Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Journey to Bear Claw Village

Southward Bound from Hobbington

Hermel poked at the fire with a stick. They were in a wooded ring on the side of the road, and had built up a small blaze in the fire pit they found there.

“If we can, we should let the Bandits take the spring seed. Then we can track them and set an ambush along the way. Somehow. Then we could take the seed back,” Hermel was saying. His thought trailed off without comment from anyone. They were cold, it was getting late, and there was no dry spot for them to sleep on. Star of Justice looked into the cloudy sky. Hornmel sharpened his knife with a wet stone. Bantum sat with his bandoleer of clucking chickens around his neck. The other party members had, by then, gotten used to the idea that the giant fighter preferred to keep a bandoleer of live food around his neck.  It was hard to argue with fresh chicken, whatever else might happen.

“My favorite,” said Bantum, petting one of the fatter hens on the head with his huge hand. The chickens all clucked frantically.  The wind picked up and it began to snow again. As the sky darkened into a deep purple they heard a low gong from a bell somewhere in the distance. They looked around, but no sign of its source could be seen. They thought it sounded too loud to be coming from Hobbington high up on the mountain above them, and they also did not recognize the tone of it either. There must be a temple somewhere nearby they thought.

So they sat by the fire, and looked around at the tall narrow lichen covered standing stones which formed a twenty foot wide circle around them, in the center of which they’d found a well used fire pit. The stones were large, the size of a man, half buried in the ground, and there were a total of twelve of them, covered with botches of green lichen, and topped with a cap of snow. Bantum noticed on one a spiral groove that had been carved into it, as well as a variety of long narrow crisscrossing scratch marks.

“Pretty pictures,” he said slowly tracing one of the spirals with his eyes until he got himself dizzy. Everyone took a quick look, but the grooves seemed very old and covered over with lichen, and did not seem to present any particular danger, so they went back to contemplating their own thoughts.

Hermel noticed that at the base of the one of the tall stones there was a hole in the ground, about as wide as a grapefruit. Not knowing what foul creature might emerge from it, he took a stick from the fire and went to inspect it. He had Bantum put a rock over the hole and wedge it in with a mighty thump of his foot.

The wind was moaning through the trees, and snow was falling down steadily. Bantum volunteered to keep watch, and everyone made an effort to find a spot to sleep in. But snow had covered most of the ground and so even with bed rolls, it was not the most comfortable place in the world to sleep, but they tried to make the best of it. After a while Bantum heard something scratching around at the edge of the fire light. He couldn’t see what it was. So he stood up and all the chickens around his neck began to squawk pitifully.

“Ok its time for the lightning,” grumbled Arik rolling over and glaring at Bantum as the huge simple-minded hulk headed toward the edge of the fire light. “The bear didn’t get it, so the chickens will.” He then rolled back over and threw his blanket over his head muttering to himself. Hornmel, also awoken, grumbled aloud, “For the sake of the Elkron, kill the damned chickens.” Unable to tolerate the sounds of the squawking, Star of Justice threw off his blanket off and stood up. There was Bantum about twenty feet away heading into the darkness. He followed after him and when he was caught up by his side he asked him what he was doing out there. Away from the fire it was quite dark, though the snow made it possible to see silhouettes of trees dimly in the distance.

“Did I ever show you my chickens?” asked Bantum amiably.

“Fried chickens,” called Arik who had sat up and began to feed the fire. “Cajun, style,” he said with a dark smirk.  Meanwhile Bantum was heading toward where he heard the noise. He couldn’t see anything. He listened, but the sound had stopped. He pulled out his mace. Then he saw something in the snow moving along slowly. It was, he decided a cat. He walked closer and saw that it was a pretty little black cat with a fat white stripe down its back and ending at the tip of it’s bushy tail. Star, who had never been in the wilderness before, was a bit puzzled by the look of the cat. It was fatter than most cats he’d ever seen. But then, it must have been a wild cat of some kind, and so he too was a bit curious about it.

“Aww pretty kitty!” said Bantum and went over to pick up the small black waddling animal. Suddenly there was a horrendous odor, but Bantum didn’t know what could have caused it. He felt his arm and chest had gotten very sticky, and he thought somehow his new kitten was in some way responsible. He held at arms length, and with eyes tearing, and gasping for breath, and brought his new little friend back toward the fire so he could take a better look.

