur, and he unconsciously was picking them out.

Perry jumped out onto the bank and looped the rope thrown by Zhanh round the protruding root of a tree. Once the others were ashore, he asked Gronk to le down and cast a controlled Call Flame to heat and cleanse a knife. ‘Do you want to bite on something?’ he asked Gronk. Perry suggested to Zhanh and Lumlas that they might scout the immediate area and keep watch until Gronk was back on his feet.

“Yes, Gronk should bite on something.”

He looked around until he found a strong stick.

“Gronk ready. Gronk trust Perry, Perry do good job.”

He laid down as Perry had asked, and placed the stick in his mouth.

Mensa was having a bit of a go trying to pet the ‘doggie’ which was going all around him and sniffing him thoroughly, wagging its big tail enthusiastically and whuffling and whining, and trying to lick his face on each pass. Then it noticed the wounds on his torso, and, whining with concern, began to try and lick them clean.

Zhanh pulled the canoes up onto the bank, rolled them belly up, and tied them in place.

“I don’t understand you at all,” Lumlas said. “You were so adamant that we shouldn’t steal the boat, and you are trying to preserve the canoes so that Blotar can find them, but you still took all of that food.”

Zhanh grinned. “One thing was piracy; this is just petty theft. COMPLETELY different things. And besides, I am fairly sure that the Naievver would have been destroyed, or badly damaged, if I hadn’t cut her loose. I am calling this a service fee.”

Lumlas smiled and shook her head. “I still don’t understand, but I suspect that I will like your argument a lot better by lunch time.” She looked into the woods on all sides as far as she could, and saw nothing that alerted her to trouble. She wasn’t sure she WOULD notice anything, of course; woodcraft was not something she had ever studied, despite living most of her life in forests.

Perry examined the wound thoughtfully, kneeling at Gronk’s side, turning the heated knife from side to side by the hilt. His knowledge of elven anatomy was fairly thorough but he was much more operating on assumption with bovines. Still, he believed that decisive action after careful thought was often the best course. Putting aside the horrors of the last 48 hours, he pushed the blade through the firm flesh to the left of the the arrowhead until he was sure he had gone in deep enough. Then he repeated the surgical incision on a side of a square adjacent to the first cut. He could see how to get the hurtful object out!
Without hesitation, Perry ignored the blood and made a third cut so that he did not have to tear flesh as he removed the arrow tip with deft, clean fingers. He jumped up and called for Lumlas to apply her healing magic. Then he sprang to the river bank and vomited. It was as if all the toxins of these two days were being ejected from his soul. Perry wiped his mouth clean and turned to look at the patient.

Edurin wondered about Weslynn’s family. She always behaved as if far from home. If close by, her clan must be small indeed. WenWen behaved as if her clan were nearby. That would make sense.

“I would love to spend more time with you.” He held WenWen’s gaze. “You seemed hungry last night. Perhaps we could help each other with our physical needs?” His brought forth his more charming grin. “As to how long I stay… My business partner is dead.” He indicated Weslynn’s equipment, “And I need to find a way to pay back a hefty loan. It would be good to have a bright companion to help navigate this foreign land.” Edurin caressed WenWen’s hand. Setting the proper expectations was always important. He did not want to lead WenWen on with any false promises. He was a sailor who may not come back to Khazan or return only annually. It all depended on Samurai Khai and the his success so far north in the mouth of the dragon.

Wen-Wen smiled at Edurin, as he made proposals to her, raised her finger, teasingly, and then she moved to the ogre, standing admiring his battle-trophies of Weslynn’s weapons.

“Hon,” she said, running her finger along his back. “I know you had to kill her, but she set me free from that monster’s control. You know how she’s utterly controlled us, and I think that wine merchant was a hero. I want to take her weapons, and whatever else of her gear that’s left, and go with this people to carry on her mission, because I owe her that. If you’ll do me, Sheepdip, that small favor, you can be assured you’re honoring the woman who struck down the vampire Mistress I know you hated just as much as I did.”
{

Wen-Wen stretched up and kissed Sheepdip on his chin, and then picked up Weslynn’s pike and hatchet, along with her harness and a coin from her purse that was struck by her former mistress’ lightning-magic, as a token.
“Well enough Sheepdip, thank you.”

Wolf made a good effort to clean up the pup’s wounds with his big pink tongue, and then seemed to want to put some distance between himself and the town. He could hear and smell it from where they were, and it had bad memories that worried him. He would walk away, then turn and look at Mensa with his ‘Why aren’t you coming with me’ look. He was also in his wolfish way wondering what kind of game he could catch in the woods, and whether he might meet another bear thing. And he also remembered a big creature with horns and several friendly elf scent people. Where were they?
Lumlas rushed to Gronk’s side at Perry’s signal, knelt, pushed the raw edges of the wound together with her hands, and then poured magic into the damaged tissue.  “Zhanh!” she called out.  “Do you have anything to mop up this blood with?”

Zhanh glanced at Lumlas and Gronk, then pulled off his hat and tossed it to her. “This should do it,” he said.

Lumlas looked at Zhanh skeptically, then pressed the hat to Gronk’s chest and found that the hat absorbed any spilled blood it touched. The hat did not become damp, but its color shifted from its usual rusty brown to a deep maroon. “Zhanh,” Lumlas said, “You have a very creepy hat.” Zhanh just smiled, retrieved the hat, and put it back on his head.

Mensa was now close enough to really get a good whiff of this wolf – this HUGE wolf! And he didn’t dare believe his nose. But his nose had never lied to him before……

This smelled so much like Wulf, it could have been Wulf’s twin brother. And then Mensa thought for a moment  and considered. This COULD be Wulf’s brother. Wulf had spoken of “the Wolf” inside him, and Mensa had seen that Wolf at least once. This looked very much like it, though not standing on its hind legs. And it certainly SMELLED like Wulf.

The dwarf adjusted the weight on his back, made sure he had one of his weapons in hand – the throwing stick it was. And turning his face to the sky, blurted out “I thank thee, O Great Gristlegum!”

Then he did something he had thought he would never do again. He smiled.

…and, of course, Mensa followed the Wolf. After all, even if he was wrong about this creature – and he didn’t think he was – it was heading away from the nastybad town. And that was a GOOD thing!

‘Thank you, Lumlas, thank you, Zhanh,’ Perry said with a slight bow. ‘Gronk – are you ready to walk now? If we are to go to that place again, I think we must not be seen and so that incantation must be ready. If I use my Web spell again, please be ready to render those caught unconscious. I shall not attempt this again myself.’
Wolf made his way slowly downriver now, checking often to make sure the pup was behind him. Some thing compelled him to do this, a memory of pup tending to wander and disappear at times…As he went he watched and sniffed carefully for trouble. He did not want to meet another bear thing, or other dangerous creature. He did not wander inland far from the river though. It was good to stay near to a source of water. And he also kept his senses alert for any sign of small game. Pup would need to be fed. He was OK for the large deer meals he had eaten for now, but a snack would not hurt him either.

Where was this giant doggie leading him, Mensa wondered. For once, Mensa’s mind did not wander, nor was he sidetracked. Gringristle had given him a miracle, and this dwarf would not lose it.
He felt like singing, but stifled himself, remembering that humans were afoot. Nastybad humans!

Gronk grunted and snorted through the surgery, but remained still. Towards the end, the stick in his mouth cracked in half. He smiled at Lumlas when she placed her hands on the wound, her touch itself as soothing as the magic it brought.

“Thank you my elf-friends, Gronk much better.”

