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  1. Counting sheep
  2. The Horn
  3. Into the trees
  4. Forest
  5. What's going on?
  6. There's trouble in't woods
  7. Cavalry to the rescue
  8. Gladiators' Salute
  9. Fleeing!
  10. Thundering Hooves - A new threat?
  11. Hastur's Ride
  12. Aftermath
  13. Foresighted?

1 - Counting sheep

The cool wind ruffles the surface of Frog River, sending sparkles of light glinting brightly in on this warm earth season day. Tabiti sits in Thunder's saddle over the bluffs supporting Dracostead's earth ramparts and watches the sheep and cattle graze placidly, shading her eyes from the sun letting her horse crop the lush riverside grass.

Ferik and Orlfinn toil in the fields, it's harvest and Petronax's miraculous harvesting machine has failed to materialise, but as they hadn't really expected it to they reap the long grain with their scythes and swap cheerful banter while Orlfinn's brood of children rush about, stacking and bailing the grain in readiness for carting it back to the stead. Bane supervises the support work as there's only two scythes at present, but all take part in the sweaty, dusty work, and drink river cooled ale at lunchtime in compensation. Groom chugs along beside, watching the veteran farmers effortlessly (it seems) handle their tools and turn the field into stubble. Starhawk hawks in the nearby fields, sending his eagle after flights of wood doves and then disputing the catch with the big bird. Surrounding this pastoral vignette is the strikingly green forest above which rears the eternally snow clad peaks of the torbaros mountains, the gorge falls away towards Billini and The Aggar, while beyond the edges of vision the menace of Dorastor broods.

Tabiti frowns, her face is set in a serious look for one so young and she counts the sheep once more. With the losses of the dark season storms still thinning the herd and flock she's especially vigilant now that lambing has come and the young animals frolic around their mothers.

Yes, there's one missing.

A look of disgust appears on her freckling face, one the stupid creature's wandered off yet again, probably stuck in a thorn thicket in one of the Foul Spirit Lakes ravines or wandering up the cool creek towards the infinitely dangerous Spider Woods.

Sweat from her hot perch trickles down her cheek as she glances around, trying to find the miscreant. Tabiti lets Thunder shift into a gentle canter as she passes through the fringe of trees at the mouth of the platau and beyond the farming area. Under the cool canopy Tabiti follows the path for a short way, not prepared to let the entire flock scatter if the shadow of Starhawk's eagle passes over the flock but not happy to lose another ewe either.

The afternoon sun sends beams of light slanting through the trees and onto the dappled undergrowth, Tabiti sits her horse like a centaur and scans around until she picks up movement out of the corner of her eye.


There, is not a sheep.

There, just twenty yards away, is a man.

A man with a sword.

He turns and flings himself through the undergrowth, down towards the creek.

A stranger: an enemy! Her heart pounds: fear is instinctively transmuted to rage, and the arrow she had nocked as she rode is drawn back to her cheek.

And then she pauses. No. Think before you attack. That was what the Vingans had been trying to teach her. Think... but just attacking was so much easier!

He's fleeing: fleeing from her! That makes a nice change.... no need to prove anything. Except to herself, of course. Think. He's got a sword. Might have a bow. But no mount. Can't let him near the herds, or the stead, children are in the near field.... ah yes, she's not alone. That still comes as a shock. She can... call for help... no! Call a warning. So the weak ones can get to shelter in their rabbit-holes.

She relaxes her arrow-arm, lifts the horn she carries at her saddle-bow and blows it. Not very musical, she isn't very good at it, but a nice loud HONK that carries for miles. There. Now to deal with this enemy.

She nudges Thunder down the slope, careful of his feet as she leaves the path. The man can't out-run her, or her arrows, as long as her horse is sound, and she sees no reason to get into melee range with him. Just herd him. Away from the sheep, and the stead.

He must have crossed the little creek to get here: she runs through the crossing points in her mind. It was running low in this hot weather: could she take Thunder across it wherever she liked, or would she have to follow the trail?

Moving the swordsman round to the west so as to pin him between herself and Starhawk would be good, if she could do it...

2 - The Horn

Starhawk's head comes up as the note of the horn rises low and dolorous over the fields and trees. Slipping his hand to his belt he finds the large raptors hood and slips it over its head, waiting a moment till it quiets. He scans the nearby trees to the northwest, then to the south-east, knowing that a stealthy approach could utilise the gully to the south of him and then the treeline there to get close to the stead.

He has never liked that southern copse for that reason and curses himself for forgetting to mention it to Petronax. Still the horn was to the north. But still...

He continues to back off to Polaris, dreading the sound of a bow string snapping from cover, ready to drop to the turf if he hears it.

The large golden stallion has stopped grazing with the winding of the horn, indeed it snorts and stamps and wanders over to Starhawk, who almost bumps into his mount so intent is he on scanning the nearby foliage as suspiciously as any cavalryman who ever lived. Starhawk gently places the Eagle on its mount, by the pommel and mounts up.

In the saddle he draws his bow from its case and nocks an arrow. Using his knees he wheels Polaris around in a tight circle, then heads off at a gallop in the direction of the horn blast, angling off in the direction of the farthest field from the stead so as to have an intercept angle on anything coming in fast.

"Maintain distance.."

Pulling up short to angle his bow down on anything waiting for him at the gulley edge.

"Hope it's not more Scorpion Men. I hate Scorpion men." he mutters..

Bane reacts to the horn, instinctively grabbing his weapons whilst scanning the fringes of the wood. He looks across at Groom and nods, and then sprints towards the woods, at the fringe of the woods his pace slows, attempting to hide his approach from whatever maybe attacking.

He is currently stripped down to the waist, his torso and arms a masterpiece of intricate scars and old wounds. Circular scar tissue intertwined with footlong rake marks, each tells its own story, a badge of indentity from each terrible demon which has sought to tear its own name into his very body, a victory tattoo to each blow that Bane has inflicited against the evils of the night. Amongst them ritual scars and old wounds that show his own shadowy path within the twilight of his destiny.

His concentration however is firmly upon his surroundings, shifting his approach so that he circles to his left, giving him a flanking position on anything that maybe running this way. His eyes scan through the trees , watching for some movement that would give the attackers away. He does not see the dead branch below his foot as he sidesteps around an oak tree until it is too late and snaps with a loud crack as he steps upon it. Under his breath he curses and freezes his body, hoping he has not given his position away before he is ready to attack. He watches the wood waiting for the movement, slowly moving his head to scan around himself to check. after a few moments he begins to move off again, keeping his eyes peeled as he does so.

Groom drops the traces of the plough and runs across to where his weapons belt hangs across the stead's dry stone wall. Pausing only to fasten it around his waist - he dog trots after his fellow Uroxi. As he does so he pulls his shortsword from its scabbard. The battleaxe that hangs from the other side of his weaponsbelt taps against his hip as he runs.

In from of him he sees Bane slow, then slip in amongst the trees and out of sight.

Groom reaches the treeline and pauses. With eyes alert to hostile movement he prepares to follow Bane. He frees his axe from its holder. Then making a swift and silent prayer to his ancestors and the Gods that watched over them - he moves forward.

Hearing the Horn call, Orlfinn looks towards the sound then springs into action. "Get the children and animals into the stead quickly! Hastur you get the herd in I'll be along shortly, Orlkall take Thyra back to the stead now, tell your mother and Petronax to watch the gates. Now son." watching his two children head for the stead Orlfinn turns and moves to help Hastur get the animals in.

Seeing Bane and Groom race off, "Heler's balls come back here and get the animals into the stead!" he shouts knowing the shout would be futile as the two uroxi race off.

Rastorlanth makes sure that the people are taking care of the herd, and then he grabs his weapons and shield and runs towards the place where he heard the horn blowing, eager to know in what kind of danger the stead is this time.