“Great Elkron!” said Hornmel as Bantum approached with the 'kitty' outstretched in front of him, and hid himself behind a rock. The animal, naturally displeased was wriggling around in Bantum’s hand as he held it by the scruff of the neck.

“Let the poor thing down,” said Star, who had covered his nose with his cloak.

“Look what I found! A pretty kitty!” said Bantum to Hermel who had rolled over and pushed his blanket aside to take a look at the commotion. Without getting up he said, “You should let the cat go, Bantum.”

“Noo… he’s my friend,” replied the gentle giant.

“Well, that’s a mommy cat and she’s trying to find her babies. You don’t want to keep her from her babies do you?” answered Hermal, wisely.

“Noo…” said Bantum thoughtfully.

“Then put the cat down out there and let her find her babies,” said Hermel firmly.

“Noo…,” said Bantum, “… she’ll get lost. You help her,” he said as he moved forward put the animal down in Hermel's arms.

“No she won’t get lost. Don’t you remember the saying ‘Black cats never get lost’?”

“Ohhh… ok,” replied Bantum and carried the skunk over to the edge of the firelight and put it down in the snow. The animal waddled off behind one of the large standing stones. It then reappeared on the other side and scurried over to where it found a rock covering the hole at the base of the standing stone next to Hermel.

“Woah,” said Hermel rolling away from it to find cover. “Bantum, move the rock away,” he ordered, and so Bantum, who thought the kittens must be inside the hole, moved the rock away. The skunk, alarmed and shaken from the experience, and rather peeved as well as confounded, didn’t go into the hole, however. She wandered back and forth in front of the hole instead sniffing this way and that, and eying her adversaries wearily. Eventually, she calmed down and went into the hole and Hermel placed the rock over the hole again.

“There,” he said, “Now she is with her babies,” as he sat down on his snow covered blankets.

“What … is … that … incredible SMELL!?” asked Arik, horrified by the outrageous assault on his senses. “What kind of cat was that?!” he demanded of Hermel.

“A pole cat,” he replied matter of factly.

“Oh? I’ve never smelled a cat do THAT before!” announced Arik greivously.

“Well these do,” said Hermel.

Hornmel, had come around from behind a stone, and gave Hermel a look with one raised eyebrow. Playing gags on city folk was a favorite pastime in the villages. He smiled. Everyone went back to their sleeping rolls, but the odor was so horrid, the cutting edge of the freezing wind so wicked, and the cold snow so wet and uncomfortable, it was very hard to fall asleep. Only Arik had no problem with that, and in a few minutes was snoring away mightily.

The Prancing Unicorn

About an hour or so later everyone had finally managed to fall asleep. Bantum, who was still sitting on watch, thought he heard music. It sounded to him like flutes, and fiddles. It was very faint. He could barely hear it. He stood up. The chickens began squawking again, but this time no one stirred, except Hermel who seemed to be having a bad dream of some sort and was murmuring “No, Ischandar, not that way…”

And so Bantum lumbered off into the darkness with his bandoleer of clucking chickens, and found the road in the snow. He followed the sound of the music, which amazingly he could hear over the rather frantic squawking. As he walked down the road the music grew louder in his ears. At one point he looked back and could barely see the firelight flickering on the trees where his friends where. He took one of the chickens from the bandoleer and holding it up in front of his face said, “You go – tell friends I go this way,” and put the chicken down on the snow. The chicken clucked once and immediately flapped its wings and made a zig-zag path toward the woods where it promptly got lost. “Good chicken,” said Bantum, not knowing the difference, and continued on his way.

