Chapter 4: Encounters

By Michelle Michel

Grunt sat beside the long dead fire, eyes darting as he kept watch over his sleeping companions. It was the fourth night away from Bitan, and they'd yet to come across any trouble - something that could change at any moment. Though he doubted it would be that night. He always had last watch, and it was almost over as it was.

He sighed, standing soundlessly and walking around the camp once again. In fact, he would quite prefer having the party attacked by something. Grunt, though infinitely more patient than Valaya, had come to find the past several days of non-stop horseback riding tedious if anything at all. He longed for a chance to fight, to put his thoughts aside simply for the moment to moment life that battles brought.

He paused beside Valaya's sleeping form, and allowed a small smile to tug at his lips. She was motionless, the only movement the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed - astonishingly different from her waking state. Equally different was the lack of sound; Valaya slept completely silent, not even a hint of a snore or mumble.

She had not changed much in the three years he'd known her. As soon as she had saved him, both from his human tormentors and timeless solitude, she had made her personality apparent: care-free, loud, and talkative when she was not working, single-minded and focused when she was, and undetectable by sound or motion when she slept. At first her vastly different personas had unnerved Grunt. How could one person be so different from one moment to the next? But she had grown on him, enough for him to choose to remain by her side even after the worst of his wounds had healed, enough for him to actually feel lost without her by his side.

Sighing, he looked up, his eyes turning toward the road a few hundred feet away from the camp. They were settled within a small group of trees and bushes, using them both as shelter and impromptu cover from any wandering bandits or the like. True, they had next to nothing worth stealing in the first place, and Grunt was confident that, should they be attacked, they would be more than able to handle it, but it was nice to know they had relative safety while they slept.

Across the camp, he heard Riquith stir and wake, her hazel eyes meeting Grunt's yellow ones after a quick survey of the campsite.

"Ung," Grunt greeted, nodding toward the pot beside the fire. He mimed eating with a spoon. "Uhn."

She nodded after a moment, a smile twitching at her lips. "Very well," she agreed, setting about pulling on her armor and boots. Once she was finished she reached for the pot, pulling a small bottle of Lyrrin's spiced juice from the nearby pack. She poured a generous amount into the pot, turning her attention to bringing the fire back to life long enough to heat the liquid. As she set the pot over the fire, she dug through her saddle bag and pulled out several chunks of meat, bread, and cheese to make sandwiches for breakfast.

Grunt performed one last sweep of the camp before setting about waking the others. Riquith called, "Good morrow," to the party, smirking at Sorren's bleary eyes, and began scooping the juice into six cups. She handed one cup and two sandwiches to each person, before sitting beside Lyrrin on her bedroll.

Valaya yawned and stretched, taking a gulp of her juice. "Hot!" she yelped, nearly spitting it onto the already dying fire. She swallowed hastily, coughing as it scorched her throat. Grunt chuckled and patted her back softly, trying not to hit her too hard. After a moment she smiled gratefully at him, muttering, "Thanks," as she hiccupped. She glared at the cup, then smiled brightly as Lyrrin, Thalec, and Grunt laughed.

"Glad my misery could give you laughter," she said, shaking her head. She blew on the liquid before taking another sip, her smile turning blissful as she swilled it in her mouth before swallowing. "Good job this morning, Rick!"

The Elf sighed. "Don't call me that," she said automatically. As of the second day of travel, Valaya had officially nicknamed everyone except for Sorren. Thalec (Thalie) and Lyrrin (Rin) had laughed at the shortened forms of their real names, but Riquith had balked at hers. Despite her attempts at making Valaya revert to using her actual name, the Halfling had continued to call her Rick in the morning.

Sorren glared at both Riquith and Valaya for a moment, before setting aside his cup to take a bite. Grunt watched the Drow with interest. Sorren was very close-mouthed, and if he spoke at all it was more often than not about the task and where they were headed. Grunt knew they were traveling to a place called the Larinth, stopping at Haun and Bashan before angling southeast and leaving the road. They would travel through the wilderness to reach a ring of mountains, crossing at the northernmost point through a pass. Then they would have to cross a lake to the small island in the middle, the Larinth, where they would hopefully find the Staff with as little difficulty as possible.