Starhawk is in full armour, not exactly suitable for undergrowth fighting. He has been wearing each it day, practically falling over from exhaustion by the time he gets to his bed.

He keeps back from the edge and listens for movement, while scanning the woods across the gully in front of him. He's basically keeping his horse hull down, using the flatness of the hill to aid him. An enemy would have no problem seeing him though, having a good view of his head and chest.

With the hot weather, the cool plateau stream is much lower, not much over knee height. It has a rocky, pebbled bed, some rocks being quite large. Moss can make the stones slippery.

The arm of the Frog River is quite deep, only the ford at the east branch of the northern track is crossable, and that with some risk as it's not really a ford. The arm of the river that is fed by the plateau creek is also very deep, and is the old course of the river, this is an oxbow lake (or a billabong if you're from Oz)

3 - Into the trees

Tabiti hefts her bow before urging Thunder cautiously into the thickets. The unknown man, long hair flying behind him, dashes through the bushes and splashes across the creek before beginning to ascend the other bank. He turns you a startled look, his eyes wide to see Tabiti's bow, and scrambles up the other side.

Tabiti registers this with some disgust: he'd started running away before he even knew she was armed?

She notices he's quite young, despite his long moustaches trailing on either side of his shaven chin. Thunder stands on the stead side of the creek allowing Tabiti to decide if she should cross the creek and chase the man or not.

He's a nice easy target from here.

Then hazy memories of her lessons in How Orlanthi Do Things come back. Something about a "greeting"? And it wasn't meant to be "the next arrow goes two inches higher". She can't remember the proper words, but...

"Who are you? What're you doing here?" she calls in Trade.

Thunder is stationary: her arrow is part-drawn ready to draw fully and loose in an instant if the stranger moves towards her.

Bane continues through the trees, mace and shield in hand, the smattering of sunlight filtering through the trees seemingly adding camouflage to his scarred and bared upper torso. His attempts to move silently seem to have more effect as he hunts down his unknown prey.

A voice shouts through the trees, he stops for a moment and then recognises it at as Tabiti's. "Hmm, from the creek", he thinks changing tack as he does so to come out along the bank down stream of where he reckons her position to be. As he comes out of the woods and on to the near bank he sees her, bow half drawn aimed at the man on the opposite bank. Staying low he creeps nearer trying not to draw attention to himself.
"No need to steal her thunder yet", he thinks.

Rastorlanth runs armorless through the woods, with an as yet unloaded crossbow in his hands. A sword is hanging on his hip and a shield strapped on his back. As he runs, the leaves of low branches flap across his face and shoulders. His eyes dart around the surroundings, looking for any sign of danger.

Hastur, who has been in the field with the others, helps ensure that the animals are safely herded back to the stead and that all of the stead gets back safely. Being unfamiliar with the surrounding terrain he decides to watch from the wall, with his bow ready, listening for danger or for another sound from the horn.

Tabiti stands Thunder, nonplussed. The man, no more than 16 summers old, has scrambled over the top of the far bank and into the trees opposite, disappearing.

Rastorlanth, Bane and Groom run through the trees: seeing Tabiti on her horse at the riverbank, they angle towards her. Nearby, Starhawk has galloped his horse up to the trees, Rastorlanth, Groom and Bane have sprinted straight in.

Hastur and Orlfinn have started moving the herd and flock into the stead, but it's a laborious process. Orlfinn attempts to hurry it along as quickly as he can. "Damn fools! They should know better than to rush off like that. Hastur more to the left we'll get then in soon enough then I intend on following them."

Tabiti pauses for long enough for the others to get within talking range. "A man with a sword: he ran, though. That way."

Standing in her stirrups, she aims at the rapidly disappearing man and snaps off a shot. The arrow whips off the bow and sinks up to the flights in the small of the young man's back, tumbling the man forward into the brush as he lets out a broken screech and his sword goes flying.

"But he's not running now", she says a little smugly. "Disarmed, but might not be dead: be careful. If you cross the creek, I'll cover you. I didn't see a bow, but you never know."

She stands in the stirrups again, a second arrow nocked, looking for signs of movement in the undergrowth to point out to them.

Bane glances towards where Tabiti points then wades across the creek, shield raised. On the far bank he scans for tracks of where the man ran. With out a word he follows them, hoping to continue through the brush until he comes across the prostrate figure and scan him over for any sign of life.

Groom follows behind his fellow Uroxi and wades through the low waters of the stream. Then (wishing that he had been able to grab either armour or his shield) he checks the surrounding scrub for signs of any other interlopers. Bane appears to have found the tracks of the stranger so Groom follows softly behind him - checking the surrounding bush for any sign of an ambush.

Rastorlanth loads his crossbow and follows some distance behind Bane leaving open space for Tabiti to shoot at the intruder. He scans the surroundings for any sign of more foes.

Starhawk is still on the opposite side of the ox bow lake. On horseback he is using the lip of the of the hill for cover against the lower terrain on the other side. He looks down to see what can be seen.

4 - Forest

Bane and Groom splash across the icy stream, the slippery stones making footing difficult. They scrabble up and over the streambank and into the brush before slithering to a halt. Gathered around the body of the young man is about half a dozen men, some wearing leather armour or light chain, some not wearing armour at all, but all are armed. Up the slope and further in amongst the trees are another two to three dozen men, crouching in the woods and staring at the tableaux below them, obviously the men grouped around the young man's corpse have been sent down to check him out.

Bane crouches amongst the undergrowth attempting to remain hidden for the moment whilst taking careful note of the half dozen men around the still form of the younger man, arrow shaft still protruding from his back. " Hmmmm," he thinks motioning to Groom the presence of party in the trees, "could probably take the ones around the corpse, but I'd lay silver on the fact that there is some bows training from there." Bane continues to watch the men around the body carefully waiting to see what happens next.

Bane attempts to fade into the undergrowth, watching for the inevitable eyes that might be following his movements. Keeping low as he is able he begins to circle round sneaking up to where the other two dozen men are. "At worst," he thinks too himself unsure of how the others will react, "this will distract them away from the others, but if Urox smiles this day then they won't be able to ambush the rest of us so easily, and I'll be able to get behind them and bows ain't much use hand to hand."

Tabiti sits her horse with an arrow nocked. Beside her Rastorlanth is spanning his crossbow with a grunt and is bent over his bow, the forest is silent and the noise of the stream blankets out most of any other sounds. She can see Groom and Bane, but nothing beyond them.

She's still tense, but exultation has drived out the fear. He had run from her. That was... nice! Satisfying. And that had been a good shot, too. He wouldn't be any more trouble.... but she stays alert anyway, out of habit. As Groom and Bane cross the stream, she watches the undergrowth beyond them intently: would the strange warrior attack them? They move beyond easy sight, and she listens, annoyed by the noise of the stream. This place has too much water...

Surely they should have found him by now? And said something? A vague feeling of unease starts to cramp her stomach, and is firmly suppressed. She rises in the stirrups again, trying to see further up the far bank. "What're they doing?" she mutters, half to herself, half to Rastorlanth. Thunder, picking up his rider's impatience, stamps a foot nervously.

Rastorlanth, oblivious to any kind of danger, seems preoccupied fighting his own weapon. "I don't know..." he mumbles,"...this stupid crossbow..."

Starhawk's horse snorts as he stares down the overgrown stream, the bright sunlight glitters off the water and a soft cascade of leaves drifts through the air. He is still too far from the rest to be able to communicate.

Orlfinn and Hastur are slowly getting the flock in, the children have managed the more tractable cattle but the stupid sheep are proving problematic, trying to dart away from the flock or standing idiotically despite even pushing and steering.

5 - What's going on?

Starhawk looks down along the slopes and the calm waters of the ox-bow. He frowns, seeing nothing of interest there.