Eventually he came to a dark hill covered with pine trees. Far behind him everyone was sleeping peacefully since the clucking of chickens had ceased, and the horrendous odor had faded. Though it was cold, and unpleasant to say the least, everyone was nevertheless sleeping soundly, except for Hermel, whose legs were dream-running as he murmured “No, Ischandar… you shouldn't drink that…”

Meanwhile Bantum was lumbering through a narrow gap in the hill that formed a pathway next to a bubbling brook. The music was quite audible now, and he could see firelight reflecting on large pine trees from around the bend. He came to a wooden footbridge, ornately carved with animals on each post and along the railing that crossed over the brook. He continued on toward the sound of music, passed a pool of steaming water on his left, and rounding the bend beheld a beautiful, and rather large, old Tudor style home with a great wide porch, large green door, and brightly lit windows covered with frost. Inside he could see there was much merry making going on. Above the green door there was a colorful sign in yellow, white and gold that read something and had a picture of a white unicorn prancing on it. Delighted he walked up and saw that there were many men inside playing fiddles and flutes and a large crowd of people dancing, eating, and enjoying themselves heartily.

“Oooohhh boyyyy!!” said Bantum and walked up to the door and put his big fist to work at knocking on it excitedly.  BOOM.  BOOM. BOOM. The house shook. The music stopped. After a few moments of absolute quiet the door cracked open a tiny bit and a frightened face peered out. As the incredible smell wafted into the room from the open door Bantum heard several people gasp, and someone said, “Oh … my … god…” The tiny face was that of a woman, whose eyes immediately watered over, and she instinctively held up her apron over her nose and mouth, gasping.

“Hellloooo. May name is Bantum,” said the gentle giant.

“Its… a giant … in chainmale … wrapped in … live chickens … with a … horrible SMELL…” gasped the woman to those cowering behind her. The door slammed shut. There was a lot of commotion inside the house. Bantum knocked again. BOOM BOOM BOOM.

“We’re closed,” he heard the woman shout from behind the door.

“I like the pretty dancing,” yelled Bantum back as politely as he could.

“So sorry, no rooms are vacant tonight! Quite full here you know! So sorry!” shouted the woman through the door.

“My friends could use the food,” said Bantum trying to think of what else he could say.

“ohhh…” groaned the woman thinking that things were going to go from bad to worse. “Oh my,” she said.

A man’s voice from behind the door shouted “Go away!”

“But I just got here,” said Bantum, slowly coming to the realization that the people inside were not welcoming him in. Then there was a chaotic chorus of people shouting for him to go away.

“You’re mean!” said Bantum angrily. “I don’t like mean people!” And so Bantum took out his mace and began putting enormous dents in the nice green door with it, cracking the wood, and scattering green splinters everywhere. Despite this, that old solid door held. Yet inside, with the house shaking from floor to rafters, there was a general change of mind.

Suddenly the door opened a crack again and the little woman’s head poked out. To her great annoyance someone from behind shoved her out onto the porch and the door slammed shut again. She looked up at the enormous, foul smelling and angry giant with the squawking chickens draped over his filthy chainmail covered body. Her face was a pale white, the color of snow. Only her lips remained a bright ruby red. With them she spoke the following words.

“Calm down! Calm down! … You smell horrible! What happened to you?”

“It was my kitty cat,” replied Bantum suddenly losing all sense of anger, as he looked down at her pretty little face. “I let him go down the hole though. He was nice. Would you like a chicken?” he asked holding up one of the bedraggled, horribly stinking, barely living chickens from the front of his bandoleer. “Cluck”, croaked the chicken weakly.

“mmmm… You need a bath,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since I have bath,” said Bantum thoughtfully trying to remember the last time he had had one. It was very long ago, indeed.

“There is a steaming pool of hot water, over there,” she said pointing toward the steaming pool situated along the side of the path. “Go jump in that pool there and wash yourself off,” she instructed. Bantum, without further ado, walked over, placed the chickens on the ground, removed his chainmail, disrobed unabashedly, and made a huge splash jumping into the pool. The water was warm and delightful. He could not remember having so much fun. The woman, meanwhile, had gone in, and come back out with a large armful of towels and a large bar of lilac soap.

“I’ve gotten you soap,” said the woman.

“What’s that?” replied Bantum slowly.

“It makes you clean. Rub it all over yourself,” she instructed.

“I usually use sausage,” he said.

“Believable,” she replied, handing him the large bar of soap. “Put it in the water and rub it all over you,” she said.

“Its slippery,” said Bantum.

