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Chapter 15 - The Road to Tristram, Part I

When the sun had parted from the horizon, Warriv, Taril, Kashya, and several other sisters approached the pillory. "I have to say," said Taril, "Most people who get pilloried get a messed up quite thoroughly within the first ten minutes. You must have quite the angel watching over you." -- "If I had a guardian angel I wouldn't be waiting for you in my current state." -- "Fair enough, we'll get you out of there in a moment."

Kashya stared down at Art. "You'll be out of here by noon, and then never return, or your next time in the pillory won't be so short." -- "Short?" thought Art; who puts people in the pillory for longer than four hours at the most? -- "What's that? Too short for you?" -- "Nothing…"

Kashya gestured for one of the sisters to unlock the pillory, and then he was free. He hadn't realized just how fatigued his muscles were, for the moment he tried to extricate himself from the pillory he collapsed. Taril propped him back up, but he couldn't even feel his legs, or his arms for that matter. All had gone numb and strained. "Anyone see my legs? I can't feel them." -- "All right, let's get you back home," said Warriv as the two of them held him up and walked him back to the Bedfords'. "You're clearly in no condition to be going anywhere."

As they went, Art looked around. With the dawn the village had started to come alive, people rushing along to till the fields or on to other business. A few of the caravaners had started to mill about outside, some of them looking ready to depart and others crowding around the bulletin board. Come to think of it, the night had gone quietly and he hadn't heard the church bell toll at all that day. That didn't bode well for the caravaners who still awaited for the return of their loved ones. "Boone and Ernest still aren't back, are they?" he asked. "I was awake all through the night. If they had, I would have known, I'd think."

Warriv and Taril shared looks of concern. "I don't think so," Warriv replied. "Even the day before, it'd only been two, maybe three caravaners who'd checked in." -- "Boone. Now I feel a bit bad… I seem to distinctly recall my last words to him being a joke about how he'd wet himself and get hacked down by the invaders…" -- "Teaches you right, mister flippant. Now you'll regret it for the rest of your life." -- "Now's not appropriate, Taril." -- Taril suddenly let go and Art sagged a bit before he caught him up again. "Are you sure about that?" he asked, grinning. -- "Damn it Taril…"

By the time they sat Art down on a seat in the house, Penny and Nathan looking at a loss for what to do and Selena eagerly embracing him about his waist, he could feel the needles driling all through his body, fading into a tingling as he regained sensation, and he could start to move again. "How are you feeling?" asked Penny. -- "Like the sisterhood pierced me with a thousand arrows." -- "I think you're fine," said Nathan. -- "Husband," said Penny, looking absolutely scandalized.

"The caravaners are going to be heading out shortly," said Warriv. "You think you'll be able to walk like this?" -- "Ah crap, don't tell me I'm going to be left behind while you all march on ahead. I'll be sitting duck." -- "You saw Gheed's wagon is still in the village square? I'm sure we can get him to spare you a seat," said Taril. -- "How sure are you? Knowing him, he'll charge an arm and a leg for a day's ride. Well, seems I can afford losing this arm since it's missing a hand anyway, but it's the leg I can't do without." -- "Oh, I'm sure all right. All I have to say is, 'Gheed, you do realize this is a good advertisement opportunity for your wagon seat, right?' and that's hook, line, sinker." -- "Nice one, Taril."

"I'm sure you must be frozen stiff from spending a night out like that," said Nathan. He brought over Art's black gambeson. "Penny here has spent the good part of a day putting this thing back together."

Art took the gambeson in hand and looked it over. One could still make out its gashes and scorch marks all over the thing if one looked for them, but the seams had been sown back together with black thread that blended in nicely. He shot the Bedfords a beaming smile. "As good as new. Thank you so much for this."

Nathan nodded graciously. "Alright, let's put that on," he said, and proceeded to help Art put on his gambeson.

"Here, you must be famished right now," said Penny, gesturing at the food set out before them on the table. -- "Let us break our fast together, one last time," said Art, resignedly as they all started eating.

"You needn't worry about Selena," said Penny; then Nathan noted, -- "We'll be taking right good care of her." -- "We most certainly will, the little adorable one." -- "Unless you have a place to take her?" -- "Yes, of course, if you do then she's all yours."

