Shipwrecked

Lying on her back in the stinking darkness, young Aeryn Mateyus woke cold and confused, her body one big ache. Shivering on a hard surface that pitched and rolled, she tried to sit up, but her hands, shackled to a support beam over her head, prevented her from doing so. Creaking noises and the sounds of sobbing, retching, muttered curses, and distant singing accompanied an unknown whoosh. Her head throbbed, and turning it to the side to vomit, a sharp pain at the back of her skull brought a gasp, and she almost choked on her bile. Her stomach finally finished heaving and she rolled back, passing out once more.

Waking again, this time in the dim light, Aeryn looked around. A few hand spans over her head, a row of planks sagged and creaked as the occupant of the shelf above her changed position. Lifting her head to the right so she could look over her aching arm, a pair of terrified blue eyes looked back at her from another coffin-like darkness an arm’s length from her own. Cold sweat covered her body, and she wondered if she looked as scared as the eyes staring back at her. The shelves she could see were stacked five high, and she saw several rows of the offensive things. Laying her head back down, she closed her eyes and tried to think where she could be.

Her last clear memory was of her father’s funeral. Shivering as hot tears rolled from her eyes into her ears, the moisture muffled the sounds from all around. At irregular intervals, a hairy man-like creature with tusks poking from its lower jaw, poured a thin gruel down her throat that tasted like rotting fish and made her gag. Despite the sickening taste, a measure of strength flowed through her after her ladle-full. So, she did her best to not vomit the horrid mixture back at him as he poured it down her throat.

As the girl thought about her dilemma, recent memories trickled to the surface. Her father’s funeral, her older brothers devoting themselves to the land and the tavern, her sisters and younger brothers blaming her for her mother’s death, and now, for her father’s. She was inconsolable, and yet everyone blamed her! It’s not fair!

And so, a few days after her father’s funeral, and less than a month after her thirteenth birthday, Aeryn left home. She planned to walk to the village, then take the trade road to the coastal city of Ardimon. The girl had hoped to find a temple where she could learn her letters and numbers, and maybe weapons. And from there, who knew where the road would lead. Instead, as reality was dawning on the terrified youth, she was a captive and heading into an unknown, and horrifying, future.

She listened with revulsion, and growing terror as the other captives lying in the rows of slave bunks talked among themselves. Stories of slavers and pirates, rape and pillage, filled the hold. Oh gods, no! Aeryn tried desperately not to listen, but the others gossiped like her sisters. Speculating on their destination, one man swore they were on course to Port Freehaven, but how he knew that no one could guess, so the other captives did their best to try to shut him up. No one wanted to think in that direction.

Startled into awareness as the ship heaved, her knees struck the plank above her, and she was slammed back onto the shelf, the wind knocked from her lungs. Wood splintered as the ship pitched and rolled in the grip of a great storm. Moments later, the colossal tusked man—was he an orc? Her older brothers had told tales of orcs—burst through the hatch, accompanied by a frigid mixture of freezing salt water and icy wind. He grabbed the keys hanging on a hook next to the door and pulled a handful of men from their shelves. She watched as he escorted them up onto the deck.

The orc came back, again taking a handful of the hugest and healthiest, strain and worry pinching his ugly, tusked face, and again until finally, only a handful of captives remained scattered throughout the hold, quietly speculating their fate. The crack of whips and shouts of the overseers had ceased long before, and that scared Aeryn more than the violence of the previous hours. Now what?

As she waited for signs of life from above-decks, an earsplitting ~Ke-rack~ and a grating, grinding sound ripped through the air. The ship shuddered to a halt as it slammed into something immovable. On the main deck, a deafening ~snap~ and a great crash tore at her eardrums.

Hurled toward the bow, Aeryn screamed in agony as she jerked to a halt, the shackles stopping her motion. Her shoulders wrenched and she suffered more bruises and cuts to her already raw wrists. The galley ground to rest, the port half of the bow torn away. A ferocious blast of numbing-cold air and rain ripped through the hold. The port side of the galley had been laid open by the massive boulder against which the boat had come to rest. A moment later, she again heard only the howling wind and pounding surf. Out the gaping hole, she could see a section of rain-pounded beach; the galley had run aground where a cliff face met a small, sandy inlet.

