Journey of the Messenger Cycle 1 Part 3b

Journey of the Messenger Cycle 1 Part 3b

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Ijah had followed the trail the undead had taken for a few suri, over one hill, along the crest of the next and down into a small valley. Up until that point she had periodically heard them ahead of her, she had actually thought she had been gaining on them for a while, not that she had been moving particularly fast. A certain level of caution and self preservation was required in a hunt such as this. She did not want to blunder into the rear flanks of the skeletons or find herself encircled.

The light from the setting sun did not reach the valley floor, and the trail she had been following lead uphill again, into a wooded hillside of shadowed forest. She had seen the crest of the hill earlier from an adjacent hilltop and knew there was a circle of standing stones at its height, with a few dilapidated partially collapsed buildings below the peek. She had also seen a wispy tendril of smoke from a small fire but had not been able to see who might have been over there.

She knew the skeletons had slowed as they had ascended the previous hill, the tracks along the path indicated they had carefully walked up the hill. Dozens of bony feet left a clear trail, the length of the average stride had been much shorter than when she had first started following them. Ijah looked uphill through the gnarly woods, though she expected the undead to be somewhere within the trees ahead of her, she could not see them.

The insects were relentless, a small swarm moved with her, feeding on her at their leisure. She shifted that irritation from her mind, there were much more serious issues to focus on. Slowly, being careful where she placed her feet, she started moving up along the path into the woods. A few alat later she confirmed her suspicion, even in the dim light she could see the old white bones of the skeletons standing along the path and among the trees to either side. She suspected that they were waiting for nightfall before attacking whoever was above them. That did not give her much time. As cautiously as she had approached, she moved back and withdrew.

Ijah knew little of the undead, what she did know had been learned over the past year, since the Tannican necromancer had raised a field of the recently slain and set them against the Swampdon defenders late last summer. She knew that most undead were bound to follow the commands of the mage who had created them, and that they had a very limited capacity for self initiative. Yet, these skeletons were obviously waiting for an optimal condition before attacking those they hunted. Could a necromancer control its minions over a long distance? Ijah did not see how, though she had a very limited understanding of magical principals.

Once she had moved back downhill, Ijah carefully circled the base of the hill looking for a better way up. The eastern slope was steep and only had a few trees growing on it. The sky above was twilight grey, a few clouds caught the last rays of the sun. Deciding to start up the steeper slope, she was soon forced to secure her sword across her back and to use both her hands and feet to continue her ascent. The noises she made during the climb, mostly in the form of displaced stones or dirt shifting downhill, were unavoidable if she was to reach the top in a timely fashion.

She was twice her height from the hilltop, pulling herself up over a slight protrusion, when a voice from above inquired, “Are you aware that there are a number of good paths that allow for an easier ascent?”

She looked up, a large man loomed near the top of the hill. She continued upwards and asked, “Are you aware that there are upwards of eighty animated skeletons lining the northwestern approach?”

He laughed and said, ‚ÄúThat seems unlikely.” He knelt and extended an arm down to her.

She ignored the proffered assist and pulled herself up the rest of the way. The man backed off a few cautious paces, she noted that he carried a large bow and a couple of arrows in his left hand. The hilltop was bathed in a ruby-golden light, highlighting the man’s mane of wavy auburn hair. She was surprised when she came to her full height and still had to look up to gaze eye to eye with the man. There was something vaguely familiar about him that had nothing to do with her feelings of dislike.

“Were you trying to sneak up on us?”

“Hardly. The opposite, in fact. I was serious when I said there were a few score of skeletons waiting on the hill.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

He said something that may have been dwarven, it sounded like a curse. Then he turned and moved off across the hilltop, “The camp is easier to defend. Come with me if you want to help.”

She followed him across the hilltop, the western horizon was painted with deep reds and purples. They passed the standing stones and went down to the cluster of ramshackle buildings she had spotted earlier. A small fire was burning in the ruins of an outdoor oven where she was surprised to find the messenger she had met days back, when she had investigated the earth-machine.

“I thought you’d be further west by now?”

He stood, obviously not expecting to see her, his expression became one of curiosity as he smiled and said, “Already been west, though honestly it is a gift from the goddess to share your company again. This is my cousin I was talking about.”

Ijah was always caught a little off guard when a man expressed himself so openly.

The other man said, “You might have to cut your flirting short cousin, your associate claims the western bank is crawling with undead.”

“No, I said there was a large number of animated skeletons on the northwestern slope.”

“An important distinction, though I’m very surprised they were able to follow us.”

“You had actually said there was no way they would be able to keep up with us.”

“And, you had said that you had run into a bit of a problem with some undead. Downplaying the severity of the situation by at considerable amount.”

Ijah looked around, she could see Masri rising and the sky was filling with stars, the purple along the western horizon had nearly been consumed by the settling night. Now was not the time for friendly banter. She started shifting a fair sized rock to better block the approach between the buildings and found some planks in the grass after she resettled the stone. Soon both men had followed her example and were each working to place obstacles along the various approaches.

The cousin, burly in comparison to his kin, suggested, “We can always fall back to the circle if we have to.”

Ijah opened the rickety door on what had once been a small stable or barn, she was surprised to find three horses within the dubious shelter. Two of them were substantial animals, though there was too little light to glean further details. She gathered a few planks and went back outside. “Can those horses fight? Are you cavalry men?”

“Two of them are war horses, but neither of us are cavalry trained.”

“Too bad, that would have helped a lot.”

“We are still capable fighters. Both with previous experience against the undead.”

“Well, that’s something. I think we’d be better off retreating into one of these buildings if we’re forced to fall back. The stone circle offers few advantages, while there are only so many skeletons that can fit through a door at one time.”

“Well, the homestead is in better shape than the others, but it doesn’t have a door.”

“That one there?” She pointed to the remainder of a nearly roofless stone building.

“Yeah.”

“Alright. We could bring the warhorses out of the stable, they’d likely do more damage than us, especially if we were not in their way when the skeletons rushed in.”

“Sure, I can do that. Watch the lintel going into the house, the door’s low and the floor drops half an arm length on the other side.”

“Alright.”

As the burly man went to bring out the horses Ijah gave the other fellow a hand moving a large piece of the oven to impede the expected assault. There was little else left for them to shift around, short of actually starting to demolish the buildings.

“So how many skeletons are on the slope?”

“Sixty to eighty, maybe more.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“There are a couple hordes to the west as well, though they seem too far away to be much threat and the locals seem to know how to deal with such.”

“Tell you what, if we make it out of this, I’ll happily share names with you.”

“As much as I am drawn to you, I’m really not the sort of woman you should be inclined to befriend.”

“I’ve always had a thing for dangerous women.” The half-man smiled then went to what was left of the oven, scooped up the majority of the remaining pile of wood and dumped it on the fire.

“Alright you two, save it for later. I’ve put BigNose and Tingy over there. Nothing says they won’t just run off when the undead come for us, but I think you are right that they can fight better than us against these things.”

Ijah noted he had reclaimed his bow, she was about to point out that it would be of little use against the skeletons when she heard BogWalker call out from somewhere below them. “Ijah!” At that moment the clanking of bones sounded across the northwest bank of the hill as the lurking undead suddenly surged up towards them.

“Who was that?”

“My initiate.”

“They’re on the wrong end of the fight.”

“They are often at odds with the proper end of anything.”

“Here they come!”

Out from the dark woods, along the upper part of the slope, rapidly moving, blurred white shapes clattered towards them.

 

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