Down in the Dungeon Kindle cover

Down in the Dungeon by A. J. Walker

Down in the Dungeon Kindle coverFive exciting stories set in the glory days of fantasy role-playing gaming when friends sat around the kitchen table late into the night rolling dice and sharing adventures. Relive the spirit of the past or even the present with tales of epic combat and base trickery, yarns that any adventurer would be proud to spin out over a mug of ale at the local tavern, including:

  • Orcs of Grimwood summoning an ancient evil…
  • A mountaineering expedition to retrieve a griffin’s egg going horribly awry–at least for most of the climbers…
  • A soldier beginning to believe his commander is not exactly what he seems…
  • A dungeon door posing an all-but-insurmountable problem for an experienced party of adventurers…
  • A unique trap appearing to be inescapable save for one desperate strategy…

As a bonus, the thrilling short story “The Trap”, co-written by special guest author Tony Rudzki, is among the collected tales.

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ASIN: B00715AC82     GENRE: Fantasy (Short Story Anthology)     ISBN: 978-1-921636-67-7     Word Count: 28, 427

Ghosts of the Crimson Claw

The wood elf slid silently through the thick undergrowth, moving slowly so as not to make the slightest noise. His uniform of emerald green and wood brown blended with the scenery. A golden griffin embroidered on the shoulder of his shirt showed that he was a member of the Overlord’s Forest Guard.

He remained all but invisible as he crept under bushes and around trees, using the lush foliage of Grimwood to its full advantage. He crept up to a small group of humans waiting anxiously in a thicket.

“About sixty,” he whispered. “Camped just over the next ridge to the north. A few archers as sentries, the rest crowded together.”

His four companions nodded. One was dressed like the elf. The griffin patch at his shoulder was circled in crimson to denote a member of the Overlord’s Rangers. He was a wiry man, as hard and resilient as a young sapling. Next to him crouched an older man in flowing green robes. He had long flaxen hair and a full beard of the same hue. His wise eyes spoke of a man of learning, and a corded necklace of mistletoe showed him to be a druid. Behind him sat a thinner man, also in robes. Instead of the forest green worn by the other two, his were of sky blue. He had a far away look in his eyes, as if he was listening to something that he could barely hear. Every now and then his lips would move to form words, but no sound came from his throat.

Next to this man stood the fourth–a burly human with piercing gray eyes and a deep scar running across his jaw. He wore the uniform of the Overlord’s regular army. Instead of the leather jerkins worn by the others, he had on a full suit of scale mail. Iron greaves protected his legs. His left arm gripped a large wooden shield. His red robe, laced with silver thread, showed him to be a Tenththrong leader, a commander of fifty men. His name was Garand. Being of common stock, he had no family name worth recording. Unlike many officers in the Overlord’s ranks, who had bought their positions with their family’s influence, Garand had earned his rank with his steadiness of mind and the strength of his sword arm. It was to this man the elf spoke.

The officer furrowed his brow in thought before replying. “Welwyn, take the other three elven scouts and make your way up to the ridge a bit to the east. You will provide cover for our assault. I’ll take four squads of my men over the ridge and attack. The fifth will work their way around behind them and cut off their retreat.” He turned to the other men.

“Marsilio, Dranath, and Iamblichus,” he addressed the ranger, mage, and druid respectively, “You will position yourselves on the western edge of the ridge and provide crossfire. Marsilio, use your bow. Dranath and Iamblichus, use whatever spells you deem necessary, but don’t use too much power unless we run into trouble. I don’t want you exhausted by the first attack, as we might run into reinforcements.”

The men nodded and slipped off to take their positions. The officer crept back a few hundred yards to a small glade where fifty soldiers crouched. Like him, all were heavily armed and armored. Each wore a full shirt of chainmail, high leather boots, and an open steel helm. They all carried a short, broad-bladed spear, well balanced for throwing and stout enough for close combat. Each also carried a sword and dagger sheathed at their sides. Their shields bore the golden griffin insignia of the Overlord.