A few moments of silence passed as Aeryn took stock of herself. Then, she heard one of the other captives moving near the hatch to the main deck. Twisting around, she looked through the rows of mostly-empty slave bunks to see a small blue-haired figure with pointed ears gripping a long plank with her legs and feet. The elven girl had managed to maneuver the plank up to the hook that held the keys and knock them to the deck. The young elf struggled to get the plank in position again.

As Aeryn watched, she tugged at her shackles. Her wrists ached from the growing cold as well as the bruises and scrapes from the iron rings, and her shoulders didn’t want to move. She noticed that the wooden braces were not as sturdy as they had been before the galley collided with the boulder. She heaved as hard as she could, ignoring the pain from her aching shoulders, and torn and bloody wrists. With one final jerk, the chain came free as the galley shifted once more and the timber support splintered.

Aeryn rolled off the bunk falling hard a few hand-spans to the deck below as the plank over her head sagged and splintered, one pointed edge of the shelf above her resting where her head had been but a moment before. Struggling to her hands and knees, she tried to stand and couldn’t get her legs under her, so she crawled into the main corridor to the hatch and reached the keys, shoulders and arms screaming with the effort. Her numb fingers fumbled with the cold iron until finally, she unlocked her wrists. The rusted metal dropped to the deck. She inched her way to where the young elf was sprawled, half on the shelf and half on the deck, arms stretched over her head. Unlocking the youngling, she collapsed onto the sodden planks. So tired.

Weak from lack of food and water, as well as from days of confinement with her arms stretched over her head, she had needed a moment to let her limbs rest and allow the pain of blood rushing into her appendages and nerves coming back to life abate. Her wrists and shoulders throbbed; her insides still rolled with the ocean waves. The young girl thought about her dozen older siblings and wondered if they missed her; and if they did, whether they cared that she was gone.

Probably not, she thought.

Putting thoughts of her family aside, she gathered her strength and pushed herself into a sitting position. The elfling had taken the keys and unlocked the rest of the captives. One by one, they introduced themselves to her. The young blue-haired elven girl was named Evie, and she was from the island of Hidden Port. The others were a young brown-haired elven woman named Denaryus, a young, blue-haired half-elven male named Natsu, and an older black-haired human woman named Senisalma, who like herself, was from the island of Trivent.

“I’m g-g-g-going to look around to s-s-s-see if I can find more clothes,” said Aeryn shivering, “I’m fr-fr-fr-freezing.”

“I looked,” replied Denaryus through clenched teeth. “There’s nothing down here.”

“G-g-great.”

Aeryn did some of the stretching exercises that her father had shown her after the time four summers ago she had decided to ride the old plow mare around the field. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the others had followed her lead. The stretches had the added benefit of warming them up, at least a little. The air was still frigid.

Aeryn finished her movements and walked over to where she had dropped the shackles, picked them up and placed them on the back of her neck, the open cuffs resting on her chest. She also searched around the wreckage for a suitable club. The others watched as she scavenged the area.

“What?” she said, looking back at the rest of the group. “They got me once. I won’t give them a second chance.”

With those words, the others followed her lead. Aeryn could hardly believe her eyes. Her sisters, and particularly her brothers, had treated her like she was one of the herd dogs. She had learned caution and a measure of cunning in her thirteen years. This new role pleased her, even as thoughts of her family brought tears unbidden to her eyes.

Ignoring the stinging cold of her feet as she carefully made her way toward the wreckage of the bow, Aeryn peered out the opening. The overcast sky was almost black, but she suspected some daylight was still left. She shivered as the wind pierced the worn woolen tunic and trews that she had taken from her brother Edger when she ran away from home. The slavers had taken her boots, belt, and cloak, so she was left to pick a path one slow, cautious step at a time. She had worn boots only in the dead of winter, so the soles of her feet bore thick calluses – but the last thing she needed was to cut a foot on something she couldn’t see. Glancing back, she saw the rest of the survivors following her tentative footsteps. Smiling to herself, she continued forward.