“Gronk ready to walk, Perry. No worry, you not do wrong, those men want to kill Perry, Perry do right thing. Gronk handle fighting, Gronk protect elf-friends. We go find Wulf and Mensa now. Find friends.”

He rose to his feet, axe in hand, and started walking along the river bank in the direction of the town.

Finishing their encounter, Edurin gathered up his gear, as he spoke to Wen-Wen, “This place is full of bad luck. The town looks too poor for any serious trade. Strange, you’d think with all that river traffic the place would be better off. Wen-Wen do you really think Weslynn’s wine can be recovered? Shannazan seemed unwilling even to talk of the vampire lords.”

Chapter 6: The Big Buck Tavern   Leave a comment

Perry stood by Wulf and addressed the ogre at the tavern door. ‘We’re ready to pay the coin to get admission. Will you permit my friends and I to enter on payment?’
Perry hoped that ogres had no particular reason for hostility towards elves or minotaurs – he couldn’t remember hearing of any such in the sociology stories the bards had sung by the campfires in his childhood but it seemed they had missed out rather a lot.
He said to Wulf ‘Once we’re in, I”l sit next to Weslynn and you sit next to Gronk. He will listen to you. I shall ask Zhanh and Weslynn to go to the bar while the rest of us either find a table to ourselves or join Edurin and the Captain if there is enough room. I can pay for you if you have no money, for Mensa too.’
Perry kept his Jeeves close and was ready to instruct as circumstance or whim dictated.
Wulf answered Perry: “I like this arrangement.” Then, he turned and took Gronk’s forearm in his strong hand, a warrior’s handshake. “Gronk, You have always been the best of comrades, and the finest warrior I ever fought beside. Don’t let the lady upset you. I need both of you now. Pray don’t argue without good cause. Weslynn does not understand the warrior way. Give her time and she will learn to value you even as I do.” He then turned back to see if the Ogre had had time to consider his request to be admitted.
“Gronk calm down. Gronk no trust bloodsucker, no understand why Wulf not rip her to pieces when she bite him. Why Wulf so nice to bloodsucker?”
Wulf replied, “I am not entirely sure myself, my friend. I was under great stress at the time. My wolf did not, and still does not like it. But I made a comittment to help her, and you know I am true to my word. When I accept people as members of my pack family I am bound to help them in any way I can. Do not fear for me. I won’t let her do me real harm. And i will kill her myself if she turns on the pack here.” (This last out of Weslynn’s hearing.)
“Gronk no like it, no like it one bit. If Gronk see Wulf losing control to Bloodsucker, Gronk will chop her into little pieces,” Gronk whispered back to his friend.
Weslynn fumbled in her pouch for one of her last remaining coin to pay the bouncer to get in the club. “Aye, I’ll sit by Wulf. Perhaps others can talk to Gronk where he will not listen to me.”Lumlas and Zhanh waited their turns to pay off the door ogre. Zhanh couldn’t shake the feeling of general hostility.

Edurin saw his friends at the tavern door. He quickly got up and went back to it, and spoke to Sheepdip the Ogre.
“These people are with Captain Blotar and me. They don’t have to pay to enter.”
“Why dincha say so?” growled the ogre. He gave the coin back to Weslynn. “C’mon in, you lot!” He made a kind of scooping motion toward the rest of the group.

After the rest of Blotar’s “friends” had entered and found seats at a large table near the Captain’s, the owner of the tavern came over to speak to them. Shannazan was an immensely large and fat woman who sort of hung out of her clothing in several places. She had cleavage deep enough to swallow a hobb or a leprechaun. Her dress was of some rich brown fur, but it was short–short at both top and bottom. Rolls of fat dripped down off her buttocks. Her grayish yellow hair was a sort of outrageous mane that exploded from her head in all directions and made her seem almost a foot taller than she really was.. Her chubby fingers glinted and gleamed from all the bejewelled rings she wore, but the rings were embedded in fat like rivers in mountain gorges.

Shannazan sought out Weslynn and offered her an enormous chalice of blood-red wine. “You must be the poor lady who is on a quest to recover her wine.” Her voice was surprisingly melodious; it was a kind of purr–the kind of purr that might come from a tigress. “Food and drink is being brought for your companions.” Shannazan clapped her hands above her head three times and pointed to the table where Wulf and the others were finding seats. “You and I should go aside and talk a bit.”

“Finally, Gronk going to eat and drink.”
Zhanh smiled. “Gronk, I find the reliability of your appetites oddly comforting.”
Weslynn took the wine, and sniffed of it deeply, mindful of how…sketchy this place seemed to be, before swirling the wine in its cup, noting it’s color, and then she took a sip.

Gronk smiled at Zhanh, and let out a bit of a chuckle.

Wulf nodded respectfully to Sheepdip. He knew how difficult a bouncer’s job could be. Then he herded his group in to the indicated table, and seated the elves behind the table away from the rest of the Inn’s customers, and put Gronk on one end, and Mensa and himself on the other end. As he waited for service he scanned the crowd to pick out any who might be troublemakers. He knew how to avoid trouble, and watched to make sure his companions offered no offense, but he also knew how to take care of trouble, keeping his brass knuckles handy for quick use as needed.

Perry looked about for other elves in the tavern. He wondered if that was the measure of how he and the wizards might be received. Then he checked to see that Mensa understood what was going on. Lord knew he had felt confused often enough in the last 48 hours and he could imagine it must be stranger still for the dwarf.

Mensa was, frankly, enjoying companionship much more than food or drink. Oh, the unkzhd food was all right. Some of it – the “leg of ham” was it? – quite tasty. None of it quite satisfying as thick kzhd food (i.e. – specific moss grown and prepared in one’s home area). But good friends and fun times (combat was FUN!) more than made up the difference.

“Perry is good man for asking. Humans strange and smell funny, but Mensa deal with. When we go hit bloodsuckers?” To Mensa, the random violence, prejudice, and confusion was just Normal Life, and forgiveness was just another word for “I forgot you hit me yesterday.”

Wulf was busy. Keeping an eye on his own people, and watching the tavern crowd for any signs that someone was about to do something nasty and/or stupid. He felt his adrenalin and his wolf both excited and ready to go if needed. Then he looked at Weslynn across the room with Shanazan and for a moment he felt concern for her safety..or was it more than just concern? His own monster stirred within his soul to remind him that she was now more to him than just an attractive woman. She too had a beast within to deal with. And somehow it made her special, more like him. Suddenly he ached to be near her again, to take her, and run away from this mad quest for stolen wine that could only end in death. All his lonely life the women he loved most were always denied to him and always because he was a monster. Could this be the one he sought after, the one he needed? Could fate at last have relented and brought him together with one who could understand his plight? Or were the gods just setting him up one more time to lose it all again, to be the death of those he loved and wanted only to be with and to cherish. But he had a family now, a new pack to care for, so he shook off these troubled thoughts and returned to his duty to serve and to guard and protect.
Sometimes it is very hard when you have to take the role of Alpha, the pack leader and defender.

When Weslynn sat by Edurin, he leaned over and whispered, “You still have my pouch right?” He leaned back and enjoyed the scenery. He looked people over for a general impression of the place.

Weslynn nodded to Edurin and fished it out of one of her belt pouches and slid it across to her as she contemplated her wine she was drinking.

Perry turned to Weslynn and tried to start a conversation about his father.

‘You know why I am going to the Castle, I think. My father is there and I fear he is much changed for being so. I do not know him and may never truly do so. Is there any hope that if he has been ‘infected’ – this he said as politely as possible – there may be a way to bring him back to himself? I have a gnawing horror that the ghastly fate of patricide may yet fall to me. I do not know if I have the strength within for such a deed, should it prove necessary.’

