The ride was rough, but Cynthia brought the boat and all aboard back to their beach dock safely.
They were sore, filthy and tired. Their spirits were high and they sang during the long walk to the ranch.
Not a were’ in sight
Neither far nor near
In lands high or low
Undead too we’ll fight
Cheatin Death then fear
For everywhere we’ll go
On land or sea
No safety for your kind
You cannot hide
‘Cause there we’ll be
You’re not hard to find
We’ll be sure your fried
Their song carried through the quiet night and everyone on the ranch knew “The Team” had returned long before they could be seen.
It was a bit unexpected but they had a welcoming committee. The six mentors stood at the paths end, none looked happy.
Jaffar at an even six feet stood stoic and regal as always. His two hundred forty pound frame was impressive and in this mood dangerous. His scimitars hilt exposed over the right shoulder was always within reach. The loose flowing caftan he wore snapped in the breeze, the black silk nearly invisible. Julie had never seen him like this before.
Shooter though two inches taller carried thirty pounds less, the deep green of his tunic filtered down to his tan breeches, his bow and a nearly full quiver ever present across his back. Until now Cynthia had never seen him anything less than jovial.
Gormi, strong as two bulls and built like one, his four foot five height was deceptive, the dwarf’s demeanor was either dour or ready to break into one of his dwarvin songs it was always hard to tell. This was a rare moment Gretta was sure that nobody had ever seen him without his axe or the normal heavy armor that usually encased him. Instead this night he was bare-chested but for the dark leather apron that covered even the familiar waist length beard worn in two braids.
Cori honored by Gormi as a beardless brother looked small beside the dwarf. At only three feet eleven he was clearly the shortest among the mentors but in some ways the most feared. He had a knack for knowing everything that happened no matter where it took place, this had been the reason for leaving Suzanne home on the first leg of their journey – you just never knew where he was or where he might turn up. Aanna almost cringed when he met her eyes only the confidence from the island kept her standing tall.
The team stood before them smiling. It was not helping their case. After a long silence Jaffar issued an order. “Get into the dining hall, Essira is heating a meal.”
Bollofaro had gone unnoticed by all but Suzanne until now. His five foot eight frame seemed slight but she knew the power it contained. “While eating I hope you will entertain us with the tale that has created such high spirits.”
“It better be a good one.” Cori was looking at the scar on Aanna’s cheek.
They headed for Essira and their first real meal in three days.
“Did you see the condition their in?” The question came more from concern than anything else.
Gormi took a hard look at Jaffar, “If you’ve never been in such a state you’re not the man I thought you were.”
“He’s been in worse.” Bollofaro answered for him. “I believe we all have been, it still doesn’t make seeing them any easier.”
“Nae it does not.” Gormi shook his head as he agreed.
“Did you smell them?” Tromacillis wrinkled her nose she was unused to such odors.
Gormi jumped, “Girl let a person hear you when you sneak up on them will you?” He looked up into her face, “Aye they found a nightwing cave alright.”
The wizard put a hand on Cori’s head. “Dwarvin for bats.”
“Shall we get on with this?” Shooter seemed anxious. “I for one would like to hear where they were and what they were up to.”
“True despite the odor, I would like to know where such a song as they sang came from.”
“Smells of a good fight, sorry I missed it.” As Gormi walked away he added, “Leave it to an elf to worry about the song.”
They entered from the kitchen door and received and immediate reaction from Essira. “Oh no you six get out to the well and run some water over yourselves. You’ll not sit in here dragging all that filth with you.”
“Yes ma’am.” Julie turned her team around.
Out at the well they took turns pouring buckets over each other. Conversation hovered on one topic; what are they going to do with us? Opinions varied but in general they all expected some kind of punishment.
Back in the kitchen the soggy six sat around a single table nearest the fire and listened to Essira’s commentary. “You know that disappearing like that was not very smart.” She looked them over quickly. “I expected better from you. Of all the teams you are the one that others look to as an example. You were the first, you six need to do better at setting one!”
Talmae muttered something that only Suzanne caught, “Ndengin uuvanimo carin vasa.” Suzanne’s response got a wide eyed stare from the elvin master cook and no further commentary.