Grunt snorted. He doubted there would be "little difficulty". If the Staff was as wondrous as Sorren claimed then he knew there had to be more to getting it than simply going very far out of their way. Otherwise it would have been long gone, and, he suspected, not nearly as "wondrous" as many claimed. The fact that Sorren was unable to say what exactly it did instilled more doubt than faith in the task for Grunt.

Conversation dabbled in various subjects that morning, breeching lightly into the interests of each member. Valaya had to translate for Grunt, a fact he was woefully used to, and as such he spoke little, preferring to listen than to join in. He knew she was more than willing to help him, but he hated to make her tear herself away from the conversation long enough to translate. She was always bubbling with things to say and questions to ask, it seemed a crime to interrupt that just to get a few words in.

Sensing his thoughts, she turned and smiled comfortingly at him. She patted his knee and drained the rest of her juice before she set about packing her things. Moments later the others finished off their breakfast and followed her lead. They rinsed and packed away the cups, tied the saddlebags and bedrolls to the saddles, and set about mounting the horses in preparation to leave. Grunt poured the remainder of the stream water they'd boiled the night before over the fire, kicking it to douse any embers before turning to join the others.

He noticed Lyrrin hesitate as she started to pull herself onto her horse, and watched with interest as she muttered silently to herself before climbing clumsily into the saddle. He walked past her to reach his horse, patting her encouragingly on the leg as he did.

"Thanks," she mumbled to him, taking the reigns with shaking hands. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes rolling closed as she murmured a quick prayer to Feena. Grunt chuckled and shook his head slightly, moving to his stallion's side. He patted the beast's neck before swinging onto the saddle, turning the horse so he could see the rest of the party.

"We should reach Haun late evening tomorrow if we press forward today," Thalec reminded the party, wheeling Quickshade in a circle. The gelding pawed at the ground, eager to leave. "However, if we want to take it slow," he glanced toward Lyrrin, "it'll only take us another day or two at most."

Sorren rolled his eyes. "We'll go as far as we can," he said firmly. He held his head high, his eyes narrowed at Thalec, daring him to argue. "I want to reach Haun as quickly as possible. Any objections?"

Thalec opened his mouth, undoubtedly to argue, when Lyrrin spoke. "No, no arguments," she said, shaking her head as everyone turned to look at her. She smiled weakly. "Sooner we get to Haun the better, right?"

Riquith sighed, looking slightly worried, and moved her horse closer to Lyrrin. Once more she smiled. "Don't worry about me," she whispered, so quietly Grunt could scarcely hear her. "I'll be fine. And if this nightmare misbehaves, I'm sure one of you five -"

"Four," Riquith interrupted, irritated.

"Five," she said again, cocking her head and raising her eyebrows pointedly. "No matter how he acts, I'm sure he wouldn't just sit around and do nothing."

"I'm not."

Grunt shook his head, watching as Thalec and Sorren started to move, Thalec talking quietly to Sorren. His eyes were narrowed, his brow knit in anger. Sorren seemed indifferent to his words, staring straight ahead, whispering a word or two every few minutes.

Valaya and Lyrrin maneuvered their horses behind theirs, and Riquith followed closely behind, leaving Grunt to take up the rear. He sighed heavily, still unused to having to remain behind to watch their backs in case of ambush. The others rode closer together, exchanging conversations and light arguments, passing the time playing games of riddles or toying with a small puzzle box Valaya had. Though playing with the box was hard, since they had to ride as well. Even Sorren joined in once. He'd tried his hand at the puzzle on the second day, managing to open it and reveal the pool of swirling colors within minutes. Since then, he'd remained silent and distant, speaking only when he felt he had to, like Grunt.

