Chapter XII

Friends and Foes

"And that was why you were arguing?" asked Yuri.

"Still," added Sir Dong, "This isn't over as far as I'm concerned."

The muscular Orc finished sharpening his ax and returned the whetting stone to his belt. Standing he looked in the direction where his companions had run to
find . A creature Nash had shot during a stand off between him, Fric and the others. Apparently the creature had been following them.

It was possible, thought the Knight. Shifting his eyes he looked to see if the new comer was thinking the same thing. The warrior named Yuri stood with
his javelin casually swung over his shoulders held at either end by two well calloused hands. Like Dong he too was looking in the direction of were the rest
had departed.

"Tell me," softly asked the warrior. "These Blackstones - do you truly believe they exist?"

"I reserve that judgment until I see them myself."

The Human nodded in agreement.

"However... Nash's hand... his Starhand, never have I seen its like. If a Blackstone did that to him
what powers the other's posses tempts the mind with possibilites."

"The power one could have," suggested Yuri.

"Aye. This world is better off without them. Power should flow form the head of an ax." continued Dong.

"Or blade of a sword," added Yuri, "and those with the skill to use them."

The two men regarded one another with an unspoken understanding. They were two of a kind. Warriors through and through.

"Do you wish to join us, friend Yuri? We could use a man like you."

The Human did not speak at first.

"These friends of yours... do you trust them?" asked the warrior.

"As far as I can throw them, but that is a lot compared to most I know."

Yuri grinned.

"And the little one with the knife. Surely you could toss him for a span?"

"Not when you add the gold in his pockets. He used to be a thief."

"Aye, I had thought so, though there is a warrior's glint in his eyes."

Yuri looked around them.

"If this were my cousin's farm I suppose I too would be eager for revenge on those
who did this."

"You have not answered me?" said Dong.

Suddenly, a bloody shriek cried out from the woods.

"Gods!" cried the Orc, hefting his battle ax.

The two charged for the woods only to be stopped by a volley of twelve arrows that strafed the ground ten feet in front of them. Stopping in their tracks the two men turned to their new attackers. A line of mounted soldiers - hundreds in number, thundered towards them from the farm's main road. Yuri cocked his javelin.

"Ho - stop," half shouted Dong. "It's the arm of King Kakashi. Let me speak to them."

Reluctantly Yuri lowered his arm. Raising his hand and ax Dong advanced forward to meet the advancing line. Staying back Yuri tightly held his javelin, torn between waiting and investigating the cry heard form the woods. Another cry caught his attention. Faint at first the warrior turned his head to catch its faint sounds - there coming from the burnt grounds of the barn he heard it again. Moving closer he spotted the remains of the a stone floor covered with ash. The cry, this time he knew it was that of a baby, grew louder. Prodding the ground with his javelin he walked across the floor until he heard a the dull sound of steel on wood. Sweeping ash with a boot he made the outline of a wide trap door set with a single iron ring. Bracing his legs he bent down, gripped the handle and pulled. Taut muscles and tendons strained until with a load groan the door lifted from its frame. A rich musky dampness welled up from below followed by the smell of hay, and onions. Suddenly the child's cry was cut short.

"Fear not. I come in..."

A crossbow bolt slashed across his cheek.

"We should look for a body," said Talos. "if there is one."

The Dwarf turned in the direction of the horrific shout, the one heard when Nash's Starhand destroyed the Hell Eye.

"No," replied Lady Mist. "There's no the time."

Closing her eyes she lifted her head as if scenting and hearing the wind. Behind her Nash stired and looked in the same direction as she.

"King Kakashi's army is here, and... we're not alone," pronounced the Mage.

Nash drew another arrow across his bow and aimed towards a clearing off their right.

"Come out!" shouted the fighter. Talos and Fric drew their own weapons - Sling and Tok. Lady Midst merely looked in the same direction as the others noticing
for the first time the well kept cemetery at the edge of the woods. A silhouette detached itself from a tall grave statue armed with a bow of his own. It was aimed at Nash

"Lay down your arms and surrender!" called the archer in the common tongue.

"Or what?" yelled Fric as he begun to spin his sling. "This is my family's land."

"Tree line - four others," said the Elf in a low voice.

"See them," whispered Nash. The fighter made out the stealthy figures of four men crawling along the ground. Lady Mist raised her hand and gestured causing
her palm to glow.

"Wait."

Talos place his hand over hers. Replacing his Tok the Dwarf raised his arms and advanced.

"Come no further, brigand!" shouted the distant figure.

"Tarr?" called the Dwarf.

The Archer hesitated, then lowered his bow.

"Talos?"

"Aye, old friend."

With a deft hand signal the man named Tarr beckoned his companions over.

"It's all right," said the Dwarf to his companions.