Essira called them to the fireplace “I’m not going to serve you. Bad enough Talmae and I had to cook another meal. You get yourselves over here and get it.”
About the time they were finishing Essira and Talmae left. The house matron, Essira, gave a parting comment on her way up the stairs. “I don’t want to see those dirty bowls when I come down in the morning.”
“No Ma’am. We’ll clean up, it will be the way you would leave it.” Suzanne gave her word.
That was evidently good enough for her, she nodded and went up to retire.
Aanna and Suzanne had both helped in the kitchen before so they knew what was expected.
Suzanne used some effect to clean the bowls and utensils while Gretta swept the floor and Cynthia mopped as Julie cleaned the ashes from the fireplace and Victor set the wood for the morning fire, Aanna made sure everything was put away to Essira’s standards.
Jaffar entered with the others behind him. Suzanne tapped Julie, “The tribunal is in.”
“Doesn’t look good.” Her response barely above a whisper.
“Sit.” Bollofaro’s command was instantly obeyed.
“Whose idea was this little trip?”
Julie stood, “Mine your Eminence.”
Julie looked at Cynthia who quickly sat back. The effect was not lost on Jaffar.
“I detect some dissension in your ranks girl.”
“No sir Gormi. Nothing of the kind, it is loyalty sir.” She glanced at Cynthia, “Others would save me if I allowed it.”
“So you planned the whole thing with no help from your team?”
She looked at her newest questioner. “They helped Sir Cori, the responsibility is still mine.”
“So they worked entirely on your orders?”
“Yes sir…” she was trying to remember his proper name, “Shooter.” She couldn’t remember him being called anything else.
He laughed then noticed the look of surprise. “Want to wager?”
Their eyes met and she knew …. “No sir.”
“And I thought you would finally lose one.”
“Enough of this. It seems we will get nowhere until the story is told.” Bollofaro looked right at Julie, she could feel his eyes even from beneath the cowl. “Start with Eoa.”
“That is the day before we left Magus.”
Cori smiled, “But it is the day your escapade began.”
Julie hung her head for a second, they knew … looking directly into the dark space where Bollofaro’s face should be, she began. “Three of us went to town …”
Hours later the story was told and questions answered by her and each member of the team they seemed satisfied. “That is the story.” She sat down.
The elfin voice broke the silence speaking for the first time. “What did you learn?”
Julie stood again. “Never to go anywhere half prepared, and to use more caution.”
“Good.” Tromacillis looked at Suzanne, “And you?”
Julie sat as Suzanne stood. “To do better research and never shove a staff into somethings mouth.”
“Very well.” Her gaze fell on Gretta, “You?”
“To hit harder, duck faster and never underestimate an opponent.”
The elfin eyes fell on Gormi. “The poor girl thinks like a dwarf.”
“I like that, it is the first time you ever complimented me.”
“Was not meant as one.” She turned to Cynthia, “I believe it is your turn.”
“Yes my Lady. I need to pay more attention to where I lay my sword and move more often to get clear shots.”
“Interesting.” Her eyebrows rose with a quick glance at Shooter as she turned to Aanna. “And you?”
“Not to stick my head into places where I cannot see and that attacking from behind is not always safe.”
“Excellent.” She turned to Victor, “You?”
“Many things were learned my Lady. First to be quicker with the healing. Also that not all healing should be done immediately, sometimes a person needs to learn from their pain. Once they have the healing has more meaning not only for them but it also serves the divine purpose. The most important thing though is not to interrupt a warriors momentum during combat. Had I not done so some healing may not have been required.”
“Good.” She turned to Jaffar, “You have chosen this one well.”
“Thank you Tromacillis.” Jaffar bowed to her then turned back to the errant apprentices. “You six get some rest Tomorrow after training we will meet again.”
They rose to leave, Julie stopped and turned to Jaffar. “As I said Your Eminence the responsibility is mine not theirs. Please maintain that thought as you decide what to do.”
“Young lady there is enough responsibility to go around. You led them and brought them all back. That was your responsibility and you lived up to it, this time. Each of your teammates must also take responsibility for their own actions. This is one sword you cannot fall on.”
“As you wish sir.” Julie left with the others.