Art looked up, eyes teary with thankfulness. All through the night he'd feared he might have to push this request on them, feared even more that they might, in the end, still refuse; and here they volunteered. "You would do such a thing for her?" He got out of his seat, almost collapsing from his straining muscles, and went on his knees before the couple, put his arms down on the ground before him and set his forehead down on the back of his hand. "Nathan, Penny, I can't thank you enough for this. If you would take care of her, I would be eternally grateful." He turned to Selena. "You too, Selena," he called out, and she hopped out of her seat to kneel and kowtow before the couple, though with a complete look of cluelessness.

"Come now, that's not necessary," replied Nathan; -- "We love her, don't we?" -- "Yes dearie, we'll take excellent care of her," -- "She will lack for nothing," -- "As if she were our very own." -- "Thank you, thank you…" -- "Please get up, Art, we can't have you kneeling before us," said Nathan as he helped him back to his seat. "You'll be having a hard enough journey as it is."

It seemed that the meaning had finally clicked for Selena. She looked at Art, concerned. "Journey? What do you mean? Aren't you staying with me, uncle Art?" -- Art looked at the others, not sure what to say. Penny wrapped her arms around Selena. "There now, you will still have us to take care of you." -- "What? No no, please don't," she said, as she clutched tightly at Art's arm, sobbing. "You can't leave!" -- "Hey, if you don't quit that, Nathan and Penny aren't going to pleased." -- "I don't care! I want to stay with you, please stay with me! We still haven't gotten mommy and daddy back and now you're leaving too? No no no!"

Art looked to the others for help. What could he say to her to mollify her? But the others seemed just as clueless as he. He wrapped his arm around her head, patted her. "Look, Selena, I can't very well go looking for your mother and father while I stay here, and you know how it is outside the village. This is the safest place for you. I promise you, when I find enough friends to go bring back mommy, we'll bring her back. But you have to behave until then, okay? Otherwise I'll keep having to return empty handed and we'll never able to bring her back."

Of course, he would not be seeing Selena again. She would grow up with the Bedfords, and would in time forget about him. He would travel with Warriv, forever banished from returning because of a foolish mistake he'd made. He'd not come back for her, nor would he return with a party to retrieve Cassia from the monastery, not with her already being dead. It was all a lie, and everyone here but Selena knew it. It pained him, having to lie to her so, making promises he knew he couldn't keep, but he couldn't bear to break her heart any more than it had already been broken. And what he said seemed to pacify her, somewhat, though she still heaved and sobbed into him, staining his tunic. For a long while they held onto each other, both of them wishing the moment would last.

Then the church bell tolled, five times in succession, not just once. "It's time," said Warriv, setting down his emptied pewter bowl and standing up. Taking his cue, Art and Taril stood as well, Selena still holding on to him by the arm and looking terrified of losing him as well. Nathan and Penny stood up, the former saying to Art, "As a parting gift, I wanted you to have this." He went to the stand at the side of the house and brought forth a vivid green tunic with gilded embroidery. "Seldom worn, but since my size fits you well, and since you have the most need of it…. Here." -- "These are your best clothes. How can I?" -- "Now now, no fuss," said Penny, "Or we'll take offense."

"I wanted to thank you so much for your hospitality," said Warriv. "Please, I would like for you to keep this. As a memento, and a sign of our thanks." He handed Nathan his brooch, glinting silver in the light of dawn. -- "And I, this," said Taril, unclasping an opaline necklace to hand over to Penny. "May you always live in harmony and happiness, for heaven knows you deserve it."

Art, his arm on Selena's shoulder, gently nudged her forward. "And I would hereby entrust to you Selena, a girl once lost to the darkness and whom I had reclaimed from its depths. I have nothing else to give. You two have shown us a kindness beyond words, which I can never repay. Thank you."

"No, uncle Art, please don't go!" cried Selena, reaching out for him with both arms for a final embrace. Art turned to leave, his heart breaking, and fled.

The trio arrived at the village center where the rest of the caravaners had all gathered. They joined quite the crowd: Over a hundred of them, holding what rucksacks and saddle bags they had crammed full with provisions the villagers they'd stayed with had no doubt gifted them. A number bore brightly colored tunics, some bearing swords or daggers and knives. About a dozen of the caravaners -- the ones Warriv's caravan employed for their protection -- stood at attention in their gambesons, some with mail, armed with maces, axes, spears, and an assortment of kite and round shields. Among them stood Gheed, his back to the wagon he'd arrived with, attached to a pair of horses. Two dozen sisters of the order stood at one side, and Art recognized Liene, Diane and Kashya among them, in their brown and white gambesons, with bows, spears, shields and quivers at their backs.

