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Nights Dark Terror

by Jason Zavoda

Part One

Telek listened to the river as it fought against the boat. It had rained heavily the day before and the voice of the river was loud and deep. Traces of the storm and the anger of the river rushed beside the boat or lay broken on the slopes of the embankment. The broken bodies of many trees lay across the tops of the riverbank now that the stormwaters had receded. Telek silently honoured these fallen brethren, so much like the trees around the banks of the Foestop River in his native Alfheim.

Rolling fields flanked the river but ahead the edges of the Dymrak Forest stood out on the Eastern horizon. The boles and torn branches had been carried far, further than the town of Kelvin where Telek and his five companions had boarded Captain Kalanos' riverboat, but still the destination for the small band lay miles further upstream. Thirty or so miles East of Kelvin, the Volaga river branched off and the smaller stream, the Syereb, flowed South and East through the Dymrak Forest. On the East bank of the Syereb River sat a small steading, a ranch where wild horses were corralled and tamed. The Ranchers needed guards for a small herd of horses they had gathered, Telek and his companions needed funds to equip themselves for an expedition to an abandoned keep in eastern Karameikos, easy money, or so they were told, Telek was young for an Elf but knew that money never came easily.

* * *

Dirk Wooten pretended to sleep, his back against a barrel roped to the side of the boat. He kept a sheet of stained canvas wrapped around his shoulders. It was a cool morning even for the first week of Spring, for that Dirk was thankful, the padding under his chainmail shirt kept him warm and the canvas kept the river spray from soaking his armour. A Heavy coating of oil protected his armour and weapons from the damp, Dirk took no chances with the tools of his trade.

At the moment Dirk had five royals keeping themselves company in his backpack and a heavy golden torq around his neck that he had been given by a Traladaran merchant he saved from thieves one night on patrol in Specularum. His companions, Telek the Elf, Red a Cleric of Traladara, Cat a petite female Magician, Mouse a Halfling from the Five Shires, and now Vlad, were scattered about the small craft.

Dirk had formed the small adventuring group three months before when his enlistment with the Specularum city guards had ended. Telek had arrived in the city the year before, a young Elf struck with the Wanderlust. Dirk shared Teleks desire to see the world, though he would like to do more than just see it, owning a small part of it would also suit him just fine.

Red, named after his flaming mane and beard, had tended bar at a tavern on Dirks patrol route. Dirk had known him for several weeks before he found out that the Bartender/bouncer, Red being a huge bear of a man with a fiery temper to match his hair, was also a cleric of the Traladara Church. Red believed in grappling with religion, though his approach was too forceful for the more refined Traladarans. Many young Traladarans in Specularum followed his advice and sought his counsel, but a restless urge to see the boundaries of his homeland overcame him and he brought up the idea of joining Dirks group for a time. Dirk jumped at the chance of having the formidable cleric at his side.

* * *

The Riverboat surged forward as the Rowers ceaselessly swept their oars in and out of the water.

Dirk watched the dark cloaked pair of Cat and Mouse sitting opposite from him on a wooden barrel. They were a notorious pair, young and inexperienced seemingly but the rumours around Specularum spoke of midnight thefts and daring cat-burglary. Neither had ever been caught or even charged but leaving Specularum, at least for a time had seemed prudent and they accepted dirks offer.

A steady rasping sound drew Dirks attention from the pair. Sitting with crossed legs a few feet from him sat Vlad. Dirk had known Vlad the longest but had only met him again recently. Vlad had enlisted a season before Dirk in the city guards. They had been assigned to the same company though not in the same squad. He had seen him frequently, drinking and usually brawling in the Tavern where Red tended bar. Many a time Red had thrown the off duty guardsman out into the street or pinned him to the ground or a wall when Vlads berserker temper flared. But still Vlad was a well liked Guardsman and his bad traits were outweighed by his good. Vlad had disappeared at the end of his enlistment, leaving to work with his father and uncle on the ranch that had hired the small group of adventurers. Dirk watched him sharpen the edge of his blade, a long heavy cavalry sabre, and was glad to have him along.

Part Two

The Sun was on the wane, though still high in the sky, noonday had passed. Telek sat again near the prow of the riverboat, the river speaking only in a murmur. Ahead the forest stopped at the edge of the south embankment, a few spots on the even edge gaping like broken teeth where the previous nights stormwaters had pulled away trees, root and all.