"At least there was nothing lying in wait for me." he murmurs. No the horn was more to the northeast. Looking the other way he can see Orlfinn and one other, Hastur he thinks, moving the animals towards the stead.

Reins tucked discretely into his bow hand he wheels Polaris in a circle and towards the stead path. Orlfinn would know more, allowing him to know exactly what he was getting into. Riding obliquely to the stead, not turning his back fully on the trees behind him Starhawk rides around to Orlfinn and Hastur still in the open..

"What is it?" he asks...

Hastur busy trying to herd the stubborn beasts, doesn't notice the golden one ride up on his horse. He looks up eventually, to see and hear Starhawk query them on what was happening.

"I'm not entirely sure... damn animal... we heard the horn sound over that direction... we decided to get the animals to safety but the others ran into the forest to investigate. We haven't heard anything unusual since then, although I thought I heard a yell, but its hard to hear anything over the bleating of these infernal animals..."

Hastur grabs one of the sheep and gives it a hard shove in the direction of the pen.

Orlfinn looks up at Starhawk as he picks up a sheep and turns it around to face the right direction. "Bane, Groom and Rastorlanth went running off that way so it must have been Tabiti blowing the horn. We're getting the beasts inside it may be cattle raiders or worse more damn chaospawn. Heler's balls git moving straight you dumb bastard! Not you Starhawk these blasted animals, damn I wish we had some herding cats to help."

Starhawk grins at that. Though there remains an element of doubt on his face as to the object of Orlfinn's venom, touchy bastard that he is.

The big farmer shakes his head "Oh if it is cattle raiders, your an outlander and probably don't know, well they won't be carrying bows, only a war party would. So if you use one against them it'll mean feud between the clans. I hope the rest of them know that. You'd best head that way and see what's going on, we'll be along as soon as we can."

Starhawk wheels Polaris in a tight circle, answering as he does so..

"Well right now, it seems that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. I'll try and find out and get some word back. I hate not knowing what the problem is. Forewarned being forearmed and all.."

"Still, thanks for the word on cattle raiding. I have no experience of such matters."

"Orlfinn.. Hastur.." he says by way of a polite goodbye.

Starhawk's trademark grin flits across his face, not being able to meet the soldierly stern demeanor for more than a second or so.

As Starhawk rides away Orlfinn shouts "Keep an eye on me daughter! She has a talent for finding trouble!" He grins and waves at the fast moving sun worshipper. "An watch yer own arse!"

Starhawk shouts back.. "I will. I always do, whatever she thinks."

A moment later and Polaris is galloping in the direction of trouble, hooves throwing up clods of turf from the path. Starhawk's armour glinting in the sunlight.

6 - There's trouble in't woods

Slowly Groom eases up and into the resting stance of a trained fighter. His weapons seems to hang limply from his hands but perhaps something behind those brown eyes signifies, to an alert observer, a latent urge to violence. He watches Bane out of the corner of his eye - whatever his partner did - Groom would follow in an instant. Almost absentmindedly he wonders if this was to be the day he'd rejoin his family. A slow smile lights up his face...... and he waits.

Bane currently has his mace and shield to hand but no other armour and is try to fade back into the undergrowth so as to move around quietly to the men up on the ridge, having just ran into the underbrush after the man Tabiti shot. "Nice shot", he thinks.

Hastur and Orlfinn were still herding the last of the sheep into their enclosure, so Hastur still has a fistful of wool. Hastur plans on following the lead of the big farmer since he is very unfamiliar with the surroundings. He has no armour besides his leather. His sword is nearby laying on the ground.

A hush has fallen over the woods, the young man shot has fallen without making more than a soft moan, dead leaves fall softly through the sylvan twilight under the trees and add a surreal air to the whole situation.

Groom and Bane have come into sight of a large party of armed men by cresting the rise beyond the creek, together they have slowly moved backwards towards the creek slowly but have inevitably been seen by many of the group of men. While most were further back amongst the trees, some hade crept up to where the body of the young man had fallen in a grotesque tangle in a bed of ferns, they stare at Bane and Groom with a venomous hate.

Tabiti and Rastorlanth can see Groom and Bane carefully moving back into the creekbed, they have the attitude of men who've seen something large and very dangerous.

She tenses, glances down at Rastorlanth: he isn't even looking! "They're coming back: looks like trouble. You ready?"

She draws the arrow partway, ready to drop the first target to present itself, and acutely aware that the woods are too dense for horses, and Thunder is not battletrained.

Rastorlanth raises his head and nods. "Ready, but I don't see anyone." Still, he trusts Tabiti and looks around intently, trying to locate a target.

A roar of outrage erupts from the warriors in the woods as the impact of the scene sinks in, they begin to leap to their feet with glaring eyes and knotted fists, rapidly they begin to snatch weapons up from where they've been left close to hand, howling war cries and calling on Orlanth, Humakt and Urox to smite their foes.

Thunder shies slightly and rolls his eyes, the transition from serene woods to battlecry has spooked him but not enough to buck, rear or bolt.

For ten long seconds the chorus of howls, war cries and horrified laments echo through the trees as the warriors stream out of the trees to where the body of the man lies, those closest to the stream look down and point to you adjusting your defensive posture with their weapons.
"Here they are!"

Rastorlanth stands in a visible position and shouts a traditional Orlanthi greeting. "Stop, Orlanthi! We have common enemies here! We cannot afford to fight each other! Stop your charge and you will be spared!"

Unfortunately, Rastorlanth is not able to summon the oratorial presence of a seasoned warrior in the face of this sudden enemy, and his voice lacks enough conviction to halt the enemy.

One of the men at the top of the bank bellows back "You have slain my brother! Blood for blood!" and a half dozen fighters leap down the bank to engage Bane and Groom.

It's now with horror that Tabiti and Rastorlanth see exactly how many of the enemy there are, it appears to be a large raiding party of easily thirty warriors . . .

She goes white and mutters something in Pentan* under her breath then looses an arrow at the first available target, being careful to choose one well away from Bane and Groom.

Then they're almost on her: she automatically turns Thunder to ride clear, starts to reach a hand down to pull Rastorlanth up behind her, then stops. Four to thirty is bad, two to thirty will be worse, and Bane and Groom aren't mounted. She drops her bow into the quiver at her saddlebow, and draws her spear.

"Aaarggh, stuff it," says Bane, half to himself half to Groom readying mace and shield as he does so. A small smile flickers across the corner of his mouth.

"Let's hope Urox is still smiling on you eh Groom," he jokes as he takes a few steps down the bank, mace brought back to strike the first one over the ridge.

" Death is my constant companion, " roars Bane, now commited to a short but bloody battle, his death seemingly impending and inevitable.
"Come let us dance, and we will send you to join him", his mace head drawn to smash the first unfortunate to reach him, shield ready to parry the incoming blows.

1 Now you know the Pentan for "ohsh*tohsh*tohsh*twereallgoingtodie"

7 - Cavalry to the rescue

Starhawk momentarily halts at the howl of hate erupting from the trees.

Orlfinn and Hastur glance at each other, they have to decide whether to continue to try and save about 1/5th of the flock or run for the steading, the cattle and the families are now safe within the walls but have not managed to man the walls in any way.

Polaris ploughs to a halt in a storm of flying turf.. “Yelm’s Blood!” swears Starhawk, completely astonished by the rising warcries from the woods. Sparing a glance behind him to where Orlfinn and others are trying to get the herd inside a whirl of thoughts flit through his soldier's mind..

Those in the woods would need help getting out. The stead needed to be organized for the defence. Torn between the two Starhawk decides, men would die either way, all he could hope for was the lesser of two evils.

He turns Polaris back to the stead, the cavalry stallions forelegs rising clear of the ground as it accelerated at its master’s urging..

“Orlfinn, leave the sheep get someone on a horse and send them to the nearest stead. Make sure these bastards, whoever they are, see the rider leave. Might give them pause. Wind the horns, hurry.”

