Nostrils flared against the cold air. The scraping of the hooves on rock and matted tundra could be heard as bare hoof separated the fragile hold of tundra grass on rock. The clip went steady; sounding for several paces then paused tentatively as tall pointed ears came alert and twisted. As the horse shifted its gaze from the right to the left, the sound of tightening leather from the saddle and the flow of deep breaths broke the soft whistle of a stiff breeze. The man, motionless on the horse, staring into the clearing from the forests edge as the horse tested the wind. Slowly, the watching shadows at the far end of the field slipped into the twilight. The horse and rider stayed for another four minutes; nothing else moved. Near the boulders to his left an idle stream flowed down the rock path.
Senen dismounted and walked his horse to the stream. What was waiting at the end of the clearing? Dire wolves he could only hope for, there were many things worse than beasts of the forest. The shadows had dispersed at his arrival. It was twilight still. An hour if lucky, he could reach a bit closer to his destination. It would be wise to stay the night in the clearing. Senen slowly removed the reigns and washed them in the stream looking again at the far end of the field. Dropping the reigns on a clump of long stalks near the stream, he moved upstream to quench his own thirst. He washed his face with the ice-cold water and turned back to the horse. He pulled the saddle from his horse and rubbed the horse down with grass. Its greyish white coat tarnished with dust and now green with grass. It’d been a long hard ride today. The horse would stay near. He ached.
* * *
Two days earlier, as an invited guest of the barbarian clans of Griffon’s Nest, he was greeted with the warmth and strength of the unaffected people he had come to love. He spent the day, hunting and visiting the barbarian community with Vantos, a friend in the Nest. That night, in Vantos’ lodge, Senen ate slowly listening as Vantos solemnly boasted of his wife Dinat bearing the weight of child. The fire illuminated the sigils of his clan marked on his arms as Vantos reached for the plate of roasted partridge. His neck bore the symbols of stature prominent on the leaders of the northern tribes.
A woman entered the room, the warm flickering light illuminating her protruding belly as she walked forward and laid the platter of sheep's head on the stand. “She is beautiful as will be my fourth child. Look at my wife’s strength; it is why she is with me. Her strength could help me outlast any peril better than the strength of forty strong warriors.” Last Senen took note, Vantos had one wife, Jaela. He assumed that Jaela had not supported Vantos’ will enough to continue his interest. More than likely the woman laying the feast, Dinat, was the second attempt at a fruitful bond. Though Jaela might well still have a supporting role.
Dinat was superb and her sublime presence pushed it’s will beyond the walls of the house. It shone through in her smile and through her eyes. “Husband, it is not often enough that the Senen visits our tribe. Please speak with him of greater happenings than those here in our house. All your wives are beautiful.” She smiled.
“Senen is the thorn on a rose that is much more beautiful than any we know. Speak to him of the darkness that will take our strength and quell our spirits. Tell him so that he may clear the darkness and sew the seeds of the plant he knows in the fields of disaster that they may take over and flourish, diminishing the darkness and bring life to the barren place.”
Vantos took a partridge and split it in half. “Dinat, your persistence is warranted but your words are cryptic and untimely. She says what she sees, yet it is only a picture to me. She must take great care to explain to me the deeper qualities of the things we see in this world. Let us not be concerned on this moon with the smoke of visions. Let us eat.”
They ate, laughed at life, and recounted traveled stories and accounts of contemporary events. Tired and mirthful, they retired to their partitions in the single structure.
* * *
In the Lurkwood, Senen peered into the dark hole in a tree across the clearing and imagined a movement, a flash of eyes. The face of the man he had killed was still fresh on his mind. The torment and vehement anger effusively evident in his eyes, even now, were blending with those of many others. Many others who had stood against a will of truth. The barbarians of the Nest couldn’t know. They were all too characteristically consumed with efficiency and the testing of body and will to see reason or know the nuances of a will’s result. They couldn’t know as he knew; the clarity of that soul’s mottled dark appearance. The dark man was destined to spread the evil at hand. He’d lead a life of the kind of evil that spreads and contaminates. The kind that destroys civilized people and exalts the animal within. There was no reproach or healing for this soul; only a cleansing release from this world.
Senen untied a blanket roll from behind the saddle and dropped it on the floor. He would leave it rolled tonight, there’s never a reason to get too comfortable in the Lurkwood. He pulled each ring of metal from his fingers until the gauntlets slipped loose. He flexed his strong hands, stiff from exertion and cold. Reaching to undo the straps in back of his armor he scowled as his reach twisted the muscles and the soft tissue that had formed over his wounds. With the straps unfastened he slid the metal off his back. A cotton jerkin is unharmed but stained through with his blood and adhered to the wounds on his back. Despite his fatigue, his back had to be tended. He walked to the stream and cleared a few rocks. Not caring to rip the shirt off and reopen the wounds, he laid back into the frigid stream and let the water seep into the material. After the material loosens, he thought. The wounds lay gaping across his back for this long already. After..