Mensa saw the Sissy Guy was sad, and overheard his questions to Cranky Lady. “Perry sick? Can doctor cure patricide?”
Weslynn turned from her drink, and it’s unknown effects upon her, and pauses to whisper her dark news to Perry. “I…feel good Perry. Strong, fast, more aware of the world, filled with strange but potent energy I don’t understand. Despite knowing what I think I am, it feels good. Right. If he is like me, he may like his new state. But it is likely that he is also like me in that he retains his mind and sanity, once fed and the transformation complete, and is more than merely a monster. However, it is also possible that he is under the domination of the one who created him, and we may be forced to deal with him, harshly. As far as a cure, I have heard of nothing credible.”

Weslynn then returned to her drink and its consequences.

Weslynn couldn’t keep from gulping down the rest of the cup of wine a short time after her first sip. It was very good, and yet it didn’t taste quite like any wine she’d ever drunk before. It was saltier, more filling somehow.

She turned to ask the tavern mistress for more, but Shannazan had moved over to the table where the party was eating and drinking.

“Ahem, I’d like to say something,” she told them in a throat-clearing rumble that got everyone’s attention.

“Blotar and Edurin have told me a little bit about your quest. I’d like to help. Some of you were planning to sleep on the boat, but that isn’t necessary. I have rooms for you all–separate rooms so you can get a good night’s sleep.” She gestured and a shapely young barmaid came over to the table. “This is Wenwen. Her job is to make you feel comfortable, and to tend to your needs. She will show you to your rooms when you’re ready to sleep, and do everything she can to make you comfortable.” She grinned benignly at them all. It was rather scary.

“Do you understand, Wenwen?” Shannazan spoke to her servant and her voice changed. It seemed both menacing and promising.

“I understand, Mistress,” she answered with her eyes lowered. “But what about the bull?”

“I think the best thing for him is to give him as much wine or ale as he wants, and plenty of food. Yes, that would be good hospitality for him.”

Mensa didn’t have to think, which was fortunate since it was hard. “Wulf say sleep on boat. We sleep on boat.”

Edurin eyed the barmaid with a smile. He couldn’t see the angle to the offer with so many curves. “Captain Blotar, I was hoping to discuss the next leg of the trip before retiring for the night.”

Edurin would follow Blotar’s lead. If the Captain returned to the boat, so would he. Otherwise, he would accept Shannazan’s offer. Fate had a way with him. Like a cat with a new toy. Sometimes he wondered, would he ever stop being the toy?

Perry had got long past trusting anything in this neck of the woods. He attempted to use his talent to read the woman but in any case said to Wulf ‘I agree with Mensa. It would be good if no one got drunk…’ With this he nodded in Gronk’s direction. ‘I suppose we must weigh our words very carefully if we do decline this offer of hospitality since such an act is oft times taken badly. Mayhap we could say that we all suffer from an embarrassing affliction, namely incontinence, and that we would not wish to embarrass ourselves or taint this establishment.’

Mensa was worried about Sissy Guy. “Perry sick with patterside AND incompetence?”

‘Have you considered a career in trauma counselling?’ Perry asked Mensa.

“I appreciate the offer of hospitality, and the extremely fine wine you have shared with me, but I will stay on the boat with my comrades.” Weslynn replied immediately, for she believes’ Gronk’s plan to stay together tonight to be a very good one.

“Who made this fine wine, Ma’am, and how did it arrive at your house?” Weslynn compared all the known tastes and scents of wine in her memory with what is in her glass, seeking for the secret ingredient.

While doing so, she reached out with her mind to Wulf & Wulfs spirit and whispered to their ears to be alert, watchful, for she fears this place is a trap, as the first stopping place on the river road to Castle Greybat from Khazen should be, now that she thinks of it, though perhaps too late, doing her best to convey her sudden deep sense of unease to her two friends in one via this still poorly understood bond between them.

Wulf sniffed the air to see if the scent of Shanazan would tell him anything, but there was no hint of anything suspicious.His instincts made him suspect undue kindness however. He refrained from making an immediate decision though, waiting to see what the rest of the group wanted.

“Perry is OK, Mensa,” said Wulf. “What needs to be done, We will do all we can to help him.” Then he spoke quietly to Gronk: “Don’t drink yourself witless my friend. We should be careful in places we are not familiar with.”

“Gronk want to get filled, food much appreciated, fine lady,” he smiled at Shannazan. “A few ales will wash down food good. Gronk think a bed sounds good, but boat sounds safer. Gronk go where friends go.”

Gronk ate more than he drank, unwilling to allow his senses to dull. Too much had already gone wrong due to poor judgement since he took up with this group. Shannazan seemed nice, almost too nice. Gronk wondered about her generosity.  Exercising great control, Gronk only drank 4 ales.

Weslynn smiled at Shannazan and extended her senses, both smell and taste, as well her untried vampiric energies, and tried to detect if there was any trace of blood within the drink in her glass, or around their hostess and her maid.

Mensa accepted Perry’s compliment with a blush to match his hair.  “Perry just being nice to Mensa,” he said, playfully punching Perry in the arm and wondering what a “drama terrorist” was.

Lumlas listened to her companions and realized which way the wind was blowing. “I think you are all crazy to pass up free beds,” she said quietly. “But I would be even crazier to NOT stay in your company in this place.”

Zhanh didn’t say anything. He was used to sleeping on boats.

Pitching her voice low to carry to her companions at the table, but no further, Weslynn spoke again. “Lumlas and Zhanh, can you swiftly teach me any healing or other magic that might be useful, I feel we may benefit from the group having as much such lore spread around as possible, soon.” While speaking to her friends, she kept her eyes on the strangers in the room, most clearly her host and the maid, as she does not want to be overheard by villagers or crewfolk if she can avoid it.
Wulf sniffed suspiciously at Weslynn and her cup. If there was any blood there surely his sensitive wolf nose would detect it.Edurin leaned in to Weslynn to say, “We’re in a place where you can drink without illness? Perhaps Shannazan is worth talking too. I am as uneasy about her as I am uneasy around you.” He paused considering his thoughts before adding, “She seems to accept elves without concern. I have yet to see such generosity around Khazan.”
Weslynn responds to Edurin, again keeping her eyes on the villagers, and trying to be quiet as possible. “I believe someone here is either a vampire working for the castle, along with blood sources for travellers, or it is simply a number of such slaves here. If I were the lord of Castle Greybat, waging war against Khazen and it’s Death Goddess, I would make certain to supply blood bonded slaves here, at the natural stopping points along the river, for my own kind’s needs, and as trusted watchers. Also, I would consider turning one or more of the villagers into my own kind, to deal with expeditions such as ours. Now that I have had some time to consider it, I believe we are in the gravest danger here. Please, share with me and our other non-casters spells for healing and battle, if you can, sometime soon. I fear what would happen should our existing wizards fall with none other to heal them, or if we are attacked by monsters posing as men without magic to amplify our strengths in battle, or to control or ward them off.”

Perry looked thoughtfully at Weslynn. He was wondering how hard they could strike – getting in early blows might be telling.

‘Let’s go,’ he said ‘and when we’re outside let’s have another one of those Holes please. I also wonder if the Little Feets spell on Wulf or Gronk lest we are followed and need to have our backs protected would be wise.’

While the Fellowship was eating supper and discussing their options, the sun went down. Over at the main table, Edurin, Blotar, Jakuk, and Shannazan were apparently having a great time. Edurin learned that Blotar would still be heading upriver again tomorrow, and would stop at the town of Bludriver, still about a day away from Castle Greybat.