With that he pulls Polaris around in a tight turn and races back towards the woods. He puts an arrow in his bow..

‘Emperor Yelm, don’t let them be waiting for me just inside there.”

"Heler's Balls! Hastur get your sword and run for the stead, get a horse ready and ride for help, try the Burrison's first then the Soderfall's. I'll try to keep the sheep moving as much as I can," yells Orlfinn as he pulls his horn to his lips and begins to blow.

Starhawk lies almost on the neck of his horse, it's about 500m to the woods and Polaris stretches his legs and hammers over the turf.

Orlfinn winds the alarm horn. Its long plaintive note echoes off the hillsides, the sheep bleat in alarm but Orlfinn's skill with animals keeps them headed towards the steading.

At the stead, Parthak looks up at the call of the horn and comes out into the steadyard, the cattle are being driven in and wild calls of alarms and hornblowing in the woods grates his ears. He grabs his weapons and rush to the gate thinking to close it once all the cattle and steadpeople are through and defend it if there is a need.

Starhawk continues racing there at not quite breakneck speed. His eyes scan the treeline furiously, his blood is pounding in his ears. He's scared, the warcries sounded bad. "Oh Yelm, watch over me. My honour, my life.."

Hastur hesitates for a second or two; his first reaction in NOT to leave the scene of a battle especially when the nature of the foe is unknown. "Are you sure ?" he asks as he moves to pick up his sword and attach the belt around his waist.

Hastur heads to the stable, and gets on the closest, fit looking, horse he can find. "Still unfamiliar with the area Hastur yells out to Orlfinn, "Which direction to the Burrison's stead ?"

He urges the horse to the direction indicated by the farmer.

8 - Gladiators' Salute

The quiet woods are rent with war cries, inarticulate bellows and the clash of arms. Sprinting across the carpet of dead leaves and ferns, the weight of the raiding party slams into the two staunch members of Dracostead, determined not to give a backwards step.

Firstly, Tabiti and Rastorlanth loose almost simultaneously, the high pitched twang of the bow is counterpointed by the harsh, metallic snap of the crossbow. Tabiti sits her restive mount and sends an arrow into the seething mass of humanity bearing down on Groom and Bane. The broadheaded shaft slices into the knee of an onrushing raider and sends him tumbling down the streambank. Rastorlanth speads his feet inti a braced stance and squeezes the tricker of his crossbow the vireton whips off the bow and rips through another attacker's forearm before zipping off through the trees like an angry hornet, the man stops suddenly as the axe falls from his nerveless fingers and stares in agony at his arm as he is bowled over by the charging men behind him.

Bane hefts his mace, trusting to skill and not to magic. The first attacker, a tall man with flaming red hair, long mustachios and unarmoured, wearing checked trews and cloak with a bare chest, hacks at Bane with an axe while holding up a round shield. The second, shorter, squatter and wearing a leather tunic studded with brazen air runes, stabs at him with a spear, the last to engage him is stark naked except for a greave on his right leg and a spangenhelm*, he holds a sword and shield and bellows a battle cry. All attack at once, Bane's mace swing goes wild as the spear man stabs at him, over extending and tumbling down the riverbank. The naked helm wearer slashes with his sword but misses, Bane's dodge was useless as the fury of the attack almost rivetted him to the ground. The axe also goes wild, only a whisker stopping Bane's ear from being lopped off, but he is unhurt. More men lurch down the embankment, surrounding Bane and yelling out in triumph.

Beside him, Groom lashes out with his shortsword, his battleaxe still in his belt. He's faced by a thin man with an old fashioned full beard wielding a battleaxe in two hands, he is unarmoured but for a clan plaid cloak and trews and his best tunic. With him is a burly blond warrior wearing shirt of light chain, a spangenhelm and swinging a broadsword, he grips a dagger in his offhand. The last is a youth with enormously long hair braided up, he is clad in thick leather tunic, bracers and hood. His bare chin is in contrast to the rich moustaches of the blond veteran beside him. Groom stabs with his shortsword, but the thin man with the battle axe strikes at the same time. The axe blade slices into Groom's right calf and blood spurts, Groom's riposte has stabbed the axeman high in the ribs but is not enough to take him out although pain is etched in his very features, he falls back to check his wound and his place is taken by a fat warrior with an elongated shield and a spear wearing a leather tunic but no helm on his bald head. The veteran swings but is taken in the jaw by the youth's spear butt as he stabs at Groom, the veteran drops his sword in shock and anger but the spear sinks right into Groom's already wounded calf, he falls at the feet of his enemies and disappears from Tabiti's and Rastorlanth's sight in the swirling melee.

The sounds of battle echo in Banes ears, the onrush of his enemies sending the blood storming through his veins, an ear peircing battle cry curdles from his lips.
" I shall bath in your blood, die and let the last words you hear be my name, Bane is coming for you all. " he shouts. He attempts to maouver, drawing the attackers away from the fallen body of Groom. His mace swings down, attempting to shatter the axe of last enemy to attack him and attempts to parry the naked helm-wearer's sword.

Rastorlanth sees the onrushing horde and flees, leaping logs and ducking branches, he dashes through the trees and warriors follow him, yelling out blood curdling warcries and hurling insults. This, however, is Rastorlanth's home tula and he knows every tree, ditch and rock. He dashes through the dappled woods with a tail of warriors sprinting after him, now conserving their breath as Rastorlanth leads them into suprising direction changes and alterations of height.

Tabiti falters, not sure of what to do, her friends are succumbing to a wave of onrushing humanity and draws her spear from its boot on her saddle, still holding her bow in her off-hand. Enemies rush towards her and begin to ring her horse, holding shields up at her and surging forward . . .

Starhawk is flat on the mane of his horse, the wind roars in his ears, he only hopes he'll be in time. He continues riding towards the action... looking for anyone to pick up on his horse.

Hastur throws himself on a horse, and rides pellmell off towards the neighbouring stead as a storm of horn calls bellows from the stead.

Orlfinn swears at the sheep, one bolts for the woods and he ignores it, best to lose one rather than the whole flock. His ox-like patience is almost at an end as the last sheep skips into the steadyard the gate slams behind him.

Parthak slides into his gear and grabs up his weapons before swarming up onto the parapet, he looks about with dismay when he realises exactly how few there is in the stead . . .

As the followers slow down a little, Rastorlanth risks a glance over his shoulders to assess their numbers. Judging that a good part of enemy party is following him, he keeps leading them around the stead, through the landscape he knows well. He tries to match their pace and lead them around as long as possible, keeping them away from Tabiti, Groom and Bane, and delaying them until other steads can send help. But his endurance fails as he runs around in circles, skipping over thorny branches and jagged rocks. 'It's enough', he thinks and starts running towards the stead, hoping that others are well and help on its way.

Starhawk knowledgeable of the terrain brings Polaris to a stop on the fringe of woodland next to the bridle path, so he can see anyone crossing the bridle path. Being just inside the treeline he should have cover while being a sprint from getting out of bow range. Should there be a tree stump or a wood pile he will keep Polaris behind that.

Should he need to leave in a hurry he will not concern himself with shooting but rather spend his time controlling Polaris as he puts him through a weaving course while close to the woods, straightening out as he leaves bow range.

He listens and scans for activity. Should anyone make it out he will assist them in a getaway but he's not taking his horse deep into the woods.

Parthak can see Orlfinn checking the gate below him, off and past the fields he can see Starhawk spurring towards the forest where the sounds of battle are arising and Hastur riding very near Starhawk, maybe about a spear's cast behind him. Starhawk's yelmalion friends are standing near Parthak on the rampart, they are buckling each other into their armour and readying weapons. Orlfinn's wife is readying a bow nearby and instructing her children what to do during an attack, they're watching her somberly, clearly quite afraid.

