Shadow of Hope 47

“Zulian, if you would, please,” Erellia directed the half-Elf.

With an affirming nod, Zulian led her mount by the reins, passing slowly between the two misshapen trees and onto the narrow ridge beyond.  The remainder of the party followed her lead and in due course, the entire company was strung out in a single file line, trickling over the terrain.  Erellia watched over the procession as it formed and was the last to pass through the trees and on to the path that led to Anquilla.

Only a few minutes had passed when those in the rear of the line observed Zulian disappearing into the naturally formed, narrow passage, where each of the company, in turn, followed in her footsteps.  The thin, rocky path spanned less than fifty strides before opening up and spilling out into a forested clearing some thirty feet in rough diameter.  Despite the serenity and natural beauty of the clearing in comparison to the harsh scrubland from whence the party just came, all eyes were drawn to another sight at the far side of the clearing.

“Erellia!” Zulian called out over her shoulder with slight urgency and no small degree of frustration.

As the party emerged from the defile and formed a loose semi-circle around Zulian, they saw her standing with arms folded across her chest and a look of consternation on her face as she watched two figures, a male Human and a male Halfing, approach from the other end of the clearing.

“GREAT PEAKS OF SLOWBURN!” Rôhn shouted with uncharacteristic animation, rattling the trees and waking everything short of the dead.

Finally, Erellia made her way out of the narrow pathway and moved up to stand beside Zulian.  As soon as she saw the approaching pair, her eyes narrowed in scrutiny and she said, “This cannot be.”

When the Halfling stepped into the clearing and saw the group of travelers in front of him, he stopped in mid-stride, his eyes wide with surprise.  He was holding a shortbow in one hand and leading a gray pony laden with saddlebags with the other.  He wore well-worn traveling clothes, had dark brown hair, and stood just around three feet tall.  The pommel of a shortsword stuck up over his right shoulder and a punching dagger rested at his hip, the hilt resting against a brace of darts he wore along his waist.  Various pouches and bags dangled from his belt.

The Halfling glanced at his Human traveling companion and then back at the stern-faced group.  His face broke into a smile and his rather high-pitched voice rang out, “Howdy!  Are you folks Troll hunters?  You sure scared a big one out of these woods a minute ago!  I thought it was gonna eat us for sure, but I guess it was too busy high tailin’ it away from you fellers…er, and ladies.”

The Human wore an oiled-dark, full-length cloak with the hood thrownback.  Bulges at the hips and over the shoulders from the back must have been weapons or packs.  The skin of his clean-shaven face was tanned, but unweathered, and topped by long black hair that was pulled back loosely and tied at his neck.  His dark eyes betrayed a dozen different emotions as the whole group appeared at the other side of the clearing.  As the Halfling spoke, the man pulled open his cloak and tucked one side behind the hilt and scabbard of a rapier or other delicate blade.  He wore a fine white shirt, loosely bloused but tucked into bright crimson pants.  He seemed underdressed for the weather, except for a pair of fur-trimmed, soft leather boots.  His clothes were tied off above and below joints and loose enough that he might have been wearing light armor beneath them.  A belt with pouches was worn over one shoulder like a bandolier.  Across the other shoulder was the carrying strap of a soft pack that would hang off-hip.

He spoke, loud enough to be heard across the clearing.  The voice carried an accent from the lands of Manshikal.

“Greetings, my old friends and new.  I am happy to have found you without incident.  The captain’s instructions were to the letter.”

With a subtlety that often failed him, the man’s gestured, inflection and mannerism added a subtext to his words which, in this case, seemed directed to the elder Elf-woman.

Rôhn dismounted with great haste and clamor, and little grace, and, holding the pommel of the warhammer strapped to his girdle to keep it from swinging like a pendulum, ran toward the pair.  Ignoring the Halfling’s greeting, he shouted with exuberance at the Human, “SO!  ‘THE SWIFT’ ESCAPES DEATH YET AGAIN, EH?  ONE OF THESE DAYS, MY OLD FRIEND, YOUR LUCK IS GOING TO RUN OUT!”  Rôhn grinned broadly and approached the Human, with arms wide to accept his forearm in a vigorous shake.

The man closed the distance to Rôhn, feinted an armclasp, and then boldly embraced the Dwarf around the shoulders, laughing heartily at the protestations of the dour Dwarf.  “Ah, it is good to see you again, Master Roughbuckle!”

He turned his attention to the rest of the group and spoke.  “For those who do not know me, and in case my reputation has not proceeded me, my name is Talon.”  He gave a small bow in the direction of those he did not know.  “And this fine Halfling with me is Master Finnian Farstrider of Anatomber, who am I told has knowledge of these hills which will be helpful to you.”  Again, his words seemed to intend a deeper meaning to the listeners.  “Allow me to make what introductions I may,” he said.

Talon gestured with a flourish to the elder Elf-woman.  “Mistress Erellia Minervanna, ranking member of these, my fine companions, and whose deeds through past, present, and future, remain inestimable.”  At the word ‘future’, Talon casts a meaningful glance at the Dwarf.

He gestured grandly to the half-Elf woman, clasping his hand over

his heart and said, “Mistress Zulian Amahlia Rintoff, daughter of Kalleria, daughter of Ellenneria, high elf priestess of Caramon Thurian.  A scout of indisputable prowess and…courage.”

Lastly, he turned to the Dwarf and gave a Dwarven salute.  “Master Rôhn Roughbuckle, Goblinslayer, Savior of Sankal and Terror of the Tides.”  He smiled wryly at the last title before continuing, “May his song never fade from the hallowed halls of Kräg-Dün.”

“Whom do I, and Master Farstrider, have the pleasure of meeting this day?”  He smiled at the members of the group he did not introduce, and seemed, finally, as though he might shut up.


Shadow of Hope 48

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