A few whispered instructions to the soldiers were enough for them to spring into action. A squad of ten men hurried off into the woods, working their way to the northeast in a long circle that would bring them around the ridge and behind the camp the elf had mentioned. The other forty broke into units and lined up a spear’s length apart. Then, with a silence one would not think possible for so many armored men, they crept to the north.

A few minutes later, the officer peered cautiously over the ridge. Barely forty yards beyond, he spied several campfires. Around them huddled the hunched, dark forms of orcs wearing a variety of armor, from boiled leather breastplates to crudely fashioned chainmail. Several drank from wineskins, their toothy mouths and cracked lips sucking greedily from the spouts. Some sharpened their weapons–cruel scimitars and heavy, spiked maces. Another group turned a large side of meat over a spit. The officer could smell the pungent odor of burning flesh even at a distance. He squinted and examined their meal. The meat looked about four feet long, a bit big for an otter and too thin to be a boar, he thought. It wasn’t a deer, either. It didn’t look like any animal he knew. It took him a moment to figure out why.

Whatever it was, it had once walked on two legs.

The officer scanned the nearby woods. He could pick out a few orc sentries armed with bows hiding in the underbrush. One had been positioned on the ridge along which his men now formed up. That orc lay a few feet behind him, his throat slit.

The officer looked to his left and right. He couldn’t see his companions on either flank, but he knew they’d be in position. For five years he had been patrolling these woods at the edge of the Overlord’s demesne, and they had never let him down. He turned and gave a signal to his men. The first unit of ten men crept to the crest of the ridge.

“Go!” he barked.

As one man, they rose and charged down the ridge.

A sentry gave a shout and the orcs sprang for their weapons. Just then the officer heard a twanging of bowstrings from eastern edge of the ridge. Four orcs dropped to the ground. His elven scouts had taken first blood. Turning to the left, he could see the ranger Marsilio rise and add his fire to the fray.

Those who witnessed it scarcely believed that only five archers could be responsible for the hail of arrows that rained down on the orc camp. The elves and the ranger were all expert marksmen, and as fast as they were accurate. More orcs fell, clutching at the feathered ends of shafts buried deep in their chests and throats.

The officer called for the second unit to rise and charge. The first unit, now at the bottom of the ridge and only twenty yards from the camp, paused and threw their spears. The heavy points bit deep into the orc flesh, passing through their victim’s boiled leather armor. The soldiers drew their swords and formed a line.

As the second unit of ten men charged down the ridge, they too paused to launch a volley of spears before joining their comrades.

The officer called up the third and fourth units and joined the last in its charge. Each threw their spears and assembled at the bottom of the ridge, forming a line twenty wide and two deep. Each soldier crouched behind the protection of his shield, keeping close to the man on either side to make a solid wall of wood. Beams of sunlight pierced the thick forest canopy to shine on fifty golden griffins.

The camp was in chaos. Half the orcs lay dead or dying. The remainder ran to and fro, hurriedly snapping up weapons and donning shields and helms. Their leader, a huge creature wearing a necklace of human teeth and a robe of scalps over his steel breastplate, tried to restore order. An arrow glanced off his spiked helm and he shouted for the orc archers to return fire on the ridge.

None answered. They had been the first to fall.

The Overlord’s soldiers advanced at a slow run, careful to keep formation. The orc leader beat his men into a rough line to face them.

A bolt of lightning flashed from the ridge and the orc leader keeled over, a smoking hole the size of a man’s head in his chest.

His lackeys looked about to run. Another officer, in ragged plate armor that looked like it had been cannibalized from half a dozen slain knights, shouted for them to hold their ground.

They shouted a slogan in unison that Garand couldn’t make out. It wasn’t one of the usual war-cries, more like an invocation to one of their base gods. Their line held. Garand’s eyebrows arched in surprise. Orcs rarely showed such resilience.

As the orderly line of soldiers advanced on the double, a flurry of vines and creepers sprang up from the ground and entwined a dozen of the orcs. Some were jerked off balance and pulled to the ground. Others had their arms tied to their sides and looked helplessly at the line of advancing soldiers.