Those who wished to learn spells from each other now found that they had time to do so.

After supper, and the learning of spells, those who had decided to head back to the boat left the inn and walked briskly down the main street towards the river. The sun had gone down some time ago, but a gibbous moon poked through some very thin and scattered clouds and gave more than enough light to see by. A big patch of light also spilled out of Red’s Place.

Weslynn stood there as the knowledge of the magics blossomed in her mind, her eyes wide as the changes Teacher made to her mind settle into it, fundamentally and permanently altering her perception of herself and the world.

“The power within me…this strange surging energy I have felt since my change…it is kremm! The spells I have learned tell me that. How to channel it with mind and body…The power to shape reality! I…comprehend it now.” Weslynn has a satisfied sparkle to her eyes for a moment, as at least one change in her strange altered state has been explained.

“Thank you Lumlas and Zanh for your gift of sorcery. I promise to return the favor should I ever find myself with lore you lack.”
“Captain Blotar I have a proposal. I’ll cover the wages for those who earned them, and passages for those who did not. In return, I ask you bring us the remaining way. Acceptable deal?”

“Shannazan, please do tell me. Why are you so kind to those you just met?”

Edurin true to his intent will stay at the inn. Weslynn had an excellent point, but he could not shake the feeling. This was his course.

Blotar turned to Edurin. “My boy, that’s a very nice offer, but what you don’t understand is that I can’t take you all the way to Greybat Town. Not far above Bludriver the river gets too shallow and too fast for a large boat like the Nainevver to navigate. Maybe you can find a ride on something smaller when you get there, but for me, it just isn’t possible to take you any further.”
Wulf came around and took Weslynn’s empty wine cup. He brought it up to his nose, and made a face. His suspicions were confirmed. He thought it might be best to wait until they were outside the tavern before he said anything
Gronk stood up with the others and swayed. He grabbed the edge of the sturdy table to steady himself.

“Gronk feel dizzy, and kind of sleepy,” he said.
Wulf was busy trying to get Mensa to go out the front door. The Dwarf had wandered over to stare at Sheepdip the Ogre, probably wondering what it would be like to hit something that big and muscular onna head.

Seven of the party members filed out into the street. Edurin stayed behind.

Weslynn noted Wulf’s face, and having her paranoia jacked up another notch, quietly turned to Edurin and Zanh, quietly asked, “Could you teach me Whammy as well? I fear I will need to strike hard tonight.”

They started walking back toward the river. Between the moonlight, and the light spilling out of a few of the buildings, they had no trouble making their way. Still, the one main street was very empty.

Wulf fell back to walk beside Weslynn. “Did you know there was blood mixed in with the wine that Shannazan gave you?” he asked her.

“Was it something I said?” asked Shannazan. “I thought they would like a free bed for the night, seeing how poor they all are. Edurin could only assure her that he was happy enough to have one.
“Gronk very sleepy,” said the Minotaur.

As they passed Red’s Place they saw a man get up from the porch and go back inside.

Hoping for another fun ride, Mensa glanced back to their rear. “Where Friend-Gronk?” he asked Wulf.
.

They reached the river’s edge without incident. Two men had been left to guard the boat. They started looking around for places to sleep. There were no cabins and no bunks in sight. The two guards set up by the tiller sharing a jug of ale and rolling dice.

Gronk sat down with his back against the captain’s cabin. His head lolled to the side and he began to snore.

“Aye Wulf, that is what I thought, but could not quite discern the truth myself. The salty beauty of the wine couldn’t have been anything else that I could think of.” She sighs.

“This place is very wrong, and we need some plan for Edurin, I think.”

Zhanh took a moment to try to teach Weslyn Whammy, and then found a coil of rope to use as a mattress, pulled out his blanket, and went to sleep.

Lumlas wandered the decks for a while, quietly cursing her companions for passing up the comfortable beds in the inn, then woke up Zhanh and asked him if he had a spare blanket. Zhanh growled, gave her his. Then he pulled out his shelter tarp and wrapped himself in THAT, and went back to sleep.

‘We have to hope Edurin is safe by virtue of the Captain’s presence. We should have stayed at the inn if we misdoubt that. This is not an easy path we tread. I fear that the fellow we passed at the other tavern may have ill designs in our regard. Let us set a roster for watch duty. I should like to slep now next to Gronk and perhaps we could leave one wizard with Mensa on duty now for 3 hours and then change over. Three shifts should do it.

Wulf sniffed Gronk’s snout to see if he could smell anything suspicious. This was not good. With Gronk drugged or poisoned, it was up to him to guard the pack alone, and he was already worn out from the previous night and day’s exertions. He told Mensa to lay down by Gronk to rest, and sat by his big friend on the other side, and worried. He hoped if he dozed his wolf senses and instincts would wake him in time to react to danger. He told Weslynn to wake him at the first hint that anything was wrong.

“Mensa not sleepy. Do watch all night!” He poked at the drowsing bullman. “Friend-Gronk all right?”

Wulf smiled at his friend. “Stay awake if you can, my friend,” he said. “But do not leave the boat for any reason. And yell for help as loud as you can if anything bad comes or happens.” Then, to Perry. “Would you please take a look at Gronk. I think those &^%$#’s at the Inn gave him something.”

Well, that was a surprise to Mensa. He had always thought it was pronounced “^&$#&,” with the accent on the #.

Perry examined the Bull-man as Wulf suggested.
Perry was concerned and cast the Strawberry spell again  ‘Wulf – see if you can get that into his mouth and get him to chew and swallow even if you have to move his jaws with your hands and massage his throat. Just don’t choke him so take it slowly.’
Wulf was very grateful and worked hard (and carefully) to get the sleeping minotaur to ingest and swallow the wizard’s concoction. When finished, he sat down with his ‘star and spear next to him, and dared to doze a while, after checking to make sure Mensa was on board and nearby.
Mensa decided to march around on the upper deck, shovel on shoulder, and shouting “HALT! Who goes there?!” to every passer-by.

“Thank you, Zahn” Weslynn nodded to her wizard friend.

Weslynn added herself to the first watch, keeping a wary eye for trouble, as well as checking on Gronk and his suspicious sleep periodically.
Mensa watched suspiciously each time Weslynn went close to Wulf. Once, he got eye-to-knee with her.
Weslynn smiled at Mensa’s antics, charmed as always by the dwarf’s unique point of view. “You keep an eye out for trouble, friend, this town is full of evildoers, I fear.”

After a couple of hours of drinking, talking, and playing cards, Edurin thought he had better get some sleep. Shannazan’s maid Wenwen showed him the room he had been given for the night, a large one on the second floor toward the back. Oddly enough none of the rooms on the second floor had any doors–just doorways. The bed itself seemed unusually wide and strong for a single man–but by then Edurin was so sleepy that he hardly gave it a second thought. He pulled off his boots and lay down on it fully dressed. He was asleep within seconds.

He woke up in the middle of the night with a shortness of breath and a crushing weight on top of him. Moonlight came in through a large open window–enough for him to see the face of Shannazan hovering above his own. Her oleaginous flesh covered his body completely from side to side and almost from head to toe.

“You asked why I’ve been so kind,” she whispered. “It’s just that I expect a little kindness in return before the sun comes up.” She grinned broadly and her canine teeth were much bigger than Edurin remembered them being. “Hold still, lover,” she said. “You might even enjoy this.” She pursed her lips as if she were going to kiss him, and slowly started to lower her mouth toward his neck.

Aboard the Nainevver Zhanh, Lumlas, Perry, and Gronk were all asleep. Forcing some magical health food down his throat hadn’t done a thing to wake up the minotaur.

