Shadow of Hope 54

Kurn’s head snapped to his left as he reined up his horse, looking off to the side.

As the barbarian reached Zulian with the stag’s head cradled in her lap, he saw the last vestiges of life depart from the grand animal. He heard her cry for help, but realized there was no help to be had.

He spun his mount, turning his back on the scene unfolding on the ground and once again placed himself in the position of guard. He scanned the undergrowth around them looking for possible attack.

Borlak understood the great anguish felt for the loss of an animal, although he only knew it for one which he had raised. In respect for her grief he said nothing. While her mad dash into the wood endangered the group, he did not chide her. It was not as if his desire to join the Dance helped to keep the party secure

“WEAPONS!” Kurn called warning, staying mounted and pivoting sharply. His sword rang forth from its scabbard.

“The trees! Fifteen paces! Something not a snake that moves like a snake descended from the foliage to the ground!”

Kurn risked a glance over his shoulder at Zulian. He put his eyes forward again and command mixed with anger at her brash actions as he called over his shoulder, “Zulian! We cannot help the stag! You know that! We’re off the path, the party is at risk, and the unnatural thing that did this is now circling us. Do what must be done and remount; we must regroup with the party; you risk Erellia’s life!”

The barbarian, heeding the warning, reined Galagina in the direction that Kurn was looking. “I will guard our retreat to the trail,” he said. He continued to watch for creatures, wondering what type of beast could cause such wounds.

“Talon stared at Zulian in astonishment. Only the shouted orders woke him once more to the situation. He dismounted and moved to Zulian, drawing his weapon. He went to one knee beside her, ready to do what little he could to defend her.

The shouts of alarm rang out across the wood, and with weapons drawn, eyes and arrows were focused in Kurn’s direction. Save for the stomping of hooves, a still silence was all the forest offered as Erellia finally approached.

Rôhn hustled up not far behind the elven matron, holding his warhammer down by his waist with both hands as he trotted. He came to an abrupt halt on the outer circle of the party, attention divided between the moribund stag and the bristling foliage around them. The clomping hooves as their armed riders’ struggle to keep them reigned in fed the palpable fear.

“Zulian,” Talon said, “We can all see you hold these lands and its creatures sacred. The death of a stag is only a symptom of the evil at work here. Let us regroup and press on quickly to find the source of what is wrong here.”

Talon made no move to touch her. Instead, he focused on the surrounding woods but remained acutely aware that Zulain might turn on him, as well. Either way, he was at the ready for combat.

“But look at the wounds,” Zulian said. “They’re so…unnatural, and the earth magic did nothing. Wouldn’t even stop the bleeding. What could do such a thing?”

“Eregalamordo,” a man’s voice said in an elven dialect not fifteen feet away.

Heads snapped in the direction of the voice. A meaty human stood next to Zulian’s horse, one gloved hand clasped around the reins. Dark, windswept hair drifted out of his hood. Although wielding no weapon, the man bristled with weaponry, and no one had heard him approach.

“Shadowthorn?” Zulian asked, tasting the translation.

“Aye,” the stranger said with a single nod, “and likely far away by now. They don’t favor an open melee. They’re opportunists.”

The man smiled and gave a slight bow. “Theron Moonstar, Boundary Warden of Anquilla,” he said by way of introduction. “Welcome, despite the unfortunate nature of our meeting.”

“Are we?” barked Rôhn. “Perhaps by the wardens of men. But it seems there is some greater force that would have us away. What is this…shadowthorn?” Rôhn punctuated his query with a characteristic scowl.


Shadow of Hope 55

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