35. Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups
11th of Neth – Sunday – 50th day in Varisia
Bathing in the light of a day only a few hours old, Sandpoint still stood untouched, unravaged. Dirty-grey, fat seagulls welcomed us as the Tall and Handsome arrived to port. The overnight trip had went uneventfully, and I bode a relaxed farewell to Captain Jack as I disembarked. He responded with an incomprehensible, hungover bark and gestured me to get the fuck out. Not a man keen on fostering relationships with paying customers this Jack, I thought as I leaped to the pier after my backpack just as I had done exactly fifty days previously.
Autumn was turning into winter and the air was crisp and still, but well above freezing point. Despite it the town itself felt barren and rigid, as if the darkest, coldest winter had already fallen. It was the doom and gloom of Turtleback Ferry all over again, I remarked. Only the ever-present rain was absent. Still trying to go about their normal lives, people were hurrying, their features joyless and anxious. The nervousness after the attack of the goblins almost two months ago paled in comparison to what I saw in their eyes. Everybody felt the dark clouds gathering. Old Mvashti had really stirred the town with her ramblings, it seemed to me as I paced up from the docks towards the Rusty Dragon. That and the bad news Harsk and Alfred had brought with them.
The cozy tavern was as I had left it. Before entering I smartly told Dûath to wait outside – I remembered the scene the Tian-min businesswoman had made when I had first brought Faroth with me from the forest. I briskly walked in and without really thinking about it, pulled back my hood to reveal myself. Ameiko was at the bar opening the place with the serving girl Bethana and lifted her gaze from whatever she was doing as I entered.
I’d never thought about Ameiko Kaijitsu in a romantic way, but it somehow warmed my heart when I saw the recognition, and the recognition turning into an honest, surprised smile. A woman’s smile, even if she is just a friend, can have that effect. Friend, I thought. Another one to go along with Harsk? At that moment, being there in Sandpoint, preparing to risk my neck for somebody else than Macharius or myself, seemed reasonable. Justifiable.
She called my name as a way of greeting and came over around the bar. I nodded at Bethana, to which she did not reply but merely blushed and averted her gaze. Ameiko gave me a hug, and I hugged back, a stiff, professional gesture if there was one. I was bad with spontaneous intimacy, or intimacy altogether. Only one woman had really got through my armor in that regard. But Ameiko didn’t mind. She seemed genuinely happy to see me again. We let go and stood there for a moment, looking at each other, and my deserted face cast a gloom upon hers as well.
“I’m so sorry about Ilori”, she said simply. I nodded. There was nothing to say anymore about her.
“It’s great to see you again, Ameiko”, I said, breaking another silence. “It’s good to see you too, Alpharius”, she responded, and a hint of smile reappeared.
“I take it Harsk and Alfred have put the place in order?” I asked, looking around the tavern as if I was observing the town itself. Ameiko laughed at that. “You assume well. Harsk especially has been working day and night getting the town ready for the attack. People are scared, and what they told us scared us all even more, but we’re also more resolute now thanks to them.”
So they had succeeded in making them believe the threat was real, I thought. No wonder the place felt so bleak and anxious. But somehow, Sandpoint felt as populated as before. The people had not chosen to flee. Surprising.
I smiled and nodded again. “That is Harsk’s calling. To rally people for a greater cause. Of course it helps he brought along paladins and priests.”
She offered me a light breakfast and we exchanged a few words. She asked me if I wanted my room again, but I graciously declined. I had something else in my mind. As Shalelu wasn’t here to scout the surrounding area to keep an eye for approaching giant armies, I knew the task fell to me. It was after all a natural mission for someone with my expertise.
I left after filling my stomach, and asked the innkeeper to reserve a bottle of fine wine for the victory celebration. I had to contribute to the overall morale too, right?
After seeing Ameiko, I made my way to Daviren Hosk’s stables and asked for a quick mount. Even though he wasn’t expecting any gold in return, I promised the stablemaster some goblin ears in exchange, and continued to the cathedral.
