Chapter 24 - The Guide

Torfinn’s abject gratitude left Roland feeling awkward and searching for words.

“Thank you… I only did what anyone would have done… There’s no need for apologies…”  Roland just rattled off a series of humble words, until Torfinn waved his hand and cut him off.

“Come!  Let’s go see what can be looted from the bandits!”  Torfinn decided to just cut things off there, letting Roland relax a little.

Back in the main living space of the bandit cave, Roland found an anxious Luke.

“Sir Roland!  Dame Sheira found a noble insignia among the things of those fifth-tier bandits!”

What?  Where is she?”

Luke led Roland and Torfinn, who had just come up the stairs with Roland, into the bandit leader’s room, where Dame Sheira was waiting.  There were no words that needed to be said, she simply gestured at a nearby table, where a number of things like shirts, tabards, a decorative shield, and a small banner could be seen. 

Roland rushed over to examine them.  They all followed the same color scheme, dark red with a prominent design of an orange four-petaled flower.  Roland knew who this sigil signified.  He carefully looked over each item to be sure, then muttered, “Marquis Grandison…”

“Who’s that?”  asked Torfinn from behind him.

“A landed noble just on the other side of the Frozen Mountains.  If these bandits had their hands on his sigil, then that means they were likely knights in his service.”  Roland frowned.

Fortunately, Torfinn didn’t seem particularly angry.  The bandits were dead, and that was what counted, for now at least. 

“I won’t make that big a deal out of this, knight, on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“When you return south, you bring justice to this ‘Grandison’.”

“Of course.  I will report his activities to those with the power to sanction him.  My kingdom considers your tribe to be a friend, and his hostile actions against the king’s friends will not be tolerated.”

“… I suppose that’s the best I’m going to get, isn’t it?”  Torfinn sighed.  Well, the bandits were gone, and the pass they used to come north would be easily sealed by a few mountain scouts causing some avalanches.  There were more immediate problems in the west of the vale, so it was best to just leave it at that.

Torfinn and the knights left the cave.  The warriors were relaxing and celebrating their victory, but the villagers weren’t so happy.  It was true that they had been saved, but almost every adult man had been killed when the bandits raided their village, so things were going to be hard for a while.

Roland and the knights went to relax but were pulled into the modest victory celebrations with the warriors, joining the men-at-arms who had already been dragged over.  Sir Roger was the only exception, as he was busy tending to the bodies of the two fallen men-at-arms, as both had been his.  He made a crude sleigh, like what Artorias and Leon used to carry their furs and lifted the two bodies onto it.

Torfinn, meanwhile, spoke to the village elder, promising that all the food and silkgrass that the bandits had looted would be returned.  A brief inventory taken by Harald indicated that there would plenty of loot left over afterward, so Torfinn wasn’t worried about feeding his war party after the few supplies they brought with had been used.

“Freyja!”  The warriors had collected the bodies, and a few were busy burning them.  Freyja was supervising them, but when she heard Torfinn’s call, she quickly ran over.

Torfinn watched as the fire slowly spread over the bodies of his warriors for a moment, before turning to Freyja.  “How many did we lose?”

“Seventy-two.  But the Thunderbirds now lead them to the Sky Mother atop three hundred and ninety-five slain bandits.”

 “They feast with their ancestors tonight.  As for us, let’s rest a little for the rest of the night, and get going by morning.  I want to bring the villagers home by midday, and then we hurry back to Vale Town.  I doubt Hakon Fire-Beard has made a move in the three days we’ve been gone, but we still ought to return as soon as possible.”

“Right.  We’ll get to it.”

By now, the moon had reached its zenith and was beginning its descent.  The warriors were quite tired, having stayed awake for so long, so the victory celebrations died down after less than an hour, as everyone fell asleep.

Roland was one of the last to close his eyes, as he was looking for Artorias, but it seemed that the man and his son had disappeared after the battle.  Even the squires didn’t notice when Leon had left, and he had been right next to them during the battle.

Roland simply sighed and decided to give up trying to talk with Artorias, as the man clearly didn’t want to talk to anyone else.  The paladin lay down next to his knights and allowed himself to drift off to sleep.