The shield wall crashed into orcs and smashed through their formation. The orcs put up a brief resistance, but the fight soon became a slaughter. A couple of soldiers went down, but the men behind immediately took their places. The shield wall held firm.

The orc in plate mail tried to rally his troops, but the few survivors were already fleeing. Snarling, he leapt at Garand. The creature’s two-handed sword swung in a swift arc that would have cleaved a lesser man in two, but the officer dodged it at the last moment.

Garand came back with a quick flurry of blows. The orc couldn’t parry effectively with the giant blade, and within moments his armor was battered and dented. Blood welled from half a dozen shallow wounds.

Roaring with anger, the orc brought down his sword with all his might. The officer ducked and came under his guard, running him through.

The orc choked and staggered, gazing wide-eyed at the blade lodged in his belly. He coughed up blood, stumbled back a few feet, and fell dead.

The retreating orcs fared no better. As they headed for the woods, the reserve unit sprang up before them, cutting off their retreat. The soldiers hurled their spears in unison and the remaining orcs fell.

Garand pulled his sword out of the orc lieutenant’s chest and wiped it on the grass. He ordered two units to scout the woods for survivors.

Walking over to the spit, he looked at the hunk of meat sizzling over the fire. His face darkened. He called two of his men to his side.

“Pull that thing off and give it a decent burial,” he ordered.

Then he turned and watched as his friends made their way down from the ridge.

“Dranath,” he called to mage. “I thought I told you not to use any major spells.”

The thin man grinned. “I didn’t want you to think I was getting lazy,” he joked. “Besides, with that big metal breastplate he wore, I just couldn’t help sending a lightening bolt his way.”

The officer couldn’t help but smile. “Just save your strength for when we’re in real trouble,” he said.

“If I did that, I’ll never get a chance to show off,” Dranath laughed.

The ranger Marsilio, busy retrieving his arrows from dead orcs, interrupted their banter. “This group seemed more organized than most,” he said thoughtfully. “They actually listened to their officers.”

“You’re right,” Iamblichus the druid replied. “They did show some formal training.”

“Fat lot of good it did them,” the officer grunted.

Garand went over to the line of orcs still tied down by the druid’s spell. A soldier was busy slitting their throats. The officer stayed his hand. “Leave a couple,” he said. He crouched down and spoke to an orc who lay stretched out on the ground, all but invisible under a thick mesh of imprisoning grass. “What tribe are you?” he asked in orcish.

The creature didn’t even look at him.

The officer punched him in the mouth. “When I talk, you answer. What tribe are you from and why are you in this part of Grimwood?”

The orc spat, but said nothing.

Garand drew his dagger and placed it against his throat. “Last chance,” he growled.

The orc looked away.

Bright blood splashed on the grass.

Garand went to the next one. “Perhaps you will be more talkative,” he said.

The orc let out a curse and sneered. He, too, would not talk and died under the knife.

Marsilio raised his eyebrows and whistled. “Interesting,” he murmured.

* * *

The soldiers did not tarry in camp. The scouts returned to report no survivors in the woods. Iamblichus healed two men wounded in the charge. A few others nursed minor wounds that didn’t warrant an expenditure of the druid’s precious magical reserves. They had to make do with simple bandaging.

Within a few minutes the Tenththrong formed up and prepared to march.

Garand turned to the mage Dranath. “Did you talk to the fort?” he asked.

“Yes,” the mage replied. “They told us to come back. None of the other units reported encountering any orcs, but the fort said they’ll send a stronger force out to reconnoiter the area tomorrow.”

The officer nodded. Dranath could sustain a spell that kept him in constant mental contact with a fellow mage back at the outpost ten miles to the south. With a bit of concentration, he could carry on a conversation with him or any of the mages attached to other units. While his battle magic made a bigger impression, this particular ability was an invaluable resource.

“Let’s head back,” Garand said. “We should be able to make it by nightfall.”

The troops marched back up the ridge. Arranging themselves in double file, with two of the elves a hundred yards out to each of their flanks as scouts, they headed south.

