The Rising – Part Five
By: Jeff R. Young

The journey to Ravenwood took a little more than two days. The ride was easy as they traveled upon a well-established road that cut its way through the Golcroft forest. The thick trees and dense underbrush of the woods on either side provided ample hiding places for highwaymen, ambushing goblins or a wide assortment of other monstrous creatures. Draven stayed ever vigilant, always keeping his eyes moving, searching for clues to any possible attack. Yet none ever came. All except Draven thought the lack of any such encounter was a good thing. He said something seemed out of place in the forest and that unnerved him. Like the others, however, he relaxed a bit when the walls of Ravenwood could be seen in the distance.

The four proceeded into the clearing between the trees and the town walls with caution, each surveying the open area around them. Slowly they approached the gate and drew their horses to a full stop when they saw a nervous looking guard, armed with a longbow, posted along the wall. He had his weapon loaded and ready and was pointing it down at them. Within the span of a breath, three others appeared, two with bows ready.

"That's far enough," the unarmed man commanded. He looked less nervous than his companions and gave off an air of authority.

"Are you the watch captain?" Mace called up.

"Aye, I am," the man returned evenly. "And you are?"

"Mace," he replied, then motioned to his friends. "This is Zythos, Draven, and Gwent. We hail from the Temple of the Five at the behest of a lady who resides inside your gates."

The watch captain paused a moment before glancing off behind him. When he turned back, he looked at them suspiciously. "And which lady would that be?"

"Cora Danials," Mace answered. "A message was sent to my master, High-priest Lucian. We're here to offer what aid we can."

"Could we hurry this up?" Draven murmured to Mace. "We're a little vulnerable sitting in the open like this."

Again, the watch captain looked back, but this time he nodded and motioned to the other three guards standing at the ready. They all lowered their bows and relaxed. A moment later, the gate began to swing inward.

"Come on in," the captain allowed, sounding more relaxed himself.

Mace nodded his thanks as the four nudged their mounts forward through the opening. Once the group was inside, two guards hurried to close the gate again, locking it with a thick piece of timber across its width.

Fresh off the wall, the watch captain strolled up as the companions dismounted and began to stretch their sore, cramped muscles. He was followed by a woman dressed in a simple brown robe.

"I'm Kenrith," he greeted, extending his hand. "Sorry for the caution, but we expected there to be more than just four of you."

Mace clasped Kenrith's wrist in greeting as the man offered nods to the other three, then looked at the robed woman, who offered him a slight bow. "Master Mace, I am Cora. We are grateful you've come, but as Kenrith said, we expected more, a lot more of you."

Mace bowed in return. "The Temple plans to send soldiers; unfortunately, it will take weeks for a regiment to get here." He tilted his head to indicate the others. "We were sent to offer whatever aid we can in the meantime."

"How will four more people help us if the goblin attack?" Kenrith lamented.

"I know these men by reputation," Cora answered before Mace could speak. She looked to the priest's companions. "You three must be Zythos, Gwent, and Draven."

Gwent and Zythos nodded quickly, but Draven offered a cocky little smile and winked.

"In the flesh, m'lady!" he said smoothly.

Cora frowned then turned back to Mace. "You four must be road weary. We can secure you rooms in one of our inns. They are not by far extravagant, but the food's hot and the beds are comfortable."

"Food?" Gwent said with some enthusiasm.

"Bring what you need," she said, then motioned down an avenue off to the left. "We'll have the horses stabled for you."

After gathering some belongings, all four fell in line behind Cora and Kenrith and proceeded down a dirt street. Draven took note of the various buildings, most of which appeared to be housing for the townspeople. A few had signs hanging by their doors to advertise one shop or another. Draven could easily imagine the other avenues through the town to be much the same. In fact, all these smaller settlements seemed the same to him, with their various shops, inns, and taverns along crowded dirt roads. The thought of the congested streets struck a chord with him as he looked around. No one was about, except them.

"Um, Cora?" Draven called out as he quick-stepped to catch up to her. "Where is everybody?"

She sighed heavily, then said, "With the lack of information we have as to what's really happening, many rumors have spread. The townspeople feel safer locked in their homes. Even most shops have been closed." She motioned to her right as they walked past what was apparently a tavern, it's door open with a wooden sign shaped like a mug of ale hanging off to the side. The establishment was not empty, but there was only a handful of patrons visible from the street.

"As you can see," she continued, "a few venture out to drink from time to time, but most stay hidden, afraid."

They passed the tavern as she motioned to a building to her left. The sign in front showed it to be the Silver Inn. It was larger than most, built of wood with a few windows along the second floor. The front door was closed, but Cora walked purposefully toward it.

"Wait here," she stated bluntly. "I'll secure your rooms."

