Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Forty-seven

Chapter Forty-seven
A Night Visit

Bree left Trevvis outside and retired early. To her surprise, Kelestair and Santon were both already in the shrine. Santon slept, but Kelestair sat in the corner, patting Husk. He was brooding over something, though Bree couldn’t be sure of what. He looked up at her as she entered. The slightest hint of a smile played upon the corner of his lips. He looked as if he were about to say something, but changed his mind.

“You’ve found your friends,” Bree pointed out. “You don’t have to help us any further.”

He nodded his horned head slowly. “I have been…” he paused, apparently searching for the right word. “..contemplating that issue. Although Oxvard and Felliped are safe, I find cause to aid you still.”

“You owe us nothing, Kelestair. Your help has been enough.”

“I speak not of debts, Bree, but of logistics. Where would I go, if not to Kelmarane? How far would I get if the gnolls remain in power?”

Bree nodded, acknowledging his point. “I imagine these lands are hardly a safe place at the best of times.”

Kelestair paused, his face inscrutable. “It is a noble goal to liberate this region from the gnoll hordes. My heart – and Sarenrae’s – will be brightened by taking part. I will go with you tomorrow.”

Bree smiled. Kelestair was a good man. It’s was unfortunate his heritage cast such a shadow over him.

“Thank you,” she said.

Bree lay down and tried to sleep. Santon breathed rhythmically beside her. Kelestair stroked Husk’s inky feathers softly. After a few minutes he hummed quietly to the bird. Husk squawked loudly in response and Kelestair stopped abruptly.

“Quiet, Husk,” he said sternly. His gravelly voice was soothing. Hypnotic, almost. “You’ll wake them.”

Bree smiled as she drifted off to sleep. Had she finally found a pair of trustworthy friends?

Bree awoke to gentle hands shaking her shoulder.

“Beware,” Kelestair said quickly. “That call has gone out. Torches can be seen on the horizon.”

Bree heard his words. She saw his mouth moving but nothing seemed to make sense. Beside her, Santon was rolling out of his bedroll. It must be important. What had he said?

Bree forced herself to sit up. “What?” she asked groggily.

“Torches, Bree. There are torches approaching.”

Bitter brew! Had the gnolls moved against them already? She jumped out of her bedroll and slipped on her leather boots before grabbing Tempest and strapping it around her waist. She made it out of the room last, though not by much.

When she reached the outer door to the monastery she found a few others already there. Vodrave, Dullen and Yesper seemed to be in the center of it – they were likely the ones who had been on watch. In the distance Bree spotted a line of five points of flickering light approaching the monastery, though they came from the northern mountains, not Kelmarane.

“What is it?” Bree asked aloud.

Vodrave shook his head. The muscles in his neck were tight. He was on edge. “We don’t know. Though they do not come from the town.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re not enemies.” Dullen cut in. Beside him, Yesper nodded meekly. Dullen wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close. She seemed to perk up under his touch.

Bree suddenly found herself jealous. She shook her head. No. Now was not the time for that.

“Gnolls can see in the dark as if it were day. They would not need torches.” Kelestair commented.

A few heads nodded in agreement.

Father Zastoran piped up. “Gnolls are not the only enemies in these parts.”

“Just the most likely, old man,” Trevvis added.

“Can you send Husk to spy on them, Kel?”

Kelestair shook his head. “She sees no better in the dark than you do. Worse perhaps. Still, she would likely be able to make out their race if she gets close enough.”

Yesper frowned. “So what are you waiting for? Send your bird and see if they’re gnolls. Then we’ll know if we need kill them, or not.”

Husk squawked at Yesper angrily and opened his wings, flapping them as if to intimidate her. Dullen tightened his hold on Yesper, pulling her closer. Kelestair’s lips twisted down slightly.

“You are presuming race determines ones actions. Whether they are gnolls are not, does not tell us their intentions.”

“Bah! Who ever heard of a friendly gnoll?” Dullen roared.

Husk squawked again snapped his beak shut. Dullen dragged Yesper back a pace.

By then, Almah had arrived. “Enough of this,” she cut in angrily. “Everyone arm yourselves. Full armour. No exceptions. Dashki, Bree, Santon and Kelestair, I want you in front. Eyes on the torches. Everyone else, check the perimeter for other intruders. This could be a ploy.”

Vodrave stepped in front of Almah. “I am resuming my post at your side, Princess.”

Almah shook her head, but her red-armoured guards surrounded her.

“We will fulfill our duties.” They said as one.

“No. We need everyone to – “

Parn cut her off. “We will take your opinions under advisement, but remind the Princess that we do not actually serve her, we protect her.”

“Very well,” she spat. “Then we will all stay in the front with the others.”

This time it was Fexx who shook his head. “I do not think that is in your best interests, Princess. We advise you to return to your room.”