“Don’t lose the soap,” she instructed firmly. Soap, in those days, especially lilac soap, was expensive, uncommon and precious.

“Ok,” replied Bantum. And so Bantum scrubbed himself all over, making a huge mauve lather in the warm steaming water. He took a chicken and played “ducky” with it until it was clean too. The woman had told him to clean his cloths as well, and he dutifully scrubbed and lathered them, too. He then went to work on his chainmail. When he was done, the woman had told him, he could return to the house.

“Your not so mean,” said Bantum as she went back inside. The music took up again, and there was a merry and joyful sound while Bantum lathered, cleaned, and played “ducky” with each chicken one after another. Eventually all was clean, and even the chickens seemed revived. Bantum dried himself off with the towels, wrung out his cloths, put them on, and then hung his bandoleer of chickens over his shoulder again. He felt great. The chickens clucked. Everything smelled of lilac. All was right with the world. He went to the door and this time knocked more gently.

Let the Music Play

The music once again stopped. The door opened and out came the pretty little woman and looked Bantum up and down. He smelled pleasantly like lilac. He was wet, but much less terrible looking. In fact, she thought he had a rather cute face after all. He gazed at her and blinked a few times happily, and looked inside.

“You said you have some friends out here?” she asked looking beyond him into the snow-shrouded darkness.

“I sent my chicken to go get them,” he said with his eyes on a table pitched high with food. “He’s a good chicken,” he added.

“Oy,” she replied. “A trained chicken?”

“I guess,” he said amiably confused.

“How many friends to you have?” she asked. It took Bantum half a minute or so to count up his friends on one hand. A man came out, and asked her, “How’s it going?”

“Its ok. He is cleaned up now, and in a better mood,” she answered.

“Nice lady,” said Bantum to the man.

“I know. She’s my wife,” he said, giving the giant as firm a gaze as he could muster.

“Ohh… you’re lucky,” said Bantum.

“I think so,” said the man placing his arm around the pretty woman’s shoulder. She smiled pleasantly. She gave Bantum a cup of hot apple cider, and offered to let him come inside and warm up by the fire.

“Oh, you are really a nice lady,” said Bantum. “Thank you. Can I see you dance?”

She didn’t answer, but turned and went inside, looking back at him with a slightly cross look, and then said, “You can warm up by the fire, and then go out and get your friends.”

“Ok,” answered Bantum as he took a spot in front of an enormous hearth with a roaring fire in it. There was a large crowd in the room. Everyone was drinking, eating and keeping one eye on Bantum.

“Helloooo everyone! My name is Bantum! Thank you for letting me come in here. It’s very nice! Thank you!” he said after he settled in at the hearth.

The music started up again and everyone began to enjoy themselves once more. The flutes and fiddles music made thoroughly enjoyable sound, with plenty of people clapping their hands, stomping their feet and singing along. There were people of all kinds in the large tavern room. There were a number of side rooms as well, one an elegant dining room with chandeliers, another room that had a red carpet, and dark wooden panels and lots of books on shelves along the walls, and another that looks simply cozy for sitting with couches, bronze lanterns and pretty little wooden tea tables. It was such an elegant place, Bantum had never seen it’s like before. Best of all, everyone seemed to accept him, and gave him friendly smiles as they sang along with the music. These were old songs that they were singing. The origin of them no one even remembered. It seemed as though they’d been singing them since the dawn of time, and the songs were about brave men, courageous women, and the great battles of old, with their triumphs, tragedies, and glories. Sprinkled in were ballads about the ancient Elkron who created and sustained the world. The music seemed to go on for a long time before Bantum remembered to go out and find his friends.

Meanwhile, Hermel was freezing under the snow with his little feet puttering along some harrowing dreamland chasing after Ishcandar, while Star of Justice sat silently stoking the fire, and Arik snored heartily in a dreamless slumber, perfectly content. Hornmel, who was wise in the ways of wilderness living, had made for himself a makeshift lean-to and was sleeping cozily under a dry blanket.