In the distance, Aeryn caught what sounded like the pirates’ songs she had heard when she first woke on the galley; the noise was coming from the side she couldn’t see. She motioned the group to stay where they were while she crept toward the sound. The sight filled her with the cold sweat of momentary panic, followed by a hot flush of blinding anger. Staggering up and down the beach like a drunken soldier on parade was the orc!

Not thinking, Aeryn firmed her grip on the makeshift club, and rushed onto the beach toward the man.

“You!” she shouted.

He turned, fumbling his sword from its sheath.

“What you meatbags doing out here?” he slurred as he staggered toward her, the broadsword wavering in front of his face.

“Why did you take us! You had no right!”

“Get back in hold, meat sack. Farkis gots plans for all ya’s,” he stated, staggering toward her.

With that, Aeryn charged the creature with her makeshift club raised in both hands. She dodged under his clumsy swing, twisted, and swung her plank in return. She hit him a glancing blow to the back of his head as she rushed by. He staggered forward a step. Before the creature could regain his senses, Natsu hit the slaver with his club, and the orc dropped to the ground.

As Denaryus checked to see if he was alive, Aeryn picked up the broadsword in both hands and swung it tentatively. She wasn’t about to let the orc have the sword back, whether she could use it or not.

“He’s dead,” pronounced the elf.

“I didn’t think I hit him that hard,” said Natsu, bright blue-green eyes wide.

“He was pretty drunk,” said Aeryn. “Maybe he stumbled wrong. Anyway, I can’t say I’m sorry he’s dead.”

“Nor I,” responded Denaryus.

“I’m taking his armor and his sword,” said Aeryn.

“You are welcome to it,” said Natsu, placing his bare foot next to the foot of the dead orc. “I am taking the boots.”

Aeryn took the studded leather breastplate down to the water’s edge and used some sand and seawater to try to clean the smell of orc and blood from the leather. She succeeded somewhat, but didn’t quite get all the blood out—it smelled better, at least. Listening to the rest of the group as they scavenged what was left in the ship’s hold, she thought about her situation. Stuck on some unknown island with a group of strangers, no food, no water, and no way off. Great. Just bleedin’ great.

The girl listened as Senisalma spoke.

“My father is Kermalas; he is the guild master of the Merchant’s Guild of Nevits. He will handsomely reward whoever brings me home.”

“How handsomely?” asked Evie, more than a hint of greed tainting her voice.

“I don’t know for sure, but I’m sure that Father will pay at least a hundred gold pieces per rescuer,” Senisalma stated, a slight quaver to the words.

Aeryn heard the insecurity in the young woman’s voice as she finished scrubbing the leather breast piece. She buckled it over her tattered tunic and carefully made her way toward the others. The wet leather didn’t provide much warmth, but it did help cut the wind.

“I think someone should try to get up on deck,” said Senisalma through chattering teeth, “we need to find more clothes, or we’ll freeze to death.”

The survivors went back into the remains of the smashed hull and gathered on the steep stairs near the trap door leading to the main deck. Natsu was heaving on the door trying to get it to open, to no avail. Aeryn joined him, and Denaryus added her strength as they pushed as hard as they could on the door. It didn’t budge.

“I’ll climb up the side and see what’s blocking the door,” said Evie, and before anyone could stop her, the elfling ran toward the bow and scrambled up the side of the hull. A moment later, she tumbled down the keel and rolled to a stop several feet from the hole.

“Ow!” cried the young elf, “I think I broke my ankle.”

“Here, let me see,” said Denaryus, rushing to the younger elf.

