The Missing and the Found
Bree couldn’t be sure how far she had run through the curving tunnels beneath Thrice Hills, but it had to have been over a mile. Whatever the case, she made good time. Far better than she would have on the surface.
She followed Elder Parkeen’s directions to the exit ladder. A heavy wooden hatch blocked the way to the surface, but it’s large handle was well balanced and proved to slide open without difficulty. She pushed the heavy hatch up and out of her way, and crawled out into the blinding sunlight.
She was in the center of a large pile of boulders. A small path wound between the rocks. Bree turned back to the hatch and swung the door back into place. A loud click sounded as she pushed it down. The top of the hatch looked like the surrounding rock and fit seamlessly with the boulder it sprung from. Bree’s eyes widened. She felt around the hatch she had closed and found no seams or cracks. She tugged on it, but it did not budge.
Apparently the people of Thrice Hills had a few tricks still hidden up their sleeves. The secretive prudes! And here she had thought them defenseless!
Bree shook her head as a smile crept across her face. She followed the winding path through the boulders. It ended on a promontory looking out over the foothills surrounding Thrice Hills. Thrice Hills lay to the north. It’s brown, rocky hills were dotted with glinting spear tips, and wooden barricades. Bree frowned. It was a sad thing, to see such a peaceful place forced to such extreme measures. Perhaps it was best that they hadn’t built the palisade walls after all… Could she have even borne to look at Thrice Hills afterwards, knowing its stark beauty had been marred by her hand? Bree sighed. Still, the price of safety was heavy. A wall would have aided them in their current predicament at least.
Bree’s gaze drifted across the horizon where the dust clouds lingered. From this view she saw they stretched on for a few miles. Gnolls often travelled in long lines to make their numbers appear larger to any enemies watching their approach, but to leave a dust trail for so long… The Al-Chorhaiv must be a powerful tribe. More powerful than she had thought.
Bree heard the trample of footsteps and ducked back behind the boulder. The footsteps grew louder as they neared. They must be traveling directly below the promontory. Was it the Al’Chorhaiv or Kelmarane? Bree strained her ears. She heard voices. Human voices.
She had found the forces from Kelmarane!
Bree stepped out from behind the boulder and looked down upon them. In the front was Dashki and someone Bree didn’t recognize. He lad long gray hair and thick weathered skin. His clothes were dirty and patched together from hides and leathers. He had a bow strung over his shoulder and a large bird – a falcon, perhaps – perched upon his forearm.
Directly behind him walked Santon, gleaming in his polished breastplate, and Undrella, who had a vast array of vials and glass jars dangling from her clothing. Kelestair walked behind them in fine red and orange leather armour patterned with sunbursts and fire. Husk loped along at his side and wore a ridiculous, little helmet over his bald, wrinkly head.
After them followed a trail of people in a variety of dress, most of whom wore the red and gold livery of Kelmarane overtop or beneath their armour. It was difficult to make out their identities from above, as they were walking away from her, but Bree thought she saw Kallien among them.
Bree stood proudly atop the stone outcropping and raised her arm to the sky. “Greetings, Kelmarane!” she cried. “Glad you could make it to the party.”
The crowd stopped, but few turned arrows towards her. They must have recognized her by voice.
Santon smiled broadly. “Let the lady through.”
Bree climbed down from the outcropping and strode through the crowd to the front, where Santon stood waiting for her.
“You came!” Bree squealed in a rather undignified fashion as she came within arm’s reach. “I wasn’t sure you would!”
Santon wrapped her in a hug. “Of course we came. Even though you’re stubborn and should have taken us with you in the first place.”
Bree rolled her eyes and let Santon go.
“We will always be there to assist you when you find yourself in need,” Kelestair added.
Bree smiled and wrapped Kelestair in a hug as well. He froze at her touch, so she kept it brief. Kelestair had issues with physical contact. She assumed it had something to do with his infernal heritage. Perhaps he had an unloving childhood. Whatever the cause, it certainly ran deep.
“At least Boden made it in time! He gave you my message?”
Kelestair’s lips formed a solid line. “Not as such.”
“What do you mean?”
“You made the guy run to Kelmarane, Bree,” Santon chuckled. “He wasn’t exactly talkative upon arrival. Still, Kel managed to get some sense out of him.”