Starhawk stops, turning he moves closer to Hastur so he doesn't need to shout. "Hastur, go back to the stead. String my mares together and take them with you. Go across the river and keep the hill that looks like a chair to your right and the hill shaped like a bald man's head to your left, you will come to a stead in short order.

"Help will arrive quicker if its mounted. Now hurry, we don't have much time." Starhawk turns back to the forest, he looks scared, but this doesn't stop him for he rides to the edge of the forest..

Starhawk adds one more thing before he goes... When you come back with more men, drag blankets behind the horses and kick up as much dust as you can. Be visible..

Parthak has no armour but has brought with him his knife, hatchet, and quarterstaff.

Parthak will ask the Yelmalians which of them would be willing to have Protection cast upon them.

Tabiti looks from side to side, starting to panic: being in the woods is bad enough, but now they're surrounding her! Can't get out... The Vingans had told her what to do when surrounded and out-numbered. Probably. But she can't remember what they'd said, it had all been so complicated and strange. She can't let the enemy know she's terrified, if you look weak they treat you as weak, and you're dead...

...and as the panic mounts, her instincts from her time back in the wastes, all alone, take over. If you're scared: attack. She screams a wordless yell of hatred and defiance at the men around her, and lunges forward with her spear, kicking Thunder into the nearest to a charge he's likely to get from a stationary start in woodland.

But she isn't alone. For nearly a year now, she hasn't been alone, but she has seen far too many of her friends: yes, she has friends, and she still can't really believe it! die for no reason. Not again. Through the haze of panic and rage, she pushes forwards towards Bane. He's still standing: if she can get him onto Thunder and out...

There's screeching, howling warcries. Men lurch in and out, striking, flailing, stabbing. Bane is surrounded in the jostling press, those behind him try to hack at him as Tabiti's horse is urged into the fray. Blows rain upon him . . .

Thunder responds to Tabiti's commands, screaming a terrified whinny he leaps forward across the creek and charges into the knot of raiders surrounding Bane at the toe of the bank. Tabiti's skill is mainly caught up in sheer staying in the saddle, but she lowers her spear to make a gap and is amazed as the leaf shaped head slams into the left shoulder of one of the warriors, skewering him like fish on a rod in the smokehouse and leaving the head standing proud a foot from his chest. The spear is wrenched from her hand as the horse slams into the knot, Bane's attempt at a parry fails and two axes and a spear slammed into his body as he waited for a chance at the sword in an effort to break it. The blades rip into his head behind the ear, the spear stabs into his stomach above his right hip and the last axe lands on his left wrist. Bane is battered about by the murderous blows, his life slips away from him and he calls out to Urox in pain and need to continue the fight, but is unanswered. The brave warrior slumps to the ground across his friend Groom, dead.

Tabiti has exchanged one knot of foes for another, although these are knocked sprawling by her sudden arrival. Thunder is screaming with fear and anger as only a stallion can, he's shying, rearing and turning on the spot in fear of being attacked from behind. Across the river, the attackers reverse their sprint and come charging back in a wave of spray from the creek to hack at Tabiti.

9 - Fleeing!

Tabiti sees Bane fall before she can reach him: too late, too late, why can't she ever be fast enough, strong enough, tough enough...? Tears blur her vision as she turns Thunder and tries to get out. With no melee weapon, she needs to get to clear ground as fast as possible and warn the others.

Rastorlanth's jaw aches, his mouth is open to suck in huge lungfulls of air and keep sprinting, any moment a sword could spear into his back and he daren't look back anymore as the brigands are right on his tail. His enemies are starting to fan out, trying to stop his sudden switchbacks and dodging. He knows he should lead these raiders away from the stead and confuse them, but once he runs full tilt into an axeman when dodging around a tree and another time a spear skitters through some branches when he gets into throwing range. He darts out for the forest verge and into the light, as he's bolting along the border of the trees he sees Starhawk galloping along the track some thirty odd metres away.

Rastorlanth would sigh with relief if he could, but he feels no breath in his lungs. He slows down and concentrates on simply moving as fast as he can away from the pursuers.

Starhawk's ride has brought him to the verge of the trees, he can hear screams, bellows and the clanging of bronze off near where he thinks the stream would be. Suddenly Rastorlanth emerges from the ferns off to his left, closer to the stead by thirty metres, he's pursued by a string of hill tribesmen in plaid and leather. They see Starhawk and let out a whooping warcry.

Hastur has ridden off for the next stead, he's not quite sure where it is but he knows there's a path leading to it. Starhawk has yelled some advice to him but he's ridden on, not quite sure what the Yelmic noble meant and too far from the stead to try the gambit. He's turned off and ridden towards the Frog River and the path to the Burison stead, this will mean swimming his horse across the river and then riding the five minute gallop to the stead, he hopes he can make it in time.

Orlfinn is standing in the yard, yelling at the sheep and kicking them into enclosures.

The two Yelmic men look at Parthak oddly and he realises they're having trouble with his language, the puzzle out his words and then look at each other. Parthak realises they're probably worried about being tainted with outlander magic, but the emptiness of the palisade sinks in and they both nod at once.

Parthak, not wanting to favour one over the other. Will perform the casting twice (though he knows that at best only one of those attempts has a hope of working). Then he'll return his attention to the happenings across the field and try to figure out how to proceed.

Starhawk wheels away from the tribesmen within an arc of flying turf turning to intercept the sprinting Rastorlanth, leaving a figure 8 in hoofprints behind him. He opens fire on any pursuer with a missile weapon to hand, singling out anyone with a spear or if he can. Polaris makes a bee line toward a Rastorlanth interception point in a wide arc. Upon reaching him Starhawk shouts down, "Grab the straps behind the saddle and wrap them around your wrists then try to keep up. If you can't keep up let Polaris drag you.." If he opens up a good distance between Polaris and the pursuers he will stop and help Rastorlanth up. Starhawk will jink Polaris left and then right, just enough to allow him to fire on the pursuers with his bow.

Thunder spins round in the small group of warriors his hooves churning up the leaf mold. Tabiti controlling him with her legs spots a small opening in the group and thrusts the big horse forward, battering more men out of the way. One of them has enough time to bring up his spear and thrust it into the horse, blood bursts forth from a large gash on its right shoulder but it neither slows nor falters as under its rider's urging he escapes the immediate danger. The men left scramble to their feet and begin hurling their spears at the rapidly disappearing horse.

Starhawk slows Polaris down sufficently that Rastorlanth can grab the straps behind his saddle. As the pursuers emerge from the trees a deadly volley of arrows leave Starhawk's bow, the leading man falls to the ground with 2 arrows in his face. As he spurs on his great horse he begins yelling towards the stead "Ready on the gates!" He is greeted by a welcome sight as he spots the four sons of the sun step up onto the ramparts with their bows drawn and arrows nocked. Rastorlanth keeps his footing for maybe twenty paces but then stumbles. Holding on securely to the straps he can feel himself being dragged towards the safety of the stead.

"Hold on Rastorlanth, we're almost there." Starhawk draws, pulls and releases arrow after arrow at the tribesmen, pausing only to guide Polaris towards the gate and glancing down to ensure Rastorlanth still has a firm grip on the straps.

"Another boring day, wouldn't you say?" says Starhawk, very tongue in cheek.

With the last of his strength, Rastorlanth grips the straps as hard as possible. His hands hurts, but all that is important now is not dropping behind and getting caught by the enraged mob.

Orlfinn in the stead can hear the yelling of the Yelmalion. The two men of Lodril and two of Yelmalio run up the steps and onto the wall. "Go farmer, open the gates, we'll send a hail of arrows to greet anyone not of this stead."

Parthak just outside the gates can hear the commotion but as yet can't see the horse and passengers.

Rastorlanth's arms burn as he allows himself to be dragged by the huge horse, its rider sending arrows behind them to deter the followers. Two more find a home in one of the pursuers and he falls.