Nash eased the tension on his bow. Fric took in his sling. With weapons lowered Talos and the Archer advanced and embraced each others shoulders then made
their way back to his companions. The Archer had a rugged beard and a wiry, muscular build covered by dark clothing and a cloak that blended with the night. Behind
him his men, equally dressed, gave, Nash, Fric and Lady Mist guarded looks.

"Friends... this is Tarr Valagar, the King's Master Tracker and a former comrade-at-arms," said Talos

Tense greetings were exchanged. Fric and Lady Mist noticed how each man acknowledged Nash coldly. Talos turned back to the scout.

"You heard the Battle Horn?"

"Aye. The King sent us as vanguards. We were following a trail - Swamp Trolls through the Marrow Swamp heading for the mountains
when we heard a scream, a shriek that iced our blood. We came here and found you."

The Tracker looked at Nash with undisguised suspicion.

"There's a dark wizard in these woods," replied the tall Captain. "His demise may have been what you heard,"

Tarr and his men exchanged uneasy looks.

"Talos..."

The Tracker lead his friend away from the group until they were out of earshot.

"There is talk among the army and common folks that the king was befuddled by a man with a dark hand,
and a mace."

Tarr's eyes darted towards Nash.

"I've heard rumors that the Tavern of the Night has been destroyed... and now this, a Troll attack and
I find you here... with that man. Tell me what is happening?"

Nash watched as Talos adamantly shook his head and launched into a lengthy reply. Even from their distance he could hear their words, but instead his sharp
eyes kept watch on Tarr's men who likewise stared at them with their hands ever near their blades.

"I don't like this," whispered Fric to Nash.

"Nor I," said Lady Mist over his other shoulder.

At last Valagar nodded and the two returned.

"Talos has explained much," said the Tracker to all, but especially to Nash. "There are few whose word I would accept without question.
This man is one," said Tarr placing his hand on Talos' shoulder. "But know this... "

The Tracker turned and looked from Fric to Lady Mist.

"All of your lives are in danger as long as you stay with your friend."

"Whadda mean?"

"Why?" asked the Mage.

"Because there is a bounty on his head."

Four horsemen advanced from the line. Sir Dong watched with both hands resting on the head of his standing ax. Suddenly, the Knight tensed, the soldiers
looked vaguely familiar, but none carried the crest or colors of the King he served. The riders stopped and one lifted the visor of his helm.

"Vanner?" said Dong, "What the Devil's going on here?!"

The Orc named Vanner replied with a troubled look.

"We've come in response to the Battle Horn."

Dong picked up his ax.

"Then where is the King, and why do you not fly his colors?"

Dong watched as Vanner's fist tightened on his reigns.

"He has fallen."

"What?!"

The Vanner held up a steel gauntlet.

"He fell from his horse as we rode and struck his head. He lives but remains comatose."

The Orc urged his horse closer and lowered his voice in a conspirator's tone.

"My friend, something most foul is happening here. The King was acting strange as we rode."

"How do you mean?" asked Dong.

"He was... singing battle songs and clanging sword on shield, giving away our approach. When asked he would not
explain his behavior to me, or any of the lieutenants."

Dong was silent at this. He had seen the King act strangely before - hours ago back at the tavern. Vanner continued.

"As we made first sight of the farm the King reared on his horse and shouted words, strang words.
He was like a man entranced."

"What did he say?" asked Dong.

The Orc shrugged.

"It was nonsense."

"Please - I would know."

Vanner turned his head to recall the memory.

"They have her... and now... he will find the way."

Dong mouthed the words as if searching for a deeper significance.

"Does it mean anything to you?"

Dong shook his head. Vanner shrugged.

"It's just as well. He fell after that. I sent a full squad of men to take him to our closest
Coven Tower. With hope our wizards will revive him."

A sound caught the men's attention and they turned. A cluster of horses rode towards them form the edge of the woods a hundred yards from the main road.

"Damn," sneered Vanner. "How did he get here so quickly?"

Dong watched the new riders approach.

"The Sorcerer - why is he here?"

"You know our laws," said Vanner with a stern scowl. "If a King can not lead his people, then a Regent Monarch
shall take his place. This does not bode well."

The riders slowled and pulled reign before the Orcs. A cloaked figure dismounted and strode forward. A thin raptor's face could be seen as he removed his hood,
a face covered by a neatly trimmed beard and a thin lipped mouth. The mouth half smiled as its owner surveyed the destruction around him then settled on Dong.

"Is it not proper to kneel before your King?" asked the man.

At first Dong did nothing. Then the muscles of his shoulders tensed before he slowly lowered to one knee.

"Sire..." muttered the Knight.

"Sire?" said the Regent in a sarcastic tone

Dong glared from under his brows.

"Sir Marcell... my King."

The Sorcerer smiled as he stroked his chin. Almost absently his hand strayed and tenderly touched a bloodstained bandage that covered his right eye.