D&D Rocks Part 1
As promised, this is the start of another rip roaring adventure with our misguided band of heroes. This one is a little older but I make no apologies.
Of all the dangers inherent in travelling, there was only one that was truly insidious. It wasn’t the concern of dwindling rations or starvation. While deadly, dehydration wasn’t the worst either. Worn, calloused feet ranked mighty low and while wearing upon the nerves, the constant threat of an ambush or attack wasn’t nearly as bad.
No, the greatest horror of a long journey was the dreaful cheery companion. For what could contend with an immeasurable journey beside a person stupidly optimistic for everything that they passed. There was no cure for the companion that delighted in the first tree seen in fifty leagues, who made predictable jokes of dieting with the dwindling rations each night or that considered the sore callouses as ‘love bumps from the road.’ No torture could amount to the pain inflicted by this one individual. It was the surest way to murder.
His name was Corran and for the last three days he had the wicked delusions of a skilled singer.
“Oh that barren road! That long and dusty road! It leads us far and wide together. Born of the wandering of our soul. Oh that barren road. That barren road! Take me down and along forever!”
It was the gravely low tones and the piercing high notes with nary moderation between that drove like thin picks into the ear. That sort of howling left a man awake for hours at night. It dulled him to civility and pleasantness. It was the sort of noise that bore down to the core, drowning all rational thought until nothing but a white, pounding rage clouded the mind.
And with the long, fatiguing monotony of a never changing background, it was the sort of sound that became impossible to ignore.
The weariness of the journey worn down the inhibitions and lulled the parts of the mind that kept darker impulses in check.
“Give me your hand, we’ll cross this land. Where we headed only the road knows. You’ll walk for awhile, I’ll cross it for life. There’s only one way this road goes. Oh that barren road!”
There was a familiar stirring in the dark recesses. A slumbering force slowly awoke to the growing dire call. It was like a feral impulse, building in momentum with each passing moment.
“Oh, I left my home. For that barren road, oh that barren road! Don’t know if I’ll return. For I have my way and I won’t stray along that lonesome road.”
“Pretty catchy don’t you think?”
Gods. It was spreading.
“Insanity?” Keirn asked. “I hear it is quite contagious. I think it would be a good show of mercy to contain it before it gets out of hand.”
“Well good morning to you, Sir Sunshine! Did we wake on the wrong side of the bedroll this morn?”
The urge to brutally maim rose within.
“We’ve listened to this crow wail his damnable song for more days than naught. I don’t think it unreasonable to ask for a short reprieve at least for one hour.”
“Oh, do you think he takes requests? Excuse me, Corran! Corran, sir! Do you happen to know the one about the bard at the bulwark!”
“I hate everyone.”
Mercifully, the insufferable howling ended as the singer paused to consider the request. But the silence was short lived as he heard the pound of feet by his side and an age old voice at his elbow.
“Enjoying yourself this morning?”
“I don’t know which would be better: slitting his throat or mine.”
Kait laughed, tossing her drab, muddy hair over her shoulder.
“I knew this was going to be an issue when we ran out of milk two days back. Don’t worry, we’ll get you some breakfast oats the moment we pass through another town. Seems to be all these hamlets have between the borders.”
“I’m not grumpy because I haven’t had breakfast!”
“The boy doth protest!” Kait cried. “You know you’re never pleasant if you don’t get your morning meal.”
“You make me sound like a petulant child.”
“If the cloth fits!” Kait smiled. She gave the lead horse a soft slap and hurried alongside the hastened wagon.
Keirn sighed. She was having far too much fun.
He supposed he couldn’t blame her. Normally, he would be satisfied with their arrangement as well. It was a menial contract but gave decent amount pay while covering rations. It worked for them as they were looking to make the trip anyway and getting paid at their destination for it was a bonus. All that was asked of them was to trudge alongside the caravan as another faceless guard in the batch. They were a show of force to scare off bandits or marauders or whatever patrolled these steppes. A rather obvious ploy given the rag tag collection of the guard. They were all clearly mercenaries of fortune with very little unity or discipline. Not that Keirn and his band were much different. Far too often young men and women with little prospects took to worn swords and bows to patrol the realms for some income unavailable back at home. But Keirn thought his band was decent enough.
First, he had Jeremiah the stoic who trudged in his makeshift armour patched together through the collection of scraps from their fallen foes and sewn together by whatever Kait could get her hands on. He clanked like a forlorn peddler, forever his wares banging upon his back.
Then there was Derrek. The self-stylized minstrel was known for his bizarre breadth of knowledge and questionable musical proficiencies. He had talent, for sure, that would shame Corran should the man decide to flex his entertainment muscle. But he had given to the study of a most concerning type of sound. His outward soft appearance and stylish dress hide a paradoxical pursuit of the chaotic and unpleasant sound of noise.
