17. Cull the herd
8th of Lamashtan – Moonday – 17th day at Sandpoint
Sandpoint Cathedral, the Boneyard Cemetery
I’d never been to a funeral. In Canorate, the well-died gladiators and other house warriors earned a pyre, while the poorly died were fed to the lions. Would-be assassins of members of House Horryn were thrown to the dogs, dead or alive. Dead slaves were burned in some back-alley or thrown into the river. Servants’ families took care of their own, and I never was allowed to any noble funerals. And during my years on the run I’d never stopped anywhere long enough, never grown attached enough to be invited to one. So this really was my first funeral ceremony.
Vidarok’s funeral was a short, private, low-profile event, held during Moonday – a religious day, but also a working day. Harsk, Ilori and I were accompanied by High Priest Zantus and few of his priests, who were blessing the body of the druid. Ameiko was there, as a friend. Sheriff Hemlock had come, with four of his men as honour guard, out of respect for what Vidarok had done for the security of the town. Mayor Deverin was nowhere to be seen, of course. She was too busy to be there to pay respect for a man without whom the aasimar Nualia might’ve been right then burning her and her villagers alive as a sacrifice to goddess Lamashtu. Some people just were so up their own arses not to see the details.
I was still angry with Vidarok. I had no reason really. I hadn’t really known him, but from what I had come to know, he had died exactly as he had lived – fighting to remove unnatural taint from his pure, natural world. I had to respect his perseverance to his ideal. I.. I had no such worthy goals. The image of my brother struck my mind like an avalanche out of nowhere and I squeezed my eyes closed, to hold my emotions in check.
I’m coming for you, Alpharius. So he had said in my death-vision in Thistletop. No, I am coming for you, brother, I replied to him in my mind.
I clenched my fists and drew my hood more over my head, not wanting the others to see my turmoil. I had turned over the black side of my cloak, as the colour better suited the occasion. Harsk was in full battle plate and in colours of his goddess, honoring Vidarok as a brother-in-arms in the struggle against evil powers. Ilori was in black as well – she had borrowed a long, modest dress from Shayliss. Apparently they were of the same size. Ilori and Shayliss had spent quite a lot of time together in the past days, as I had roamed the forest, just with my thoughts and Faroth as my company. Shayliss was angry with me, for not being there for her, to offer solace when she grieved for Katrine. Such intimacy did not come naturally for me. I guess I had fled the situation. Maybe I knew I’d be leaving Sandpoint very soon and didn’t want to drag the affair any further. And maybe Ilori was the better company for her. They were worlds apart, but of roughly the same age. Both had gone through a lot and could relate, and the other was a talker, the other a listener – a good basis for friendship as any I guess.
We didn’t know much about Vidarok – about how he would’ve wanted his funeral to be held, so we had left his body to Zantus and agreed to have him buried here at the Cathedral grounds. Harsk was speaking, and I wasn’t paying attention again. I wasn’t so big on speeches.
“..thus, we honor our short time together, and we honor your sacrifices for us and for your mission.” Harsk ended, and placed Vidarok’s wooden quarterstaff on top of his chest. He had no casket and was lying on a pure white blanket – the priests would just lower his body to the ground, roll the blanket over him and shovel earth on top to fill the pit. It was a nice idea from Zantus: this way, without a casket, Vidarok’s remains would function as soil for flowers to grow from. I think the flower-gathering half-orc would have liked that.
The priests started a monotonous chant, and following Harsk, Ilori placed a red rose, the same colour as her fires, to Vidarok’s lap and remained still for a while. She felt the rose signified the fiery passion Vidarok had had for his cause. After the carmine lady, I left the beautiful, glowing lava stone I had taken from Thistletop next to the flower and the staff. Vidarok had saved my life during the fight with Nualia, and I would not forget him. Finally, Ameiko kneeled down, and set a beautifully made glass figurine depicting Vidarok, fresh from the Glassworks, to the body’s feet.
After the priests had lowered the half-orc to his final resting place and had started to shovel earth on his body, Harsk opened one of the fine wine bottles we had taken from the Foxglove Manor before we had left and poured it down on the soil above Vidarok. “Enjoy it, friend. I pray you’ll find your sister in the afterlife. And I pray you will forgive yourself then what happened with her.”