"Caravan master Warriv," said Kashya as they approached. "Our scouts have reported sightings of the redskins east of the village. Light sightings only, should make no trouble for a party this large, but just in case. These are the guards I've promised, two dozen in all. I trust these will suffice?" -- "Thank you, captain. Our caravan has some who know how the butt from the business end of a sword. Two dozen from the sisterhood will be plenty. I promise we'll do everything we can to keep them safe." -- "See to it that you do. Very well then, I leave them in your care. They will accompany the caravan as far as Tristram before doubling back. Liene, as the eldest among the sisters assigned to this mission, will lead. May the sightless eye watch over you." With that, she departed.

"Hey look who's back! It's Johann and Tyler," remarked Warriv, and they all shook hands. "How's your little expedition turn out?" -- "Underwhelming," said Johann, looking downcast. -- "Yeah, I think we've had our fill of adventure for a lifetime," said Tyler. "If all it involves is tripping all over the bramble of the forest and getting knocked into the dirt two dozen times a day by this here bastard," he said, shooting Johann an ugly look. -- "Hey, you think of a better way to pass the time." -- "I take it you didn't run into any of the redskins?" -- "Nope, not a one."

Art chuckled. "Sounds like you missed out on all the fun. Unlike me: I fought a big battle all by my lonesome heroic self, saved a damsel in distress, got a hand whacked off, and got put in the pillory. Like I said: A lot of fun." -- "Wait, you what?" said Tyler, and glanced at Art's hand and grimaced. "Ouch. Yeah, we're done."

Taril approached Gheed, holding up an Art who could hardly walk from his muscle cramps. "Gheed, I have a proposition for you." -- Gheed took one look at Art, then at Liene and the sisters not a dozen paces away, and stared at Taril with a distasteful look. "What, to have this decrepit freeride on my wagon?" He spat at the ground between them. "You can crawl your way out of your mess, for all I care," then turned to get on the wooden board that was the wagon seat, in such a way that left no room for Art to sit on.

"Why you--" -- "Got a problem? You can bring it up to the sisters. I believe Liene's in charge. I reckon she thought you got off pretty easy yesterday." -- "It's fine," said Art out loud, then muttered to Taril, "He's putting on a show for Liene."

"Alright, ladies and gents, let's get on with it," said Warriv, and headed down the street leading westward out of the village. The others followed, marching in no particular formation, in ranks of twos and threes, with Taril helping to hold Art up as they went, bringing up the rear of the column.

Taril asked Art, "You think the sly raccoon is going to try for more sales to the sisterhood now that we're headed out of the village? You'd think he'd do that earlier." -- "No, but he may have goods back in Tristram, and even if he didn't, it wouldn't hurt him to be in good standing with the sisterhood, for later." He chuckled. "Surely more than to try to ingratiate himself with decrepit old me."

Though they all walked at a leisurely pace, by the time they'd passed over the bridge along the west side of the village, Taril and Art had lagged far behind the rest of the caravan. A dozen steps, two, three dozen, four, five… Art figured some of the sisters guarding the back must have noticed, since one of them rushed ahead, and a few moments later the caravaners started to slow down and bunch up.

Liene and several of her sisters strode to the back. "I was wondering who's been causing trouble and slowing us down," she said, looking at Art as he leaned on Taril, struggling to move. "Hurry up or we'll leave you behind. Let you fend for yourselves like you should."

"I'd be hurrying if you hadn't put me in the pillory," Art retorted.

"Mmm. Serves him right."

Taril glowered at her. "Liene, I believe I have yet to introduce you to my friend." -- "Oh, I think she knows me--" -- "No, not you, Art. Meet Warriv. The caravan leader. We roomed together at the Bedfords', I would have introduced you to him back then if you had paid a visit. Did you know, Art saved him and his compatriots from a band of highwaymen on the king's road, once. Near would have gotten himself stabbed through the heart had he not been there. How long ago was that, Art? Six, seven years? We've been traveling ever since."