But Artorias and Leon weren’t too far away.  They had left the fort, and were now in the nearby forest, resting among the trees.  If anyone wanted to look for them, it wouldn’t have been too difficult, as they even had a small fire burning, to stave off the nighttime chill that descends upon the Northern Vales.

“You fought admirably, little lion.  I couldn’t be more proud.”  Artorias beamed at his son, while Leon grew bright red from embarrassment, as he had never been able to take compliments very well.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“How do you feel about it?  Your first battle, I mean.”

Leon calmed down, and his face shifted from pure embarrassment to a more subdued smile.

“… It was exhilarating.  I was scared the whole time, and my heart nearly leaped out my chest from how fast it was beating, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so… I don’t know, it’s hard to describe.”

“I understand.  After my first battle, I was so amped up that I could hardly sit still for the next week.  It wasn’t even that large a thing, either, just a few of my father’s knights and myself, facing down two dozen highwaymen.  I think you even killed more bandits today than I did back then.”

“Oh?  How long ago was that?”

“About seventeen or eighteen years ago, I think.  I wasn’t too much older than you, at the time.  In fact, after it was over, the man I was squiring for knighted me, and I left the Great Plateau not too long after that…  Anyways, you did a fantastic job.  You even fought alongside those squires!  You’ve definitely earned that sword.”  Artorias glanced at the sword that Leon still held, and the younger man held it a little closer with a proud smile on his face.

The two settled in for the rest of the night and left late in the morning.  They woke up when the war party marched down the path alongside the villagers but didn’t start the journey until after they had some good breakfast.  It would take the war party three more days or so before they would return to Vale Town, but the two of them could move much faster without the first-tier and below warriors that Torfinn had with him, so they weren’t going to rush.

When they did finally start moving, they left at a brisk pace, reaching the village not long after the war party, but they didn’t stay.  Instead, they continued onward and arrived at a large hill a few miles away from Vale Town by the end of the day.  They waited there for two days, spending those days training and meditating until they could see the war party on the horizon.

Artorias nodded his head towards the returning warriors, and once Leon was ready, they left the hill without saying a word.

The warriors returned to Vale Town, and the entire city succumbed to the celebratory attitude and was partying by the evening.  Even the priests came out of their temples to celebrate with the chief.

Torfinn had organized a small feast for the best of his warriors and had begun giving out rewards for the warriors who distinguished themselves in the battle.  Of course, Artorias and Leon were nowhere to be seen, as parties weren’t their thing, but Torfinn didn’t mind, he’d already spoken to Artorias for a few minutes after arriving at his longhouse.  Roland’s party was present, however, and were even drinking with the warriors, a far cry from just a week ago when everything had been done to make them feel unwelcome.

In a rare moment, Torfinn had decided to break out his big chair and sat in a small raised alcove that was usually blocked from view by a thin curtain.  He didn’t much like sitting so far from his warriors, as celebrating with them couldn’t be done when he separated himself but doling out rewards demands a certain etiquette that he didn’t want to break.

“Niklas!  Come forward!”  Torfinn’s booming voice was heard even over the drunk merchants and rowdy warriors.  In response, one of the drunkest and rowdiest of the warriors came forward, stopping before Torfinn.

“You killed over fifteen of those bandits, this merits a great reward!”  The watching warriors shouted and roared in approval, while the merchants and priests clapped and stamped their feet. 

Torfinn reached into a box right beside his chair and pulled out a metal band.  “I give you this, an enchanted iron arm ring I found in the bandit cave.  I had those knights take a look at it, and it seems that this thing can slightly amplify the magic flowing through your arm, strengthening the effect of that magic.”  Torfinn held out the arm ring, and Niklas gratefully accepted it, to the applause of the rest of the crowd.  He quickly rejoined his fellows after thanking the chief.

Torfinn looked directly at Roland and waved him over.  “Now, then, Sir Knight, you come forward.”

Roland looked a little hesitant but came forward anyway.

“I must give you a reward for your assistance in dealing with those bandits.  Tell me, what can I do for you?”