His attention turned now toward the forest ahead, only a moments warning did he have when the river spoke with a changed pitch. Then he was flying overboard his hands making a grab for the raised sides of the riverboat.

There was a grating noise that sawed across the riverboats prow, then a lurch as the boat was stopped in the water. Captain Kalanos had been approaching Telek at the time to speak with the Elf. He was thrown forward and off the raised deck and into the rowers benches. Dirk who had fallen asleep was thrown forward and awoke with a start jumping to his feet on the reeling deck and trying to draw his sword. the boat swung to the right turned sideways in the current, the rudder unmanned, the starboard side of the boat rising high, dirk flew through the air and crashed into the barrels secured to the port rail. He landed on his back his longsword clutched white knuckled in his hand.

Vlad had fared better, he had become familiar with river travel in the time with his father and uncle guarding shipments up and down the Volaga and the Syereb. He was flattened on his stomach , his sabre secured across his back, both hands flat against the porous wood of the deck.

Cat and Mouse were the only two standing, their heads hardly higher than the barrels that they were braced against, their hands linked with each others and the rope holding the barrels to the rail. They stood by the starboard rail and as the boat rose their feet left the deck.

Red had been at the stern of the boat, an open keg filled with three winter cider had been breached for the noonday meal. He had filled the water ladle with the potent brew and was raising enough to stun an ox to his lips when the boat lurched to a stop. Luckily he had closed his eyes in anticipation of ambrosial nectar, his ladle smacked him smartly across the bridge of his nose, its contents splashed across his face and soaked his beard. If more luck had been with him he would have fallen. Instead he staggered, and being a tall man the port rail only ran to the back of his thighs. As the starboard rose he somersaulted through air and into the river. The port stern oarsman saw him circle through the air like a carnival acrobat and land on his back in the water. There was a tremendous splash, and he disappeared from sight like a hundred weight sack of gravel, bellowing out as he sailed through the air.


* * *

Telek caught edge of the boat as he went over he twisted in the air like a cat and his feet slammed against the outer edge. His left hand came up and he pulled himself into the boat like a gymnast over a vaulting horse. The ship sank down even as his feet touched the deck. The boat did a slow turn and levelled off in the current. The prow was slowly turning into the current, back toward Kelvin. On the raised deck he could see only Vlad still gripping the deck and Cat and Mouse, the Pair as Telek thought of them, holding onto the starboard rail and its secured barrels.

The port oar bank was a mess, the Captain and the crewman at the rudder had come crashing into their benches along with a good deal of unsecured baggage. The Captain had landed directly on top of an oarsman, knocking the wind out of the Captain but seriously injuring the oarsman. he lay in a heap . The most forward port oarsman appeared to be dead. The second oar had been pulled from the hands of the crewman behind him and caught him across the back of the head. He had been thrown forward and was near to Telek, his skull crushed and his neck broken.

The starboard oarsman were rising from their benches and climbing to the raised deck. Telek started forward himself when he saw a crewman stumble as he stood on the deck then fall forward. Telek was trained with a bow from his youth and had the speed and sight of his kind. He saw the arrows arch across the deck. One landed near his feet, a stray shot but one struck the gunwale near his shoulder.

"DOWN!" he yelled and threw himself to the deck.

Another crewman did an impromptu ballet as he was struck over his left hip, spun around and was struck again high in his left chest. He did not drop. Being the only visible target two more arrows sought him out but passed by him as he pirouetted across the deck. Then he stood still, one hand on the arrow shaft sticking from his chest, the other reaching around his back. One of the archers ashore was better or luckier than the others a third arrow arched out from the shore, Telek watching crouched alongside the gunwale followed its path with his eyes as it flew toward the paralysed crewman. He was too far away and could do nothing but stare as it sailed across the water over the rail and into, thin air. The shaft passed over the boat and into the water.

Vlad crawling across the deck had reached out and pulled the crewman's ankles out from under him. He landed with a thud. A pool of blood began to form under him. Telek saw that Vlad was checking the stricken crewman, first to see if he lived then to see if he could staunch the wound.

Telek turned his attention toward where his own bow lay secured in a carrying case tied to the port deck rail. He crawled carefully to it and did not see a group of men on the shore pass by the bowmen and throw themselves into the river.

