The Rising – Part Four
By: Jeff R. Young

The temple in Goldcrest was more than ready for the arrival of the companions. The only surprise was the mass of human and dwarf that came rolling through the portal. Gwent, still under the spell of his fear of the gates, rattled off a host of dwarven curses, all aimed at Draven. After untangling themselves, they both sat there next to each other, Gwent fuming and Draven shaking his head with a smile.

"Don't know what you are so grumpy about, you're still in one piece!" Draven mused.

"Aye," Gwent grumbled, "Ye best not be tell'n anyone 'bout this, no one tackles a dwarf. Especially a scrawny welp like yer'self."

Draven reached over and flicked the dwarf's nose, "No one would believe me anyway!"

Gwent stood and offered the ranger a helping hand, but both paused as they looked to Mace and Zythos, who stood staring at them with twin looks of amazement. With a shake of their heads, the pair shook off the moment, and Mace led them out of the portal's chamber.

Everything the four would need was already laid out for their inspection. At the expense of the temple, they were provided horses, said to be the best that Goldcrest could offer. With everything ready, they left the gate and began their trek towards Ravenwood.

The first part of the journey was comfortable enough with the open plains that separated the city from the Golcroft forest, in which Ravenwood and Caelfall resided. They could see for kilometers in all directions, making it easy to spot trouble should they encounter any. By the time dusk was taking its hold, they could make out the edge of the forest far in the distance.

"I be think'n it ta' be a wise idea to camp 'for we enter the forest," Gwent offered. Mace looked to both Draven and Zythos, asking the unspoken question with a raise of his brows. Both agreed with a nod of their heads, which drew a victorious grunt from the dwarf.

"I'll run ahead to see if there is a good spot to rest," Draven offered, "perhaps there is a stream to water the horses nearby."

Without waiting for a reply, the ranger nudged his horse into a gallop and made his way west, using the silver light of the two small moons to help aid him as he scanned the distance. Draven often scouted ahead for the group and though his eyes were not attuned to the darkness as his elven friend Zythos, his mystical connection to the essence of nature, which was a blessing bestowed to him by the goddess Nyrarae, gave him an edge even the elf could not achieve. He was a little over three kilometers from the edge of the forest when he spotted a group of dark silhouettes moving steadily northward.

With a slight nudge, he prompted his mount to slowly move to the top of a rise, hoping to get a better look. He watched from his vantage point as the group slowed down, some of them dropping to their knees as a couple of others moved ahead slowly. Draven followed their path to the north and spotted the tell–tale glow of a campfire. He sighed as he looked back to the stalkers and knew it was a hunting party. Whether it was an orc party or a band of highwaymen did not matter, and it was a challenge to get an accurate read on the numbers despite the shine of the moons, but he could easily guess there to be close to twenty, if not more.

Draven made his way quickly back to his friends, who pulled their horses to a stop. They could always tell when the ranger found trouble with the slight smile on his lips and the gleam in his blue eyes. Even in the pale light, there was no mistaking his excitement. Of the four, Draven craved adventure more than anyone, which the others appreciated knowing he was raised in the wilds.

"What did you find?" Mace asked as the ranger pulled his horse up next to him.

"I'm guessing a hunting party, perhaps twenty strong, stalking an encampment to the north," Draven offered, "Not sure if it's man or orc."

"Or both," Zythos added. Draven nodded as he twisted to his left, looking off in the distance. He could see neither groups nor the campfires. He did know, however, that even pushing their horses at full speed, they would not make it in time to stave off any attack. He turned back to Mace, staring with an unspoken question masking his features.

"How do we know th' group they be after is worth help'n?" Gwent asked. Unfortunately, Draven had no answer to the question.

"Best bet is to move in close enough to get a good read on both parties," The elf offered.

"As good a plan as any," Mace decided. The others nodded their consent, and the four steered their mounts at a steady pace to the north. When Draven figured it was time, they turned to the west and slowly moved in, stopping far enough away not to be seen in the glow of the moons, yet close enough to see the camp with the fires. As Draven suspected, the group was most likely a merchants caravan. The band numbered around a dozen, most of them guards. Draven smacked Mace on his armored arm, pointing off to the left with his chin, where the shadowed group was inching along, using the cover of night to gain the advantage over their prey. Before anyone could offer up another word, there came an orc war cry from the stalkers as they rushed forward, weapons raised. The caravan was taken by complete surprise.

"Crap," Draven cursed, and without waiting for the others to decide what to do, he spurred his horse into a full run. Zythos, always ready for the spontaneous actions of the ranger, urged his horse to follow. The two sped off, heading northwest as Mace and Gwent, understanding their friend's strategy, sped off to the southwest. This was not the first time they played this scenario out.

With the sound of battle barely heard over the pounding of hooves, Draven and Zythos shifted a bit more to the north, then west, driving their steeds straight for the fight. Bow in hand, Draven loaded an arrow, and despite the darkness, he let the arrow fly then quickly sent another into the fray. Each arrow hit their mark, lodging into an orcs chest and dropping it to the ground.