Wulf and Mensa were finding it hard to stay awake. The night was sultry and warm without being too hot. A cool breeze played over the river.

Then Weslynn noticed a large hulking shape walking across the dock toward the boat. Oddly enough, neither Wulf nor Mensa seemed to notice it.

“Lady Weslynn, come to me. You are needed back at the Big Buck Tavern.”

“Look out friends! Someone approaches the Nainevver, my friends!” Weslynn moved to bar entry to the boat as best she could.

“Who are you, stranger, and what brings you here tonight?” Weslynn readied her pike.

Wulf, awakened by the voices, rose up, and came forward with spear in left hand and morningstar in the right hand. “What is going on?” he asked. He tested the air trying to get a scent on the messenger, and a growl rumbled in his throat. (If only he were not so tired….)!
Weslynn made room for Wulf to stand beside her, and gestured at the approaching figure. “This stranger claims I am needed at the Big Buck Tavern.”

“What stranger?” yawned Mensa. “I wasn’t asleep!”

Perry woke up at the commotion – he was on a hair trigger on the uncomfortable barge. Once Wulf and Weslynn had told him what the imposing visitor wanted, he suggested that they split into two groups, one to accompany Weslynn, the other to stay with Gronk. Perry tried to stir the minotaur to see if his condition had changed at all. ‘Maybe a wizard should go with you unless you now have enough magic,’ he said to Weslynn. He got one of his Jeeves (the first should vanish between 2 and 3 am I think) to stand by the stranger to see if this provoked any response. The other he got to pour a bowl of water over Mensa’s head.
Weslynn pointed to the approaching stranger for Mensa’s benefit. “Perry, I do not think we should leave Gronk. Can we carry him somehow? Do you have some magic to awaken him?”
Gronk dreamed of young cows, elf maidens, giant pitchers of ale, and huge platters of roast fowl (no beef).
“Mensa can hit him awake?”
‘Alas! I do not think I can. It seems we cannot stay together if you are to return to the Big Bucker. Surely we cannot carry such a great slab of beef! Do you think you would be well escorted by Wulf, leaving us to tend to Gronk here on the river?’

Weslynn eyed Gronk and sighed. “I believe I can carry him, should we leave here.”

‘Very well. If you trust this stranger, I shall wake these wizards and we must do as best we can. We must be cautious – this town will be no safer than that vile city after dark.’ So saying, Perry stirred Zhanh and Lumlas.
“I do not trust anyone in this town save for those here. If there are vampires here, as I suspect, Edurin may be turned against us, via a blood bond.” Weslynn frowns, then turns back to the figure on the dockside.
Since no one minded, Mensa shouldered his shovel and stumped over to Friend-Gronk.
“Mensa, save your bonking for our foes, I suggest. Gronk will be quite upset if you dent your shovel on him.”

Mensa pointed at the sleeping bullman. “Friend-Gronk need to wake up!” Why didn’t Wes-Wels–uh, WesleyInn want him to wake up Friend-Gronk?

Zhanh knew what sounds belonged to a moored boat even when sound asleep, and found himself awake at the commotion. He sat up, pulled on his boots, and packed away his tarp. That done, he shook Lumlas once, then pulled away the blanket and packed it as well. Lumlas woke up grumpily, and Zhanh pointed at Weslyn and said, “Trouble; time to go.”
Wulf sighs deeply. He turns to Perry and says: “I will go with Weslyn. Mensa.

Stay here with Perry. When Gronk wakes up, tell him Wulf wants him to help you and take care of you. Lumlas, Zhahn! Get out of this hell-hole as soon as you can. Take Gronk and Mensa and Perry with you. Don’t wait here or come after us if we don’t return.” He looks deep into Weslynn’s eyes with love and sorrow. “Come, sweet lady. Out fate awaits us. Better a horrible ending than a life of endless horrors!” He takes up the spike shield. Then to the messenger: “We are ready. Take us to your masters.”

The messenger turned out to be Sheepdip the Ogre. When he saw everyone waking up and getting ready to accompany Weslynn, he threw his hands up in the air and said, “STOP IT! You all had a chance to stay at the inn. My mistress only wants to talk to Weslynn. The rest of you should stay here. I can protect the woman perfectly well, and none of you are wanted at the inn now. You would not be admitted. It would just be a long walk for nothing. My mistress promises that no harm will come to the lady.”

He stood there glowering at them all, and repeatedly thumped his meaty left hand with a heavy bludgeon.

Someone stood between Wulf and the hulking thing. “Mensa not leave Wulf! Where you go, I go. Where you sleep, I sleep. Your friend, my friend. Your enemy, my enemy. More than blood, Mensa say this stone to stone, by gold, by gem, and by heaven-blessed iron. Mensa be faithful friend to Wulf and all Wulf’s clan.”

“Sheepdip, know this. This place is accurst, I know this now. I say I shall not accompany you alone anywhere. You will come with us, back to your inn, and we shall have Edurin safely returned to us, unharmed and untouched, and we shall leave peacefully. Or I ask my friends to fight beside me, to rend this place down in fire and fang, sword and pike.”

Weslynn gestured to her friends. “Will you come with me, to save Edurin from whatever treachery and evil has ahold of him this night? Or shall Wulf and I do this alone. Decide quickly, for I believe time may be running out for our companion.”

Zhanh found himself contemplating the Conundrum of the Suicidal Helmsman once again. He rolled his eyes, shouldered his pack, and wordlessly made his way to the rail to stand beside Weslynn.

Lumlas grapped Zhanh’s sleeve. “Has everyone gone crazy?” she hissed.

“It seems likely,” Zhanh answered.

Weslynn nodded to Zhanh, and then looked to Lumlas, and gestured towards the boat. “One of our own is in danger. We cannot make you stay, but we cannot protect you, if you are on your own.”
Perry had no doubt. ‘We are with you, Weslynn, and Edurin shall not regret the friends the hand of fate dealt him.’
“Are we all accounted then, save for Lumlas. Take your chances on the boat alone, here, or come with us to take back Edurin.” Weslynn offers Lumlas her hand. “We left Edurin behind and something dire, I fear, has happened to him. If you stay behind, I fear you will not be here when we return.”

Sheepdip lost patience. “You are all crazy,” he growled. “There is no danger here, and you had best not try anything crazy at the Big Buck tavern. Your friend is in no danger. Now come along, Weslynn, or do I have to go back and tell my mistress that you are all raving maniacs, and she should have nothing to do with you?”
Sheepdip stalked away from the boat, coming down heavily on the wooden dock and shaking it with each thunderous footstep.Mensa ran over and scraped Gronk’s horns with the edge of his war shovel. “Gronk, wake up!” he shouted.

Gronk woke up.

“Come my friends, let us go retreve Edurin.” Weslynn picks up Gronk as Mensa clobbers his horns with his shovel, resulting in a brief moment of hilarity where minotaur, Mensa, and Weslynn, end up all intertwined, before sorting themselves out.

Perry is going to go with the others assuming they following the grumbling ogre.

‘Just don’t try running in and out of that ogre’s legs,’ Perry warned Mensa. ‘You don’t want to catch him a nasty knock in a tender spot.’

Weslynn picked herself up, and apologized to Mensa and Gronk briefly, and then quickly caught up to the Ogre.

“Do you know what your mistress wants? Why does she want me? And what has happened to Edurin?”

Gronk awoke to his horn being scraped, Mensa yelling, and the bloodsucker grasping him. He shifted his weight to twist out of the bloodsucker’s grip, and the three ended up in a pile of twisted extremities. Luckily (for Weslynn), Gronk’s axe was just out of reach, but his hand fell to the hilt of his sax.