Though he chose his solitude, Grunt thought angrily. He chose to keep distant from the others, to keep up his air of mysterious spell caster. Grunt didn't. He never chose to be the silent companion, the one who was left behind because his party members forgot that just because he couldn't talk did not mean he couldn't listen and participate.

Brooding silently, he was surprised when he felt a hand on his arm. He looked up sharply to see Lyrrin riding beside him, smiling warmly. She removed her hand, returning it to its death grip on the reins, but continued to watch him.

Grunt stared at her for a moment before looking up at the rest. Valaya looked away from Thalec to smile at him. She nodded, then turned back to Thalec, chattering once again.

"Figured I'd keep you company," Lyrrin said finally, turning her eyes to look where her horse was going as much as to make sure she stayed on the saddle. "You looked lonely."

He shrugged, still watching Valaya. Usually she was the one to fall back and join him, chattering as usual.

"I decided to come join you instead, today," Lyrrin said, leaving Grunt staring wide-eyed at her, abashed that she had guessed his thoughts so easily. "Thought I'd give Valaya the chance to annoy Riquith some more. Or should I say Rick?" She smiled again, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.

Despite himself, Grunt chuckled. Her smile widened and she turned her head to look at him directly. Her face turned thoughtful for a moment, before she said, "So. how do you like our little trip so far?"

*****

Valaya watched Riquith glance back toward her sister once again, and felt a very rare moment of annoyance bubble up. "He's not going to hurt her, you know," she snapped finally, her voice low and eyes narrowed. Riquith turned to look at her. "Grunt. He won't hurt Lyrrin. You can stop worrying." She sneered at herself. She hated being bitter, and despite her best intentions, had been more than a little annoyed with how Grunt had simply fallen behind the group. She did her best to ease him into the group, but he was having none of it. He had always been quite self-conscious about his inability to speak and communicate normally. And while she sympathized, sometimes Valaya found her patience growing thin.

Thus she had jumped at letting Lyrrin take her place by Grunt's side for the day. She was a very kind young woman, one Valaya had taken an instant liking to. She knew that if anyone could bring Grunt into the party, it was her.

All that left was dealing with her over-protective sister.

"I know he won't," Riquith said slowly, glancing back again. She sighed, momentarily weary. Then her gaze turned hard once more and she pushed her horse forward, away from Valaya.

She shook her head, anger and annoyance dissipating to leave her enthusiasm growing once again. She turned to Thalec, smiling happily.

 

Conversation drifted from topic to topic between the two. With Sorren and Riquith silent watchmen, and Grunt and Lyrrin watching their backs, she and Thalec passed the time relating various stories of their youth.

Riquith spotted the trouble first. She snapped at Valaya and Thalec to be quiet, reining her horse in. Sorren followed her example, following her gaze up the road in front of them. He stiffened in the saddle.

"Thalec!" he called, pointing ahead. Thalec rode up the short hill he and Valaya were on the bottom of, and came to a halt beside him. Valaya, not to be left out, called for Lyrrin and Grunt before riding up behind him.

 

"What do you make of it?" Sorren was asking Thalec, head half turned to look at him. Thalec frowned, shaking his head slightly. Valaya squinted into the distance, seeking what had caught her new friends' attention. They were perched at the top of a small but steep hill, the dirt road winding slightly as it made its way downwards. At the base of the hill it straightened out, running almost perfectly straight for as far as she could see. Trees and bushes dappled the grassy plains on either side, the same sight they'd been treated to since leaving Bitan. Not too far to the south from where they stood was the Hiddikel River, which Sorren often reminded them they would be crossing once they reached Bashan. After a few moments searching she spotted a caravan coming their way along the road. She frowned. Why would a simple caravan make them so upset?

Then she saw it. Hidden from the approaching caravan in the bushes and trees alongside the road was a group of Orcs. Clad in leather armor, wielding swords and axes, they watched the caravan single-mindedly. From Valaya's position she could see them as they prepared to attack.