They walked back to their house in silence, each reflecting on what they believed had just happened.
When they were in the common room Julie broke into their thoughts. “Lets have one victory drink, I fear it may be our last for a while.”
Gretta and Aanna poured them, Victor passed them out. Suzanne sat staring at the ceiling until everyone had theirs.
“To our success!” It seemed that Julie had also learned to take one for itself without looking for more.
“And to many more!” Suzanne added it for her.
“Success!” Came the answering chorus.
“What do you think they will do?” Victor it seemed had caught Aanna’s curiosity.
Gretta responded first, “Extra work probably.”
“They could make us stay on the ranch for awhile.” Cynthia sounded concerned.
Victor tried to reassure her, “I think they will be more creative than that. You will still be able to see your family.”
“They might make us pay for the boat.” Suzanne had her own worries.
“Not likely, but there is a sort of fee that may need to be paid because of it. In case anyone forgot we never picked up the silver.” Aanna never looked up as she spoke.
“I agree with all of you. We should expect all of those things and more.” Julie laid a hand on Aanna’s shoulder. “We didn’t tell them where the boat is.”
Aanna looked up staring at her for what seemed like forever then it hit her. “You mean go back?!”
“Tonight before we are under close watch tomorrow. We just get the silver and come back. We can use Boar Cove this time.”
“Jules are you serious?” Suzanne sounded more shocked than curious.
The ear to ear grin told them all she was.
“Let me take a look around first.” Aanna was halfway out the door before she finished.
“Suz, if we contribute to the church and pay the fee Aanna mentioned , well, maybe things won’t be so bad.”
What if they check on us?” It was Victor who was worried now.
“Ok, I’m asking, who wants to stay here?”
Suzanne and Victor looked at each other but neither spoke up.
“Good then it’s settled. We go.”
The door closed and everyone looked at Aanna. Suzanne hoping she had found a reason not to go. “Nobody around. I guess they figured we wouldn’t leave again so soon.”
Suzanne’s heart skipped a beat when she heard Aanna. Looking at Victor her eyes pleaded for a reason to stay.
He turned away from her. He would follow Julie regardless of the consequences.
“We go and come right back. No exploring, no hunting, not tonight.”
They took the well known path to the beach and turned south for the boat. Making it this far seemed easy. The sail was quick to what they were now calling Boar Cove. From there the trip to the tower went quickly over the now familiar territory. Getting in had them muddier than before. The rain had stopped and the mud was thickening, clinging to everything. The air inside the tower was thick with the odor of guano. While passing the bat floor flies, gnats and mosquitoes buzzed around them. None of it mattered, they were focused on their goal.
When they reached the roof Aanna set to scoring and breaking the silver into squares. Gretta and Julie joined her after she showed them how. With the three of them working on the metal while Victor and Suzanne put it into their packs things went quickly. Cynthia fed her bird friend some jerky as she watched for anything out of the ordinary. There were thirty two squares by the time they had finished.
Their return to the house went without incident. Julie froze in place when she opened the front door. Aanna strained to see around her.
Aanna recognized that voice, her shoulders slumped.
“Are you coming in?”
They filed in joining Cori.
“Sit, we should talk.”
Julie nodded to Aanna then took a seat between Victor and Suzanne. Cynthia and Gretta flanked Cori. Aanna stayed standing, this was her mentor she knew best how to handle him.
“Sir I know that you are here for …”
“For what the boat incident? In part yes, I expected to talk with you about that. I am also interested in what was left out of the story.”
“I understand.” She shed her pack, “Let us take care of them in order.” Fishing out four of the eight plates in her pack she presented them to Cori. “That should take care of the obligation for the vessel and leave you something for … your inconvenience.”
He hefted one in his hand while looking it over. “I will assume there are more of these and that it was not possible to transport it intact.” He looked up, “This was not part of your story. Why not?”
“Because we had to retrieve it. Not having it with us would have made the rest of the events less believable, or worse made us seem foolish or forgetful.”
“Are you telling me that neither is true?”
“I am.” They locked gazes, “With three of us wounded in the combat, health was our primary concern. His Eminence is the only one who can detect the infection so soon after such a wound and he is also the only one capable of curing it.”