Senen had encountered the man he slay unexpectedly, during the hours of the morning mist while searching the area around the Nest. A rumor among the Council of Light was a presence of an awakening evil within the barbarian lands. It was a purity of evil, not a mottled soul of a man once pure but a soul of evil incarnate, relayed many of the seers and priests who visited the area for converts. Senen searched for that source. Exasperated, he turned from the face of the cliff. For a moment, he knelt and bowed his head, allowing the quiet to overtake him. Brought out of his meditation by a chant coming from near by, Senen stood and listened carefully. The sounds were coming from over the cliff. He clasped a white cloak quilled with coarse feathers about his body. And slowly, uneasily, he stepped into the air over the canyon. He willed himself down the center of the canyon toward the chanting source. At the bottom of the canyon in the flow of water stood a man with filthy robes of fur and a mask of skin. The man stopped his chant to fill a bowl with water and slowly pour it in a large urn. He began the chant anew. Senen watched from afar as he removed his cloak of feathers. The man in the mask took a knife and sliced something that he retrieved from his sack. The slice fell into the urn. Senen looked around himself. He could feel an oppressive pressure from somewhere up the river.
Senen quietly called for a blessing and holy strength to face the situation at hand. Senen eased his way around the man until he was directly in front. With an uneasy feeling, Senen startled the man saying, “Face me.” The man stopped chanting abruptly and brought his head down to face the interrupting presence. Senen looked into the priest’s eyes. The darkness emanating from within this man poured from his eye sockets. The man had a darkened heart and soul. “Your days of tortured restraint are at an end,” uttered Senen as he reached for the sword in his sheath.
Before he pulled his sword a force knocked him down and Senen felt a tug from inside his body. He knew the feeling; it was a rip in the fabric of his soul. Senen rolled in the water and came to his feet in solid form. A vision shimmered in the air to his right. The horrible sight commanded a large presence and flashed terrible tusks. The spirit boar shimmered into vision again as it came charging at Senen. He feinted right and called for a destruction of the spirit. The boar squealed as its form was rent in two, only to come together again looking to maul. Again Senen called upon the morning lord for the spirit’s destruction.
With practiced swiftness Senen’s sword reached his hands. The spirit was reforming after the destructive force ripped it into pieces; the shaman was chanting. Senen seized his chance and holding his sword back ran shoulder first for the man in the river. The shaman rasped the last words of his incantation as Senen heaved his shoulder into the man’s chest. The man was sent sprawling on his back into the river as Senen’s attentions were turned to the stream of ghosts and ethereal beings that were circling him. They closed in and attacked. With each touch his heart felt weaker as a piece was ripped from his soul. He slipped his shield from its place on his back and he covered himself as best possible. The souls of the dead ripped at his back through his armor opening physical wounds sympathetic with his soul’s rendering. A moment passed, Senen stood reaching within for the strength and rushed again at the man. Senen stopped short, feinted left, and used the inertia to cleave his heavy bastardsword into the shaman. The man dropped to his knees as a gurgling sound came from his side. The heavy sword had sliced through his rib and into his lung. The man was suffering. Senen looked up as the boar charged at him from the right. Senen became still as he called for his god’s hand and he was filled with power. He spoke with the power of a god. The dark souls of the man at his feet and the charging boar vanished. The shell of the shaman slid under the river’s flow and the river darkened downstream with the blood of battle.
Senen stood in the running water, his chest heaving from the exertion of the fight. He examined the corpse of the shaman; he found a serpent’s fang and a symbol around the priest’s neck. The mask on the priest was hideous. He pulled it from the priests face and let it drift to the currents. The shaman face lined with a permanent scowl and a branded oval sectioned vertically by a long cross mark. This was not a mark of any of the tribes he’d seen yet it was finding resonance with things he had heard recently. Senen walked over to the urn and recoiled from the smell of putrid evil. He reached into the water beside the urn to retrieve the dark glow emanating from an object in the water and pulled out a clawed hand. It was as heavy as rock; a demon’s claw. So the shaman was working to summon more powerful spirits, the fool.