Suddenly a black shape bursts from the trees near to Polaris causing him to shy but Starhawk's legs clamp tightly around the beast forcing him on. The black shape is Thunder and the small shape of Tabiti can be seen atop him firing arrows back into the trees. At the unexpected sight of Starhawk and Polaris Thunder rears and dumps Tabiti onto the grass before he turns and starts running towards the stead.

Tabiti is slightly dazed but otherwise unhurt, how did that happen? Just a moment ago in the woods he did the same thing and she calmed him and made him clear the trees. No time to wonder now, the stead is just 40 yards away but the men in the trees are coming and now there are men out in the open too.

From the walls of the stead a sinlge flaming arrow arcs overhead and lands in the open ground between Starahwk and his pursuers. The fire spreads unnaturally quickly and begins to form a shape. Very soon a small burning creature the size of a small horse stands there facinf the onrushing Orlanthi.

Starhawk screams 'Run!' at the Pentan girl and looses another arrow at the pursuers. He continues towards the stead.

Tabiti stumbles to her feet, clutching her bow, and glances back. Too many, she'd only get one or two before the rest were on her. That firey thing might slow them, but.... She starts to run blindly in the direction of the stead, sobs still catching at her breath. The grass, the path, is all a dream that she barely notices, as she relives watching Groom and then Bane cut down and falling, again and again, while she tries to get close enough, but too slow, always too slow, just like now, her legs won't go fast enough.

As Polaris suddenly stops, Rastorlanth keeps sliding on the ground. He frantically tries to tumble to the side, away from life-threatening hooves of scared horses. Once safe, he fights the ache in his muscles to get to his feet. If he gets to his feet before Tabiti, he helps her stand and run towards the stead. If not, he just runs himself, hoping that the fiery horse of Elmal will hold the pursuers at bay.

As he runs towards the stead, almost out of breath, he considers how he will remedy the situation with neighboring clan once he becomes clan chief of Renekoti.

Starhawk continues to ride on, passengers or not. Reaching the open gates he dismounts quickly..

Well that's two of the four, wherever the other two where they wouldn't be helping to defend the stead very much, since they would have to show themselves in the open against, if the warcries were any indication, a great many men. This thought runs through his mind with little consideration, there was still a stead to hold.

Calling up to the rampart, "Lightsons fire sparingly at the pursuit we don't want them counting our bows now do we? Let them think we only have one bow or two, not five, ok?"

Pointing back at the gate he shouts aloud.

"We need this gate barricaded as soon as the two are inside. I want someone to throw a few bucket of water over it as well."

"Petronax, where are you?" But Petronax is away, courting his new bride.

Starhawk then runs to get his big shield, before heading for the wall.

Strange this is a wall fight what I've been trained for, why don't I feel the joy that I normally do? Looking at Orlfinn's children running back and forwards on errands it becomes clear to him. Duty is devoid of levity in such circumstances.

"Damn those Uroxi, we need them on the walls, not out there somewhere."

The raiders who were previously pursuing Rastorlanth bring themselves to a halt, unsure of what to do now they are facing a very large salamander, they choose safety first and take an extremly wide berth which all but ends any useful pursuit they may have had.

Tabiti and Rastorlanth both struggle to their feet and start running towards the stead. The front runners of Tabiti's pursuers break from the trees and find themselves with javelin range of the two escapees. Three men hurl their spears.

The first still running as fast as he can steps on a sod Thunder has turned up and sprawls on the floor, his javelin cast away as he falls.

The second man steadies himself before he launches his javelin. It flies straight and true and finds its mark. Tabiti lets out a strangled scream as the sharp tip pierces her back, her legs give way and she crashes to the ground.

The third man hurls his javelin with all his might and while the shot is powerful it is well wide of his mark.

The men find themselves pinned back though for despite Starhawk's command they are firing arrows as fast as they can at the raiders. Three of them fall, two stop moving entirely the third yelling in pain.

Rastorlanth stops to examine the fallen girl. Fighting the urge to keep running from enraged pursuers, he pulls the javelin out of her back before it can do more damage and helps her to her feet. If she is too wounded to run, he picks her up and carries her back to the stead as fast as possible. In either case, he shouts back to the defenders, "Hold back the enemy! Tabiti is wounded!"

Starhawk feels alarm grip at his stomach as he climbs the rampart, spear and shield in hand, to witness Tabiti already fallen and Rastorlanth carrying her to safety.

"We must pin the raiders to the treeline." he says to the lightsons. Drawing an arrow he sends it winging towards the enemy.

Starhawk glances to the east, as his hand moves to quiver for another dart, eyeing the rapidly diminishing figure of Hastur.

"Go quickly, " he prays, "lest you return to our funeral pyre."

Turning to the lightsons, "Well my friends, this was not what I had in mind when I invited you here. However uninvited guests are a hazard everywhere I suspect."

Rastorlanth is stumbling and its touch and go as to whether he'll make it to the stead before he collapses.

Tabiti gasps with pain as Rastorlanth stumbles and almost drops her. "Leave.. just run - no sense.... both dead... go!"

The men in the trees are being pinned back by the hail of arrows that are flying from the wall. The salamander turns and faces them then starts to run towards the trees gouting flames as it does so. The raiders turn their attention on the monster and begin hurling spears its way. Starhawk looks on from the battlements. Rastorlanth's exhaustion plain to see. He puts down his bow and picks up shield and spear.

"Keep the bastards off us."

Charging down the stairs the voices of his father and teachers in his mind.

His father's voice.. "The tactical situation is all, individual pieces are to be sacrificed to achieve victory. There will always be blood on the board, you're job is to make sure that more of it is the enemies."

His strategy teacher... "A commander must not risk victory for the sake any templar. They know what they signed up for."

His father's voice once more.. "There is no glory in defeat. History is written by the victorious."

"Shut up." mutters Starhawk to no-one in particular. "Open the gate I'm going for a short walk."

As the gate open Starhawk drops behind his shield, crouching to cover his legs as well as his torso, with his helmet peeking over the top. Keeping his shield facing the filthy barbarian host, he moves crabwise and quickly to Rastorlanth and Tabiti.

As Starhawk leaves the safety of the stead a cry goes up behind Tabiti and Rastorlanth as the salamander reaches the trees, raiders are running in every direction to get away from the creature. One who is not fast enough screams in agony as he is incinerated by the fiery beast. In the chaos that follows Starhawk and Parthak reach their stricken comrades. Rastorlanth is exhausted and can barely walk although without carrying Tabiti he can make the gate. Tabiti can't walk at all unaided but there is a moment's respite as the raiders panic.

The arrows continue to rain down from the walls and 3 more raiders fall beneath them.

Starhawk whistles softly between his teeth as he sees Tabiti's wound.

"The armour saved your skin girl."

"Groom.... Bane... dead... too slow" (cough) "couldn't get there...." (she starts sobbing) "sorry, too slow, they're dead, all dead"

Starhawk tosses his spear up to the battlements, kneeling he down he drops his weapon shoulder..

"Help me get her over my shoulder.." he says to Parthak..

Once Tabiti is in the fireman hold position Starhawk holds here, his hand on the back of her head, his shield arm clamping the back of her legs to stop her banging around too much. The care he is taking in carrying the wounded girl obvious to see.

She sags limply into the security of his grip, her grip on her bow almost the only sign of consciousness besides the tears still streaming down her face.

Alright Parthak help Rastorlanth inside. Stay behind me we're going back in."

So saying Starhawk presenting shield to the enemy walks quickly and crabwise back to the stead gate.

Parthak does as requested while keeping a weather eye out at happenings on the field. Once inside the gate he'll take a look at Tabiti' wound and perform First Aid on her.