“What happening, why bloodsucker grabbing Gronk? Dwarf-friend defending Gronk?”

Gronk rose to his feet, and then he noticed the Ogre stomping off. His half-asleep brain was dazed and confused. He looked to Wulf.

“What happening, Wulf?”

“Wulf, fill in Gronk in on the situation, I feel we could use both of your wisdom here. I am out of my depth, I fear.”
“Mensa, do you have any lore about Vampires and their minions you have learned from your dwarven family?”

“Mensa never heard of vampliers ’til heard from you. And Wulf, I think. Are they leeches or mosquitos or something else? Wulf say chop off head and they get better.”

Wulf was now in full battle dress. To Gronk, he said: “Old friend, I think we are about to go to war again. One of our comrades stayed in the Inn, and they sent a messenger to fetch Weslynn. Things here stink of evil and danger. Wulf is sorry to have brought you here. But I must go now. If anything happens to me, take care of Mensa for me. Don’t let them behead me or burn my body!” He helps the Minotaur up, and then sets off with Weslynn.

Mensa struggled with his memories again, as a wave of sadness came upon him at the sound of the word “family.” He had thought he had a family, with Dad and Ma at the cave, with the cow and the mine. But now he’d been remembering other parts of his life, as if they were dreams, and he was coming to realize that his family had been no such thing. Who was he, really?
“Gronk confused, just Wulf go with bloodsucker, or everybody?”
Wulf went inward, communing with the beast within. Perry and Mensa only got a glimpse of the Wolfman in the streets of Khazan. Newly awakened, Gronk saw and remembered Wulf on the battlefield, just before major meelees. When he was like this there, there was hell to pay later.

Weslynn sensed that the Wolfman was close now, and ready to fight if needed.
But it was her wolfman now, her monster.

“Gronk do what friends need him to do, stay here or go. But Gronk not too happy about Wulf and bloodsucker walking off alone with ogre.”

“I wanted us all to go, to the point of carrying your sleeping form with us, so as not to leave you vulnerable here alone. Lumlas said we were mad, so I think she was the only one who wanted to stay here. I want everyone with me, that I can convince to go, Gronk. This place is full of treachery, that I am certain.”

Gronk sneered at the vampire-woman.

“Gronk go, if that is what is needed of Gronk. Gronk no like to leave you alone again with Wulf, anyway.”

Wulf went with Weslynn, and spoke to her on the way. “I won’t try to go in unless you call for me.” His voice sounded different. He looked different.

“Mensa, stay near me. But If I take on my Wolf aspect, you must not try to interfere with me. The wolf will bite friend or foe when he is in a fight. Gronk has seen me in this form and knows how to deal with it.”

Weslynn continued behind the ogre, jogging to catch up. “Wulf, please stay by my side as much as possible. I don’t trust this woman, or her inn, you know why, and I am certain I will need everyone’s ferocity. But you’re the only one who seems to believe me…”

Gronk stayed behind to protect those who remained at the boat.

“Wulf, careful, keep eye on Mensa.”

Mensa repeated to himself, “When Wulf Wolf, don’t interfere with Gronk. Just remember that.”

Perry dreamed of Wulf and Weslynn dressed as little lambs going to the slaughter – at least he hoped he was dreaming. He kind of knew that he was when he saw Mensa running about in a leotard waving a fishing net at passing butterflies and yodelling loudly. (Of course, he might have just had too big a mouthful of his own SFF magic mushroom meal.)

Weslynn watched Mensa catch up, dancing in his strange attire.]

Gronk stayed awake on the boat to keep watch.
Wulf’s death chant kept running thru his mind, but he was resigned now. He was determined that his spirit would not come before the Lord of the Hunt and the Wolf-Father ashamed. If he was born to die, he would die in battle for the ones he loved. Better a horrible end than a life of endless horrors.
Mensa saw how serious Wulf was, and considered cheering him up by shouting “VAMTIRES! BLOODSUCKERS! COME OUT, COME OUT!!!”

Weslynn traded grim looks with Wulf. She feels like her friends have abandoned her to walk into the lair of the monster, alone, save for Mensa and Wulf. “I suppose,” she sighed to herself, “these are the ones who I can truly trust.”  She reached out then and took Mensa’s hand, and wrapped a warm companionable thought around the simmering stew of rage in potentia that is the Wulf’s Wolf right now.

Mensa blushed.
“Have you any thoughts Mensa, on our situation?” You are always watching, yet you speak little enough. Perhaps the perspective of a dwarf will prove valuable.”

“Wulf sad,” observed Mensa. “Not good Wulf sad, when so much happy friends and fun battle and we not in cage. Not good.”

“No, you’re right enough there friend. I can feel him, you know, I know how he feels. He’s ready for the fight to come, for Edurin, and for us. He’s going to do his best to die gloriously.” Her expression hardens imperceptibly, as she does her best to grab that unfamiliar emotion running through Wulf and make it her own.
“When it comes to battle, we’ll sell our lives dearly enough.” Her facade of cold bravery was almost perfect, save for the tremor in her voice, and her wide eyes.

“No die,” said Mensa. “That wrong. Make bad guys die. Wulf live. Wesleylynn live. Mensa live. Bad guys die.  Always know: they die, we live.”

“Aye, that’s better. Making it happen, though…” Weslynn looked down at the dwarf, “How much experience fighting do you have, brave one?”

Mensa scrunched his face, and finally admitted, “Don’t know. Mensa not remember right. Sometimes one way, sometimes another. Goldylix say I not baked right.”
“Who is Goldylix? I do not believe I know that name.” Weslynn inquired.

“Lumlas,” Zhanh said, “I am beginning to think that you are right.” He headed back to his coil of rope and pulled out his blanket and tarp, then handed the blanket to Lumlas. “Gronk, let me know when you are tired, and I will stand the next watch.” He wrapped himself in the tarp, and went back to sleep.

Lumlas took the blanket and went to sit near Gronk. “Why is it,” she said quietly, “That people don’t seem to know the difference between expressing doubt and and being unwilling to stand with your friends?” She sighed. “Of course this latest death march was crazy. Everything about this expedition is crazy. The jailbreak was crazy. But I am HERE.” She sighed. “I still am glad we didn’t all march into town, but I would have gone along.”

As Wulf, Weslynn, and Mensa passed Red’s Place, they couldn’t help but notice that 30 or 40 men had gathered around the front door. Some of them appeared to be drunk, and were weaving back and forth as they stood there. Others carried torches. Some had bows. Some had swords, axes, and clubs. They were all human.

Most of them watched the ogre and his three followers go by. One of them asked, “Are those the ones?”

Someone answered, “They were with the elves earlier, but there are no elves with them now.”

“Then don’t bother them,” said a tall bowman.

Wulf saw the mob in front of Red’s Place and his soldier’s good sense told him not even the wolfman at his worst could survive such an encounter. Now it was in the hands of whatever gods controlled his and his companion’s fates. He felt no real sorrow for himself, he was a warrior and most likely doomed to die a warrior’s violent death, but his heart ached for Weslynn, and broke for Mensa, both of whom deserved a better destiny. In his heart he remembered the kindly monk brothers of The Order of Omvar, their benevolent Lord, and he quietly prayed to the All-Father to spare his friends if it was possible. Then, prepared to sell his life dearly for his companions, and girded for battle, he pressed on towards the Tavern where Edurin and Shanazan waited for them. And, raging in his breast, the wolf crouched waiting, eager to sink its fangs into the flesh of any foe.