Part Three

The world was spinning as Captain Kalanos tried to stand. Hedrick, the crewman he landed on had probably saved his life, but his head had still cracked across the rowers bench and now he was dizzy and disoriented. He made it to his feet but was bent over and swaying slightly, his vision was blurred and a wave of nausea swept over him. Matthias, another member of the crew, had a hand on his shoulder steadying him. Suddenly Matthias grip tightened, his fingers digging into the Captains shoulder. Looking up into his face the Captain saw Matthias grimace in pain, then his eyes rolled up and showed their whites, his grip slackened, he coughed once and blood sprayed from his mouth. Bonelessly Matthias collapsed to the ground.

"What... Teodor" Kalanos blurted. Over the fallen body of Matthias stood the new crewman, Teodor, he had been taken on hurriedly at Kelvin when Ivan, an old hand had been injured in a tavern brawl.

Teodor had a wicked smirk on his face and a bloody dagger in his right hand.

"Captain, captain, captain, say goodbye to your little rowboat captain, its your turn to die." Teodor said, then lunged forward. The razor edge of the dagger cut through Kalanos robe and leather jacket and glided across his ribs up and under his left arm. Teodor had struck out toward the captains centre aiming just under his breastbone for the diaphragm. A stab there would paralyse and take away the breath needed to scream or call for help. Teodor meant to strike the crew down in silence as his companions kept them cowering behind the gunwales with their arrows.

Kalanos, still groggy from his fall and caught by surprise at Teodors mutiny, could not block the knife blow or even avoid it entirely. Unsteady on his feet , he let himself fall backwards away from the knife blade. He landed on his right shoulder and rolled backwards, over the body of Hedrick who groaned in pain, and under Hedricks bench.

Using the next bench as a support he pushed his back against it, one hand on the bench itself and made it to his feet.

Teodor unbalanced when the thrust of his dagger failed to connect stumbled over the body of Matthias and fell to his knees, landing on Hedrick who groaned again then passed into deeper unconsciousness. When Teodor regained his footing he faced Captain Kalanos from across a rowers bench.

Kalanos had drawn his own dagger and used the bench to push against as he launched himself upon the murderous Teodor. Kalanos was a short man, but stocky and powerfully muscled. He worked alongside his crew rowing and loading and unloading the cargo the carried up and down the river. He rocketed into Teodor, overbearing him and stabbing his dagger completely through Teodors forearm. Teodors dagger flew stabbed wildly at the Captain, gouging the thick leather vest that Kalanos wore under his robes but even though it gashed open the leather it did not even scratch the Captain.

Leaving his knife in Teodors forearm, Kalanos used his right hand to grab Teodors throat and with his left tried to pin his knife hand.

"Swine, " gasped Kalanos "Murderous dog" his hand clenched around Teodors throat. Teodors gave a choke then a gurgle as the iron fingers of Kalanos crushed out his air and his life. He stabbed wildly again, luck was with him and his dagger sunk home in the captains side. Once, deeply then again just scrapping along the open wound. Kalanos roared, but a fury was upon him. Letting the stabbing arm go free, Kalanos grabbed Teodor around the throat with both hands and lifted his head from the deck. Just as Teodor jabbed at the Captain again, Kalanos smashed Teodors head against the deck, dazing him, then again, and again. Teodor went limp, Still enraged Kalanos stood , lifted Teodors body to his chest and threw it over the side. He turned to face the deck, moving with a stagger, Just as the first boarders began pulling themselves over the side.

Part Four

"Katrina...Luv...sweetheart..." Matthew Surefoot, generally known to the world as Mouse, spoke softly, but with a deep powerful voice. "If you could let my arm go, I believe I've lost the feeling in it"

"A Ship, we had to take a ship" Katrina turned and stared glassy eyed at Mouse. " I hate Ships. "

"A Boat, my dear, a boat"

Looking out over the water Mouse could see the bowmen rising from where they had crouched in hiding along the wooded edge of the embankment. More men ran from the woods and threw themselves into the water swimming at an angle toward him with the current helping them along toward the beleaguered boat.

The bowmen arched their shots to fall into the body of the boat since no targets were showing. As the boat finished its slow spin in the current Mouse realised that both he and Katrina were now visible to the archers off the port side. One archer on shore had already caught sight of them as well. A burly man in a rusted chain shirt, he was taller and broader than the other archers, he loosed his arrow as soon as he saw the small pair. It whizzed near Katrinas head and out into the river.