“So the extra hour or two was unacceptable?”
“Not the time sir. The work required was. If the infection works like a poison,, you taught me that such exertion would speed the effect.”
“Ok, I will accept that, but,” He turned his gaze to Julie and Victor, “will Jaffar?”
Victor chose to answer. “He will. His last lesson on the topic left us to answer the question is it a curse or a disease?”
“And you believe a disease works like a poison?”
“No sir.” Julie took over, “Lack of cleanliness, rest and proper meals does however promote disease.” Here she followed Aanna’s lead. “The additional work in this situation would have delayed our access to all three, a risk that was unacceptable.”
Cori’s chuckle surprised all but Aanna. “You have certainly learned to cover yourselves. An excellent job of transferring the primary speaker then following her lead in what seems a convincing story.” He turned back to Aanna. “I will leave you to teach them how to make the transition a bit smoother.”
Cori stood and walked to the door, before opening it he turned. “I should thank all of you for repaying me.” He hefted the silver plates. “The bill was paid yesterday. Next time something like that is going to happen a little warning would be nice.” He smiled and left never telling them if tonight would be kept a secret or not.
“It is getting light out.” The tired voice was Cynthia’s. “Do you think we could get the morning off for some real sleep?”
“Suz, if you’ll do the honors I’ll find out.”
“Ok, but after I do someone else gets to sweep it out.” She moved closer to the door. “You’re up Jules.” A variation of the effect used to clean the bowls was used on Julie’s robe and boots. The mud and other clinging materials flaked off onto the floor. “I’m going to leave the holes so they think we need time for repairs too.”
“Good thinking Suz. I’ll be right back.”
Suzanne continued the process on herself and the rest of the team. Victor caught her as she collapsed, exhausted.
“Gretta put her to bed please. We’ll take care of everything out here.”
The warrior lifted Suzanne with ease, cradling her as if she were both precious and fragile.
Aanna gathered and cleaned the mugs, Cynthia grabbed the broom. Victor looked around, “Hey I said we not you.”
“When Gretta has her decent you make sure nothing serious is wrong.” Cynthia said it like an order.
“I’m sure she just wore herself out. None of us has really rested since seeing the lights yesterday at about this time.” He capped off the speech with a yawn.
Aanna added her own opinion, “After you see to her put yourself to bed. With all the healing you’ve been doing we might be picking you up next.”
With a flourishing bow,” Yes my ladies.”
Aanna threw the cloth she was using, hitting him in the face. “Give me my cloth and get out of here.”
Gretta returned and Victor went to check on his patient.
The three grabbed seats putting their heads back and waited for Julie to return with news.
When Julie walked in she thought they had all gone to sleep.
“Welcome back. What’s the news?” Victor startled her she had not seen him standing in the hall entrance.
“We have the day off.” She swept her arm around at the three sleeping in the chairs, “I guess we really needed it. Where is Suz?”
“She passed out, totally exhausted. Gretta put her to bed I just came out. She will be fine no need to worry. She overdid it just like on the river.”
“Well I’ll get these three to bed, you get yourself some rest before you end up like Suz.”
“My pleasure oh fearless leader. You sure you don’t need any help with them?”
“I’m sure, go.”
“As you command my lady.” And Victor was gone.
Julie woke the girls up sending them to bed, then went herself.
It was time for the evening meal. Cynthia had been busy with needle and thread, Victor inspected and did what he could to mend belts, packs and boots. They were on one side of the room with Gretta and Julie on the other.
The pair of warriors had oiled and sharpened every weapon. With the exception of Suzanne’s staff nothing had sustained any significant damage.
Aanna took the items from Victor and helped Suzanne polish them. They wanted to look their best tonight.
The last of the seven teams to arrive for the evening meal by their own design. They strode in confidently with heads held high. There was pride in their walk, they looked like nothing had happened. Apart from the scars and Julie’s bruised face they might have been here the whole time.
They could feel the entire room watching them, apprentices, ranch heads and the masters, one hundred and six eyes all focused on one thing … them.
Donna the leader of team two leaned closer to Jennifer whispering. “I’m going to talk to Julie first chance I get.”