Senen sheathed his bastardsword and pulled from another scabbard a heavy claymore of perfect balance. It shown with internal radiance as light coursed through the sigils on the blade and the edge shown with an almost translucent sharpness. Its simple hilt wrapped with leather was thick and sturdy. True perfection. Senen turned the sword parallel to the ground and touched the demon’s claw to its blade. The claw disintegrated to a fine powder that flew into the wind. If the shaman or his cabal had summoned a demon he’d have to seek help to destroy it. The demon would have to wait. He climbed from the canyon and into the mid-day sun. Senen decided not to speak of the barbarian he killed to Vantos or any other barbarian. They wouldn’t understand; they couldn’t see with his granted clarity. They hadn’t a clue and there wasn’t time to loose.
Senen felt he must reach the viscount quickly. That man would have his ear to the ground on the dealings of the shady and legitimate networks without a prejudice for peace that would hinder the flow of information. Senen went to the house of Vantos retrieve his belongings to set forth to look for information and truth. He stepped through the door and scanned the room for his artifacts. The barbarians rose with the sun and had stepped out from the house. Senen gathered his few belongings to head to the herd where his horse rested. He was met at the door by Vantos and Dinat. She wore a calm expression and beckoned Senen to sit.
Vantos sat in a chair across from Senen. Jaela move to place two cups of water on the table. As she offered a cup to Senen she looked at Vantos and nodded.
They sat drinking their water for a while in silence. “It is true what my wife has said. There is an evil that is building upon itself and will seek to destroy the good it finds.” Vantos drank deeply.
“Please friend, go. Find the source, for the evil is spreading and becoming a common encounter. Find what nature lends itself to this strangulation. And we will be seeing each other soon.”
“Take care friend, and may the light of tomorrow’s dawn show the way,” said Senen. He finished the water and stood to leave. Shaking Vantos’ hand and thanking Jaela, looking into her wise eyes he said good-bye.
* * *
The icy tendrils of cold loosened the matt of blood holding the shirt to his wounds. Senen eased out of the streams flow and stood in the cool grass. He grasped the shirt with both hands and with a steady motion and a grimace he pulled the cotton jerkin free of his wounds. His back was bleeding once again. He left the shirt in the shallows of the water to soak. Sitting at the streams edge, naked and eyes closed, he chanted for a few brief moments and his skin began to glow. The deep gashes healed to shallow ones. He continued the chant and the shallow gashes healed to scars. He finished his chant and the scars vanished.
The chill in the air felt the same yet perhaps less pervasive as compared to his dealings in a brief perfunctory visit to the cold heart of the Faerun, the Castle of Ice Craig. After leaving the cliffs near the griffons’ aerie and the town of Griffon’s Nest, Senen traveled the tundra northeast to reach the mountain upon which sat Ice Craig Castle. The lifestyle of the barbarians living in the castle was rife with greed and gluttony, not the worst kind of evil, yet a perversion. A well-run operation despite the provisions made for the vast appetites of the merchants that served to keep the stronghold in the center of financial bliss. The monstrous half-demon Malice slept in the icy garden of the hallowed halls of this barbarian stronghold. The presence of the monster spoke to the castles seat of power for the might of the northern peoples. The fountain of cold blood flowed in the foyer, springing from the solid rock that made the castle seem to be carved from the cold heart of the northern mountain itself. The blood was ice cold yet flowed and bubbled as if it were boiling water.
Senen ventured inside the cold walls after his encounter with the summoner in Griffon’s Nest in haste to search for news from the councils of the Craig. The summoner had worn a mark registering with the rumors that had reached Senen’s ears from the monasteries and by-streets of the cities in which he presided. Well informed, he hoped the network associations of the viceroy of the castle could shed light on the nature of an evil blight crawling in spurts from a source in the land near the southeast coast of the Moonsea. Problems beset merchants and travelers from Waterdeep as they traveled the ancient conquered and reconquored territories. Many of the patrols accompanying merchants and priests from the city of Waterdeep returned with reports of scenes of grim slayings of entire companies of travelers and of hideous deaths dealt to the good priests of the City of Splendors.
The words that the Viceroy of Ice Craig castle had imparted upon him continued to sound hollow as when they were spoken, “My networks haven’t so much information as you would hope,” lied the Viceroy pacing the room in time with the slow guard’s march step reverberating down the hall. Looking up from beneath heavy brows, with a slight grin he said, “As a matter of fact our business ventures lie elsewhere, but we have heard just rumors.”
A pause followed the abrupt stop, he continued, “Our good friends,” another pause, “elements in the Zhentish networks, have informed me of a certain movement in their region. A group of Cyrite mages and those animals of Malar have been working outside the city gates on a,” the viceroy smiled thinly, “project.”