"Ships, never again, nev..." Katrina turned toward the shore as the arrow went by. Her eyes narrowed, they blazed with a green fire, or so it seemed to mouse. He saw her lips move, her hand rose quickly, and as it did so a blue aura formed around it. She levelled her hand, her words crackled and Mouse strained to catch their sound but he could not make them out. The hair on his feet and back of his neck rose. A blue blade of power formed in her hand, then pointed at the chain armoured bowmen, it streaked out across the water. The bowmen had nocked another arrow and took a seconds pause to make sure his aim. He centred on the left-hand figure standing on the deck. No child that one, he thought as a blue glow appeared in its hand. Magic, magic be damned he thought and as he did so the blue leapt from the figures hand. He loosed his arrow, it had barely left his bow when the blue exploded against his chest.

The current was strong and the boat had swayed near the shore, someone on board had also dropped the heavy stone anchor over the side. The river narrowed here where it sided the Dymrak Forest but ran deep. The anchor touched bottom but slid along only slowing the boat slightly. The twelve were all excellent swimmers, battle lay ahead, an easy fight they imagined having seen the crewmen cut down by the archers. Also they knew they had an ally already on board.

Thurid was leading the group slightly, he had a bloodlust and was eager for the fight, the men behind him would have been happier with just the loot. He reached the boat while the others were twenty or so feet away. He surged forward, caught an oar and pulled himself to the side of the boat. Reaching up he caught the gap where the oar went into the side of the boat, pulled himself from the river, reached high again and caught the side of the gunwale. His feet scrabbled across the boats side, he shifted his arm and caught the edge with both hands and brought himself halfway over the side of the ship. His stomach was on the edge, his lower ribs pressing down against the wood. Directly in front of him stood a darkhaired man in a coarse brown robe now wet and blackened with blood. The mans back was turned to him, good, he thought. Resting himself on the edge Thurid drew the broad bladed dagger he carried in his belt. He swung his right leg up and over the edge.

Thurids forward momentum came to a sudden halt, something like a steel band had gotten hold of his ankle still dangling on the outer side of the gunwale. He pulled at it instinctively and the band of steel tightened, the bones in his ankle meeting then grinding together. He began a scream and it turned into a high pitched wail as the whatever had his ankle plucked him from the edge of the boat.

Captain Kalanos spun around at the sound, astonished to see a man with horror filled eyes and mouth opened to scream pulled from the edge of the deck like a stone propelled from a catapult.

Torfi was swimming with swift steady strokes. He kept his eye glancing up at the boat ahead of him. Thurid was way ahead and closing fast on the boat, swimming fast with his head down but still arrowing toward its side. Torfi saw the figure approach the side and the body fly from its arm to splash ahead of Thurid and disappear under the water. Torfi swam on and saw Thurid reach the side, then saw him on the edge as he glanced up again. The side of the boat was just ahead, ten feet no more. Thurid was swinging his leg up and aboard the boat. Something rose up from under the boat, Torfi inhaled a lung full of river as whatever it was reached out and caught hold of Thurids ankle.

* * *

"hmm, hmm, hmm," Telek hummed to himself as he flowed across the deck, Elves never scrabbled, and searched for his bow case. His humming would have been swearing in a human as he tossed aside the frame and contents of a broken trunk. Underneath a torn cloth bag which now contained silk cloth and broken glass, Cat would be upset, Telek felt the rectangular side of his bow case. His hand ran across the wood and pulled away as if burned when they felt the split in the wood. Almost in panic he tossed aside the cloth bag, grabbed another handful of cloth and broken wood and threw them over his shoulder .

His bow case carved from a single piece of tree limb lay split the white heart of the wood showing. An overpowering scent of Lavender assailed him as he lifted the case, small fragments of glass fell free. Cat, he thought, then too quickly for him to catch a long broken wedge of wood fell from the case and clattered to the deck. A small thrill of energy rose from his chest, a small smile formed on his lips. He was angry, very, very angry.

The thud of an arrow smacking into the deck near him brought him back to the present. squatting down he lay the ruined case across his knees. He flipped up the lid of the case, it came away in his hands. He lay it down upon the deck.

A finely woven cloth was wrapped around his bow. He pulled it to the side. Carefully he raised it from the case. It appeared to be ivory, yellowed and smooth. With a quick but careful eye he held it up and checked it for even the smallest scrape or gouge. Except for the strong scent of Lavender no harm seemed to have come to it.