“Wait till we see what happens to them first.” Jen turned to her friend, “If it’s worth it we can go.”
Donna nodded her agreement and went back to eating.
After the meal they went to the sitting room with the mentors. Jaffar his normal stern look in attendance got right to the point. “Each of you will report to one of the ranch heads first thing in the morning. Ingratiid does not require any assistance right now and Essira can only use one of you. That means cattle,cows, fields or stables for everyone else.” Jaffar gave a nod to Gormi and sat.
After breaking your fast with the others attend training as usual.”
Shooter didn’t even stand. “After mid-day meal team practice will be on the beach with me.”
“After team practice all of you will get to the cows for the afternoon work.” Cori’s grin told them it would not be pleasant.
They turned to Bollofaro as he rose. “After evening meal be back in here for the next days requirements or to learn whatever else we may have decided. He turned the cowl on Julie, “You will see Tromacillis immediately after this.” The grin on his face could be felt throughout the room. “Goodnight, stay out of trouble. Next time we have to do this it will last much longer than two months and may end in the turning in of uniforms.”
The disciplinary meeting broke up leaving only Tromacillis and Julie in the room.
Julie curtsied, “My Lady you required to see me.”
“Get up girl this is no formal court.” She seemed used to such treatment and though she was of smaller stature she looked to be sizing Julie up as if she were a foe. “You will report to me for weapons training in the mornings.”
The apprentice was clearly shocked. “What of Jaffar and Gormi?”
“You will find time to take Jaffar’s lessons. That will help keep you out of trouble.” A smile crossed the normally emotionless face. “Gormi knows. If he complains overmuch I can always trim his beard.” There was enjoyment in that thought, Julie saw the sparkle in her eyes.
“I will see you after morning meal then.” She again curtsied and turned to leave.
“Before you go, I’ve noticed you do not carry a shield. What is the ability of your off hand?”
“I’m not sure I get your meaning My Lady.”
“You will.” She waved Julie off.
At the end of the house Donna stepped from the shadows, falling into the pace beside Julie. She was about six inches shorter and had to quick step to keep up.
“I take it you want to know what happened.”
“Already do. I have other ideas.”
Julie stopped and looked down at Donna. “If you know what happened then you know I shouldn’t be taking any chances.”
“We both know that yo will take those chances, maybe not for a few months but you will take them again.” She saw her target getting interested, “I’m not asking you to take any risks, right now.”
“Then what are you asking?”
“First, I am offering you some assistance.” There it is a spark in her eye, she is looking for a way, time for me to give it to her. “My team is willing to do things for you that you will need and you will not have the time or opportunity to do them.”
“Well for starters we can supply your ale since none of you will be in town. We can also help you hide the boat that you never told them how to find.”
Julie knew that Donna was hinting at something. “I’ll get message to you through Aanna. I appreciate the assistance, so will the others.” Time to find out what she really wants. “What is second?”
“We are hoping for some possibilities.”
Uhoh. “When are the possibilities?”
“The river run you made before has opened up a need for someone to scout a town site. We just need advice on what to take and any thing else you can tell us.”
“The mentors are not likely to approve and you’ve done it.” Donna didn’t want to tell it all tonight not out here anyway but there was something about Julie that just left you willing to talk. “Help us make it happen for us. We don’t want to make mistakes that have already been made. Just help us.”
“Donna are you sure?” The pleading look and nod was signal enough to continue. “We almost lost Aanna and Gretta, Suzanne passed out from the exhaustion and you can see this bruise, believe me it was much worse before Victor took care of me.”
“That is why we want to talk to you.”
“Ok, tomorrow nite we’ll come to your house. Hearing it from them might help your people be better prepared.”
“Thank you Julie.”
“Just be careful please. They will not be pleased if something goes wrong. They almost asked for our uniforms, if we had lost someone it would have been our last day on the ranch.”
“We will see you tomorrow nite. Just bring your mugs.” Donna walked away happy.
Julie had explained just everything to her team. “I just don’t understand why I’m being moved.”
Gretta attempted to ease her mind. “Tromacillis is very good with her swords, maybe you could teach me what she shows you.”