Liene shot Art a frustrated look. "Tell the others to stop," she said, tilting her head toward Oriana, who then ran up the procession shouting, -- "Hold, hold!"

Seeing Liene proceeding forward, Art turned to Taril with a look of amazement. "I see what you did there," he said, as Taril smirked back.

As the others came to a stop, Art continued trudging on over, with Liene leading the way. "Gheed," she said, "I need you to take a passenger," before coming to a stop before the owner of the only wagon in the caravan. The merchant and another caravaner sat on the wooden bench at the front of the wagon, leaving no space for a third. She raised her eyebrows at them. -- "Sorry, seat's taken," said Gheed, gesticulating a sign of helplessness.

"Roland, wasn't expecting to find you sitting here," Liene said to the other rider, a short, stocky man covered head to foot in mail, a flanged mace hanging at his side. Would you kindly give your seat to this laggard?" Liene said, pointing a thumb at Art. "He seems too out of shape to continue on."

"No thank you, I prefer sitting," Roland replied. -- "Weren't you just trying to woo sister Ryann with your claims of how athletic you were? We can't have you start to lose your edge." -- "Well, I changed my mind." -- "You realize everyone's watching." -- "Do I look like I care?" -- Liene glared at him. "Are you really going to insist on keeping your seat when someone else needs it more?" -- Roland gave a look of outrage. "I'll have you know I paid good money for this here seat, and I'm not about to give it up to anyone."

Liene shot Gheed a scathing look. "Ugh. Why did you have to give your seat up to him?" -- "Same reason I do anything," he replied as he patted his money bag hanging at his side. "This man had silver, I took it." -- "Well give it back to him." -- "But what money is there to be had in such a proposition?" -- "You--" -- "Even if I gave his money back, I still can't kick him off the wagon. A good merchant never goes back on his word. And surely the highly regarded sisterhood would not force him otherwise?" -- Liene seemed at a loss for a moment, then asked, "That's quite honorable, for a peddler. How much did he pay you?" -- "Twopence[denarii]." -- "Two," Liene echoed in disbelief.

Well, doesn't this put her in quite the bind? Art thought, as Liene turned around to Roland and said, "I would give you twopence to give your seat up." -- "Not moving." -- "Three." -- "You have two choices. You can either give up your seat and take your damn silver, or we can all just sit here and wait and we can see what happens when everyone's had enough of you." -- "Or you can stop being so stingy. Surely the sisterhood must be quite rich, holding such a valuable pass?" Roland challenged. Liene and several of the other sisters winced at the reminder. -- "You know what? Keep your seat; we don't need it. Art here can just keep on walking, and you'd be out your silver." -- Roland gave Art an appraising look. When he saw Liene turn his way, Art intentionally sagged, then collapsed altogether, almost bringing Taril down along with him, and gasped, -- "Ah! I think I just sprained an ankle." -- Roland turned to Liene with a look of triumph. "Not in that condition, he can't."

Gritting her teeth, Liene took out her money purse, took out six silver pennies, and dropped them onto the ground, one at a time so everyone could count them fall. "That's it, we're leaving. Roland, you can either give up your seat to get your damn silver, or you can let Art pick them up when he brings up the rear." -- Gheed jumped off the wagon. "On second thought, Art can have my seat," he said with a grin. -- Liene stared at Gheed for a moment, then nodded. "Thank you," she said. She shot the smug Roland a final glaring look before stalking away.

Taril helped Art onto the wagon bench beside Roland while Gheed picked up the dropped coins with a delighted look on his face. When Liene had advanced to the front of the caravan to tell Warriv that all had been settled, Art noted to Gheed, "I see you're up to your usual tricks."

"Why, that accusation hurts! I'm nothing more than a proper businessman who always stays by his word." Gheed turned and handed a penny to Roland and one to Art. "You did excellent, Roland. And nice performance right there, Art. Pleasure doing business with ya," he said as he walked alongside their wagon, with Roland now at the reins. Roland and Art both chuckled, knowing looks on their faces.

"Oh no, the pleasure's all mine," said Art. "Been wanting to see that bitch get put in her place. That you two did it while managing to get me a place to sit and get us some silver speaks volumes. Well met, Roland, name's Art." They shook hands. Art nodded toward his mace, the butt of which bore a trident imprint, red on white, of the Order of the Light. "Well, I never would have guessed. Templars usually don't go about swindling ladies." -- "Ah, you mistake me." -- "Ah? The Light's descry is hard to mistake." -- "One so abandoned is not hard to take."