As the attacking raiders falter Starhawk and Parthak manage to get their friends back behind the gates, Orlfinn leaping down slams them shut and bars them. Tabiti is whimpering slightly as the wound in her back continues to bleed. She is dying, and maybe only has minutes to live with help.

Reaching into his bag of herbs Parthak draws out some leave, which he starts to apply to the wound. He is there for maybe a minute before he stands up. "At least now she will live."

Starhawk after laying the girl down, leaves her in Parthak's care and returns to the wall to see what can be seen.

"If they don't attack, we'll harry. Can you men shoot from horseback?"

The light worshipper on the wall all shake their heads, "We prefer to keep the earth under our feet when we're fighting, Lodril feeds us his strength that way."

Outside the stead the raiders are fleeing in a very disorganised way, they are fairly scattered and the only place the avoid is where the salamander stands. Some of the men head into the woods while others stay in the open.

In the distance horns can be heard wailing as Hastur tries to raise the alarm further down the gorge.

Starhawk grins.. "Fair enough.."

"Well they'll be keeping close to cover most likely, since they might suspect that we have mounted archers."

"However a few man with bows lead by someone who knows the terrain could catch them unawares now and again. All we have to do is get ahead of them and wait. When they charge us we race for the horses and ride off. Wait for them somewhere else."

"Alternatively we could wait here until others arrive and set off then. We don't want to give them too much of a head start though."

"Tabiti, you feel like killing some more of these bastards?"

But she lies still, moaning weakly, and gives no sign of understanding his words.

Parthak looks at Starhawk and then back to Tabiti. His concentration is plainly evident as he tries to understand what is being said. Then, wordlessly, he reaches into his tunic and draws forth an odly shape bone. He mumbles some words while rhythmicly moving the strange artifact in the air above Tabiti...

10 - Thundering Hooves - A new threat?

As Starhawk prepares all who will follow him out to confront the raiders a new sound is heard, the loud beats of many horses galloping. Anybody watching from the walls see a large group of 15 or so horses emerge from behind the cover of the wood and come hurtling towards the stead. All of the riders are heavily armoured and wearing swords, several stand out though as they are wearing full plate armour made of iron. The man on the leading horse is particularly noticeable, he (and his horse) is enormous, clad all in iron plate with a large death rune emblazoned in black on his chest. At his waist are two broadswords. His horse is pure black and Tabiti's Thunder would just about reach his shoulder.

He gallops right up to the gate reining in just in time to prevent the horse crashing into it. He removes his helmet and perhaps shockingly reveals a head of black skin, those from Pavis or Prax will recognise him as an Agimori.

He calls up to those on the wall, no doubt bows drawn, peering down at him "Hail the Stead! We have news that there are madmen within killing all about in a frenzy. As one of the servants of Death I come to witness this, may we enter?"

The roar of hooves has Starhawk up on the battlements in moments. His eyebrows rise in wonder and grudging admiration of the men below him.

"Welcome to the last 'civilised' stead this side of chaos haunted lands.", says Starhawk gravely, his tone and demeanor one huge unspoken question.

"I am Starhawk of the Sunwolf Family of Sun Dome, Prax. Bowmaster and templar of Darra Happan blood I am, well acquainted with others of your race Agimori death knight. I declare I have never seen one of your folk dressed in so much armour, or about in lands so much colder than your lands of fire and sun."

Starhawk shrugs and glances once at the stead, seeing if Orlfinn is anywhere around, his eyes coming back to the man below him.

Orlfinn has been healing Tabiti, and now they are both on the battlements looking down, though Tabiti is still too exhausted from blood-loss to speak. Staring down at the big man below him Orlfinn's eyes widen. "Damn he is big!" he mutters.

"It is not my place as a mere stead guest to welcome you", Starhawk continues, "but tell me who you all are, which Gods you follow, and what brings you to the our gates in these dangerous gates. If you answers please us no doubt the steadholders will welcome you to shelter and hearth."

"What say you?"

Starhawk shares a wary glance with his fellow light worshippers, his bow creaking as he eases back on the tension.

Orlfinn seeing the Light worshippers have bow drawn "Stranger, you follow death, what is your name? I Orlfinn Thunderfist ask as our Steadholder is elsewhere. Are you one of Humakt's sons?"

The mounted man bows his head slightly before answering Starhawk in very good tradetalk "I am Mernan, once of the Bloodspear clan of the Agimori, but now a sword-priest of the Lord Humakt. My folk dress not in such a fashion nor do they ride beasts but I have not been among them in a score of years and their ways are not mine. The cold I can abide if Humakt says I must. I and my companions are heading into Dorastor to carry out a heroquest, we seek a shelter for the night and somewhere to rest our horses. Being outside of Heort's and Waha's laws we are willing to pay for the privilege, does 1 of Yelm's golden wheels make enough of a bargain for you?"

The other Humakti are already dismounting and looking around the area with the eye of trained soldiers, spotting defendable areas and likely points of attack.

Rastorlanth approaches Orlfinn and whispers to him. "That would be wrong! Since when do Orlanthi take payment from guests? And Yelm's wheels for that matter!" He seems greatly upset with the Humakti's idea. "I wonder if this man is a true Humakti or only a brute attracted to combat."

Starhawk seems unimpressed with the thought of money, to judge by his expression, however he does not answer now that a steadmember is here. He merely turns and looks at Orlfinn quite obviously expecting him to make the decision.

"That's a big horse", he murmurs with a grin. His spear is leaning against the pallisade next to his shield.

Orlfinn looks down at the big Humakti and then at his friends and family in the stead. "Mernan, sword-priest of Humakt, I welcome you and yours to our stead, may Orlanth's peace be upon you, and your sword never break. Our Steadholder is away at present so until he returns You have permission to enter."

Orlfinn hops down from the wall and opens the gate, as he does he take a quick look to see if the big horse has been gelded as he holds his right hand out to show he carries no weapons. He also make a quick judgement on what food these strangers have brought if any with them.

The gate swings open and the Humakti troop through. Their packs and feed bags seem full enough and it looks unlikely that they will impinge on the foodstocks of the stead (at least not for free). Mernan talks quickly and quietly to one of the other iron clad warriors who begins barking orders to the rest of the group. He then wanders over to the gathered steadfolk.

"Would you like us to help man the walls and see of the rabble we found fleeing your stead? Some sword practice might help us before we head into Dorastor."

Starhawk, stays on the battlement, kinda like a penitentiary guard looking down on chow hall.

Turning to his light cult colleagues he remarks in Firespeech... "It's all happening today, isn't it?"

The Humakti take up defensive positions along the wall with a few waiting by the gate. After 10 or 15 minutes it appears the rout is complete and the raiders will not be coming back, at least not today. As the defenders start to come back down off of the wall three horsemen are spotted approaching quickly. As they get closer Tabiti recognises the horses if not the riders, it seems to be Hastur and two others.

11 - Hastur's ride

At about the same time the Humakti arrive at Dracostead Hastur is galloping up to the Burinson stead. Rovig is working near the trail as the horses approaches.

"Whoa!" he calls out "You'll kill that horse riding it like that, where's the fire?"

"I come from Dracostead...," Hastur tries to say and regain his breath at the same time, "We are under attack... outnumbered... Starhawk sent me for reinforcements... any help that I can muster from neighbouring steads."

"My name is Hastur," he adds almost as an afterthought, "Can you help us?"

Hastur looks pleadingly towards the farmer.

"We can spare a couple of us, come we'll fetch my father." The young man leads Hastur down to the stead. He runs inside and a lot of yelling soon follows. Then he comes out again followed by an older version of himself both dressed in shabby armour and carrying spears and shields. "Let's go save Dracostead then."

They mount the horses and set off back to Draco at a canter.

Orlfinn waves at Hastur then cups his hands to his mouth and shouts "Hastur come in!" turning to Mernan "On behalf of the stead I thank you and lord Humakt for your arrival, we should go and see if our steadsman live and if we can find Thunder, my daughters horse." With that Orlfinn puts an arm around Tabiti's shoulders.