Alfred was sparring with a group of five town guards, obviously trying to prepare them for the coming battle. They were young men, younger than me, but full-grown, not boys. All green as a field of grass, probably the new recruits from Magnimar. Alfred’s motions hinted just a bit of sluggishness, and his face had the familiar light red tint. He had had a few drinks. But he could have been half-drunk and have his other hand tied behind his back and still take all the five guardsmen around him down. One by one they challenged the veteran sellsword, and he parried their clumsy attacks laughably easily and sent them back reeling with little to no effort. Not good, I thought. Give them bows, but keep them out of close combat. Or watch as their blood paints the streets in dark red.
He spotted me walk past with Dûath and the horse, and turned and greeted me by raising his axe and guffawing. As he did, he slogged an attacking guardsman down on his ass with a carefree flick of his spiked shield. He didn’t even look at his opponent. I just shook my head.
I saw Harsk discussing with the Sheriff, Hemlock, and at the same time organizing a line of water buckets from a well to the cathedral. Little children, boys mainly, flocked around him like a litter of puppies. They were nervous, as were all the adults nearby, but Harsk radiated an almost physical glow of resoluteness and certainty. Even though most of the boys were his height, the cleric of Iomedae’s presence made him stand out like a giant. This is charisma, I noted to myself, and saw the little emblems of red crosses – no, longswords – sewn into the worn shirts of the children. His orphan followers, the future warriors of Iomedae. I wondered where the paladins and priests he had brought with him were.
“..I’m having the children carry the water buckets in case there are fires”, Harsk was explaining to Hemlock who looked forlorn. This was beyond his league. He had overall command of the defence, that I had no doubt, but he still needed all the help he could get. He gazed down at Harsk as the half-man soberly went through the organizational details and pointed at places around the Cathedral plaza. As I reached them, Hemlock nodded at me, and Harsk smiled.
“Ah, Alpharius. Thank the goddess you made it before the giants”, he welcomed me and offered his hand, which I took. I nodded back at Hemlock and flashed a smile at the cleric. “I just arrived. Didn’t stay back to wait for Alice.”
Harsk stroke his beard and voiced a light laugh. “Not a surprise.” I noticed the tiny face of Yap-Yap staring at me between the locks of Harsk’s beard. I completely and utterly disregarded the pixie.
“What is the situation? Any signs of the giants?” I asked and looked around, sparing even a glance at the skies, given that a dragon was on its way.
“Alfred’s been training the guardsmen and helping them set up some traps outside the town perimeter”, he began, nodding at Alfred’s direction. I didn’t turn around to watch but I heard the sellsword beg the guardsmen to even try to land a blow. “I’ve been helping Hemlock here to organize the troops at the walls, and I’ve had the followers help around”, he added humbly and gestured to the boys. They collectively beamed proudly as their spiritual foster father addressed them. “But there’s no sign of the giants”, he finished his report.
“What’s the strategy?” I asked them both equally. Hemlock was the first to answer. “We keep the giants behind the walls and across the river.” Easier said than done – this was not Fort Rannick. “They’ll just cross the stream. We’re talking about almost ten foot tall monsters”, I told him, and he just looked at me blankly. I wasn’t helping. “And what about the dragon?” I added the question. Harsk had spells to defend us from its fire breaths, but its claws were as deadly. And rivers and walls did not hinder it. Harsk opened his mouth to say something but decided otherwise. Hemlock was as speechless. There was a dragon-sized hole in our defensive strategy.
“Before I left I paid a small fortune to buy some dragon-bane arrows”, I sighed. “I’ll take the shot when the opportunity arises.” Alpharius the Dragon-Slayer. I shivered at the ridiculousness of it.