Behind us, far away over the Varisian Gulf, a stormfront approached. There, thunder boomed as if in reply to the goodbyes of the cleric.
Four days later – early evening, the Rusty Dragon
I continued to range the nearby forests and hills with Faroth, teaching him to fight the undead. We found some straggler ghouls, leftovers from our and Hemlock’s purges, that provided ample opportunities for Faroth to overcome his reservations about sinking his teeth and claws into something unnatural. By the end of the week, my firepelt had become fearless when it came to unnatural enemies.
We returned to the Rusty Dragon every evening of course. Each evening I spotted Ilori talking and laughing at the tavern with Shayliss, and my 21st day at Sandpoint, a Fireday, was no different. I greeted them appropriately and exchanged some words about the day. Ilori at least offered me a genuine smile as I approached, Shayliss not so much. We’d developed quite a rift between us, and I was to blame for it. I didn’t feel that bad about it. I did feel a bit jealous however. Of Ilori, or Shayliss, I didn’t know really. During those evenings I missed my brother.
A new person to us had started to visit Ameiko’s inn regularly then – coming for beers and games of card before or after a visit to Pixie’s, the local bordello. He was a bit older, obnoxious man, easily in his thirties, even late-thirties. A loudmouth and big on the beer, he nevertheless carried the weaponry and had the physique and moves of a veteran soldier to back his boasts. I hadn’t really made an effort to get to know him (did I ever), but rather, every night, had my supper with wine and talked with Harsk and Ameiko briefly before retreating to my room.
That evening, Ameiko chose to pull him aside and introduce him to us.
“Harsk, Alpharius, Ilori”, she opened, nodding to us, “this is Alfred.” I was expecting a family name but that never came. “Alfred”, Ameiko went on, “these are the friends of mine I’ve been talking about.” Alfred, clonking in his heavy armor of steel and leather, approached us, offering his hand. I just nodded to him, and he moved over to Harsk, who shook his hand, and then to Ilori, who also offered her hand. Alfred took it and kissed her on the back of her hand. “Ah my lady, you and Shayliss here make such a beautiful sight. You are almost too much for a man.” I groaned inwardly. Ilori just smiled her smile, and Shayliss laughed at the flirt.
Ameiko explained why she had made the introduction. “Friends, Alfred here is my old friend, and a trusty companion”, she began and got a wink from Alfred, “he is quite good with the axe and shield, and is looking for a competent party he could join.” Then Alfred took over, five heartbeats apparently being way too long a time for him to keep his mouth shut. “I’m an old mercenary, and caravan hand and guard, looking for a good adventure to earn some gold. And I heard from Ameiko here that you’re the sort of people who do adventures.” Were he not so irritating, his directness would have been heartwarming. I snorted. “We don’t do adventures“, I said, stressing the last word. We just run into trouble, all the time, and get things done, I thought to myself but didn’t say it aloud. Had Vidarok just died in a fucking adventure?
Alfred didn’t get offended by my tone – either by the virtue of being oblivious to it or not wanting to cause a stir – and went on. “I’ve travelled Varisia extensively, and I’d be a good addition to your group thanks to my skills and local knowledge”, he explained, seriously. Ilori nodded and shot him a question. “Why now? What did you do before?” Alfred cracked up, guffawing irritably. “Aah, I tried farming with my wife. Didn’t go so well. She left me.” Another guffaw. Ho-ho-ho. “Life of the mercenary, on the road, is more to my liking.” At least there we were the same, I sighed. “How good are you with that axe of yours”, Ilori continued the interview, pointing at the formidable looking battleaxe hanging at his belt. It had a magical glow.”Ah this little thing?” He asked, petting its edge, “she’s my best friend and we can dance quite the dance together”. Ho-ho-ho. “Why won’t we dance, hoodman? So you can see how good I am?” He asked, laughing, and poked me on the shoulder. I turned to him and just gave him a deadly stare from under my hood. He wasn’t intimidated. Ilori went on with him. “Yes, Alpharius, you should try him out, to test his mettle”, she said, encouraging him. Oh gods no, I groaned again in my head. I looked at Ilori, and then at Harsk, who was nodding approvingly. Crap.