"Tabiti will you come with us and show us where you were attacked? Starhawk you also, Rastorlanth what of you will you stay? Daughter you can tell us what happened as we go." Orlfinn then begins to head down into the steadyard. "Orlkall you remain on watch, Sigurd I think we should see about a feast for our guests, we should show Orlanth's hospitality. Do not forget to offer Reykyard his portion my beloved. Anyone else want to come?"

"Some of us will come to help the search, the rest will stay here to offer their swords to protect your home." Mernan signals to five of his warriors who, armour jingling, trot over to their leader. The six warriors wait for Tabiti to lead the way.

She's still pretty upset, but with everyone looking at her...

"I'll show you, yes - in the trees. Groom and Bane might still be alive. They might. Somehow. There were so many of them, and they kept hitting them, and I just couldn't get Thunder in there to get them out... I had to leave them, they were already down, and my spear was gone. I'll show you."

"I will come with you to the site of the battle. I know not what has happened and I need to know. It is not my usual habit to run from a fight, but I am devoted to this stead and followed the wise orders of Starhawk," Hastur proclaims his interest in joining the investigative team. He looks uncomfortable trying to explain his absence from the battle.

Starhawk grins at Orlfinn’s invitation and shrugs laconically. This appears to be the consequences of coming off a fear adrenaline rush, for he still seems a little off balance.

“I’ll come. My light worshipper companions shall remain here. We must needs talk of a reward for their contribution to the defence, which was a large one.” Starhawk glances at the one who threw the salamander out, his eyes saying don’t worry I can handle this.

Starhawk comes down the steps from the parapet, spear to hand and large round shield. The fact that he doesn’t immediately go to get his bow is doubtless due more to the friendly rivalry between Humakti and Yelmalions than any serious consideration of what may await them out there.

The bow is in the bowcase on Polaris in any case. Starhawk drops the spear into a loop next to the saddle, and straps the large shield on as well. He then mounts up, casting an appreciative glance at the Humakti leader’s horse.

"I expect what happened will be cleared up when we see the blooded field."

Looking up and around he murmurs… "Now where is that damned bird?"

"We will go afoot", says Mernan. "A horse is no place for fine sword play, it limits even the most skilful to mere hack and slash."

Tabiti's jaw drops and she stares at him speechless for a moment before shaking her head and moving out.

Starhawk raises his eyebrow in a quizzical expression, looking amused for the first time. It's a very sarcastic expression, probably in reference to anyone giving orders to him.

"Who said anything about melee?"

He grins, looks about at the grim Humakti, death's soldiers. Fools to the God of endings.

Coming to a decision he picks up shield and spear and prepares to fight afoot a bemused expression on his face. He glances sideways at one of the Lieutenants measuringly.

Mernan and his men follow behind Tabiti, their swords are drawn. The raiders may have fled but who's to say whether they are regrouping within the trees.

Tabiti has her bow in hand and an arrow nocked. But her spear is gone, as is her horse, and she seems lost without them.

12 - Aftermath

The whole group arrive at the mangled corpses. Scattered around the area are many dead raiders but there is no sign of any living ones.

Tabiti ignores or even tramples on the bodies of the raiders, heading straight for where she last saw Groom and Bane. Are they still there? Are they even a little bit alive?

Groom and Bane are both lying in the leaf litter, the two bodies are in a very bad way. There is no trace of life in either of them.

Tabiti runs over to them, refusing to believe the obvious conclusion (well, decapitation might convince her). She doesn't bother checking for breathing, or a pulse, or anything rational like that.

"Be alive... please be alive...", she tries to force some of the bigger gashes back together. And fails. "I'm sorry... please be alive." She pulls out the focus for her Healing charm, and tries to remember the chant that goes with it, but it won't come.

Starhawk checks the raiders' bodies to make sure. He appropriates any small portable clues that might lead to identifying these men. This would include brooches, pins and other jewellery. He notes any weird or unusual tattoos.

"It would be nice to know who these men are and where they came from."

He frowns with disapproval at Tabiti’s treatment of the dead bodies of the raiders.

"We'll have to pile these bodies up somewhere and burn them." Starhawk says softly. "Otherwise some of our neighbours will grow strong on the meat they represent. Doubtless the smell of blood will soon attract some of the Frog Gorge’s less pleasant residents."

Starhawk's shield ever up, his eyes scanning the surrounding area looks around for signs of the raiders departure.

"Bane and Groom we will take back to the stead." Stoic in adversity Starhawk's face betrays little emotion, which in itself is testament to his feelings.

Hastur watches Tabiti frantically trying to heal the warriors and bring them back to life. "It looks to me that they fought bravely and brought honour to this battlefield," he proclaims loud enough for Starhawk and possibly the girl to hear.

"Is this over or can we expect them to regroup and try again ?" he asks of Starhawk eager for a chance at the raiders himself.

Starhawk nods at Hastur's assessment of the dead warriors showing.

"I think they are bloodied. On the border of Dorastor is not a good place to be when you are wounded as they are. The wolf men of the plateau, broo and scorpion men will all want their share. If I were them I would be running as quick as I could towards Bilini.

"Keep your eyes open Hastur, there's more than raiders in these woods I expect. Fighting and fire will have drawn things for miles around and they won't want to go away empty handed."

Starhawk hunkers down his back to a tree, his shield presented outwards. He listens for any untoward or suspicious sound and scans the wood for any movement.

"If that's the case then I suppose we won't be following them to bloody them some more," Hastur replies glumly. "If we are to light a funeral pyre where are we going to take the bodies? Sounds like we may not have much time before this place is crawling with chaos. I wonder if we could lure some of them to the pyre and light them up as well ? Could that be considered a sport here?" Hastur follows up with a series of questions for Starhawk and whomever might be listening.

Orlfinn stops and looks at the carnage, tears begin to roll down his cheeks at the death of his friends he stands frozen in place as Tabiti attempts to heal them. Moving almost woodenly he moves over to his daughter "It's too late now, they stand at the doorway to Urox's hall now." He slowly takes her arms and pulls her into a hug. Tears continue to fall as he stands there "Sunhawk, Mernan we shall gather all the bodies and burn them together so that Urox shall know the value of these warriors we send to him."

Orlfinn looks around to see if he can see if the raiders took weapons or armour of the fallen also to see if the body of Thunder is anywhere to be seen.

Mernan sets two of his men on watch and the rest he details to start the task of collecting wood and building up a fire to use as a funeral pyre for the raiders.

Starhawk turns from his silent vigil. "They are where they wish to be. Warriors of the Bull welcome death in combat. Be happy for them, for now they are at the bull's side fighting chaos across the heavens. What more could you wish for them than this?"

"As for burning, let us do that quickly with little honour for those who would raid us. They are now no more than meat and much that roams these parts is hungry. Let us take Groom and the troubled one back to the stead where their bodies and their weapons may be sent on for them to use in the next world."

"Tabiti tell us what happened if you will. If we can see their endings in our mind's eye then we will remember their bravery all the better."

As Tabiti gulps back her tears and prepares to honour her dead friends, there is a sudden interruption...

13 - Foresighted?

The woods are suddenly pierced by a scream as if something is in agony. Starhawk fights back an urge to run as he is confronted by an horrific monster (The whole party and half of the Humakti are currently demoralized by the screams)

Worse yet a series of rattles and clicks indicate the presence of scorpionmen.

Mernan is first to react and his iron broadswords lead the way as he charges through the woods yelling "HUMAKT!"

The creature calmly faces the warrior and prepares an arrow before releasing it at him. The arrow strikes Mernan on the arm but is deflected by the iron armour. As the monster prepares another arrow Mernan is on him, his deadly swords exquisitely wielded.

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