“She’s right Jules. Have you ever seen Gormi knock an arrow away with his axe?” The Elfin warrior had made an impression on Cynthia.
“That move probably save my life, she did it with a spear too.”
So Suzanne liked her too. Maybe this was going to be good for her. “Ok guys I’m convinced.”
“Good. So what is Donna really looking for?”
Aanna’s question is one she had thought about all the way back. “I don’t know. Her story doesn’t make sense, but I don’t know.”
“So you don’t believe she’s planning a ride up river?”
“NO!” Aanna and Julie answered at the same time, creating a bit of giggling.
“We really need to stop doing things like that.” Cynthia half smiled. “I know that I agreed our thinking alike helps us work better as a team. Some of the others think we are connected somehow.”
“I heard two guys from team seven call us spooky.” Aanna always seemed to hear things she wasn’t supposed to.
“Well you four have a nice conversation. Victor and I need to go to the church and see Jaffar before he thinks we aren’t going to pay the teams tithe.” Julie looked at Victor who practically jumped out of his seat. “I guess you’re ready.”
That brought a round of laughter that helped them all forget the idea of the long hours that were to come for the next few months.
Jaffar was in the sacristy preparing for his first public service in Portsend. He seemed glad to be interrupted. “What can I do for you two?” He smiled as he glanced back and forth between them.
“Not what your thinking.” Julie quickly corrected.
He produced a light chuckle. “Not yet.” giving a wink to Victor who smiled in return.
“We are here on business though.”
Jaffar turned his gaze on her. “Now I’m curious if not that then what sort of business would bring you two here tonight?”
At a nod from Julie both of them removed their packs and produced two of the silver sheets from each pack. They went to one knee with the silver extended before them on upraised palms.
“The team presents the church with its tithe …” Julie began.
Victor finished. “… being one tenth part of that which we brought back.”
“I was unaware the trip produced anything of value.” The masters tone was more curious than chastising.
“We were aware that the conversation would be listened to by others.” Julie watched Jaffar raise his eyebrows.
“Therefore we left that part out so that what we did would not be mimicked.” Victor concluded the thought.
“This is appreciated. You both know of course that this is the first donation that we have received.”
Victor glanced at Julie as she spoke. “We as a team are proud to present it, and we hope to present more.”
“Not for a few months I hope.” The tone of Jaffar’s caution was playful.”Get up there really is no need to be formal.” Once they were on their feet again, “You know this cannot change anything. I wish it would but if nothing happens to you the others would follow the example. I am glad this was not part of the story you told, it might have started a rush of attempts and deaths.”
“That was not our intent.”
“”What was your intent as you put it.”
Julie usually had a good answer, “To see what was there.”
The laughter surprised both students. “Only you would be that honest. Any other team leader would have given me a story, here you are calling it curiosity. If you continue to amuse me like that I’ll never be able to dismiss you or to relax when you go out on your own.”
“Do you mean we will be able to solo?” Julie sounded hopeful.
“Yes you will. Just try and let me or at least one of us know when you go.”
“Yes Sir.” Julie snapped.
“Get out of here and get some rest, you’ll need it for tomorrow.”
Victor turned to leave, with his hand on the door latch he realized Julie had not followed. Looking back he knew she hadn’t moved.
Julie watched until Victor met her eyes, she nodded and he left. “There is one more thing sir.”
“So I gather. Go ahead.”
Julie produced another sheet of silver and handed it to Jaffar. “My personal tithe sir.”
“Are you sure? You need repairs as do the others.”
“It is not my intention to enrich myself I do these things for the church.”
“Then I will accept this. If you find that something is needed you’ve only to ask and I will do all in my power to see that you receive it.”
“Thank you sir. You’ve been more than generous.”
“Goodnight Your Eminence.”
Before first light they were on the move again. Aanna went to Essira and brought in firewood and coals for the cooking, everyone else milked cows and cleaned up after them.
They were all well worked before morning meal. After morning meal each went to their specific mentor. All was normal, except for Julie.
Tromacillis started the moment she arrived. “You wear a dagger though its placement says you never use it. Why do you carry something you do not use?”
“I was told it was a backup weapon.”
“It will not work from its sheath. Draw it.”