With astonishing speed he strung his bow then removed the small quiver of a dozen arrows which had been secured inside the case. As he rose a lucky shot grazed his hip as the arrow arched down toward the deck. It hit the edge of his chainmail shirt cut through the cloth of his pants leg, the arrows sharp edge opening a long cut from hip to knee.

On the embankment before him he saw a small group of archers standing near the waters edge. One archer in particular stood out, tall and broad, wearing rusty chainmail, he held a bow in one hand and with the other gestured toward the centre of the boat. Telek didn't need elven hearing to make out the bellowed commands coming from the man.

"You ?&%$$!! the wizard the !%$# wizard. SHOOT THE WIZARD NOW!!!"

Torfi coughed the water from his lungs and tread the water. Aghast he watched a man pull himself from under the ship. An arm like a tree limb had reached out and grabbed Thurids ankle, with its left hand the man grabbed an oar. Thurid flew through the air as the man pulled back his arm, but he didn't hit the water. The man swung back his shoulder and brought Thurid horizontally around and into the side of boat. An oar cracked when Thurid hit, but the man didn't let go, he swung Thurid again up against the boat using his forehand, like a man beating the dust out of a carpet. Torfi did not hesitate, he turned his back and swam like hell for the embankment.

Part Five

Nine men stood on the shore. Eight of them fired a ragged volley at the small pair standing on the deck. The ninth urged them on, forgetting the bow held in his own right hand.

"Mouse, Cat, get down" Telek yelled at the pair, while he stood up himself.

He nocked an arrow and sighted along its shaft. The man in chain was still yelling and directing the other archers, he was not an immediate threat. All the others seemed equally unskilled, Telek simply took aim at the one furthest to the right.

Someone shrieked on deck to his left, a whistle of breath came from over his teeth and he let his arrow fly. It sailed over the mans head by about a foot.

Angry, Telek was very angry. He drew in his breath as he nocked another arrow. The archers on the shore were moving in slow motion, Telek had all the time in the world. His next shot took the man dead centre. The man had been reaching over his shoulder to pluck another arrow from the quiver on his back. Telek saw him give a start, like someone woken from a deep sleep, then, arm still raised, he fell backwards.

Telek inhaled again and exhaled as he fired. His arrow struck the next man low on the left of his chest. The man spun and fell to the ground. His fourth shot missed but passed close enough to shave hairs from the beard of the next archer making him flinch and drop the arrow he was preparing to shoot.

Four arrows streaked from the shore and passed to Teleks left. A fifth crossed paths with Teleks arrow. The arrow from shore passed harmlessly over the deck, Teleks shot struck an archer standing next to the man in chain. It hit with a meaty smack in the pit of the mans stomach, doubling him over. He fell at the feet of the man in chain.

Blue eyes, hard as glass, stared out over the water and locked with Teleks brown. A smile formed on the armoured mans face and he remembered the short bow in his hands. Teleks face was calm and with a deep even breath he let fly his sixth arrow.

Still smiling the armoured man stepped to the side, Teleks arrow had only clipped the edge of his cloak. He raised his bow and sighted carefully. An arrow , then two more came from the other archers on shore. All three hit the deck near where Telek stood. The man in chain turned and yelled to them. "He's my kill!" then turned and fired.

The swimmers had reached the side of the boat. Using Thurids body as a flail, Red kept the first two or three at bay for a moment, but with a half dozen men behind them they surged forward. Thurid was not a good weapon and even Reds powerful arm grew tired. As the men swimming for the boat threw themselves at him, Red let go of his hold on Thurids ankle. It flew into two of the three and tangled them, but the next man collided with him, the drawn knife held in his attackers hand gashing his forearm.

"Damn", Red swore and let go of the oar he was holding. He slammed his left fist like a hammer over the mans shoulder and into his back ribs. As Red struggled another swimmer brought an arm across his throat and locked together the three of them sunk under the water.

There were eight men left of the twelve who had swum from the shore. They clustered near the centre of the boat and boosted themselves up as Thurid had done using the oars to stand on and pull themselves over the side.