“All right, let’s have a duel”, I sighed, pushing aside my wine cup and plate of cheese and fruits, my evening meal. “Right now?” Alfred asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “Right now”, I responded flatly.
We left the Rusty Dragon with a score of people at our tow. The word of our duel got around the city fast. When we got to the town centre near the cathedral, there were already dozens of locals gathering. And more people were arriving by the minute. Ameiko had left Bethana to manage the tavern, and she took the best places on the wooden podium with Harsk, Ilori, Shayliss and High Priest Zantus, who had come out of his cathedral as well, to offer healing ministrations. They would be needed.
The crowd, massing around, allowed us a circular arena forty feet wide. I told Faroth to sit down and remain at the side, and the beast slouched to the edge of our improvised arena. People around him were dismayed and afraid, and gave ample space for the wild animal as he approached. All but one little boy, who I recognized as the one named Macharius – just like my twin brother – who I had met twice a couple of weeks ago. The boy boldly stood his ground, his mother hissing at him to move away like all the others. Faroth didn’t seem to mind and sat down on his hindlegs next to the boy. Macharius smiled at the firepelt and scratched it from behind its ear like it simply was a big cat. I couldn’t force back my smile and waved at the boy. He waved back, rooting for me. I think his mother had a heart attack. Brave little man.
“Ready to get your ass beaten, boy?” Alfred’s taunt brought me back to the now and here. People were hooting and cheering, mostly for the local champion. I could hear Ilori and Harsk call my name in encouragement, and recognized Das Korvut’s throaty, deep bass calling Alfred to kick my ass. Or someone called Alfonse. He never got my name right. Not really giving it too much thought I turned to face the fighter. “You talk too much”, I replied. Ho-ho-ho, came the guffaw. I had heard enough and I attacked.
We were both roughly as quick and strong. The fighter had the years of experience, heavy armor and that glowing magical battleaxe to his favor, whereas I had my gladii and my acrobatic skills. Also, I had been trained to kill humans since I had been nine. I crossed the thirty or so feet between us in a blink and launched my first blow with my adamantine gladius. The lightning-quick slash would have taken the head off a normal man, but Alfred managed, albeit just barely, to parry with the side of his spiked shield. I overextended, and he countered successfully with a stab. First blood for the loudmouth. People cheered. Ho-ho-ho. The bastard followed with a shield bash that pushed me back ten feet. The heels of my boots cleaved sand as I was forced back but I stayed on my feet. The fighter eagerly followed in pursuit.
“You should know”, I said to him under my hood, “that when you fight me, you fight my companion as well.” And with a bark of an order, I called forth Faroth who stood up and with a gnarl launched himself at Alfred’s side. The sellsword had the time to react, and lifted his shield just enough to block the fangs of my beast. Using the distraction to my advantage, I executed my second attack. Another lucky parry, this time with his pauldron, stopped my adamantine blade and I couldn’t reach the weak spot between his frontal and rear plates. Alfred remained focused on me solely, and successfully struck me twice in rapid motion. His skill, I had to admit, was considerable. I had three bleeding wounds to his none. But I wasn’t giving up so easily. Amassing all my strength and expertise, I launched myself into a full attack, and finally managed to wound him twice, to his side and thigh, through his armored bulk. He grunted in pain, his guffaw silenced to my relief. He was taking me seriously now. Criss-crossing with his battleaxe, he pushed my parries aside. The edge of his axe connected with my face and his shield slammed into my chest, emptying the air out of me. Faroth roared now, sensing my plight, his claws tearing deep cuts into the fighter’s back and feet. I was reeling, my vision swimming. My response with the adamantine blade was a weak effort, but my off-hand gladii stabbed deep into his side. Blood flowed freely through cracks in his armor. But I was in a sorrier state. Panting with effort, Alfred tried to finish me off with a wild sideways blow of his axe, but he fumbled it and lost the grip of his weapon. Cursing, the old veteran just resorted to slamming me again with the front of his shield. Badly injured, I had lost my dexterity and had no chance of evading the incoming shield. Metal struck my face, my once-broken nose broke again and I fell to the sand straight on my back. I was unconscious already on the way down. I was out probably a second or two before Zantus’ healing magic woke me up and stemmed the flow of blood from my and Alfred’s many wounds. I ordered Faroth to stand down and he retreated a few steps, head bowed, silent, not letting his hunter’s eyes off Alfred.