The viceroy knew more than he let on but Senen hadn’t been able to discern the reasons for the Viceroys hesitancy. The barbarians of the north had no patience for the crafty deceptions of the Cyrites and considered the priests of Malar mere beasts. Perhaps it was just prejudice or soreness at the demise of the taxation party, one year earlier, who urged the farmers of the plains to the south of Griffon’s Nest by violent means to pay monies to the keep. Senen considered these explanations but his wisdom urged him towards a less trivial conclusion. The more likely explanation to his hesitancy was an internal struggle regarding the information. Waterdeep, though crucial to the northern territories as a trade hub with the rest of the civilizations of Faerun, as a city of civilized and affected virtues often had agendas running in opposition to the grasping claw of the Craig’s power. The Viceroy was worried enough about the significance of a joining between the followers of such indiscriminant and heinous forces as Cyric and Malar to apprise others of the situation. The regard of nurturing of a rising yet fragile force weighed in well as an abiding reprisal to Waterdeep’s hindering campaigns against the exacting measures of the barbarian lords. A delicate balance of information and politics was levered upon the scales of the Viceroy’s judgment. Senen didn’t try for more information than that. The quality of truth is precariously measured when weighed and dolt by men with strong intent.
* * *
Senen’s mind wandered that night in the Lurkwood during his fitful lapses of sleep. A voice was calling out to him in the stark black night. Senen knew he was sleeping yet the half reality persisted and he indulged it.
The sound of small feet racing down the pathway let him know he had been seen. He did not see anything but he heard the steps coming and he dismounted his horse. Arms were quickly flung around his neck and he could feel a weight swinging around his neck to the left. The young woman quickly hugged him and jumped off quickly before he had a chance to tickle her.
“Senen, you’re back so early,” she mocked. “What’s it been, only one season this time?”
He laughed his low laugh, “Where’s your mother and your brothers and sisters?”
“Mother is in town today and my darlings are in back playing in the lake. It’s full!” she said. She sounded fuller of Secelise’s splendor with every passing season. “I believe they’ll swamp the fields with their splashing if they continue the way they are. Resein has built them a board to jump from down by the old oak.”
“If they do it will only be the second time, since the year that you emptied it with your little beaver dam remodel. What is your mother doing in town?” Senen said.
“She’s gone to see about more help for the fields this summer. The crops have grown well and Resein said he wants more hands for the harvest.”
“Good. It’s a fair bit of work. The fields could use another hand.” Senen removed the saddle and led the horse to the stables. “So Eslin, are the sheep recovered from the fright you gave them with the lion you created on the shore? It was a nice touch to have it climb out of the lake and shake the water off right next to the flock. I would venture to say that they probably don’t come out of the west fields without your mother leading them.”
“No, no lions this summer. I have worked fashioning butterflies and spiders these days. Small details that’s what your friend has instructed me to work on, so I work on small details of small things. I can’t wait to tell you about the dreams I’ve had.” She looked off to the distance and her eyes broke focus and gazed for a moment. When she looked at him in the eyes she said, “The clouds in my dreams have been getting darker yet they still bear a silver lining.”
“You need to look for it.” Senen said after brief reflection. She continued reporting the news of the small township close to the farm. Senen listened while idly splitting wood to place next to the house. He watched the sun close space on the horizon and the sky turn shades of red.
Senen heard the clip of the horses hooves as she came down the natural isle formed by the stand of sycamores parted down the middle by a beaten path. The branches swayed with the steady eastward wind and leaves trickled down across the path of her horse. Her hair was pulled back but the few stray dark trestles blew with the branches. He could see her brown eyes staring at him through a smile even from where she sat.
* * *
Senen opened his eyes to a faint glow crowning the tops of the trees. Dawn was not far off. Eyes closed, he lay for a minute listening to the waking sounds of the forest. For a moment, just the sound of the brook was to be heard, winding its way over rocks and moss. A bird, once again secure in its surroundings after the nights eclipse, preempted the suns light with its call. Senen took it as a cue to start on his way. His armor had kept him somewhat warmer though the frigid temperatures had crept inside. He crawled out from between some rocks and stretched the cold from his joints.
His horse took refuge for the night among three enormous trees. Senen called the horse and saddled up. Impressed, Senen looked up to the three trees standing like sentinels at the edge of the clearing. The trees had thick trunks the size of a dragon’s gut, sparsely populated by branches, reaching into the clouds and their age back through time. He mounted his steed and started through the clearing past where he had seen the shadows when he entered the night before. A nondescript piece of material dangled from an outreached section of a fallen branch.
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