A last two or three arrows passed over the side of the boat as the men pulled themselves on board. As an arm and shoulder appeared over the edge of the boat Vlad brought his sabre across them. Both Dirk and Vlad were crouched amidst the debris and bodies of the port rowers pit. Dirk was on the right Vlad on the left, waiting with sword and sabre drawn. The unarmoured swimmers were easy pickings when after a hard swim they climbed over the gunwale.

Vlad struck and an arm separated from a shoulder, there was a splash as the rest of the body hit the water. Dirk stabbed upward, under the breastbone and into the heart. The man gave a gasp and lay head down over the side, legs dangling over the outer side. Three more men were pulling themselves over the side. Vlad swung on the rise, two hands cupped around the hilt of his sabre. A head and body fell over the side. Dirk rolled, then stabbed up again. This boarder was quicker and luckier than his companions. He avoided Dirks blade and looked wildly around at the carnage in the pit. Another boarder somersaulted over the edge just behind him. The last three boarders were hauling themselves over the boats edge behind Dirk. Vlad chopped down and split a skull, spun around and lopped off a hand holding a dagger. Dirk saw a man climb aboard from the corner of his eye. He pushed himself backwards, jabbed at the man in front of him and swing his sword around low. It slashed across the back of a dripping leg and knocked the man down. He fell backwards and landed on top of Dirk, pinning his sword to the deck.

Dirk could see the last two boarders start forward then look up in terror. Dirk turned his head and followed their eyes. Vlad stood up in the rowers pit, blood dripping from his sabre and splattered across his chainmail shirt, face and hair. There was a wild look in Vlads eyes, he barked out a laugh then rushed forward careless of the fallen. This was too much for the knife wielding boarders, without a pause they both dived overboard. The one who had fallen on Dirk looked up in horror at Vlad and struggled to rise. Dirk grabbed him around the waist. Suddenly the mans struggle ceased. Vlad had given another barking laugh as he cut the mans throat with the edge of his Sabre.

With a wild strength Dirk pushed the body off of him. He jumped to his feet and came face to face with Vlad.

"what the.. What the hell did you kill him for"

Vlad stared wild eyed at Dirk his chest heaving, a glimmer still in his eyes. He said nothing.

Slowly Dirk reached out and put a hand on his friends shoulder. He gave him a shake. The Wild look slowly faded from Vlads eyes. His breathing slowed and he turned his head away. Dirk turned away as well and surveyed the carnage.

On the shore three bodies lay crumpled. The man in armour nowhere in view. Telek had seen him fall when his arrow had struck him high in the chest. The remaining bowmen, having seen their companions slaughtered as they tried to board the boat, had turned and fled, but not in disorder. They dragged their wounded commander with them, who the man in armour obviously was, and carrying their bows disappeared into the woods.

Part Six

A cool spring breeze played across the rolling fields and rustled the leaves along the forests edge. A crow circled in the air, cawed mournfully and sailed into the top branches of a nearby tree. In the distance first one then several caws sounded in answer. Crumpled among the bushes on the rivers edge lay several bodies. The journeys end that the path of violence most often leads, these bodies represented an unexpected feast to the dark scavengers. The scent of man would keep many predators small and large away, but the crows knew the sight and sound of conflict and war. The ringing of sword on shield, the sound of a voice screaming in anger or pain or fear, these were the dinner bell and this keen eyed scout cawed again to bring his fellows to this banquet.

A little down stream a boat bobbed in the current. Its anchor caught among twisted roots along the waters edge. It appeared peaceful from a distance.

A crow flying overhead would circle back and note the sign of mans handiwork, fly low drawn by sight of so much food sprawled across the small boat, then fly away, but not to far. Those still living on the boat would begrudge the crows their feast though they prepared it themselves.

"How is the captain?" Vlad asked Telek who had been tending the wounded crewmen. The crew, now consisting of two uninjured crewman, the badly wounded captain and an unconscious rower that had lain among the dead of the port rowers pit, were huddled at the stern of the boat.

"Not good. He has been stabbed very deeply and the wound bubbles."

"His lung then is it."

"Yes, and he hit his head when he fell from the deck. His eyes are unbalanced and he dreams while awake. I have told one of his crew not to let him sleep. I have seen it before where sleep after such a blow can lead to an everlasting sleep. "

"If Red were here.." Dirk let the spoken thought trail off.

"He may be down stream" Telek did not say whether he meant Red or Reds body. " But we cannot heal wounds with what ifs"

" Is this a private conversation or can anyone join in" a voice spoke from somewhere near their waists.