As she looked at Evie’s ankle, Aeryn eyed the side of the ship and thought she could see a way to get up on the deck. She tested each hand- and foot-hold as she made her way up the slimy hull. Climbing carefully to avoid the sharp ends of the broken beams, she finally grabbed the edge and rolled over the railing, feet feeling their way down the wooden bulkhead and onto the deck. Looking back over the side, she yelled down to Natsu, who had followed her up.

“Be careful there; it’s really slick.” Then she turned to survey the deck, trying to ignore the icy wind.

Letting out a low whistle, she saw the reason they couldn’t budge the trap door, the mast had fallen over the forward access hatch.

Behind her, a thump and soft whistle told her that Natsu had gained the main deck. A few moments later Denaryus joined them, and again a faint thud followed by an exclamation announced her arrival.

“How’s Evie?” asked Aeryn over her shoulder.

“She just twisted her ankle. She’ll be fine by morning,” said Denaryus. “She’ll be a little slow on her feet for a day or so, but it’s not like we’re in a hurry.”

Aeryn nodded and continued surveying the deck. She had heard descriptions of the Dragon’s Snout sea slavers galleys, and this vessel matched the tales that her oldest brothers Makeel and Korrin had told. At 60-feet long, she should have seen ten two-man oar benches down each side, she saw two on the starboard side and broken stubs where seats should have been, the rest had been ripped from their bases. The main mast was lying on the deck. It had come crashing down as the ship ran aground, blocking the forward hatch, the sail still furled when the squall hit.

Looking at the twisted sail, Aeryn walked toward the pole and felt around for an end. She drew the broadsword and, with clumsy strokes, hacked at the rope that kept the sail tangled around the mast.

“What are you thinking?” asked Denaryus.

“I’m thinking something to keep the worst of the rain off us,” replied Aeryn. “I’m thinking maybe the rainwater will collect in this if we don’t stretch it too tight. I don’t know about you, but I’m thirsty.”

“We found a wineskin on the orc,” said the elf. “We’ll have to rinse it.”

“I wish I would have thought to borrow that dagger Evie took from the orc,” said Natsu.

In the end, they harvested a good-sized hunk of the sail and a few lengths of rope. The rest of the cloth was too tangled under the mast to be able to get more than a few small scraps of fabric and varying lengths of line they could use as slings and sacks for their makeshift weapons and the other meager gear they accumulated.

They moved to the hatch at the stern of the galley and pulled it open.

The aft hold was in no better shape than the forward compartment. The collision with the boulders to the port side had torn open a considerable part of the galley’s hull here, and the bottom of the space flooded with sea water. Aeryn felt sick when they saw the supplies floating around in the water. Sacks of grain soaked with wine, ale, seawater, and rainwater were all useless now. Her stomach growled loudly.

Amid the wreckage, Aeryn watched as Denaryus found a heavy crossbow, it had been wrapped in oilcloth and the string was dry, but the mechanism was wet and would need to be dried. She also found a couple dozen quarrels and a quiver. She had a weapon. As the others continued searching the hold, Denaryus played with the launching mechanism, getting an idea of how the bow worked.

Natsu spotted a chest floating toward the back of the storeroom. In the coffer, somehow unscathed, were what appeared to be the captain’s log scribed in some language none of them could read, a few navigational charts including one naming the galley’s destination, Port Freehaven, and a book that Aeryn couldn’t begin to decipher, the characters moved on the page and made her eyes hurt. She suspected the runes were some magical language.

Natsu picked up the book and riffled through it.

“Do you mind if I keep this and study it?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Denaryus, still struggling with the crossbow mechanism.

“Yeah, go ahead,” said Aeryn absently as she tried to puzzle out the navigational charts.

They continued searching the aft hold until Senisalma called up, wondering what was taking them so long. Finding nothing more of interest, they waded out of the hold, gathered their new trophies, and tossed down the hunk of sail and the rest of the items. Aeryn cut another length of rigging from the mast, and used it to descend to the beach safely. The rope was long enough that Denaryus looped it over a broken beam and walked down the outside of the hull. Natsu and Aeryn followed, then pulled the rope down.