Art sized the man up. "You realize you aren't all that impressive a figure. Why go about telling people that you're either a looter or a thief?"

"I don't mean the mace, Art, I mean the descry, the symbol of our order. I left the templars since they were all a bunch of stuck ups. What's the point of knight-errancy if you can't stir up some trouble while you're at it? A wise man once said, it is only in a world darkened by chaos and lies that the champion of order and truth shines brightest. See? I too must do my part to accentuate the light."

"Haha! And I might guess that I have quite the good fortune, to sit in the grace of the wise man's presence at this very moment." -- "That'd be spot on." -- "So, what brought you out this far east?"

"Officially, the church has charged me with missionary duty converting the heathens in Aranoch, and that once I get at least six proper men to convert to the light, they will recommunicate me. They can stick their mission up their arse for all I care. I'm headed east because I'm sick and tired of the church presence in the west. What with all the kings and princes of Khanduras, Entsteig, and Westmarch kneeling before the caduceus of the pope, someone like me won't ever feel at home in these parts." -- "And your solution is to live as a heathen in a foreign land?" -- "Foreign? What, you didn't think the church sent me there to convert people if I couldn't even speak the language? No, I was born there. Lived quite a few years there in fact, before I converted to the light and pilgrimaged to the order's fort at Westmarch."

"Still, to go so far… What exactly happened that got you excommunicated?" -- Roland chuckled. "I had an argument with the archbishop. Said the order stood to gain more recruits if they loosened their rules a little." -- "Oh. That's it?" -- Roland shook his head slowly at Art as if in dismay for him. "You have no idea what things are like with the church, do you? A good number of people tortured for heresies and blasphemies would like to switch places with me if they could -- that is, if they were still alive. Only reason I can even talk about this is because we're traveling quite aways from the zealots out in their coastal cities." He looked a bit downcast. "Which brings us to the part where I can't actually get there because the pathetic sisterhood lost their monastery."

"Ah yes, that little snag. Well, you can always go back to the church, tell them the way east's closed, and I'm sure they'll give you another assignment." -- Roland glowered at him. "Yeah but I don't want to stay in church dominion." -- "Well then, you can stay with the sisterhood, they don't share the zeal of the church and don't answer to the king, hence why the sisters are called rogue." -- "If you hadn't noticed, they're caught up in fighting a war right now." -- "So? You can go help them. Maybe even fight back to the gates of the monastery, and reopen the pass." -- "Aha-- You're kidding. Me, fight the beast?" -- "Oh, you heard about that," said Art, looking crestfallen. "Can you just forget about that part?" -- "You're the one who told everybody about it, now you want us to forget it? Fickle, you are."

"Someone's going to kill the beast eventually." -- "Right then, just holler out to me when that someone does his thing, and I'll be back in a jiffy. But I don't fancy taking on that creature." -- "There are other roles in the war, Roland. Guard, patrol, scouting duties. Logistics and supplies. Trade and diplomacy. Espionage and counterintelligence. None of which will involve you running into the beast. Besides, you can explain this as part of your quest to convert those out east." -- "You seem mighty interested in me fighting for the sisterhood. What's in it for you? Aren't you leaving for good like the rest of us?"

"Ah, nothing gets past you, does it?" Art said with a sigh, then looked up at the sky, despondent. He thoughts drifted to Selena; where was she, how was she doing? It felt like days since he'd last seen her, and that sense of not knowing the situation back in Thistledown was starting to gnaw at him. He didn't really care for the sisterhood, but he did care about how their war went. So that she and her foster parents Nathan and Penny stayed safe and wouldn't have to worry about imminent attack, he wanted them to win. And since he couldn't do it himself, he needed others to fight for the cause.

"Yes," replied Art, still staring off. "I want to see the pass reopened. And yes, I have a vested interest in the matter. You know, there's lots of people will be wanting to head east. The sisterhood's going to have to keep turning them away, until they regain the pass or someone else -- maybe the king -- secures it. Merchants will be left unable to trade their wares, and the whole of two civilizations will be made so much the poorer for it." Then he looked At Roland. "If you attended the trial or heard about it, then you should know: I did help the sisterhood fight. And were it up to me, I'd go back in a heartbeat and fight to defend the people of Thistledown, some of them people I care very much for. But it's not an option for me. With the wound I took, I can't quite go back into the fight. You can."