The column of troops wended their way along a narrow forest path. Thick brush closed in on them from either side.

Garand, Marsilio, Dranath, and Iamblichus walked together in a tight group. They had been friends for years, fighting by each other’s side to keep the southern edges of Grimwood free from orcs, bandits, and the dark beasts that sometimes came from the depths of the forest to prey on the rich farmlands near the Overlord’s capital city. As they walked they bantered with each other about their easy victory and recalled earlier battles they had fought together. Welwyn would have joined them, as he was also an old friend, but he was engaged in the more serious business of scouting the flanks with his fellow elves.

“I was thinking about those orcs we slaughtered,” the ranger Marsilio said. “Perhaps they were getting ready to war on another tribe. Orcs are a disordered lot, but they can get their act together for a short time if there’s enough booty in it.”

“I was thinking along the same lines,” Iamblichus agreed, fingering his mistletoe necklace. “But why were the prisoners so reluctant to speak? Orcs put on a brave show, but in their hearts they are a cowardly people.”

“I didn’t realize orcs had hearts,” Garand grumbled. “But why would they be here? We’re only two days march from the edge of the forest, well into the Overlord’s zone of control. There are no orc tribes based in this region.”

“What does it matter?” chimed in the mage. “We’re ready to handle any amount of…”

Dranath never got to finish his sentence. There was a whir and a sickening thump. Blood spurted from his forehead and he collapsed. A sling stone the size of an apple had caved in his skull.

The bushes to their left came alive. Dozens of orcs sprang from their hiding places and hurled missiles at the column of soldiers. Spears, sling stones, and throwing axes ricocheted off armor and sunk into flesh. A line of orcs armed with crossbows rose from behind a log and fired. Within seconds a dozen soldiers were down.

“Form a shield wall! Return fire!” Garand yelled as he drew his sword.

The men scrambled to regain order. As more of their comrades sank to the ground, they gathered into ragged formation.

“Where are the elves?” Marsilio shouted as he let loose with his bow. With three quick shots, he took out three of the enemy crossbowmen. By the time the third had fallen, the rest had reloaded. Aiming as one, they concentrated their fire on the ranger. He hurled himself to the ground, but too late. A bolt lodged deep in his thigh. Another caught him in the arm and a third grazed his scalp. The ranger rolled in the dust, trying to avoid the deadly rain of projectiles. A bolt transfixed his neck and he lay still.

The soldiers threw their spears. Several orcs fell, but more sprang out of the underbrush to take their place.

“Advance,” Garand ordered, as a bolt thumped into his shield. “We have to get them at close range.”

Welwyn and two of the scouts burst out of the woods to their right.

“More coming this way. They’re going to surround us,” one panted as he ran up to Garand.

“I’ll handle them,” Iamblichus the druid said. “Concentrate on this lot.”

Garand nodded and joined his men in the shield wall. Bolts and sling stones rattled off their shields. A well-aimed throwing axe hit a man in the head and he toppled backwards, helmet and skull split open.

With the elves providing cover fire, the soldiers advanced into the brush. The orcs retreated, firing as they went. A few moved too slowly and Garand’s men mercilessly cut them down.

Turning his back upon the battle, the druid faced the forest to the right of the path. He could hear the enemy approaching. Twigs snapped and bushes rustled. He caught a glimpse of movement. Dark forms flitted from shadow to shadow.

Iamblichus knelt and placed his palm flat on the ground. Falling into deep concentration, he began to recite an age-old intonation known only to his order. His arcane words grew louder until he was shouting in an eldritch tongue. Each word crackled with energy. Mystical phrases seemed to snap out of his mouth with a power all their own.

A horde of orcs stampeded out of the woods, screaming and brandishing their weapons. The earth beneath their feet heaved and shot upwards. Those in front fell. Those behind stopped in their tracks. A hillock of soil and stones rose from the forest floor. As the orcs watched in horror, the hillock unbent itself and stood on legs as thick as a man. Two massive arms sprouted from its side. Hands as big as a man’s chest splayed out thick fingers of roots.