"Wait," Mace called, reaching into a pouch along the belt of his armor. He pulled a handful of coins and offering them to Cora. "This should be enough for a few days at least." When she frowned and appeared to be about to refuse the offer, he added, "The Temple provides, and we pay our way."

She nodded once then took the coins. "As you wish."

They waited only a few minutes before she emerged to hand each of them a key.

"Your rooms are on the second floor, and the cook is preparing a meal for each of you," she instructed. "I hope you rest well."

All nodded their thanks and began to wander into the Inn, except Mace.

"Get yourself some rest, as well," he said evenly to both Kenrith and Cora. He looked pointedly at Kenrith. "Tomorrow, we will figure out what is happening here and see what we can do to help fortify the defenses even more."

He turned his gaze to Cora, his eyes locked on hers. "And you and I have much to discuss." He stated cryptically. The expression of her pretty features said she understood.

***

The night slipped by quickly for the four. The beds were as comfortable as promised. The rooms were plain, with a simple desk and chair and a single-window overlooking the street, except for Gwent's, which only offered him a view of the building built behind the Inn, causing a grumble of discontent when he first inspected his room.

After freshening up, they all met in the dining room on the first floor, eager for a warm morning meal. There was little discussion; each was taking what joy they could out of the food offered. Draven was the first to finish eating, and the first to break the silence.

"So, this Cora," he said to no one in particular. "She's…interesting."

"By the gods," Zythos groaned, rolling his eyes.

"Here we go," Gwent added.

Mace shook his head and sighed. "Well, that didn't take long."

"What?" Draven looked at each innocently. "I just…"

Mace quickly pointed a finger at him, cutting him off. "Not now," he said sternly. "We have too much to do, and I need you focused."

Draven put a hurt look on his face and raised both hands in surrender, but his smile returned as Cora entered the Inn.

"Good morning," Mace said quickly before the ranger could speak. He stood, offering her a polite bow. She returned the gesture.

She glanced at the group, nodding to each with a faint smile. "You're all feeling rested, I hope?"

"The beds were as comfortable as you said," Zythos said, taking his turn at cutting off any comment Draven could make.

"Aye lass," Gwent added as well.

Cora cast a curious glance toward the ranger, whose beaming smile faltered under Mace's gaze. With a deflating sigh, he offered her a weak grin. "Like they said…comfortable beds."

She hesitated, her brows furrowed in confusion, but she quickly shook it off and looked back to Mace.

"Kenrith is on his way," she said.

Mace nodded. They needed to gather as much information as possible before the group could decide how to move forward.

Mace offered Cora a seat at their table, but she declined with a quick shake of her head. She seemed edgy, understandable since she and Kenrith both appeared to have assumed responsibility for the town and its residents. An ordinarily tricky task made worse by the current circumstances.

Kenrith whisked into the Inn and stopped next to Cora. Mace again offered both a chair so they could talk without the other patrons overhearing their conversation. Kenrith sat and after a slight hesitation, so did Cora. Mace stated bluntly, "Let us not waste time. Tell us everything you know so far."

"Well, that will be the quick part," Kenrith stated sourly. "Since we don't know much of anything."

"About a month ago or so," Cora began, drawing her robe a little tighter around her body, "I sent a man named Deall to Caelfall to gather a message from Tyrell Karam, one of the ruling lords of the city."

"This Deall, is he one of the missing?" Zythos asked.

"The first," Cora answered. "Caelfall is a day or so ride through the forest, but the road is direct and easy to follow. I can hardly imagine anyone, even Deall, getting lost along the way."

"Even Deall?" Draven asked, sitting forward to rest his arms on the table.

"Deall isn't exactly the cleverest man," Kenrith admitted with a sigh. "But he's served us as a messenger many times."

"We've never had a problem with him in the past," Cora added quickly. "And he knows the road as well as any of us do."

Mace tilted his head, brows furrowing deeply. "But goblin bands are roaming free about the forest, correct?"

"Yes," Cora answered, and Kenrith nodded his agreement. "However, they have always only been active after dark. We assume they hide in their caves during the daylight hours."

"The dwarves often send out daytime patrols from the mine," Kenrith added. "It's their way of helping the towns secure the road for any who need to travel between them."

"I'm no' surprised," Gwent piped in. "Me kin's hatred for the goblin and orc is well known, and they no' want ta be risk'n their traders either."

All nodded their agreement with the dwarf.

Cora frowned, however, looking to Gwent specifically. "That's another thing, though; we've heard nothing from your kin either. It's as if everything west of Ravenwood has completely vanished," Cora exclaimed, her tone tense.

"How many men have you sent out there?" Zythos asked.