Kelestair’s lips curled down slightly at the corners. “I had heard you were in trouble.”
“So, he’s not here?”
“No.” Santon replied.
“That’s a shame. I liked that big lug.”
Santon raised an eyebrow. “Did you now?” he asked slyly.
“He promised to split some gnoll skulls with me…” Bree replied.
“I am sure we’ll be able to compensate for his absence,” Kelestair commented dryly.
Bree nodded and scanned the army. Tiller stood near the front, in worn leather armour the colour of the surrounding rocks. He bore a series of daggers strapped across his chest and nodded at her as her eyes met his. Utarchus and Kallien lingered nearby as well, though Haleen was nowhere to be seen. She must have been left in charge of Kelmarane’s law enforcement while Santon was away.
She spotted Archbanker Oxvard. He was an old comrade of Kelestair’s who escaped from Kelmarane back when it was under control of the Kulldis tribe. He had since established a temple to Abadar, the god of cities, law and commerce. Bree found the worship of Abadar both stifling and infuriating. They seemed to have no greater purpose than to keep the population in line and act as moneylenders and bankers. Members of his clergy did nothing for free and were a rather greedy bunch as far as she could tell. How much had Santon offered him to be here?
Father Zastoran had come as well. He was the local cleric of Nethys, god of magics both benevolent and destructive. He was a changeable man, just like his patron. Chatty and friendly one moment, then angry and offensive the next. Bree was was only partly surprised at his presence. Though he was fond of the comforts of his home and not particularly charitable, there were few chances to let off some steam in Kelmarane – at least as far as destructive magic was concerned. Besides, his healing spells would come in handy.
Zym moved through the crowd until she stood directly behind Kelestair. She wore her Junior Protectors uniform, with a massive sunburst pattern stitched overtop in orange. Atop her head was a black curling hairpiece that was at least a foot tall. Why was she here? Bree glared at her but made no comment. It was too late to send her back, and she would be unable to hide inside Thrice Hills now. It was best to let her linger near Kelestair and hope for the best. There was no need to scare the poor kid any more than the coming battle would.
Also among the crowd was a group of twenty soldiers and a ragtag collection of mercenaries and unseasoned thrill-seekers. Near the back of the line, keeping an eye on their retreat were some of the Claisant’s. It was Omig and Kaywen, by the looks of it. Omig was a cleric while Kaywen was a holy warrior. They were both dedicated to Cayden Cailean and had met some forty years ago by pure chance when they both attacked the same slaving ring. They were married and had a son whom they named Cobb within a few short years. Cobb was now himself a father of two girls, Mead and Brandy, whom worked as waitresses in Cayden’s Hall and were both acolytes. As with all members of the Drunken Lord’s faith who were lucky enough to serve in a holy tavern, they also worked as bartenders and waitresses, alongside their father. Their mother, Gwenta, would no doubt be sore she was unable to come protect Thrice Hills, for she was of a more combat minded bent than her husband and daughters. Though, if Tiller, Omig and Kaywen were all here, Gwenta was likely left in charge of the Free House. It would chafe her to be left behind, but Omig and Kaywen were both adventurous souls. Though they were quite old, their blades were sharp and their minds were quick. They were seasoned warriors and freedom fighters, well practiced against the gnolls and, most importantly, strong of faith. Thrice Hills was lucky they had come.
Bree scanned the crowd again, then frowned. “Where’s Trevvis?”
“I don’t know,” Santon said with a shrug.
Bree turned on him with a glare. “You don’t know? You didn’t ask him to come?”
“We couldn’t find him.”
Bree froze. Trevvis was a predictable man. Finding him shouldn’t have been a problem. “…what do you mean?”
“We looked everywhere. His house, with his old friends, the bar. I even checked the whore house but…”
Bree’s eyes turned cold.
“…Not that he’d be there, of course…”
“Did something happen to him?” Bree snapped.
“How should I know?”
Bree’s eyes narrowed. “What happens in Kelmarane that you don’t know about?”
Santon laughed. Bree balled her hands into fists.
“This is serious, Santon! Trevvis would have come in an instant if he had known! Something must have happened to him!”
“I haven’t heard anything,” Santon amended.
“But you couldn’t find him and you’re not worried?”
Santon shrugged. “He probably just hit the bottle again, Bree.”