Julie reached to the small of her back with her right hand and drew the dagger.
“Draw your sword.”
She sheathed the dagger and drew the scimitar. Tromacillis was shaking her head. “Is something wrong?”
“Of course its wrong you were taught by a dwarf.”
“No buts, I’ll demonstrate.” She moved with a speed that Julie had seen only once before, Julie narrowly parried the swing only to be smacked with the flat of the second sword.
“Why couldn’t you parry that?”
“I’ve no shield.”
“Yes you do, it is behind you. Put the dagger into your left hand and try again.”
After five more smacks Julie was getting the hang of it, so she got smacked somewhere else.
“Adapt or die. This is practice, you were lucky out there. A trained opponent would carve you to pieces. Lets do it again.”
By the mid-day meal Julie’s arms, legs and back were sore and bruised. She quickly discovered that the entire team was pushed to the limit, and just as sore.
The beach felt good, the sun was high in a cloudless sky, waves lapped at the sand, it was soothing almost relaxing. Shooter was nowhere to be seen.
“Shall we sit and wait?” Suzanne was already on her way down. Then, “Ouch!”
Weapons came to the ready. They looked for…
“Its a bulb arrow. Shooter’s here.” Cynthia blocked any second shot at the wizard.
Julie and Gretta got into a crouch and moved toward the berms slowly
Victor moved to Suzanne and shoved his shield into the sand behind her. “You ok?”
Aanna was nowhere to be seen she had melted into the berms and high shore grass.
Cynthia moved toward the grass to the left, hoping the others would drive him to her.
Julie and Gretta turned behind the firs berm. Gretta stayed close Julie moved an additional four paces then drew her dagger and waved. They began their advance.
Victor left his shield for Suzanne to hide behind as he moved toward the berms. He wanted to be close if somebody needed him.
Aanna cried out. Shooter had gotten her.
Cynthia moved up a berm trying to get a better view.
Julie froze in place, watching and listening. Gretta continued to move. Victor moved along the berm.
Suzanne called, “Victor use this!” She slid his shield across the sand as he looked back.
Julie heard rustling then a thunk. Gretta called out, “Where?” Shooter got her too. Julie at least knew the right direction now. Hoping Cynthia could see she raisedher hand and pointed with her scimitar. Holding it as long ass she dared, she brought it down.
Victor grabbed his shield and followed Suzanne up the berm.
Suzanne saw Julie point so she watched.
Cynthia had seen both Julie point and the top of Shooter’s bow, she was ready to fire.
Julie moved slowly, as quietly as she could, creeping forward.
Both bows fired at the same time. Julie heard the string snap and dove to her left, the bulb hit her hip. Cynthia’s arrow narrowly missed Shooter as a globe of light appeared above his head.
Shooter stood. “Everyone on the beach.”
The mood was not a good one as the six gathered in front of Shooter. He looked them over. “Two dead, two wounded and the healer out of position to help the first casualty. Who would have been saveable? Without her,” he pointed to Cynthia with his bow, “I might have gotten all of you.”
“No excuses! You knew this was a team training exercise. When you are part of any operation in the field death is only a heart beat away. Do not relax. We are not the only creatures using bows.” He turned to Julie, “What have you learned?”
“Don’t trust open spaces.”
“Ok, anyone else?”
“Thank you Cynthia. Plan your assault or have responses so well rehearsed that you know what everyone is going to do and where they are.” He looked right at Victor. “Did you have any idea where to find Aanna?”
Victor looked at his teammate instead of Shooter. “No sir. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok …” Aanna began.
“No! It is not OK! We are going to work on planning those responses until you understand that it is not OK and why it is not OK.” His emphasis got the point across, they were paying attention now.
The entire afternoon was a continuous repeat of the plan. He quickly hit anyone who made a mistake with a bulb arrow. They left for the dairy barn knowing they would get it right, eventually.
After another two hours of milking cows and shoveling out stalls they trudged the eighty feet or so for their evening meal. They were tired and sore. On the way back to the house Suzanne commented, “Two months of this will either kill us or make us invincible.” She sounded as tired as she felt.