“You will watch your tongue, Fexx. You forget who you speak to.”

“I do not, Princess. Although you seem to have forgotten who we serve. You will return to your chambers where you are safest or we will bring you there. We will protect you as ordered.”

Almah scowled but turned and walked to her room. Apparently the thought of being man handled by her guards didn’t appeal to her. Her red-armoured guards followed with Garavel trailing behind.

By now the torches had neared, although Bree still could not make out any features. The four of them strained to see in the dark. Finally, Kelestair spoke.

“They are gnolls. Though they bear arms they do not wield them. Whatever their purpose, they are not here for war.”

Beside her, Dashki stiffened. He stepped forward a few paces, sniffed deeply, and them moved forward a few more. “I think I know who this is. I’m going to scout ahead. If it is who I think then I will bring them in to speak with us.”

Bree raised an eyebrow. “And if you are wrong? If they mean you harm?”

Dashki shrugged. “Then I will be harmed, won’t I? Now cease your fretting, woman. I will return.”

Bree scowled at Dashki’s back as he walked away, but stayed put. Beside her Kelestair and Santon watched on nervously. The minutes seemed to drag on. Bree found herself holding her breath and let it out awkwardly. Why was waiting always so hard?

Eventually, they spotted Dashki entering the gnolls torch light. He took on a crouching, almost subservient pose and appeared to be talking with them.

“Can you tell what they’re saying?” Bree asked aloud, to no one in particular. It was a dumb question, she knew, but found she couldn’t help but ask.

No one responded.

The lead gnoll closed in on Dashki. He grabbed him roughly. Bree gasped.

“Broken tankard! We have to help – “

The gnoll backed off of Dashki and he seemed completely fine. Hadn’t the gnoll just attacked him?

“They did not fight, Bree,” Kelestair whispered. “They embraced.”

“Wait! What?”

“They embraced.”

“By the gods!” Santon exclaimed. “That was a hug? I thought they were grappling!” He let out a deep laugh. “No wonder our Dashki is so rough!”

Dashki and the gnolls walked together towards the monastery. Dashki seemed to be laughing and practically glowed in their company.

Bree frowned. “I don’t understand. Dashki hunts gnolls, doesn’t he? Why would he be hugging them?”

Kelestair opened his mouth to speak, but Santon threw his arm around him and slapped him on the back. Kelesteir shut his mouth.

“Well, he’s obviously not hunting these ones.”

Bree nodded. “Yes, but.”

“Quiet.” Kelestair said. “They approach.”

Dashki and a group of five gnolls were a mere hundred paces away. The gnolls all appeared well armed and battle hardened. Many bore scars and each of them wore a long, curved sword at their hip and a bow slung over their back. None of them had any weapons in hand.

“Do not attack!” Dashki called out to them as he approached.

Bree reached for Tempest, but she kept it sheathed. She had never liked Dashki, but now? Ugh! The man was a fool! Of course they should attack, they were gnolls! Still, Dashki seemed at ease, and both Santon and Kelestair seemed calm enough. There were only five of the gnolls, after all. Bree sighed. Why did things always have to get so complicated?

The gnolls stopped respectfully, twenty paces away. Dashki stepped forward, and beckoned for Santon, Kelestair and Bree to come closer. Bree swallowed down her apprehension and did so, though she let her comrades lead.

“These are not the gnolls from Kelmarane,” Dashki announced. “They come with a proposal of peace.”

Bree held back a laugh. Peace? Really? Dashki was a fool.

“Speak then, friends.” Santon said with a smile.

Dashki beamed and the gnolls sneered. Or was that what a gnoll smile looked like? Bree couldn’t be sure.

One of the gnolls, a scruffy and ragged creature larger than the others held his hands up in a sign of peace. This brute was obviously their leader. Bree’s fingers twitched slightly, but she resisted the urge to draw steel.

The gnoll barked out a greeting in a feral voice. “Hold your weapons! I am Hargk, and I bring word from Narg, Chieftain of the Three Jaws tribe.”

Bree frowned and searched her memory. What was it Dashki had told her about the Three Jaws? “So you are allied with the gnolls of Kelmarane,” she said loudly. “Tell me then, Hargk, why shouldn’t I introduce you to my blade?”

Hargk let out a yipping kind of laugh and then barked something to his comrades. Dashki and the other gnolls laughed. Kelesteair stiffened.

“That was not very polite,” he said aloud. Bree couldn’t tell if he was reprimanding her or the gnolls. Perhaps it was both.

Hargk stopped mid-laugh and sneered. He spit on the ground. “You insult us, bitch. The Three Jaws are no allies of the Kulldis. We are enslaved.”

Bree scoffed. To think these slavers sought to draw her sympathy out! “I see no chains upon your wrists, gnoll.”

“We have long warred with the Kulldis and now the Carrion King forces us to ally with them. It is a disgrace.”

