It had taken Finn the majority of the next day to scout the last known locations of the caravan ambush sites. Finally, he had sourced tracks leading towards the rocky outcrops of the foothills that bordered Ascalon territory with the Shiverpeaks to the far west. Whatever band of Charr had assaulted these merchants were far separated from the known battlelines to the north. Stragglers, thought Finn, as he detected further footprints in the dust.
The ranger sprinted back to where Lady Aranoia’s caravan was tucked away from view. The well dressed woman looked up apprehensively as the blond man approached. “Well?” she demanded.
Finn sighed audibly, with little excitement evident within his attitude. “There are clear signs of activity here. I would take the caravan through the pass up ahead. If these Charr are here, I believe they will make themselves shown to an unprotected caravan.”
Lady Aranoia smiled slowly and confidently. “Good. Then we proceed as planned. I hope you are right Mr. Ferral. The day grows old and we must consider turning back to Ascalon with the next few hours. I would hate to moderate your reward if we were to waste a whole day.”
Finn shrugged, as if worst things had happened to him. “I give you my honest recommendation. Take the caravan down this trail, and you will find your Charr.”
The woman snapped her fingers and a number of guardsmen approached to address her. The men were simple, cheap swordsmen, easily recruited for standard escorting tasks. Any hire work that involved killing Charr tended to easily attract the naïve budding guardsmen of the city, and Lady Aranoia had clearly taken advantage of having a certain level of protection for the trip. They would serve a good purpose too, Finn reflected, as he reminded himself of the plan that had been decided. Using one of the caravan’s, they would smuggle the guardsmen under a canopy, so as to make the cart look like a goods train. Even a yak had been purchased to pull the cart, to make it look like the carriage was Shiverpeak bound.
“And you will still take the reins?” Lady Aranoia asked the ranger, as the swordsmen nearby climbed into the back of the carriage.
“At the agreed price of an extra platinum, we agreed,” reminded Finn.
“We did,” Lady Aranoia smiled, satisfied.
Finn helped cover the smuggled men under the leather blanket that covered the cart, before balancing the sheath of arrows at his back and vaulting up onto the yak’s hind. The creature released a low pine as it bore the ranger on its back, its head lowering as it shook its wool-covered neck. Four more swordmen stood to flank the yak-driven cart as they slowly headed out into the valley, leaving the remainder of Lady Aranoia’s caravan safely behind. “Bring me back my albino Charr hides, Finn Ferral,” Lady Aranoia called out after them. But Finn didn’t look back to acknowledge.
They slowly descended into the valley, with the distant teeth of the Shiverpeaks looming like a ghostly jawline on the horizon. The rocks and boulders so common on the Ascalon plains had gained size and volume as the day had passed, and now the western foothills created large rises and small mountains amongst the grey dust. The valley they entered snaked a path directly in-between two of the largest hills that they had so far encountered. The walls of the hills even reached upwards into sheer walls of broken rock and Finn found himself subtly searching for signs of danger amongst the many outcroppings that pocketed their surfaces.
The ranger began to lose heart as they made further ground into the valley without sign of aggression. It was several minutes later when he noted something far ahead, stretching across the floor of the valley and directly in their path. As the caravan approached, the ranger peered outwards, noting that a large tree had toppled perfectly to block their way. Finn stood upon the haunches of his saddle to gain a better angle of view. There was little tree life in these parts of western Ascalon, and to see the great birth of an oak tree placed directly in their path seemed particularly odd to him.
“That’s a big tree,” commented one of the guardsmen to the side of the yak.
“We will need to move it if we wish to progress,” commented another.
“Maybe we should turn back,” sighed Finn, with resignation in his voice.
“No chance,” came another reply from one of the footsoldiers. “I ain’t taking half pay just ‘cos of a tree. The four of us can lift it out of the way.”
“Are you sure?” replied Finn, a look of doubt crossing his face as he looked at the size of the obstacle. “Even an ettin would struggle to lift that.”
“No sweat,” one of the soldiers replied. “We’re Ascalonian soldiers, sir. They don’t call me Fredigar Leetshire for nothin’. Me and the boys will take care of this.”
The four warriors ran towards the fallen tree as the yak made its slow progression onwards. Finn stared out towards the many outcroppings and boulders scattered around the valley floor, and something unnerved him about the situation. As the warriors finally approached the tree, they dropped their shields and swords to prepare themselves for the hauling of the large trunk. Finn watched onwards as a final dazzle of late sunshine slipped through one of the gaps in the foothills ahead, revealing a glossy shine that appeared to reflect off the surface of the fallen trunk.
A sense of urgency bolted into Finn’s stomach. “Wait!” he shouted out to the guards. “Wait, it’s a trap!”