Star noticed after a while that the sound of the chickens had vanished entirely for some time. At first he thought Bantum might have gone to relieve himself, and then he got lost in thoughts of the Elkron, and it wasn’t for quite some time before he thought of it it again. He got up and took a walk around to see if Bantum had fallen asleep against one of the large stones around the circle. Nope. A wolf howled in the distance.  The snow was falling in gentle sheets.

“Eldrik make me patient,” said Star of Justice to the snow shrouded sky.

He went to Hermel and woke him up.

“We’ve lost the giant,” said Star.

“What?” queried Hermel blearily leaning up on a cold, wet, sore elbow.

“Bantum is gone,” replied Star.

“Ishcandar, leave me alone to sleep,” replied Hermel, still half dreaming, and began to turn back over. It then occurred to him that what he’d heard was not a dream.

“He probably went to take a piss,” said Hermel.

“I don’t think so,” replied Star. “I looked around. I can’t hear him, I can’t smell him. I think he’s wandered off somewhere,” he concluded.

Hornmel was awoken. He had the woodman’s skills and they thought he would be able to track the giant. Unfortunately, even Hornmel could not pick up the trail in the snow after three hours had passed. He mentioned that he had heard a wolf howl. They concluded that Bantum in his chainmail would prove too formidable an opponent for any wolf.  Nevertheless, they took torches from the fire and wandered out to the road to look this way and that way for any sign of footprints. No trail could be found.

“Bantum!” yelled Hermel loudly into the darkness. “Bantum!” There was no answer, except for the wind whistling through the trees, and the long low howl of a wolf in the distance.

“Its slippery. He’s not the surest of foot,” said Star. “I hope he is not lying dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Hermel wandered fifty feet south and took a big wiff of the air, hoping to catch the smell of Bantum. While he was attempting that he noticed what looked like it might be a very faint pattern of footprints heading southward along the side of the road. He called Hornmel over, and he confirmed that they were indeed tracks, about three hours old, and their size matched that of their gigantic friend. They went back to wake up Arik, which was not so easily done, and Hermel removed the stone from the entrance of the skunk’s lair. When Arik woke up, finally, and had gotten himself and his gear together, he noticed that he thought he could hear the sound of music very faintly in the air. Dwarves, from ages of underground living, though sometimes poor in eyesight had highly evolved sense of hearing, it was often said, and this proved itself to be true in this case.

“I hear music,” he said. “Sounds like somebody’s having a good time.”

“Well, it’s not us,” replied Hermel.

“If the big guy ditched us to go to a tavern, he’s gonna hear about it!” Arik angrily growled.

“Shades, of Ishcandar! The irony never ends, does it,” said Hermel to himself. “I think you’re a little snow-crazy, maybe, Arik. No one hears music except you,” he asserted.

“Well, I tell you I hear the sounds of people enjoying themselves, music and singing, though faintly, on the wind in that direction!” declared Arik firmly pointing a stubby finger down the white road that vanished off into darkness southward.

“Whether there is music or not,” said Star of Justice calmly, “the tracks do head in that direction. We ought to follow them.” And so everyone gathered their gear up, and they left the safety of the stone circle, heading out into the darkness with a couple of meager flickering torches in hand, a tiny band of men trudging through the ever thickening snow in the dead of night.

Shadows On the Road

Bantum, who was now getting ready to head out from the tavern asked if he could buy some food for his friends.

“Do you have any money?” asked the lady. Bantum pulled out a bag full of iron pieces.

“Ah ok, you have enough money. How many people did you say? Did you say ten people?”

“What is ten?” asked Bantum.  “Let me think…” he said drawing up his right hand fingers to count on. “Hermel… stubby little man… super hero kind of guy… and a friend… Oh and do you have any food for my chickens?” asked Bantum petting one of the half dead feebly clucking creatures on the head.

“Why don’t you leave the chickens here?” asked the woman.

“Will you take care of them?” he asked in return.

“I sure will,” she replied.

“Ok…” said Bantum. “Be good little guys!” he said to them as he exited out into the cold snowy darkness with the basket of food under his arm. The woman put the poor bedraggled chickens in the pen with the others. The other chickens clucked and waddled to the other side of the pen and stared at the new comers. “What the devil is that smell?” asked one. “I think its lilac and skunk,” replied another. They all held their noses.  Bantum's chickens, however, paid no heed at all and waddled straight to the seed pile and began pecking away with abandon. 