The earth elemental rose to its full height, its head a full twenty feet off the ground. Two piercingly bright red eyes shone from deep within the slab of soil that made up its face.

The orcs screamed and ran.

The beast thundered after them, shaking the forest with each mighty footstep. With long sweeps of its arms it scattered the orcs like chaff. Many were crushed under its ponderous weight or trampled by their fleeing compatriots. Plucking them up in its hands, it flung them far into the woods or hurled them against the trunks of trees.

Garand heard the riot behind him but paid no attention. He had more pressing matters to attend to. The orcs fled before him but he didn’t pursue. They had broken too quickly. He sensed a trap. His suspicion soon proved correct.

Forty orcs came charging out of the underbrush to his left. Garand’s men were ready this time and turned to face this new threat. Their few initial moments of panic were over. Discipline had kicked in and the advance into the woods had boosted their morale.

The orcs smashed against the shield wall and got pushed back. A fierce melee ensued. The orcs hewed at the men with maces and axes but few of their blows could penetrate the soldiers’ heavy protection. The humans, on the other hand, cut their opponents down with almost every swing.

The orcs fought fiercely, snarling and biting at the soldiers, desperately leaping on their shields and pulling the men to the ground where others could bludgeon them to death. A few soldiers died this way, but most got saved as their comrades to either side cut down the attackers with vicious sword swings.

The bloodied orcs soon fell back.

An eerie cry reverberated through the woods. Garand saw a strange figure roosting on a tree stump a few yards beyond the disorganized mass of orcs.

Thin and bony, the creature wore only a loincloth and a voluminous robe of bearskin. Its wiry limbs were covered in dust and in a gnarled hand it carried a thick staff carved from the leg bone of some massive forest dweller. On its head it wore a helmet of beaten gold decorated with a plume of human hair.

The face was that of an orc, but its deep wrinkles and sallow features bespoke an age that few of that bloodthirsty and backstabbing race could ever hope to obtain. A pair of bloodshot eyes glared blearily at the humans. The hair on Garand’s nape rose as he felt the magical power that emanated like a cold wind from its presence.

Muttering blasphemous words from an arcane dialect forgotten by all but the most shunned of necromancers and warlocks, the shaman contorted his bony fingers into a sphere. Then it splayed them outwards with its palm facing up. A globe of darkness sprung from its hands. With a guttural command, the globe shot at the shaken line of soldiers.

It made no sound as it hit them, but brought death wherever it touched flesh. Whirling among the men, it alighted on faces or hands. The point of flesh where the black ball touched darkened and putrefied, the stain spreading outwards like a dank sickness across the entire body. The hapless victims gyrated in agony and horror as their flesh rotted off their bones. In a matter of seconds they lay dead.

The men scattered in terror.

Bellowing with rage, Garand charged at the figure on the stump. The few orcs foolhardy enough to stand in his way got slashed aside without even slowing him down.

The shaman gazed at him with a serene calm. As Garand drew near, it raised its staff and brought it whistling down on the officer. The officer lifted up his shield to ward off the blow and the shield shattered into a dozen pieces.

Garand leapt onto the stump and swung his broadsword at the hideous thing before him. The orc raised its staff to protect himself but Garand snapped it in two with the force of his blow. Garand brought his sword back for a killing swing. The orc spellcaster reached out a bony hand and touched Garand’s shoulder. The officer felt a killing pain shoot through him as every muscle on one side of his body tensed. His sword fell to the ground. With supreme effort he used his one good hand to swing his shield into the side of the orc’s head. It gave out an animalistic grunt and loosed its grasp. The pain disappeared in an instant and Garand gasped with relief.

But there was no time to relax. The orc began to chant. Garand shoved it away, momentarily disrupting its spell, and scrambled for his sword. The creature raised its arms, cupping its hands. A beacon of sickly red light flared between bony fingers. Garand grabbed his sword and stood up with the sickening realization that he was too late; the orc’s spell would hit him before he could close.