Roland gave the chief a smile and a curt reply.  “Your friendship and that guide you promised is all the reward necessary.”

“Nonsense!  I must give you something, or what would my warriors think of me?”  Torfinn smiled down at Roland, and the warriors around the hall began stomping their feet and making noise, supporting Torfinn rewarding Roland and his party.

Roland looked back at his knights, and they all smiled and nodded at him.  “Very well, Chief Torfinn, if you insist, then perhaps a couple bundles of silkgrass?”

Torfinn laughed uproariously, as did most of the hall.  “A couple?  I’ll give each of your people three large bundles, how about that?”

Roland sighed.  He truly didn’t want a reward, he only wanted to find some Heartwood amber. 

“You’re too kind.”

“As for your guide, I’ve already spoken to him.  He’ll be heading east tomorrow morning, so wait at the temple on the largest hill in that direction, and he’ll meet you there a couple hours after dawn.  I wouldn’t delay too long in getting there, either, as this man won’t wait too long for you.”

Only now did Roland feel some joy.  A relieved expression broke out on his face, and he stepped back from Torfinn.  The entire rest of the hall had gone silent when Torfinn brought up their guide and where he would be taking them, however, Roland didn’t seem to notice.

After Roland rejoined his party at their table, Torfinn continued handing out rewards.

“Freyja!  Asbjorn!  Come forward!  I give each of you one of these ruby rings from the bandit leader.  They supposedly store magic, supplementing your own magic reserves in battle…”

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Roland and his party rose at dawn.  Torfinn graciously accepted their request to have someone watch over the bodies of their two comrades who fell during the battle, so there were a few warriors around the storehouse as they left.

“Sir, the chief didn’t ever tell you where this guide would be taking us, did he?”  Luke had taken note of the reactions of the tribesmen the previous night.  He noticed their tightening faces and their slightly fearful looks.

“Nothing specific, he only said ‘east’.”

“Hmmm.  Those tribesmen were acting odd when he told you where to meet the guide.  I’ve just got a bad feeling about this…”

Roland frowned and looked pensive for a moment.

“Hey, this guy isn’t losing his nerve, is he?”  Adrianos, the noble man-at-arms, asked from behind with a playful tone.

“What?  No, I’m just a little put off by their behavior.”  Luke hurriedly defended himself.

“Don’t worry, boy.  We’ll get this done and be back south in proper civilization in no time.”  Adrianos threw his arm around Luke’s shoulders and pulled back with the other men-at-arms.

Luke’s words weren’t easily dismissed from Roland’s mind, though.  He didn’t pay much attention to the other warriors in the hall, but Luke was quite perceptive, and he wouldn’t exaggerate these things.  If he felt the need to speak up, then he must really be feeling apprehensive.

But, Roland was a paladin, and he had a job to do.  He would trust that Torfinn was above board for now, and if anything too shady happened, they would return to Vale Town and have words with the chief.

There was a cluster of hills just to the east of Vale Town, and on the largest, the tribesmen had built a small temple of stone.  It had a roof open to the sky and was filled with various carved statues, most of various legendary warriors, but there was one in the back of the temple, directly next to the sacrificial altar that drew Roland’s eyes.  This statue wasn’t as large as the others, but it was far more intricately carved.  It was of a large bird taking flight with a horned serpent in its talons.  Every scale and feather was visible, and Roland couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of detail put into this statue.  Nothing else in the temple was particularly noteworthy to the party, as they had all seen so much more in the south, but this statue was almost lifelike, and it captivated Roland.

The temple was empty when they arrived.  Roland surmised that the promised guide simply hadn’t arrived yet, so he spent his time admiring this bird statue.  It wasn’t obvious to him what the bird was, but it was clearly of importance to the tribesmen given its workmanship and place of prominence.

“That is the Thunderbird, a holy symbol to the Valemen.”  A voice rang out through the temple from behind Roland.  He spun to see who the speaker was and found Artorias and Leon staring back at him from the temple entrance.

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Chapter 25 - Going East

Chapter 23 - The Raid II