Walking along the beach, they found a small alcove that afforded some shelter from the wind. The group made numerous trips back and forth to the galley, salvaging what dry lumber they could find. Some of the wetter pieces, and the sail, they used to fashion a rough lean-to around the alcove, open to the leeward side.

Taking a piece of wood about as big around as her thumb and the length of her forearm, Aeryn looked for a flat bit to use as the base. She had watched her brother Korrin start fires using a flat piece of wood, a round piece of wood, and his hands. Pulling a handful of loose fibers from the hem of her tattered trews, she set them aside and rubbed the stick between her hands. She couldn’t get the rod to stay in the divot carved in the flat piece until she found a rock with a small impression that she held over the top of the stick and leaned into her chest. A few tiny wisps of smoke appeared, but she was too exhausted to keep going.

“I see what you’re doing,” said Natsu, “Let me try.”

Aeryn dropped back to the sand, staring up at the black and grey clouds swirling overhead, limbs weak. So tired. She lay there until the faint smell of smoke wafted up from the wood. Rolling over, she sprinkled a few scraps of fabric where the kindling had begun to glow. More smoke appeared, and she asked Evie for the dagger so she could shave some wood to lay on the smoldering fabric. Leaning down, she blew lightly on the glowing sparks. A couple of breaths later, a small flame ignited, and everyone huddled close to the infant fire as if it could, as yet, provide warmth.

They dug a shallow impression in the sand near the opening of the lean-to, lined it with the few rocks they could find, and fed chips of wood into the tiny fire. Soon they had a blaze burning at the entrance, the wind blowing the smoke away from them.

They showed Senisalma and Evie what all they had found.

“That’s thieve’s kant,” commented the young elf when she opened the captain’s logbook.

“How do you know?” asked Denaryus.

“I seen it when I prowled the streets of Highwater. I didn’t join the guild, so’s they didn’t teach me much, but one of me friends taught me some of the letters. I can try to puzzle it out, but I don’t know…” she trailed off, brow furrowed in concentration.

The sail flapped in the storm most of the night but kept nearly all the smoke out of, and heat in, the small alcove. Aeryn slept fitfully, curled on the sand in a tight ball between Evie and Denaryus, dreams of the family she left behind filled the night. She woke at various times and saw Natsu by the dim light, the open book in his lap, working to puzzle out the meaning of the characters on the pages and keeping the fire lit. While the small blaze didn’t exactly warm them, it did succeed in keeping them from freezing to death as the air chilled with the darkness.

The next morning, the group drank handfuls of water out of the depressions in the sail. Adding what they could to the cleaned-out wine skin they had taken from Farkis, they dumped the remainder after drinking their fill, and Aeryn folded the sail into as small a bundle as possible. Using a technique she had seen her brother Iyan use in the fields, she wrapped the ropes around the packet and fashioned a strap with which to carry the pack. Of course, it looked nothing like Iyan’s work, but it kept her hands free and most of the wind from her back.

Climbing over the low cliffs on the western edge of the bay, Aeryn got a look at the island. Not a good look by any means, for the landscape was dim from the overcast skies and blurred by the driving rain. She could still make out a few hazy formations in the distance.

Looking across the island, she saw that the highest hills were to her left, west according to Senisalma, and ran north along the island as far as she could see. The terrain was passable but looked rough, while eastward the land flattened out toward the ocean. The hilly and broken landscape blocked any possible signs of shelter or sentient activity. Aeryn couldn’t see much green, and except for some common and practically indestructible scrub growth, the island seemed lifeless.

“Storm season is upon us,” said Senisalma. “Most storms blow in out of the northwest. If a port is on this island, it would most likely be on the eastern or southern coast. And we just came from the south so I would follow the path this way,” she said as she started toward the right-hand path between the hills.