Roland looked uneasy, stared down at his lap. "I saw you at the trial. You really fought them like you said, huh?" -- Nod. -- "I could feel the truth, from the way you spoke of it. I don't know how you did it." He held up the mace by his side, stared at it. "Since I received this mace from the magister of my class, I'd never used it in battle. Not even out of self defense." -- "But they did teach you, no?" -- "Of course. Everyone who passes the initiation rituals for becoming a templar has to learn at least the basic three. The way of inner peace, the way of blinding light, the way of channeling vigor. You'll notice only one of them's useful in an actual fight, and I hadn't learned much anything else before I got expelled. Out on the field, I'll just get my ass handed to me, severed and on a bloody platter."

"Who's to say that's going to be the case? I'm sure if you offered your assistance to the sisterhood, they'd gladly give you training." -- "They could give me the best training in the world and it wouldn't matter," said Roland, and looked away. "I'm not half the man you think I am." -- "Hey now, no one is brave by default. Courage is something you find within yourself on the field of battle, when you find you have something precious to protect. It's the same with me."

Selena, he thought. Back when he fought at the monastery, it'd been his desire to see her escape to safety had kept him from fleeing.

"You could spend some time getting to know the girls. Maybe by the time you are called to battle, you'll have found someone worth fighting for." -- "Pssh. You're fooling no one, Art. The sisterhood is a celibate order." -- "Well, you never know," Art said, shrugging. "Besides, with channeling vigor, they probably would even forbid you from getting within a dozen leagues of the front line. You'd be a unique asset to them, with the number of wounded they're sure to suffer. You, a rogue templar, pledged to the Order of the Sightless Eye instead of the Order of the Light? They'd welcome you with open arms."

Roland gritted his teeth. "I told you, I'm not up for it," he said with steel in his voice. "And I don't appreciate you trying to goad me into fighting your war for you. After we get to Tristram I'm headed on to Duncraig. And that's final."

Art fell silent, not content to let the matter drop but knowing any further attempts to convince the man would fall on deaf ears. He stared out to the passing trees, grasses and bushes of the forest, or past endless fields of golden-haired wheat, allowing the trotting of hooves of the two horses before them to banish the silence.

They stayed on the well treaded path that wended its way from the outlying farmlands of Thistledown, through forest and meadow, past streams and hamlets.

The first hamlet they passed lay abandoned, a burned, charred husk little different from the one Art and Selena had come across earlier, and littered with corpses. The caravan stopped to pay their respects to the dead and Art watched as several of them dug out graves for the deceased and buried them up. One of the dead was a girl, barely six or seven years old, golden-haired and fair of skin, now mangled and bloodied. When he saw the corpse he couldn't help but see Selena in his mind's eye. No, he thought; she couldn't be dead, this isn't her, and tried to shake it from his mind as he rushed to help the others with the burials. He buried the girl's corpse himself.

On their walk away from the hamlet, he thought of Selena. Was she okay, safe with the Bedfords? Thistledown currently sported a good number of the sisters, so it should all be fine for now; but then, if the redskins could penetrate this far west, how safe were they really? He could scarcely bear to imagine it, even though the thought wouldn't go away when he shook his head to try to wipe them out: Nathan, Penny, Selena all a mangled mess on the ground, their blood flowing freely. He must have seen too many killed back at the monastery, he thought, for his imagination to pull such grotesque imagery out of nowhere so easily.

He wanted to go back, to check up on them and ensure that nothing untoward had happened. Wanted to dote on the little girl. No, he thought, shaking his head in sorrow. He would never be able to return, or even do anything to protect them if he did, so best not to think of it. Yet even as he went, he couldn't help but dwell on them.

The rank, sickening stench of rotting meat lingered on them long after the hamlet passed out from sight behind them, and many bathed in the next stream they happened upon. The next one after that had been ransacked and entirely abandoned, and thankfully no corpses could be found.