Meanwhile, Hermel, Star of Justice, Arik and Hornmel had been trudging southward down the road by torchlight. Up ahead they saw ahead a shadow. It was a dark figure on the road. The party hid themselves by ducking down along the side of the road. Up ahead they saw an enormous man. By the torchlight they could see the man was wearing chainmail. Suddenly, Arik stood up and clambered onto the road again.

“Where have you been!?” he demanded of Bantum.

“Robbers!” shouted Bantum and drew his mace ready to bash some heads in.

“Where have you been?!” repeated Arik loudly.

“Oh it’s little short stubby man!” shouted Bantum gleefully when he saw that it was Arik and gave him a big hug. “I found pretty music, and found slippery stuff that smells good. It was really good. And my chickens are very happy. And I found a fire and it was warm.”

“Ok,” said Hermel. “A fire… that sounds good. Where was that, Bantum?”

“At the lady’s house.”

“Oh … that sounds pretty good. Where is it?”

“Up that way, to the music,” replied Bantum pointing his big finger into the darkness southward.

“I see! So I was right! You went to a bar without us!” yelled Arik angrily.

“Interesting… Well, why don’t we be off that way then?” said Star of Justice, glad to hear that such a prospect existed in that desolate snow bound wilderness. A wolf howled on the wind just then, and the moon grazed momentarily through the clouds casting silvery beams across the land, and vanished again. It was freezing and it seemed the best course was to follow Bantum down the road south.

“Bantum, you did a bad thing,” said Hermel as they trudged along.

“I’m sorry…” said Bantum. “What did I do?”

“You left us alone in the wild at night. You were keeping watch. A wolf could have eaten us.”

“You could give it one of my chickens,” said Bantum struggling hard to think.

“You took your chickens with you,” said Hermel calmly.

“That’s true,” replied Bantum. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.

“It’s ok. Just don’t do it again,” said Hermel.

“Ok,” answered Bantum and the matter was settled.

As they walked Hermel heard a rustling in the woods. Everyone froze. Suddenly a chicken came fluttering into the firelight frantically clucking.

“My friend!” cried out Bantum has he ran over to grab the poor creature. The miserable chicken panicked and began to scramble around in a circle, dodging between Bantum’s legs. Hermel leaped forward to try to catch it. The chicken with an erratic pivot scrambled away to the left, evading Hermel’s outstretched hands, causing him to fall over into the snow. Hornmel also lept forward, and caught the chicken by a leg. As Hermel was standing up, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a large dark shape moving along the edge of the woods like a huge black shadow. He stopped. Everyone stopped, except the chicken who kept clucking frantically until Hornmel took it by the throat and quickly calmed it down.

“Don’t look but there’s a shadow over there,” said Hermel quietly.

“Where?!” demanded Arik in his usual booming voice. He had this strange idea that he’s prefer to be incarnated as a Beast Master. “Eye of the Beast” echoed in his imagination as he thought of himself riding a giant Roc’s back as it flew through the dark cloudy sky. He then snapped back into reality and took a look into the edge of the woods. While he could not see very well, he had a keen ear, and heard the footfalls of a large heavy beast. He mentioned as such and pointed to where the sound was coming from.

Hermel, considered the situation carefully. He intoned in a low voice, and after a few moments he had transformed a shadow and branch and leaves into a mirage of a leather pouch laying in the snow. He thought that bandits on the road might prefer and easy gain, to a chancy combat, and he advised everyone to move along quickly.

“Oh but look at that pouch!” yelled Bantum pointing his great big finger at the illusion in the snow.

“Um, no Bantum, that’s nothing, lets go,” said Hermel as calmly as he could.

“But its so big! I want it! What’s in it?! I want it!” cried out Bantum.

It took a while, and pretty much everyone pitching in, to convince Bantum to leave the pouch on the road and keep going. He finally agreed, and they moved south. Along the side of the road the shadow on the right was still tracking along side of them on the edge of the woods. Hornmel, at that time, was not looking there, but on the other side of the road. He gave a nod of his head to Hermel, who looked. There was a second large shadow on the other side of the rood, also moving along the edge of the dark forest.

