Perils of the Open Road [Fiction]

From the diary of Mavius 

There is something to be said for the freedom of the open road, to find a path and set foot upon it. I have seen much in my life, and yet crave more. It has been a blessing and  curse, a wanderlust set upon me in youth that I have yet to be rid of.

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My journey has been one of wonder and exploration. I have seen sights that few in my homeland have set eyes upon and yet still seek more. With the joys of exploration however comes great sorrow. Not all who walk beside me have returned safely. As I write these words a great sadness weighs heavy upon my heart. A beloved friend has fallen, and with him a piece of myself. Tybalt has treated the wounds of my body, but the wounds of the heart cannot so easily be mended with prayer or healing balm. I will recount the tale here, and perhaps the telling of it, will bring me some peace that the priest’s prayers cannot.

The four of us set forth from Dynesdale, a small village in southern Zayre. It is not a place of note, a simple farming community in the shadows of the Rhenholt mountains. We arranged lodgings at the inn, and set to meet there before setting out for our destination. I was the first to arrive, and paid for our rooms, and enjoyed a small meal, while I awaited my companion’s arrival. Next was Tybalt, a friend from my youth, and recently elevated into the priesthood of Algorand. I much admired his devotion to his faith, and more than once our discussions of religion and philosophy have trailed late into the night.

We sat in the inn, partaking of a fine wheat ale, when Cora arrived. He appearance went almost unnoticed as is common with her people. The small folk of Barsa, and generally friendly and easygoing are as likely to shy from outsiders as they are to embrace them. I have journeyed through their lands many times, and even I have scarcely laid eyes upon their settlements. They lay hidden among the banks of the great rivers flowing through their land, all by hidden from prying eyes. Cora was unusual in that she generally avoided most, preferring to live on the outskirts. I met her upon the road, as her arrows felled several thieves preying upon those walking the lonely roads. It took much persuasion to get her to join me, but her knowledge of hidden paths, and skill with a bow will undoubtedly prove useful.

The three of us exchanged pleasantries as we awaited the arrival of the last member of our party. I did not know him personally, but Tybalt assures me he is a capable, if somewhat abrasive individual. He agreed to join us with promise of coin, and I had paid much for his inclusion. Tybalt assured me he was well worth the price.
He arrived late in the evening, and I had been wondering if he would show at all. He entered the inn draped in a cloak of heavy furs. He had a hard look to him, and his eyes seemed to conceal an aspect of a beast. So predatory was his appearance and demeanor that I nearly mistook him for a Karei. The air in the inn was tense, and it wasn’t until Tybalt broke silence that I had realized this was our man.

Kalum is turned out hailed from the eastern plains of Halqu, and was familiar with the terrain and the dangers that inhabited it. He carried with him a massive hammer or maul of great weight, and seemed very capable in its use. I hoped he would not have to make use of such a savage weapon, but alas that was not to be.
We left at daybreak, the sun rising to our backs as we made final preparations before setting out upon the road. I procured for us several weeks provision, but Cora seemed confident she could hunt along the way, and so extend our rations. We left on foot, with a single horse to help carry food and supplies. It would be a long journey, and a perhaps a perilous one.

Our destination was the city of Haras-Ur, the golden city of Halqu. Once the capital of a great empire it now stood as the final bastion of a people in decline. Its splendor was said to be second to none, and the fall of the empire was said to have done little to mar its magnificence. Between us though were many miles of open road and wilderness. I had heard tales of the gnoll tribes that made the plains their homes, they bore fearsome names. The Bloodtooth, the Blackmaw, and the Deathfang to name a few. I had hoped to avoid them if possible, as more than one unsuspecting traveler had fallen prey to their blades. The thoughts of potential danger did not dampen my spirits, still far from mind, and distant.

We followed the road north. The weather was fair, and we kept a good pace. The journey was long, but in a few weeks’ time we found ourselves at the eastern border of Zayre, looking out over the endless plains of Halqu. We rested and restocked our supplies at a small trading post, and discussed our plan at length. We concluded that only two reasonable paths stood before us.