“Wussy ranger,” laughed one of the guardsmen to his fellows as he reached out to take a strong grip of the large trunk. Each of them began to take hold in an effort to shift the giant bulk.
“It’s heavy, boss,” replied one of the men, a strain appearing on his face. “Perhaps the ranger was…”
There was a clear, guttural howl that echoed across the valley. From behind several boulders rose the large distinctive shapes of a dozen Charr, brandishing cruel jagged weapons. Their fur was bright white that contrasted against the dusty soil of the foothills. As one, they howled down the slopes of the valley towards the four men.
“To arms!” shouted one of the men, and he tried to turn back towards his weapon but abruptly halted, his hands fastened to the tree trunk.
“Boss, I can’t let go….”
The warrior tried to peel his hands from the surface but they were fixed fast against the tree. He peered closer at the trunk, noting the shiny surface of strange oil that glossed its bark. “Some sort of adhesive…,” the warrior panicked.
With their swords and shields sitting dormant at their feet, Finn watched from the back of the yak with helplessness, as the Charr warband swept into the four swordsmen, chopping at their defenceless forms with viscous swipes of their jagged weapons, as the guardmen screamed out for mercy.
“Hyaaa!” Finn cried, pounding the flanks of the yak with his heels. The woollen beast lurched into a steady gait as it moaned in complaint. The caravan attached to its hind bounced and rocked against the hard, rocky floor as the pace of the beast increased, and it was no surprise when Finn heard the shouts of the men in the rear carriage.
The leather cover was torn away as the men came to view the surroundings. “Time for battle gentlemen,” called Finn, as he stood upwards in the footholds of the saddle. He reached out for the emblazoned flatbow at his back, notching an arrow deftly, despite the bouncy ride.
The arrow flew straight and sound with a whistling scream of air, its tip jagged and designed to accelerate the bleeding of any wound it caused. The extra condition of the wound may not have mattered in this instance as the solid strike of its flight lifted one of the Charr off its feet to fly over the bulk of the fallen tree and crash into the ground beyond.
Still buoyant from bloodlust, the Charr turned to face the oncoming beast and its burden. Finn grasped at the long wool at the yaks neck with one hand, guiding the beast towards the group and shouting encouragement into the yak’s ears. Then he scrambled backwards, away from the saddle and towards the rear hind of the giant mule. “Time to depart,” Finn instructed the confused men in the carriage below, as he jumped from the beast and into the cart beside them. He turned quickly, producing two arrows this time, and placing them in a V-shape against the taut length of his bowstring. They sprung simultaneously from the bow to rip through the two harness straps that combined the yak and the wheeled carriage. The front of the cart dipped instantly, crashing into the dusty soil and tearing a tiny gorge through the ground with its momentum.
The yak didn’t slow, and without the weight of its harness the beast charged forwards without any desire to stop. The albino Charr ahead leapt to avoid the crushing blows of its footfalls as it bounded past them and leaped over the tree beyond.
As the Charr scrambled back to their feet, the cart slowly slid into view beside them, with a grim looking ranger and a dozen shaken warriors sitting and standing onboard.
There was an explosion of movement as both sides surged into battle. A one-horned beast with demon like eyes roared at Finn, flecks of spittle splashing him in the face as he spun in a whirling movement, deflecting several blows with the armor plates of his sleeves, and using his bow to parry another fast jagged strike so as to gain initiative. The beast’s swipe rebounded wide to allow Finn to tuck his bow across his chest and fire a point blank shot into the creature’s chest. As the creature fell, he jumped to land a foot on the creature’s horned shoulder, springing up and over it to land on the soil beyond.
Before he could balance himself, a large axe angled towards him, aimed straight at his head. Finn ducked desperately to avoid the blow, but his position left him exposed as another Charr lurched outwards with its shield to slam him against the face. The ranger toppled over, his back slamming into the ground. The white Charr before him looked down over him, its eyes pink and evil as it grinned with bloodthirsty malevolence.
Finn rocked on his back, shifting his weight onto the backs of his shoulders, to enable him to lift both his feet from the ground and place them against the furry chest of the towering beast. Bending his knees as the Charr loomed forward to strike, he pushed out at the last minute to kick the monster away from him. The Charr toppled backwards, its furred spine crashing into the tree trunk behind it. Clambering to his feet, Finn watched as the Charr tried to lift itself back towards the fray, only to find its back fastened against its own trap. The beast made to throw its axe at the ranger, but Finn raised his bow quickly, snapping a series of quick successive shots into the beast’s neck and chest to silence its roars.