Finally, Kait – Keirn’s own sister – kept them all together. While she may seem like much, she brought a peace of mind to him that neither of the others could. A slew of seemingly mundane skills held much value on the road and these required constant materials to perform. Darned socks and decent meals didn’t materialize from thin air and she seemed to collect every little odd and end she crossed with the belief it would come in use at some later date.
But today she was not burdened with her pile of packs. They had been stowed in one of the wagons and for probably the first time ever she seemed brighter than the day. Being unsaddled had given her life to her feet and she chased up and down the lengths of the caravan, only her bow and quiver slung over her back. She was like a faithful hound suddenly loosed from its leash and there wasn’t a hill she wouldn’t speed over.
Course, this sudden revitalization didn’t help Keirn’s mood as he trudged solemnly in line with the other guards. These lonesome souls weren’t apt for much conversation. Most of them were quiet and suspicious men who kept one hand on their weapon and one eye on everyone around them. They seemed on edge as if they expected an axe to fall any moment.
Though there were a few contrary souls amongst the bunch.
Damnable Corran perched upon the driver’s seat of a large wagon filled to the brim with cargo. At his side was a young woman named Shanna who Keirn and company had crossed paths with before. She was a petite thing, somewhat round in comely places with a face that spoke of a quiet hamlet upbringing not unlike their own. However, despite their previous exchanges she didn’t seem to bitter over past actions and was pleasantly engaged with Corran in negotiating a melody they both knew.
Most intriguing, however, was raven haired Siara. She kept mainly to herself and the caravan master, riding in his head wagon beneath the privacy of the cloth canvas. Keirn couldn’t help but be curious about her, nor unable to ignore the interested looks from the other guards. She was a remarkable figure – tall and strong in the soft dress of a foreigner. But she held herself in a manner that bespoke of great skill and training in the martial skills that kept most interactions to curious looks. There was no question of her capabilities or whether she belonged at the head of the group.
The ornate long sword at her side with the faint tarnish of combat also helped. When most the mercenaries considered the wrong side of a dungeon cell experience in the field, there was not a habit of provoking those that had actually seen real combat.
But she spent all her time at the caravan master’s side. Keirn couldn’t shake the feeling that the journey wouldn’t be quite so onerous if this strange woman had elected to travel with him instead.
Them! All of them. That’s what he meant.
“Copper for your thoughts?”
“Nothing,” Keirn said, shaking his head.
“Pity,” Derrek sighed, fiddling with a glass bauble. “I was hoping to give this a try.”
“What is it?”
“An orb of Mallenaeus.”
“An orb of Mallenaeus,” the man repeated, staring at his golden haired reflection in its polished surface. “Supposedly these were crafted by the famed wizard which bears its namesake. Which would make more sense then naming it after a rival, after all. They say the man was paranoid, but that’s drawing fish with a net for those that dabble too deeply in the arcane. I hear he gave to wearing steeple hats believing their conical form trapped his inner thoughts and prevented them from drifting off to be captured by others in the aetheric winds.”
“He wore a pointed hat?”
“Yes. To save his thoughts. And he made balls.”
“Because he was a wizard?”
“Where did you get that anyway? And why would it read thoughts?”
“To answer your second question – Mallenaeus had to be certain that his fashion sense was not in vain. He crafted these orbs so that, when rubbed over the heads of others, they would collect their thoughts and allow him to read them within. Thus, he could confirm if anyone was in actuality stealing his own perturbations. Course, such a device had obvious value beyond fueling a madman’s paranoia and his workshop was apparently ransacked and torched with him inside for his trinkets instead of his ideas. As to your first, I found it in the back of one of the wagons.”
“You what?! You can’t just take the merchandise that we’ve been hired to protec-“
Derrek quickly rolled to the tips of his toes, stretching his arm to rub the orb madly over Keirn’s scalp. The young man shouted in protest, swiping at his friend’s groping hands but Derrek retreated the orb quickly to safety.
He hunched over, peering intently into its glassy interior.
“Hm, empty. Is your mind always this devoid of thought?”
“Give me that,” Keirn snapped, lunging for the item.
“I mean, I always have a thousand thoughts snapping for attention in mine but thus is the curse of an artistic soul.”
“You can’t take this,” Keirn said.
“Because it’s our duty to protect it! I’m not going to have this docked from our pay so you can pretend it’s a lost artifact. Especially when its value is obviously questionable.”
Keirn walked to the back of the wagon and threw the orb carelessly amongst the rest of the cargo.
“Kait was right, you really are grumpy when you don’t get your cereal. Like an ornery mule.”
“Is that what you all have been doing with your time? Talking about me?”
“Drab topic, I know! But had there been something more interesting of note-”
Derrek was cut short by the too familiar whiz of an airborne arrow. The minstrel paused in sudden contemplation at the unannounced appearance of the foreign object, watching with impassivity as it struck the neck of a guard ten paces in front of him between the ridges of his armour.