“So you are cowed, then. Afraid of disobeying. What well trained pets you are.”

“Watch your tongue, woman!” Dashki growled. “The Three Jaws are no pets, or cowards! They are the finest of the gnoll warriors!”

“Now, now,” Santon cut in. “Let’s all take a deep breath. We can get along. Can’t we, Bree?”

Bree frowned but nodded.

Hargk sneered. “We have fought the Kulldis for many years and now they let themselves be ruled by one who is not a gnoll. Their ways disgust us, and we wish to see them swept from the town. Our brother, Dashki, says you mean to kill the Kulldis and so our chieftain sent us to assist you.” Hargk paused. “We are here to help,” he finished after a moment.

Bree frowned. Hargk obviously did not want to say what he had, nor did he like his mission, but he was not – as far as Bree could tell – lying. Strange.

“We wish to see the Kulldis swept from their town. We will slay their leaders and eat their young together!”

Bree’s jaw dropped. Eat their young? These beasts were barbaric! She began to open up her vision, but decided against it. She did not need a gift from her god to tell her these gnolls were evil.

Dashki nodded and slapped one of the gnolls on the back. Santon turned to Bree and Kelestair. He shrugged. Kelestair nodded.

Froth and foam! They were actually thinking of accepting the gnolls offer? Bree shook her head vigorously.

“One moment, if you please, friends,” Santon said with a smile. “The lady has her doubts, you see.”

Dashki shot Bree a glare and the gnolls shifted nervously. One of them barked something aloud and the others took up a yipping laugh again. The corner’s of Kelestair’s lips turned down slightly at the corners.

“You cannot be seriously thinking about allying with them, can you?” Bree asked Santon in shock when they were a few steps away.

Santon shrugged. “They were being honest Bree. They want to kill the Kulldis as much as we do.”

“The Kulldis, yes, but what of them? They’re at least as foul as their brethren!”

“We’re weak, Bree. We need all the help we can get.”

“No. We cannot ally with them.”

“They are rather… rough company, but Santon is right. We are few. We could use their aid. They would help us achieve our goals and – “

“No.” Bree said again with a shake of her head. “No matter the outcome, we cannot ally with them. In fact, I should kill them now and be done with it.”

“Do you hate the gnolls so much?” Kelestair asked. “That you would kill them all?”

Bree frowned. She looked at Kelestair – poor, cursed, Kelestair – and shook her head. “No, Kelesteir. I hate evil so much that I would kill them all. They are foul and no matter what help they would give us, no matter what they could do for us, I will not ally with them. To accept their evil into our fold is to nurture it.”

Kelestair didn’t seem to react to her words, but Santon sighed. “You really do need to make this difficult, don’t you, Bree?”

Bree crossed her arms.

“Fine. We’ll turn down their offer, but you’ll not kill them on our doorstep. That’s bad form.”

Bree narrowed her eyes, but nodded. Santon turned and addressed the gnolls.

“Unfortunately, my friends, we will have to turn down your offer. Some of our comrades are rather sensitive on the whole eating young topic. We do, however, recommend you leave the vicinity, as things will certainly get messy come morn.”

Dashki’s face fell and the gnolls growled. Hargk held up a hand and they fell silent.

They certainly were well trained.

Hargk stared at Bree. “Very well, humans. We will leave you to your deaths. Though my chieftain bids me wish you the best of luck, I look forward to watching the gnolls feast upon your liver.”

The other gnolls laughed their hyena-like cackles and retreated, tossing their torches in the dirt nearby and disappearing into the dark. Their laughs rang across the hills.

Dashki watched them go. He turned on Bree and glared. He muttered something in the barking language of the gnolls and spat on the ground at her feet.

“Mind your tongue.” Kelestair warned.

“You are fools to take the woman’s advice! It will be the death of us.”

“Come on,” Santon said to Bree. “Best get some rest. We have a busy morning ahead of us.”

Bree nodded and turned her back on Dashki. Kelestair followed close behind.

“I will tell the Princess of your treachery!” Dashki yelled. “You’ve killed us all, bitch!”

Bree frowned.

“Well, he needs a lesson in manners, doesn’t he?” Santon quipped.

None of them laughed.

It wasn’t long before she was back in her bedroll, but Bree found she couldn’t sleep. Doubt had found its way into her thoughts. First she had made them abandon their assault on Kelmarane early, then they had led scouts to the monastery and now she had turned down an offer of aid. Dashki was right. She would get them all killed.

“I’m sorry.” she whispered aloud.

Neither Santon nor Kelestair’s sleeping forms offered her any comfort. The silence was thick. Oppressive. Bree felt alone. Her thoughts drifted instinctively to Trevvis.

“I’m so sorry.” she repeated, though this time she wasn’t sure who she was talking to. A single tear traced its way down her cheek.

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