"you are most welcome Sir Mouse" Telek said

"your steps are silent as ever" Dirk said and looked around, Cat sat near the prow of the deck talking quietly with Vlad who sat with bowed head, huddled in upon himself, like a marionette left unattended.

Mouse caught the direction of Dirks glance and nodded. "She should have joined some priesthood rather than studying with that grandmother of hers, she has an affinity with those who suffer."

Telek looked over at Vlad as well. "I did not know that Vlad had been wounded?"

"Not in the flesh" Dirk said" but in the soul. A force of chaos works through him, I have only seen it overtake him twice before and only in battle, but it is a thing not of his choosing. He fights against it and when it defeats him he takes it as a battle lost. We are companions now, all of us, though Vlad has not sworn to be a part of our company, our lives depend upon each other, so I tell you these things. But there is a bond between Vlad and myself, so what I know of Vlad, I ask to be kept within our small circle."

" The blood madness," Telek said " it is known among my people. A burden to the one who carries it, and a danger at times to friend as well as foe. "

"Not unknown to halflings either" Mouse spoke up " We seem to have the loves, likes and sadly the afflictions of our giant cousins. But Dirk, you have no need to fear my glib tongue, and our taciturn Elf is unlikely to bandy the subject about. Vlad should have been born a dwarf they would count it a blessing to posses, or be possessed by such a rage or so I have heard."

"Hel..LOOO the ship, hel...LOOO"

A ragged soggy bear seemed to be hailing them from the shore.

"RED!!!" shouted Dirk and Mouse simultaneously. Both turned and rushed to the rail.

"HellOOO" Red bellowed again then shook his head spraying droplets of water about. He bent his head first to one side slapping the opposite ear with the palm of his hand then repeated the process with the other. He gave a great sneeze then shook his head again. "HellOOO...I've got as much river inside me as out" he shouted.

"Then you won't mind a little more" shouted back Mouse in a shockingly loud voice." But hurry it up you oversized giant, we have wounded on board."

"But I can't" Red said helplessly

"What?!!!" shouted Dirk " Red stop kidding we need you here"

"But really, look, I can't, I mean it, I can't swim"

"What!!?!!" yelled Mouse and Dirk.

"Then how come your still alive?" shouted Mouse.

"You swam to shore" shouted Dirk.

"What I did couldn't be called swimming" yelled back Red. "All I did was not drown, and I'm sorry but I don't know how to do it again"

"Alright then" yelled back Mouse. "Red you can probably jump over to here but stay put."

" What are you planning!" Dirk said to Mouse.

Mouse was searching around the rail. Opening some of the small chests built against the rail posts.

"What are you planning?" Telek asked.

"I need a good length of rope," Mouse said still digging through a chest. "I figure we can haul that red-haired behemoth aboard if he's too scared to swim."

Mouse dived overboard, the end of the rope tied around his waist and loops spread out across the deck so that he had plenty of slack. The embankment was only twenty or so feet away. Red could fall in and cover almost a third of the distance. He quickly reached the grassy edge.

A huge hand grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him out of the water like a wet dog.

"Let me down, you great hairy oaf" Mouse struggled legs kicking and small hands swinging at the arm hanging over his head.

Red stretched out his arm and held the angry halfling over the water. " Is it down you want, well..."

"Quit playing around you two" Dirk shouted from the boat. "Red I told you, we have people hurt over here."

Red lowered his arm and gently set Mouse on the ground.

"next chance I get your taking a swim in from Mount Bonga to the Shire coast you big red-haired whale" Mouse muttered under his breath.

At Reds insistence Mouse ran the rope around him twice and made sure the knot wouldn't slip. Still Red stood on the edge of the river swaying back and forth but not making any progress to cross.

"You big chicken-hearted sonofa..." Mouse said under his breath.

" Hurry it up" Dirk yelled.

Mouse slipped a small throwing knife from his belt, walked up behind Red and stabbed him in his left cheek. The big man gave a yelp and jumped forward. Mouse kicked him soundly in his wounded posterior and Red went diving head first into the river.

They dragged him spluttering and flailing over to the ship. Mouse swam over as well but made an arc around the big man splattering his way across. Red managed to survive the crossing but spent more time under the water than above. It took everyone aboard to drag Red over the side, and it was hard decide whether he was half drowned or three quarters when he finally dropped over the side.