“I’ve only been gone a week!”
“It’s happened before.”
Bree scowled. “It didn’t happen this time. Did you check under his bed?”
“I don’t know! It was Kel I sent to collect him. Go bug him.”
Bree turned to face Kelestair. The corners of his lips were turned down into a slight frown.
“I spent more time than I should have on him, but I could not delay our departure. We were needed here. When I left Kelmarane he was nowhere he should have been… I am sorry, Bree.”
Bree’s anger dissipated. Sadness and a slight melancholy replaced it. “He promised he wouldn’t drink again, but if he was nowhere around then – “
Kelestair nodded slowly. “Alcoholism is a sickness. The withdrawal can cause even an honest man to break their word.”
Bree frowned. Would he have really turned to the bottle so soon? She hadn’t been gone long and he knew the consequences if she returned home to find him drunk again. He wouldn’t have given her up so easily, would he? Bree shook her head. “No! Not this time. He promised! He knew this was his last chance and he… He wouldn’t have! Something must have happened to him.”
“I am sorry to make you worry. I will help you find him when we return home together. After this is all over.”
Bree relaxed. There was no reason to take this out on Kelestair. “Thanks,” she said. “You’re a good friend.” She nodded to him and tried to shove her worry for Trevvis aside. What did it matter where Trevvis was if she died here, today?
Kelestair shifted uncomfortably under the compliment. “Yes, well…” He looked down and the corners of his lips tilted downwards. He seemed to be searching for the right words.
“Pay your compliments to someone who knows what to do with them,” Santon cut in with a chuckle.
Bree rolled her eyes. “I think you get more than enough compliments.”
“Well, I suppose I can just take my war party and go home then.”
“Thank you, Sheriff Santon,” Bree mocked.
Santon crossed his arms and shifted his weight onto one leg, clearly showing he was unimpressed. “That’s it?”
Bree glared back at him.
“You know you owe me, right?”
Bree’s frown deepened in response.
Santon sighed dramatically. “Fine, fine. Ungrateful wench.”
Bree turned to the troops and raised her arm in the air. “Form up!” she ordered.
“Whoa! Hold it!” Santon exclaimed. He grabbed her by the waist and turned her around, walking a few steps away from the others as they shuffled amongst themselves.
“What makes you think you can give my men orders?”
“You’re men?!” Bree exclaimed.
“Yes. My men.”
Bree rolled her eyes. Did Santon ever stop playing games?
Santon cocked his head to the side as a boyish smile spread across his face. “You think they came out here for you? For Thrice Hills?” He laughed.
Bree scowled. “Enough of this, Santon. Thrice Hills is in danger. Swallow your ego for a bit, yeah?”
“Look, sugar, you’re not exactly the most friendly girl in town. I cashed in a lot of favours to get these people here. And I had to pay some of them on top of that! The greedy bastards!” Santon chuckled. “Except for Tiller and the Claisant’s. Those saps came here for free…”
Kelestair cleared his throat loudly.
“Oh, and Kel, of course.” Santon continued. “I didn’t have to bribe him.”
“You’re joking,” Bree said. Surely some of these people had come out of the goodness of their own hearts? For the chance to help out their neighbours? Bree sighed. Who was she kidding? This was a country of merchants and liars! The ‘kindest’ among their lot would still spend the next day bartering their ‘generosity’ into better trade agreements.
Santon’s expression turned sober. “No, Bree. I’m not. They’re not yours to command.”
Bree shook her head in disgust. “You’re seriously going to let your ego get in the way of protecting Thrice Hills? You don’t know this town like I do! You don’t know her defenses! You don’t know the gnolls or – “
Santon turned and walked away from her, cutting her off mid-tirade.
Bree clenched her hands into tight fists and fumed. The selfish, boorish, egotistical, power-hungry fool! She would give him a piece of her mind! Bree stalked after him.
Santon stood before the troops, puffed out his chest and waved his arm in the air. “Alright, you lot! Bree’s going to boss you around now so pay attention!”
Santon glanced back at Bree and winked playfully.
Bree froze, stunned. The troops looked at her expectantly.
Santon laughed. “What’s the matter, sugar? Cat got your tongue?”
Bree sighed. This was the help she had held out for?
Oh, give me patience, my lord Cailean!
This was going to be a long day…