Mace noted the look that passed between Cora and Kenrith. It was filled with no small amount of guilt.

"Thirteen in total, including Deall," Cora answered quietly.

"Five were members of my guard," Kenrith explained. "When they didn't return, I hired a group of sellswords."

Draven leaned back in his chair, his hands dropping to his lap. "You didn't pay the coin upfront I hope?"

Kenrith shook his head quickly. "No, I paid a quarter up front. The rest was to be paid when they returned."

"Smart," Draven offered.

"So," Mace started, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "thirteen are missing, there has been no contact with the city or the dwarves, but there is no real proof the goblins may be up to something."

"Now you see our dilemma, Master Mace," Cora said urgently. "We dare not send anyone else out there, yet we are blind as to what is actually happening."

"You've done what you could," Mace assured her calmly. He pursed his lips in thought, then glanced over to Draven. "Well, what do you think?"

Everyone turned to look at the ranger. He smirked a little and released a heavy sigh.

"I think it's time to go to work," His chair slid back as he stood. "It's early, so I'll have plenty of daylight to start with."

Cora looked from Draven to Mace, her brow filled with confusion. Kenrith frowned deeply, understanding what she did not.

"What's going on?" she demanded from Mace before looking back to the ranger. "What's obvious?"

"We need answers," Mace replied, "Draven is going out to get them."

"We've already sent out patrols, none of which returned!" Cora reminded him. She looked again to Draven, her eyes pleading. "I can't have another go missing!"

The ranger offered her a confident grin and winked. "Your concern's touching, m'lady, but I assure you I'll be fine." Sliding his chair back under the table, he turned to head up the stairs to his room.

"I don't advise this," Kenrith muttered in disbelief. If anyone heard him, they didn't show it. Cora watched the ranger disappear up the stairs. She looked to Zythos and Gwent, noting their casual demeanor before scowling at Mace.

"Right now, what we urgently need is information." Mace said, "Your attempts to ascertain such has, no offense, met with failure." He raised a hand to ward off any complaint. "We need eyes and ears in that forest, and nobody here knows the wilderness better than Draven."

"He is a devout and blessed ranger of Nyarae," Zythos explained evenly. "I am elven, born in the forests to the northeast. I grew up learning the ways of the woodlands, yet I hold but a fraction of the survival skills Draven possesses."

"Aye, it best ta' be trusting in that one," Gwent offered.

"And what if he goes missing as well?" Cora asked in resignation.

"Then the realm of Cadirath will be a much quieter place," Zythos said with a smirk.

"I heard that," Draven announced. He was still donning his armor as he descended the final few steps and made his way to the table. Setting his bow down, he began checking the various pouches attached to his belt, then slung a quiver filled with arrows over his shoulder.

Mace rested his elbows on the table before him, projecting an aura of confidence despite the nagging worry he felt deep in his stomach. Like Zythos and Gwent, he could not deny Draven's skills in scouting, which were as Zythos stated, extraordinary. But he was also a close friend, and he hated the idea of putting the ranger's life at risk. But each of them had their place in the group, and Mace had no doubt Draven considered this his responsibility.

"Do you have everything you need?" Mace asked.

"Aye," he said with confidence and determination.

"Alright," Mace said, standing up. The others stood as well. Draven walked toward the exit as the team followed. Mace glanced back to see Cora look at Kenrith and shrug before both hurried to catch up.

The six of them quickly made their way to the outer gate of the town. Several times Cora started to say something, but each time her words seemed lost to her. Kenrith, however, seemed to have finally accepted the plan.

"At least let me ready a mount and gather some provisions for you," he offered sincerely.

"Thanks, but no. A horse will slow me down, and the forest will provide anything I might need." Draven answered.

"Is there no way I can talk you out of this," Cora said, finally finding her voice.

Draven turned and stopped before her, reaching out to grasp both her hands in his. "Your worry is sweet," he said smoothly, followed by a cocky wink. He let her hands go and started for the gate. "Sleep well tonight, my fair lady, for I will return to you, alive and well."

Cora scowled as the gateway opened inward. Draven nodded to his three friends and hurried out the opening, turning east and disappearing behind the wall.

The five of them stood and watched as the guards closed and locked the gate. Mace turned to notice the scowl still masking the woman's face.

"You must forgive Draven's…eccentric nature," Mace begged. She didn't bother to respond, but her frown did diminish a little.

"How come none of you offered to go with him?" Kenrith asked, looking at the three.

"He prefers to work alone," Zythos answered with a shrug. "Says he feels safer."

"A man so confident is either that good…or completely insane," Kenrith stated, shaking his head in wonder. "Either way, that makes him dangerous!"

Mace looked at the gate, silently wishing his friend luck. "I won't argue with that."

To be continued…

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