Shadow of Hope 55

The Anquillan raised a hand and opened his mouth to reply to Rôhn.

“Not to cut this short,” Kurn cut things short, “but we’re for the inn. Exchange words there.” His sword was still out and his eyes still alert, despite — or especially because of — the ranger’s sudden appearance. His voice carried more edge than even his sword did at present.

Still annoyed with her for her brash self-centered actions, Kurn told Zulian firmly, nodding to indicate the stag, “Be merciful, but be quick, or think you Haron and the horses able to fight off this wood alone as they stand waiting for our return? We must regroup to the path.”


Borlak turned a wary gaze upon the ranger, an annoyed look crossing his face. Having heard what the rangers said, he once again focused his gaze on the wood.

As Kurn spoke the barbarian gave an imperceptible nod of agreement. “Quickly, to the path and on toward the inn,” he said.

Rôhn nodded in accordance with Kurn and Borlak, but, choosing to take his cue for urgency from the Boundary Warden, rather than from his wary companions, turned back toward the seemingly calm Theron with a stern look, awaiting his response before making any move to leave.

“Well spoken on all fronts,” Theron agreed. “Nightfall in these woods is not as pleasant as it once was. For which inn were ye bound? I would be happy to escort you thereabouts, but I must return spryly. My patrol does not end until first light.”

Zulian crawled out from under the now deceased stag and placed the beast’s head gently on the ground. Theron walked toward her, leading her horse by the reins.

“Such a waste,” Theron muttered to himself, looking down at the stag as Zulian took the reins of her mount. Then the man bent down and scooped the creature up, slinging the sizable hart across his shoulders with a smooth grace. Blood continued to seep from the pulsing wounds. “The remains would poison any scavengers,” Theron offered as explanation for bringing the creature along, and upon seeing his intent, Zulian offered her horse as transport for the body.

Raising a hand to his mouth to shield his words, Finn whispered to Rohn, “I’ll say it’s a waste! My Aunt Maggie could have worked that stag up into a spread fit for a king! Wonder what they serve at the Autumn Glade?” Finn smiled at the stern dwarf, patting his rumbling stomach.

Rôhn, still staring at Theron, motionlessly awaiting his answer, slid his eyes sidelong to regard the halfling, as if for the first time. His stern expression remained unchanged.

Given that the procession seemed bound to move at a walking pace, Cheskith declined the saddle and chose to proceed on foot himself, the easier to manage amidst the growth all around, to say nothing of easing the strain on his muscles.

Nonetheless, he continued leading his horse, and the whip remained in hand – just in case.

“Are you sure, dear?” Theron aske Zulian. “The blood will continue to flow for awhile.”

“It will serve as a reminder,” she responded, and he nodded grimly, situating the stag across her horse. Once the body was settled, Theron adjusted his garb and turned again to face the group.

“Now,” he said, “if you’ll just let me know where you’re bound, we’ll be off.”

“We are bound for the Autumn Glade,” Erellia said.

Theron looked at this newest speaker, and his eyes flew open. “Milady! If I had–”

Erellia’s hand snapped up in a stopping motion, and Theron hesitated for only an instant before continuing.

“–known there was an elder among your number, I would have sent word for an escort,” the man finished.

“Simply explain what you may as you guide us back to the trail Warden Moonstar,” Erellia asked. “We’ll find our way from there.”

“Very well,” Theron replied with a nod as he moved off toward Haron and the pack animals, “This way then.”

Once the warden went stiff at the sight of Erellia, Talon sheathed his weapon with a sigh and returned to his mount. Fishing through saddlebags, he pulled out a wineskin, took a long draught from it, stoppered and put it back. Then, he found a torch and lit it. Using the torch, he lit the cigar he’d been mouthing. He was about to get on his high horse but decided to take another draught from the wineskin. This time he didn’t put it away. He paused for a moment to consider how to mount while carrying the torch, the wineskin and the smoking cigar. Reluctantly he stowed the wineskin again, mounted up with the torch in his offhand and the cigar in his mouth. “I’m going to need a lot more wine,” he muttered to no one in particular.

Rôhn turned and walked back to his horse as the rest of the party pressed forward. He took his steed by the reigns and followed the group from some distance behind.

The barbarian joined Rôhn at the end of the reforming procession. His dark eyes kept an ever vigilant watch on the wood surrounding them. While still very alert, it was obvious that he felt some relief at being back on the trail and headed toward the inn.

Once again his fingers darted into the pouch at his neck and he sprinkled a small amount of the brownish substance on the ground.

Used to being ignored by dwarves, Finn sighed and sidled over toward Talon, having heard the swordsman’s wish for more wine. Finn nodded and then jerked his thumb to the rear of the group where Rôhn followed. “Might want to order a keg for Rôhn. Needs a bit loosening up – or is he always so dour? What can you tell me of these old companions of yours that you might have left out on the trail here?”

Kurn trailed last in the regroup, minding the rear of the return. With one last circle from horseback for any sight of movement within the treacherous shadows of the wood, he snapped the reins of his mount and nudged it to follow the others back to the group. His sword stayed in his hand and his shield upon his arm.

Once back within the group, he wordlessly rode back forward to resume his position in the progression, throwing only one wary glance at the blood draining from the stag across Zulian’s horse; poisonous, the warden had said, and made so by the unnatural touch of an unnatural creature. Not all poisons needed to be ingested; Kurn wondered for the fate of Zulian’s mount come the morrow. He swept his gaze across the line to ensure all were accounted for.

For everyone’s benefit, Kurn explained clearly enough for all to hear, “It appeared as a snake, mist-gray to black, and the light did not play upon it properly. It was easily my forearm in diameter and I know not how long. It descended from a tree to the ground as we arrived.” He turned to the ranger, “Was this your shadowthorn?”

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