They lit a couple of extra torches. Light radiated a little further, and they could see by the edge of the forest large shaggy forms. There were deep heavy growls.

“Prepare your lightning,” said Hermel to Arik, as he pulled out his sword. At that time Star of Justice invoked a power of the Elkron which was known in the temple as The Aura of Retribution. It was of such a nature as to cast harm upon those who harmed Star’s flesh. He’d never called upon it in combat before, and did not know what to expect exactly, having only learned it in the temple recently. A faint blue glow like a haze of mist was surrounding his body. Bantum, meanwhile, was looking at the bear to his left thinking that it looked very cuddly, like a big furry pillow.

Star was glowing on the field of battle. Arik waved his hands and crossed his fingers in the ancient patterns that summoned forth the fierce energies within him. Soon his fingers would shoot forth a bolt of lightning great enough to kill a man. Hermel and Hornmel prepared themselves for fighting. Bantum, happy to see a new friend, wandered forward saying “Cute bear!” and had every intention of hugging the mammoth creature.

“You guys surround Bantum’s bear, and I’ll keep this one busy,” said Hermel.

The bears roared as they lumbered rapidly forward, one from the east, the other from the west. Hornmel completely ignored Hermel's instruction and charged forward toward the other bear coming in from the west. Arik was holding in his hands a electric ball of crackling lightning and had planned to unleash it at the closest bear to the east, but Bantum wandered in the way. He was still peeved about Bantum’s going to a tavern without them, and had to exercise considerable will power to restrain and hold onto his lightning arrow. Even so, he thought he had a shot, and so he took it, shooting both hands forward and letting the ball of lightning blaze.  Meanwhile Bantum, stuffed the poor chicken into his vest to keep it safe. It clucked weakly. He said “Bear!” happily as he walked forward to hug it with his arms out stretched. A blue white flash hit the side of the bear, causing sparks to fly and fierce red embers to blaze amid sizzling flesh and burning fur. The bear reared up in agony, roaring, both its arms high in the air.

Meanwhile Hermel faced off against the other bear with his sword.  The shaggy beast was lumbering forward rapidly through the snow toward hiim. He instructed Hornmel to circle behind it with a wave of his hand.

The first bear that had been hit by Arik’s lightning was enraged. Arik prepared himself to cast a second lightning arrow.  The bear facing Bantum swung his heavy paw and hit squarely onto Bantum’s chest. But the stout warrior was equipped with a set of chainmale, and his body was so thick and heavy, he was not so much fazed by the blow, as he was surprised that the bear could possibly think to do such a thing. Star of Justice had run forward toward the raging beast from the side and swung his morning star along it’s exposed rib cage causing a great gash and breaking several ribs.

Hornmel, for his part, had flanked his bear, and went in for a strike with his staff across the back of the neck. The hostile beast turned unexpectedly toward him and heaved a massive paw across Hornmel’s vulnerable chest. The black nails dug four long grooves across his chest splintering ribs as they went. Hornmel fell into the snow face down. He didn’t move. A pool of dark red blood bled out in a large stain on the white snow.

“Nooooo” shouted Hermel, deeply moved by his cousins sudden demise, and stabbed the bear with his sword, gouging it deeply near the spine. The bear roared ferociously and turned its attention toward Arik who was directly ahead of it, some twenty feet away with his back to the enraged creature. It charged straight toward him, ignoring anything else. At that moment Arik was unleashing his next blazing white arrow at the bear that Bantum was playing with. The huge fighter had managed to catch the bear in his massive arms and was trying to wrestle it to the ground.

“Good bear!” he said, holding him in a most amazing bear hug. He pinned the bear down, but it did not intend to stay down long before rolling over and escaping his grip. Just as Arik was about to cast the lightning arrow, he heard the other bear charging up directly behind him at full tilt. Hermel, having run behind it, leapt forward with his sword. The bear charging from behind tried to take a ferocious bite at Arik’s neck, but instead bit down on the rim of Arik’s metal shield, breaking a great white tooth, which fell into the snow.