There was a distinct deathly gurgle as the mercenary toppled over in a heap of useless metal and dull flesh.
Derrek turned curiously to the sky, Keirn following his gaze to see a disjointed dark line piercing the heavenly veil. The line broke as it curved towards the caravan, falling in small dark streaks like the long fingers of a dark storm.
There was too little time for Keirn’s mind to consciously register his actions. Only reflex propelled him forward, snatching the silken collar of Derrek’s undershirt, pulling the distracted man with him into the dust and dirt beneath the wagon. The gentle patter of the arrows’ descent riddled the wood above them and was soon joined by the howls of pain from the wounded.
“KAIT!” Keirn called, his mind suddenly recognizing the danger as voices rose about. “Kait! Where are you?!”
“I think we are under attack,” Derrek stated plainly.
“Oh, did that thought catch your attention now?!”
Keirn scuttled on his stomach to the front of the cart. The vehicle had been brought to a stop by the driver as the guards mobilized to deal with the aggressors. Between started legs, Keirn searched for signs of his sister.
A piercing whistle broken through the pandemonium and Keirn caught the swift slithering of a swarm of shadows along the ground. Another volley had been loosed.
“Stay here!” Keirn shouted over the crash of the arrows upon the beleaguered defenders. Keirn rolled out from beneath the cart just as a terrible cry echoed from the harnessed beasts. Leather cracked in the air and the cart lurched, tipping dangerously upon its wheels as the frightful beasts broke their shaky discipline. With arrows protruding from their flanks, the horses attempted to seek refuge from the onslaught, crashing violently into the wagon stopped in front of them before careening to the side of the road.
Derrek looked up from the ground, his cover now turning head over ass down the sloped plain.
“Shall I still remain?”
“Come on!” Keirn shouted.
Panic rippled down the length of the caravan. The carts still fastened to living steeds broke from the line, scattering in all directions. The hired mercenaries stumbled direction-less amongst what cover they could. Little effort seemed to be made to organize the defenders. The non-combative members of the line were already fleeing from the direction of the arrows, heading towards the sloped, craggy plains. They said little in their retreat, those nameless travelers that kept to themselves and shied away from the men hired to protect them.
Keirn scanned the fleeing, screaming backs, looking desperately for the wave of brown hair belonging to his sister.
He felt a pair of hands pulling him to the earth as a third volley of arrows slapped into the meaty body of the large mercenary he now cowered behind.
Keirn turned, looking into the panicked face of Shanna.
“Well, I would say we are under attack,” Derek said.
“But by who?!” the young woman shouted. There was a wildness in her eyes that Keirn had never seen before. She always looked so young to him – so naïve. The fear etched on her round face drove the severity of the situation straight through Keirn’s beating heart.
Derrek peeked over the massive frame of their makeshift cover. He reached about the fallen man’s girth, fingers wrapping about the shaft of an embedded arrow and yanking the projectile free with a great squelch of spattered eviscera.
“What?” Keirn shouted.
Derrek held the item aloft.
“It’s an ashen wood. It has the appearance of bleached and dried driftwood but with rather rich veins running just below the skin. Hard to find and located in only sparse copses in the distant mountains.”
“I’m not looking for a lecture on fauna!”
“This is a rare wood,” Derrek said, using his simple people words. “Not many use this wood. The feathers are also unique. And it’s flora.”
“Are you saying you can tell who’s attacking us from the arrow?” Shanna asked.
“The Rakstas Tribe,” Derrek said. “Plains dwellers and nomads that tract the Endless Steppes. Known for their husbandry and nettled stew.”
“No, the stew is definitely more famous.”
Another piercing whistle broke through the air. The three curled up as close as they could to the corpse, waiting for the inevitable arrows. Keirn cast one last glance at the retreating backs of the convoy members as they broke over the distant ridge.
“You know, there is something oddly familiar about that sound,” Derrek muttered.
“Where do they think they’re running?”
“Should we follow them?” Shanna asked urgently.
A thunderous beating echoed overhead as a screech broke the air. Startled, Keirn looked skyward to see an enormous bird with wings that blotted out the sun swoop overhead. It was then they realized that the whistle was not another volley but a cry from the mighty creature.
“Of course,” Derrek chided. “Rocs!”
The bird swooped so close that the wind from its wings was a mighty tempest knocking them prone. The animal screeched, its talons extending as it dove downward past the ridge.
“I’m going to suggest we don’t follow them,” Keirn muttered pressingly closer to the dead body as he became unnervingly aware of how exposed he was to searching eyes above.
“Concentrate fire on the birds!”
