Bree awoke a few hours later feeling much better. Her limbs responded to her commands – albeit, sluggishly. She was able to speak without difficulty, and her heart rate had slowed. She was exhausted, though, and had a headache that felt as if a giant were beating her over the head with a tree trunk.
Bree scowled, but forced herself to rise from her bed. She got dressed, sheathed Tempest, and hooked her copper tankard onto her hip before striding out into the sun on shaking legs. The people of Thrice Hills milled about her in chaos. Everywhere she looked people were dragging brush and cacti, carrying wooden posts, sharpening punji sticks, or strapping on quivers and armour. There was a sort of frantic energy in the air. Not afraid, so much as anxious. The people of Thrice Hills were used to attacks from gnolls, but not used to being prepared for the attacks. Bree frowned. All this work, and it wouldn’t be enough. Not if Santon didn’t come with help from Kelmarane. Had Boden arrived yet? How long did they have to hold the gnolls off?
What if –
No. There was no time for doubt. Santon and Kelestair were on their way. Bree would help hold Thrice Hills until they arrived. Everything would be fine.
Bree spotted Elder Parkeen across the clearing and made her way towards him. He was in the midst of ushering a group of children and elderly into the Hall.
“Where do we stand?” she asked him as she approached.
He sighed. “In front of the Hall. Is your brain so muddled you could not tell, child?”
Bree scowled at him. “I’m serious, Old Man. How are the preparations?”
“I see your brush with death has not gifted you with a sense of humour.”
“This is no time for jokes, Parkeen.”
“There is always time for a bit of humour, Bree. We must laugh loudest when the night is darkest.”
Bree’s gaze turned somber. “Elder…”
Bree nodded. “I sent word to Kelmarane. Help is on the way. Now how are the defenses?”
“The canals have all been filled. The cacti are all in place. We’ve set up the makeshift abastis’ and placed tackweed nutlets along all the main approaches. The fox holes are prepped with punji sticks and the hyena-gutters you requested are being hauled into place as we speak.”
Bree smiled. “You built them already?”
Elder Parkeen nodded. “Yes, well… With a name like that how could we resist?”
“And the Halls?”
“They’ve been fortified as much as possible. The fences and cacti are in place. The elderly and the children are making their way inside. If things take a turn for the worst they will retreat into the hidden bunkers. There are a series of underground tunnels from there that lead out of the village.”
Bree cocked an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware Thrice Hills was home to escape tunnels. I thought you were too proud for such measures.”
“We are. But that doesn’t mean we would condemn our children to death along with us. We will keep our young ones safe, at least.”
“What about the archers?”
“Ready and alert. We have a triple guard on each watch tower, and your Militia members have organized a strike force for each of the hills.”
“So we’re all set?”
“We are as ready as we will ever be.”
“Are you going to tell me what we’re expecting?” Elder Parkeen asked.
Bree looked at the villagers passing by. “Come inside?”
Elder Parkeen raised an craggy, old eyebrow, but nodded. He followed her into the healer’s home without comment.
“I found the Three Jaws Tribe, but they were dead. All of them.”
Elder Parkeen paled.
“They had their hearts ripped out by some monster that the Al’Chohaiv have trained. They’re using it as a weapon. And now they’re on their way here. All of them. I sent for aid from Kelmarane, but we’ll have to hold the gnolls off until they arrive.”
“…This… monster. It rips out hearts, you say?”
Bree nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t know much more than that. Why? Do you know what it is?”
Elder Parkeen rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “No, but… We have had a series of dead turn up lately. Their hearts were torn from their chests, just as you say. I do not know what could have done such a thing, but there was a survivor.”
“A survivor?!” Bree exclaimed. “Where is he? What did he see? Take me to him! We need to – “
“I cannot. He died this morning.”
“I thought you said he survived?”
“He did, but he was not the same since the encounter. His waking hours were filled with mad ravings. He wouldn’t eat or drink. He couldn’t sleep unless we drugged him. The poor soul was terrified. He died this morning, though from what I cannot say. The healer says it was a result of the trauma. He was scared to death, though he took a while to pass on.”
“Scared? Of the creature or the experience?”
“I cannot be sure. He wasn’t entirely sane, when he returned to us. From what I could gather, the creature ate the hearts of his companions. He called it Winged Death, or the Hungry Shadows, depending on his mood. In either case he said the beast had the shadow of a man, but that it flew on the wings of a bird. It had a large crown of horns atop its head and its cries sounded like the ‘dying screams of a tortured soul.’ “
A shiver surged down Bree’s spine. Why did that sound familiar..?
A winged beast, with antlers and the shadow of a man…
Of course! The peryton!
Undrella had spoken of a beast like that over a year ago. She had said it was in service to Kardswann, King of the Kulldis Tribe. But, after they had taken on Kardswann and freed Kelmarane, they hadn’t seen a single feather belonging to the beast. Bree had assumed it was a story concocted by Undrella and Kardswann to strike fear into their enemies hearts. But if Undrella hadn’t made the beast up, where had it been hiding?
Bree sighed. The monster would easily circumvent their defenses, but there were many strong archers in Thrice Hills. They should be able to hold it at bay. A more pressing concern was the scorpions that the Al’Chorhaiv employed. They would swarm over and around everything but the canals… She had best tell the healer to prepare plenty of anti-toxin and –
A sharp, tolling bell cut Bree’s thoughts short.
Elder Parkeen’s eyes widened.
It was the alarm bell.
War was coming to Thrice Hills.