They arrived around noon upon the first village since leaving Thistledown. Before the village and along the road, they came across a stake thrust upright upon the ground, where the head and body of one of the shamans had been impaled, grotesque with its head twisted backward and dripped with congealed black of blood. The skull portion of a skull-and-torch staff had been thrust down the hapless creature's throat, leaning outward. The only incongruous thing about the whole affair was that it wore a white and brown women's gown.

Several of the sisters residing within the village spotted them and ran up to greet them. "Well met, sisters," said Liene, waving to them, and conversed with them a bit before bringing them before the caravaners. "Welcome to Stonebridge, the village where redskins come to die. And get put on display," she said, gesturing at the dead one. -- "Yeah, I noticed… What is the meaning of this effigy?" asked Warriv. -- "It's meant to scare those little redskins away. The sight of one of their elders puts the fear of death into them, so the sight of that helps keep the village safe." -- "And the clothes? Puts the fear of shame into them? I guess even the uncivilized bastards wouldn't be caught dead in women's clothes," added Warriv. -- "Or not," said Taril, pointing at the dead shaman, as several of the caravaners burst into laughter.

Glowers from the local sisters got them to shut up real quick. "We didn't put the gown on the elder, it came here wearing that. All of them did," said one, then gulped, as if what she had to say next were not easy. "They are our uniforms for when us sisters are not armored up for battle. They must have taken them from the monastery. Looted them from our home, perhaps even from…" she looked away. Perhaps even from the corpses of our fallen sisters, Art finished the thought in his mind.

"For you to have set this up, I gather they attacked this place?" Liene asked one of the local sisters. "What can you tell us about them -- numbers, equipment, coordination, tactics?" -- "Nowhere near a threat," remarked Liaza. "Only a single group thus far. They attacked yesterday, two elders and about a dozen of the little rascals. We put the other one on display by the road on the other side of the village. Most of them bore round shields instead of bucklers, gave us some trouble with our bows, but couldn't use them properly, like they lacked the proper training. Besides, way of the sidewinder makes mockery of their shield walls, and within seconds of joining the battle they had fled. We lost none of our sisters in the battle; I doubt any of them made it out alive." -- "That is good to hear, sister Liaza." -- "Come, you must be wearied from your walk," she gestured, and the caravan proceeded on toward the village center.

The shamans are starting to wear clothes, and the midgets changing their weapons? Art thought with rising dread as they went. "Are you at all concerned?" he asked. -- "What is there to be concerned about, with such rabble?" asked Liaza as she and several others turned their attention to him. -- "Well, hear me out. The redskins aren't dumb. In the monastery battle, and in another one since, I've seen them adapt to my changing tactics, seen them use commands to coordinate their troops and come up with counters on the fly. In those battles it had been their notable lack of armor that had decided the outcome. Well, that, and their use of bladed weapons and flame, neither of which can easily penetrate even light armor. At the time I thought them brutes who hadn't even heard the concept of wearing any actual clothes, and that that was why they had only been in their loincloths. But now they had replaced their bucklers with round shields. And you know why: round shields afford better protection against arrows. That begs the question, why hadn't they used them earlier?" He gestured at the shaman in the white and brown gown. "They'd started wearing these, so why hadn't they done so when they first invaded? Surely it wasn't because they'd simply forgotten about it, or hadn't thought of it?"

"So what are you saying?" asked Liaza, to which Art replied: -- "Seems to me like they didn't have the money or the resources back then. And now that they have the monastery and everything of value within it, they can begin selling it for other goods. Things that would be better suited to their war effort. Things like this," he said, prodding at Liaza's gambeson. "Or this," he said, this time pointing at her spear, "or this", tapping the large shield at her back. "Or any number of other weapons that would be more likely to hurt through armor. Maces, polearms."

"Uh, I thought this was going to be some kind of big revelation," said Liaza with a chuckle. "You must be new here. Caravaner?" At Art's nod she continued. "If you fought them recently, you can count yourself lucky. They'd only been this lacking in weapons and armor rather recently. Now that their situation has improved somewhat, you can expect them to field a greater variety of weapons, gambeson, the regular armor anyone else would bring. But you know what? We've fought them before, when they were at their best, and we beat them. Many times. Out in the open, those little runts don't stand a chance."