Arik turned, letting the lightning bolt sizzle uselessly into the air and pulled out his axe while whirling around in the nick of time. He swung the axe and it landed heavily into the bear’s side. Hermel’s strike clove deep into its spine from behind, and the bear fell into the snow, dead.

Hornmel was barely breathing face down in the snow. Hermel ran to his side and cradled his head in his arms, looking down at him with great pity. He took his healing stone of Minvar from his pouch and waved it over Hornmel's wounds slowly and steadily while chanting in low tones, staring down into the earth. His cousin was breathing erratically, but then after a few moments began to breath more evenly, and the blood ceased flowing out of his wounds.

Meanwhile, Star of Justice was trying to strike the remaining bear whom Bantum had managed to wrestle to the ground again, but he missed and clouted Hermel on the left arm with his morning star. Fortunately, Hermel was quick enough to lean out of the way in time, and was only lightly grazed. Bantum had wrestled the bear from behind with a Full Nelson, keeping his knee in the beast's back, holding it up on its two hind legs. It was rather amazing to behold. Bantum was quite strong, really!

“Now, now bear, lets play nice!” said the giant as he wrestled with his new bear-friend. Once again Bantum hurled the bear to the ground, and began scratching its belly happily. The bear was trying to roll over, but Bantum was preventing it.  Arik wanted to shoot another lightning arrow at the bear, but now both Bantum and Star were in the way. He cursed under his breath and instead ran a short distance on his stubby legs to get a better line of site. Meanwhile the bear was having serious trouble getting out from Bantum’s iron grip.

“Come on Bantum, put the nice bear down over here,” yelled Star of Justice, hoping to get a good angle to strike from. Arik’s lightning arrow hit the bear on side of the neck. Bantum spun it around to see what caused the sudden flash of light.  The melee was confusing Bantum something awful.  He really did just want to have a fun time playing with the bear.

Hermel meanwhile was holding Hornmel’s head in his hands and the lad’s eyes opened finally.

“I’m alive? Thanks be to Minvar, and to you Hermel,” he said weakly, realizing with relief that he was going to live.

Star maneuvered himself to one side of the bear, while Arik ran to the other. Bantum was holding it behind the head, the veins of his neck bulging out as he tried to swing it away from his friends in an effort protect the brutish beast.  Arik’s blow landed heavily, and after that another blow from Star rendered the bear broken and senseless. Bantum, feeling sorry for the pain the bear might be feeling, struck it dead with his mace in an act of simple-minded mercy, and so the battle ended.

They all stood panting, sweating, freezing, bleeding, and gasping in the snow. The two bears prostrate on the ground and bleeding, one with several smoldering scorch marks. They got themselves together and staggered down the road, carrying Hornmel as they went. After a while they heard the sound of music on the wind. Bantum told them that the music came from the nice house with the "horsie" on the door. They walked through the gap in the hill, over the bridge, past the pool and at last came to the Prancing Unicorn. The band was playing, the floorboards beating along with the stomping feet, and there was plenty of voices in the chorus. Bantum pointed out the steaming pool was where he had washed up with the soap, and so the others thought taking a hot bath sounded like a grand idea. They stopped by the pool and Hermel healed the remainder of his own wounds and those of his friends who had scrapes, cuts and bruises while the others bathed. When they were done Bantum went to the green door and knocked.

The woman came to the door again, cracked it open a bit, and seeing it was Bantum in a good mood, was delighted and invited them all inside. They looked rather road worn, and so they ate their fill, and afterwards Hermel arranged for a room on the third floor to which they soon retired. Except for Bantum who wanted to dance. And so he ate a great deal of roast chicken, and drank huge quantities of hot cider and danced the jig to his hearts content.  The others carried Hornmel up stairs, and Hermel went straight to his bed. It had beautiful blue quilted blankets and purple goose feather pillows. He thought it looked like the most comfortable thing he’d ever seen. By the time his head was settled into the pillow he'd only had time to think that it might be significant that the two bears had attacked both Arik and Hornmel as they were the two that had hunted and killed the first bear earlier, before he was fast asleep and snoring. The others followed suit, and everyone slept soundly... while downstairs the music played on and on and on.


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Next Episode: Intrigues at the Prancing Unicorn

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