The first led us along the northern borders, the second to the south. Kalum discounted going a more direct route as it would lead us into area more frequented by gnolls and other hazards, to which we readily agreed. The other routes were not without danger. To the north were known to be the war bands of the Karei, and though it was unlikely they would see us as enemy, they were no friend to the Halqu, and Kalum seemed uneasy about conflict with them. As a man of his stature, I took his words to heart. The north was also known to be home to goblin and orc, and though the dwarves of Thangnor dwelt in the region, it was unlikely they would come to aid from the seclusion of their mountain home.

For those reasons we eventually decided on taking the south road, following the coast on our way to Haras-Ur. There was still fear of gnolls, but Kalum informed us they would be fewer in number, and the vast stretches land would make such encounter less likely.
Tybalt said prayers of blessing before we departed, and my spirits lifted, the growing fears of the hazardous landscape made smaller, by expectation of successful journey. Cora was unusually quiet, even for her. I suspected she worried about our journey, a concern she did not put to voice.

We embarked on the next leg of our journey the next morning. I led the horse by hand with Kalum and Tybalt on my flanks. Cora scouted the road ahead, often invisible as she disappeared among the tall grasses that grew along the sides of the well-worn path. I took comfort in knowing she was out there before us unseen. It was likely that she would go unnoticed by all but the more discerning eyes.

Traveling south as planned we followed the road at first, before departing it, taking to the grasslands as the road grew more uneven. In the distance I could make out mountains to the north, and from the south detected but a faint smell of the sea. I knew the ocean lay beyond the southern forests, but Cora advised not taking to the trees, too many places for danger to hide. Still we agreed the forest could provide shelter if conflict arose, and we kept it close to our left as we continued our trek westward. Tybalt and Kalum kept weary eye on the trees, but from them no dangers arose.

It was but a few days later as forest gave way to open plains, that trouble arose. Cora had been uneasy all morning, having discovered tracks neither human nor beast. Kalum confirmed they were made by gnoll, and as we marched kept weapons at the ready and eye open to any threat. It would be under cover of darkness however, that danger would come.

We set camp that night, forgoing a campfire in favor of concealment. We ate cold rations and looked with tired eyes out into the dark plains. They seemed great under light of sun, but the cover of darkness made them seem more foreboding, like and endless void threatening to swallow us whole. We decided to set watch and Cora readily volunteered to keep first watch so we could all rest.

What happened next, I can not be certain, I awoke with a start as Cora shouted, calling us to action. I heard mocking howls, neither human nor animal. The shouts and grunts of the gnolls that began to circle around us. If not for the light of moon, we might have not noticed them at all, but in the silvery light their large shapes were easy to pick out among the grasses.

Kalum was first to enter the fray, plunging himself forward into battle. Wielding his heavy weapon as if it weighed nothing he quickly dispatched the nearest two gnolls. I recall the sound of their bones breaking and the sound of their death cries as they took their last breaths. Tybalt stood close to me, and I heard his prayers, the soothing sound of his voice, lifting my spirits, and calming my fraying nerves.

Cora let arrow fly, and more gnolls fell to their deaths. The beasts, however, seemed endless, and as my companions fought, there numbers continued to grow. Tybalt himself joined the fray as gnolls descended upon us. I never regretted my lack of skill with blade or spell as I did at that moment. I stood helpless as my companions fought for their lives and me, powerless to aid them.

I stood mired in fear and self-pity, as Kalum’s shouts pierced my thoughts. More gnolls made their way across the fields, and he shouted for us to flee. Tybalt and Cora rejoined me and urged me to run, but I froze. I watched Kalum issue challenge, his roar echoing through the air. His ferocity grew, and he swung his maul with even greater ferocity. Tybalt pulled on my arm, as Cora fired arrow at would be pursuers. In the end we got away, but I would never again set eyes upon my Halqan friend.

We never found his body, and I did not complete that journey, we fled east, back across the plains, and hid in the forests, evading pursuit. The gnolls constantly at our heels chasing us until forced to give up pursuit. I have many regrets in life, but none as much as leaving Kalum behind to face death. Tybalt advises me to not feel guilty, that he chose an death his people would consider quite honorable. I have my doubts, however, and part of me wonders if he may yet live.

Despite tragedy, I still long to see the golden halls of Haras-Ur, I return to Zayre, with Tybalt by my side. Cora has returned to her people, but assures me that she will provide aid if needed. I have decided to take safer route to Halqu. I will head to the port city of Malthridge, and seek a ship to take me there. And so, my travels begin once again…