Gronk gave Lumlas a puzzled look, not quite able to understand all she was saying. He then smiled at the pretty elf, and put a beefy arm around her shoulder.

“Gronk agree, all this crazy. Gronk glad you here, pretty elf-friend. Gronk be happy when all this crazy is finished.”

Lumlas snuggled into Gronk’s shoulder and fell asleep.

Weslyn looked at the mob of weapon wielders out after midnight, and felt that nothing good could be coming of that.

“Wulf, what do you advise we do?”

Perry’s dreams shifted into carefree visions of hearth and home. He was playing in the woods and noticed without surprise that one of his little elven playmates had a grinning dwarven face whilst another’s look reminded him very much of cattle. A third was much more like a wolf and yet another had unusually pointy teeth. In fact, all his new friends were playing happily about him until a gang of big human children surrounded them and started calling them names. When they told them to go back home to their mummies the bigger children started throwing rocks and hitting them with sticks. Perry was beginning to feel pretty miffed with these unappealing specimens when the ground split and they all were swallowed up and never seen again.

Perry turned over in his sleep with a contented sigh.

Mensa finally replied to Weslynn. “Goldylix? Yellow-hair in helmet store. He scared and ran away.”

Weslynn wondered why anyone would be scared of Mensa. “Why was he scared? Why did he run away? Was he attacked?”
Mensa shrugged. “Nobody knows.”
“I see. You’re a bit of a mystery too, I think.” Weslynn smiled again at the dwarf, and then turned her attention to the ogre.

“Hey, ogre-man, do you know why those people are out in front of the other tavern, with torches and weapons? That looks rather like an angry mob.”

Having come to a decision while talking, Weslynn turned her attention back to Mensa, and looked at him seriously. “Can you run back to the dock, brave one, as fast as you can, without stopping, and tell Gronk for me, that there is what appears to be an angry mob of 40 people outside the other tavern?”
“Not safe to leave Wulf not protected. Humans no like Wulf. Mensa guard.”

“Isn’t Gronk also your friend? If they plan to attack the boat he could be hurt. He needs to be warned, little friend. I will keep an eye on Wulf for you, as best as I can.”

Sheepdip the Ogre ignored Weslynn’s question and just continued to walk rapidly up the street. He neither knew nor cared why a mob had gathered in front of Red’s Place, so long as they left him and the Big Buck alone, he would not interfere with them. He was already beginning to think that he might have to fight the barbarian and the dwarf when they got back to the inn. In that case, he would try to take the dwarf out first.

They walked on, and in a couple of minutes the end of the street came into sight with the Big Buck looming in front of them.

When they reached the porch, he turned to face them all. “Only the woman goes inside. There is no danger here unless you start trouble. She should be back with you in half an hour or less.”

Other servants waited just inside the tavern Sheepdip spoke to one of them. “Molomo, go awaken Captain Blotar. Tell him there is an angry mob in town, and they might be heading for his boat.”

“Wenwen, fetch the mistress. Tell her the wine merchant woman is here.”

Not long after Sheepdip’s party had passed Red’s Place, the mob reached its full size–fifty-seven men. With torches and weapons in hand, led by Megil the Hunter, they headed out for the river docks. Their plan was simple, catch and kill those rat-bastard elves who had menaced their womenfolk and practiced magic on Megil’s private parts.

Back on the Nainevver, only Gronk was awake. Even he was close to drifting off again when he noticed a glow in the night air in town–a kind of flickering. The sound of tramping feet and muttering men came to his keen ears next. What was this all about?

As he wondered, the first of them turned onto the far end of the dock, a few burly bearded men carrying axes and torches. One of them noticed the big Minotaur standing by the boat’s rail, and shouted, “There is one of the monsters now! Let’s get him!”

The crowd of men spilled onto the dock and began to advance angrily toward the Nainevver.

Weslynn stopped outside of the tavern, and looked at the recalcitrant dwarf and Wulf. “Go now, both of you, and warn or help the boat. I fear they seek to harm our elven friends there. I will go inside and make sure that Captain Blotar actually knows what is occuring, and see what other tragedy awaits us this night. I will be as fast to return as I can.”

“Do not argue, go NOW.” Weslynn glared at the dwarf, released his hand, and turned him around, and pushed towards the docks.

“Pick him up and carry him, if you must Wulf.”

Weslynn sighed and entered the tavern, holding her pike as close as she is able, with her other hand on the handle of her hatchet.
Mensa went over to pick up and carry Wulf.

Edurin woke with a start, started rising up only to find himself closer to the large woman, so he sank back down. Edurin wiggled his hand up to her face touching her cheek gently and replied, “Shannazan, I do not wish to be anyone’s slave or become a vampire myself. I love my life too. But… if I may trust your word to allow no harm to myself, my companions, Captain Blotar, and his crew then you may feed lightly. I do need to be strong enough to work tomorrow.” He thought it a little silly to trust her at this point, but he will happily roll her off the bed without a sincere oath from Shannazan. She had the weight on him, but he trusted his strength to be equal to her vampiric strength. Martial training would be the telling difference.

Shannazan smiled grimly in Edurin’s face. “So you won’t struggle if I just take a sip. Very well, why would I want another slave anyway, tho being beholden to me might protect you from the lords of Castle Greybat.

She lowered her blubbery face to Edurin’s neck, extruded her fangs, and lightly pierced the skin. It didn’t hurt much. Edurin had cut himself worse shaving. For about a minute she nuzzled his neck. A strange lassitude came over the sailor. This was actually kind of pleasant. He remembered hearing that victims of attacks by lions, tigers, and bears actually felt no pain while being mauled, and then wondered if he was like a mauling victim.
Shannazan raised her head and licked her blubbery lips. “You taste good like a sailor should,” she whispered. She sat up. And now if you wish, you may have your wicked way with my luscious body.” She batted her eyes at him.

“Crewmen! Elf-friends! To your feet!” yelled Gronk. “Danger approaches! Ready your magic, spell throwers.”

“Lumlas, stay on deck,” he whispered. “If Gronk go down, hide in your magic and get away, leave all the crazy behind you.” He stroked her cheek gently and smiled.

Gronk grabbed his double-bladed broad axe and took up position halfway down the gangplank, hoping to keep the number of opponents down to a few at a time.

“Halt!” he roared at the men. “Come no closer or Gronk will chop you into little pieces! Go back to your hearths and women before it is too late!”

(

Wulf’s keen ears picked up the sound of the distant mob and he made a decision.
“Mensa” he said ” I go to help our friends. Stay clear of me.  Come if you must, but remember, Wolf is not the Wulf you know!” With a shrug and a wiggle, he became the Wolfman. Then, with a blood curdling howl, he raced off down the street towards the docks, with his spike shield and ‘star ready to kill and maim.

As he ran to join the fray, a fleeting memory of one of the Wolf shaman’s old teachings flickered through his wolf mind:
“And is there better way to die
Than facing fearsome odds
For love of pack and family and
The honor of your gods?”

“There is NO DIE, Wolf!! There is only STOP BAD GUYS!” Running after the man he’d grown to consider his elder brother, Mensa glanced over his shoulder and waved. “Bye, Wesleylynn!” He readied his favorite and only shovel and ran as hard as his short but ironlike legs could propel him. “Dagnabit it, but Wolf is FAST!!”

Mensa muttered to himself as he ran. “First go with Wesleylynn. Then go back to boat; leave Wesleylynn. Someone make up their mind!”
Zhanh awoke at Gronk’s shout, and rolled to his feet quickly. He took in the advancing mob, then rushed to uncleat the upstream mooring line. Better to drift downstream (and across the river) than to deal with that many enemies.