At the house, Suzanne cleaned everything as she had the night before and Victor healed them so they could relax and would not be sore in the morning. The meeting with team two was the furthest thing from their minds. Julie was in the corner with Victor trying to catchup on Jaffar’s teachings. The others were either lost in their own thoughts or working on their own equipment.
Ready for bed and almost asleep in the chairs, the unexpected knock brought them all back as they jumped and reached for weapons. There was an exchange of questioning looks until the knock was repeated. Victor was closest so he answered it.
Jennifer stood there, tall and shapely her hair shorter than most of the girls but no less attractive. “Are you coming?”
The team houses are all identical so nothing seemed overly strange except for the unsplit stumps for extra seating. Seeing the condition of Julie and her team the regular chairs were immediately surrendered.
Once all of them were sitting and Philip had filled their mugs, Donna began. “I’m sure Julie told all of you that we are looking for advice.” She scanned the group, determined they were still awake and continued. “The thought occurred to us that the scouting job for a location of a new settlement on the river would not be to ambitious for us. Since you are the only team that has been upriver and out on your own we figured that any pointers from you would be important. The kind of information that the mentors haven’t given out yet.”
Julie began, “First if you really plan to do this then make sure you are prepared for anything. There are some big enemies along the river using spears and,” she looked at Yvonne, “bows.”
Philip, his dark hair short, carried a lithe strength and moved with an inner grace. He was the second best archer among the apprentices. He turned his attention to Cynthia. “How would you suggest I equip?”
“Carry three quivers on you and take enough arrows to refill them every few days.” Cynthia looked around, “You will be gone about three weeks so for refills I suggest about four of hunting, five of armor piercing and three of silver tipped.”
“Do you really think we will have that much trouble out there?” Sara was one of this teams primary combatants, and she sounded concerned. Her gear was the same as Gretta’s but she could not match her in strength or size. Sara was one of the few on the ranch with the light brown hair, she kept it to shoulder length. Her face was the common oval and despite all the combat training it was still soft and feminine.
It was Gretta who responded. “Yes.” Looking back and forth between Sara and Theo she drove the point home. “From the problems that Cyn and Shooter had before not to mention the size of those things, I’d say carry a spare weapon as well. If yours breaks out there the next attack will just provide them with a meal.”
Theodosis, Theo to his friends, was larger than Gretta and just as strong but a bit less skillful. “Were they armed and armored that well?”
“All but one was.” Suzanne gave her attention to Jennifer. “That one was using magic, so keep your thoughts on defense. On our way back it was Tromacillis who saved me and Carson who dealt with that threat.”
Looks of doubt and concern were spreading through the room. Their thoughts were obvious to the experienced in attendance; are we capable? Or will I be the one to die?
Philip and Jennifer were looking for Donna’s reaction wanting her to ease their concerns. Theo, Sara and Donna herself were looking toward Crystal, the team’s healer.
Crystal her height was about average and weighing only a hundred and fifty at most she seemed thin. Her dedication and ability to channel divine power made her the focus for the moment.
It was Victor who broke the silence. “Be prepared for all kinds of injuries not just open wounds, especially poisons.” He took a quick glance at Aanna who was also watching him, the deep brown eyes saying thank you better than words could have. “Carry antidotes and keep paying attention to everyone so they don’t get carried away and put themselves in extra danger.” A look in Gretta’s direction confirmed that she understood.
“Are you suggesting that this might be a bad idea?”
“Donna I really think a trip of that length is more than you or we are ready for right now. You heard the stories of the Deadlands, please don’t go that far.” Nods of agreement from the rest of her team left an impression.
“Will you still help us until we make our decision?”
“The entire room watched Julie and waited for the answer. “We will.” She stood and met every set of eyes from Donna’s team one at a time. “I want all of you to come back. Anything we can do to make that happen, I couldn’t refuse.”
Conversation turned to current training as the two teams split into smaller groups discussing the mentors and the general goings on around the ranch and Portsend. After a second ale goodnights were said and rest for the following day became the common goal.
One day blended into the next, they turned into a week which turned into two, the weeks turned into a month. Time passed quickly with the two teams in contact often. Plans were made and changed. When their extra chores were done and Julie’s team had finished their probation period, Julie and Donna began to prepare.