A blur of movement and a common private slammed into the orc. Its spell spat out and consumed the soldier in baleful flames. The orc’s arms caught fire, too. It shrieked, then uttered an arcane syllable and the flames disappeared.

But not on the soldier. He writhed on the ground for a moment, shuddered, and died. Garand did not see his man’s death throes, because he strode forward with deadly purpose. The orc’s eyes filled with fear and it turned to run. Garand shoved his blade through the orc’s back. The point thrust out through the shaman’s chest with a burst of gore. The orc twitched and screamed as its bony hands helplessly clung at the seven inches of steel protruding from its body.

A bony rattle echoed from the thing’s throat and it hung limp on the soldier’s sword. The orcs dropped their weapons and fled.

Garand stood atop the gnarled stump and surveyed the carnage around him. Human and orc corpses littered the forest floor. He spared a moment for the burnt corpse of the private at his feet. Garand had upbraided the man just this morning for not standing at proper attention, and here he lay dead for having saved him. The men slowly reassembled some distance away. The wounded limped along while the more seriously injured had to be carried by their comrades. Then Garand saw the figure of Iamblichus, haggard and weary from the great exertion of summoning the earth elemental. The druid nodded to him and began organizing the men into search parties to find more of the wounded.

Garand examined the bloody heap at his feet. Besides the bone staff, which now lay broken some distance away, the orc shaman had carried no other weapons. The officer pulled off its gold helmet and hefted its considerable weight. He nodded in satisfaction. It would fetch a considerable sum in the city, and provide some compensation to the wives and children of his dead men.

The officer grimaced. No amount of money could replace their loss, but at least their families wouldn’t starve this winter.

Then he spotted a small talisman tied by a thin cord around the dead orc’s neck. He bent over and looked more closely. It was a bear claw, dyed a deep red.

He gasped. The Crimson Claw! It had been the mark of a blasphemous religion that had united the scattered orc tribes in his grandfather’s day. Under the sway of powerful sorcerers, thousands of orcs had charged howling out of Grimwood, driving the Overlord’s armies before them and to the very walls of the capital city. A desperate counterattack by a Vastthrong of crack troops pushed them back for a precious few hours, long enough for the soldiers to dig in. The orcs attacked again, sending wave after wave of troops at the makeshift redoubt. The soldiers had fought with a grim determination. Thousands of the fell beasts met their deaths on the earthen ramparts in a battle lasting three days. At its end not a single soldier remained standing, but the power of the Wild Orcs of the Crimson Claw had been broken. Reeling from their heavy losses, the orcs fled into Grimwood, where a relief column of Elven troops had finished them off.

The redoubt, with its thousands of fallen heroes, was turned into a military monument. Garand visited it many years ago when he was a new recruit. The ramparts still stood, worn and battered as much by time now as battle. He had searched through the heather and found remnants of that epic battle: arrowheads, bits of armor, and broken swords. But mostly he had found bones. He never forgot that visit, nor the bravery of the men who had given their lives to defend their city.

Now that the threat had returned, how many other brave men would have to give their lives?

“These are dark signs indeed,” a voice said.

The officer snapped out of his reverie and saw the druid standing nearby, gazing down at the talisman around the dead orc’s neck.

“The City-States are in grave danger,” Garand nodded. “How many of our men are dead?”

Iamblichus grimaced. “Only twenty-two of our men still live, and some of them are sorely hurt. Two of the Elven scouts were killed by that thing’s foul magic, which is why they were not able to warn us of the ambush. I found their bodies. They were more rot and decay than flesh. And also,” the druid’s voice caught, and he paused before continuing, “Marsilio and Dranath are dead.”

Grief welled up in the officer’s throat, but he set his teeth. He struggled for control for a moment before he could push his emotions down, replacing them with the hot flare of anger. “We’ll make them pay,” was all he could say.

“Welwyn has found the orcs’ trail,” the druid said. “We should be able to track them to their lair. But with Dranath dead, we won’t be able to communicate with the fort.”