“Gronk!” he shouted. “Cut the gangplank loose from the dock if you can; don’t get dumped into the water if we pull away from the dock!”

Lumlas retreated to the far side of the deck house, looking for a place where she would be at least partially sheltered, and still able to see what was going on. She readied an Oh, Go Away spell and hoped that she could identify the mob’s leader.

Gronk heard Zhanh’s warning and rushed to end of the gangplank and chopped it loose. He then ran quickly back to the deck.

“Gronk no like to run from fight,” he scowled and let loose a low, rumbling growl. “Gronk no like leaving Wulf and Mensa behind.”

“I don’t want to leave our friends, either, Gronk,” Zhanh shouted back. “But I don’t want to die, either, and that might be the choice. We won’t release the downstream line unless they force us to.”

Waking up with a jolt, Perry was terrified when he saw the ugly mob of rabid sickos milling about on the dock. These people really got up his nose so he cast Miasmal Stench He cast the spell behind the leaders so as to catch them within its range but to leave Gronk out of the stink zone. Then he huddled behind the shields the boat so happily carried. Next he sent his two Jeeves spirits to knock the hands of anyone pointing a bow at the riverboat.

Perry’s spell created a 10-foot-diameter cloud of foul-smelling gasses.

“Wow! What a bizarre experience. Shannazan, you act as if you know the lords of Greybat well. May I pick my way with your brain?” Edurin grinned lopsidedly. “Err,  have my way with your brain, and unlock some of those sweet thoughts about our fate at the castle?”

Weslynn stood just inside the tavern, looking for signs of treachery, such as her own mob in the public room.
Shannazan looked at Edurin strangely. He seemed rattled by his experience, but he wasn’t making the expected move on her glamorous body. Oh well, sometimes the magic worked. Sometimes it didn’t.

“You’d rather talk about Castle Greybat, than make hot passionate love to me!” she exclaimed in mock indignation, “I don’t talk about them. It isn’t safe. And that’s the only warning I’ll give you.”

She put her large be-ringed hand on his chest and pushed him back down on the bed. She smiled bewitchingly, a feat marred somewhat by the film of blood on her teeth.

Wenwen came to the doorway. “Mistress, the wine-trader woman has arrived.”

Shannazan heaved herself up from the bed, picked up her rag of a dress, and shimmied back into it. “Wenwen, why don’t you keep our guest entertained while I go down and take care of business?” she suggested.

“Gladly, mistress! Thank you!” The shapely barmaid entered the room and literally threw herself on top of Edurin. “Hello, sailor,” she purred throatily, “want some fun?”

Sheepdip took up his usual position by the door to the tavern. It was closed, but he had a peephole, and through it he saw Wulf and Mensa turn around go running off toward the river.

Weslynn stood in the middle of the common room with her hands on her weapons, wondering why she had been summoned.

Shannazan came down the stairs from the second floor. She seemed more rumpled than usual, but there was a smile on her face.

“Greetings, Weslynn,” she said in a husky whisper that Weslynn had no difficulty hearing. “Did you like that wine I gave you earlier? You should. It came from your family’s vineyards. I added a little something as a pickmeup, just for women like you and me. Would you like another cup? Unless I miss my guess, you haven’t fed very well today.”

She walked right up to Weslynn and smiled. Weslynn could see a thin film of blood on her teeth.

“Are you part of the theft, woman? And who have you been feeding on? Is that Edurin’s blood?”
With Shannazan directly in front of her, within pike range, Weslynn intitiated combat by casting a spell to sharpen and enchant her weapon.  She did her best to decapitate the fat woman with the blade on the end of the pikeshaft.

Shannazan sensed Weslynn casting a spell–it didn’t seem to be at her, but it still couldn’t be good. She threw herself backwards and squawked, Sheepdip, protect me!”

Because of the crazy way these people had been acting, the ogre had been expecting trouble. He was glad that the barbarian and dwarf had left at a run. Now all he had to deal with was a crazy woman. He hefted his bludgeon and charged to the attack.

Weslynn continued her attack on Shannazan.  She saw that as her only chance.

As the woman cried out for her ogre, Weslynn shouted out as well, “Edurin! Aid me!” and she also reached out and grabbed for Wolf’s raging spirit, imprinting on it her dire need for him to battle against greater foes than a mob of mere men, “COME TO ME NOW, WOLF! AT THE INN AND SLAY ALL WHO ARE NOT OUR PACK!”

Edurin pushed Wenwen off him. “Sorry cutie… Your mistress might be in trouble.” He shot up and grabbed his spear, and ran out bootless to investigate the trouble. He was shocked by the scene below…

“Aid me, Edurin! This monster is part of the thieves! The wine she served me was from my own winery, by her own words.”

Edurin came to the top of the stairs and saw Shannazan falling backwards with a screaming Weslyhn swinging her pike at the innkeeper. The inn mistress called out something in an unknown tongue and a bolt of purple lightning flashed from her hand to Weslynn’s head. As the magical bolt hit her Weslhynn’s hair stood on end, and her eyes bulged out of their sockets. Then her heavy pike smacked into Shannazan’s head and bisected it, slaying the inn mistress instantly.

However, a second later Sheepdip smashed Weslynn from behind with his mighty bludgeon, breaking her back and pulverizing her torso. Edurin watched in horror as both women died.

Blotar came running out of his room. “What is going on?” he bellowed.

Edurin could only point at the carnage at the foot of the stairs.

“My sister!” bellowed Blotar in anguish. “Why?”

Sheepdip looked upstairs and saw Edurin standing there with spear in hand. “Do you want to die also?” he bellowed. “Drop the spear!”

Edurin dropped his spear, “I heard Shannazan call for help.” He glanced at Captain Blotar keeping the ogre in sight. “Captain, it seems the wine we chase found a home here in the inn. But before we talk business… Family is more important. Tell me about your sister? Do you share her need for blood? I only ask that to help clean up and bury the dead.”

His thoughts danced all over… He had spent much of his seed capital with potentially nothing to show for it. Perhaps there was still some sort of way to salvage the situation.

Blotar turned to Edurin. “My sister is a vampire, but not me. She bought two barrels of wine from the trader who usually procures such supplies for Castle Greybat and the river towns. My sister found out it came from Weslynn’s vineyard and was going to arrange to buy more from her directly. Why did Weslynn attack her? This is going to ruin my family.” The big boat captain sank down on his knees and moaned. “Oh, Shanna, what have you done to us?”

Edurin patted Captain Blotar’s shoulder, “I have no idea what happened. Wish I did. Samurai Kighe warned me this might not be a good endevour. The merchant who sold Weslynn’s wine may be the same vampire who changed Weslynn after stealing her wine. I wish I knew that answer too. You still have a shipment to take up river. I can help with the shipment or stay here to clean up and get this place back to business. Which would help you best?”
Sheepdip the Ogre took the pike out of Weslynn’s dead hand. It had a very sharp edge, and he approved of that. Wasting no time, he used it to hack off the crazy woman’s head. Then he turned and did the same to the body of Shannazan, although that head was already in two pieces.

“What are you doing?” shouted Blotar. “That’s my sister you’re mutilating!”

“Vampires, boss,” growled the ogre. “This needs to be done. We don’t want them coming back as brain-damaged undead, and they just might if we don’t handle the bodies properly. I’ll take care of the burning.”

Blotar looked stunned. “Um, yeah,” he mumbled. “Eddie-boy, I need time to think. Let’s go back to bed, and we’ll decide what to do in the morning.”