300 feet away at the northern gate, I saw a few guardsmen at their posts on the wall, and I expected there were eyes on the walls and gates around town. Behind me, Alfred was training the guardsmen. Harsk had things in control at the Cathedral, and was doing everything he could helping Hemlock. Was I really needed here? How could I be of most use?
I had known already of course, but standing there pondering I reached a conclusion. “I’m heading out of town”, I nonchalantly informed Harsk and Hemlock. The Sheriff narrowed his eyes, and Harsk looked a bit taken aback. I needed to explain myself, I realized. “I’m most useful out there, doing reconnaissance. Any advance warning we get will help”, I argued. This was enough for Harsk and he nodded approvingly. He had come to know my capabilities. “How far will you go?” He asked. I considered this. Lost Coast road snaked six miles east before reaching Thistle River, and it had a single bridge south of Nettlewood that served as the only easily passable route into the area. I doubted the attack would come from the South through Ravenroost highlands, and I did not believe the giants were cunning enough to go over Thistle River farther south and then again over Turandarok River before curving around Mosswood and Devil’s Platter to gain access to Lost Coast road and the forests around it. If they did not come by boats, they’d have to cross Thistle river. So keeping an eye on the bridge would suffice.
“I’ll ride six miles, to Thistle River, and set up camp there and watch the bridge. If they come, I’ll ride hard back to the town and warn you. I’ll be here in less than half an hour.”
Harsk turned to Hemlock, who nodded. I imagined he had reached the same conclusion, if he even had considered the matter.
“Fine. But if something happens, I’ll send a thought over to you”, he explained and tapped on his forehead with a finger.
“You do that”, I replied and turned to mount my horse.
I rode the dirt road east slowly, keeping my eyes on the forests around me and the road itself. It had not rained for a few days and I spotted the tell-tale signs of people of course, in addition bears, firepelts and deer. But I noticed nothing of an army of giants and whatever beasts they brought with them.
When I reached the little wooden bridge, I examined it particularly closely, but again found nothing. Wagons and people had come and gone, but the bridge had not carried the weight of 1000 pound giants at least during the past day. Fine, I thought. If my assumption was correct, the area was still free of their cursed existence, and I could spot them in advance when they’d reach the bridge. “What do you think?” I asked my animal companion, but he just stared at me with his yellow-green predator eyes. Giants were aggressive and simple – they’d come along the straightest path and attack without delay. I was sure of it.
I retreated half a mile back to a side of a wooded hill where I could monitor the bridge from a safe, hidden location. I set up camp, meaning I laid my backpack next to a tree, unsaddled my horse and gathered a small fireplace. I let Dûath roam the nearby forests – that put the poor horse more at ease. Then I sat down on the moss, set my eyes upon the river and waited.
It was late afternoon when I heard Harsk’s voice as if he was talking by my side.
No news, no sightings. Where are you?
I focused my thoughts and in my mind, wove my answer.
I’m close to the bridge. No signs of the enemy along the road or at the bridge. I”ll keep watch.
No reply came – Harsk had told me he could send the thoughts once per day, but I trusted he had got my message.
Evening fell eventually, but the road remained empty. Two wagons driven by peasants had crossed the bridge during the day, and I had spotted a mother bear with two big cubs cross the road, but otherwise nothing had happened. How long would we have to wait? A day, a week, a month? The giant commander Teraktinus’s plan was unclear. All we knew he was bound for Sandpoint.
I lingered awake long into the night, fighting against boredom and sleep, listening to owls and crickets. Finally I had to give up and lie down on my furs. Stars shone between tree canopies and I closed my eyes. I was close enough to the road, I thought in half-sleep, that I’d awake to the sounds of giants if they came..
Something moved in the bushes a hundred feet to my north. My eyes flashed open, and absolutely still I listened. There was another stir of the undergrowth and low-hanging branches. Straining my hearing, I identified at least four different footsteps. Beside me Dûath let out an indiscernibly low growl and stared into the darkness.