"It lightens my heart that you feel so at ease," said Liene, sounding far more somber. "I wish I could say the same for the rest of us. Our sisters who remain at Thistledown must stay on their guard at all times, not knowing when redskins might suddenly attack from out of the woods. They have already attacked on several occasions, and after the loss of the monastery we can ill afford losing any more of our sisters, nor can we be so confident that they would stand against the invaders. And though we would much prefer to stay by their side and protect them when the need comes, we have other charges. We must continue on to Tristram, to see our wards to safety. Until our return -- stay strong, and may the sightless eye watch over you."

Thus they departed from Stonebridge. By the afternoon they'd descended out of the stony highlands surrounding the monastery. Here more of the land was tilled, and patches of forest grew more infrequent while hamlets dotted the road, seemingly without end. They passed by road patrols of the local baron, even as they passed village after village, each of them about a mile or two apart.

By late evening they had passed a dozen villages. As they entered the central square of a village called Maple Creek, they beheld a caravanserai before them. The building formed the centerpiece of the village, situated at one side of the village square, right opposite the church, and dwarfed them both. A large wooden building comprised of four halls surrounding a central courtyard, it had stalls and stables, niches and chambers for the whole lot of them. Warriv stopped them all before the building's entrance, and gestured for their attention. "Alright, I reckon every one of you must be tired like hell right about now, so we'll be staying here for the night." -- Cheers rang out from the beleaguered caravaners. -- "Though I admit it might be a rather awkward meeting with the owner after them seeing us pass by the other way mere days ago."

"Really, Gheed, you're doing that tonight?" Art called after him as he saw the merchant open up his wagon doors and take out his display tables. "After that walk, most of us would have just retired for the evening." -- "Walk? Were we walking?" -- "Right, fair point," he said, watching the merchant rush to set up his goods right by the village center. Then he shook his head and followed the rest of the caravaners. "Just don't stay up too late, or I'll be taking the reins tomorrow."

Warriv checked them all in with the owner, who dispatched servants to tend to the two horses as well as bring suppers to the starving caravaners and the sisters accompanying them. They took up residence along two of the four halls of the caravanserai, forming into groups to claim the available rooms. Art, Warriv, Taril and Roland claimed one together, and set down what little belongings they'd been carrying. Setting down his rucksack, Art rubbed the small of his back before following the rest of them back out into the expansive common area forming the corner of one of the halls.

Taril had found himself a cozy spot against the wall and started playing his flute, a few notes meant to do little more than to garner an audience. Art and Warriv and a few dozen others sat down in the commons alongside them. "Have a piece in mind for tonight, Taril?" asked Warriv. -- "Well, the sisters have been sharing a few of their tales with me," he replied, shooting Ryann and a few other sisters a dashing smile. "With your leave," he said, making a bow even as he squatted in place. "Gather around! O, gather around, and let us celebrate our safe arrival to Maple Creek with song!"

As some of the carvaners milled about and settled down to seats and and tables scattered about the common room, and as the servant girls brought their beer and board to their tables, Art looked around and spotted Roland had already taken sat down on one of the wooden chairs. The recent discussion they'd had about joining the sisterhood came to mind: how Roland hadn't been amiable to his proposal. The man needed a bit of a prod, and it couldn't come from him. Well now, here's an opportunity, he thought to himself, and approached Taril and squatted down beside him. "I have a request for tonight, actually," he said. "I'd heard you tell the tale of 'Prince Aidan and the Darkening of Tristram' on several occasions, and I'd like to hear that tale now."

"Oh come on," said one of the sisters, "Tristram is practically right on our doorstep. Don't you have some tales of more exotic places? North to the frigid highlands of Harrogath, east to the desert sands of Aranoch, or even as far as the orient?"

"Ah, but as you will notice, we are going to Tristram. Tomorrow. That makes this story more relevant, and thus easier to appreciate, than a story of some place far away. You wouldn't deny your wards a nice day of relaxation after such a long walk, now would you?" replied Art, wishing the caravaner would stop protesting. "Besides, you'll like it when you hear this story. Warriv can attest to that as well. Right, Warriv?" -- "What he said," said Warriv, shooting Art a startled look but swiftly recovering. "You'll never hear a more moving and romantic piece, and Taril is a master of its retelling. If you miss it, you ladies will regret it for the rest of your life." -- "Very well," the sister acquiesced.

"Very well, let us begin then," said Taril, then took out his flute. He played a short little melody, an upbeat one sounding joyful and rustic, then sang.

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