About fifteen minutes later, Senisalma, who had been leading the group, suddenly stopped in the middle of the depression through which they had been hiking, dropped into a crouch, and cocked her head from side to side, listening. The rest of the group squatted behind her. Aeryn moved up to where the woman hunkered. An indistinct commotion, like grunting voices and steel clanging on steel, was barely audible over the rain and wind. The sounds seemed to be coming from beyond the hill to their left.

Senisalma signaled the party to fall back a few dozen feet.

“I heard weapons ahead,” the woman whispered loud enough for everyone to hear when they huddled together. “Aeryn, you go ahead with Evie and look. The rest of us will stay here.” With that, she nodded at Evie and Aeryn, and the two youngsters advanced toward the sounds.

Evie climbed the hill and peeked around a boulder so she could see over the crest of the rise. She signaled Aeryn to join her on the ridge. A ravine separated them from the next rim. Below, and to the right, they watched as almost a dozen small humanoids and a half dozen or so large humanoid figures, Aeryn recognized them as orcs, engaged in battle. The little figures, goblins according to Evie, with their bows and short spears, were fighting the orcs with their axes, spears, and polearms. One of the orcs was wearing armor and standing back from the battle barking orders at the rest of the orcs. Aeryn assumed he was their leader. Most of the other fighters didn’t have armor, but they all had cloaks. As the girls scanned the battle, Evie tugged on Aeryn’s sleeve and pointed to a spot about fifty feet behind the line of orcs. She watched as one of the orcs, hit by three arrows, fell to the ground just as a goblin archer on opposite side slumped in a flurry of daggers.

It took her a moment to see what the elfling was pointing to, but finally, she saw something lying in the ravine. It looked like a heap of rags at first, but as she watched, a bearded old man wearing a tattered, muddy cloak finally revealed himself. He was lying on his side, twisted around facing the fight; his arms behind his back, looking as though bound. The two backed down the hill to rejoin the rest of the party.

“I saw half dozen orcs and half again as many goblins squaring off against each other on the other side of this hill,” whispered Aeryn, placing pebbles in the mud as she spoke. “One of the orcs is in armor,” she placed a larger stone, “and a couple of others are trying to throw whatever they can get their hands on at the goblins.”

“There’s this really old man back here,” said Evie, pointing to a spot behind the rocks Aeryn used for the orcs. “He looked human.”

“It looked to me like his arms were tied,” said Aeryn. “He was just lying there wiggling around. I bet he’s a prisoner, so I think we should help him. He can probably tell us where we are.”

A few minutes of planning later, the group was moving around the hill to the east behind the orcs. Evie snuck in, cut the old man’s bonds, and led him to safety. As the young elf was sneaking down into the ravine, an orc in the center of the line caught a spear to the chest and fell to the ground, his place taken by one of the orcs that had been throwing rocks from the back. The orc commander, who had been snorting orders at the rest of the orcs, was hit by arrows from the goblins perched on the sides of the ravine and two of the little demons on the line fell to axe blows. Aeryn watched her retreat as Evie led the old man east along the gully, away from the battle. As the elfling and the old man crawled away from the fight, a goblin archer noticed the movement and fired an arrow at them as they moved away. The shaft fell far short of its target.

Aeryn, Evie, and the old man followed the rest of the group up the gully and around several of the many bends, generally moving east and north. When they finally stopped, they turned to the man they had rescued. An ancient, bald scarecrow of a man, with a matted, dirty beard that might have been white if washed, stared back at them. His sallow visage and wide, rheumy eyes looked each of them up and down. Aeryn felt exposed under his penetrating gaze.

“Thank ye, thank ye,” he croaked in a high-pitched tone. “Me name—hain’t needed that in a time—is Seekate, methinks,” he tittered. “And ye’s ‘re the first friendly faces I seen in more years than I can remember. T’is true,” the old man nodded enthusiastically, and a cagey look passed through his eyes. “Ye’s wouldn’t knows it to look at this ol’ carcass now, but in me day, oh, in me day, I was personal groom to Hisself, to Milord De’Velli, the ruler of these parts. Yes, this is the Isle of De’Velli, ye dinna know that?”