More arrows flew from the ranger's bow as they drove into the melee. Zythos, using his gift of agility, hopped up, twisting his feet sideways on the saddle, then leaped in the air. He landed, swords drawn, surprising of a couple of orcs. Using the momentum behind the jump, he rolled forward between the stupefied creatures, swords out to each side to slice a fatal opening from their stomach to their back.

Draven let another arrow fly before he proved his own dexterity as he gracefull swung his left leg up and over, twisting himself around in the saddle to face backward before sending another barrage of arrows at the orcs, taking care not to hit the caravan guards or their merchant charges. As he reached the outer circle of the fight, two horses flashed past him, straight into the battle. Draven smiled as both Mace and Gwent crashed through a group of unsuspecting orcs. Mace decapitated his first victim with a slash of his katana while the dwarf's hammer shattered the skull of another.

Draven lept off the rear of his horse and rolled as he hit the ground. His landing hurt, but he quickly shrugged it off as he sent arrow after arrow into the group of combatants. He could see they were slowly thinning out the raiders numbers, but any joy he could take from that was squashed as another orcish war cry sounded from the direction of the forest. Draven saw at least another dozen of the creatures charge in.

Draven watched as Zythos sped through a group, twisting and turning in a battle masters dance, those deadly swords cutting and piercing as he drove on. He also saw a couple of the hired guards being forced back from the brutal attack of three orcs. The rangers right hand flashed over his shoulder, snatching an arrow from his quiver, and launched his missile straight into the neck of one of the attackers. Without hesitation, he reloaded and sent another that way, the arrow spearing a second orc through the back of its head. The third met its fate as one of the guards drove his long sword through its gut.

Having ditched their horses, Mace and Gwent charged into the skirmish, each met by an orc ready to destroy them. Mace met his opponent squarely, his sword flashing around to block a strike to his right, then twisted around to stop the counter swing from the left. Blade met blade in a furry of movement before Mace found his opportunity to counter a wild swing from his adversary. With a powerful uppercut, his sword removed the creatures face at an odd angle before it toppled to the ground.

Gwent, the wild fighter that he was, screamed his own war cry as he charged in, his stout legs driving him forward in a sprint, aimed at an orc stalking in towards an unarmed man. Having heard the strange war cry, the orc turned just in time to see a dwarven hammer flash in to destroy its knee. With a bark of pain, it began to topple over it's ruined leg, but the scream was silenced as that same hammer went up, then back down in a mighty blow that shattered its skull.

Wasting no time, Gwent quickly looked for another victim, finding one a few paces away. He gathered his strength and charged forward, ready to ruin the orcs night, but as his hammer flashed up for a quick killing blow, the orc spun around with an arrow protruding from what used to be his left eye. Gwent spotted Draven at the edge of the throng, and the ranger flashed him a grin.

"Ta hells wit' you ranger, that one was mine!" Gwent screamed out as he looked for more prey. But if Draven heard him, he did not show it. He had already gone back to work, sending a volley of arrows into the mass of fighters and orcs.

Spurred on by the companion's deadly prowess in battle, the remaining guards intensified their own attack and launched themselves forward with renewed hope. Orc after orc fell to slashing blades, savage hammer blows, and deadly arrows. Soon there was only a handful of orcs left alive, all of which rushed out of the combat zone as their hunger for battle was replaced by the fear of a brutal death.

A couple of the caravan guards moved to give chase but slid to a stop as Mace called out to them.

"Let them go," He instructed, "They very well could be running off to join another group."

The four companions wandered slowly through the carnage. Where he could, Mace tended to the wounded while Draven worked his way around, taking back any arrows that could be used again. Zythos and Gwent took on the more sinister of roles as they looked for any surviving orcs. Finding a few mortally wounded, yet still breathing, they quickly ended their suffering. What remained of the merchants, and their guards also picked their way through the mass of dead bodies. And though the battle had been won, everyone in their group wore masks of sorrow.

One of the guards, a burly man with a short graying beard, walked up to where Mace was tending to an injured young man. The guard stared down, watching as Mace worked a divine incantation to speed up the wounds healing process. When the priest finished, he gently touched the young man's forehead.

"You'll be alright." Mace soothed, "Just don't move around to fast, or the wound will open again." He stood then, turning his attention to the older gentlemen. "Are you alright?"

"Aye, just a few bumps and bruises," he answered, then offered a hand to Mace, "Names Jerreil Path."

"Mace Sever," the priest replied, grasping the man's forearm in greeting, then motioned to his friends in turn, "And this is Zythos, Gwent, and Draven."

"You four put on quite a show, Mace" Jerreil grunted, "I'm damn glad you were on our side."

"I've tended to what wounded I can," Mace said, looking around at the carnage.

"Much appreciated."

"Do you know how many you lost?" Mace asked, careful to keep any emotion out of his words.

"Four guardsmen, and two of the merchants," Jerreil answered bluntly, "would have been the whole lot of us, had you not come along."

Mace reached out, placing a smooth hand on the man's shoulders, "We'll stay and see you safely through the night. But come dawn, we must part ways."

The four friends set to helping the survivors of the caravan bury their dead, before aiding them in preparation to travel come first light. By the grace of the gods, what was left of the night passed without incident.

To be continued…

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