Standing above me, sweating and breathing laboriously, he offered me his hand with a wide, cocky smile. I took it and he pulled me up. People around us, now numbering in the several of dozens, were hooting and cheering for him. Ungrateful bastards the lot.
With the help of Harsk’s and Zantus’ ministrations, and a good night’s sleep, we both returned to full strength in no time. We were impressed by Alfred’s skills, but I personally was still doubtful. The next morning, I suggested another trial. A boar hunt.
Alfred told us he wasn’t particularly good at hunting wild animals, but couldn’t of course say no to the offer. I thought a hunt would prove to be a good occasion to test his skills in actual fight with multiple combatants, and see how he used his senses and moved in the field. Harsk excused himself from the hunting trip, citing reasons related to his beer business, but we decided to head out without our healer cleric anyway. We had easily disposed of several boars weeks ago, and we felt much more experienced – what could go wrong?
We took our mounts and rode to Tickwood, the same forest where we had hunted boars with Aldern previously. On the way there, Alfred eagerly shared his past with us, telling how he had lived most of his life in Sandpoint, travelling the coast of Varisian gulf back and forth. Ilori asked about how he had got the magical battle-axe, and he just smiled and told it was loot from his years as a mercenary. The old veteran also told about her wife again, and her departure to somewhere – he didn’t know where – but he didn’t really seem to give two shits about their break-up. He preferred the girls at the Pixie Kitten. I put to memory his weaknesses – booze, card games and whores. All of us had our weak points, things that our enemies could use as leverage against us, but his were right there in plain sight, like cards on a table.
We left the road east and went into the forest proper. In no time, I spotted boar tracks in the ground, along with dung. Ahead, Faroth was sniffing the tracks and growling ominously. I jumped off my horse and went to have a closer look, to see how many animals there had been. I heard Alfred make a joke about me examining boar shit, but I disregarded him. I was seeing boar tracks all right, but they were much larger than those of normal boars. We were on a trail of a pack of nothing less than dire boars.
Smiling with my back towards the others, I held the information to myself. This hunt gets even better, I mused.
I signaled the others to leave their mounts and continue on foot. I took the point, moving silently and unseen in my one of my favored terrains – the environment where I had spent the first years of my life. Following the tracks of the pack, I led the group south-east towards a hill spotted with bushes and thick undergrowth. They offered a lot of cover to hide behind, so we needed to get up the hill. But I was already spotting the massive creatures among the vegetation.
Boars are powerful creatures to be sure, and unpredictable when challenged, sometimes choosing flight over fight, sometimes not. Sure, sows rigorously protect their piglets and young hogs get aggressive during mating seasons, but I had always felt a typical boar hunt to be straightforward and relatively safe for a skilled hunter. Dire boars on the other hand are just mean and vicious, and full of bad temper from snout to tail. And adults are big as a horse, weighing easily two thousand pounds, and would not run for their lives but rather devour their hunters. Only the bravest would challenge a herd of these bastards. And I was leading us straight to them.
At that moment, I realized to my amusement that the hunt just turned into a cull. Vidarok would not have approved.
From the point at the foot of the hill, I gestured the sellsword to join me at the line. Faroth was next to me, crouched as well, and Ilori was staying well behind, gazing at the hillside. I signaled Alfred to approach silently, not to alarm the pack, but in his heavy armor, he turned to be as bad in staying unnoticed as our dwarf. Good to know, I thought, and turned around to face the closest boar before all element of surprise was lost. In fluent motion, I drew an arrow, nocked it, aimed carefully from my hiding place and shot. Before the massive dire boar could start its charge, it already had three arrows sticking out of it. But it still came, with a furious snort. No less than five other dire boars lifted their snouts off the ground where they had been eating and responded to the call of their pack-member. I’d seen them all but the look on Alfred’s face was priceless.