Aeryn exchanged glances with the group as the old man continued nattering, on a roll.

“But Himself, well, he died when them pirates crushed the island, years and years and years ago when me hair was still dark, and me face smooth. I dinna fight on the day them pirates came,” the old man’s eyes stared through the group, a faraway look on his ancient visage. “Just hid in a old, ruin’t boat no one looked near, while the murderin’ and the burnin’ and the lootin’ and the rapin’ went on for days. And finally, them pirates was all gone, and I been here since.”

“You’ve been here alone all this time? How did you survive?” asked Denaryus.

“How old are you?” asked Evie at the same time.

“Livin’ in Milord’s house, protecting the treasures left behind. Them pirates never did find Milord’s real goods,” the old man cackled, as another gust of icy wind blasted through the ravine. “Oh, just a few o’ the trinkets and baubles he kept ‘round the manor house. An’ me getting’ more tired and gray. How long’s it been?” the old man became lost in thought until another blast of bitter air jerked him out of his reverie.

“The orcs come a few days gone. They captured me and said the stories told that Milord’s treasures never been found, which is true enough, I guess,” the old man tittered. “And they said I knew where it was, which is true, too, but I never telled ‘em so,” he said half to himself.

Aeryn shivered, gooseflesh rising, and exchanged looks with the rest of the group once more, her mind spinning. He’s crazy.

“The goblins, they came two days gone. The chief orc and the chief goblin had a sit-down, and the goblin chief said they was here to claim the island as their new stronghold. But the orc chief said the goblins could have the island, they was only here for the treasure. And as soon as he said ‘treasure,’ the goblins wanted the goods, and there’s been war ‘tween ‘em ever since.” The old man chortled again, looking around at the group gathered before him.

“The orcs is all set up in the old soldiers’ barracks on the north side, and the goblins is all in the old stables on the southeast. And the manor house in the middle is where they hunt ‘round for treasure and each other most o’ the time,” he looked around at the rapt faces in the group. “But there’s another place, where they went once but leave alone now, the Temple of the Goddess.” He looked at them expectantly. At their blank looks, he continued. “It be on the far side o’ the rise looking down on the mansion, and if all you’s fancied to hide there, no one’d bother with ye.”

Before anyone could ask more questions, a roar from the trail behind them jerked their attention from the old man, and three orcs charged through the mud toward the group.

Aeryn ran back toward the attackers, and she reached for the shackles draped around the back of her neck, hurling them at the oncoming attackers hoping to distract them. She fumbled the broadsword from its sheath, heart racing. She glanced over as Evie pulled the dagger from her belt and crouched behind a nearby rock. Denaryus backed up and laid a bolt in the ready crossbow. The elf aimed and fired at the closest orc, hitting him in the chest and knocking him back into the orcs on his heels. Looking surprised that she hit the orc, she bent down to cock and load the crossbow once more.

Aeryn took advantage of the momentary chaos among the orcs as she swung the blade at the exposed throat of the lead orc. Luck was with her as she sliced the creature with the sharp edge. Blood spurted from the wound, spraying the girl. She choked on bile as she felt hot droplets splash her face and lips. Ugh. She dropped as her knees went momentarily weak, her legs unable to support her weight. As she sank, she felt the air move as an axe whooshed through the same space her head had occupied a moment before.

Lucky me.

Regaining her senses, she swung the sword at the legs in front of her, managing to hit the orc that had tried to kill her, the blade cutting deep into its knee. The monster stumbled to her right as it shifted its weight to its other side. At that moment, Evie struck a killing blow to the orc’s back.

The last monster roared and charged at the cluster of enemies in front of it. Aeryn heard Natsu mumble a strange, nasally combination of words. A split second later the orc stopped short, outlined in blue fire. At the same instant, a crossbow bolt hit him in the chest, hurling him backward. As the group gasped for breath, adrenaline still pumped through Aeryn’s veins. She stabbed the orcs, again and again, just to make sure they stayed dead. Denaryus ventured forward and put her hand on Aeryn’s arm when the blade stuck in one of the bodies, stopping the mad swings.