“We’ll send two men back with a message,” Garand said, more in control of his emotions now. “The rest of us will follow the orcs while the trail is still fresh. It’s a risk, but they won’t be expecting an attack so soon. If we’re lucky we might find their base.”

Iamblichus nodded. Marching after an unknown number of the enemy with such a depleted corps was almost surely suicide, but the druid didn’t protest. Garand knew that he, too, wanted vengeance. Iamblichus loved Grimwood, despite its dark reputation. He had once confided to his friends that he hoped for a day when all the woods would be at peace, free from orcs and creatures of the night. Neither man thought of returning to the safety of the fort just a few hours march away. This fight had become personal.

* * *

The elven scout Welwyn had no trouble following the orcs’ trail. They had fled in an unorganized rout, tromping the underbrush and making no attempt to hide their tracks. The trails of several scattered groups eventually merged together at a glade about a mile from the battleground. From there Welwyn tracked the group north.

The soldiers followed carefully, wary of another ambush. Scouts ranged ahead and to the sides but saw no sign of their adversaries. As the setting sun sent its last rays slanting through verdant boughs, the land through which the troop advanced became rougher. The forest was cut by rocky hills covered only in dry scrub. Steep silent valleys lay between, their bottoms hidden by thick briars and twisted, sickly trees on which no bird nested. In the darkening twilight the hills took on weird shapes, appearing as brooding faces or the fists of giants.

Iamblichus surveyed the terrain and shook his head sadly. “I remember this place,” the druid said. “I wandered through here many years ago. The forest looked healthy then. These hills had wildflowers and berry bushes. Some evil has come into the area and poisoned the land.”

Welwyn nodded in agreement. “My father fought against the orcs of the Crimson Claw. He described the area of woodland near where they did their demonic rituals as having been withered and sickened like this.”

“Then we’d better be careful, especially with night coming on,” Garand said.

“I could scout ahead with a spell,” Iamblichus offered.

“Do it,” the officer ordered.

The wizened druid turned his face to the sky and muttered softly. His features became etched with lines of deep concentration, but a faint smile spoke of the love he harbored for his craft and the closeness to nature it brought him.

A sparrow flew high overhead, a flitting black shape against the darkening blue sky. It wheeled and circled above the druid, then dove down and alighted on his outstretched arm. The druid opened his eyes and beamed a smile at the little bird. The sparrow chirped, and the druid chirped back. Soon the two were chirping at each other like two birds in a tree. Garand smiled with amusement. Welwyn looked on reverently. The bird shot into the air and disappeared into the darkening northern sky.

Iamblichus turned to his two comrades. “Our little friend says the orcs have a large camp not far to the north. He rarely flies that direction, because the land is even more wasted than it is here, but he will go that way to give us more information. He will have to make haste. It is getting dark and the owls will soon be out.”

“While we wait, let’s find a safe place to camp for the night,” Garand said.

The troops fanned out and quickly found a small ravine hidden by an outcropping of rock, easy to defend and almost impossible to spot without passing within a few paces. The soldiers filed in and made themselves as comfortable as they could. Garand decided it was too dangerous to light campfires, so the men had to settle for cold rations.

Shortly after sunset, the sparrow returned and resumed his chirping conversation with the druid. After a few minutes the bird flew away into the night.

Iamblichus reported to his commander. “The camp is a few miles almost due north, in a clearing next to a stream. Thick thorn bushes surround the clearing, and the only trail through them goes between two hills. The orcs have stationed archers and war machines on both of them.”

“How about the stream?” Garand asked. “Can we cross it?”

“It is small, but deep and fast enough that we could only cross it with care, if at all. We’d make good targets if we made the attempt. There is a clear view of the camp from that side, however. We could put archers of our own there.”

“Then the trail is our only choice,” Garand concluded. “It doesn’t sound as if we could take the hills by surprise, and a frontal assault seems foolhardy. Do you know any sort of spell that could keep them occupied until we can close with them and engage them in hand-to-hand combat?”

“I think that might be arranged,” the druid mused.

“Then call I’ll the men together just before dawn,” Garand said, clapping him on the shoulder.

* * *





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