"Bandits, likely," Thalec said finally, rubbing his eyes. He sighed. "And from the looks of it, that caravan isn't very well guarded. What were they thinking, leaving without a guard?"

"Are we going to help them?" Lyrrin asked, bringing her horse to a stop beside Thalec and Riquith. "If they can't defend themselves then we should."

Grunt pounded his chest, reaching for his axe. "Uruhn," he declared, glancing at each of them in turn. His eyes rested on Valaya, who laughed.

"All right," she agreed, kicking her pony forward. "You're right, it's been rather boring anyway. We'll go!" Not waiting to see if the others agreed, she kicked the pony into a gallop down the hill toward the caravan and its waiting ambush. She knew Grunt would follow, and that gave her faith in their ability to win a fight.

Once she reached the bottom of the hill she glanced back. Grunt had started directly after her, and had already caught up. Lyrrin, Riquith, and Thalec had followed soon after, and Sorren took up the rear, his face twisted in annoyance. She grinned as she turned to look forward again.

"Stop!" Lyrrin cried toward the caravan as they came closer. "Orcs! Don't go any further!"

Valaya watched as the horses leading the caravan paused, pawing at the ground. Their leaders began darting their heads around, searching for the threat. With a roar, the Orcs bounded from their hiding places, charging Valaya and the others. Some remained behind, firing at them with arrows. Valaya counted eight, including the two archers.

It wasn't long before she could make out the individual features. They wore leather armor over dirt stained white tunics and brown breeches. Their skin was varying between gravelly grey and the same pale green as Grunt. Lower fangs jutted over upper lips, and beady black and yellow eyes glared at the adventurers who dared interrupt their ambush.

She pulled her rapier from its sheath and dove from the pony's saddle. She'd never been very good at fighting from a saddle anyway. Besides, she didn't want to risk losing another pony in less than a week.

One of the nearest Orcs charged her, axe held high as he screamed. He reminded her vaguely of Grunt when he was angry, his yellow eyes holding the same bloodlust his did when he was in the heat of battle. This Orc, however, had one major difference from Grunt. He was running at her with the axe.

She yelped and ducked around a blow, narrowly avoiding having her head cleaved from her shoulders. She jabbed at him with the rapier, satisfied when she heard him growl in pain. Dropping low to the ground, she darted around his legs, hissing when she felt the cold metal of the axe collide with her back. Her mail shirt prevented it from doing more than bruise, but she cried out anyway.

Before she could retaliate, however, an arrow imbedded itself in his forehead. As he fell she caught sight of Riquith standing at the base of the hill, still sitting atop the horse. Valaya waved at her, grinning as she hesitated and waved back, before diving toward the closest enemy.

Thalec and Sorren fought side by side on the road, Sorren's apparent lack of many useful spells leaving him to rely on the others for protection. One of the many Orcs charged from behind, axe held high, catching Thalec and Sorren by surprise. Sorren spun, too slow to avoid being hit all together, and brought his staff up before him in hopes of lessening the blow.

Valaya noticed absently Riquith's slight hesitation before letting her arrow fly. Just before the Orc would have struck Sorren, the arrow collided, stopping his almost certainly fatal blow. Momentum carried the body forward into Sorren, however, and Valaya fought to keep herself from laughing, stumbling slightly in her mirth. She watched Thalec turned to look at him, rolling his eyes slightly as he helped him up, before dragging the glaring Drow after another Orc. Once they disappeared from her sight, she turned and spotted Lyrrin struggling on her own, deciding quickly she could use some help.

As she made her way toward Lyrrin and the Orc she fought, she saw a blur from the corner of her eye. Turning, she failed to react in time to avoid an arrow to her sword arm.

"Ah!" she cried, halting in her run. She turned the direction it came from, and saw the two archers were still untouched in the bushes. Gritting her teeth, she yanked the arrow from her arm and started running toward the closest one. She had to dodge around another Orc, one Grunt seemed to be having a screaming match with, before she managed to reach him.