To his side, the battle was delicately poised, with as many screams of pain from the guardsmen as there were roars of anguish from the Charr, and Finn watched as one of the men still on the carriage took a sickening blow across the face from a rusty machete. Finn turned to face the gangly brute that wielded the weapon, and the Charr sensed his approach, turning and swiping to heed the ranger away. Finn ducked, his right hand scooping a fistful of dusty soil from the barren ground, and hurling it into the beasts face. The Charr roared at the sting in its eyes, as it blindly searched for the ranger with clumsy swipes of its sword. Dodging and weaving between the blows, Finn readied another arrow, bending the string back at its most extreme length, before powering a deadly shot into the creature’s gut.
Before he had time to turn and choose his next opponent, a heavy object crashed into Finn’s side. Stumbling over and bouncing to the floor, he shook the dust from his eyes and looked down to see that the body of one of the swordmen had been thrown into him. Finn reached for his bow, but the weight of the soldier’s body pinned his weapon to the ground.
Two of the remaining Charr sensed his hopelessness and they stalked forwards. Frantically trying to retrieve his weapon, Finn watched one steady its blade whilst the other gripped apprehensively at its axe haft.
The Charr with the sword swung heavily in a downward chop towards his groin. Eyes wide in surprise, the ranger twisted on the ground and rolled to the side, leaving the blade to bite into the dust floor. No sooner had he rolled back into a position to look up, Finn noted the swipe of the other Charr’s axe heading his way, with the beast balking a strange series of angry roars at him. “Stand still, mutton!” The beast roared, “Me and mine needs feedin’!”
Finn scrambled backwards in a desperate effort to escape the brute, but without a way to defend himself, or a means to fight back, the ranger’s hopes were slowly fading. “I’m sure you could find better delicacies than a worn-out ranger,” Finn replied in hope.
“I ain’t fussy!” grinned the Charr, as it bounded forwards for the kill.
In mid-leap, the Charr was suddenly catapulted to the side as a great ball of fur and fangs leapt into it. Crashing to the side, Finn looked up in surprise to see Shadow Paw tearing and ripping at the Charr’s neck with its colossal claws. As the Charr screamed in terror, its sword wielding comapnion nearby zoned back in to attack.
Still without weapon, Finn climbed to his feet and back peddled away. Looking at his weapon that was far out of reach, Finn cursed. If he could get to his bow, the beast would be an easy kill.
As if on cue, two large burning arrows plunged into the Charr’s chest in quick succession, puncturing deep wounds into its body as flames licked up and around its neck fur. Howling in derision, the Charr staggered backwards in surprise. Guessing where the arrows had come from, Finn leapt towards the swordsman’s body nearby, hauling the warm corpse over to retrieve his flatbow in haste. Swifly notching another arrow, he turned to aim directly between the stumbling beasts eyes and released a thunderous missile into its forehead. The creature flipped backwards and crashed into the carriage beyond.
The heavy weight of the Charr’s body dropped the rear of the carriage to the floor like a see-saw. A number of swordsmen and Charr that were deep in melee on the other side catapulted into the air and crashed to the dirt like the fallen fruit of a tree.
“Oops,” muttered Finn, as he took stock of the situation. A number of Charr were deeply occupied in exchanging blows with the remaining guardsmen, but none of them seemed intent on the ranger at that time. Carefully and methodically he sent arrows into the fray to turn the tide of the battle. The sound of ripped flash and torn fur accompanied the parrying weapons of the combatant as one by one the Charr began to fall.
Noting that the battle was beginning to sway towards the favour of the humans, one of the Charr bolted from the scene, leaping over the fallen trunk and lurching away as fast as possible. Finn smiled assuredly, preparing to crippled the beast in its tracks, but reached over his shoulder to find that he had run out of arrows. “Bah!” The ranger turned to see if Shadow Paw could take pursuit but the lynx was no longer in view. Scanning the nearby rocks, the ranger looked for the animal and the woman that mastered it, but there was no sign of Tavari either. “Thanks, TT,” Finn whispered to himself, “where ever you are.”
The ranger was distracted by a series of cheers from the swordsmen as the last of the fighting Charr fell to the ground. The ranger joined up with the men, clapping them on the shoulders as they celebrated their hard-fought victory.
“Quick, let us gather the fallen and collect the bodies of the Charr,” Finn instructed, looking at the several albino corpses. Lady Aranoia should be happy with this haul, and that would mean a decent level of pay. Finn looked for the yak, but the giant beast had long fled from view. “Lets get the bodies back onto the carriage. We will have to pull it ourselves.”
The swordsmen let out a chorus of groans, but none refused, as they all knew it was the only way to get the bodies back to the main caravan. With their combat weary limbs complaining at every step, the men struggled back up the slope of the valley to finally reach the awaiting caravan moments before sundown.