With that, Natsu and Evie searched the dead orcs. Denaryus and Evie each took a dagger and tucked them in their makeshift belts, a length of rigging cut long enough to wrap around their waists twice. Senisalma refused the remaining blade, so Natsu took it and the short spear. The boots the orcs were wearing were much too large for any of the girls, so they left the smelly things where they were. Evie took one of the axes, as did Aeryn, reasoning that it might make an excellent backup weapon if she lost the sword. They took the water skins the orcs carried and the flint and steel, the orcs wouldn’t be needing those any longer. Now at least, they could bring a supply of water with them, providing Aeryn hadn’t pierced any of the skins, and start a fire easier.

The cloaks the orcs wore were soaked and almost had more holes than cloth, but, according to Senisalma, they were made of some cheap but heavy wool so should keep them warm enough.

“Ooo, treasure!” said Seekate, clapping his hands together and dancing up and down. “Methinks ye likes treasure.”

“What about treasure?” asked Evie, eagerly.

Aeryn shot the young elf a scathing look.

“Oh yes,” said the old man, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “treasure. Lots o’ treasure,” he paused and looked at each of them in turn. “Ye knows what grave-goods is? Where Milord was from, they buried their noble dead with presents. So’s that when the dead wake up, they still has their favorite play-pretties with them,” he babbled.

Something about his manner pulled Aeryn up short. She couldn’t understand why the old man was this talkative with them. Why would he brag about the family’s grave goods to complete strangers when he didn’t trust the orcs or goblins?

“Milord De’Velli and ‘is Lady Ralena had them’s a son that died, and they buried ‘im with ‘is weapons and ‘is armor and sacks o’ gold and a few servants and a little boat to sail ’em all over the seas. We can drag ‘is boat down the catacombs to this place you can get at from the inside, but not the outside,” he cackled, fingers drumming against each other in front of his skinny chest.

The movement reminded Aeryn of the twins when they were getting ready to pull some cruel prank on her. Her eyes narrowed. What are you up to, old man?

“But gettin’ at ‘em is goin’ t’ be hard. To get into the burial catacombs, you’s gots to get into the manor where all them monsters is killing each other. We can figure out how to do all that when we’s all warm and rested.”

“And where are we going to get all warm and rested?” asked Aeryn shivering as another blast of wintery wind whipped through the ravine.

The old man pulled a large leaf out of his tunic and drew a rough outline of the island using a stick and some of the black mud at their feet. Aeryn could see that he had lined the inside of his threadbare tunic with the leaves. He turned the leaf sideways and drew a few humps on the left side just inside the outline.

“These be the western hills,” he said pointing to the humps he had drawn. “Nothing there but scrub brush and goats.” He said dismissively, then drew another hump and a few squares on the opposite side of the outline of the island.

“Now, here,” he continued, pointing a gnarled and twisted finger at the hump on the northeastern side of the map, “is the Temple of the Goddess.” Pointing at a spot about halfway between the two markings, he said, “we’s about here. If’n we stay to this here gully,” his crooked finger traced a feature only he could see, “we can walk right up to the Temple door.”

“Wh-wh-what can w-w-we expect when w-w-we g-g-get there?” asked Denaryus, teeth chattering with the cold.

“Welp,” the old man turned the leaf over and drew on its other side. “This here’s the front door, pretty much the only way in. The other way is through the patrols.” He continued drawing two U-shaped buildings, the main being mostly the altar room, servants’ quarters, priests’ offices, and the kitchens. The old man sketched the upper floor and said it was the private rooms for all the priests.

Aeryn pondered what the old man said as she looked at the rough maps he had drawn. Something in his manner had her scalp tingling, but she couldn’t identify why she felt the way she did. After dragging the bodies of the orcs off the main trail and dumping them down one of the many gullies that crisscrossed the island, the party slogged through the icy rain toward the unseen Temple of the Goddess.

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