"Hi!" she chirped, jabbing with her rapier, and mildly disappointed when he dodged it. He snarled and took a step back, raising his short bow to fire. Valaya jumped toward him, ducking under the arrow, and slashed. The rapier slid across his arm, cutting deep. He yowled and jumped back again, taking aim.

Before Valaya could react, Grunt appeared between her and the archer, screaming. His eyes were wide and angry, his axe bloodied and held high, ready to bring it down on the archer. He swung, and though the Orc tried to avoid the blow, he failed.

Valaya nodded appreciatively at Grunt as the archer slumped to the ground. He snorted in response. She turned, surveying the battle scene. Sorren and Thalec stood side by side, two Orcs dead. Three more had fallen victim to Riquith's arrows, including the one Valaya had fought. The other archer had turned and fled, already too far away to try and catch. And the last remaining fighter stood down the road, snarling at Lyrrin, who had positioned herself between the Orcs and the caravan.

"Lyrrin!" Valaya cried, starting off. Grunt quickly outstripped her, his long legs allowing him to cover a greater distance than her. Still, she ran after, dodging around one of the fallen Orcs.

The Orc spun at the sound of Grunt approaching, his sword ready. Lyrrin stepped forward as Grunt approached, properly flanking him. She swung, the wooden staff creating a dull thud as it connected with his back. The Orc snarled and spun, debating who deserved his attention.

His indecision was his end, Valaya noted. Grunt yelled and swung, axe cutting through the leather armor around his chest, and Lyrrin was compelled to look away as the Orc cried out weakly, falling to the ground.

The silence made her ears ring. Riquith broke the silence as he ran toward Grunt and Lyrrin, grabbing her sister by the shoulders and demanding if she was okay. She nodded, smiling at her. Thalec approached from behind Riquith, and Lyrrin smiled reassuringly at him as well. Sorren approached at a slower pace, his cold eyes glaring daggers at Riquith. He halted a few feet from the group, angrily brushing dust and dirt from his robes, a feat he'd been unable to do during the battle.

Riquith turned from Lyrrin once she was assured of her wellbeing in time to spot Sorren growling angrily over a spot of blood on his robes. She grinned cruelly. "I see our almighty sorcerer still has a few things to learn about battle," she sneered, ignoring Lyrrin's whispered protests. "Particularly dodging dead bodies."

Sorren glared, his retort silenced by Thalec clapping a hand over his mouth. "Enough you two," he said firmly, ignoring the annoyed looks cast his direction.

Carefully, the startled caravan drivers climbed down from their wagons, wide-eyed and still fearful. They all wore slightly dirty tunics and breaches, worn boots and cloaks. But why would a group of traders be traveling without an escort? Valaya wondered, noting the lack of guards.

"Thank you, all of you," one man finally said, stepping away from the caravan. His green tunic and black breeches faired no better than the others' when it came to being worn and dirty. Long black hair was mussed and tangled, though it was tied back in a ponytail to keep it from his face. He smiled brightly after a moment, stepping forward again with his hand outstretched toward Thalec.

They shook hands, and Thalec returned the smile. "Not a problem," he replied, shaking his head. "We couldn't just let you walk into that ambush, though." He paused. "If you don't mind my asking, where're your guards? You are traders, aren't you? Surely you wouldn't leave the safety of a city without a proper guard."

The man laughed. "Yes, we're traders. I'm afraid to say our guard was killed the other day. We would have gone back, but we're on a deadline. These goods have to get to Bitan within the next couple days."

"I see," Thalec said thoughtfully. He nodded. "Well, I must say good luck to you. You're about four days away from Bitan now, but if you push your horses, you might be able to make it in three."

"We're in dept to you, all of you," the trader declared, turning his attention to the rest of the party. He laughed and looked back at Thalec. "Name's Weylin. Again, thank you much."