“Marvellous, just marvellous,” Lady Aranoia grinned, clasping her hands together with glee. “I was worried that we would have to leave you out here, with the day waning. Such a shame that we lost a number of good men.” She smiled with satisfaction at Finn.
Less pay out for you, thought the ranger, as he stared back at her.
“The light of day is fast receding. Let us take the spoils and we can return to the comforts of our homes. Quick, men, before darkness takes hold, let us cut the fur from their flesh.”
Finn looked puzzled as Lady Aranoia instructed Leonard to hand out a number of crenellated knives to the men. One by one, the men took the knives as if it were part of their duty to obey. Finally, the young man offered a knife to the tall blond ranger. “You mean us to rip the fur from their corpses here?”
“Absolutely,” smiled Lady Aranoia from behind her son. “I can’t be taking fresh Charr bodies back to my home now, can I Mr. Ferral? Would you be so kind as to assist?”
Finn looked back at her with a expression of disgust. “I’d rather not.”
Clasping the shoulders of her son, Lady Aranoia looked back through her heavy eyelids with a bemused smile. “Suit yourself.”
Finn turned away, trying to occupy himself with the view of the fiery dying sun as the sounds of ripping and tearing echoed across the area. He noted a number of the swordmen laughing as they performed the vile task. A feeling of bile rose in his throat, but he suppressed it, knowing that he was associated with this ‘activity’ through desperation. Moments passed as he reflected back on his recent life, and he longed to be performing the heroic tasks of old as he had done when he helped fight for Ascalon’s glory. Finn sighed as he watched the declining light of the day. He had no choice now, but to do what ever he needed to do to survive.
“Grave news, Mr. Ferral.”
Finn turned to see that Lady Aranoia had approached him under the growing darkness. “I am sad to say we are short of a coat or two.”
“A coat?” Finn replied, confused.
“The albino hides.” She stated. “There are not quite enough for my Leonard’s armor.”
“I’m terribly sorry for you,” Finn replied, uncaring.
“One of the swordsmen mentioned that a Charr escaped from the battle.”
Finn rubbed at the sore bruise across his shoulders. “I have done what you have asked for me,” the ranger replied. “The day is old and I wish to return to the city with my pay.”
“Find me that Charr, Mr, Ferral, and I will pay you double.”
“Double?” The ranger looked surprised as Lady Aranoia smiled back. Six platinum just for hunting down a lone charr?
“I am desperate to make this armor, my dear ranger. No more delays. We will rest the caravan here and build a campfire. I will wait no more than two hours for your return. Find me this remaining Charr and you will be able to enjoy many comforts when we return to Ascalon.”
Finn scratched at the stubble across his face and tied his hair back with his leather band, before reaching for his quiver of arrows and his bow. “Two hours you say?” reconfirmed the ranger.
Lady Aranoia nodded.
“I will be back in one,” Finn called out, as he darted swiftly away into the darkness of the valley.
The tracks had led to a cave settled deep within one of the foothills. Finn waited behind an outcropping to study the entrance for several moments before deciding that the only way to be sure the lone Charr had fled to this location was to investigate himself. The clearing was covered in darkness now that night had fully settled, and only the absence of stars on the horizon informed Finn where the foothills bordered the area.
The ranger approached the cave slowly and noted a vast amount of bones scattered outside. Some were clearly human, whilst a variety of others types appeared to have been dropped haphazardly in the area – hog bones, and chicken he noted. Thought of the ambushed food caravans came to mind, and Finn bolstered his approaching as he realised he must have found the camping quarters of the albino Charr.
A low throated growl sounded nearby that put Finn into an immediate defensive stance. He peered around frantically to locate the source of the sound and finally settled his eyes towards a barely noticed pair of silhouette’s from across the way. One crouched on its fore-quarters whilst a diminutive female figure reached down to stroke its flank.
“Tavari,” Finn kept his voice low in the darkness.
“Off to kill the Charr in its bed, Finn?”
“This is no business of yours,” Finn retorted as he turned away from her judgmental look.
“Are you so desperate, Finn, that you need to do this?”
“What choice do I have? It’s my life. I don’t need help with it.”
“Like you didn’t need help earlier, in the valley?”
Finn cursed and brought his eyes down to the bow in his hand, as he inspected it nervously. “I didn’t ask you to follow me. Why do you need to be concerned about my life? I’m just a failure.”
“You’re a friend, Finn. The man I see before me is not the man I know. You are better than this.”
“Once,” Finn replied, as he prepared to enter the cave. “Once I was maybe. Not now.”
Tavari watched as the tall ranger ducked into the entrance of the cave, her lips parting to release a deep sigh as she shook her head. Shadow Paw whined as the great cat licked at her hand. “I should put a broad headed arrow to that guys skull, and see which of the two is the thickest,” she commented to the cat, who purred in agreement.