“These are not boars, half-elf!” Alfred stated the obvious as he spotted them and pulled out his battle-axe and spiked shield and readied for a fight. “Ho-ho-ho”, I replied, imitating his trademark guffaw and discarded my bow in favour of my twin gladii as the first dire boar barreled its way towards me down the hill.
Ilori apparently spotted the wild beasts as well as a massive fireball flew over our heads and exploded in the hillside. Her aim was true and her efforts were rewarded when we heard shrill screams through the bushes and smelled crisp boar meat. None fell to the fireball of course – they were too tough for that – but it was a good appetizer for the coming slaughter as any.
The dire boar I had tried to finish off with three arrows came with a vengeance. Like a typical boar, it tried to pummel me with its thick head and split me in half with its huge tusks. As it thundered towards me, I was reminded how Harsk had taken the charge of a normal, albeit young, boar full-on with his shield. I could still hear the boom of the collision. But I wasn’t going to let a horse sized murderous boar going to hit me. I pivoted at the last second, but it still managed to hit me in the elbow with its forehead as it passed me. I almost dislocated my shoulder.
The three burning boars came straight at Alfred. Bumping to each other in their eagerness to kill the sellsword, they lost the momentum to grind him to dust right away, and he managed to evade their tusks. Like me, he didn’t survive without taking hits of course. Beside me, Faroth leaped on the side of the arrow-filled boar, and bared his teeth. The huge creature tried to shake my companion loose, but the firepelt held on tight with its claws deep in its skin, sunk his jaws into its throat and neck and bit down hard. The mad animal groaned and died, finally. But its remaining pack members were already coming down the hill.
While Ilori was grilling boar meat and Alfred was fighting for his life, I turned to face the two other dire boars. I commanded Faroth to kill the first while selected the second as my prey. It too came hard, and it too missed me, if only barely. I stabbed it as it thundered past me. For a moment I was afraid it would continue on at Ilori, who was still at the back, but the beast stopped in its tracks, lifted its snout and barreled back at me. I evaded again, but this time, its left tusk brushed my thigh and suddenly I was flying. I slammed hard to the vegetation two meters farther and rolled – the boar’s jaws clasping shut only inches away from my throat. It tried to gore me again, but it stabbed with my gladius, hitting it square in the neck. Blood spurted to my face and the thing howled, retreating just enough to let me back up. Then it came once more. Just as it was about to hit me, I cartwheeled left and speared its side with both of my gladii, the adamantium and steel both cutting through thick skin, ribs and into its heart. It perished immediately.
While I was fighting my boar, Faroth had taken care of his chosen foe. Alfred was finishing the last remaining dire boar (he was hanging from its neck as it stampeded around and bled to death). Faroth, covered in boar blood, was growling at something. I looked over to see what caused it when out of nowhere, a will-o-wisp made an appearance. Glowing blue, it hovered to sight from behind nearby oak trees. It sounded like it was laughing.
“What the hell is that”, Alfred asked, pained, bleeding from multiple deep wounds. I too was badly injured – every bone in my body ached and some had been bruised and broken. Without our healer, the boars had almost been too much for us. Almost. “That is”, I started, between my teeth, “a will-o-wisp, a magical creature of the forest.” I had seen them many times before, during my childhood in Molthune, and later in the forests of Nirmanthas, only half-a-year or so ago. “They are generally peaceful, just let them be, and they won’t harm you. They feed on wounded and dying creatures’ lifeforce.” I heard Ilori take a step back. She too was wounded I realized. “I’m fucking wounded too”, Alfred noted, keeping his eyes on the hovering being that danced in the air around the corpses of the dire boars, shining its life-force drawing light onto them. I nodded, understanding the threat it still posed us. “Let’s just leave the corpses to it.” To that, Alfred laughed and spit blood to the ground. “Yeah sure. It’s not like were dragging a thousand pounds of dire boar meat with us to Sandpoint, right?”
He was quite right about that.