Thalec nodded. "I'm Thalec," he said, smiling again as he introduced the rest of the party. "We were glad to be of help."

Weylin laughed again. "Glad to hear it." He turned. "All right men, let's get going. Cyric's not going to wait much longer for these goods." Once more he looked at Thalec. "Thalec, right? I'll be sure to tell our boss about what you did for us. He may feel you deserve some reward."

Sorren glared at Thalec, pursing his lips. Thalec caught his look and nodded. "Really, no need. But we really must be going. Take care, right?"

"You, too," Weylin replied, clasping hands with Thalec once more. They parted, and Thalec and the others returned to their horses, pausing long enough to search the bodies of the dead, and Valaya gathered the gold pieces found for division later. They cleared them from the road, and were mounting their horses again when the caravan finally set off.

"Farewell!" Weylin called from his seat on the foremost wagon.

Thalec nodded in return, then waved his hand to order their party forward. They continued on their way, quickly falling into order once again. This time, though, Valaya was happy to note that Grunt stayed closer than he used to, though she wasn't sure if it was because he wanted to take part in their conversation or because he feared there were more bandits out there that might take the party by surprise. Whichever the case, she was glad to have him with her again.

*****

The sun was setting behind them, bathing the landscape in a reddish tint. Sorren tugged at his cloak hood again, trying to keep it low over his eyes. While Lyrrin was exclaiming how beautiful it was, he couldn't wait until night. He was just grateful that they were traveling east rather than west. He hated to think how he would cope during the trip back to Bitan, knowing each night as the sun set he would have to find a way to avoid looking directly ahead.

He sighed, eyes narrowed as he glared at Elf off to his left. Thalec and Quickshade were ahead of him. He and Riquith were the two who would ride at point for most of their journey, as they were the best at spotting trouble. Lyrrin, Valaya, and Grunt were behind him, making small talk, Valaya teaching Lyrrin how to translate some of what Grunt was saying. He snorted and tugged the cloak tighter around himself. A waste of time, he was sure. If he really needed to know what the Half-Orc had to say, he would turn to his Halfling partner. Until then, he was more than content with the fact that at least Grunt could understand him.

"We should probably find a place to camp tonight," Thalec said finally, breaking Sorren out of his thoughts. He pointed behind them. "Light's fading pretty quickly now."

Sorren nodded absently, pursing his lips again. Why oh why did he choose to travel with a group who could not see in the dark? He preferred to get to Haun as quickly as possible, as much as to put him that much closer to the Staff as to get something edible to eat. Meat, bread, and cheese only went so far, and their trail rations were long since dull.

They continued for a few minutes longer, Thalec and Riquith keeping watch for a place that would suit them for a camp. It was found not long after, and they led the rest of them off the path to a small stand of trees.

Lyrrin's horse was the last to arrive, having let the others go before her. As she approached them, however, her horse balked. It whinnied and reared, almost sending Lyrrin falling to the ground. At once the relaxed atmosphere about the group disappeared as she cried out, clutching frantically at the mare's neck.

"What's wrong?" Sorren demanded, glaring at both the terrified Half-Elf and her spooked horse.

"I don't know!" Lyrrin shouted, squeezing her eyes shut as her horse reared again, wheeling away from the camp.

Thalec darted forward, trying to reach the horse to calm her, and fell back as she kicked. "It's a snake," he reported, struggling to his feet again. "Listen, Lyrrin, try and edge her away. That's it, good girl." His face was white as he moved to kick the snake away, eyes never leaving Lyrrin's horse. Riquith moved forward, but he waved her back. "Easy, girl." Now he spoke to the horse, reaching out to calm her. The horse seemed to pause in her frantic attempts to get away from the snake, her eyes rolling. She snorted, and Thalec moved slowly to put his hand on her muzzle.

Before he could reach her, however, she reared again, screaming, and spun. She bolted, Lyrrin clinging petrified to her back and reins, leaving Thalec reaching for empty air.