Returning to Fleethill after the encounter with the Ettercap and spiders:
The autumn forest of Kingswood is awash with colour. The blaze of red and golden leaves of birch and elm is all the more dramatic for their contrast to the deep greens of fir, pine, and spruce. Each leaf catches the light of the setting sun, reminding Dulcas of raw amber and ruby in torchlight, and sending Glawen’s thoughts to his home in the elven forests of the Spear Woods.
The home that Naki Ev’Ethyr – forest scout of the wood elves – will never return to.
It seems strange that it was only last night that everyone was drinking and laughing in the Feast Hall at Fleethill. The custom of the Great Hunt had seemed quaint then – an amusing superstition to believe that the outcome of a hunt could change the course of a year.
That night of revelry seems quite far away as Chen, Glawen, Coryn, Brownwyn, and Dulcas push tired limbs through the dense undergrowth of the Kingswoods. They were on the edge of exhaustion – after spending the greater part of daylight walking through thick forest and fighting strange beasts in the layer of the ettercap – only to have to haul the survivors of the other hunting party back to Fleethill – and the body of the fallen elf, which Glawen had refused to leave behind.
It would not even have been possible without the healing skills of Dulkas, who revived the survivors as much as his flagging reserves allowed. With a whispered prayer to Moradin, he brought a little vigour back to the hunting party – enough to patch the most serious wounds and to allow most to hobble out with support.
Glawen and Coryn were able to cut young trees to make litters from their cloaks to carry the body of Naki and the most seriously injured of the group – a young soldier of Istarnia named Tyrel. Bronwyn did her best to sooth and console the injured with conversation and stories to distract them from their pain while Chen set himself to the task gutting and cleaning the deer.
The least injured of the hunting party was the dwarven advisor, Malikar. He explained the fight with the boar with wide eyes and dramatic gestures as they made their way through the woods.
“Massive! And Fierce! I have never seen such a creature – not even in the dark brooding caverns of the Underdark! At the shoulders it was as tall as any man! As if that was not enough – jagged barbs of black bone or some other cursed material pushed through its thick and bristly hide! And its eyes! Red as the forge! They actually glowed in the night’s gloom! It was not natural!”
“Naki was the first to recover from the shock of seeing it,” spoke up another Istarnian soldier, Waryn. “She tossed her torch at it and had two arrows in its shoulders before we even knew what was happening. Naki shouted at us to form a wide half circle around it – so as not to hit each other with our spears or arrows.”
“Things got confusing after that. It charged and she dove aside, but it gouged her leg with its tusks – and you could hear that leg break, just like the sound of a tree branch snapping.”
The last Istarnian, a tall and slender peasant militia man: Martyn of Braefield, took up the story from there. Chen and Bronwyn recognized him as one of the more talkative and friendly patrons of Gared’s Pub.
“Those of us who had spears either hurled them at the beast or tried to push it back – to keep it from charging again. It was like a horrible lurching dance as we shifted about to try to contain it or push it off. Tyrel was trampled and, would you believe it, Malikar actually grabbed the boar by the tail and pull it off him before it could gore Tyrel to death. I think Tyrel managed to get some good cuts into its belly before he passed out.”
“And Naki? She just leaned against a tree with her broken leg and set to emptying her quiver into it. It bellowed a horrible din and set to charge Naki.” He paused there.
“Well, you wouldn’t think he had it in him to look at him, but that Halfling fellow, Thistle? He broke formation and ran spear first between the boar and Naki. That boar just plunged forward, burying that spear into its chest as it went. The shaft broke and the boar put its head down, digging up channels in the moss with its tusks. “
“For a second I thought it was going to fall, but it whipped its head up and hurled poor Thistle aside. Last I saw he bounced off a tree and did not get back up.” Martyn trailed off and blinked at suddenly watery eyes.
The dwarf, Malikar finished the story. “It was horrible. The boar’s charge did not slow for Thistle or the broken spear shaft in its chest. Even though it was carpeted with arrows – still it lumbered forward. Naki had time to put one more arrow into its eye before it crushed her into the tree.” He was quiet for a time, and then addressed Glawen. “She was as brave and fought as hard as any dwarf, sir elf. I am sorry for your loss.”
Warryn cleared his throat and spoke with a strained voice. “Yep. She was brave all right. I don’t know if we would be alive now if not for her.” He shook his head and shuddered. “And after she fell, the last of our torches sputtered and failed.”
“And that’s when the spiders came.”
Not more than 2 hours walk from the cave of the ettercap, the group passed by a pond fed by a small stream. Malikar was about to refill his waterskin when Chen stopped him. The wind had just shifted, bringing with it a smell of death and decay.
Across the pond were the rotten and distended bodies of a number of animals. With cloak wrapped around his nose, Chen saw what looked to be a wolf, and a stag, but they were mutilated, as if torn apart from inside. Blackened and sharp shards of bone stuck out from their bodies. Black froth and foam oozed from open mouths. The stag’s scull was split by an extra set of antlers that emerged from the back of its scull. The wolf was cut open from bards that seemed to emerge from its rib cage and its lips were cut up by the growth of an extra row of fangs.
Coryn pointed towards the water, and everyone could see that a small billowing cloud of ink black was rising to the surface – from somewhere within the murky depth of the pond.
The group backed away from the disturbing scene and continued to make their way towards Fleethill.
On legs that were almost liquid with fatigue, it was a relief to see the forest begin to thin and clear. Two green and brown clad elves step out of the shadows and quickly move to help support the wounded. One shouts out and soon the group is surrounded by Glawen’s companions. They take up your burdens and offer sips of cool and surprisingly invigorating water from their flasks.
Of the elven party, only the diplomats Aerunithar and Cassivar, and the four Sisters of the Crescent accepted their hosts offering of tents for shelter. The rest of the wood elves set up camp at the borders of the Kingswoods – while the griffin, Hrykrul, ranged the mountain aeries for game.
There is a cry from the elves’ remaining scout, Koraith, when he sees Naki’s litter. His tears fall on her face through clenched eyes as he kneels by her side. Three other elves, Tahlas, Amath, and Ferali go to Koraith and help him to bear the litter on their shoulders. The ranger’s captain, Corimvar, sends Ilundul running to carry news of the hunters’ return and the tragedy of Naki’s death.
When you step through the last of the trees you have time to note that there is an extra flag flying at the Great Tent in the centre of the encampment – red with the black silhouette of howling wolf’s head. And then the group is surrounded by people rushing to help or to gain news of what has happened.
King Willhelm himself arrives and sets the crowd to order – offering words of sympathy and sorrow to the elves, sending the injured to a healing tent, and giving the hunting party leave to find rest or their loved ones as they see fit.
There will be time enough for reports and plans of action on the morrow.