One look at the pile of bodies and parts in the rowers pit brought Red to his feet. "I wasn't kidding, I can't swim, I hope you know that." He said to everyone around him and no one in particular.

Part Seven

Smoke rose from dozens of small fires still smouldering in the ruins of the small house. Nothing was left standing, the roof and even the walls were consumed in the blaze. The wooden floor had caved in at the back of the house where a small root cellar had been.

Captain Kalanos, supported by Istvan and Horvos two of his crew, stood on the dock. A tear rolled down his face, his eyes were irritated by the smoke he would say later, but standing there in front of the ruins of Mishas small house he had nothing to say. Pulled back from death by the healing power of the red haired priest, he was still weak, and the canvas wrapped bodies of most of his crew hurt him more than his own still grave wounds.

"Captain " a musical voice spoke up. "Captain there is nothing here."

Telek came from around the side of the smouldering cabin. His longbow in his hands and a large quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder.

"The raiders who attacked us, they or ones like them were here." He raised his left hand. In it he held an arrow, half burnt away, its feathered half surviving the blaze. "The bowmen who attacked us, they used arrows such as these."

"Misha," The Captain croaked out. "did you find a woman or signs of her."

"No sign, perhaps she escaped." But Teleks voice lacked conviction.

"yes,...yes, perhaps "Kalanos said quietly.

"If they attacked Misha, and set an ambush for us, then what of Sukiskyn! My Uncles holding..." said Vlad. He had come from the boat. Since the attack he had withdrawn from the rest of the company and stood at the aft rail looking into the river. "We must go to them."

Vlad shed his lethargy like a cloak. He had hopped from the rail to the jetty and had half run to where the Captain and Telek were standing.

A wildness had come back upon him and he gestured toward the south east violently. "They've taken the Ferry, we must take the boat down the Syereb, we must leave now, it may be to late, my Uncle, my family..."

Vlad turned toward the River and stared out across the water at the forest, then whirled back, "Damn it why are you just standing there, we must leave now, it may be too late, its too late, we..."

A small hand pulled at Vlads sleeve and he whirled around once again.

Cat looked up into Vlads wild eyes with mute appeal. He said nothing but let her lead him back to the boat.

"Captain, Vlad is right we must get to his Uncles or we must turn back." Telek said.

The Captain shook his head. "I do not wish to turn back, but we cannot proceed. There is no longer crew enough to go upriver. You and your companions are sturdy fighters but even the short row from the ambush to here has shown me that you are not familiar with watercraft. Upriver we would come to the Ilyakana lumber camp, I have friends there and I want to warn them, if Vlad is not right and we are not too late, but do not ask me to try. "

"Captain, I know the mind of my companions. We will proceed, though we have no boat for the Syereb we can take the path from the riverbank where the Ferry would have let us off. But for you and your men I say, return to Kelvin. Raise an alarm, we will try to warn those at the Lumber camp."

Kalanos bows his head. When he raises it again and looks into the eyes of the young elf his own eyes are clear and determined though rimmed with red. "When you do reach Ilyakana ask for Gregor and tell him, tell him..."

"I will tell him that you made it possible for my companions and myself to proceed, and I will tell him what befell us on the river."

* * * *

No one waved as the riverboat cast off and flowed with the current down the river toward Kelvin. All eyes except for Vlads were on the retreating boat.

The six of them stood on the edge of the Dymrak forest. A wide pathway lay between the trees and under their boughs. The afternoon sun was slanting toward evening as the boat disappeared down the river, a sigh escaped from several lips of the onlookers and they bent down to pick up the small travel packs that they would be taking with them.

Vlad turned and with restraint gave them an imploring look.

"We have what would be a half days march ahead of us," He said "I know that we must hurry, I feel the danger that my family is in, please."

Telek turned and from the side faced them all. "We must leave our packs here by the path and only take what we must. If we move quickly and do not we may cut down our time by a third or perhaps more, and we must either carry our small companions or abandon them."

"Hey," spoke up Mouse. "Pointy ears, I'm to old to be a sack of potatoes and your not leaving me behind."

"Mouse I admire your spirit, but not your wisdom" Telek said smiling "you and cat would have to run to match our strides. Though you are swift we are leagues away from Sukisyn. And you have an admirable mount, red and shaggy though he may be."

"What!" shouted Red.