The commanding shout shook Keirn from his shock and he braved a look from behind the mountain of a mercenary to see Jeremiah standing behind an overturned cart. He waved a mighty longbow in his hands, pointing heavenward. Two more great shadows passed over the caravan.
Now given guidance, the mercenaries still breathing drew what ranged weapons they could and focused upon the threat hovering over them like circling vultures awaiting their feast.
“Come on,” Keirn grumbled, motioning for the others to follow. Arrows, spears, axes, knives and anything that could be hurled were sent past them as they jumped and ducked their way through the scattered remains of the defenders. Keirn kept an eye for a return volley of arrows, but with the mighty birds overhead he felt it unlikely another would come.
The three arrived at the cart just as Jeremiah fumbled with his arrow, dropping it from the bowstring as the cord slipped from his hand.
“Inspiring leadership there.”
“You’re alive!” Jeremiah cried. “Thank the go-… I’m so relieved.”
“Don’t get excited yet,” Keirn said. “What’s your take?”
“I can’t help but feel we’re in the kettle,” Jeremiah said. “I still haven’t seen sight of the archers. I can only assume they’ve hidden themselves in the brush. Though mighty sneaky of them to still not show their face.”
“I’m telling you it’s Rakstas,” Derrek said.
“The others made a break after the first volley,” Jeremiah continued. “I tried to warn them from running, but once one broke the rest followed. They’re just scared townsfolk so discipline isn’t exactly expected. But I can’t help they’re running into worse. Who knows what’s waiting for them over the ridge.”
“And Kait?” Keirn asked.
Jeremiah looked at Keirn solemnly. Slowly he shook his head.
Keirn leaned back against the wood of the cart. He had no idea where she could be. While they hadn’t confirmed the worst, there was no guarantee that she wasn’t in anything but grave danger.
The rocs overhead shrieked, interrupting the reunion. With a thunderous beat, one descended, snatching a horse still pulling against its reigns within talons the length of a man’s arm. The animal gave a tremendous cry as the wings beat a ferocious storm of dust. Then, cart and all, was lifted off the ground and carried into the clouds.
In its retreat, Keirn spotted the scarf wrapped form of the rider directing the animal. He appeared as little more than a pile of worn and dirty rags with just a narrow slit upon the head for the eyes to peer out. Dark tattoos ran down the exposed arm, twisting in strange symbols that could have been tribal or possibly arcane. But there was something about his posture that gave the young man pause.
Then, just as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. A trail of weapons arced in its wake. But few found purchase in the enormous feathers in the trail of its ascending call.
“What’re your thoughts?”
“He doesn’t have any,” Derrek answered.
“I don’t think flight is really an option. We don’t know the lay of the land and the plains offer little protection.”
“So we fight?”
Keirn peeked over the lip of the cart. He scanned the ruin strewed road as mercenaries continued to scramble amongst the remains of the caravan. He then turned to the brush bordering the road. There was still no sign of their attackers save for the circling creatures overhead.
“They’re not assaulting,” Keirn stated.
“Do you not see the birds!” Shanna cried.
“You think there’s a reason they’re holding back?” Jeremiah asked.
“What else? We’re broken and scattered, now would be the perfect time to finish us off,” Keirn said. “Unless…”
“Unless… unless what?!” Shanna shouted.
“Are you ready?” Keirn asked, turning to Derrek and Jeremiah.
“Ready? Where are you going?” Shanna asked on the verge of tears.
“You’re good at staying out of sight. Wait here,” Keirn instructed. “We’ll be back for you.”
“That’s what you said last time!”
Keirn burst from cover, breaking into a full run towards the brush. Jeremiah and Derrek followed, their weapons drawn in hand. Keirn wasn’t entirely sure what he had planned or even if his ideas had been fully considered. But the time for strategy was quickly ending. He unsheathed his sword, then broke up the hill with a mighty roar. A raucous burst followed immediately behind.
There was movement before they even hit the line of squat bushes.
No resistance was given. The archers broke immediately, the hunched forms jumping and pouncing over the rocks in a swarm of dirty cloth and ragged cloaks. They were not warriors, these people. Their thin forms eking out a meager existence on the dried plains did not build robust constitutions or military discipline. Many of them were young, scarcely more than children and more than a few women could be seen in the retreating line.
And there were no more than two dozen of them in total. Had even a handful of the mercenaries made it to them, the attack would have been over before it even began.
“Cowards,” Jeremiah muttered.
“Well, they are just tribals,” Derrek said, strumming his lute. “I wouldn’t be surprised if even the simplest of cantrips sent them scattering.”
“Now we just have to deal with the birds,” Jeremiah said.
But as they turned, a great blast of a horn rolled over the hills. The rocs circled one last time over the wreckage before wheeling and vanishing into the horizon.
An unearthly silence fell in their wake. Keirn paused, closing his eyes and letting the soft whisper of the wind roll over him.
It was a silence well deserved.