Silently, I pulled Carmine Avenger to me and got to my feet. The bow began to glow a faint ruby red upon my touch, as in expectation of violence. Under the clear starry skies I could see as well as during the day. They were trying to sneak up on me. Fools.
Staying low, I circled them. I now knew exactly where they were, and they were approaching my meager camp. The first one emerged from the thick growth. A goblin. Of course. The forests were infested with them. Behind it came a second, then a third, and finally a fourth one. They were sniggering silently to each other as they spotted my horse next to the almost extinguished fireplace. But they could not see me – my enchanted armor hid me among the background of the dark forest. At my feet Dûath let out another low growl but stayed put, patiently waiting for my command.
I let the first one only forty feet from me before I rapidly drew an arrow, put it across my bow and shot it. The goblin died before it fell, the bloody tip of the arrow protruding from the back of its head, and its companions roared in surprise, a throaty whine really. I pulled another arrow and issued my warning loudly.
“Get the hell out, and stay out, or I’ll kill you all!” Then I whistled and Dûath launched himself into a run towards the goblins, transforming into a black, deadly blur of claws and fangs. I was happy to see his new enchanted armor did not hinder his movements, but instead seemed to fit him like another skin.
The little green bastards turned and ran like scared rabbits. One even threw its rusty sword to the ground in panic. Another whistle halted Dûath, who bellowed a threatening roar of his own, and returned to me. “Good boy. That’ll teach them a lesson”, I said as I patted him on the side.
I slept in peace for six hours, and woke just before first light. Below me, the bridge still stood alone.
I had a simple trail breakfast as the sun came up and weighed my options. Should I patrol the road further north? Or go south? Anxiety was creeping in, and sitting on my arse doing nothing but watching was feeling less and less sensible. Even Dûath was acting nervously, prowling the forest around me like he was in a big cage. Fine, I thought, let’s have a look at the forests.
I had just saddled my horse when Dûath let out a whine and a growl. I turned to him.
“What’s wrong, boy?” He was looking east towards the horizon, and I let my eyes wander to whatever he was seeing.
“That’s an eagle”, I said as I saw something large flying towards us along the road, but as the words left my lips I furrowed my brow. I focused my eyes. It wasn’t gliding like hawks and eagles did, but rapidly striking the air with its wings. And eagles did not have a tail and four legs.
Fuck. Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck. I ran to my backpack, lifted it and staggered back to my mount.
The red dragon came swooping across the skies like a herald of doom, throwing a massive shadow upon the land and making birds and small animals disperse in panic. I didn’t know if it spotted me in the forest, but if it did, it paid me no heed. I heard the constant, rhythmic woosh its wings made as it passed over me, flying only hundred and fifty feet above ground. I leaped on my horse and urged it to a gallop. I was cursing.
At that speed it’ll reach Sandpoint in five minutes. It’ll take me twenty minutes, if I was lucky and my mount would handle the strain. I’d be late to the fight.
Where were the giants? Had I missed something? “Fuck!” I cursed aloud and stirred up my horse to even greater speed down the hill and towards the road, with Dûath behind us. The dragon was pulling ahead of me rapidly. I considered taking a shot at it now, with my dragon-bane arrows, but immediately thought otherwise. I was good, but not that good that I’d hit a target flying more than thirty feet per second from a horse galloping at top speed. I didn’t want to waste my arrows. I’ll nail it to the side of the cathedral, I thought and snarled with killing intent.
In my mind, I heard Harsk’s voice again. His news were not good.
Alpharius! The giants are already at the gates!
I ground my teeth together in anger. How was this possible? All my assumptions had betrayed me. I had not thought of everything. What a fool I’d been!
I saw the red dragon.. It’ll be there in minutes. Harsk.. I’m sorry.
I counted the seconds as I pushed my mount to the edge of its endurance. Twenty minutes. I thought about Harsk, Alfred, Ameiko, the orphan children with little red longsword emblems. Will I make it in time?